Come On Baby Light My Fire!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Playing With Fire
That great British poet once intoned: "Don't Play With Me, Cause You're Playing With Fire." And that's good advice. But what does Mick Jagger know about hot peppers anyhow? Hot women? Yeah, I guess he knows about them. He should. But hot peppers? Please, Mr. Jagger, move aside. Because Bill and the wife that is Venus are ready to "roll those tumblin' dice."

That picture to your immediate right is our latest foray into "playing with fire." This represents the really hot stuff that will be growing in the Bird Back 40 come this summer. We got an early start on these seeds -- mid January to be exact. Because if you want hot peppers in a summer garden? You need to start them in the dead of winter.

Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa
Provided everything goes hunky dory in the summer garden, these seedlings should start delivering a bounty of the "fire hot" stuff by mid July. That's right about when the main crop of heirloom tomatoes will begin to ripen up. So what's the big deal? I'll tell you what the "big deal" is. Hot peppers and heirloom tomatoes are the essential ingredients in the moderately famous and always in demand Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa.

You've got to have a bounty of fresh tomatoes for salsa making in the summertime. And you can't go without a bounty of hotter than hot, burning hot peppers. Because salsa that rocks like Mick Jagger demands fire. And in the Bird Back 40, we play with that stuff (we also wear gloves).

Mick Jagger-Salsa Fanatic
The varieties you see planted under our special grow lights in our home-office-turned-greenhouse include the following: The always popular Bhut Jolokia, also known as the "Ghost Pepper." If you guess that a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Pepper might be a part of this year's mix -- that would be one fine guess. Other varieties popping to the surface include the Caribbean Red Habanero and the Assam Hot Pepper.

There's also a Pasilla Bajo thrown into this year's mix, which isn't really hot, but that smoky flavor adds a lot to the moderately famous and always in demand Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa.

Bhut Jolokia Peppers
This will represent the third year of usage for the Ghost Pepper. These were originally a gift from South Natomas Gardening Zen Master Nels Christensen. Last year we graduated to growing our own, but made the mistake of starting seeds at the same time as the sweet peppers. But this year we followed the advice of hot pepper fanatic Dave Jesse up in Brownsville. Start those seeds early, son.

This photo below, to the right, is from his seed starting setup in early January. Notice the hot stove to provide heat? One of the first things I noticed is the cat located under the hot stove, boiling his brains. Any normal cat would have socked Dave's hot pepper starter plants to the moon and back. But Dave assured us that kitty was at that tender age where all he cared about was lying under the hot stove and boiling his brains.

Dave Jesse Hot Pepper Seed Starting Setup (plus cat)
Mental note: Cats are not the smartest of creatures. But they sure do like hot stoves.

A big test still awaits. Will the Scorpion pepper hold up to the processing time our salsa demands? That processing time includes a steady boil for at least one hour, followed up by 30-35 minutes of time in a pressure canner. Many so-called "hot peppers" turn into absolute wimps when exposed to this kind of abuse -- and that includes the mighty Habanero. The Ghost Pepper held up well to this abuse, which is why we are growing the Ghost Pepper again. But will the Scorpion?

The owner of these Scorpion Pepper seeds assures us that his Scorpion pepper acts like a Timex Watch: It takes a licking and keeps on ticking. The seeds for this pepper came from Joseph Brophy, an attorney and gardening fanatic located in the great state of New York. How did I come into contact with someone like Joseph Brophy? It's called the internet children, and forums dedicated to all things related to growing heirloom tomatoes.

Scorpion Pepper in a New York Garden
I traded Mr. Brophy some seeds for a champion Black Cherry tomato plant and in return he shipped over his special Scorpion seeds. And if Mr. Brophy can get the Scorpion to not only grow and produce in a place with a shorter than short growing season like New York, can you imagine what this pepper might do in California? The land of nine month summer growing seasons?

OK, so I'm being a tad facetious. But you get the idea. It's not like Sacramento gets covered with a blanket of snow in November. Not hardly. If the Scorpion can produce a bundle of hot peppers in some place like New York, it should absolutely go to town in gardening-friendly Sacramento.

Time will tell.

It might still be a touch cold outside -- but be assured of this: It's hot pepper season in Sacramento. Let the summer growing season commence!

