So Many Herbs, So Little Thyme!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

OK -- that little "thyme" pun is just criminal. I mean -- it's just plain bad. Not only is it not "new," it appears that I've stolen it from a sign in the Bird Herb Garden pictured to your immediate right.

A sign purchased at the Dollar Store earlier this spring.

So -- not only did Bill Bird steal a well-worn pun. He stole it from a Dollar Store poet. Heck -- that injustice rates slightly higher on the "criminal" scale. I think a Death Penalty sentence might be in order here.

Folks -- we're making good use of the Bird Herb Garden this year -- a first for our "work in progress" backyard. This year's Thanksgiving Day celebration at the Bird House will feature more than just simple Bird Feed. Nope -- we've got something special going on this year.

Our turkey is currently soaking in a brine mixture consisting of various salts -- sugars and a BOATLOAD of fresh herbs harvested from the garden. That's right kids -- BRINED TURKEY is the bomb. This isn't the first Thanksgiving that we've used this brined turkey recipe. However, it is the first time that we've used fresh herbs in abundance for the brine mixture.

How will it taste? I dunno. Check back in a few days. If you see news reports of a massive turkey poisoning in North Natomas -- then you'll know someone's experiment went a tad "awry." And - yes -- I've put the recipe for Brined Turkey below. I actually got this from the San Francisco Chronicle a few years back -- and I've used it every year since.

It's that good.

I'm hopeful -- however -- that this year will be the best ever. Why? This is the first time that we've been able to use the herb garden in abundance. I told the wife that I wanted a large and diverse garden selection of fresh herbs. I wanted this garden to be packed so tightly together -- that you couldn't even so much as notice the dirt on the ground.

Here it is -- in it's glory. We're not doing so bad. I built the raised bed holding this herb garden less than two years ago. Venus took to populating raised bed with a variety of starter plants and seed ordered from various seed providers.

The Lemon Thyme in the far left front corner for example? That came from a very small cutting that she received from a gardening friend at the Contractor's State License Board where my beautiful bride works. The big mound of parsely in the center of the bed came from seeds that Venus sprinkled on the ground earlier this spring.

We're not done populating the bed just yet. Where there's a crack of space -- there's room for another herb. At this point we have a couple different varieties of Thyme, scads of Majoram, two or three plantings of Sage and the Oregano is populating the back left of this six foot long, two foot wide raised bed. There's more -- but to be honest -- I can't remember the names of the stuff in there.

Ask the wife. She knows. I just give the herb garden a well-deserved "haircut" every once in a blue moon -- and use the vast amount of cuttings on dinner or lunch celebrations depending upon the holiday in question.

In this case -- it's T-Day -- or -- Turkey Day -- otherwise known as Thanksgiving.

Some people might argue that Thanksgiving is all about football. Most of the people who make that argument are men. They do have a point. I tend to think of it as family and friend time. Venus and I cast a wide net for our Thanksgiving celebrations. No crowd is too big.

We put the brine mixture together last night using that colandar of freshly harvested herbs to your immediate right. What's in there? In what amounts? I wish I could tell you. The truth of the matter is: it was dark. The flashlight I took into the yard just didn't do much justice. I just "cut a little here" and "cut a little there" and this is the result: a colandar of fresh herbs from the Bird Herb Garden.

While it's true that the brine is mostly a collection of various salts and sugars -- we like to add a few other ingredients to give it a little "kick." For instance -- have you ever used crushed Juniper Berries? Do you know what they are used for? Mostly that berry is used for the production of gin -- both good gin and the gin that the wife prefers (it comes in a plastic jug).

The freshly harvested herbs and two to three cloves of garlic went into the handy-dandy food processor last night -- and then directly into the brine mixture. Guess what happened then? If you're guessing that our turkey brine turned a bright shade of herb-color green -- well -- that would be a good guess. Does this mean green turkey for Thanksgiving? Doesn't green turkey sound absolutely luscious?

At this point -- we're not sure. Although the actual recipe does call for some fresh thyme -- it doesn't call for the boatload of fresh herbs that we added to the mix last night. But -- my lofty opinion (and the wife's) -- you can never have too many fresh herbs. That just doesn't compute.

So -- the herb-green mixture is now covering this "plump and juicy" Diestel Farms turkey that had been sitting in our sink last night. How do I know this turkey is "plump and juicy?" Can't you read the label to your left? You don't think the fine folks at Diestel Farms would lie -- would you?

Of course not!

