Friday, August 31, 2012

A Trip to the Orchard

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Rory, who lived with her mommy and daddy in Tucson, Arizona, where it gets very, very hot in the summertime. So one day their friends Joe and Vicki decided it would be nice to take a drive over to Willcox, Arizona, where the elevation is higher and the temperatures cooler, and where Apple Annie's Orchard ( is, to see what Apple Annie had to offer and just to get out of town for the day.
 When they got to Apple Annie's, the nice lady told them where the different kinds of fruit were and gave them wagons and buckets and they headed out to look for some peaches, and they found lots of them. The lady had said they could sample all they wanted, so all four grown-ups and Rory probably ate more peaches than they ever had at one time in any of their lives, and picked lots more to buy to take home.
 After they'd picked all the peaches they wanted, they headed over to another part of the orchard to look for apples and Asian pears. Rory was tired of riding in the wagon so she got out to explore.

The Asian pears were just as abundant and just as delicious as the peaches! More tasting and more picking followed,
and Rory also found some Bartlett pear trees. By then her face was sticky with peach juice and bits of Asian pear, but she was very happy.

Even though it was cooler in Willcox than in Tucson, it was still plenty warm. They looked for apples, but not very hard, because it was getting to be lunch time, and besides, it's still early in the season. There will be more apples in a few weeks. They did try some Criterion apples like this one, and found them sweet and tasty.
 After purchasing the fruit they'd picked, as well as some jalapeño chocolate fudge in the gift shop, they went to Apple Annie's other site, where you can pick your own vegetables (the pumpkins won't be ready for another month) but the grown-ups were feeling lazy so they just bought some flying saucer squash and other summer squash, green beans, and tomatoes from the big walk-in cooler. Rory tried to shut her mommy and daddy in the cooler but Vicki and Joe talked her out of it. And then they all got back in the car and drove into town where they had lunch at Big Tex BBQ restaurant, which is actually a bright red converted railroad car, where the food was hearty and meaty, and where the staff were exceptionally nice.
      Then they all went back home to Tucson, happy and with full tummies. When Vicki and Joe got back to their house, they found that some of their perfect peaches had gotten a few bruises, so Vicki blanched those, peeled and sliced them and tossed them with a little lemon juice so they wouldn't turn brown (they were so sweet they really didn't need any sugar). Next morning for breakfast she microwaved some whole wheat pancakes that happened to be in the freezer and she and Joe topped them with nonfat sour cream, a tiny sprinkle of brown sugar (just because it's so nice with sour cream), then put the warmed peaches with their juices over it all. And it was very, very good.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Flora and Fauna of Mt. Lemmon

I thought all I would have to offer today would be flora, as I haven't had much luck getting good photos of animal life on the mountain, but as you will see in a bit, yesterday I was pleasantly surprised.
     Our hike wasn't an unmitigated pleasure, but on balance it was worth every bit of discomfort - and I experienced quite a bit. As I was pulling my gear out of the closet, Joe misheard and thought I'd said I needed new boots. "No," I said, "I love my boots. They're fine." But in fact, it had been quite a while since I'd worn them, and I'd forgotten that I'd pulled out my supercool expensive insoles to put into some sneakers a few months ago. We don't wear our boots on the drive up, and I didn't realize till we were probably halfway up to Marshall Saddle that I was hiking with no insoles at all (thick socks and general distraction kept me from noticing right away). But I survived.
     We took the Mint Spring Trail from the end of Carter Canyon Road 1.7 miles up to Marshall Saddle, then came down Marshall Gulch along the creek, 1.2 miles to the picnic ground at the end of the extension of Summerhaven's main street, which probably has a name though I don't know what it is. From there it's a little over a mile back to where we parked the car.
 Though the damage from the 2003 Aspen Fire is still evident, recovery has been dramatic, with aspens, in fact, leading the way, along with locust trees. The Ponderosa pine seedlings are looking good, many of the 3 or 4 feet tall now, and of course ferns and other flora came back very quickly.
 A year or two ago we got lots of elderberries from this bush, but they're not quite ready yet. If you look closely, you may be able to spot some dark umbels of berries, but also lots of blossoms still. I've loved elderberries since I was a kid growing up in Idaho and was so happy to find them here in Arizona,

along with Indian paintbrush.

