Soil and Cellar

Growing and preserving foods in Seattle


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January in the Garden

This isn’t actually about what’s going on in the garden NOW, because that’s a whole lotta nothing. In keeping with my recap/resolutions last week, I’m going to run down the couple of fun things going on in our garden in the last year.

All in all, it was a low key year in the garden. My weekends weren’t spent very productively. But we spent plenty of time hanging out outside, having bbqs and dining with friends.

Thimbleberries on the shrub, in various stages of ripening. You can also see how soft and large these leaves are (I have heard them called - jokingly? - "nature's toilet paper.")

Thimbleberries on the shrub, in various stages of ripening. You can also see how soft and large these leaves are (I have heard them called – jokingly? – “nature’s toilet paper.”)

Thimbleberries galore! Thimbleberry – Rubus parviflorus – is a Northwest native shrub with sweet berries. I picked these as they ripened in July – about a handful a day – and froze them. I ended up with about a cup of frozen berries after a couple weeks. They’re so small, I couldn’t think of the best way to use them so I just ate them. This year I’ll make a plan. Sometimes it takes me a couple years to figure out how to harvest and use edibles.

Desert King figs are green with pink centers. This is the type that does the best in Seattle.

Desert King figs are green with pink centers. This is the type that does the best in Seattle.

We got our first figs off the tree! I am super proud of that. They were delicious! I hope for way more this year, and soon I’ll have enough to make fig jam. Fingers crossed! No fruit on the prune yet, but we’re hopeful for this year.

Our raised beds installed. Here we are checking the level, and adding cardboard at the bottom. We have tons of morning glory in this part of the yard, so we wanted to beat it back as much as possible.

Our raised beds installed. Here we are checking the level, and adding cardboard at the bottom. We have tons of morning glory in this part of the yard, so we wanted to beat it back as much as possible.

Also, we finally built our raised beds! They are installed, and just need soil and we’ll be ready to go this spring. We better get started soon, President’s Day is around the corner.

Saffron crocus - Crocus sativus - flower showing off some of its potential.

Saffron crocus – Crocus sativus – flower showing off some of its potential.

And saving the best for last. The Crocus sativus bloomed and gave us saffron again this year. Last year, I picked saffron but didn’t get to use any of it. I tried to shield you from this painful truth (ie, was embarrassed)… it molded! I thought it was totally dried by the time I stored it, but there was still enough moisture and it went bad. This year I am keeping it in an open container, so as not to trap any moisture. Now I just need to use it. Soon, soon… I have about 10 strands. Does anyone have any ideas for how to use it?

Check back this spring, I hope to have a lot more to report!


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Fig Blueberry Pie

The finished pie, not too pretty but awfully delicious!

The finished pie, it fell apart but was awfully delicious!

I was at a party at a friend’s house recently, and she has a Desert King Fig tree that is putting out figs like crazy (that’s the same kind of fig I planted this spring). I was literally stuffing myself with figs for lunch. I think she took pity on me, or maybe she had like 5 buckets of figs and needed to unload a few. At any rate, lucky me, I went home with a dozen figs – 2 days before my neighborhood potluck!

Figs (and the blind-baked piecrust).

Figs (and the blind-baked piecrust).

I had these figs, but not really enough to go crazy with. Since blueberries are cheap because of a bumper crop this year, I thought I’d mix the two. I saw are a few recipes online for this, but none that really met all my pie needs. So I mished and mashed and made up a recipe that works for me. I like that there are chunks of fruit, and also some that are cooked down and saucy.

blueberries

Fig Blueberry Pie

Ingredients:

1 Pie crust (I always use this one from Cook’s Illustrated, it’s fantastic, but use whatever is your go-to crust)
Egg (for egg wash, optional)

Filling:

¾ cup sugar
3 Tbsp tapioca starch or cornstarch (approximate)
4 cups washed and sorted blueberries
16 oz figs (about a dozen), washed and trimmed
2 Tbsp lemon juice

Crumble Topping (adjusted from a recipe I got out of Cooking Light years ago):

½ cup flour
½ cup old fashioned rolled oats
¼ cup packed brown sugar
1/8 tsp salt
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup chopped almonds

Peeling the figs. When I eat them raw I eat the whole thing, but for baking wanted to reduce the amount of skin and pith.