Our Thanksgiving Day "star of the show" is currently brining in a plastic cooler normally reserved for beer out in the GarageMahal. It's critically important to keep the Bird cool during the brining process -- otherwise you risk all sorts of nasty problems.

Brining a big bird isn't easy. There are a lot of steps to cover. It's not easy lifting a 25 lb. turkey either. But I can tell you this much from previous experience.

Brined Turkey is the BOMB.

You can access the recipe for Brined Turkey in the San Francisco Chronicle here. If this is your first time brining a turkey -- you probably want to stick to the instructions. But we also like to play around a bit -- and we have this year with the introduction of fresh herbs.

I also wouldn't follow the Chronicle's instructions for cooking a turkey -- unless you really want a rare or undercooked turkey. To put it short and sweet -- those baking instructions are for the "birds." Venus and I normally stick to Butterball advice of 15-20 minutes cooking time for each pound of bird at an oven temperature of 325 degrees.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Belly Up to the Bar Boys (and Girls)!!!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Some people might mistake this as a citrus patch. Don't be silly. If you've spent the same amount of time in Sacramento area dive bars as I have -- then you know what this is!

It's the Bird Supply of Margarita Mixers :)

Next stop: Margaritaville. The Improved Meyer Lemon pictured to your right is now in its second year and producing. Not a lot -- not yet. But this is just the start. Check back in about seven to ten years.

The point here is -- wifey and I LOOOOOVE fresh citrus. We can't get enough of it. There was a time and place years ago -- when a former roommate delivered freshly harvested lemons from a fifty plus year old lemon tree from her southeast Fresno backyard.

Best lemons on the planet bar none. No delivery was too large. She couldn't bring enough. Venus and I would set up the electric juicer (the best invention known to all mankind) and juice to our heart's content.

That juicing session would normally result in three or four gallons of freshly squeezed lemon juice. No matter. We would freeze a lot of it. The rest went into batches of LIP SMACKING LEMONADE -- and yes -- I must admit -- we did make our fair share of Margaritas.

As we sat together in that Citrus Heights duplex sipping Manna from Heaven -- the woman that I loved and I both vowed that someday we would have our own little slice of heaven.

Fast foward to North Natomas 2009 -- and Heaven is slowly on its way.

Of course -- we did plant some citrus at our first Natomas home. But you can't really plant much in a backyard that isn't much bigger than a shoe closet. Still -- if you visit that first backyard today -- you will find a Dwarf Meyer Lemon and a Dwarf Mexican (Key) Lime.

Wonderful trees -- no doubt. But they weren't going to satisfy our citrus desires. Not by a longshot. This is the sad truth about dwarf anything: sure -- it fits in a small spot. But the harvest is rather disappointing. Small trees result in small harvests and that's the sad truth.

That's why my wonderful wife and I needed the large yard. We didn't want dwarf trees. We wanted BIG MONSTERS that produce a boatload of citrus year in and year out without fail. We want the lemon and lime trees that will keep us pickled in margaritas year-round. We want a never-ending supply of fresh-squeezed orange juice. We want a tasty supply of tangerines and satsumas that never end. And we want it all right outside our back door.

Pie in the Sky thinking? Mebbe. But, we're getting there.

We've chose to populate one of the side yards as our own, personal, Margarita "patch." This little corner of heaven currently contains an Improved Meyer Lemon, Bearss Lime, Washington Navel Orange and the tree pictured to your right: The Dancy Tangerine.

Soon to come? An Owari Satsuma and another lemon. It might be another Improved Meyer -- or EUREKA! It just might be a Eureka. Sorry. Lame attempt at a joke there.

It is the Dancy that has done best so far -- although the Meyer Lemon isn't far behind. I found the Dancy Tangerine at Home Depot a year ago last December. It had just come off the delivery truck. It was LOADED with bright orange tangerines -- about 20 of them. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Other people nearby spotted it too when it came off that delivery truck. We all made a mad dash for it. It's probably the only race I have ever won in my lifetime. I grabbed it first -- brought it home -- enjoyed that first harvest with Venus and then gave our tangerine tree a prime spot in the side yard.

I was a little disappointed when it failed to produce anything last year -- but this year? Different story completely. I was a little concerned at first when these strange green sticks -- devoid of any leaf cover -- emerged from the top of the tree and started growing at an exponential rate. But -- as it turned out -- there was no reason to be concerned. Those were new branches emerging and they soon leafed out.

The Meyer Lemon is current starting to exhibit the same growth spurt. I know in time that the size of these trees will double -- triple -- quadruple. I don't want small trees. I want monsters. Monster trees deliver a monster harvest. Our goal? Keep the neighborhood pickled in margaritas.

