Starting the Winter Garden When It’s Still 100 Degrees

Technically, you can garden year round in San Antonio. In the searing heat of the summer I can harvest okra and melons. Throughout the winter I have lettuce, radishes, spinach, and beets, to name a few. Winter gardens are supposed to be easier than summer gardens. You don’t have to stand around in 100+ degrees under the sweltering sun watering the garden to keep it from wilting. In the summer, strange bugs invade. In the winter, I know the problem bugs, like the cabbage moth that likes to snack on not just my cabbage, but also the leaves of brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli.

In order to harvest vegetables before the first frost, which in San Antonio comes in early December, you need to get the seedlings planted by August. The constant heat dries out the ground and makes it hard for seeds to sprout, even if you water morning and afternoon. This year, I tried planting seeds for heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, pickling cukes, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant and zucchini. I started them indoors so the dirt could remain moist despite the searing heat.

Starting seeds indoors for the winter garden so the dirt doesn't dry out in the 100 degree heat.

Starting seeds indoors for the winter garden so the dirt doesn’t dry out in the 100 degree heat.

The seedlings sprouted well in my 82 degree house, but are remained long and spindly with no new leaves. I thought it might be lack of sun (astonishing in San Antonio), but they’ve remained sickly even after I moved them to a shaded area outside. I’ve heard that if a seedling doesn’t start well, it will remain weak and not grow well. Any thoughts on how to start seedlings so they grow into beautiful plants?

 

Meatless Fridays: Lemon Risotto with Gulf Shrimp and Asparagus

I make so many fish or vegetarian dishes on Fridays that I’d like to begin a series of these recipes for meatless Fridays. As Catholics, we abstain from meat every Friday, not just Fridays in Lent, as a small penance for our sins. Just as an intro into why we do this, let’s take an analogy for sin and penance: assume that you do something horrible, like purposely run over your neighbor’s dog. Your neighbor, amazingly, forgives you when you say you’re sorry, but you still have to make it up to them. Penance is that part of making amends for your sins even after your sins have been forgiven.

In May we went to Corpus Christi on the Texas coast and filled a chest cooler with red snapper, a dozen freshly shucked oysters, and several pounds of huge Texas gulf shrimp. Both shrimp and oysters from the Gulf have a strong flavor that can be off-putting if they’re left too au naturel. But you still want to highlight this amazing seafood without drowning it in a sauce or soup.

These Texas Gulf Shrimp are huge. Here they are taking up most of the kitchen sink before I peel them.

These Texas Gulf Shrimp are huge. Here they are taking up most of the kitchen sink before I peel them.

I combined two recipes to make Lemon Risotto with Gulf Shrimp and Asparagus

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb of uncooked Gulf shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 5 cups of chicken broth (I like using Better Than Bouillon)
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine
  • 6 tbsp butter
  • 4 cloves of garlic minced (or crushed in a garlic press)
  • 1/4 tsp dried crushed red pepper
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups arborio rice (I’ve been buying it at Trader Joe’s)
  • handful of fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 tbsp grated lemon zest
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan
  • 1/2 lb asparagus, chopped (I used Trader Joe’s frozen grilled asparagus)

Preparation:

  1. Bring broth and 1/4 cup wine to simmer in saucepan. Reduce heat to lowest setting to keep hot.
  2. Melt 2 tbsp butter in skillet over medium heat. Add the crushed garlic, red pepper, and peeled shrimp. Sauté until shrimp begin to turn pink, about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup wine and simmer until shrimp are just cooked through, about 2 minutes. Transfer shrimp to a bowl and reserve the cooking liquid in a separate bowl.
  3. While the shrimp is cooking, finely chop the onion. After the shrimp are done and out of the skillet, fry the onions in 4 tbsp of butter until translucent. Add the rice and stir to coat for a couple minutes.
  4. Start adding the hot broth and wine, about 1/2 cup at a time. Stir the rice and simmer until the liquid is absorbed before adding more liquid.
  5. When the rice is almost done (about 25 minutes), add the asparagus spears and shrimp. Cook until the shrimp is warmed, then add the grated parmesan, parsley, lemon zest and lemon juice.
  6. Serve with a chilled white wine and enjoy!

 

A perfect way to showcase gumbo Texas Gulf shrimp, with their delicate wine and garlic flavor.

A perfect way to showcase jumbo Texas Gulf shrimp – simmered in wine and garlic and served over lemon asparagus risotto.