Peeling the figs. When I eat them raw I eat the whole thing, but for baking wanted to reduce the amount of skin and pith. Those don’t hold much flavor and are firmer than the flesh inside.

1. Preheat oven to 425. Blind bake the piecrust partially, because you’ll be baking it again once the fruit is in. To do this, first chill the crust in a pie plate, then weigh it down with pie weights on parchment and bake at 425 for 10 minutes. Remove the weights, apply an egg wash if desired (1 egg mixed with a little water, for glistening brownness), and return to oven at 375 for 5 minutes. Let cool on counter while you prepare the fruit.

2. Keep the oven on at 375.

figs sliced

3. Take about 2/3 of the blueberries and cook with sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the starch bit by bit, to get the thickness you want. Stir gently and regularly until it is bubbly (about 12 minutes). You want it to be thick but not as thick as jam. It will thicken a little more before serving, too. Cool a bit, like 20 minutes, just so that it isn’t hot when you pour it into the crust.

Cooking the blueberries, sugar, starch, and lemon juice.

Cooking the blueberries, sugar, starch, and lemon juice.

4. Peel the figs, if desired. (I did because these Desert King figs have a thick and slightly bitter skin). Slice into quarters, and place in a mixing bowl. Add the remaining blueberries.

Raw blueberries and figs. Beautiful!

Raw blueberries and figs. Beautiful!

5. Add the cooked blueberries to the raw fruit. Fold gently to mix.

Raw fruit folded in with warmed fruit syrup.

Raw fruit folded in with warmed fruit syrup. You could stop here and put this on ice cream, too!

6. Prepare the topping: mix everything but butter together using a whisk or fork. Add melted butter, and stir until the butter is evenly distributed and the mixture is all clumpy.

Dry ingredients for the crumble topping. The original recipe had me cutting cold butter into this mix. Silly! It's not a pastry, it's just crumble topping. Pour melted butter over it and stir, it's so much faster.

Dry ingredients for the crumble topping. The recipe I took this from had me cutting cold butter into this mix. Silly! It’s not pastry, it’s just crumble topping. Pour melted butter over it and stir, it’s so much faster.

7. Pour fruit into piecrust. Sprinkle topping over fruit. Place pie on a cookie sheet and bake at 375 for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350, and cook another 30 minutes. The filling should be bubbly and the topping browned. It may take more time than this.

Ready to go in the oven. Exciting!

Ready to go in the oven. Exciting!

8. Try to wait and let it cool completely before serving. (I almost never do. I’m impatient and warm pie is delicious, and also I tend to put off making the pie until the last minute and we have to leave the moment it’s out of the oven. Last year at Thanksgiving, I had an apple pie ooze its juices onto D’s backseat on the way to a friend’s house. Whoops!)

Voila! Finished pie, ready to serve.

Voila! Finished pie, ready to serve.

This was a satisfying experiment, and my neighbors enjoyed it. The tartness of the blueberries joined well with the earthy sweetness of the figs. My pie was a little too sweet, so I’ve reduced the sugar here. Also, the looseness of the filling meant it was more of a crumble with piecrust nearby, so I upped the starch in this recipe. But you know, just because it isn’t pretty doesn’t mean it isn’t tasty!

I can’t wait until next year (or the year after?) when I have figs of my own. Yum!


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Pea Flowers

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written about our garden, so I thought I’d drop in a quick update. Soon I will post about the construction of our raised beds; I just have to, you know, construct them. It will involve saws and drills, quite exciting!

Garden front May

Our front yard. Included are epimedium, nepeta (catmint), hellebore, columbine, lilac, spirea, stewartia (tree), Rhododendron thompsonii (with the red new growth) and peony ‘Bartzella’ back against the house.

Here’s a picture of our front yard. It’s a jungle right now, which D loves. I do too, but I also find it a bit overwhelming. It’s that first flush of spring when every plant gets a little bigger, a little closer to its neighbor, and makes me worry we have too much in too small a space. At some point things will need to be shuffled about, but not just yet. (I say that every year.)

