Welcome to the Land of Corn and ... CORN!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Golden Bantam Corn
There goes my attempt at a snappy title. Sigh

As the photo to your immediate right clearly shows -- it is "corn season" in the Backyard of Bird." The harvest is back -- and back in a big way this summer after an absolutely horrible showing last year -- a fact that I blamed on 49ers Quarterback Alex Smith.

Don't get me wrong here. Alex Smith is still an unbelievable FLOP in the NFL -- and for some strange reason he's back for yet another MISERABLE season in the City by the Bay. As KFI Radio -- and former NewsTalk 1530 KFBK personality extraordinaire -- Shannon Farren correctly posted on Facebook recently: "7 years of Alex Smith. Who broke that damn mirror?"

Shannon was never one to hide her feelings -- nor the occasional F-Bomb dropped in a newsroom setting.

OK -- so it wasn't occasional. Shannon's language in a radio newsroom could and did make more than one sailor blush. But that's another story for another day.

Test Bed: Bird Back 40
Point is -- Alex Smith is still stinking it up in the City by the Bay -- but fortunately that bad voodoo hasn't affected the Bird corn offerings this year. The test bed is churning out record amounts of beautiful corn on the cob in 2011 -- and we're just getting started. The production has been limited to the first two rows that the wife that is Venus and I planted earlier this spring.

Still to come? About five more rows. Provided the weather holds -- we'll be harvesting giant ears of corn through September.

Final Golden Bantam Harvest: 13 ears
My friends, there is nothing quite like hoofing it out to the corn patch on a weekend evening and pulling a fat fresh ear of corn or four off the backyard stalks. Venus and I started harvesting shortly after returning from Santa Cruz two weeks ago -- and fresh corn on the cob has been a staple on the evening menu ever since. Tonight's final harvest resulted in a Baker's Dozen -- 13 ears -- which is now sitting in a freezer.

Thanks to a couple of recipe suggestions and canning recipes delivered by Farmer Fred Hoffman -- we will be enjoying fresh-from-the-backyard corn all winter long.

Emerging Ears of Lip-Smacking Golden Bantam Corn
The variety in question is an heirloom variety. First offered through Burpee gardening catalogs in 1902, the variety called Golden Bantam is still going strong. It's not hard to figure out why gardeners are somewhat partial to this variety. Stalks of Golden Bantam corn deliver ears that are more than a foot long. It's not the sweetest corn you'll taste in your lifetime -- but it is special nonetheless.

I was somewhat shocked to discover that this yellow corn variety also resulted in kernels that were colored a bright orange. At first? I thought this might have been the result of leaving the corn on the stalk for a might too long. But those fears were unfounded. Venus and I were happy to discover that each orange-colored kernel was packed with a jolt of natural sugar.

Bright Yellow and Orange Kernels on Golden Bantam
Unfortunately -- the Golden Bantam seed that I ordered three years ago from Pinetree Garden Seeds didn't last beyond the first two rows. That forced us to turn to another variety of yellow corn seed that we purchased last year from Lockhart Seed Company in Stockton.

The Lockhart Seed wasn't an heirloom variety. Lockhart Seed doesn't necessarily specialize in heirloom varieties, which isn't bad. What Lockhart Seed does specialize in is varieties that are specifically adapted to our San Joaquin and Sacramento Valley climates. Although it's entirely probably that some cross-pollination has taken place with the later varieties -- my hope (prayer would probably be a better word) is that since both are yellow varieties, we should be OK.

That's my hope anyway. I've seen cross-pollination before between yellow, white and baby corn varieties that have been planted far to close together. The results are indeed Frankensteinish. And the taste wasn't all that good either.

The variety in question -- Bodacious -- was planted about a month after the Golden Bantam -- and the stalks are now about four feet in height. The first green tassels from the developing ears have already emerged and my best guess is that we're still another three weeks away from a first harvest -- provided the weather holds. We have been lucky in that respect. After a colder than normal spring, the last two months have been outstanding.

