Tuesday, April 28, 2009

strawberries, peppers, squashes

Between yesterday and today I transplanted a bunch of peppers (hot and sweet, indoors and outdoors), acorn squash, zucchini, and strawberries.

The zucchini went into a traditional mound, and the acorn into a bed where I will lovingly but firmly instruct it in the use of a nylon trellis net. I'm not totally sure that it's going to get as much sun as it would like, but figuring that stuff out is a big part of this first year's efforts.

I built two 2 x 1 boxes for strawberries, planning to put in four per square foot as recommended by Mel, but ended up with seven in each box. That's what I was left with after putting eight in the greenhouse, since Irish Eyes Garden Seeds, which I am liking less and less, stiffed me on on my order of 25 Tristar plants. Tristar is a day-neutral variety. Flowers should be removed until mid-July in this first year to encourage plant growth. Runners should always be removed. Fruit production should increase dramatically in the second year.

The berries in the greenhouse are a bit of an experiment. I'm sure on occasion it's going to hit temperatures that will make them unhappy and stop producing, but I think the potential is there to get an extra couple of months of fruit. Certainly it will make sense to bring the boxes into the greenhouse in the fall. That's probably the best approach, rather than permanent residence. The 2 x 1 boxes are easy to handle and can snug into various places in the greenhouse.

Tonight one of the peppers took its first basketball casualty as I was playing Horse with Nathaniel. I knew that was going to happen! It just lost a couple of leaves, but the crop is doomed unless I figure something out to protect the plants for the next five months. For now I'm using a couple of tomato cages in the squares where the earth is penetrable, and I propped up some trellises against the sides of the bed. I don't want to resort to some kind of hideous chicken wire cage, but I do need to account for the inputs of both solar and sporting spheres.

Monday, April 27, 2009

potato boxes

I'm trying potatoes using the cage method. I'm using what has become pretty nice soil dug from the big bed near the driveway, and which I assume is pretty acidic because of all the evergreens, amended with a few composts, including chicken manure. I don't have a soil test kit but I think this will be nutritionally correct.

The boxes are two feet square and 30 inches high. The idea is to add courses of boards and soil as the plants grow, eventually ending up with several cubic feet of potatoes. I blasted a mine shaft about a foot deep into the rocks beneath the boxes to give the initial growth a place to go.

Late season varieties should be used, otherwise you'll probably end up with a single layer of potatoes at the bottom of the box. One box has organic Desiree and the other has organic Yellow Finn. I planted five seed potatoes in each, which was about half the seed I received. Not sure whether I'll plant the rest somewhere else.

The potatoes finally arrived late this afternoon. I ordered them from Irish Eyes Garden Seeds on the 3rd of April, the order was processed on the 6th, and today is the 27th. That seems a little outrageous for a delivery from the same state. All items I ordered were listed as being in stock. I sent two emails asking for delivery dates in the meantime and never got a reply. I think I'll try somewhere else next time.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

fourth brew (Belgian witbier), part 8

Finally bottled this Belgian pig. Saved the last pint for sampling, and just don't like it very much. I do think that some of the more aggressive notes have mellowed, so perhaps that will continue during bottle conditioning, but I'm pretty convinced that it's just not that good. My final forlorn hopes are that:
  • the priming sugar is interfering with this tasting
  • bottle conditioning will deliver great improvements
  • carbonation is key to the success of the style
Time will tell. Stinkin' swine. I'm imagining all kinds of bottle labels.

more beds and planting

I've now built 8 + 8 + 16 + 16 + 16 + 16 + 16 + 24, or 120 square feet of planting beds. Fifty-six of that is in the greenhouse. All are now filled with Mel's Mix, although of slightly varying recipes, and are either planted or ready for planting (mostly the latter, by far).

Today I planted from seed:
  • leeks (greenhouse)
  • he-shi-ko green onions (greenhouse)
  • white radishes
  • red radishes (greenhouse and outside)
  • carrots
  • beets (greenhouse)
  • Swiss chard (greenhouse and outside)
  • sugar snap peas
  • asparagus beans
  • Armenian cucumbers
  • cilantro (greenhouse)
Most of the radishes and carrots are actually Nathaniel's and Isaac's, in their own outside squares. They did the planting but I suspect that I'll do the watering.

I'm uncertain whether there is adequate sunlight in the location where I planted the cucumbers and peas. They were the best available spots against a north wall, though. We'll just have to see. I was sure it wasn't going to be good for the beans, so I actually bedded those in a trench dug in the sunniest part of a front flower bed, in a soil and compost blend.