There's no question in my mind that the denizens of the Hello Kitty Beehive aided in this year's citrus production. We went from zero production last year to outstanding production in the space of one year. And -- as each citrus tree flowered -- the bees attacked each blossom.

We've been harvesting limes for the past week or two -- which go wonderful in a bottle of Pacifico or beef stir fry creation that we grabbed off the internets recently. I've put the recipe below -- and I wish you the best of luck -- but I can pretty much assure that you won't be able to duplicate this incredible taste.

Unless you too have a lime tree in your backyard. Because there's nothing quite like a tree-ripened, freshly harvested, Bearss Lime.

Stir Fry Lime Beef Bomb (I made that up)

Note: We usually double this recipe

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (about two limes)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon Sesame Seed Oil (note: you can use any oil -- but Sesame Seed Oil adds to the taste)
1/2 lb. steak (tri-tip works best)
Salt and ground pepper

Directions: Cut beef into long, thin strips and layer into a wide, raised bowl. Once the first layer is complete -- sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Add a second layer of beef and again sprinkle with salt and pepper. Keep repeating this process depending on how much of this you make.

Mix lime juice, soy sauce, sugar, red pepper flaks and oil together. Mix well. Pour half to three quarters of this mixture over beef. Let soak at least 30 minutes before stir frying or just frying in a regular frying pan.

Cook through until most of the lime mixture has evaporated. Or -- if you enjoy a raw beef -- reduce cooking time.

The absolute KEY to this meal is the BEEF and the SOAK process. You can add the cooked beef to an already prepared salad -- or you can steam some vegetables and rice and enjoy it another way.

Whatever option you choose -- use the lime-soy-sugar-oil mixture you held in reserve to sprinkle over your salad or vegetables before consuming.

Good stuff Maynard. Two thumbs up.

The Lil' Punkin' That Could

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yes -- this is a blog posting about pumpkins. Yes -- I realize that Halloween has come and gone. No I am not insane. Although the wife might argue on that point a tad.

Speaking of my lovely bride -- there she is in all of her gorgeous beauty next to her brand spankin' new Zutano Avocado tree. The Zutano -- which we planted and securely staked over the weekend -- replaces the Bacon Avocado tree which I managed to slowly kill over the course of 18 months.

Why am I putting up a picture of my lovely wife next to a Zutano Avocado tree during a post about all things pumpkins? Did you not read that part about insanity in the first paragraph? Actually -- it's because Cindy Shea -- aka "The Vintage Vignette" -- requested one.

Blog Rule #1: Don't let The Vintage Vignette down.

OK -- let the silliness end. Time to get onto more serious things -- like planning our Thanksgiving dessert menu. If you're guessing that Pumpkin Pie might be on that menu -- then you've read the wife's mind. But not just ANY pie mind you -- but a pumpkin pie featuring this pumpkin from the backyard.

This was my first year for growing pumpkins. An old high school friend who lives in Southern California assured me that if I had to room to grow watermelon and cantaloupe vines -- I most certainly had room for pumpkins.

Whaddya know? Dan Breen was right on the money.

Actually -- to be brutally honest -- our pumpkin growing efforts were mostly a bust this summer. The first one actually ripened up just in time for Halloween: in early July. We left it on the vine for far too long -- but somehow it managed to survive the hot summer and almost daily attacks from the Vole City that populated my "test garden bed" in the Back 40.

I will admit -- the Voles got to a lot of my pumpkins AND watermelons AND cantaloupes this summer. But I got the final revenge -- as the Voles grew so fat that they became easy pickings for our Hunter-Killer cat named "Precious." She was more than happy to drag fattened, rat-sized creatures into the house -- still alive mind you -- so she could proudly proclaim: "VOLE! IT'S WHAT'S FOR DINNER!!!"

The wife was -- uh -- less than impressed.

But back to the subject in question. The Voles managed to leave just two pumpkins alone long enough to survive. And those pumpkins -- in turn -- were harvested -- seeded and carved for Halloween! But as we were combing through our most sincere of pumpkin patches -- we stumbled across this.... this.... thing.

It was a pumpkin, yes. But it was still green! Can you carve a green pumpkin? Are there laws against that? Since we already had two carved pumpkins for the kids at Halloween -- it was Venus that made the decision. She issued a stay of execution. A temporary stay I might add.