The Treasure of "Ima Wiener"

Saturday, February 14, 2015

X-Rated Radish
And now -- just in time for Valentine's Day -- a little pornographic love from the vegetable garden adventures springing from the Bird Back 40. Because nothing spells "love" quite like the "treasure" that the wife unveiled from the Bird Back 40 raised gardening beds some days back. There it is -- pictured to the right -- a schlong sized radish. It's the Treasure of Ima Wiener.

I can't even take credit for the title of this blog posting. Those readers who are fans of "The Simpsons" must now realize that I ripped it off from one of the funniest parts of The Simpson's Movie. The lines from that movie go a little like this -- when antagonist Russ Cargill confronts Homer Simpson holding a shotgun:

The Simpsons
Bart: Wait! If you kill my dad, we'll never know where the treasure is buried!
Cargill: What treasure?
Bart: The treasure of... Ima Wiener.
Cargill: "Ima Weiner"?
[Homer and Bart laugh]

Homer: Classic!

It would be Maggie who saved her father in that particular scene, by throwing a rather hefty sized stone that struck Cargill in the head. A development that left Homer to proclaim: "Maggie! What a great little accident you turned out to be."

It's bathroom humor at it's best -- which makes it a classic Simpsons moment in time.

To be brutally honest -- gardeners aren't supposed to let radishes get quite this big. If they reach a size like this they tend to taste a bit (I kid you not) "woody." However, for some strange reason this one tasted just fine. It tasted just like -- well -- a French Breakfast radish is supposed to taste like: a radish.

And what a radish it was!

Fortunately, for us, the night that the wife pulled this monster out of the ground we were making the perfect meal: chicken salad. This is one of those quick "work night" meals when you don't have a whole lot of time to throw everything together. It involved grilled chicken breasts, some bagged salad to mix with what's left of the fall salad greens, a spare green onion or two from the leftover summer garden and -- oh -- did I mention the x-rated sized radish?

Grilled Chicken
Cut up the chicken -- throw it all together -- add in some dressing quickly prepared by my most excellent wife and you have a dinner like no other. Oh -- and a conversation piece that I can bring to you, dear readers.

There's not much left of the fall garden these days. And with the sudden onset of warm, almost spring-like weather -- the mind turns to spring and summer gardening opportunities. Unfortunately, the one arctic blast of cold weather we received in December managed to kill off most of the pea plants we started in October. And although it doesn't seem like it could possibly happen, a freeze in February and March isn't out of the question.

The Radish Meets its End
It's happened before. It can happen again. But the one item that we can plant in abundance right about now? That's right -- the radish. Which might lead to another treasured discovery sometime soon.

Happy Valentine's Day! And remember -- it's not all about wieners. It's about radishes.

Conversation With a Young Man

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Variegated Pink Lemon-Bird Back 40
Come here young man. Let's plant a lemon bush before the start of the Super Bowl shall we? This just isn't any lemon bush by the way. This is called the Variegated Pink Lemon. And someday it will yield lemons that will deliver a batch of freshly squeezed pink lemonade.

Have you ever planted a lemon tree before? Well, this will be a first for you then, won't it? The first task to accomplish is to find an appropriate spot for our Variegated Pink Lemon. We want a spot that will protect it from the harsh winter conditions that blow through the Bird Back 40. We can't just plant it and forget it. No, it needs protection.

Protection for the Variegated Pink Lemon Bush
Therefore, young man, I think the best spot for this lemon bush would be in this side yard. We can plant it next to the house, where it will be protected from northerly winds and freezing conditions, but still receive enough sunshine to grow and produce lemons.

However -- there is one problem young man. This spot is already occupied by a rose bush named after John F. Kennedy. Have you learned about JFK in school yet? John F. Kennedy was one of our most famous Presidents, and served his country in World War II just as your grandfather did.

Digging up the JFK Hybrid Tea Rose Bush
President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas in 1963 and this rose was developed as a tribute to him. Did you know that? It produces beautiful and fragrant long-stemmed white roses, which you will someday begin to appreciate. The young ladies love long-stemmed roses, young man. Did you know that?

What's that? You don't like girls? That's OK. I didn't at your age either. But, trust me on this young man, someday you will.

Fortunately, this rose bush is asleep right now because it's so cold. This makes it easier for us to trim this rose bush, dig it up, and move it to its new location. No -- don't worry. We won't hurt it. Rose bushes are fairly tough customers, young man. It takes a lot of effort and work to kill a rose bush. Lord knows, I've made enough mistakes around them to learn this fact. This rose bush will be just fine in its new home.