New and existing transplants are tomatoes, dill, oregano, chives, gerbera daisy, and parsley. Already planted from seed were basil, greenhouse cucumbers, and nasturtiums. It's apparently best not to mix cucumbers in a greenhouse, so I didn't. I feel like I'm a few weeks late with most of this, but on the other hand perhaps we'll yet get snow. It's only April.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

building the greenhouse

I didn't set out to build a greenhouse. I was just going to ease into gardening this year. I built my square foot boxes in an afternoon some weeks ago and laid them out along the south-facing back wall of the house. It was too cold to plant anything so I began toying with covers made of PVC pipe and plastic but it all seemed so awkward. I'd experimented with a pipe and plastic semi-hoop house before and it was a pain in the butt. But the itch to play in the dirt was ferocious and the next thing I knew, I'd constructed a fully framed attached greenhouse!

Well, that's not exactly how it happened. I spent rather a long time in the design phase, vacillating between small and large, cheap and expensive, temporary and permanent, awkward and convenient, fixed-size and extensible, with or without electricity, and I don't know how many other considerations.

What I settled on was something that was fairly large, not too expensive, likely permanent, convenient with respect to multiple entrances and headroom, that could be easily lengthened, with electricity, and that could be tested this year with plastic sheet glazing and then converted to some form of polycarbonate in the future.

I went with a 2 x 4 frame with studs and rafters on 24" centers. It's rock solid.

The ledger board is at 8 feet, and the top plate of the front wall at 6. There's plenty of headroom for me. That's a decision I am pleased to have made.

Length from this end, the west, to the far side of the chimney is 23 feet. Width is about 7.5. This wall could very easily be moved another 8 or 10 feet west, and with a little roof line modification could go beneath the bedroom balcony and another 10 or 15 feet.

At the east end it joins the deck post, which is also one end of the potting area.

I used a pretty expensive semi-gloss outdoor Behr paint. It doesn't need a primer but still took two coats on the rough lumber.

Isaac helped me paint (left handed). Two gallons did the full frame plus one coat on the house wall.

Plastic is regular industrial 4 mil, from a 10 x 100 foot roll. It's stapled, with lath holding it tightly to the wall studs and rafters. We haven't had a serious blow yet but it has held up with no difficulty in 15 - 20 MPH gusts.

I'm very happy that enclosing the entire potting area occurred to me. I worked through all kinds of designs before that obvious idea struck. I built a simple sliding door.

This is looking west from inside the potting area.

Looking east from the west door. There are four roof vents (visible at upper left), and two wall vents.

Painting the interior wall white made an unbelievable difference in overall brightness.

The floor is covered with heavy duty weed block fabric and medium bark. There's quite a lot of unused space for pots or benches, or I could get a lot more square foot footage by running boxes the full length of each wall.

I haven't decided whether to use a multi-wall polycarbonate or a clear corrugated polycarbonate for the permanent glazing. I was thinking that I really wanted the clarity of the corrugated, but have been finding that I enjoy the feeling of being in a different world that the translucent plastic provides. The diffuse lighting of multi-wall will be similar, though with better light transmission, and is probably better for growing anyhow.

I really, really like being inside this thing! I still have to wire the GFCI outlet and look into getting automatic vent openers but other than that it's fully functional.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

a square foot garden and a greenhouse

I grew up in a serious gardening family and always had my own summer garden. I think I was about 10 the year in which I grew so many pumpkins that I sold them to a local natural food store. Sadly, I have grown very little food, other than herbs, since my childhood. In the last few years I've toyed with tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, but not all that seriously or successfully. This year I'm finally making a credible attempt at growing a lot more of what I want to put on the table.

As preparation for this undertaking I've absorbed quite a bit of information from several gardening and greenhouse books:
The first three books were particularly useful. I decided to follow the square foot method, and to use a greenhouse to extend the season for summer crops (I will harvest ripe tomatoes some day!) and permit four season production of others.

I'm going to track my gardening efforts here as an element of the cooking theme. I may take a stab at growing some hops for brewing, too. Coffee production is probably out of the question, though!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

first Turkish coffee

I've been wanting to try Turkish coffee (making and drinking) for a long time. A few weeks ago I finally made it to a local Turkish shop, Istanbul Imports, where I bought what is very commonly called an ibrik, but which the proprietor assured me was properly called a cezve. In Turkey an ibrik is something else.

I had a very good stovetop popper moka kadir roast and the simple instructions in Kenneth Davids' Coffee book to follow. I ground the beans at the finest Turkish setting.

For two servings at light sweetness I added four rounded teaspoons of coffee and two teaspoons of sugar to the empty cezve, filled it halfway with water, then stirred to dissolve the sugar.