And so my friends -- I come to you with this advice. If you live in the Sacramento Valley and have a small plot of room -- you can plant corn and you can harvest delicious ears later in the summer.

This is despite the presence of a quarterback named Alex Smith who appears have locked up yet another year of starting play for your San Francisco 49ers.

Keep the bar well stocked. It's going to be yet another long winter.

A Tomato for Every Occasion

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times
It's that time of year when the answer to every question is: Tomatoes. Understand? If I ask the lovely wife that is Venus, "what's for dinner?" The answer is: TOMATOES.

What's for lunch? TOMATOES. Breakfast? TOMATOES. What's your favorite drink? TOMATO COLLINS!

With a splash of gin, of course.

The point is -- with an overload of tomato production -- you start looking for recipes that call for fresh heirloom tomatoes and lots of them.

Fortunately -- I found such a recipe. It's pictured above. Yeah, it's fancy alright. But thanks to my San Joaquin Valley tastes -- I lowered it down to proper "valley standards." The official title of this dish, featured in the uppity-duppity New York Times no less, is (and I quote): Penne With Heirloom Tomatoes, Basil, Green Beans and Feta.

Leftover Tri-Tip from Sunday Night Dinner
I'll be honest. I fiddled around with this recipe a bit -- and came up with a new name of: Penne With Heirloom Tomatoes, Basil, Green Beans, Feta AND LEFTOVER TRI-TIP.


The official tomato for this dish? None other than Stupice, which is churning out golf-ball sized tomatoes faster than we can consume or give them away. This is the perfect tomato for a dish such as this, because the Stupice has a zip that goes well with slivered basil and Feta cheese.

Plus, uh, we have a lot of Stupice on the vine. Stupice anyone?

Fresh off the vine Pole Beans
There's another reason why I picked this dish out of the 24-odd recipes featured in the New York Times. It also called for a healthy offering of fresh green beans. What a coincidence, as we have pole beans and bush beans coming out of our EARS at the moment. This is the perfect dish at the perfect time.

Plus -- uh -- we had the leftover tri-tip from Sunday night's dinner.

Hey man -- you go with what you got. To be honest? We could have added squash, eggplant, green onions, carrots and a multitude of other vegetables that are producing like madness in the Bird Back 40 at the moment (pumpkin anyone?).

But we left that for another evening and another dish that I like to call "Hodge Podge Garden Soup." Hodge Podge Garden Soup, by the way, can easily be turned into "Hodge Podge Garden Casserole" and "Hodge Podge Garden Omlet." Those meals are yet to come.

Stupice Tomatoes with Basil and Seasonings
The recipe, which calls for "salt and pepper to taste" was also modified somewhat to include freshly ground black pepper -- because nothing says "fancy" like freshly ground black pepper. Plus, let's be honest here, OK? Freshly ground black pepper is REALLY good -- especially when you combine it with vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes warmed by our famous Sacramento Valley sunshine.

The dish is fairly easy to make -- and Venus and I made this a team effort. While she chopped up the pole beans and basil, I took care of slicing and dicing the Stupice tomatoes and grinding up the black pepper. It seemed somewhat criminal to add a boxed pasta like Penne, but we haven't started growing the fresh ingredients used for fresh pasta yet.

Yet, I say. The Bird Back 40 is an experiment in all things gardening. Who knows what we might be growing in another five to ten years.

Stupice Tomatoes for SNACKING!
The finished dish, which is detailed below, was indeed a slice of heaven. Anything combined with fresh heirloom tomatoes and basil from the backyard garden is usually a slice of heaven. But this dish in particular was pretty darn good -- and also made for a nice lunch at work the very next day.

We don't let good heirloom tomatoes go to waste in the Bird House.

Do you have a favorite dinner/lunch/breakfast recipe that features heirloom tomatoes and other good stuff from the backyard summer garden? If so -- please feel free to leave it behind -- because we're always taking suggestions.