Prepping the Lemon Bush for Planting
The next step, after digging up the JFK rose bush, is to dig a hole for our Variegated Pink Lemon Bush. Where do you think we should dig that hole? In the center of this patch of dirt against the house? Correct! Hey, you're a smart kid! How did you get to be so smart?

We need to dig a hole that is wider and deeper than the pot that this Variegated Pink Lemon is planted in. If we mix in loose planter mix soil with the original clay soil, this will give our lemon bush room to grow and expand this spring. What's that? Yes, it might produce a lemon or two next year. But it will definitely produce a lot more in the coming years.

Variegated Pink Lemon
Planting a fruit tree or lemon bush is an exercise in patience, young man. It doesn't pay off with fresh fruit or citrus right away. But it eventually will. And by the time you're actually old enough to develop a taste for lemons, you will begin to appreciate your Variegated Pink Lemon bush.

What's that? You don't like lemons? Well, I didn't really enjoy them that much when I was your age either. But, you like lemonade, don't you young man? Well, where do you think lemonade comes from? That's right! Fresh lemons. And there is nothing like freshly squeezed lemonade, young man. It's a treat you will come to appreciate.

Variegated Pink Lemon Bush
But the most important part of your lemon experience is yet to come. Because, someday, in the not too distant future I might add, you will find that your freshly squeezed Variegated Pink Lemonade goes exceptionally well with an ingredient called tequila.

It will be at this point, young man, when you begin to really enjoy your Variegated Pink Lemon bush. Because this concoction of lemons, sugar, water and tequila will have an especially pleasant effect on you, as long as you mix these ingredients in moderation.

Final Step: Drip Irrigation for the Variegated Pink Lemon
But that's not the best part, young man. The best part is still to come. Because, at some point, you will discover that this concoction of lemons, sugar, water and tequila has a very special and pleasing effect on young ladies as well. This is a lesson you have yet to learn. But -- trust me on this young man -- it's an experience that you will enjoy.

Oh -- the lessons you've yet to learn young man!

Five-Six-Pick Up Sticks!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Fun in a January garden setting anyone? Can you have fun in a January garden setting? Of course you can -- provided you like working outside in cold weather. If that's not quite your cup of tea -- well -- a hot cup of tea does help take the winter sting away somewhat.

January in the garden is a busy time. There are things to prune back. There are things to plant. There's always an annoying patch of weeds to take care of. And January happens to be the perfect time to add to your fruit tree collections.

Flavor Supreme Pluot Scion
I've been planting fruit trees in the Bird Back 40 for seven plus years so far. Usually it's one or two trees. But sometimes -- like last year -- it was three pear trees in a Backyard Orchard Culture setting. Point is? I'm starting to run out of room. I'm not quite there yet -- but there will come a day when it will be awfully tough to cram yet another fruit or citrus tree in the Bird Back 40.

So what does a fruit fanatic do when he or she runs out of room? Plant them in the neighbor's yard without them knowing it!

Flavor Finale Pluot Tree-Bird Back 40
No -- that's never a good idea. Especially if you want to keep your good neighbors on a "good neighbor" basis. The best way to add fruit to a yard already full of delicious fruit offerings is to graft different varieties of fruit onto trees that are already growing.

I've been quite successful with the pluot tree -- as profiled last year with The Tree That Bethany Built. And -- true to her word -- my work-friend came through again this year with a selection of pluot offerings that had not been added to my rather Frankensteinish Flavor Finale Pluot Tree.

Last Year's Successful Grafting Results
Did you think the Tree of 40 Fruit was impressive? How about the Tree of 40 Pluots? Now -- I'll be honest. I'm not quite there yet. I may never be there. But thanks to Bethany's kind offering of scion wood -- the Flavor Finale now holds grafts for the Splash and Flavor Supreme pluots.

If there's one thing I can brag about, it's this: Bill Bird can graft pluots. It's idiot proof. I can't graft a peach, cherry, apple or nectarine worth a hoot. But when it comes to pluots? I am the Flavor King of grafters. That's because it's really hard to screw up a pluot tree graft.

Handy Dandy Grafting Tool
As the author of numerous grafting failures -- just trust me on this.