It went onto a burner at medium heat and in a few minutes boiled. It foamed vigorously to the top, at which point I removed it and poured into demitasse cups. The foam should completely cover the coffee, and there is apparently some art to generating and/or preserving it. I don't think mine was quite right but it doesn't seem like there's that much of a trick to it. I may be missing something. It does diminish rapidly after being taken off the heat.

It was quite tasty. I think this is probably the right sweetness for me, but I'll try it at full sweetness (twice the sugar; thrice for heavy sweet) next time. This is a nice way to get a quick coffee fix without waiting for water to boil or the espresso machine to heat.

Update: I tried again at full sweetness, and also allowed the foam to dissipate and build a few times by removing and restoring the heat, a technique which I read about somewhere. I don't know if that contributed, or if the additional sugar is a factor, but I did get a more durable head. Tracey and I both thought it was very good.

Monday, April 20, 2009

coffee pot ale, part 6 (tasting 2)

I tossed the one liter bottle of the coffee pot ale into the fridge the other day and opened it this afternoon. What a surprise! Another nine weeks of conditioning has made a detectable difference. The carbonation is a little more complete, the hops put in a clear and lingering appearance, it has a pleasant tanginess, and while it's still not extremely interesting it's quite drinkable. So, what is interesting is that this is a clear illustration that a little more time in the bottle can produce a notable improvement.

It's now all gone, so experiment over.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

grilled lamb and mushrooms with spinach

I had a leg of lamb that was begging to be eaten and a grill just itching to be fired up after two consecutive days without rain. What could I do but oblige them both?

I rubbed the lamb with olive oil and dried Mediterranean herbs then grilled it very slowly over indirect heat. At about 125 degrees I turned up the heat and gave it a little crust. Very nice. If I did it again I'd take the meat off the grill while it heats and get a slightly crispier exterior.

The interior was a perfectly consistent medium rare.

Side dish was sauteed mushrooms and garlic with baby spinach, taken just past wilting. I sure like using All-Clad pans on the gas burner. Some day I have to replace the electric stovetop.

Friday, April 10, 2009

fourth brew (Belgian witbier), part 7

Measured the gravity and tasted the Belgian witbier. Gravity is around 1.015, or about where it should be finishing. Every day or two I've been rocking the carboy, which causes a bit of additional bubbling but not much. That's a drop of only .002 in nearly two weeks, so I'm fairly sure it's done.

The flavor is still disappointing. It may have improved slightly since racking and tasting, but I'm not thrilled. It's certainly identifiable as a witbier but has a harshness that seems out of character for the style. I'll try to get it primed and bottled this weekend. Perhaps a few more weeks of conditioning and some carbonation will help.

I stopped by the Cellar to check into ways to reuse all these very nice 750 ml Belgian bottles I've accumulated. It did not look promising without using some serious corking hardware. Some web searching confirms that they right way to do this is with purpose-built corks and a beefy corker. The plastic champagne stoppers won't produce a reliably tight seal. Between buying the corks and wire cages at $.20 apiece and up, and renting a corker (not going to buy one for $80 - $120), it doesn't make much sense.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

sourdough bread 9

This was a straightforward implementation of the no-knead 1-2-3 method with a 12 hour rise. The only modifications were that I slashed a large X on the loaf and baked it on parchment paper in the dutch oven.

It hit an internal temperature of 207 at 18 minutes into the uncovered phase so I pulled it.

I was very pleased with the top crust, but the bottom was a touch overdone in the center despite the dutch oven being on the middle rack. It's not a serious problem; fixing it would be a slight but welcome improvement.

It ended up a bit squat and more dense than I thought I wanted. However, it tastes great and the crumb is soft, moist, and chewy. Considering what I think is one of the better crusts I've produced, I like it very much overall.

So, is it the slashing that improved the crust? I'll try it again. I guess I like the idea of the loaf ending up a little taller, but I wouldn't want to alter the other characteristics much to get it. Things to try:
  • a smaller dutch oven rather than the very large Lodge
  • a second rise after forming the loaf

Friday, April 3, 2009

Belgian witbier tasting notes 4

St. Bernardus Wit was the last witbier remaining from my recent shopping excursions. Time to hit another specialty store for more.

The most interesting thing about this wit is that it was created with the assistance of Pierre Celis, the man responsible for resurrecting the style some decades back. It is bottle-conditioned, highly carbonated, and pours with an enormous, dense, and long-lasting head. More sour than most, considerably more wheaty, well-balanced, and subtle in its flavorings. It is the anti-Weinhard's. I really liked it but if I were tasting it alongside other witbiers I'm not sure I'd even identify it specifically as a wit.