Hot Fun in the Summertime

Monday, November 18, 2013

Melon Fruit Salad? Yes Please!
Yes -- I do understand. I get it. Our summer is as distant a memory as Sly and the Family Stone. Yet I am reminded of those "Summer Days" when I begin to clean up and clean out of the last of the summer garden. The last to go was the melon patch. It's so very hard to let go of something that was so good to us during those days in the country sun.

Actually, I'd be telling a bit of a fib to you if I proclaimed 2013 as the "perfect" melon year. It wasn't. In fact, for the second straight year, I'm sad to proclaim that my attempt to grow the Georgia Rattlesnake watermelon to be a big, fat failure. Instead of "fat melons" I got lots of melons that grew to a size of two to three inches, and then developed a dead blotch of skin at the end.

Georgia Rattlesnake Melon
It didn't take long for that dead spot at the end to cover the entire melon either. I can't tell you how many times I watched so many promising starts on the vine go haywire on us. Like avocado trees, I've got some sort of "complex" when it comes to the Georgia Rattlesnake. No matter how many times I've tried to grow this variety -- no matter how many different things I've tried -- each attempt has come up a big, fat zero.

Fortunately? Not all melons act in this matter.

The Sangria variety -- for example -- did quite well for me this year. Do you know what the really funny part of this equation is? I didn't plant any Sangria watermelon seeds. Nope -- the seeds that germinated in one corner of a raised gardening bed this year were left over from last year. It didn't matter much that I ran them over once or twice with the injustice of a Mantis Rototiller. They seemed to like it just fine. So -- while my watermelon desires may not have been satisfied with a Georgia Rattlesnake -- the Sangria made for an acceptable substitute.

Cantaloupe and Crenshaw Melon Combo
I find myself thinking about melons now because -- well -- because melon season is long gone. Like many fruit varieties to come out of the garden this year -- they all managed to ripen up for a two-week to 10-day period in late August. During this golden, luscious period in time, it was melons for breakfast, melons for lunch and melons for dinner.

As the picture top right shows -- it was a fruit salad bonanza. Grapes, melons, peaches, you name it. Everything gave a little or a lot. And guess what? Even after all that -- it still wasn't enough. Because Bill Bird finds himself craving a home-grown, vine-ripened melon here in the month of November.

Sangria Melon Right, Crenshaw Melon Left
Except -- you can't get vine-ripened melons in November. Not in this part of the country anyway. Therefore, I do the next best thing: Post pictures and dream till next year.

Once again -- the clear winner in this year's melon patch -- just as it was last year -- is the Crenshaw Melon. I'm beginning to believe that the Crenshaw is just so darn easy to grow that one would have to be named Bill Bird to possibly screw up something this simple. So far? I haven't managed to screw it up. Therefore, I must be doing something right.

What the bugs didn't get -- the wife that is Venus would squeeze into fresh Crenshaw melon juice. Unlike past years, we didn't allow one melon to go to waste this year. What we didn't consume fresh -- the wife cut into pieces and ran it through the juicer.

Sliced Crenshaw Melon
It's during melon season where I am reminded of the Kingsburg Watermelon Festival. Sponsored by the Kingsburg Lions Club chapter, the watermelon festival was a place where you could get your fill of vine-ripened watermelon. If one quarter-slice wasn't enough, here, have two! And while you're at it? Enjoy a third! Heck, there was enough there to bathe in.

Sadly, the Kingsburg Watermelon Festival is an event that can now only be found in local memories. I'm not sure why it went away, but like most good things it did. The radio station I worked for at the time in Fresno sent me south to cover the Kingsburg event every year it seemed. Why I kept on drawing repeat coverage duty, I'll never know. It wasn't one of those events that was very hard to report on. I suppose my report went a little like this:

"There are people here... They are consuming watermelon and lots of it... Reporting live from Kingsburg...."

My love for watermelon wasn't born there -- but it's one of those little events that will always stay with me. And it's one reason why the mighty melon will always have room in the Backyard of Bird...

Don't Say it's Over!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Pumpkin Harvest: Bird Back 40
But I'm not ready for it yet! Don't go there! Are you serious? My favorite time of the year known as summer gardening season is over? But it can't be! Seems like just yesterday that I planted those tomato bushes. It can't be gone this quickly, can it?