I will get more experience with other grafting efforts -- and soon I might add. As luck would have it, the Sacramento Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG) holds its annual scion exchange tomorrow at a new location in Carmichael.

What are scions? Scions are essentially nothing more than sticks that have been harvested from various fruit trees around California. You like peaches? Nectarines? Are cherries your bag? How about apricots? Do plums tempt you? Does the letter A make you think of apples?

Sacramento CRFG Scion Exchange 2010
At the scion exchange you'll find hundreds of scion offerings featuring varieties that you've probably never heard of. Do you want a Tree of 40 Peaches? Tree of 40 Cherries? The scion exchange can make it happen.

The event has moved because it basically outgrew the old location on Branch Center Road. That room would get so crammed with fresh fruit enthusiasts that it could be a challenge to move from place to place. Although I haven't visited the new location yet, I'm told by "those in the know" that I'll like it.

Nectarines Anyone?
That said -- this years Sacramento CRFG scion exchange will be held Sunday (TOMORROW), January 18th at the La Sierra Community Center, Smith Hall. It's located at 5325 Engle Road in Carmichael. Anyone and everyone with an interest in growing fruit is welcome. Admission is $5. Doors open to the public at 10:30 sharp -- which should get you home just in time for the start of the NFL Championship Games. 

Hey, we've got to keep the important stuff in perspective here -- even if my beloved San Francisco 49ers missed out on the dance this year (so long Jim Harbaugh).

Happy Gardening New Year!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Good morning and welcome to 2015! Wait, the clock says 12:12 PM! Did I really sleep that long? I've got to stop watching those New Year's Eve broadcasts on Univision. That's right, I said Univision. Even though most of the programming flies right over my head (I don't speak the best Spanish), I do like the fact that they put live crews at Disneyland in Southern California to ring in the New Year.

That's much better than watching one of the major networks repeat a New York City ball drop that took place three hours earlier, don't you think? Univision also isn't afraid to highlight singers who are over the age of 30. Jeez, when did I get so old and crotchedy?

Disneyland Rings in 2015
The new year means a new start to gardening efforts. And you thought time slowed down for gardeners during those winter months? Perish the thought! Winter time is planning time. If you're into serious gardening like me and the wife that is Venus (plus countless others) -- winter is just as important as spring, summer and fall. For it's the steps we take right now that either assure our success, or spell our doom, come summertime.

So what is on Bill Bird's gardening agenda for the first day of 2015? More than one or two items actually. Here is just a smattering of some of garden planning that takes place during this non-slow period of the year.

Seeds from Lockhart Seed
SEEDS, SEEDS, SEEDS: If you grow your garden from seeds, as we do, now is the time to start ordering seeds for the coming spring and summer. My work on this front actually started weeks ago. Our first stop was to the Mother of all seed stores in the San Joaquin Valley: Lockhart Seed in Stockton. There you will find most of everything you need for a full scale garden -- but not everything.

Seed catalogs that arrive by the dozens during this time of year plus seed websites offer the selection you can't find at seed stores. Most of my heirloom tomato seed -- for example -- comes from two or three different sources. Tomato Grower's Supply offers a warehouse selection of many major heirloom and hybrid tomato offerings. I'm also a fan of the breeding efforts of Bradley Gates, who runs Wild Boar Farms in the heart of the Napa Valley.

Tomato Selections from Wild Boar Farms
The Gates operation doesn't offer heirlooms. But he does offer selections that he's created on his own -- such as the Pink Berkeley Tie Dye and Cascade Lava. Other seeds come from other gardeners who save seed from the particular plants they liked in 2014. This is how I obtained seeds for the Ukrainian Heart tomato. They came as a trade that I engineered with Davis gardener and California Rare Fruit Grower (CRFG) member Marta Matvienko. Marta send me seeds for Ukrainian Heart. In return, I sent her seeds for Black Cherry -- a volunteer that sprang from the garden last year.

I also owe Marta a smattering of Blue Lake Pole Bean Seeds. Why? Because I was dumb enough to buy a pound of these seeds from Lockhart Seed. And I won't be planting a pound of pole bean seeds. Ever.