Free Range Pork Shoulder Transforms Into Pulled Pork Tacos

I’ve been on the lookout for natural pork, lamb, goat, or chicken to add to our chest freezer so we can have some variety as we continue to eat through most of a grassfed cow I bought two years ago. For this purpose I subscribe to a yahoo list serve of a local natural foods bulk buying group. Most of the bulk buys seem either overly expensive for what you get or not something we need, but a few weeks ago a farmer said he had pork and lamb available.

After a brief correspondence, I was sold on A Better Way Beef: they deliver to my door no matter how many pounds I order, as long as they had enough orders in San Antonio on the day of delivery. The prices were reasonable: $5.35 for pork and $7.50 for lamb, no matter what the cut. We loaded up on the most amazing bacon, pork shoulder, pork chops, lamb chops, ground lamb, and lamb shanks. Now we just need to find a good source for free range chicken.

The free range pork roast marinated in a blend of dried ancho and chipotle peppers along with garlic and lime juice.

We marinated this free range pork shoulder in a blend of dried ancho and chipotle peppers along with garlic and lime juice, then roasted it on low heat in a dutch oven for 4 hours.

We first tried out the pork shoulder with Veracruz Pork Roast (Asado de Puerco a la Veracruzana) from Diane Kennedy’s excellent The Essential Cuisines of Mexico. I chose this recipe because the marinade was easy to make the night before and then it just cooked in the dutch oven for about 4 hours, making it the perfect Sunday meal.

And how best to eat Mexican pork shoulder roast than with corn tortillas ($0.99 at Trader Joe’s) or hatch chili flour tortillas ($2.50 for 10 at Central Market), avocado, and cilantro?

The inner fixings of a delicious free range pulled pork taco.

The inner fixings of a delicious free range pulled pork taco.

I spooned the marinade over the meat and the result was mmmm-worthy.

Two tacos is more than enough for a big Sunday lunch!

Two tacos is more than enough for a big Sunday lunch!

Fortunately, the 5 lbs of pork shoulder made plenty of leftovers and we feasted on tacos for days. The only problem is that we have two more free range pork shoulders in the freezer. How am I going to top this recipe? Any recipe suggestions?

Trimming the Fat With a Spending Diet

After returning home from a fantastic two-week vacation in France this past June, we were shocked at the total bill. The sneaky exchange rate really killed our budget. For every 100 euros spent, we actually spent $133. It doesn’t sound so bad until you consider spending 1,000 euros was really $1,330. Poof, $330 of your hard earn money is gone into the devilish black hole of exchange rates. Without the exchange rate, we had only gone slightly over our budgeted (and saved) amount for the vacation.

The money spent over budget was mostly on shopping and stupid expenses: the train we missed because we didn’t know that to call a cab in Paris you have to make two phone calls (the first to order the cab, the second to register your order), renting an automatic car because I couldn’t drive the French stick shift, double paying the ticket at the Pont du Gare, not filling up the rental car before returning it because we were running late and couldn’t find gas. Other expenses didn’t really add to our overall experience: 3 long lunches at about $45 each (that actually cut into our time to do what we really wanted to do) instead of sandwiches from a boulangerie, $15 on anise flavored Provence candies that sit uneaten in our kitchen, or $30+ on special lavender soaps. It wasn’t all stupid waste: I’ll write a post soon on the great ways we saved money on our trip and enjoyed wonderful French experiences.

Back at work, I was researching, among other things, whether small businesses have adequate emergency savings. The data I found all pointed to consumers’ abysmal savings rate. One recommended trick to increase savings is a spending diet: not spending on anything extra for a certain time period.

That evening I proposed a month-long spending diet and my husband happily agreed. It felt like we’d been wasting most of our free internet time looking at the next thing to buy. The spending diet liberated my evenings to focus on spiritual reading and expanding my mind. I felt more free, relaxed, happy and less of a consumer-zombie. I even found a hilarious blog on early retirement and frugality. My husband, however, spend most of the month researching a car to replace his aging 2002 cruiser and on July 29 we bought a 2011 Prius with 33,000 miles. That sort of blew the diet, but it did feel awesome to have the savings to pay it outright if we wanted to dump the 1.99% interest financing. Our calculations also predict that it will take 4 years for the better mpg to pay for the higher Prius price (in comparison to a Hyundai Elantra or Toyota Camry). After that, the Prius makes easy money!

In August, after the official spending diet, we splurged on a new convertible car seat for the little captain to graduate from his infant seat. I also traveled to visit my parents, treated them to a lobster, and treated myself to some good coffee in Boston. While browsing in the North End, I found an adorable light jacket for a reasonable price. In order to reduce impulse buying, I first called my husband for approval. Now we’re both happy with the expense.

