The February Garden

Favas and milk jug greenhouses

My one regret from last fall is not finding the time to plant winter vegetables properly.  Perhaps it was the couple weeks of freezing weather in December, or what I’m fairly certain is a pack of ravenous birds, but instead of a wall of peas, there are only a few sad shoots from which I’m lucky to pick one pea pod a day.  Instead of kale overload I’m accepting unwanted aphid-infested leaves from garden neighbors.  And perhaps most depressingly, there have been altogether too few fava beans, with most of the plants panicking from a couple days of warm weather and starting to flower at all of six inches tall (normally fava plants can be four or more feet tall).

Multicolored lettuces

During the brief patch of summer we experienced in January I tried to make up for my neglect by starting new seeds.  Unfortunately, it is just in time to start thinking about planting summer crops, and I’m eying my carrot sprouts suspiciously, unsure whether I will have the patience to let them mature before ripping them out to make room for tomatoes.  The garden is in limbo, with a few slow-growing tomato plants protected under milk jugs nestled between the kale plants.

Favas, carrots, peas, and garlic

While the plants grow at what feels like a glacial pace, I have completely revamped the garden.  All the beds have been mulched with tree leaves, and I’m slowing tucking bunny manure under the leaves as the shitments come in.  For the pathways I used pine tree mulch to protect against compaction, with the added bonus that for a few days my garden smelled like Christmas.  I will readily admit that these changes were mainly motivated by laziness: mulch equals less weeding, less watering, and less work, in that you don’t have to turn over the soil to plant a new crop because the soil doesn’t get dry and hard if it isn’t left uncovered.  My only worry with the new mulch system is that the soil won’t warm up as quickly, making it difficult for summer plant seeds to germinate.  To combat this, I’ve started some seeds in pots on the balcony by our front door, a location that acts like a solar oven due to surface reflection and a view due south.  I’ve also continued to start pepper and tomato seeds under milk jugs directly in the garden.  Now if only I can remember which milk jug has the habaneros…

Mulched garden overview

A few details:

  • First batch of tomato and pepper seeds started in January.  The tomato seeds had a 50% germination rate (planting 9 seeds per milk jug) and were transplanted to their final resting places in late February, now with their own individual milk jugs.  The pepper seeds had a worse germination rate of 10-20% so far, although at least one pepper seed sprouted for almost every milk jug.  Note to self: don’t be an idiot next year and think you’ll remember which milk jug corresponds to which tomato and pepper variety; you haven’t, you don’t, and you won’t.
  • Currently harvesting: lettuce, arugula, kale, china choy chinese cabbage, fava beans, snow and shelling peas, green onions, carrots, radishes, and asparagus.
  • The dwarf lemon tree took a hit from the December frosts and is only now starting to recover with some serious new foliage.  Mulch and fertilizer no doubt helped.
  • The flower garden surrounding the dwarf lemon tree suffers from malnutrition (bad soil) in places.  At some point I should finish amending it to decrease sad purple/yellow cilantro leaves.  Right now the flower garden sports a volunteer California orange poppy plant that is just beginning to flower, what will be a pink poppy plant, cilantro, fava beans, volunteer purple celery, some sort of spring flower that grows from a bulb (my guess is daffodils), and lots of volunteer nasturtiums.
  • The new garden is finally in shape, with a sheet mulch bed covered in straw for planting summer squash, some potato plants that recovered from the frost, and what I believe are baby leek sprouts.  The beds and walkways have been mulched, as in the main garden, and upkeep has been a breeze.  I also transplanted my mint and lemon balm out of the main garden and into a bed on the edge of the new garden.

Fava beans and chinese cabbage

Milk Chocolate Stout

It’s been long enough since this beer was brewed that I can, despite its many tribulations, declare it a success. In fact, I will go so far as to say that it is my favorite of the beers that I’ve brewed, and, indeed, better than most of the beers that you can buy outside of a specialty beer store–though that is mostly because it’s hard to get a good stout ’round these parts. That, and the bit of mystery surrounding it.