Ordering seeds is also the first step in the process. Tomato fanatics like me and the wife that is Venus will start planting these seeds indoors starting in February. Seed starting efforts for hot peppers, like the Ghost pepper for example, start even earlier. Some people have already started seeds for the Ghost and Scorpion peppers. This is because these types of varieties demand long growing seasons. Starting hot peppers in January means a nice harvest in July or August -- right when the tomatoes ripen.

Salsa anyone?

FRUIT TREES: The next two months are premium months for bare root fruit tree season. Major fruit tree suppliers like Dave Wilson Nursery in Hickman are already in the process of shipping tens of thousands of every fruit tree variety you can possible imagine to nurseries all over the West Coast and elsewhere. I'm not sure how big the DWN footprint actually is (I've never asked). But since they are the primary supplier for all things pluot, plumcot and other recent fruit tree introductions, I can imagine they get a lot of business.

And you thought Christmas season was busy?

One of my favorite activities is to browse the fruit tree selections on the DWN website. There you will find photos and entries about every fruit tree they offer. Not sure if you want a plum or a pluot? Torn between apples and apricots? Should it be a pear or a pomegranate? The DWN website, plus planting recommendations might answer some of those nagging doubts.

And there's nothing like a bit of fresh fruit pulled from a backyard or front yard tree during the summer. Bare root season is also the best time for planting because there's not as much stress placed on the tree as it's hauled from nursery site to that premium spot you've picked out for it in your yard.

Flavor Finale Pluot Tree in Winter
FRUIT TREE CARE: Now that the leaves are off the multitude of fruit trees I have scattered about the Bird Back 40 -- it's time to start thinking about winter care to prevent spring problems. There's a lot to worry about -- from peach leaf curl to the dreaded fire blight. Spraying early for insect control might erase or even lessen the expected bug invasion during the spring and summer.

I've come to discover that there's a particular bug that enjoys my Flavor Finale pluot tree as much as I do. If I fail to do anything to control it -- this invading army will infect and destroy every leaf on the tree. The most effective control I've found against this bug is to treat the tree once in the winter and again in the spring -- AFTER it has stopped flowering (we don't want to be spraying the helpful pollinators -- now do we?).

Grapevines in Need of a Haircut
Winter time is also pruning time -- especially for items such as wine or table grapes or fruit trees planted together in a Backyard Orchard Culture setting. Some fruit trees -- like the Granny Smith apple for example -- need a little "convincing" to enter that needed winter slumber. While many apple tree selections gladly shed every last leaf during the first blast of arctic weather -- the Granny stubbornly holds out like a petulant child who isn't quite ready for bedtime.

So how does one "convince" a Granny Smith apple tree to shed every last leaf? Yell at it? Call it bad names? Insult it? No, nothing that dire. Simply put on your winter gardening gloves and pick every last leaf off. Granny will get the message.

Finally -- winter time is a perfect time for fruit tree GRAFTING. This is why many CRFG Chapters hold scion exchanges during the months of January and February. The Sacramento Chapter is no different. This year's scion exchange will take place on Sunday, January 18 from 10:00 to 1:00 at La Sierra Community Center (5325 Engle Rd., Carmichael 95608).

And here you thought winter time was a "slow time" for us gardening fanatics. I'm tired already!

Choppin' Broccoli

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Dana Carvey Performs The Lady I Know
It is one of my most favorite skits from Saturday Night Live past. Comedian Dana Carvey performs the timeless classic of "The Lady I Know," otherwise known by its second and more popular name: Choppin' Broccoli. That skit -- which he still performs during his live shows -- is guaranteed to bring a bundle of laughs. Even though the song is nothing more than a repeat of the lines: "Choppin' Broccoli."

I guess it's the genius of Dana Carvey. See him perform his timeless classic -- with a full band behind him no less -- here on the Tonight Show with fellow SNL alum Jimmy Fallon.

Broccoli From the Bird Back 40
I'm reminded of this timeless classic every time I pull out a head of broccoli for one of our favorite meals or side dishes. This is broccoli season in California. You can find it for dirt cheap in most grocery stores -- and you can find it growing in the dirt that comprises the Bird Back 40. We're not just growing broccoli, the wife that is Venus and I have been gifted with the greatest of broccoli harvests in Bird Back 40 history. I've never grown broccoli like this before -- even though I've tried before (and failed somewhat miserably I might add).