We've had some good monsoon rains so there are lots of fungi on the mountain, most of which I'm afraid I can't identify.

 The fungi in the following two photos are the same kind, the first very small, the second much larger. They were also much pinker in the flesh than in the photos.

 The mushrooms above were as big as dinner plates and had apparently grown up through and around the dead twigs.  The bright orange fungi below were tiny, the biggest bits no larger than my thumbnail,
 which was also about the size of the caps of these little yellow mushrooms (note their size in comparison to the pine needles).
 Woolly mullein is softer than toilet paper and more environmentally friendly, should you find yourself in need.

Shortly after we began the hike down from the saddle we spotted this little guy, who was only about an inch long. We see them often up there, but have never had one sit still so patiently to have his portrait taken.
Likewise these yellow-eyed or Mexican juncos, whom we see so often along the trail we've come to think of them as its guardians or maybe a welcoming committee. This one wasn't bothered at all by us, keeping busy almost at our feet until we'd taken all the pictures we wanted. As you can see in the second photo, it's been banded. Maybe that's why it let us get so close.

In the rocks rising up along the stream, we find tiny secret gardens like this one of moss and lichen, fern and oxalis, things we can't easily sustain in our desert gardens  below.

The water is very clear; its golden cast comes from the tannin it leaches from the roots of oak trees.

It was after 5:00 when we started down the mountain, and we could see that it was raining south and west of Tucson (in fact, it had rained at our place on the far west side). We stopped at Windy Point 
to look out at the mountain-ringed bowl that contains our city and to marvel at the skies that changed as we gazed at them, 

and then, as T.S. Eliot says, it was time "at the end of all our exploring . . . to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time," because that is how it always is, or should be. And so "We shall not cease from exploration," whether in our back yard garden or on the back side of a mountain, near or far away.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What We Made Yesterday

I've been in a regular canning frenzy lately, trying recipes to justify spending $9.99 on this "special interest publication," a recent impulse buy at the market.
Day before yesterday I made two batches of the Lemon-Honey Jelly, which turned out to be delicious  and lovely to look at. Like my grandmother, I like to set up jars in the window and enjoy the way the light, even on an overcast day, comes through them, as through a stained glass window.
You can see thin strips of lemon zest floating in the jars; the recipe said to strain them out but I like the way it looks - and tastes. I made 2 batches, 10 jars. Here's the recipe:

Lemon-Honey Jelly (makes 5 half-pints)
2 to 3 medium lemons
1 1/2 cups water
3 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup honey
1/2 of a 6-ounce package (1 foil pouch) liquid fruit pectin

1. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the colored part of the peel from one of the lemons. (Avoid removing the bitter white portion.) Cut the peel into thin strips; set aside. Cut the remaining lemons in half; squeeze lemons for juice. Measure 1/2 cup lemon juice. (Reserve any remaining juice for another use.)
2. In a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot, combine the lemon peel strips, the 1/2 cup lemon juice, water, and sugar. Cook and stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Stir in honey. Bring to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly. Quickly stir in the pectin. Return to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly. Boil hard for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Quickly skim off the foam with a metal spoon. Use spoon to remove lemon peel strips and discard peel strips.
3. Ladle hot jelly into hot, sterilized half-pint canning jars, leaving a 1/4 inch headspace. Wipe jar rims; adjust lids.
4. Process filled jars in a boiling-water bath canner for 5 minutes (start timing when water returns to boiling). Remove jars from canner; cool on wire racks.
Per Tablespoon: 44 cal., 12 g carb., 0 g anything else.
Note (i.e., what I did differently): You really don't need more than one lemon if you have good bottled lemon juice, like the organic Italian Volcano lemon juice they sell at Costco. I have a citrus zester that gives lovely thin shreds without messing with the vegetable peeler, but I think that if you're going to leave the peel strips in the jelly as I did, you could also grate it directly using the fine-shred side of a box grater, to save an extra step.

