Chocolate Poetry

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Chocolate Cherry Tomato
"I think that I shall never see
A cherry tomato lovelier than thee.

A Chocolate Cherry that I planted here;
Alms from a grower with vision clear.

A cherry tomato that produces a gift;
Providing every tomato lover with a lift.

A taste so sweet, so undeniably tart;
It can only be classified as work of art.

It’s that special tomato in my garden;
A taste I will miss, when the season is done."

Modesto's 7th Poet Laureate
Somewhere, Stella Beratlis, the City of Modesto's 7th Poet Laureate, is doing a face palm. (Alfred) Joyce Kilmer, meanwhile, a hero of World War I who penned the poem "Trees" that I ripped off with no shame whatsoever, is probably spinning in his grave.

Why pick on Stella? Because she is an avid vegetable gardener, and published author I might add, who has also professed a love for cherry tomatoes. That, and we went to high school together (go Patriots!). As for Kilmer, I needed something even my simple brain could comprehend.

Chocolate Cherry Tomato Plant-Citrus Heights
My friends and tomato growing maniacs, I come to you with a message today: If there is room for only one cherry tomato in your garden next summer, I highly recommend the Chocolate Cherry. A close cousin to the treasured Black Cherry tomato, there are also subtle differences that set it apart. Both are black or deep purple in color. Both are cherry varieties. But the comparison ends there.

My Chocolate Cherry tomato, which now stands at a height of roughly ten feet in front of this temporary rental home, resulted from a $1 investment into a starter plant grown by a Citrus Heights tomato maniac by the name of Melanie Steffens. Melanie had extra plants from her seed starting effort. I had room for one extra plant and a spare buck.

Call it a marriage made in heaven.

Forest of Cherry Tomato Production
Of the six tomato plants that comprise the Bird tomato growing efforts this year, three have been Grand Slams in terms of tomato production. Yet another has been a steady, get on base producer and the other two, much like this year's San Francisco Giants team, struck out at ever opportunity.

I bet you didn't know growing tomatoes and baseball had so much in common. But I'm getting way off topic here, plus I get depressed whenever I think about the Giants. So, back to tomatoes I go.

Memorial Stadium: Berkeley, CA
I like cherry tomatoes because they represent a portable snack. You can pick them and take them everywhere. I saw a young lady produce a bag of cherry tomatoes at a Cal football game in Memorial Stadium several years ago and thought it to be a rather brilliant idea.

I had been focused on somehow smuggling a flask of whiskey into that stadium -- so much so I didn't think about the three cherry tomato plants at home -- teeming with production I might add. While I'd sentenced myself to some overpriced, deep-fried snack from a stadium vendor, this rather brilliant young lady managed to produce something far more healthy and far more satisfying. And, I'll tell you this much, she didn't have to sneak it in either.

A Transportable and Healthy Snack!
Taking a cue from this lady, I load up a plastic sandwich bag with Chocolate Cherry tomatoes before heading into work every morning. It is at a size now where's it's producing 10-20 ripe tomatoes nearly every single day. The numbers diminish somewhat late in the week, but by the time Monday morning rolls around again, there's my Chocolate Cherry, teeming with this week's breakfast and lunch snack.

Pros and cons: The Chocolate Cherry appears to be more disease resistant than the Black Cherry. Either that, or I'm just the recipient of dumb luck. But I can't begin to tell you how many times disease has either interrupted or curtailed Black Cherry production in my garden. That hasn't been a problem this year with the Chocolate Cherry, and it's resisted a leaf spot problem that struck the Thessaloniki tomato planted just a few feet away.

The Chocolate Cherry
Unlike many cherry tomato varieties, Chocolate Cherry fruit does not split. They're portable over long distances. The skins are much tougher. Indeed, there's almost a slight crunch when one bites into an under-ripened Chocolate Cherry. You can dump a bunch of them into a sandwich bag and won't experience the problem of split, mushy cherry tomatoes when you arrive at your intended destination.