I feel like I’m slowly breaking the chains of constant consumerism. I’m less stressed because I have more money each month and I can concentrate on what really matters in this life. Here’s to a lifetime of restricted spending!

I’m a Yankee and I Make Good Gumbo

My dear husband supports me taking trips while he stays home and makes money. Usually these trips are for business, but now I recently visited my parents in Maine. I had a great visit with my parents and they enjoyed playing with their youngest grandson who they only see twice a year.

My husband demands one condition before I leave him for a trip: there must be leftovers to sustain him until I return. He knows how to cook, he just usually won’t to feed himself. Before we married, the only things in his refrigerator were bottled water, rotisserie chicken leftovers, coffee, lettuce, and chicken vindaloo microwave dinners. The one time I left him without a dish was when our son was two months old and he asked me two days before I left to visit my parents – at a time when I could barely manage to shower every day.

For this trip, I made gumbo in order to use up the frozen okra from last year before the new okra came in. I also had rubbery industrial chicken breast to use in a way that would hide their tastelessness. I call this recepie: Yankee’s Super Gumbo

Ingredients

  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 green peppers, chopped
  • 3 stalks of celery, finely chopped
  • 2 lbs of kielbasa sausage, sliced and fried
  • 1/4 cup of flour
  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 5 cloves of garlic, pressed
  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 6 cups of chicken broth
  • 2 lbs of sliced okra
  • 1 tbsp thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 4 dashes of Tabasco sauce
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1-2 cups boiled rice to serve

First chop the onion, celery, and green peppers and fry in the vegetable oil until soft. While the vegetables are frying, put chicken breast in a saucepan with 7 cups of water and boil until the roux is finished.

Gumbo essentials

Onions, celery, and green pepper are essential for gumbo.

The next step is making a roux. I’ve found lots of recipes that call for 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of vegetable oil. I tried that and the gumbo was so greasy we could barely stomach it even after I scooped off the oil slick on top. Most recipes call for at least 1/2 cup of flour and oil. I tried that too and it was still disgustingly greasy. Finally, I cut it to 1/4 cup flour and a few tbsp oil, just enough oil to fry the vegetables. Bingo! Once the vegetables are soft, add the flour and cook until the flour turns a deep brown. While you’re stirring often, you can fry the sausage (I use 2 lbs of kielbasa).

The best roux - not too heavy and a complement to the rest of the dish.

The best roux – not too heavy and a complement to the rest of the dish.

Once the roux is a deep brown, add the okra, chicken broth, sausage, chopped chicken breast and seasonings. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 45 minutes.

Gumbo in the pot: not too gooey, not too oily. Just right!

Gumbo in the pot: not too gooey, not too oily. Just right!

Serve over rice and enjoy. My husband was a happy eater and I flew off to enjoy beautiful summer days with my family in Maine. He ate gumbo every night for nine days and finished it just as I returned to swelter with him in 100+ degree heat. Oof, take this Yankee back to New England.

A hearty dinner that makes leftovers for a week.

A hearty dinner that makes leftovers for a week.

Spider Mites Made War Against My Tomatoes

The summer garden was off to a promising tomatoey start. I had 10 tomato volunteers that I planted around the edges of my fancy new square foot garden boxes. I bought heirloom tomato seeds that I planted in January and rescued from terrible no-grow soil in March. The plants were burgeoning with fat green tomatoes when disaster struck. Suddenly, after a few hot days in early May, two beautiful plants started dying.

My first beautiful tomato plant is afflicted with spider mites.

My first beautiful tomato plant is afflicted with spider mites.

In my first summer garden my tomato plants died back in late June and I thought happened because of the heat. The next year the same thing happened – suddenly the plants went from vigorous to spindly death. I noticed a weird spidery web-like netting all over the plants, but the day after I pulled them up, the cages were covered with red webbing. The evil culprit – spider mites.

The damage - the spider mites eat up my plant thanks to their preferred weather: hot and dry.

The damage – the spider mites eat up my plant thanks to their preferred weather: hot and dry.

After online research, I ordered powdered sulphur to spray on the plants as a natural remedy. The only catch is that it has to be applied before the temperature reaches 80 degrees and must not be near cucumber plants. By the time I got the sulphur, it was mid-May and never got below 80 degrees during the day. As an alternative, spraying the plants well with water inhibits the reproduction of the spider mites. Under a regime of morning and evening spraying, my plants were reviving. However, once the plants weaken, a huge and gross bug moves in. I squash it and its babies with my gloved hands every morning, but the gross factor is still high.