     Yesterday, however, was spent in a much more ambitious undertaking, the Roasted Garlic Pasta Sauce on page 32. Roma tomatoes were on sale for 3 pounds for 99¢ last week so I bought 18 pounds and spread them out on one end of the long dining room table to ripen. Well, they didn't, not really, not the way we hope tomatoes will ripen, gently and predictably, but by yesterday they were probably as good as they were going to get, and since it seems like tomatoes, Romas especially, can go from ripening to softening and rotting almost overnight (as Shakespeare says, ". . . from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, and then from hour to hour, we rot and rot; and thereby hangs a tale"), it was time to put up the sauce.
     If Joe hadn't helped me peel the @#$%^ things I might still be standing at the sink, sweating and swearing. Those skins just didn't want to come off, no matter how long we left them in the blanching kettle. The TV was on - it was Globe Trekker, visiting east Texas, and as we peeled we listened to Zai's interview with a former warden of the state prison at Hunstville, talking about the executions he'd overseen. It seemed somehow grimly appropriate, since standing there trying to peel those stubborn tomatoes was beginning to feel like a prison sentence.
     I love our food processor, which made quick work of chopping everything and finally getting it into the biggest kettle we own, which almost wasn't big enough, since I'd decided to make 1 and 1/2 times the recipe to make use of some 24-ounce canning jars that originally had Classico brand pasta sauce in them. They're marked "Mason" as well as Atlas brand. Don't try canning in jars that aren't clearly marked as canning jars. You won't want to clean up the mess that can ensue. I like the 24-ounce size, though if you're going to buy Ball or Kerr jars you won't find them. Standard jars come in 8, 16, and 32 ounce sizes. Each of these recycled 24 ounce jars holds enough for at least 2 meals for the two of us or one meal when we have a few guests. Here's what we wound up with:
Because Romas are meatier and less watery than other tomatoes, we lost less in the more-than-an-hour-long cooking process (the recipe said we'd only get 6 jars but we got 7) and had enough left over for dinner last night and something, maybe some bruschetta, today. Here's what it looked like on the dinner pasta,
and here's the original recipe:

Roasted Garlic Pasta Sauce (makes 6 pints)
6 bulbs garlic
3 T. olive oil
4 medium bell peppers, any color (I used a combination of red and green), halved and seeded
12 pounds ripe tomatoes, blanched and peeled
3 T. packed brown sugar
2 T. kosher salt or 4 tsp. regular (non-iodized) salt
1 T. balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves, snipped
1 cup lightly packed assorted fresh herbs (such as oregano, thyme, Italian flat-leaf parsley, and/or more basil), snipped
6 T. lemon juice

