Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Caterpillars in the Pantry

Once again, Robb and I are raising Anise Swallowtail caterpillars in our pantry. The butterflies lay tiny, tiny eggs on our fennel, and once these eggs hatch, I bring the caterpillars inside, to protect them from predation. 

The caterpillars go through a series of life-stages, transforming over and over before their final metamorphosis.  Its a fascinating process to observe, up close.  

This year's group seems hell-bent on attaching themselves to the Worst Possible Places.  The green chrysalis is attached to a piece of screen that used to be part of their tank's lid.  The lid is seated in a track, which means that anything attached to the lid gets squished when the lids opens.  Or, since we're tender-hearted, it means that we cut apart the lids to save the butterflies.  Robb assures me that we can replace the screen without too much trouble.  Yesterday, another caterpillar did the exact same thing, despite all the tempting sticks I've provide.  (You may be able to see a brown chrysalis attached to a lovely safe stick, on the right side of the photo.)

At the moment, we have seven chrysalises pupating.  It will be interesting to see if this batch hatches out right away, or if some of them delay hatching until next spring. We've seen both, and I'm unaware of any pattern for predicting which way it will go.

A Year Ago
I was drowning in work, and didn't write anything on the blog

Two Years Ago

Three Years Ago

Four Years Ago

Five Years Ago

Six Years Ago

Seven Years Ago

Eight Years Ago

Nine Years Ago

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Plum Wine


When one has backyard fruit trees, there's a moment of use-it-or-lose-it.  Since we have a laughably small freezer, and since we had already made plenty of jam, it was clear that we would have to make a batch of plum wine.

Plums -- like grapes -- have a naturally-occurring yeast on their skins.  This yeast is perfect for wine-making.  Also, it's just so beautiful. Next time you're in a museum, go look at the still life paintings, and really take a moment to marvel over how beautifully the grapes and plums are painted.

What's not so aesthetically thrilling is the process of home wine-making.  This is another in my series of uninteresting circular cooking photos.  In this case, you're looking at week-old smooshed plums that have just had additional yeast sprinkled over them.  Thrilling.  I know.

I picked the last of our backyard plums, which weighed exactly ten pounds.  We pretty much doubled this recipe (although we didn't wash off the wild yeast on our plums).  I dumped the plums and the water into a sterilized bucket and then just smooshed them with my hands.  We sloshed the bucket around every day for a week.  At the end of the week, we added some champagne yeast. A week after that, we transferred the liquid out of the plastic bucket and into a glass carboy.  

The wine is an uncanny pink color, and tastes fruity, if a bit raw.  We're planning on serving it on the Fourth of July.  In the past, we've made plum wine and let it ages for years.  Given the tininess of our house, and complete inability to regulate our home's temperature, it seems to make a lot of sense to make wine that we'll drink sooner rather than later.

And speaking of which, if you're among our local readers, you're invited over for the Fourth of July.  It's our usual low-key backyard picnic, with professional-grade illegal fireworks provided by my neighbors.  This year promises to be out-of-control, with regards to fireworks.  The neighbors have been shooting them off since the beginning of June.  Let me know if you're stopping by, please!

A Year Ago
I am so busy with work that I write nothing for two months

Two Years Ago

Three Years Ago

Four Years Ago

Five Years Ago

Six Years Ago

Seven Years Ago

Eight Years Ago

Nine Years Ago

Plum Jam


It's plum season, in the San Francisco Bay Area.  This past winter gave us a slight respite from our years of ongoing drought, and the fruit trees have been celebrating.  Last year, our plum tree bore almost no fruit at all.  I doubt we got more than two dozen fruits, all together.

Not only are my trees laden with fruit, but I'm lucky enough to have friends who want to share their bounty.  Both DJ and Terrence invited me over to their yards, and let me pick surplus fruit from their trees.

They've both got trees that produce tiny plums.  One of the things about having fruit in an urban area, is that folks don't tend to know the variety of fruit in their yards, because they weren't the ones who planted the trees.  I believe these are cherry or myrobalan plums.  They have burgundy leaves, and are planted widely as an urban street tree.  Because they produce (and drop) massive amounts of fruit, these trees are not universally beloved.  So, picking friends' fruit is a classic win-win situation.  I get fruit, I give them some of the jam that I've made, and they don't have as much of a sticky mess to deal with at the end of the fruit season.

These are my plums.  I'm pretty certain that they are Sant Rosa plums, mostly because they are the most common backyard variety around here.  They are truly delicious, with a complexity that shames supermarket fruit.

The difference in size between the two varieties is remarkable.

I cut up my plums, so that they would cook at about the same rate as the smaller plums.  In later batches of jam, I started the larger plums first, and then added the smaller ones. I don't remove the skins or pits, because it's just too much work.  Skins dissolve, and I sieve out the pits later in the process.

Robb and I go to a lot of estate sales, which is where we found this lovely cooper jam pot.  When cooking in a copper lined pot, many recipes advise cooks to add sugar at the same time as the fruit. Apparently, the ph level of the sugar keeps copper from leaching into the jam.  That seems prudent.  No point poisoning our friends.