Nasty mystery bugs swarming my sick tomato plants.

Nasty mystery bugs swarming my sick tomato plants.

Then we went to France for two weeks. My neighbor kindly agreed to water my garden every morning while we were away. When we returned, all the plants were alive except the tomato plants, which were shriveled with rotten fruit. There goes our cash crop!

How do you deal with spider mites? Would you have turned to pesticides to save your bumper crop of big, beautiful tomatoes? Help me save next summer’s batch!

Back in San Antonio, with Cockroaches

Somehow, mysteriously, it has been 3 months since my last post. Eek! My whole spring garden came, got assaulted by various evil bugs, and mostly died. The seedtogarden family went on vacation for two weeks to France and I spent the last few weeks doing first aid on my garden as penance for croissants and fois gras.

I’ll be writing about what I learned from my spring/summer gardening in other posts, but first a few words about cockroaches. Maybe it’s because we were away for three weeks over the last month and the cockroaches grew bold. Maybe because we’ve had decent rain this summer. Maybe our house is dirty and the cockroaches are having a blast. But it’s no fun finding 2 inch long cockroaches in a kitchen cabinet, running along the hallway wall, or flying through the living room. Yes, our cockroaches fly.

I found this squashed roach on the door one morning. Finally one I didn't have to squash myself!

I found this squashed roach on the door one morning. Finally one I didn’t have to squash myself!

My grandfather-in-law who lives in Shreveport calls them water bugs. What a harmless name for the root of all disgustingness. Some mornings I’ll find several dead in various corners, which I quickly sweep up so my 16 month old son doesn’t put one in his mouth. Some nights I’ll find several scurrying along in their 2 inched winged grossness. The only way to bring one down is Bengal spray.

Yesterday I was diapering my son and picked up a clean diaper he’d thrown on the floor the other day. I had it almost up to my baby’s butt when I opened it to find a huge roach inside. Maybe that’s why I’ve been on an indoor cleaning spree? On the bright side, these “waterbugs” are worse in warm weather and they’re better than black widows or scorpions.

Compost Grows Happy Babies

A very busy baby compacting my garden compost.

A very busy baby compacting my garden compost. Please ignore his dirt goatee.

My son is a happy little boy. He started smiling at two months and has kept up the smiles and giggles as he grows. He laughs at strangers in the supermarket. He charms his seat mates on airplanes. And of course he melts his mother’s heart.

I get so many compliments about his positive attitude, but since he’s our firstborn, I can’t attribute his good humor to nature or nurture. But maybe, like square foot gardening, his good humor is all about the dirt.

A truck bed full of organic compost for $40.

A truck bed full of organic compost for $40.

For those who have been following my winter project to replace a tilled garden with square foot garden raised beds, I still had two more boxes to fill with compost and plant. However, I was daunted with the cost of buying enough high end bagged compost to fill a 4×4 foot and a 6×4 foot box. Instead, our neighbor kindly offered to drive my husband to an organic compost stove, GardenVille. A truck bed full of compost, about 1 cubic yard, costs about $40 and I used two thirds of the compost to fill up my two raised beds.

First thing after breakfast, Bruno helped his papa finish building the 4×4 box. Notice how clean he looks at the start of the day!

Helping Papa finish building a 4x4 square foot garden frame

Helping Papa finish building a 4×4 square foot garden frame

Measure twice, cut once. Even babies understand!

Measure twice, cut once. Even babies understand!

Shortly after my husband finished shoveling the dirt off the truck bed, our son woke up from his morning nap. I try to bring him outside at least once a day while I work in the garden and he enjoys it so much that he tries to crawl out the door on his own.

A helper (or is it hinderer?) in the making.

A helper (or is it a hinderer?) in the making.

It didn’t take long for him to loose interest in helping his Papa finish the last square foot garden frame and instead crawl at top speed to Mommy’s project.

Bruno climbs into the square foot garden to get better access to the dirt.

Bruno climbs into the square foot garden to get better access to the dirt.

 

Taking "big" handfuls of my compost and dumping it on the ground.

Taking “big” handfuls of my compost and dumping it on the ground.

There goes my good compost! Anything to keep the baby occupied...

There goes my good compost! Anything to keep the baby occupied…

It was hard to distract Bruno long enough to smile for the camera. He was a very busy little boy and has fertilized the weedy ground around my square foot garden frames with my high quality compost.

Does compost grow a happy baby?

Does compost grow a happy baby?