Milk Chocolate Stout

This beer is the product of another malt extract kit from Northern Brewer: the Milk Chocolate Stout. For the uninitiated, I’ll describe a stout as “the darkest kind of beer”–think Guinness. The “milk” part of this comes in the addition of lactose (milk) sugar to the boil, which is left (mostly) unfermented by the beer yeast (Wyeast 1332 Northwest Ale in this case), which results in “residual body and sweetness”–and I will testify that this is definitely noticeable in the end product. The “chocolate” part comes from cacao nibs added to the secondary fermentation–and this, alas, was somewhat less noticeable in the beer.

Milk Chocolate Stout Top

The folks at Northern Brewer will do a much better job with the instructions than I will, so I will only briefly outline my procedure, and focus mainly on the aforementioned tribulations. I had the Wyeast smack-pack for a yeast starter (get it started the day before so the yeast colony is alive and bubbling by the time you pitch), and did a two-stage fermentation (which involved some shuffling with the two carboys of wine also present in the brewing closet at the moment). The cacao nibs were added to the secondary fermentation, but they floated to the top–I’m not sure if this actually reduced the extraction of chocolate flavors but I doubt it helped. I’ve read that some prefer to make an extract by leaving the nibs to soak in vodka during primary fermentation, which is then added to the secondary fermenter instead of the raw nibs.

Milk Chocolate Stout Head

Bottling this batch was quite… exciting. The first problem was that, due to a misunderstanding on my part, too much priming sugar was added. The second problem was that I bottled before the gravity had completely finished dropping (I think). The third problem was that there was no efficient way to remove the nibs from the carboy prior to bottling, resulting in nibs blocking the bottle filler. Repeated cleanings of the bottle filler meant that far too much air was mixed with the beer at bottling. Fortunately, this did not end up making the beer taste stale. Unfortunately, this resulted in the beer being severely overcarbonated. No bottle bombs, but it does require the drinker to pour the beer immediately into a beer mug after opening (as in, within five seconds of opening). And don’t even think about shaking the bottles.

There is a final piece of this brew that I’d like to share, and that concerns my efforts to make part of this batch (about a six pack) non-alcoholic–and it ended up being quite mysterious and to this day I have no explanation for it. I looked around online, and while there was very little information about removing alcohol from homebrew, the general consensus was: “Well, I guess you could try boiling it.” So this is what I did. Distillers, I remember learning from a particularly amusing high school chemistry teacher, boil their product (recondensing the alcohol-laden vapors) and monitor the progress via the solution’s temperature. So I did the same, and that helped me none at all. Turns out that the boiling temperature of a 5-10% ethanol + other stuff solution is basically the same as plain water, and it doesn’t really change much as you boil it. So I stopped after boiling it for about 20 minutes, by which point the volume had reduced by about 20%. I don’t know what fraction of the boiled-off gas was ethanol, but I gather that since pure ethanol has a lower boiling point than water, the boil-off should have been a higher fraction ethanol than the solution. So I’m not sure exactly how much alcohol is remaining, but since the volume reduced by 20%, and presumably the alcohol preferentially boiled off, and only 6% or so of the total volume was alcohol to begin with, I’m going to guess that the remaining beer is significantly less alcoholic than the original. I bottled it, in any event.

And now comes the mysterious part: you’ll notice that I said “I bottled it” without doing anything else. When I talked to a friend in lab, he asked if I added more yeast before bottling, and I immediately slapped my forehead in chagrin. What I understand about yeast is that if you boil it for twenty minutes, you kill it. So, priming sugar or no, I was going to end up with some flat beer. I figured I’d open the beer, add some more yeast (I’ve got spare yeast around for just such an occasion), and let it go for two more weeks in the bottle. And yet–when I opened a bottle of the “non-alcoholic” stuff, it was perfectly carbonated. Not overcarbonated like the main batch, not flat like it should have been, but perfect. And it even tasted great (just like the main batch, in fact).

Now, I don’t pretend to understand what’s happening here. How can yeast survive being boiled for 20 minutes? I’m calling it “the immaculate carbonation”. I’ve been reading a bit of H.P. Lovecraft lately, so I’m tempted to file this under “things mankind was not meant to know”. Maybe we should just leave it at that.