And now -- without further delay -- the recipe for Penne With Heirloom Tomatoes, Basil, Green Beans and Feta (with whatever barbequed delicacy you may have leftover from the night before. Don't be picky. This meal works with anything).

This recipe first appeared in the August 5th, 2009 edition of the New York Times and may be accessed here.

Penne With Heirloom Tomatoes, Basil, Green Beans and Feta


Sweet, juicy heirloom tomatoes lend themselves well to uncooked tomato sauces. In summer, I make quick meals out of chopped ripe tomatoes, pasta and green vegetables.

6 to 8 ounces fresh green beans, trimmed, strings removed if necessary, and broken in half if very long
2 cups chopped fresh ripe tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 plump garlic clove, minced (more to taste-we used more)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste (I like to use a very good coarse sea salt or fleur de sel for this)
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar (optional)
2 tablespoons slivered basil (we used more)
2 ounces crumbled feta (about 1/2 cup)
3/4 pound pasta (penne or fusilli are good choices)

1. Combine the olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, basil, salt and pepper in a large bowl, and let sit for 15 to 30 minutes (or longer).

2. Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Fill a bowl with ice water. Add the green beans to the boiling water, and boil four to five minutes, depending on how crunchy you like them. Remove with a strainer or skimmer, and transfer to the ice water. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then drain and set aside.

3. Bring the water back to a boil, and add the pasta. Cook until al dente, about eight minutes. When the pasta is ready, drop the green beans back into the water to heat, then drain the pasta and beans and toss at once with the tomato mixture and the feta. Serve hot or room temperature.

Yield: Serves four.

Harvest Season IS NOT a Celebration!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Heirloom Tomato Harvest: Bird Back 40
Let me get this straight: Harvest Season is WORK! Celebrate all you want -- but when you come home after a week in Santa Cruz and Seattle to find 50-60 lbs. of ripe heirloom tomatoes hanging off the vine -- you don't crack open a 12-pack and crank up the IPOD.

Nope -- you get to WORK son. Because the clock is TICKING! Mother Nature isn't about to wait around until you're good and ready to save that bountiful summer produce. Nope! What's on the kitchen counter right now turns to slop in 24-48 hours -- so you BEST GET WORKING.

With all due respect to my fine gardening friends at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center who hosted the annual Harvest Celebration this past weekend (a fun event that I was sorry to miss) -- celebration my left foot!

Blessed with Heirloom Production
The wonderful wife that is Venus and I took our first tender steps at canning summer produce two seasons ago when we were confronted with a boatload of production from our heirloom tomato plantings. Little did we know that we would progress from those baby steps to perfecting a number of canning-safe recipes that have resulted in numerous quarts of whole heirloom tomatoes, tomato sauce infused with fresh basil and peppers, dill pickles infused with dill (surprise!), creamed garlic, thai basil and other spices and the always famous -- always in demand -- Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa.

The first step in any canning process is to first gather up the produce. We knew -- before we left for eight days of wedding duties and other family gatherings -- that the garden was giving that tell-tale sign of over-production. So, we weren't all that surprised to discover a multitude of vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes and aircraft carrier sized squash upon our return.

I know that a number of growers in the Sacramento area are not having the best of years when it comes to tomato production. I don't know why we have been so blessed. It might be micro-climates. It might be the fertilizer cocktails that I've been feeding the garden with through the summer. It just might be dumb luck (probably). Yes, we've been cursed with quite a bit of Blossom End Rot (BER). But it hasn't slowed us down much.

Whole Tomatoes, Skins Removed, Ready for Canning
The multitude of pepper plants that we have planted nearby in the Bird Back 40 are just as loaded as the tomato offerings -- but unlike the tomatoes -- the peppers are still another week or two away from that "ready to harvest" stage that's required for our salsa concoction. So, the tomatoes pictured above were dropped in vats of boiling water to remove skins and saved for whole tomato canning purposes.

The end result? About 18-quarts of whole tomatoes. That's not bad -- but still not quite enough to last through an entire winter (plus -- they make great gifts at Christmas).