Welcome to my annual ritual: DENIAL. As you've heard it said before, probably on more than one occasion, it ain't just a river in Egypt.

Actually, if you checked ye olde calendar, which I'm loathe to do this time of year, one comes to find that summer gardening season ended more than a few weeks ago. It really ended with the onset of cool temperatures in the morning. That tends to play havoc with the sugar content in vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes. One can literally "taste" the end of summer.

Whoa! Time for a Haircut!
But when the brown, featherly leaves of downtown Sacramento begin to rain down and rest during my annual pilgramages to downtown Sacramento, I know the time has come. I'm just not ready to say goodbye just yet.

The end of summer gardening season also brings on a massive cleanup job in the Backyard of Bird. Every bush and every tree produces a little something during summer gardening and fresh fruit season. And, when the summer ends, it's time to clean up.

Unfortunately -- those tiny green waste cans do not do us much justice out here in the northern burbs. While I could really use a service like "The Claw" around my house during this time of the year -- the monster doesn't travel this far out in my direction. So -- the job of "disposing" of the summer garden usually results in stacked piles of garden rubbish around the backyard.

Common End of Summer Sight
Those piles will sit and wait for space to open up in the green waste can. Or, if I'm lucky, one of the neighbors will lend a hand with a half empty can. I've already learned one valuable lesson with my last green waste can, which busted into an unholy and warped cauldron that scared neighborhood children half to death.

We're not doing that again.

So -- piles here and there it is. I've also learned a bit of "patience" (aka "laziness") on the job. Rome wasn't built in a day. It wasn't also taken apart in a fortnight. Some projects can sit and wait until space opens up at the olde inn. Then and only then does it get scheduled for the "fall haircut."

The end of the summer gardening season also brings sadness. There are no more nightly visits to the Farmer's Market that we call our backyard. While some summer crops are still producing -- most are curled up and long gone. It's both sad and tough to reach for a jar of canned tomatoes that we prepped earlier in the year, rather than picking them fresh off the vine.

Test Bed: All Played Out
I'm just not ready to say goodbye!

Still -- the onset of Fall brings new challenges. What, for example, are we going to do with that line of pumpkins from this year's extraordinarily successful pumpkin patch pictured above? Share them with friends? Yes -- there's some of that. Carve pumpkins for Halloween? Absolutely!

But I also wouldn't be completely forthcoming if I didn't say that there's a little bit of a pumpkin pie in those pumpkins. We just might have plans for pumpkin bread. And then there's that recipe for pumpkin soup with barley that looked pretty darn good.

Short and sweet? You can lot more with pumpkins other than carve a scary face and roast some pumpkin seeds.

Summer Garden Pile: Scheduled for Removal
Fall is also a time to start thinking about other crops. There's garlic seed to stick in the ground for next year's garlic crop. And -- one just can't do without Tall Telephone Garden Peas, which are also planted now in anticipation of a fat spring harvest. Since you failed to remove every last potato from the ground last summer, the spuds you left behind have rewarded you with a nice fall crop.

So, no, the onset of Fall isn't a complete and total bummer. There's also time for a weekend nap in the schedule, where one can dream about next summer's heirloom tomato crop.

A Witch's Brew

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Tasty Home Brew
And now -- just in time for Halloween! Wait! Check that! And now -- just in time for Halloween 2014...

Hey, there's nothing wrong with being early, is there?

To your right is the latest project in the House of Bird. For the first time since I was 18 years old (long time ago kids), I'm "brewing" up something special. If you look below the rosemary and jalapeno peppers, you'll see something mighty tasty down in that brine.

That's right, kids. It's home brined, or home brewed, olives. And not just any olive, mind you. Nope, those are the large, queen sized, green olives -- also known as the Sevillano Olive. While I am also have some Mission olives undergoing a nice salt-water soak -- nothing beats the Sevillano Olive. These are the best of the best.

Henry Madden Library at CSUF
A lot of has changed since I was 18 and brewing my first batch of olives. First -- there was no such thing called "the internets." As for the personal computer, hell, only rich people had those. I was lucky enough to have an electric typewriter. Recipes for home-canned olives were not at your fingertips. They were in the local library. You paid a quarter to photocopy a page out of a book. This is after you'd spent the better part of two hours looking for the correct book at the Fresno State University Madden Library.

This was pure old school.

