Moss!

As far as plant cuteness goes, there is a tie between pussy willows and moss. I happened upon a small patch while looking for fossils with my 8 year old.

moss-austin
Plush moss near Hamilton Pool Road.

This area of Texas is fairly dry and rocky, so you wouldn’t expect to find moss hiding out under the trees. But there it is! Bein’ all cute with its wittle teddy bear fuzz.

Austin Tea Blend: Eat the Landscape

40% Turk’s Cap flowers

50% Bee Balm leaves

10% Mexican Tarragon

I have experimented with Turk’s Cap for a few years–with entirely mediocre results. I think this is finally a winning recipe. I treated it like a hibiscus flower and dried it for tea.

turks-cap-teabag-webturks-cap-tea-prepared

All three are native to Texas. Turk’s Cap prefers partial shade, and the other two require full sun.

I dried my leaves and flowers in the oven over a couple of days. 225F for about 40 minutes the first day–turning them every 10 minutes with a spatula. I let them dry for 2 days in a single layer in my kitchen. Then I put them in the oven again for 15 minutes to fully dry. That did the trick…this time.

Just so you know: Austin is fairly humid, so drying plants is a bit of a challenge. When I made egg white meringues one time, they took about double the time to make than Martha Stewart’s recipe called for. And then they got sticky by the morning. I sent them with my husband to work. LOL. sticky meringues. classy.

Tea bags! If you drink loose tea, you will already have bags, a strainer, or a teaspoon contraption. These are small, inexpensive items just to have around. Or you can take the nuclear option and just pour boiling water over the leaves like a madman.

American Beauty Berry, Turk’s Cap, and Pomegranate Jelly

 

These are the ingredients available in my yard today. I did not have enough American beauty berry or Turk’s cap fruits to make more than a pint of jelly. So, I took a chance on my pomegranates, which are HIDEOUS this year. I seriously thought they’d be rotted out and full of worms from the looks of them.

HOW APPETIZING IS THAT? I’ll show you the yuck after the recipe. Truly hideous.

INSTRUCTIONS ON HARVEST

  1. Grab a medium-sized bowl and run your fingers under the beauty berries to catch them. They are total escape artists.
  2. If you have any Turk’s cap, pop off the little apples. Then, if you are interested, pull off some flowers. Remove the green part and stamen right in the garden.
  3. You can eat the little apples and the Turk’s cap flowers. A bit plain, to be honest. The flowers are sweeter than the fruits.
  4. You can eat the beauty berries straight off the plant. They are so meh. Like an unripe persimmon. I mean, go right ahead. You won’t get sick. But they aren’t anything to write home about.

RECIPE

This part is hard because you aren’t collecting the usual fruits and berries. This is by no means a science.

I ended up with 1.5 cups of these wild berries, which is not worth my canning time. I added in some questionable looking pomegranates from my yard to get 4 cups of uncooked fruits. Despite their gross appearance, the fruit was fine in the pomegranates. Underripe, of course, given the time of year. But edible.

TO START

  1. 4 cups of berries (The beauty berries and Turk’s cap fruits are not sweet or particularly strong in flavor. If you have like a cup of berries, add a plain tasting fruit to the mix. Apple, maybe. I had pomegranates.)
  2. Clean them (no green parts) and boil down for 20 minutes. Add a few tablespoons of water at first so you don’t burn it.
  3. Mush the mix while boiling to ensure you get a lot of juice.
  4. Put a colander over a bowl. Ladle in the cooked mix and squish through to get what you can of the juices. You can wait until the mix is not boiling hot to do this.

CANNING STEP 1: Sterilize jars

You need to boil a couple of jars for 10 minutes to sterilize. I chose 2 pint jars and 1 half-pint. Just wash the lids in hot water and mild soap. Do not boil them. You’ll ruin the seal.

JELLY MAKING

This year I have been using a low-sugar pectin for a change. The amount of sugar required for regular pectin is terrifying. It’s been a bit of an experiment. For this recipe, I ended up using more sugar than recommended by the label to ensure a solid product.

  1. 3 cups of juice (I had to add water to get there. The mix was fairly pulpy, so the added water helped the texture.)
  2. Citric acid. You must make this mix acidic to ensure that it will jell and be preserved. I used the juice of 2 organic Lemon Drop citrus in my yard. Oh? You don’t have that? Then give up now. KIDDING. Get some lemon juice or something. The concentrate in the little plastic lemon will be fine. 2-3 tbs. Not too tart! Unless you like that.
  3. 3 tbs of low-sugar pectin. Whisk it in gradually. Otherwise you get a lumpy gravy. Rolling boil for 1 minute before adding sugar.
  4. Start with 1/2 cup of sugar, whisked in gradually. Rolling boil for 1 minute. Reduce to low heat.
  5. Get a spoon and put an ice cube on it to cool it. Stick it in the jelly mix. If after about 30 sec-1 minute on the cold spoon it isn’t looking very jelly-like, consider adding a bit more sugar. (This is the hard part. I had a really stiff grape jelly this year using the minimum sugar the product recommended. Use your best judgment. And don’t fret.)
  6. If the jelly looks decently thick (NOT watery, but kind of a syrup), you can stop cooking.
  7. Wait until it is not boiling hot so you do not burn yourself from a splash.
  8. Pour into the sterilized containers. (If you have extra, just grab a clean-but unsterile- container. Pour in, and refrigerate immediately. Use within a week or so.)