Finally, in terms of taste? I'll be honest. The Chocolate Cherry does not offer the zesty taste explosion that is the Black Cherry. It's a bit more mild. This isn't to tell you that Chocolate Cherry doesn't taste good. It does. This variety will find a home in next year's garden, that much I can tell you. But I'm not going to tell you it's the best cherry variety I've tried.

It will, however, rank among the best I've ever grown. It will join that pantheon list that includes West Sac Crack, Pink Ping Pong, Black Cherry, Sungella and countless others that have graced previous gardens in previous lifetimes.

After all, a cherry tomato that drives a man to write really bad poetry can't be all that bad, can it?

Opportunity Knocked. So, I Answered!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Don't Miss This!
Someone who is much wiser than me (which is just about everyone on God's Green Earth) told me it would happen like this. After months of looking for new opportunities following 18-years in a number of Republican State Capitol Offices, and encountering a lot of closed doors (it's tough to be a Republican looking for work in a city dominated by Democrats), fate smiled upon me in a way that I was not expecting.

A door just didn't open. It blasted me in the face. "Hello," opportunity said. "It's not just a job, it's a calling. It's a dream come true." Since this blog deals with all things vegetable and fruit gardening, featuring one fantastic screw up after another, how would you react with the following line from opportunity knocking? "We'll pay you X amount of dollars to write about all things vegetable and fruit gardening on a much grander scale."

Sacramento County Farm Bureau Logo
I didn't have the heart to tell them that I'd been doing the exact same thing for free since I launched this blog nearly a decade ago. Instead, I just stammered, "great, when do I start?" I didn't walk home following that first interview. I sort of floated through the air. The fact I didn't drive into the nearest Delta Slough was really quite amazing when you think about it.

As the Executive Director of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, I get to represent the best of what Sacramento County agriculture has to offer. Although the agriculture industry here isn't quite what it once was, and Sacramento County is still considered the center for state government employment, there are still hundreds, if not thousands, of growers still plying their trades in the Delta areas and south Sacramento County.

Farm Bureau Logo
I get to write about each and every one of them. I get to represent an industry that churns out pears, apples, cherries, wine grapes, nuts of all shapes and sizes, cattle, chickens, goats and everything in between. You name the product and I'll find someone who grows it here. If Sacramento County truly is the "farm to fork" Capitol, then Sacramento County farmers and ranchers are the fine people "who put the food on your fork."

As it turns out, that happens to be the Farm Bureau motto. I like it. I plan on using it as often as I can. It's catchy. And it's also happens to be true.

I know for a fact that Sacramento County residents love to support local agriculture. You see that love demonstrated every week during the spring, summer and fall at Certified Farmer's Markets across the city and elsewhere. These markets are always packed with shoppers, and for good reason. Sacramento County shoppers demand only the best. And they know that the best comes from right here, in their own backyards.


Certified Farmer's Market-Elk Grove
That's why farmer's markets, once they open and set up shop in a particular location, never leave. Growers are looking for a place to sell their bounty, and at a fair price. They find the market they are looking for in throngs of people who flock to these markets on a year-round basis. Indeed, one of the biggest complaints I hear is "how come there are no farmer's markets in winter?"

Although agriculture has come a long way since California's earliest pioneers discovered this magical farming location, farmers still haven't discovered a way to grow acres of peaches in December. Yet. Given the inventiveness of this industry, I say "give them time." Someone is always building a better mousetrap.


A Publication for CA Agriculture in the Classroom
The Farm Bureau exists for a reason, and it belongs to more than just farmers, although farmers are a big part of this organization. The truth is, anyone can join the farm bureau. If you're growing a single tomato plant in the backyard or a houseplant in your kitchen, you qualify for farm bureau membership. A big part of this job is about education and what Sacramento County farmers do for Sacramento County.