I always feel like I'm drowning my fruit in sugar, when I first add it to the mix.  Sugar is essential to preservation and texture.  But the volume never fails to freak me out.

Sometimes I think I should start a blog of photos of circular cooking photos.  Another photo of another pot...

The purpose of this pan is to have as much surface area as possible, in order to facilitate evaporation.  It's a great size, because it doesn't allow me to go insane and try to make excessively large batches.  I simply cannot scale-up jam recipes. Once I go above a certain volume, I fail at gelling.  

I really need to better understand the science of pectin.  I've read tons of cookbooks and articles, and they're infuriatingly contradictory, with questionable science crashing into folk wisdom.

When the smaller plums slip from their skins, and start to look translucent, I ladle them into our chinoise, in order to sieve out the pits.

Would anyone reading this blog be at all surprised to learn that Robb and I watch a lot of shows about the history of cooking.  We are both in love with Ivan Day.  (Seriously, there are shows we watch just for his segments.)

One of the great pleasures of cooked plums is their beautiful translucency.  When food is so beautiful, sieving out the pits can still be fun.

At this point, I'm just cooking until the jam sets. I keep a stack of ceramic saucers in the freezer, and spoon hot jam onto a cold plate.  The cold plate quick-chills the jam, and gives a sense of the ultimate texture.  (I'm convinced that one of these days the contrast of temperature  is going to shatter one of these saucers.  Which are all from the 1930s and 1940s.  Of course.  I'm such a freak.)

This is also the time that I fine-tune the flavor, adding a bit more sugar and lemon juice as needed.

I made three batches of plum-based jam, two with cherry plums and one with pluots from our tree.  Let's hope it lasts until Christmas-time.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Jam Time!

It's that deliciously fleeting time of year, when fruit trees are weighed down with plums, friends are keen to share, and I'm happily cooking up vats of jam. 

Life is sweet. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Some Time in the Garden

Despite the ongoing drought, the back garden seems to be thriving. 

We've got a delightful variety of insects and birds visiting. 

Our honeybees are enjoying the flowers. 

(This rather weedy-looking plant is weld, a dye plant that dates back to the Viking times. It produces an eye-searing yellow dye.)

In addition to European honeybees, we have a variety of native bees (and bee mimics).

I've been digging aged compost into our vegetable beds. On bad days, it's a bit depressing to think about how much compost I've added to our garden soil. Today, I added five eight-gallon basins-full of compost to a relatively small area. And in four months, there will be no evidence that I added any organic material at all. Our dirt will feel as rock-hard as ever, seemingly devoid of any life. 

On better days, I think about all the plant waste and kitchen scraps that didn't go straight to landfill. I imagine the heap of scrap is feeding the soil, even if it's a largely invisible process. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A first look at some new bees

Last Sunday evening, Generous Beekeeper Lori gave me a second swarm from her bees. 

Working with Lori is like not working at all. I mosey over to her beautiful home. Since she's already caught the bees, all I end up doing is spending a bit of time in her lovely garden (or the garden of her neighbors).  I wrap the carrying box in a shower curtain liner and pop the bees in the trunk of my car. 

And on the drive home, I notice ever single solitary pothole in our roads. 

Lori's bees are as hardworking and pleasant as their original keeper.  They've already started laying eggs, which means that I've got a healthy queen. 

My approach, especially when the colonies are just getting established, is to minimize my intrusions into their hives.  In this case, I checked for eggs, and added a new box. This will give the bees plenty of room to expand into. I don't want to open this hive for another month, but I also don't want them to get crowded. 

For my own records:  the bees are hardly using the bottom box. There are eggs and nectar in the upper blue box, which I slipped another box underneath. 

This new pink box had alternating frames of built-out wax, and empty frames. Hopefully, this will impose enough structure that the bees won't build crazy comb all over the place.  I want to avoid this, and keep the wax comb as straight as possible. Lumpy irregular comb gets damaged during hive inspections. When comb gets damaged, bees and brood get mauled, and nobody wants that. 

The only reason I kept the blue box in the top position is because our hive lid doesn't fit the pink box. Different apiary supply companies build different sized gear, which we didn't know when we stayed keeping bees. It turns out that not all of our gear is interchangeable, which is a bit frustrating. 

Overall, I could not have been happier with what I saw in the hive. The bees were calm and productive. They're building comb, collecting nectar and pollen, and the queen is laying eggs. All is as it should be. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Eating Things We Find On The Ground

We had a bit of rain this weekend, and another batch of morel mushrooms appeared in our backyard. 

This is both crazy and delightful. We live in the city, not in a forest. And yet, we have all kinds of fungal life in our tiny garden. I imagine this is a direct result of all the wood chips and horse manure I've dragged home over the years. 

Some people would be horrified at the thought of eating something like this. Robb and I are remarkably unfussy, and recognize that most food grows in the dirt. 

We consider ourselves lucky to have such bio-diversity in our little urban garden. 


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...