Her thinking -- which was right on the money -- was that this green pumpkin just might ripen in time for our Thanksgiving Dinner Spectacular -- starring every annoying member of each family possible -- plus a few misfits from our Club Raven hangout downtown.

Sure enough -- as the days stretched into November -- our green pumpkin turned a bright shade of orange on the bottom. It was a color that slowly spread to the top. It's a process that continues to this very moment. The pictures in this posting are about a week old and still show a considerable amount of green color. That's fading fast.

As much as I would like -- I cannot tell you which variety of this pumpkin is. I know it's not a Dills Atlantic Giant -- so we can rule that out. That leaves two other varieties of seed that Venus purchased earlier this summer from Lockhart Seeds in Stockton. This might be a member of the "Hallow Queen" Family -- or it could also belong to the "Howden" Clan.

Since the bees were busy as bees this summer cross-pollinating the pumpkin seeds that were planted tightly together -- this could also be a cross. I suspect -- from the pictures I've seen -- that this is probably a Howden. But who really knows? Who cares?

So -- how does one make a pumpkin pie from scratch using a gourd that Vole City desperately tried to dine on through the fall and summer months? I do have some ideas -- which are probably wrong of course. Venus loves to point that out.

But -- if you're in the mood for homemade pumpkin pie next week -- and you're in the neighborhood -- please remember to stop on by. Unless -- however -- you're a Vole. If that's the case -- you've already had your fill.

Death of an Avocado (Salesman)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

OK -- this isn't going to work. So -- I'm going to put a stop to this right now. I was trying to be a little silly -- you see -- with the pun based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play "Death of a Salesman," when I realized this just wasn't going to work.

Besides -- my Avocado tree isn't named "Willy." It's a "Bacon." How do you reconcile "Willy" with "Bacon?"

Short answer: You can't.

The only thing the two items have in common is that playwright Arthur Miller kills off character Willy Loman at the end of the play. And I have managed to kill a Bacon Avocado tree. My story doesn't have nearly the drama. But it does have a rather sad ending.

This blog posting is to let other gardeners know that Bill Bird isn't perfect. His wife -- however -- is. She made me write that. Seriously.

No -- in all honesty -- all I ever do is blog about my gardening successes. I haven't told you about my NUMEROUS and EPIC gardening failures (except maybe that time when I hacked into the wrong PVC pipe...) -- and trust me -- I've had my fair share of FLOPS.

The Bacon Avocado tree -- sadly -- falls into the category of FLOP. I haven't dug it up yet. But it's a goner -- much to Venus' chagrin. She's the one that's just wild about Avocados. She can't get enough of them.

I will be honest. The wife does make a killer guacamole. And this is from a gardener who really isn't wild about guaca-anything. However -- my lovely wife was inspired by a recent trip to Rosarito Beach in Baja, California. That is where she discovered a guacamole caused her eyeballs to literally roll back into her skull.

She had to have the recipe -- and after getting a few tips from a restaurant owner in nearby Primo Tapia -- she managed to reproduce a pretty good facsimile of what we had dined on south of the border. The next step? A tree. Venus wanted her own Avocado tree -- so she could pick tree-ripened avocados for her special guacamole creation during the Super Bowl and other family gatherings.

To be honest? I didn't know much about growing Avocados. In fact, I don't think I'd ever even noticed an Avocado tree. Did they grow this far north? I had no clue. But thanks to some rather great friends at the California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG) Association -- I not only discovered that Avocados grew well here -- but what varieties did the best.

Yes -- Virginia -- there is more than just the standard Haas Avocado that you find in your local grocery store. There are more varieties than you can shake an avocado pit at. There are Mexican varieties and there are Guatemalan varieties. There are avocados for warm weather climates and there are varieties for cold weather climates.

So -- after some research and some good advice from those "in the know," I felt rather confident when I purchased my Bacon Avocado tree at Home Depot a year ago last summer. I didn't pay much attention to the knot that developed at the base of tree a few months later. I even ignored the light black streaks that developed on some of the lower branches last fall.

The first indication that something really wasn't right was when the tree failed to grow a single inch this summer. Oh -- it grew a new crop of leaves sure enough. It leafed out just fine. It just didn't grow much -- if at all. But as light black streaks on the bottom branches of the tree grew darker and slowly moved up toward the top -- I knew something was wrong.

Then -- the other day -- I noticed this. This is the very top of the Bacon Avocado tree. Notice the lack of leaves? Notice the black color of the tip top of the tree? That ain't normal folks. There should be some leaf cover there. That tip should be green in color. It's not. It's not going to turn green either. The top of the tree is dying. In another week or four it will be dead -- and that black death will slowly envelop the rest of the tree if I allow it to stay in ground.