I am just beginning to visit the many farm owners who make up the Sacramento County Farm Bureau. As the new Executive Director, I plan to dispel the mistaken notion that all of agriculture is now "corporate." That is a flat out lie. It couldn't be further from the truth. I don't work for a corporation. I work for a non-profit organization. My email address ends with a dot-o-r-g. And a big part of my job will be to introduce you to Sacramento County's family farming industry. I have a lot of them to meet.


Mike and Patty Wackman-McConnell Estates Winery
Some of those meetings have already started. I had the good fortune of meeting Mike and Patty Wackman of McConnell Estates Winery in Elk Grove. You're going to hear a great deal more about them, and every other family dedicated to agriculture in Sacramento County. These are the people who put the food on your fork, although in the case of Mike and Patty Wackman, the wine in your glass.

This isn't a job. This is just fun.

Blame, Properly Placed

Friday, February 24, 2017


John Lennon
A wise British-born philosopher and poet once stated the following:

"Everyday we used to make it love
Why can't we be making love nice and easy
It's time to spread our wings and fly
Don't let another day go by my love
It'll be just like starting over
Starting over"

But I'm not blaming John Lennon for my sudden burst of strange activity last weekend. Nope, that would be blame misplaced. The fault lies squarely upon the shoulders of a certain garden writer who toils for a certain daily newspaper that is printed and distributed in the Sacramento area.

Time to Plant!
The words written by Debbie Arrington in the Home and Garden section of the Sacramento Bee were quite simple really: "It's time to plant (BLANK)." And that's all Bill Bird really needed. Because the first thought that jolted through my gin-addled mind was, plant? PLANT! It's time to plant! "TIME TO PLANT," the voices in my head suddenly screamed at the top of their lungs.

Which is why my new neighbors in a well seasoned subdivision of Citrus Heights were treated the sight of a strange man bundled up in a heavy coat, tearing up a planter area in the front yard of a rental home in a heavy rainstorm. If that activity didn't raise any suspicion, certainly my chase down neighborhood gutters for hundreds of worms that came out to enjoy the deluge certainly sparked discussion.

Free Worms! Free!
Or perhaps they've been treated to somewhat crazy behavior before? Or perhaps they know that worms are good for the garden? And, yes, there is a garden. There will be a garden everywhere I go. I may be "Starting Over," as Lennon crooned, but the garden goes with me.

It's not much when compared to the massive garden efforts that consumed an entire quarter-acre in an area once known the Bird Back 40. But it's enough to plant a row or three of radishes, six broccoli plant starters and six red leaf lettuce starter plants.

The Spring Garden
And although Ms. Arrington's specific instructions didn't say so, my new/old planting area also contains rows set aside for green onions and carrots. Because you can't make Pam Farley's famous Loaded Fried Rice meal without a proper helping of carrots and green onions.

I had wondered through the months if this desire to plant would ever return. The skies opened up and began to cry after I had just moved into the new neighborhood. In doing so, I left behind the remains of a garden and a home that hurt anytime I stepped near it.

The Mantis Tills Again...
But time in a new setting and time alone has a strange way of healing a broken heart. The Mantis Tiller that churned up countless raised beds in North Natomas found the soil to be more than adequate in the new Citrus Heights setting. The worms that I captured on their mad rush to the drainage gutters found the spot I'd amended to be quite acceptable and moved right in.

But, more importantly, the love for digging in the dirt suddenly returned with a vengeance. I didn't lose that passion. It just took a short vacation. The only thing that's missing now is a gardening partner.

Perhaps, in time, that will return as well.

Confessions of a Serial Abuser

Sunday, February 5, 2017

YUM!
The mental health professionals who fawn over me at nearly every turn these days tell me that the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem to begin with. What the Hell do they know? Seriously, however, this is my confession to you. On this Super Bowl Sunday, I'm here to admit that I am a serial abuser.