1. Preheat oven to 400. Peel away the dry outer layers of skin from garlic bulbs, leaving other skin and bulbs intact. Cut about 1/2" (or maybe less) off the pointed top portions, leaving bulbs intact but exposing the individual cloves. Place the garlic bulbs, cut sides up, in a 1- to 1 1/2 quart casserole. Drizzle with 1 T. of the oil. Cover casserole. Arrange peppers, cut sides down, on a foil-lined baking sheet; brush with remaining oil.
2. Roast garlic and peppers for 40 to 50 minutes or until pepper halves are charred and garlic cloves are soft. Cool garlic on a wire rack until cool enough to handle. Pull up sides of foil and pinch together to fully enclose peppers. Let peppers stand 15 to 20 minutes or until cool enough to handle; peel off skins and discard. Chop peppers; set aside.
3. Remove garlic cloves from paper skins by squeezing the bottoms of the bulbs. Place garlic cloves in a food processor. Cut tomatoes into chunks; add some of the chunks to the garlic in the food processor. Cover and process until chopped.
4. Transfer chopped garlic garlic and tomatoes to a 7- to 8-quart stainless steel, enamel, or nonstick heavy pot. Repeat chopping the remaining tomatoes, in batches, in the food processor. Add all the tomatoes to the pot.
5. Add brown sugar, salt, vinegar, and black pepper to the tomato mixture. Bring to boiling (stir often). Boil steadily, uncovered, for 50 minutes, stirring often. Add chopped peppers to tomato mixture. Boil 10 to 20 minutes more or until mixture is reduced to about 11 cups and reaches desired consistency, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in basil and assorted herbs.
6. Spoon 1 T. lemon juice into each of six hot, sterilized pint canning jars. Ladle hot sauce into jars with lemon juice, leaving a 1/2 inch headspace. Wipe jar rims; adjust lids.
7. Process filled jars in a boiling-water canner for 35 minutes (start timing when water returns to boiling). Remove jars from canner; cool on wire racks.
Per 1/2 cup: 87 cal., 2 g. fat, 0 mg chol., 497 mg. sodium, 16 g carb., 3 g. fiber, 3 g. protein

We peeled the tomatoes over a couple of large kettles so we wouldn't lose any juices, and I saved that juice just in case I needed to add more liquid to the sauce as it cooked, but as it turns out, I didn't, so now I have this nice jar of juice to use as liquid in soup, or any number of other possible cooking projects.
     I'm a total believer in recycling and repurposing, for example, saving jars for storage, like these on the shelf above our kitchen window. I can tell at a glance if I have rice or raisins or lentils or oat bran, for example, and I like the way they look - I guess it appeals to my inner hippie and I know that looking up there makes me happy.
So there you have it, the fruits of our labors, which were (except maybe for peeling the tomatoes) also pleasure, and which will give pleasure in the weeks and months to come. I know I'll be making more recipes from "Canning," since everything I've tried so far has turned out very well.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Flower Power

Several days ago my friend Graciela came over and brought this gorgeous bunch of gladiolus (gladioli? gladioluses?).
The long stems loaded with buds promised many more amazing blossoms. But as the blossoms on the bottom began to fade, the weight of the buds bent the stems. So I stripped off the faded blooms and cut about a foot off the bottom of each stem, and here's what we have now, five days later, bent by the weight of their own beauty.
 Still show-stoppers, aren't they?
       Outdoors it's pretty dramatic in the back yard, where, as I think I mentioned before, we let the wild sunflowers grow because the goldfinches love them and we love watching the goldfinches. Some of them are 10 feet tall now (the sunflowers, not the goldfinches). Here's one with a bee in it. I wish we had more bees. Hand pollinating just got to be too much work for too little result, and of course the water bill was ridiculous for a summer vegetable garden that wasn't producing much, so we finally gave up on the squash, melons, and cucumbers. Now I can begin planning and daydreaming about the winter garden.
In addition to the wild sunflowers that are trying to take over a small part of our little world, we planted two varieties of Hopi sunflowers from seeds we got at Native Seed Search. The picture below is the first blossom we've gotten. It's maybe just a wee bit bigger than the wild ones, with narrower petals and more of them.
And that's the news from our little patch of the Sonoran desert, where the high temperature yesterday broke the previous record of 106, and where if we're really lucky and hold our mouths just right, we just may get some rain.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Fruits of the Desert

As I mentioned in my last post, we've had relatives visiting. Early one morning Joe and I took the kids to a nearby wash (just across the road and down a little slope) to pick prickly pears. This is the perfect time, with most fruits at the ideal stage of deep, blood-red ripeness. Using tongs to avoid getting stabbed, we half-filled each of two paper grocery bags. That was enough to make about 3 dozen 8-ounce jars of jelly.
      When we got back to the kitchen, the first thing to do was wash the prickly pears well. We ran them through 3 changes of water, as they collect a lot of dust out there in the desert. They can also have a sort of waxy coating that may not all come off, even with the most vigorous rinsing, but it's nothing to worry about.
Next, I like to cut them in half so the juices will release more quickly. Hold them with tongs while you do this, to protect your fingers; those little stickers are annoying.