A Hand Bag Inspired by the Colette Cooper

The bagFor some reason I thought it would be fun to make up a design for a hand bag.  You might argue that this doesn’t sound fun at all, and indeed there was a certain large amount of cursing as I realized I had no idea what on Earth I was doing.  However, in the process of researching how one goes about constructing a bag in the first place, I came across the Colette Cooper bag sew along and determined that “following the Cooper pattern closely” for my first bag was probably the sanest option.  Now what does following a pattern closely actually mean?  Well, for me it basically involved some freehand drawing and, err, guessing as to the actual dimensions of things.  While I would not suggest this method for articles of clothing, where fit is as important as the style details, it worked miraculously well for a bag. I found instructions on making the bottom of the bag square and ideas for structural integrity.  While my bag ended up looking sort of similar to a Cooper, what with the sloping sides, two piece front/back, and continuations of the handle straps down the sides of the bag, my version is a lot less complex.  It doesn’t have nearly the same number of pockets, no flap over the top, and zero hardware.  If I were to make a backpack with all the extra straps/flaps etc., I would most definitely buy the Cooper pattern before wasting time getting all the little pieces the right size.  In the end, I really like my version, and going through the process of bag-making even once has made the entire enterprise much less intimidating.  Perhaps when my trusty backpack wears out I’ll make myself a custom replacement, soft computer pocket and all.


white canvas bottom and straps
mustard yellow linen blend body
white patterned cotton lining


Lining detail

Chocolate Truffles

Chocolate truffles

Um, yeah… I’m not sure if I need an introduction to this one.  I really just recommend skipping ahead to the recipe and starting to make this ASAP because it takes a little while to chill between making the ganache and rolling the truffles.  Let’s just say there was only about an hour between me reading the recipe in Edible Santa Barbara and starting to melt some chocolate (I was covered in dirt from the garden and had to shower… otherwise the time lag would have been zero).  I recently gave up any semblance of self-control when it comes to chocolate confections.  Two weeks ago it was chocolate peanut butter cups and last week it was chocolate truffles.  Please feel free to send me more suggestions so I’m not forced to make these truffles over and over and over and over and over… again.

Chocolate Ganache Truffles (from Edible Santa Barbara with a few minor tweaks)
Makes 10-15
5 ounces dark chocolate (recipe suggests 50-60% cacao, I used 80%)
3/4 ounce butter
1/3 cup milk (recipe prefers cream… probably helps the structural integrity a bit)
2 teaspoons honey
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Cocoa powder to coat the truffles… maybe 1/2 cup?

1) Chop up the chocolate into chocolate chip-sized pieces to help them melt faster.  It will be about a cup of chocolate.  Cut the butter up and add it to the chocolate.

2) Mix the honey, vanilla extract, and milk or cream in a small sauce pan.

Now do only 3a OR 3b:

3a) Original instructions: heat milk/honey/vanilla to a boil and pour over chocolate/butter pieces in a heat-proof bowl.  Let sit until chocolate has melted (1-3 minutes?).  Then stir it all to combine.  It may look grainy, but keep stirring until the chocolate and milk mixture is perfectly smooth.  Blenderize if all else fails.  You just made chocolate ganache the traditional way!

3b) The way I did it: heat the chocolate/butter in a heat-proof bowl in an inch of water in a large pot (a double-boiler would be better, but I don’t have one of those) with heat on low.  Keep stirring the chocolate until it is mostly melted, at which point you can move the bowl to the counter ON A FABRIC THING (like a pot holder or dish rag) and continue mixing until the chocolate is all melted.  Bring the milk/honey/vanilla mixture to a simmer and pour over the chocolate.  Then stir it all to combine.  It may look grainy, but keep stirring until the chocolate and milk mixture is perfectly smooth.  Blenderize if all else fails.  You just made chocolate ganache a weird way!

4) Let the ganache cool in the bowl for either 24 hours at room temperature, which worries me because of the dairy, or 1-2 hours in the fridge.  To speed the cool-down time further, float the bowl of ganache in a larger bowl of ice water before putting it in the fridge.