CANNING STEP 2: Hot Bath

  1. Place lid and rim around the jelly right away and hand-tighten. Don’t go crazy on the lid. You do want to be able to open it later, right?
  2. BATH TIME! Hard boil water–enough to basically submerge the jars. Then stick them in for 10 minutes (sea level). What happens if you don’t entirely submerge them? Certain death. Kidding! I’ve never had a problem. I eat my stuff within a year. If it looks or smells off when you open the container later, throw it out! Gross. Do not eat spoiled food. Crimeny.

CANNING STEP 3: Despair

  1. OMG. Lid popped and sealed. My jelly is not setting. I am going to cry! What a waste of time. GAHHHH! What do I do?
  2. Hmm. It’s no longer hot to the touch and still watery. I should probably still cry.
  3. Wait! I will put it in the fridge for a bit. ooo. It was fine after an hour. Despair over.
  4. Alternative scene: Oh no. Liquid. Overnight in fridge. I give up! We will have syrup for pancakes. (Good for you!)
  5. Alternative scene 2: Liquid? No. Not on my watch. (Crazy person) I’m opening these jars up and boiling again. More pectin. More sugar! I HAVE MADE A LOAF OF INEDIBLE JELLY. BOW DOWN TO THE BRICK. YOU EAT THE BRICK. EAT IT!

turks-cap-and-beauty-berry-jelly

 

_________

My pomegranates have suffered this year from the heavy rains. And vicious squirrel attacks. And sunburn.

A good part of the crop has been half-chewed by squirrels and has exploded due to excessive moisture. Exploded, chewed, burnt pomegranates. Ew.

I was surprised to see that the ugly balls actually have decent seeds inside. black-spot-pomegranate

They are underripe. Picked them out of morbid curiosity.

pomegranate-black-spot

Not one bit worm-addled. Huh. Still ugly as cuss on the outside, though.

 

 

 

 

 

Turk’s Cap and Mexican Tarragon Meringues

meringue-cookie
Fluffy and Crunchy!

What you’ll need:

  • A decent Recipe for meringue which will include: egg whites, pinch of salt, confectioner’s sugar, and if desired, cream of tartar to stiffen the peaks. Lots can go wrong when you make meringues. Have patience with both the whipping of the whites, inclusion of sugar, and low heat baking. It took me about 2.5 hours of baking at 170-200 to get the cookies to dehydrate and solidify.
  • A handful of Turk’s cap flowers
  • 4-5 Mexican tarragon leaves (also known as Mexican mint marigold)
  • Blender for the sugar and dried flowers
  • Parchment paper
  • Cookie sheet

I endeavor to use the plants in my garden, particularly the native ones, in my cooking. I’ll admit that I haven’t had a whole lot of luck with the Turk’s cap in past recipes because there isn’t much flavor there.

meringue-cookie-turks-cap
One of the many flowers on this bush

I had a ton of egg whites left over from making an icebox lemon pie and had to find a use for them. I don’t care for plain meringues, so I began looking up flavorful recipes. That’s when it hit me: I could use Mexican tarragon for flavor and my Turks cap for color. Mexican tarragon has a slight anise/licorice scent to it, which I figured would add a nice fragrance to this plain fluff of a cookie.

Meringue-cookie-Mexican-tarragon
Mexican tarragon in my garden.

After picking the Turk’s cap, make sure to remove the stamens and any leaf parts that get in there.  They aren’t poisonous, but they will muddle the pink color. Rinse thoroughly to ensure all the little bugs and pollen have been washed off.

Meringue-cookie1

 

Next, you’ll have to dehydrate the tarragon and petals. I set my oven for 250 for 5 minutes and checked on the progress. It took me 15 minutes to get the petals nice and crispy. You’ll note that there is very little tarragon in there–maybe 4-5 leaves. It can become overpowering fast, so it’s best to use just a bit.

meringue-cookie-turks-cap-dehydrateThe next step is to put the confectioner’s sugar in the blender with the desiccated petals. The resulting mix should turn out sort of light pink depending on how many petals you used.

meringue-cookie-sugar
Make sure your petals are very dry or they’ll make a mess of the confectioner’s sugar.

Some bakers insist that you cannot make meringues in humid weather. You can, but you will need to cook them at a lower temperature and for much longer than the 2 hours most recipes provide. I started at 200 degrees, but my meringues started browning. So I turned the over down to 170 for the rest of the process.

Some meringues hardened faster than others. If they are still chewy when you take them out, you haven’t cooked them long enough. Visit Martha Stewart for more advice on meringue cookies.

Chile Piquin in Macro

In an olive background.
In an olive background.

If you live in central/west Texas, you may have encountered the Chile Piquin. This plant is native to the area, which means it spreads easily. Some have complained that it is aggressive. Eh, that’s what I like about it.

In context with unripened berries.
In context with unripened berries.

This plant is fantastic in our zone (Austin). If you don’t like it spreading, pluck the seedlings when you find them.

Some idea of proportion.
Some idea of proportion.

The berries (chili peppers as most would call them) are tiny. Like your pinky nail. Very small. I find them to be a huge pain to pick for that reason.

You can dry them in the oven for use later. Certainly they can be used in a preserve like jalapeño jelly. I haven’t tried that yet. Supposedly, the wildlife enjoys eating the berries. I haven’t caught a bird on those bushes to date.

(Another set taken with a rented Nikon Nikkor macro lens.)

Bugs in the Yard

Sometimes you get cute bugs, like butterflies or bees.

Then there are other times…dark times filled with horror. Like when you spot a giant garden spider hanging out in your flowers. Or worse yet, you overturn a brick and a freaky looking millipede is curling itself into a ball.

Black and yellow female garden spider.
Black and yellow female garden spider.
Bee in a Turk's Cap flower.
Bee in a Turk’s Cap flower.
A nasty grub and a millipede.
A nasty grub and a millipede.