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.