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...

Watermelon Rind Pickles
  • One medium to large watermelon with some green rind present between the outer skin and the pink flesh (harder to find than you might think)
  • 3 cups white vinegar
  • 3 cups filtered water
  • 1 lemon, coarsely chopped
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 T. whole allspice
  • 1 whole star anise
  • 1 T candied or fresh ginger
Slice the watermelon and trim both outer skin and pink flesh away from the green rind. Cut the rind in desired shape and size, but don't go with pieces smaller than about a square inch. 

Mix up a brine of all ingredients except the watermelon rind. Bring the brine to a boil and stir until the sugar melts. Add the rind to the mix, stirring the pot off the heat. Cover the pot and left the pickles to marinate for at least four hours and as long as overnight.

When you've finished marinating the rind, remove the allspice and anise, and put the pot back on a medium-high heat. Because my pickle slices were small, I just barely brought the brine to a boil and then removed it from the heat. If you have larger slices, you might want to let the pot stay on the heat for a few minutes. Be careful not to overcook your rind though; you don't want it to get soggy. 

Once the brine has cooled a bit, you can pour it into a jar (use a glass container rather than a plastic one). Let it cool completely before refrigerating. These will be best if used in the first week of refrigerating. 

Watermelon Lemon Mint Jelly  
  • 4-5 cups chopped watermelon
  • 2 cups sugar (I used granulated, but I've been wondering how half brown sugar, half white would be)
  • 1 1/2 t. vanilla extract or the inside of one vanilla bean 
  • 3 T. pectin (classic)
  • 2 T. lemon juice
  • 2 T. lemon mint (finely chopped)
Chop your watermelon and put it 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, run the whole pot of liquid and fruit through the blender (let it cool a bit before you put in the blender). Return to the pot and add two tablespoons of lemon juice to ensure acidity; then add 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla.

Add in three tablespoons of standard pectin, bring it to a boil, reduce the heat, and add in two tablespoons of lemon mint. Ladle into sterilized jars and process this in a water bath for ten minutes.