Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gardening, Watermelon Lemon Mint Jelly, and Pickled Watermelon Rind

So, now that I've finished this crazy degree, it seemed like the time to put in a garden. I've half-heartedly yearned for one for years, especially since I started canning. Yearning in earnest this year, and egged on by my apartment-bound best friend who also loves to garden, I finally did it!

This year, the timing really worked out because we had this giant live oak that shaded the whole backyard, and half of it fell over, leaving the bare patch you see below. There was some (minimal) landscaping back here, but between the enormous fallen tree, the guys who cleaned the tree up and the guys who rebuilt the fence, there wasn't much of anything green left. So we decided raised beds were the way to go. We stripped the remaining landscaping and tilled up half the backyard. (Much to my husband's amusement, he came home one day to both of us in cammo cargo short and sports bras, tilling like mad.)
Then we built a compost pile and six 4x8 beds. This may have been overly ambitious, having never had a garden, but whatever. I'm lucky that there wasn't a bunch of grass to kill off, and the soil was in pretty good shape, as the previous owners were organic gardeners.
My best friend took on the task of starting our seedlings at her apartment. While this began as a highly organized endeavor, it didn't end up that way. Between having to restart some seedlings that died and her boyfriend sort of rearranging them, we wound up planting four beds of we-don't-really-know-what-we're-planting-so-SURPRISE! Always an adventure around here. It's been sort of like Christmas around here seeing what's going to sprout up next. I saw a green bell pepper yesterday poking up amongst a bunch of cucumber vine. I didn't even know we had planted bell peppers.
Above is the start of some baby plants: a squash plant  (top left), a stevia plant (top right), and what I later discovered to be watermelon (bottom left). Little did I know that the squash and watermelon would try to take over the WORLD. The below shot is about three weeks later.
Oddly, my squash has approximately one million blossoms on it, I have SEEN bees on it, and yet there was no actual squash happening for the first few months. We needed squash marriage counseling. I watched some You Tubes on how to hand pollinate the squash, but I couldn't find any girl flowers to use the boy flowers on! We have a gay squash. While I'm totally okay with that, I may need to plant a straight one so I can get some squash. However, all the boy flowers have made for some lovely stuffed, fried squash blossoms. UPDATE: 7/10-I found ONE round, green squash growing! And some girl flowers!! 
I also found my first watermelon! It's about the size of a grapefruit, but I'm pretty excited even though it's getting harder and harder to contain the watermelon vine. I've gotten several tomato cages to try to tame the squash and watermelon vines, but they're barely making a dent in all this crazy growth.
This funny fellow is a black Hungarian jalapeno. We have about four of these plants scattered about the beds, and they're very mild. Plus, they look cool. I'm not sure yet what I'll do with these. 

We also planted cherry and heirloom tomatoes (see my post on pickled fried green tomatoes here) and LOTS of rosemary to keep the bugs away. I think I have a cucumber vine (we'll see), AND I discovered a green jalapeno plant (I think). When I graduated last November, my lovely colleagues gave me a pot with rosemary, sage, and thyme, all of which are happily thriving, along with sunflowers (for my honey--he loves to have sunflowers in the house. He has an affinity with Van Gogh, but I'm hoping we can skip the whole ear situation), stevia, three kinds of mint, some purple speckled lima beans, dinosaur kale, strawberries, regular jalapenos, and chives. So kind of a motley collection now that I can identify most of it. 

Good Lord. Some of what we'd planted has withered away (the green beans in particular seemed unable to withstand the full sun). Some is barely limping along (poor basil), and some is going NUTS. However, I'm learning a lot for next year.
Here's a pic of yesterday's harvest. I just went out to clip a few things, no big deal. Then I cut into this watermelon. Holy Moses. If you haven't had juicy watermelon still warm from the sun, you must endeavor to have this experience soon. So I went out and got two more. Then I had a lot of watermelon to deal with. So guess what? Watermelon-Lemon Mint Jelly and Watermelon Rind Pickles happened.