So what am I doing different this year as compared to past years in the garden? Good question. I'm not really sure. Perhaps we just planted seeds and starter plants at the right time this year. Perhaps waiting until early spring to start our broccoli crops wasn't the best of ideas. Perhaps we should have started our broccoli growing efforts in the early fall -- as we did this year.

Bird Back 40 Broccoli Patch
I must admit -- I had my doubts. Although I did "cheat" somewhat this year and purchased a six pack of broccoli plant starters from Emigh's ACE Hardware in Carmichael -- Venus also scattered broccoli seed over a wide swath in one of the 4X8 gardening beds. The end result is we have about 10-15 broccoli plants that are sporting the best looking heads of broccoli I've ever seen. There's no bug damage on the crowns either -- which is another big plus.

The first doubts surfaced just after planting our starter plants in early October. Those small plants were immediately attacked by an invading horde of ravenously hungry slugs and snails. Spreading out some pet-safe slug and snail bait helped minimize the damage somewhat, but it wasn't totally foolproof. The leaves on the broccoli plants are peppered with slug and snail damaged holes. But those broccoli crowns -- that tasty meal we yearn for -- haven't been touched.

Freshly Harvested From the Bird Back 40
Why? I have no idea. I do not profess to be a Zen-Garden master. I only plant, irrigate, spread out some slug bait and wait. Whatever happens -- happens. I might also add that the gardening cat known as Lenny -- the wife's ultra spoiled Maine Coon furball of a cat -- also loved digging up those starter plants at the first opportunity. And you thought gardening was easy? Perish the thought. Between the slugs, snails and Lenny's incessant garden attacks, it's a wonder that any of the starter plants or plants grown from seed survived.

Broccoli was one of the first vegetables that I actually consumed as a child. Mom didn't grow it. She didn't buy it fresh either. Nope -- our broccoli in 1970's Modesto came from the blocks of frozen broccoli chunks that are still sold in stores today. That was an easy vegetable fix for a single mother of four children who had been forced into the world of full-time employment. At first -- as I recall -- I wouldn't touch the stuff. However -- when mother resorted to sprinkling this broccoli with processed lemon juice -- well, it was heaven at first bite. I couldn't get enough.

A New Wok for Christmas
It's been a long journey -- from frozen blocks of broccoli chunks to freshly grown broccoli from the backyard. I'll still douse the end result with lemon in some cases -- but I'm also partial to an herbed broccoli recipe that I stumbled across one day in one of the original Betty Crocker cookbooks (this is before Betty sold out to commercial interests). Broccoli Beef -- which we made just the other night from scratch using freshly harvested broccoli heads and grass-fed beef (flank steak) from Chaffin Family Orchards north of Oroville -- was a gastrointestinal delight to be sure.

Short and sweet? There are one million and one uses for broccoli. And given that we appear to have an unlimited supply in the Bird Back 40 (I am a tad concerned about how freezing temperatures will affect these plants) -- the end result will hopefully be a winter full of meals featuring freshly grown broccoli and other greens.

Which means I'll be chopping a lot of broccoli to the tune of "The Lady I Know."

Recipe for Herbed Broccoli:

Author's note: We always double, triple or even quadruple the amount of garlic in this recipe because, well, you can never get enough garlic in my humble opinion! We also double up on the spices.

1 lb. steamed broccoli
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon dried basil leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt (do not double)
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 Roma type tomatoes, chopped

Directions: Mix oil, herbs, salt, garlic and chopped tomatoes and set aside. Steam fresh broccoli on high heat for four minutes and remove to a serving dish immediately. Add tomato-herb mixture, mix well and enjoy!

Tastes Like Christmas!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Dancy Mandarins-Bird Back 40
That's the line I heard uttered from one of my co-workers earlier this month when I handed per a portion of a freshly harvested and just peeled Dancy Mandarin. Her eyes opened wide as she proclaimed: "Tastes like Christmas!" And you know what? She was right on the money. Because the Dancy Mandarin does indeed taste like Christmas. It's just one reason why the Dancy is known as the "Christmas Tangerine."

That's the old girl, pictured to the right. And when I say "old," I am being just a tad facetious. True -- the Dancy was the first tree I ever planted in the Bird Back 40. But that was way, way, way, way back in 2007. That's right. The Dancy Mandarin officially turns eight years old this month. I found it, tucked away, in a lonely Home Depot garden section corner. It was love at first sight.