Here's what they look like cut and ready for the kettle. You can carefully scoop out the delicious fresh pulp from the center to eat, but it's pretty seedy, so there's a lot to spit out.

 Add a little water - just a cup or two for a large kettle like this one - to get them started cooking down (some recipes say water to cover, but the fruits are really quite juicy and I don't want to dilute the flavor any more than necessary), bring to a boil, and let simmer till the fruits are very soft and have released much of their juice.
 Using a big slotted spoon, lift the cooked fruits into a colander set over a large bowl and mash the heck out of them to get out as much juice as possible.
Then strain what's in the bowl through a finer mesh strainer - look at all those little black seeds! You don't want them in your jelly.
 So here's what you'll have at this stage. I did say blood-red, remember?
In the picture below, the jelly on the left was made from less-ripe fruit. It tastes good but doesn't have quite the richness of flavor of the spoonful on the right, made from perfectly ripe fruit.
I strain the juice one more time through a few layers of cheesecloth to get the clearest possible juice before beginning the actual jelly-making.
Here's the recipe I've used for years, from the Pima County Agricultural Extension office. The ingredients, as with most jams and jellies, are quite simple. The jar with the green lid is a new variety of pectin (at least new to me) from the Ball company, which works quite well. You just measure out the amount you need for the recipe; 6 Tablespoons are equal to one box of regular powdered pectin. Unfortunately, this jar didn't contain multiples of 6 T., but rather 16 T., enough for 2 2/3 batches of jelly. I wasn't happy about that and so I hunted down old-fashioned boxes of Sure-Jell for subsequent batches.

IMPORTANT: Do not double this recipe; it won't set up properly.

Prickly Pear Jelly - makes about 5 cups
2 1/2 cups prickly pear juice
1 package powdered pectin (they say it sets more successfully than liquid)
3 1/2 cups sugar
3 Tablespoons lemon or lime juice

Combine pectin and juice in a medium saucepan. I like to whisk them together to ensure the pectin dissolves quickly and evenly.
Stirring constantly, bring to a fast boil and add the lemon or lime juice and sugar.  Bring to a hard boil and boil for exactly 3 minutes. Timing is important for getting a good jell. Remove from heat; stir and skim off any foam (I always collect that in a little cup; my grandma used to let me have the foam skimmings from her jelly-making on bread and butter). Pour at once into sterilized jelly jars and wipe the edges of the jars with a clean, damp cloth. Seal immediately with 2-part metal lids, screwing the metal bands on firmly. Let cool on a rack and store in a cool, dry place.

Note: you can process the jars in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes if you wish.
 If for some reason the jelly doesn't all set up, don't worry. You'll have a few jars of Prickly Pear Syrup, which is a lovely ingredient to have on hand, to use on pancakes, French toast, or over ice cream. I usually put up a few jars of syrup on purpose, leaving out the pectin and using equal parts sugar and juice. It's great in Prickly Pear Margaritas, which I make by throwing everything in the blender with about a cup of ice per person (or you can mix all the liquid ingredients and serve on the rocks). Here's what you need to serve 4:

Prickly Pear Margaritas
6 ounces good quality gold tequila
4 ounces triple sec
4 ounces lime juice
2 ounces prickly pear syrup
1 ounce orange juice

If you're in a place where you have access to these fruits of the desert, please consider taking advantage of them. If you don't have time to make jelly right away (and this applies to any fruit, not just prickly pears), you can freeze the juice to use later, when you do have time. Plastic water bottles work well for that; just remember not to overfill them as liquids expand when they freeze.