But, I'll tell you this much: A number of years have passed since I first brewed my own batch of olives. My life has taken many twists and turns that I was not expecting it to take. But I never forgot the incredible taste of home-brewed olives. They made for a tasty snack that a starving college student literally survived on. I stored my brew creation in old one-gallon, plastic milk bottles that I dug out of a dumpster. They sat for months in a dusty apartment kitchen pantry, waiting to be consumed.

Sevillano Olive Soak
Know what? They never went bad! When money was tight (money is always tight when you're a starving college student in Fresno), a bowl of olives made for a nice lunch or dinner.

Fast forward some thirty-plus years and you'll find that a lot has changed. Today, recipes for home-brew olives are literally at your fingertips. Not just one recipe for one type of olive -- but multiple recipes for multiple olives. I must also thank Honest Food blogger Hank Shaw for re-sparking my interest in home-brewed olives, as he wrote about his experiences last year.

A lot of time may have passed between this year's experiment and my brewing experience long ago, but the recipe remains largely the same. Although there are many ways to brine olives -- the standard involves something found in Drano. Yes kids -- as in something you would pour into a clogged kitchen sink. Lye is an essential ingredient for brewing only the best olives and it's still used today.

Good for Opening Drains and Making Olives
A side benefit of this exercise is the grimy sink in the garage used for dirty garden purposes gets mighty clean and mighty fast with one lye soak after another. The garage sink hasn't looked this good since the wife that is Venus and I moved into this North Natomas pad. It also drains like a champ now.

But, I digress. This isn't about sinks. It's about olives.

Although olive trees dot the landscape around many Sacramento and Placer County parks, I found these to be a major disappointment. Many of these trees just don't receive the irrigation they need to produce a good crop of olives. And if these trees are fortunate enough to receive an adequate supply of water, they have no protection from the bugs that drill into immature fruit and lay eggs that eventually become larvae.

Sevillano Olives After Lye Soak
Eating an olive infested with larvae (worms) doesn't sound too good, now does it? Blech!

I would also come to discover that home-brew olive addicts like myself head out to olive orchards in September and October and "steal" from the grower -- the rightful owner. Sorry kids -- but that's just not my style. I don't believe in helping myself to a crop grown by someone else and for a different purpose. Again, "the internets" would come to my rescue.

A grower of Sevillano Olives northwest of Sacramento in a ranch just outside the Woodland city limits had exactly what I was looking for. I could pick ripened olives to my heart's content -- five bucks for a five gallon bucket. Not only that, this was a grower who had properly irrigated and properly cared for his two acre spread of Sevillano trees. "SOLD," I thought at the time. This was the man I was looking for.

Sevillano Olive Harvest
I would spend the better part of a Saturday afternoon at this man's ranch, picking just enough to fill a five-gallon bucket and hauling my prized harvest back home. The lye soak started 30 minutes later. The lye solution accomplishes two major tasks. First, it softens a hard olive. Secondly, it removes the oleuropein compound that makes olives taste bitter. After a 12-24 hour soak, you've got a batch of soft olives that taste like soap.

Probably not a good idea to eat these olives. In fact, don't do it kids. It just results in a really bad tummy ache and perhaps a trip to the hospital to have your stomach pumped.

Time to Start the Brine Process
Once the lye soak has done its job, it's time to get the lye out of the olive. This is done through a series of fresh water rinses and soaks that can take anywhere from a week or two. I changed the water in this five gallon of bucket of olives -- religiously mind you -- every 12 hours. When the color of the water no longer turns brown, but a light shade of green, the lye has been removed.

Congratulations! You have a softened olive that tastes like, well, nothing. It doesn't taste bad. It doesn't taste good either. This is where the fun begins. It's time to put the taste into your softened olive collection. Although salt is a major ingredient of olive brine, don't stop there. Use your imagination!

Peppers and Lime Juice in Olives? Why Not!
In my particular case? My olives are soaking in a solution of sea salt and red wine vinegar. After the first week of this soak -- these olives tasted pretty darn good. But why stop at darn good when you can have jaw-dropping excellence? The second soak, which also included sea salt and vinegar, also contained fresh rosemary, basil and other herbs from the garden. Why not put those late season jalapeno peppers to work? Bay leaves? Sure!

Let your imagination run wild. The only problem you'll face is family members you've allowed in on your little home-brew "secret." They're already staking their claim...