I've seen recipes for watermelon rind pickles in my canning books for a while, but generally, grocery-store bought watermelons don't have enough rind to really work with. You're looking for the green flesh in between the outer skin and the pink part. One of the watermelons I picked was not quite ripe yet and still had quite a lot of rind, so I decided to check out this whole rind pickle situation. Most recipes advise to trim off all the pink, but the pink bit I left on was very firm. 
Cut the rind into whatever size/shape makes you happy.
While this recipe is very loosely based on Liana Krissoff's recipe in Canning for a New Generation, a great cookbook I talked about in this post.  I decided to make refrigerator pickles because I can't abide a soggy pickle. To avoid soggy pickles when processing, you have to use pickling lime and rinse and rinse and rinse it, and I just wasn't that gung-ho today. So I mixed up a brine of three cups white vinegar, three cups filtered water, one course chopped lemon, 1 3/4 cups sugar, a half a handful of whole allspice, one star anise, and one tablespoon of candied ginger. I brought this to a boil until the sugar was melted and added my rind to the mix, stirring the pot off the heat. I covered the pot and left the pickles to marinate overnight.  
The next morning, I removed the anise and allspice, brought the whole thing back up to a boil, and turned off the heat.
Before the second cooking. 
When the mix cooled, I funneled it into a quart jar and popped it in the fridge. These pickles are a really interesting sweet-tart treat! I think they would be great chopped into a salad, served along side something rich that needs some acid to cut it, or with a sandwich. 
On to the jelly. After I had filled a sizable container of watermelon to eat (I'm the only one at home who will), I decided some jelly was in order. I had about 4-5 cups of watermelon that I chopped and put in a sauce pan with two cups of sugar. Let this simmer until the sugar melts and the watermelon starts breaking down. I used a potato masher to help break up the flesh, and that also released a few yellow seeds I had missed so I could fish them out. When the fruit was quite tender, I ran the whole pot of liquid and fruit through the blender (I probably should have let it cool a bit first. I'll be cleaning sticky watermelon goodness off the ceiling for a bit). I added two tablespoons of lemon juice to ensure acidity and 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla to the mix.

Because I am total crap about sticking to recipes, I ordered some ph paper. To make sure a product is safe for water-bath canning, it needs to be at a ph of 4.6 or less. Any higher, and whatever you're canning needs to be pressure canned. Most canning recipes are carefully tested to determine what method needs to be used in the canning process. Because I like to fiddle, I wanted to ensure I wasn't going to poison anyone, especially because I'm fond of giving my canned goods as gifts. So now I go all mad scientist and test any recipes that I don't strictly follow (which is basically never).
When my jelly mix passed the test, I added in three tablespoons of standard pectin, brought it to a boil, reduce the heat, and added in two tablespoons of lemon mint from the garden. I processed this in a water bath for ten minutes. Yum! I'm always a bit tense to see if my jelly will actually set up, but this one did beautifully!

The last part that I saved from my watermelons were the seeds so I don't have to re-buy them next year. You can't plant hybrid watermelon seeds (which is usually what you get with store-bought melons), but mine aren't a hybrid variety. So I saved all the good, plump, black seeds (no cracked or yellow ones), washed them, and let them dry on paper towels. When they were dried, I put them in envelopes and in an airtight jar in the pantry. They're supposed to be viable for up to five years.
I'm really in love with my silly garden, and I'm excited to start planning for next year! Do you garden? What do you grow? What's your favorite thing to grow, whether it's on a patio, in a garden, or in pots in the kitchen window?

Up next, adventures in stevia. My stevia plant is gigantic, and I need to prune it and start preserving it soon!

Recipes follow...

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Pork Belly Smack Down--Happy July 4th!

Happy, happy July 4th! I hope you all had a safe holiday. I'm currently rubbing refrigerated aloe all over myself while I try to rehabilitate my liver, so ours was clearly a good time.

But about the cooking competition: this holiday, my sister and I chose pork belly as our cook-to-the-death ingredient, much to my husband's delight. Up to this point, I'd never cooked pork belly (which is basically a big slab of bacon before it's cured and cut). I went to the Asian market the Wednesday before the lake trip to get a small portion of pork belly to experiment on (again to my husband's delight). It was a total, epic disaster. I tried a couple of different variations of marinating it and scoring the skin and then proceeded to cook them all beyond recognition (poor husband was not so delighted). Charred crackling, anyone? So I was good and truly nervous. I sat down and looked through all my cookbooks, trying to find a different method of preparation. Sadly, all my favorite cookbooks let me down. Is everyone but me just born knowing how to cook a damn pork belly?!?

