Monday, December 31, 2012

Best and Worst of my 2012 Garden

Just as I've done the last couple of years, I'm recapping the best and worst of my garden for the year. Inspired by all the year-end "best and worst" lists on TV, movies, music, fashion, etc., this list helps remind me what I did right and what went wrong over the year.

basil and ML 9-21
backyard caprese salad
Best -- Basil! In the past I've always had small basil plants, some of which didn't make it through the summer. But this year I was able to grow 3 healthy bunches. I ate many tomato-basil-mozzarella salads, had plenty of basil to throw into sauces, and I even managed to pick enough to store some basil pesto cubes in the freezer. These basil plants were in a very deep container, planted along side this Mortgage Lifter tomato plant, which brings me to...

ground cherry 7-24
pink girl hybrid vs pink brandywine
Best/Worst -- Tomatoes.  I tried some new varieties this year, some of which did OK, like the ground cherries, Pink Girl hybrids and pink Brandywines...

mortgage lifter 7-20
chocolate cherries 7-15
But others like Chocolate Cherries, Mortgage Lifter, Mr. Stripey, and Ace 55 hybrid didn't do well. I documented my Mortgage Lifter troubles extensively so I won't go into that again. I was talking to a couple of friends who had tomato troubles this year. One lives in the south, but another lives here in the DC area. I'm not sure why we weren't able to get good tomato harvests. For me, I think it was a combination of the heat, which can prevent tomato plants from flowering and setting fruit, and lack of pollinators. I didn't have many flowers in my garden this year to attract pollinators. I also had issues with garden pests, like aphids, spider mites, and horn worms.

Best -- Return of the pond frog! I'm actually not sure if he/she is the same one from last year or even 3 years ago. I read that frogs are a sign of a healthy pond, so I was really happy to see this little frog in my back yard this year.

Worst -- That stupid $$%@ squirrel. It was responsible for eating the few tomatoes that did grow, blueberries, corn stalks, and for digging up many of my seeds and transplants. I love sunflowers (hence the blog title picture), but I only had one grow this year because the squirrel dug up all my transplants.(Another Worst -- no sunflowers this year).  I'll have to protect them better next year. Now that the temperatures are bitterly cold, I feel sorry for the little guy (and yes, I know it's the same one. I recognize the mangy brown fur). I may or may not have felt bad enough to throw some unsalted almonds near a tree where I saw it lurking. I know he's thinking "Sucker!"

spring onion patch
Best -- I had a pretty good onion harvest this year--just over 2 pounds, not bad for the second year growing them. We left a few in the ground to see if they grow bigger.

dead potatoes
Watermelon harvest 2012
Worst - lots of garden fails this year. Beetles ate the potatoes, the two green bean varieties I planted in containers didn't really take off. Everyone seems to be able to grow squash and zucchini so well that they can't give it away, but squash bugs and cucumber beetles feasted on ours. The two little watermelons that we harvested were smelly and didn't taste well.

Although I had some disappointments, I have ideas for what to do better next year. I haven't begun serious garden planning yet, but I've been thinking about growing fewer tomato varieties, for example, and just sticking with a few that I've grown in the past and that did well in pots on my deck. I have to have sunflowers next year, I missed them a lot this past summer. I think my vegetables missed the pollinators they attract. I'll have to make sure to protect the seeds and transplants so they don't get yanked out before their time.

Last but not least, Best -- You! I love reading about your garden plans,and especially like seeing what gardens look like in other parts of the country or world. Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving words of encouragement,  advice, or sympathy. It makes all this a lot more fun!

If you'd like to recap your own Best and Worst, please feel free to link up or leave a comment below.

Happy New Year and Best Wishes for 2013!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Making the Perfect Risotto (almost)

It’s 12/12/12! I’ve read that numerologists say this day is auspicious, but I just like that all the numbers are the same. When it comes to numbers, I like making lists and numbering things and wanted to record a post today before the rest of the month flies by. The time between Thanksgiving and New Year's always goes by so quickly. Here's what's been keeping me busy:

1) Work - I've been swamped. One co-worker just got married and is on her honeymoon. Another is about to have a baby and recently started maternity leave. To help me out, they've assigned a new person to my team, but it's a junior analyst that requires my supervision and in addition to my work, I have to review hers. Luckily she's very capable and eager and smart, so it's not painful, but days have been very long. Once my newlywed co-worker returns, I should get back to a normal schedule.
2) Job hunting - I am very happy to have a job in these tough economic times, even if it's a job that makes me want to poke my eyes out with a stick covered in fire ants. Searching for jobs has become a job in itself, as all of you who've gone through the process are well aware. No bites yet, but I hope that by this time next year I'm in a more rewarding, more challenging position.
3) Holiday visits - I've been spending time catching up with friends that I haven't seen in months and preparing to see family that I only see once a year. I just found out that a friend of mine is moving to the Philippines in January, so amidst all the Christmas parties and get-togethers, I have a going-away party to go to this weekend.
4) Cooking/baking - To continue with the job-hunting theme, my cooking and baking skills are "entry level." Every year around Christmas someone gives me a little gift--simple things like homemade cookies--and I always feel like an ass for not having something to give in return. So I decided this year that I wanted to make fudge and give it out to neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances, etc around Christmas. However, I've never made fudge before in my life. It was quite a learning experience. I made three different batches and all turned out very different in terms of consistency and flavor. My husband and friends said it was all edible, and I'm sure they'd never lie to me.