I abuse beans. I didn't mean too, of course, but I've been abusing beans for years. It's always been a goal of mine to make the perfect pot of home-cooked beans. But it really didn't matter what recipe I used as my beans would turn out more like a refried bean dish than anything else. Barbecue beans came out looking and tasting like barbecue refried beans. Boston Baked Beans? You guessed it, Boston Baked Refried Beans.

Ranch Style Beans Copycat
Oh -- I tried all sorts of tricks to solve my little abuse problem. Additional ingredients? Check! Soaking the beans overnight? Check! Different types of beans? Check! But, in the end, it really didn't matter. My beans would fall apart into a sad looking mush.

What in Hades was I doing wrong?

But, thanks to this wonderful invention called the internets, I would find a solution to my problem. The internet, at some point, replaced grandmother and her fine advice. It was a simple problem with a simple answer:

Don't Abuse the Bean!
I was abusing my beans. I had been for years. Beans are fragile things the man on the other side of the internet portal explained. Treat them like you would treat your own children. Not that I would drop my own kids into a vat of simmering water mind you, but I got the idea.

If you are to believe the old Klingon poverb (Wrath of Khan) that "revenge is a dish best served cold," then one must also believe that "beans are to be treated with care." They are not to be boiled or placed on a hard simmer for many hours. That just results in a mush. Beans are to be brought to a boil and then allowed to simmer gently over a period of three to four hours. No bubbles! Bubbles are bad! Bubbles in your slow-cooked bean mixture mean BAD NEWS. Nope, the aim here is for a gentle, slow roil.

Selected Spices
This isn't as easy as it sounds -- especially for those of you to be stuck with electric stoves. Gas works best. And when it comes to my home-cooked bean creations, I'm an expert at gas.

I've always had a love affair with beans -- especially on Super Bowl Sunday. Those legendary Hamm's Scam (you think we're serving great beer, but it's really just Hamm's) parties of the past featuring deep fried chicken strips or wings plus a pot of home-cooked beans may be history for me now -- but they will never be forgotten.

My most recent goal has been trying to recreate one of my favorite canned bean dishes: Ranch Style Beans. Although there's a pretty good copycat recipe on a blog called Homesick Texan, it wasn't quite what I was looking for. It was close, but it was missing a key ingredient and I wasn't quite sure what.

"Must Have" Ingredient
I'm not here to tell you today that the recipe I've stumbled upon is by any means perfect. But it's a pretty good imitation in my fair opinion. To be honest and fair, it's not the healthiest meal on the planet. Which means you shouldn't be serving yourself this creation every week or every month for that matter.

But for special occasions like Super Bowl Sunday? When you really don't give darn about the two teams in the big game? And the team you do root for is coming off a pathetically bad two win season? This makes for a good meal. And helps erase the pain of a 14-loss season.

Ranch Style Beans Copycat Recipe

Three pieces of thick cut bacon (I usually get the peppered or honey-cured bacon from meat counter at Raley's or Bel-Air.
1-3 cups of Pinto beans (soaked overnight)
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons cocoa
1-2 teaspoons garlic salt
1 12-ounce can tomato juice
1 32-ounce container beef broth, plus 3-4 additional cups as needed

Directions: Cut three pieces of bacon in half and fry in a skillet over medium-low heat until well browned. Remove bacon to drain and cool and pour bacon fat into the pot you will be using to cook your beans. Add container of beef broth, plus two additional cups of beef broth, leaving two in reserve. Add tomato juice, chili powder, ground cumin, oregano, cocoa and garlic salt.

Rinse soaked beans and add them to pot. Place cooked and cooled bacon into a food processor or blender and chop into fine bits. Scrape bacon into pot and bring to a solid boil. Reduce heat to a slow roil. Cook beans at a low heat, stirring every 30 minutes, until tender. Beans should be ready in about 3.5 hours, but may need additional cooking to completely soften. Test taste and add additional garlic salt if needed.

Enjoy!