I was also thinking about the balance of the overall dish. Everyone likes a good mix of creamy, crunchy, sweet, salty, and acidic in a composed dish. I wandered out on Wednesday to water my silly garden while I was thinking this over, and then I spied several green heirloom tomatoes. Aha! I knew then that I wanted to do a fried green tomato, but with a kick.
So I made up a brine of water, apple cider vinegar, rice wine, brown sugar, sea salt, peppercorns, red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, mustard seeds, and fennel seeds. I put everything in a large saucepan and stirred it until the salt and brown sugar melted. I let it cool almost completely before I poured it over my sliced tomatoes so as to not cook them. They still needed to be fairly firm on Friday so I could bread and fry them. I had no idea if this whole pickled fried green tomato thing would work.
But it did! When the rest of the meal was nearly ready, I drained the tomatoes, coated them in flour, dipped them in milk, and then dredged them in a breadcrumb/cornmeal/flour combination before frying them in clarified butter.

But back to the pork belly. After Wednesday's abysmal failure, I had no clue what to do. Thursday rolled around, and it was time to get my groceries, get packed, and head to the lake. I still had no clue how to fix (don't laugh at my vernacular here) a good pork belly! The girl child and I went to Hirsch's Meat Market (a great local butcher shop near Parker and Alma in Plano, if you're a Dallas-ite), along with every other person in DFW who was looking to stock up on meat for the holiday. However, while I stood around for half an hour, waiting for my number to be called, I saw it! The perfect glaze (confirmed by the gentleman in front of me who purchased 25 pounds of ribs, three pounds of liver, and six pounds of tongue. I decided he was a legit source).
Right on. We were in business. So here's how the belly went down. I didn't score the tough skin layered over the fat because that just made a mess, but I did puncture it several times with a sharp knife after I seasoned it with salt and pepper so some of the fat could render out. I heated the biggest pan I could find (as I had a five-pound slab of pork belly) to about medium high, and hefted it, skin side down, into the hot pan to sear and render. Into another deep pan (oven safe with a lid), I poured one quart of chicken stock and added some pepper as well as a handful of fresh thyme and rosemary from the herb garden. While the broth warmed on a medium-low heat, I pulled off the belly when it was dark golden brown. With a great show of strength (see me flexing as I had to use two giant grill forks to move this ridiculous piece of meat?), I wrestled the giant belly into the broth, skin side up, and put it in a 325 degree oven to cook for a little over an hour. When both the fat and meat below were nice and soft, I glazed the skin side with my glaze and took it out to the grill for a last good sear to crisp up the skin. (You could also do this under the broiler). Let it rest for about 10 minutes or so before serving.
While the pork belly was cooking, I made some cheesy mashed potatoes. Nothing fancy. I just peeled and cut five baking potatoes, put them in a big pot of cold water, and brought it to a gentle boil until I could easily pierce them with a fork. Drain and put them back over the heat, shaking the pot, to burn off any excess water that will make your potatoes watery. I added about 4 T. of butter, 1T of sea salt, 2/3 cup heavy cream, 1/3 cup milk, and 1/2 cup chunked up cheddar cheese. As I added these ingredients, I tasted a lot to see if I liked the level of creamy/salty/cheesy. Keep in mind that the pork belly and tomato will have an element of salt as well, so don't over salt.

To really appreciate the final product, you had to get a bite with potatoes, pork belly, and tomato all together. It actually worked out really well, much my shock.

My fabulous competitor, my sister, made pulled pork belly tacos (with an agave nectar glaze) served with grilled pineapple and poblano peppers. YUM! Her dish was way prettier than mine.
By a very narrow margin, I won our fourth of July competition, which was a delightful mess. We (my spouse, sister and BIL, mom, daughter, and about ten friends) all spent the day at the lake (on the beach, not the boat. I hate taking the boat out on holiday weekends) eating bratwursts, drinking beer, and floating. We trooped into the house crazy hungry, sunburnt to a crisp, with sand in all our crevices, and proceeded to cook for two hours. Madness. But fun madness. I'm very grateful to live in a place where I can spend the day on the water with friends and family. Happy birthday, America! Or, as my friend Bloody Gaga says, 'Murica. And she says it while wearing a trucker hat with 'Murica airbrushed on it, gold hot pants, and while embracing an Elvis impersonator who smells of Axe, but that is another story....

Recipes follow the break here...