Owari Satsuma Mandarin-Bird Back 40
We've added much more since then. Take -- for example -- this tasty mandarin offering to your immediate left. That, my friends, is the Owari Satsuma. It is "allegedly" the best tasting mandarin on the planet. That's what the commercial growers are selling at the moment at all the mandarin farms scattered about Placer and Sutter Counties. You can also find them in your local grocery stores -- but don't mistake them for "Cuties" (that's a different type of mandarin called Clementine).

The Owari Satsuma is in demand for a couple of different reasons. First, it's probably the sweetest mandarin to be found anywhere. Most citrus has a sweet and sour combination. But not the Owari Satsuma. It's just sweet. That's not a bad thing -- but if you like that sour punch in your citrus -- the Owari is not your cup of tea. Another reason why it's highly desired is that it's mostly seedless. Sure -- you're going to run across one of two them in each piece of fruit. But two is better than twenty -- if you're into the seedless type of citrus.

Murcott Mandarin-Bird Back 40
Another thing the Owari Satsuma has going for it is that it can take the knockout punch of sustained freezing weather and keep right on ticking. This isn't true for many types of citrus trees. But, as it turns out, the Owari Satsuma and the Dancy can handle that icy punch and not succumb to the elements. That's a plus, as I discovered last year, when Mister Snow Miser moved into the Bird Back 40 and set up an icicle factory for the masses.

Another citrus offering to be found in the Bird Back 40 is the Murcott Mandarin. While it isn't quite as cold resistant as the Owari Satsuma or the Dancy -- it offers one big advantage. The Murcott produces tasty, delicious, mostly seedless mandarins AFTER the Owari Satsuma and Dancy have played out. That's a big plus if you enjoy picking fresh citrus from the backyard offerings. And there's nothing I like more than stepping out into the yard in the morning and falling into a deep hole the dog has dug right next to the Murcott Mandarin tree.

Dancy Mandarin, Left-Owari Satsuma Mandarin, Right
Not that I've ever done that. Stupid dog.

For some odd reason, despite the drought, this is turning out to be a record year for citrus production in California. Some Owari Satsuma growers opened their roadside stands two weeks ahead of schedule. The trees are packed with fruit. The heavy rains we've received this month have also been a blessing in disguise, as my Dancy mandarins are packed with a juicy sweetness that's been missing in previous years.

Dancy mandarins are the original "Christmas tangerine." They are the fruit that mother packed into Christmas stockings for my brother and sisters a very long time ago. We didn't get this kind of treat often as we foraged for most of our fresh fruit and citrus. But tangerines were hard to come by and not at all cheap in the late 1960's-early 1970's. They didn't last long on Christmas morning. That much I can attest too.

Christmas Day Mimosas Anyone?
This is why I always make sure that the wife that is Venus always gets two or three Dancy mandarins packed into her stocking for Christmas Day. It's a tribute to my family of the past. And then, of course, we juice those plus another 100 of them for Christmas Day mimosas featuring Spanish Cava and freshly squeezed Dancy mandarin juice.

Hey! So I started our own Christmas tradition! Something wrong with that?

The Domek Family Chicken

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Domek Family Chicken Before Cooking
Now that you've finished off the last of those pesky Thanksgiving leftovers -- it's time to get back to some normal eating behavior, right? And, lucky for you, I've got a dish that is just about perfect for anytime of the year -- be it holidays or be it just a normal weekend.

There is no official name for this dish so I've taken the privilege of naming it the "Domek Family Chicken." I'll be honest with you. The "Domek" stands for a Sacramento gardener by the name of Andy Domek, whom I'm fortunate enough to work with at the State Capitol. Who says Democrats and Republicans can't get along? Andy's the Democrat. I'm the Republican. Which just goes to show that gardening blood may be thicker than political.

Rosemary Bush-Bird Back 40
We all agree on one point: This is one fine chicken. It's a beer can chicken type recipe -- but it's unlike any beer can chicken recipe I've run across before. I've also taken the advantage of modifying this recipe somewhat to add in some spices that are growing well -- perhaps too well I might add -- in the Bird Back 40.

That particular spice is featured above left. This is an "after" shot by the way. This was taken "after" I'd hacked this plant back to manageable proportions. It wasn't easy. It had grown across the sidewalk during an uncontrolled spring and summer growth spurt. Hacking it back took the better part of an afternoon. And while it looks rather sad right now -- don't be worried my friends. This plant will explode with new growth once next spring rolls around -- trust me.