5) When the ganache is pretty darn firm, form balls of it one by one and roll in the cocoa powder to coat.  You will have to work fast so the ganache doesn’t melt.

6) Eat immediately.  Or, cool down in the fridge again and re-roll in cocoa powder before serving, as the humidity in the fridge will “melt” the cocoa.  The original instructions suggest keeping the truffles in the fridge in a covered container to minimize humidity only as a last resort.  I think this is code for: invite your friends over and enable them into a chocolate-induced coma!  And believe me, I did my share, giving chocolate truffles to no less than 3 friends (in addition to Peter).

More chocolate truffles

Summer Garden Plans, 2014

We finally passed our last frost date and I’m having a hard time not ripping out all the winter plants to make room for tomatoes and peppers.  That time will come soon enough, but for now the tomato sprouts are only a couple inches tall and the first bush bean plants have started to sprout, albeit under plastic milk jugs to keep their delicate leaves warm at night.  In the mean time, I’ve been poring over seed catalogs.  Not that I’m going to buy any seeds this year, since my collection already takes up an entire desk drawer, but there are some pretty fun heirlooms that I’d like to buy next year:

  • Peppers: Topepo Rosso Pepper, a pimento pepper like I grew this year, only it might actually grow straight instead of needing to be propped up due to the weight of its own peppers.  Or how about an Italian sweet pepper the Corno di Toro.  Since pepper seeds are some of the easiest to save yourself, I have never actually bought pepper seeds before, but the amazing list of Heirloom peppers from Seed Savers Exchange may change that habit.
  • Potatoes: German butterball.  We bought these from the farmer’s market a few times (basically whenever we saw someone selling them) and now I’m sort of obsessed.
  • Eggplant:  Friends of ours successfully grew eggplant in their garden last year (just down the path from our garden), and now I can’t get it out of my mind.  I’m partial to the long, skinny eggplants that don’t require peeling, salting, or any of that nonsense, such as Ping Tung Long.
  • Tomatillo: Last summer I tried planting tomatillos from seeds I had saved and they kept getting eaten by something.  Meanwhile, a garden plot 40 feet away had epic, un-nibbled-on tomatillo plants.  I think I may just need to buy seeds, in which case, I am (unsurprisingly) drawn to the purple ones.  Maybe when I make salsa verde the salsa will match my purple immersion blender.
  • On the subject of fruit encased in husks, I only just learned about ground cherries!  This is the one kind of seed I might buy for my garden this year (Aunt Molly’s), because, why wouldn’t you want to grow ground cherries?  This would help alleviate my regret for not planting raspberry bushes in the garden in the beginning, when they would have had time to mature before we moved away.
  • We won’t even get onto the subject of tomatoes, because I have almost no self control, but I’ve been drooling over these ones and these ones.
  • Melons: for some reason there are a lot of Heirloom varieties of melon, even one that is only good for carrying around in your pockets because it smells THAT GOOD!  Peter vetoed growing the pocket melon on practical grounds, although I can’t promise I’ve forgotten about it completely.  In the mean time, I already have seeds for Hale’s Best Muskmelon that I bought last year, and I’m ogling Pride of Wisconsin (for its designation as the melon to grow if you can only grow one) and the Prescott Fond (for looking like a warty pumpkin on the outside).
  • Squash: like for melons, I got a bit carried away with this category.  The problem is that I keep finding pumpkins that look weirder and weirder, and of course that only makes me want to grow them more (i.e. Black Futzu Pumpkin, Marina di Chioggia, or Musquee de Provence).  I also suffer from only having normal-looking squash seeds at the moment, delicata and New England Pie Pumpkin (aren’t the pie pumpkins overly adorable?).

Now that you know what I’m not growing, here is the garden plan for this summer:

As a final note, here are some pictures of the garden two summers ago (2012) when I first started gardening again.

Overview of the center of the garden

And just a few months later…

The greens beds

Then more pictures of the garden from last summer (2013)… where you will find fewer greens and more peppers/corn/beans as I learned how to not kill things.  I think I’m making progress!

Corn, beans, and peppers

Happy gardening!