The ripe heirloom tomatoes weren't the only item begging to be picked this past Sunday. The cucumber plantings -- while late -- had finally taken off. The wife that is Venus LOVES cucumbers. She can't get enough of them -- in salads or in other dishes. So she manages to plant several pickling and slicing varieties -- which include my favorite: the Armenian Giant.

Pickling and Armenian Giant Cucumbers
Not only does the Armenian Giant go well in salads and other creations -- it also happens to be one of the tougher cucumber customers. And that toughness makes it a perfect candidate for pickling. Not all pickling cucumbers can stand up to the home-canning process. They tend to get soft. Trust me when I tell you that there's nothing worse that a soft pickle. Pickles are destined to be crunchy. And crunchy pickles are what we specialize in at the Bird Home for All Things Canning.

So -- this past Sunday -- while the cucumbers were soaking in a giant vat of ice water -- Venus and I were preparing multitudes of heirloom tomatoes for the whole tomato canning process. We also put a new weapon to work in the kitchen: a pressure canner.

Cucumbers Soaking in an Ice Water Bath
There are plenty of ladies in this world who would prefer shoes, clothing or fine jewelry for Christmas. The wife that is Venus instead requests things like ironing boards, vaccum cleaners and pressure canners. I grew up in a Modesto family where I would have been lined up against a wall and shot repeatedly for the crime of buying my mother or any sister an ironing board for Christmas. It was a lesson that I learned well.

Venus has had to do quite a bit of de-programming. While she enjoys and receives some of the finer things in life -- she also requests items where Bill Bird dare not tread as a child. It wasn't all that long ago -- if you recall -- when Feminism was the rage. If there was a newspaper story about a husband run down by an angry wife for the crime of purchasing her an ironing board for Christmas, the usual response from my mother and sisters was something along the line of: "well, he probably deserved it."

So, when Venus requested a pressure canner for Christmas last year? I was just a tad nervous.

Whole Tomatoes in a Pressure Canner
But, not to worry. If there's one thing I've learned about Venus -- it's that she is the Master of the Garden. Everything she touches, grows. It's not a chore for her. It's not a chore for me either. She loves putting the "V for Venus" gardening boxes through a workout. I love it too. That "love" for everything gardening has transcended into saving the produce that she creates. She watched her grandmother perform this chore. She watched her mother do the same. Although she holds a degree from Berkeley, it doesn't stop her from getting down and dirty.

The pressure canner is indeed a vast improvement over the water-bath canner that we have used for the past two seasons. Not only is it a time-saver in terms of getting the job done quickly -- but it also results in far less mess in the kitchen. Short and sweet? I should have invested in a pressure canner years ago.

Sealing Pickle Quart Jars
Canning in the Bird Household is always a team effort. Although one person can easily perform this task -- it's a lot more fun when four hands are involved. The process of canning summer produce isn't that hard -- it's the prep work leading up to the process that takes the vast amount of time.

You can't just pick and toss tomatoes into canning jars and be done with it. The same rule applies to cucumbers and other goodies from the backyard garden. With a pressure canner at the ready, a gardener can put just about anything into a prepared mason jar and save it for winter use.

There is truly nothing better than sharing a jar or five of Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa with family and friends. There's nothing quite like cracking open a jar of heirloom tomatoes in the dead of winter and breathing in that deep and satisfying scent of summertime produce. A can of tomatoes purchased at a store simply cannot compare to the taste of home-canned heirloom tomatoes. Once you've had that taste there is no going back.

Quarts of Whole Tomatoes and Dill Pickles
But I'm not going to fool you kids -- not for a second. Remember this important fact: Harvest Season isn't for celebrating. Harvest Season is work.

And our work is just beginning. That sweet summer payoff is now underway.

The Fruits of My Labor . . . Have Flavor!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tree Ripened Flavortop Nectarine
Isn't that just a clever little title? I thought of it all by myself. Are you impressed? Please, stop laughing.

I mean it, please stop laughing.