Of note, that peony in the background was a wedding gift from a dear friend and it’s my favorite plant in our yard – Peony ‘Bartzella.’ It’s fancy but seriously worth it. It’s intersectional, which means it’s a cross between a tree peony and herbaceous peony, and the best of both worlds. The blossoms are 6-8” and just so beautiful.

Peony 'Bartzella' flowers up close.

Peony ‘Bartzella’ flowers up close.

Ok, on to the food producing plants! The peas have been growing well, are a good ways up the trellis, and are blooming. I am so excited. I realize that’s silly, they are the easiest things to grow, but it’s just so satisfying. I placed them in the ground with my fingers, and weed them and water them. I would never be so foolish to say that they are like my own little honor students, but I do feel pride. And impatience. When do I get to eat them? Not yet! Why? Because they don’t have fruit! Oh.

Pea flower. I love how it looks like an cartoon dog, or an angry old man.

Peas with flowers. I love how the blossom looks like a cartoon dog, or an angry old man.

And finally, the “orchard” is looking healthy. The fig leaves have expanded and are quite beautiful. I water it regularly because we’ve had such a warm spring and I planted it bare root. The Italian prune is also looking good, although I did have to cut back two branches that were dead. ☹ Keeping fingers crossed on that one. I feel nervous because we lost one prune a couple years ago, and I don’t want to lose this one, too. For you non-Seattleites out there, Italian prunes are nearly ubiquitous in Seattle, and are phenomenally delicious. Every summer offices all over town have bowls of prunes for coworkers to take, because almost no one can use all the fruit that one tree produces. I plan to try, but will of course have to wait a year or two for fruit. More patience.

Fig leaves, keep on chugging along little fig!

Fig leaves getting bigger. Keep on chugging along, little fig!

Hope you’re all having a great spring. What are you excited about in your garden?


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Our new fig tree

Last summer, my coworker (KristinPotPie, read her blog here) gave me a bunch of figs from her tree. They were wonderful! I ate some raw and took a bowl home to make jam. Well, the jam didn’t turn out – probably because I didn’t use a recipe. But D and I decided we wanted our own bounty of figs every summer!

Emerging leaves on our Desert King fig

Emerging leaves on our Desert King fig

This year is the year we finally got fruit trees in our garden. We planted an Italian prune over the winter, and yesterday I planted the fig. It’s a Desert King, which we heard does the best here in Seattle. The fruit are green with pink flesh. I know we aren’t likely to get fruit for a few years, but the best time to plant a tree is always right now. How I wish we’d done it 5 years ago when we moved in!

After we decided where to plant it, I had to remove the “lawn” and make a bed. “Lawn” is in quotes because it’s just weeds, we’ve been trying to eliminate it for years and the only thing that keeps coming back are the weediest grasses, dandelions, and morning glory. At any rate, I dug the bed a few days ago, and yesterday was ready to plant.

Washing the root ball so I could detangle the roots.

Washing the root ball so I could detangle the roots.

The untangled roots, some of which were close to 3 feet long!

The untangled roots, some of which were close to 3 feet long!

The tree was in a pot about 8” across and was completely root-bound. What I thought would take 15-minute turned into an hour-long project. It’s not wise to plant a tree with circling roots – as the tree grows the roots will stay put and get thicker, eventually strangling one another and the trunk. So I teased out the roots, washing off the soil as I went. Once they were all loose I had to cut a few roots that were too thick to straighten out. This is totally fine, as long as you make clean cuts and don’t go too extreme.

Spreading the roots out in the planting hole.

Spreading the roots out in the planting hole.

I had to dig the hole wide to get all the roots to lay flat, but only about 3” deep! If you water in the soil as you go, it will settle amongst the roots naturally. You don’t want to step on them to compact the soil, at most use your fingers or hands, but I think water works best. I then added a top dressing of compost, for nutrients, and will be adding mulch as soon as I get some. Compost on top of soil has a tendency to dry out and become hydrophobic, so putting mulch over it helps it retain moisture.

So now I have a fig tree. I think I gave it a good start, and will soon be rewarded for my efforts. Fingers crossed!

Planted fig.

Planted fig.