Now We Get to the Risotto Part...

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but I did have two goals for 2012: 1) run a 5K, and 2) learn to make risotto. I ran my 5K race back in October at the Zombie Run, and recently I’ve learned to make risotto, although I’m still perfecting my technique.

I really like rice. Although I am not a vegetarian, I frequently order vegetarian dishes at restaurants, and if there’s risotto on the menu, I always order it. Risotto is an Italian rice dish cooked in broth with other ingredients, like seasonal vegetables or mushrooms, and topped with Parmesan cheese. The trick to making it is to constantly stir the rice while adding just the right amount of liquid so that it absorbs properly. The first risotto I made was way too mushy and soupy. I made this version a few weeks ago, with Swiss chard from the local farmers’ market and onions from my garden (and non-seasonal, non-local frozen peas).

Risotto with Swiss Chard
Last year was the first year I ever knowingly and purposefully ate Swiss chard, and it was because of the Eat Local Foods challenge. I bought another bunch this year and was trying to think of ways to cook it. I thought the Swiss chard risotto came out well, and the chard gave it nice texture.

Then I got cocky and decided to make a sweet potato risotto for Thanksgiving, and I think it came out too dry. I probably cooked it way too long. I've read that it shouldn't take more than 20 minutes to cook a cup, and I was at it for about 30 minutes. Oh, well, I'll just keep trying! I have no problem eating my own bad cooking, and it's really fun to try to make such a challenging dish. Maybe next I'll try with butternut squash.

Do you like risotto? I hope you have a happy and auspicious 12/12/12!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Eating Locally: One Year Later

{Stuffed peppers--my first all-local ingredient meal ever}

It was a year ago this week that I started the challenge to eat at least one locally-sourced meal a day. Called the "Dark Days of Winter" challenge, it seemed like the logical thing for me to try after spending a couple of summers growing some vegetables and reading books like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and The Omnivore's Dilemma.  I met some cool people via our posts and recaps, and after the challenge ended, some of us started our own breakout group (the SSFC) to continue to challenge ourselves to eat locally throughout the summer and fall. Although our mini-group's challenge ended last October, we've decided to continue throughout the winter.

Our new SSFC Challenge period begins this week also, and I'll have a post on what I made later. But something about the unseasonable warm temperature today (near 70 degrees!!?!) makes me want to recap some of the summer meals I ate.

Although we are supposed to feature at least one meal a week made from all-local ingredients, I have found myself incorporating locally sourced food into all my meals. This was a lot easier for me in the summer than last winter because of the greater variety of fruits and veggies. Some of my Almost All-Local Meals:

{grilled chicken, mozzarella, tomato & olive salad}

I found a great farmers' market near my house. According to the site: "The farmers markets sponsored by the Fairfax County Park Authority, is a locally grown, producer-only market system. You must grow, raise or make all products you sell. No distributors, re-selling or brokers are allowed. All produce grown, meat raised and other products made must be within 125 mile radius of Fairfax County." Perfect! This became my go-to market until they closed for the season in October. The chicken and olives above weren't locally sourced but the veggies and mozzarella cheese were.

 I have found a great VA-based source for mozzarella cheese. I've used it in omelets, salads, and just as a snack on a roll. I probably never would have stumbled upon this great company if I hadn't forced myself to look for local sources of cheese. Love them!

Ropa Vieja
Cuban-style ropa vieja (shredded beef) using flank steak from Smith Family Farm, based in Virginia. Onions and peppers came from my garden.

chickpea salad
Another light salad. The chickpeas and olive oil obvs weren't locally sourced, but the tomatoes and cucumbers came from my garden.

Finally, Ribollita (aka Italian peasant soup)--the local ingredients were all from my garden: yellow squash, zucchini, and onions. 

Although some things are impossible to get locally (like beans, olive oil, spices), I've tried to buy organic when possible, and I've also tried to eat with the seasons. It's strange--but not really, it makes sense--but I've noticed a change in my palate. I'm not craving blueberries and strawberries out of season anymore, which is good because the berries sold at grocery stores in the fall and winter often taste like water and I used to waste money because they'd go mushy in a couple of days. Lately I've been craving butternut squash, sweet potatoes, chard (what?! used to not like it), and I'm really looking forward to this winter's challenge. One great side-effect of these Challenges are that I've been inspired to get more creative in the kitchen!