Now that we have proper introductions out of the way - may I introduce you to my latest "sweetheart" in the kitchen? No, the wife that is Venus has not been replaced. She has not taken a sabbatical (she'd better not!). She did not "fly the coop."

That sweetness -- pictured top right -- is none other than the Flavortop Nectarine. It is now coming ripe by the dozens in the Front Yard of Bird and is one of three varieties that I have stuck right next to one another in a crazy madness known as Backyard Orchard Culture (BOC).

Three nectarine trees instead of one!
But -- in this case? The plantings are in the front yard. Nevertheless -- it's still crazy. A fruit lover must be slightly off his or her rocker to try something like this. But the proof is in the Nectarine Pudding. The close planting of fruit trees does work -- and I have the lip-smacking, juicy, tree-ripened Flavortop Nectarines to prove it.

This is the second year for our nectarine plantings. These trees really aren't supposed to produce a large amount of fruit until the third year and successive years after that. But who am I to argue with a nectarine tree like Flavortop? If it wants to produce two or three dozen nectarines in just it's second year of growth? You won't get any arguments from Bill and Venus Bird.

Not hardly.

Flavortop Nectarines ready for slicing!
This is also just the start of fresh nectarine season? Still to come? The best tasting white nectarine on the market I'm told -- the Arctic Jay White nectarine. It's absolutely loaded with second year production. And as for the largest tree in the bunch? The Fantasia nectarine? It didn't produce so much as a single piece of fruit.

Go figure.

The Arctic Jay nectarines are still a good 5-7 days from that "soft to the touch" kind of ripeness that orchard culture freakniks like myself crave. And that is the method to the Backyard Orchard Culture (BOC) madness. The goal isn't to produce a boatload of fruit from every single tree. The goal is to produce just enough to keep you  in nectarine flavor heaven, until the next variety ripens up.

Sliced Flavortop Nectarines
As for the Arctic Jay? It is a tried and true Taste Test Winner: best of all fruits at the Dave Wilson Nursery blind fruit tasting held July 5th, 1996. The variety gets an enthusiastic two thumbs up from none other than Farmer Fred Hoffman, and others who have this treasured tree as part of a backyard planting. This is truly one productive variety.

The three nectarine trees pictured below are all in need of a "haircut." That's the beauty of BOC. You never allow these trees to reach a height of more than six or seven feet. Constant pruning is a must. But I've come to find that fruit trees react and react well to constant pruning. It's not difficult -- and the fun part is -- you get to choose the size and shape. Does tall and thin work for you? Round and large? A nectarine hedge perchance? The decision is yours.

A little off the top barber!
But not everything is wine and roses either. The nectarine trees -- much like the peach trees planted in the Bird Back 40 -- suffered from a bout of peach leaf curl thanks to a wetter than normal spring. The new growth and shoots that would later emerge from the trees were covered with a shade of white -- which is not a good thing children. That's powdery mildew and it can and did affect fruit production.

Some of the nectarines were covered with a frosting of white that would not wash off, no matter how hard I tried or whatever method I employed. While the trees did eventually recover from the mildew attack, some of the fruit did not and there was considerable damage to the nectarine skin. UC Davis documents powdery mildew here, and another excellent resource for home growers comes from West Virginia University.

Powdery Mildew damage on fruit skin
Fortunately? The mildew did not penetrate any of the fruit itself. The flesh literally glistened with sweet juices. The taste? Hard to describe. You're not going to find nectarines that taste like this in your local grocery store. Nectarines at Farmer's Markets are allowed to sit on the tree a little while longer, but still cannot compare to the sweet, tree-ripened fruit that comes from your own fruit tree.

I will never forget the steps I took two winters ago to plant these bare root fruit trees. An ugly hedge stood in my way during the NFL playoffs. But rather than watch the Saints, who would go on to win the Big Enchilada that year, Bill and Venus Bird were outside in a light rain, setting up the first BOC "experiment."

After one taste of a tree-ripened Flavortop Nectarine? Consider this a wise step in a wonderful experiment for home fruit production.

In other words, I don't miss that hedge.

What?! A Vacation?! Now?! Really?! But...

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Ultimate Digging Machine at Capitola
It's a gardener's lament. It's called vacation. It's like the one we took this past weekend to the coast -- where the Ultimate Digging Machine (aka, Bandi, Funny, Steak) saw her fondest dreams come true: miles upon miles of precious, sandy, Capitola coastline where she could dig to her heart's content.

If only those stupid waves would stop getting in the way and filling up every hole she tried to dig.

Vacations and gardening are not easy to mix. A vacation you say? NOW? When everything is coming ripe in the garden? This is the worst possible time to leave! Something is always coming ripe in the Backyard of Bird. Whether it's the generous plantings of heirloom tomatoes, corn, nectarines, grapes, squash, or any other item of garden produce, it just doesn't matter.

Something is about to get ripe. And that grey zucchini that was just about perfect when you left? It's grown to the size of the Battleship Missouri by the time you return. That perfectly shaped Marianna's Peace? It's now soft, plus some critter has bitten into it. Where did those weeds come from and how did they get so big?

Russ and Laurie Maurice
That's just the way it works when it comes to the world of gardening. There simply is no good time to leave. There was, however, a good reason. Long-time friends Russ Maurice and Laurie Williams finally celebrated a long-overdue wedding. Yours truly was honored to be a part of the wedding party. It is the only time I've been chosen to be a groomsman, and will probably the only time I am selected for an honor such as this.

How can one pass up an honor like that? Short answer? You can't. You make the best of it. You load the wife that is Venus and the Ultimate Digging Machine into the family car, celebrate a happy and joyous day among friends and family and most of all: have a good time.

The view from the Hollins House at Pasatiempo
I'm proud to report that we did just that. The Hollins House at Pasatiempo overlooks all of Santa Cruz and mile after mile of blue Pacific Ocean, dotted with bright white sailing vessels of all makes and manners. Not only is it the most picturesque of places to tie the knot, it also features a fine bar with all sorts of fine liquors.

These things are important.

This trip -- and yet another that is still to come -- does happen to come at peak gardening and harvest times for backyard gardening efforts. Bill and Venus Bird are celebrating a whopper of a gardening season. From tomatoes to eggplant and bell peppers to corn -- you can't ask for more. Sure -- there's been a touch of Blossom End Rot with some of the heirloom selections. That's to be expected.

Squash, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes from the garden
But in terms of outright production? You simply cannot ask for more. We've been blessed -- so far -- for what appears to be one whopper of a year. We'll know more when canning efforts swing into high gear later this month, but the garden is now set up and ready for super production over the next two to three months.

You get that special sense that everything is coming up roses when the garden begins to churn out entire dinners, which was the case just before we left. The Grey, Green and Yellow Straightneck Zucchini planted in one corner of the vast backyard are now just beginning to produce in abundance. They join a multitude of peppers and white and purple eggplant that started producing some weeks ago.

Slow roasted vegetables with Beef hotlinks
When you combine all three squash offerings with bell peppers, eggplant and other garden produce, you come up with a special meal that can only be offered a few months out of the year: fresh garden vegetables on skewers slow roasted over an open flame on the backyard barbeque.

My friends, there is nothing quite like the mouth-watering selection of fresh garden vegetables ripened by warm Sacramento summer sunshine and heat. Squash doesn't taste like squash. It tastes like candy. Peppers don't taste like bell peppers. They taste like candy. And there's nothing quite like the tastebud zip of a vine-ripened heirloom tomato that has been lightly toasted and roasted over an open flame.

Heirloom Tomato Appetizers
Candy you say? No -- better.

It is one of those special meals that Venus and I will get to enjoy for many days to come, plus share our bounty with family and friends.

That list does include the newest of married couples: Russ and Laurie. Russ has never been much of a vegetable man -- but neither was I before I met my beautiful bride.

It's amazing how wives can mold a husband. There's hope for Russ yet.