Dried Rosemary Anyone?
How do I know this? Because this particular plant of the herb variety grows like a weed in the Sacramento area. By now you've probably guessed this "herb weed" is, in fact, rosemary. Half of North Natomas is landscaped with rosemary because it's so easy and cheap to grow. Its blue flowers yield tons of pollen for foraging bees. And rosemary with chicken goes together like vanilla ice cream and hot fudge sauce. The two were made for one another.

The Domek Family Chicken recipe didn't originally call for rosemary. But I'll tell you this much -- it was one fine addition. It added a spiciness and flavor that really made this a unique meal. Another addition was the garlic. Not because I wanted it. Garlic was an absolute requirement.

If you've ever worked with rosemary before -- especially fresh rosemary -- you've come to learn that this is one tough herb to chop up. The leaves of the rosemary plant are incredibly tough. How tough? I've placed rosemary leaves stripped from woody stems into a standard food processor, flipped that switch on high speed, waited for 30 seconds and then shut it off only to find out that the rosemary leaves were still intact. They're extraordinarily tough to shred into tiny pieces.

Yet -- tiny pieces is what I needed.

But I've learned a trick during the rosemary preparation process. Combine those tough rosemary leaves with seven or eight cloves of garlic in a food processor set on high speed and something wonderful happens. Those rosemary leaves suddenly give up the ghost and can be shredded into tiny bits and pieces. An added plus is shredded garlic that sticks to the rosemary like glue.

Chopped Rosemary and Garlic
Just what I needed.

Andy's directions were fairly specific. Once all of the spices were mixed together, you were required to spread it generously all over every inch of the chicken. This included shoving quite a bit of this seasoning mixture UNDER the skin. This is no easy task because if the skin breaks during this process, well, it's tough to keep this mix from falling off the chicken and onto the grates of the barbecue below. So, please, do be careful.

If you've never cooked chicken in a beer can setting, there are some things you'll want to watch out for. First -- you'll have to find some way to open and drain off all that beer. It's a terrible thing, but someone's got to do it. If you happen to have a lot of spare herbs thanks to a well established herb garden like we do -- the next step is to cram as many herbs into that beer can as possible. The final step is to fill it back up -- about halfway mind you -- with a nice white wine like chardonnay or sauvignon blanc.

Beer Can Chicken Roaster
If this means you have to open, and then finish, a bottle of wine -- well -- someone has to suffer. Might as well be you.

There are beer can chicken roasters that can be purchased at your local store like the one pictured, but I'll be honest, you don't really need one. It does make the transfer of the chicken to the can a little easier, but it's not absolutely necessary. To prepare the well-seasoned chicken for grilling, using Andy Domek's fine words of advice: "Place the cavity of the chicken over the beer can, tuck the wings behind the body and sit it up on the grill so it looks weirdly like it is lecturing you. Set your barbecue on low heat and roast for 60-70 minutes."

Another bit of added advice? Be armed with a well filled spray bottle and pay close attention to the chicken for at least the first 30 minutes as the barbecue will sometimes flare and we don't want to be setting our fine chicken friend on fire, now do we?

And now -- the recipe for Andy Domek's Famous Beer Can Chicken:

Andy Domek and a TURKEY???
1. Open a can of cheap beer (I personally am fond of the award winning beer out of Wisconsin -- Pabst Blue Ribbon).
2. Drink Pabst Blue Ribbon.
3. Shove some herbs inside the can -- I like a sprig or two of rosemary and fresh thyme. Fill can halfway back up with white wine.
4. Set aside.

Make a paste with:

1 tablespoon kosher salt.
½ tablespoon cinnamon
½ tablespoon ground ginger
½ tablespoon cumin
½ tablespoon turmeric
½ tablespoon coriander (optional—I like coriander so I add it)
1 teaspoon of black pepper
4-5 tablespoons of fresh rosemary leaves (dry is fine too)
4-5 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of one lemon or lime

Directions: Chop rosemary and garlic together in food processor until it reaches a fine paste. Add together with salts, spices, olive oil and the juice of one lemon or lime. Mix well. Coat chicken with mixture, loosening and lifting skin to place spice mix directly on chicken.

Roast for one hour.