Don't worry -- it won't stay in the ground. It has an impending date with the Green Waste Can.

If the slowly blackening tip of the tree isn't enough proof of impending Bacon Avocado DEATH -- then this branch just below the tip should serve as the kicker. This is a month or two of the ahead of the top of the tree -- which means it's DEAD. Yup. And like a dead twig -- it snaps in two with relative ease.

So -- what went wrong? What is this BLACK DEATH infecting the wife's Bacon Avocado tree? As for the answer to the first question -- I don't know. I honestly cannot tell you what went wrong. I can tell you that the tree got the best soil. It received the best fertilzer. It never once sat in standing water. It received regular irrigation of fresh, clean Sacramento and American River water.

What then, is this Black Death? The answers arrived in the form of a helpful information page from UC Davis. Venus' poor Bacon Avocado tree is infected with not just one nasty disease but two! The names of both are just as nasty as the pictures -- Dothiorella Canker and Phytophthora Canker and Crown Rot.

Yeah -- the Bacon is cooked. It's a goner. It's not going to get any better.

I'm off to Green Acres nursery now to roam around in the dark for a Zutano. Wish me luck!

Our Lady at Work

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Autumn months of October and November are proving to be a real show-stopper in our North Natomas Back 40 in terms of outright color production.

The rose bushes planted in "strategic" areas around the yard are just going nuts with colorful production. I've already highlighted two of them on this blog (Scentimental and Venus' favorite, Saint Patrick). Now it's time for another that simply tugged on the wife's heartstrings the moment she saw it pictured in a Jackson and Perkins catalog.

Gentle gardeners -- I give you -- Our Lady of Guadalupe.

If you're beginning to figure out that Venus is a certifiable Catholic -- that would be a mighty fine guess!

What's the difference between a normal Catholic and a "certifiable" Catholic?

Don't ask!

But -- back to the subject. I know from experience -- mind you -- that what looks great in a Jackson and Perkins or Weeks catalog doesn't necessarily transfer into the same success at home in the front or back yards. There's a lot of work that goes into making a rose bush look "picture perfect," and sometimes that rose just doesn't look like what was pictured.

Then -- there are cases of "dumb luck." Put Bill Bird in that category.

Venus and I purchased Our Lady of Guadalupe soon after moving into our first North Natomas home in 2003. The selling point? For Venus, obviously, it was the name. But she also liked the fact that Our Lady of Guadalupe had been "blessed by the Diocese of Los Angeles, and proceeds from the sale of the rose supported Hispanic College Fund scholarships."

So -- I wasn't one to argue. I purchased the rose. I gave it a prime spot in our first home against a fence. The rose got nice amounts of compost, fertlizer and water. And this rose responded to that wonderful and loving care by promptly FLOPPING during its first five years.

And Gentle gardeners -- I mean this one really just FLOPPED. How do you put it in gardening terms? Latin Terms? "Stinkus Alottus?"

What went wrong? I'm not sure. It just didn't grow all that well. It was one of the smallest Floribunda roses I'd ever seen -- never growing beyond a height of two or three feet. Oh sure, it would produce some nice roses. But it was hidden away -- blocked by other roses located in the front and the side -- other roses that performed -- well -- much better to be brutally honest.

When Venus and I made the move to our new North Natomas compound with a backyard actually large enough to turn around in -- the decision was made to bring some of the existing roses from the old yard over to the new yard. We had overplanted anyway at the old yard -- so why not?

But -- in my opinion -- the rose named "Our Lady of Guadalupe" didn't make the cut. "It's too small," I told Venus. "I'll buy you something else."

She promptly delivered the universally recognized, one-finger "Gardener's Salute" to inform me that I'd -- uh -- lost the argument.

It just goes to show that I should listen to my wife more often.

I'm not sure what I did right this time around -- nor what I did wrong last time. But I can tell you that Our Lady of Guadalupe immediately responded in a positive way to the new digs. It grew to a height of three feet during its first year after transplant. This year? It's slowly approaching the five foot mark. I've never witnessed such a lavish display out of this rose bush before.

Since rose bushes like this one normally take three years before putting on a really good show -- I can only imagine what will happen next year.

Our Lady of Guadalupe attracts a number of beneficial insects to the garden -- including bees -- although the bees in the nearby, neon-pink, "Hello Kitty" hive don't pay it much attention (no, they're not retarded, but I might be).