Texas Redbud

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Redbud trees are early bloomers. Thank goodness. My yard is severely drab right now and needed this bit of color. I just read that you can eat the flowers. I haven’t ever tried doing that. I’m not sure I will simply because bees and butterflies feed off the flowers, which don’t last long (no subsequent bloom later) and aren’t all that plentiful to start.

I took these pictures the Sunday before last. At first, I wasn’t too pepped because it was very cloudy. Then I realized that I could turn the cloudy sky into a clean white backdrop.

I did some other shots, most of which did not really work out.

But a few were kind of fun. I call this one “Fancy Flower Business Card.”

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Look at that negative space. Think of all the address and phone number action you could put there. EXCITING.

Austin Fossil Specimens: Cretaceous Period

My 9 year old has a developing interest in fossil hunting. It started a few years back when his grandfather, a former elementary school teacher, took him on fossil hunting trips around Austin.

Now I’ve developed an interest in specimen photography. Honestly? I am terrible at fossil hunting. Is this a fossil? (No, mom. It’s a rock. Put it down.) But is THIS a fossil? (Yes, but we already have a bunch of those. Put it down.) IS THIS A FOSSIL????

I’ll just stick to photography.

I experimented with using a black background, white background, and then making an in situ re-creation.

1. For the black background, I have 4 angles of the Exogyra ponderosa fossil.

2. I used a whitish background for my son’s science project.

3. For the in situ re-creations, I used “crafting” sand from JoAnn Fabrics. When I needed a taller background, I used limestone I picked up at the fossil sites.

 

4.  Issues/Problems/Concerns

  • BLACK BACKGROUND: As always, use clean black velvet. I was being lazy about that. WELL WELL WELL. Guess who had to spend way too much time with the clone tool? Stitch in time, people.
  • LIGHTING: I took these in daylight in the west side of my house. I turned on all the kitchen lights and used only one continuous light. I wanted drama/interest. I decided to enhance the shadows because so many specimens in books and online did not provide sufficient detail so that my kid could identify his fossils. Words are not nearly as helpful as a picture which captures the fossil’s significant details.
  • UNDEREXPOSE: My camera’s automatic exposure settings caused problems with the specimens (flattened the items/loss of detail). Underexpose slightly from what your meter says. You want to grab the shadows to keep the detail.  Then increase exposure a bit in post-process. If you blow out the highlights by overexposing, you will lose the tiny details which make a useful specimen. Increasing “clarity” in PS will just make a digitized mess of things and won’t get the depth back.
  • LENS: Yes, I took these on my kit lens for my entry-level Nikon DSLR. I haven’t bought a macro lens of any kind. For my purposes (blogging), I can crop and not worry about the final product having sufficient pixels. If you actually want to print these and have adequate detail, seek out a macro lens so you can get closer.
  • APERTURE: Depended. