The Crenshaw Surprise

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Vine Ripened Crenshaw Melon
On the first weekend of the 2012 NFL Season, the garden in the Bird Back 40 delivered a sweet treat in the form of a Crenshaw melon. Here on the second weekend on the 2012 NFL Season, the garden is about to deliver five more.

Fresh off watching the San Francisco Giants pull even closer to a National League West title and my suddenly reborn Fresno State Bulldog football team deliver and eye-popping rout of the Colorado Buffaloes, I can tell you that life is pretty sweet at the moment. It's almost as sweet as the Crenshaw melons that are coming off the Bird Back 40 vines in eye-popping numbers.

A Sweet Surprise Awaits
I've never grown this melon before. Shame on Bill Bird. Because this melon has now found a permanent home in our North Natomas soil. Short and sweet? The Crenshaw melon loves the Bird Back 40. So, we'll love it back.

The melon pictured above and to your immediate left is the payoff for watching this treat turn from a bright green to a dull yellow. The rind of this melon also tends to die back near the blossom end, which makes it an inviting target for birds and bugs. I watched -- anxiously -- as this treat started to ripen, hoping and praying that the Birds would get to this treat before the mockingbirds that frolic and sometimes curse our backyard.

Crenshaw Melon Chunks
Consider this prayers answered. The melon slowly ripened until it told us it was finally ready last Sunday morning. I was rather curious. Our first experience with this melon was rather disappointing. I had picked the first one a smidge too early. Although it was pleasantly sweet, it was nothing like the sweet tastebud surprise we were about to receive.

That taste and wonderful texture grabbed my attention fairly quickly. What exactly is a Crenshaw melon and why I have I waited so long to plant said variety? From our friends at wiseGEEK:

Crenshaw Melons on the Vine
"Crenshaw melons were bred by crossing casaba melons with Persian melons, also sometimes called muskmelons. The favorable traits of both melon varieties successfully manifested in the cross breed, and it quickly became one of the more popular melons on the market. The melons can be eaten plain as a snack food, mixed in with fruit salads, or wrapped in prosciutto for a twist on the classic prosciutto wrapped melon appetizer."

I'll admit, it's been a strange melon season in the Bird Back 40. August is normally the strongest month for melon production, and while we've pulled our share of cantaloupes and small watermelons from the vine, August production hasn't been anything to really write home to mom about.

Georgia Rattlesnake Watermelon
But September? September is a decidedly different story. Those Georgia Rattlesnake watermelon vines are suddenly popping with late season production. While the cantaloupe and Sangria watermelons have largely played themselves out, the Crenshaw vines are putting on a real show with production I've never witnessed in a backyard melon patch before.

The big question mark is, will the weather hold? Melons like long, hot summer days. They don't dig cool fall temperatures. Mother Nature has done her part by delivering a mid-September heatwave, but the days are getting shorter. That can play havoc with melon vines and varieties that need 60-80 days to deliver a firm, vine-ripened melon.

The Crenshaw: Sliced and Ready to Chunk!
I don't have any doubts about the Crenshaw melons that are now just starting to turn yellow. But that Georgia Rattlesnake? Why did you take so long to show up? Thank you for coming, but please, hurry up! This weather isn't going to last forever!

There is no better weekend treat than a sliced Crenshaw melon. Starting your day with a bowl of fruit procured from your own backyard vines is the final payoff for a summer of vine-tending work. And, after one bite of a vine-ripened Crenshaw melon, a gardener comes to realize that it was worth the effort and that much more.

Baby Got Beet

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Beet on Steroids?
With all due apologies and respect to Sir-Mix-A-Lot, "Oh my God Becky, look at her BEET. It is SO big!"

That is, indeed, one very big beet. And since it was grown personally by the wife that is Venus -- I do feel safe in saying "Baby Got Beet."

When Venus pulled this out of one of our raised beds a couple of nights ago and literally needed the services of a wheelbarrow to get this monster inside -- my original thought was the following: "she planted beet seeds far too close to one another and they sort of all glaumed (is that a word?) on together."

Not an invader from another world: Just a beet
Hey, if "glaumed" is good enough for the incomparable Henry Wadsworth Longfellow -- it's good enough for the blog that is Sacramento Vegetable Gardening. But, I digress.

This much is true: The wife does have a well documented green thumb. This much is also true: She doesn't pull basketball sized beets from the garden every other day of the week. Yes, we do get the occasional baseball sized radish. But that's kind of rare.

As is this monster of a beet.

Speaking of which -- what does one do with a beet the size of a basketball? Set up a hoop and net? Use it as a bowling ball? Welcome to the Bird House! Coffee? Tea? A gallon of Borscht?

Bigger than your ordinary water bottle
That was -- after all -- the second question to Venus. This is after I came home and nearly tripped over the thing. At that point came the second question, which went sort of like this in a calm and relaxed way: "HOLY COW!!! WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH THIS???"

I suddenly had visions of going on a diet consisting solely of beets. Not that beets are bad, mind you. Bill Bird loves beets in a salad or other setting with other vegetables. But Bill Bird does not bathe with beets. Bill Bird does not dream of bathing with beets.

Side note? Beets have been around for a very long time. The earliest recorded history has them popping up in Babylonia in the 8th Century BC. Although ancient Romans considered beets to be an aphrodisiac, that really isn't such a big deal since Romans considered just about everything to be an aphrodisiac.

Creature from the Black Magoon
So what does one do with a monster like this? One can't just cannot tear into a beet freshly harvested from a raised backyard bed. It's not like a peach that is freshly harvested from a backyard tree. These things need processing. More precisely, they need to be boiled for a good hour or three before they are tender enough to slice and serve as -- well -- beets.

Have you ever tried boiling a bowling ball? I haven't either. But I can tell you this much. It ain't all that easy. But the wife would not be deterred. If she grew a beet the size of Third World Country, she was going to make sure that ever last bit of said Third World Country didn't go to waste.

Monster Beet After Processing
Grabbing the largest pot in the pantry -- a pot normally reserved for processing other crops like tomatoes and turning them into pints of good things like sauce and salsa -- Venus dropped in the beet monster -- filled it with water and started the process of turning bowling ball into something consumable.

Darn if that lady didn't know what she was doing!

A myriad of thoughts ran through my mind during this process. Would said monster ever get soft enough to process? Would it have the fine taste of "wood grain" after processing? Beets don't often get this large, and these were safe questions to ask.

Hey! That Doesn't Look Half Bad!
But something rather amazing happened when Venus removed her prize beet from the Bird processing pot after three hours of boiling. It sliced open. Not only that -- it sliced open easily. Inside? A deep and pretty shade of mahogany revealed itself. There was no wood here. It sliced the way a beet should slice.

But how would it taste? I was still rather skeptical! Would this be a woody waste of time? Imagine my surprise at the first bite. A blast of sugary sweetness greeted Bill Bird's taste buds. This wasn't just any ordinary beet! It's the best beet that Bill Bird has ever tasted!

My mind immediately turned to the empty pint jars in the pantry. We have processed beets before -- on many occasions. There's nothing more enjoyable than tearing into a jar of sliced beets that you processed the summer before on a cold, dark winter eve. Home processed beets are not as sweet as the commercial counterparts sold in grocery stores. They are also far more tasty.

Sliced Beets for the Masses
But the wife had other plans. Process her prized beet? Away with you husband! One doesn't process a golden garden surprise like this. It is to be consumed over the process of several meals. Try as you might, the taste of fresh garden beets is hard to duplicate. As a matter of fact, I still have the taste of this special beet in my mouth, even though said beet is long gone at this point.

It's the kind of taste that makes you wish you had just a little bit more. Baby Got Beet? Sir-Mix-A-Lot would most definitely approve of this message.

The Relic

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Plain Old Tomato Paste (YAWN)
The item pictured to your immediate right no longer serves any useful purpose. It is covered with dust. It sits in a kitchen cupboard accomplishing nothing at all other than blocking our path from other useful food items. It is as useful as that old television set gathering dust in your garage. If this was the "Utlimate Computer" episode from original Star Trek series fame, the name of this can would be "Captain Dunsel."

It short, it is the "most uninteresting can in the world."

So why keep it around then? That's a good question! Perhaps it serves as a reminder of a different time in our lives.  Perhaps we might need this in a pinch one day in the near future, however I doubt that very much. It has as much use now as that old jar of Herdez brand salsa, which has since been washed out and now contains syrup for pancakes (recycling! It works!).

Recent Garden Harvest-Salsa Anyone?
This is the State of Bird -- 2012. Venus and I haven't purchased a jar of anything containing a tomato product in God-knows-how-long. Purchases of tomato sauce, tomato paste, whole tomatoes, cut up tomatoes, tomatoes with herbs, tomatoes-infused-with-garlic, hot salsa, medium salsa, etc. haven't been on a Bird shopping list for years. This is what it means to garden. Call us snobs, and perhaps we are, but why buy any of these things when we can create an even better product and bottle it up at home?

Snobs we are. Because that's what we do. And, perhaps, it might be the reason why I haven't been blogging much as of late. August means harvest season in the Bird Back 40 -- and what a whopper of a harvest it's been. Although it's petered off somewhat, the garden will continue to produce as long as weather permits. And if the good Lord gives us the kind of weather that pays off in another 15 pint jars of lip smacking Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa, Herb-infused tomato sauce or additional quarts of whole heirloom tomatoes -- I won't complain.

Herbed Picante Tomato Sauce
Our latest project containing garden grown goodies is pictured upper left. Harvests like these were the norm during the months of July and August. And with each and every harvest of peppers, tomatoes, herbs, etc -- a tasty canning project awaited. Would it be fresh cut up tomatoes with herbs and peppers? Pickled peppers perhaps? Sliced and pickled Mucho Nacho Jalapeno peppers? It really depended upon what the garden gave us on that particular harvest day.

If there's one other hard lesson I've learned about home-canning efforts, it's this. One does not make an appointment with the garden to tackle a canning project. The garden doesn't make an appointment with you, either (next Sunday good with you? OK!). The vegetable garden tells you when it's ready. Best be prepared. Miss a day? Miss a lot. When the garden is ready, you're ready. Those fifty ripe tomatoes aren't going to sit around and wait for you forever and a day.

Whole Tomato Canning Project-Summer 2012
Although we're far short from calling ourselves master canners -- or master anything for that matter -- we've done this enough times to know exactly what kind of tools we'll need and what kind of jobs must be accomplished. Putting together a home-canned salsa -- for example -- is far more difficult than a project of whole tomatoes. A simple batch of Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa is far from simple, and requires multiple steps from roasting to peeling to chopping to processing.

Exact measurements are an absolute must for projects like these. If you're not following time-tested canning recipes to the letter, or pushing the envelope a bit, you're risking a trip to your local hospital and a stomach-pump procedure. Although a procedure like this has never been performed on yours truly, it doesn't exactly sound like a fun way to spend a Saturday night!

A Caitlin Contreras Original
Naming rights also come into play when you're tackling a project like this. Who wants to give a home-canned project a name like "tomato sauce" or just plain ol' "salsa." Why confine yourself to terms like "medium" and "hot" on the spicy scale? Why not "volcanic" instead? Or -- hold a Facebook naming contest as we recently did for our last batch of salsa. Although Dan Vierra (former Sacramento Bee garden editor and writer) was on his game with suggestions like "Cremation Mix," it was Caitlin Contreras who knocked it out of the park with her suggestion of "Almost-As-Hot-As-Venus."

The wife that is Venus approved. Caitlin's double-entendre name selection also earned her a free jar of salsa.

The payoff for all this hard work comes in the dead of winter. Grocery stores are selling rocks disguised as red tomatoes for $3 lb. or more.  Although you can pick up two or three cans of off-brand sauce for a buck, there's nothing quite like the feeling or SMELL of opening a jar of heirloom tomatoes that you processed the previous summer. That fresh-from-the-vine harvest smell and experience wafts up and encompasses an entire kitchen.

Summer's Bounty: Heirloom Tomatoes
That, my friends, is the payoff. This is what makes all that hard work worth it and more. Dinner that night will be reminder of those carefree warm summer days.

Snobbery has its rewards.

Did someone say recipes? You can find the recipe for our original Roasted Garlic, Pepper and Heirloom Tomato Salsa here. Another favorite is posted below. All have been tested and are "canning safe."

Herbed Picante Tomato Sauce
(a Sharon Howard original recipe)

NOTE: Food processor or blender required...You will also need canning equipment like this.

24 cups smooshed tomatoes whirred smoothish
4 cups chopped herbs of your choice
1 cup finely chopped jalapeno peppers (including seeds)
12 TBSP bottled lemon juice
2 TBSP coarse salt.

I use basil, oregano and parsley but you can use only one or two or three and you don't need to use equal amounts, in other words you can go 2/3 basil 1/3 parsley just DON’T increase the amount of herbs or peppers. Bill and Venus use whatever herbs they have in large amounts from the herb garden. This includes basil, oregano, sage, majoram, spicy oregano, thyme, etc.


Fresh Garden Herbs
Add all items together and bring to a rolling boil. Lower heat to a high simmer, you want to see some action but not a full boil. After coming to the boil a foam will form, skim it off.

Place your one-pint canning jars in the dishwasher, when the jars are done so is the sauce. I generally cook about an hour, you can go longer. I don't like to cook less than an hour 'cause I want some thickening to take place while canning so it doesn't need to much cook time when I use it.

Place canning lids into a pot of hot water after washing. Bring to a simmer, but not a full boil.

Fill jars as normal. Wipe tops of jars to ensure a tight seal. Seal to finger tight with lids and rings. Hot Water Bath for 45 minutes. Or pressure can at 15 lbs. for 25 minutes.