It seems natural to let my baby play outside. If he’s feeling grumpy, it cheers him up. If I want him to go to sleep, it tires him out. Of course, as a baby, he puts things in his mouth and thinks its fun to get wet and dirty. Even better if the two are combined as mud.

Have I shocked any readers at the unsanitary, dirty conditions my baby is playing in? Do any other parents let their children play in the dirt? Please let me know I’m not the only parent who never uses antimicrobial soap on my baby!

Tomato Volunteers

Tomato volunteers crowding out my plants like common weeds.

Tomato volunteers crowding out my plants like common weeds.

I was so excited this winter to use my first batch of homemade compost. Once plants started coming up in my square foot garden, it was clear that some seeds survived. Fortunately very few weed seeds were in the compost and what did come up are crowed out by vegetables and easily pulled.

The exception were tomato plants that sprouted like weeds and attempted to overtake my raised bed. Last winter, when frost threatened my Celebrity tomatoes, I threw in the compost bin some small green tomatoes that were too immature to ripen indoors. A few tomatoes also rotted on the vine during the season, and some of those made it into the compost. From what I’ve read about seed saving, it’s fairly complicated to save tomato seeds, so the army of tomato seedlings in my raised bed caught me off guard. And by army, I mean at least 60 seedlings. Thanks to the wonderful square foot garden soil mix, these tomato volunteers towered over my lettuce, spinach, and beets that I’m growing on purpose. And they were several times bigger than my sad little tomatoes I’d tried to start in January.

Monster tomato seedlings crowd out my corn salad.

Monster tomato seedlings crowd out my corn salad.

It felt wrong to pull up the tomato seedlings like weeds and toss them back in the compost, so I compromised. I pulled them up gently and replanted 8 of them around the border of my square foot gardens. I had pots of potting soil leftover from transferring my seedlings to the square foot garden, so I planted the tomato seedlings in the pots.

Just a fraction of the repotted tomato volunteers

Just a fraction of the repotted tomato volunteers

At first I planted them two per pot, but then I got desperate and by the end there were about 10 packed into each pot. I gave a few away to my neighbor who helped with building the first square foot garden box. I gave a couple away to a friend who wanted to do window box gardening. The rest I donated to Green Space Alliance of South Texas. Green Spaces is a great local non-profit that helps groups in San Antonio start up community gardens. I hope those tomato volunteers found good homes across San Antonio.

Soil, Not Dirt, Makes a Square Foot Garden Grow

The most expensive part of setting up a square foot garden raised bed is the soil. In my previous post, I calculated that I spent about $50 on materials and soil to set up one 4′x4′ raised bed. To build, fill, and plant one raised bed took about 6 hours per raised bed. The big question is: are square foot gardens worth the time and expense to set up? The answer is all in the soil.

My raised bed is filled with soil, not dirt, as I was recently corrected. Dirt is the stuff on the ground that made my garden struggle this fall. Soil is crumbly and rich and filled with organic matter like an all-you-can-eat buffet for plants. And it really does make a enormous difference. Two months after planting one 4×4 foot raised bed, I’ve harvested 3 batches of spinach, 10 radishes, 3 big bowls of corn salad, 2 bowls of lettuce, and a handful of garlic leaves (mmm, taste like garlic chives). I estimate that this would have cost about $25 or more if I’d bought the same organice vegetables from a grocery store. If this trend continues, I’ll have paid back my investment in a square foot garden frame and square foot garden soil mix in just 4 months of harvest!

Soil, as I’ve learned the past few months, can make all the difference. In January I potted seeds for several tomato varieties, red cabbage, broccoli, red pepper, and eggplant. I used generic potting soil from Lowe’s and eagerly expected to have large seedlings to transplant in March. The seeds sprouted, but didn’t grow beyond the first sprout leaves.

Stunted tomato seedlings

Tomato seedlings in poor potting dirt

Could it be that the weather had been too cold? Not enough water in this persistent drought? The answer came after the first square foot garden had been established for a month.

Raised bed winter garden

One month after planting my first square foot garden

I planted seeds in the first raised bed about 4 weeks after the seeds in the potting soil. One month after planting in the square foot garden I have lush young plants while the seedlings in the potting soil haven’t grown at all. What growth the seedlings were able to muster probably came from the seed nutrients, since only the first seedling leaves appeared and no growth happened for two months.

The culprit – Hapi-gro potting soil from Lowes:

Lowes potting soil

This soil should be called “growth inhibitor”

Darn you, Hapi-gro cheapo $2.98 potting soil. By now, I could have had lush seedlings to transplant so my plants could get a head start before the summer heat.

Have you had a seedling or potting soil mishap?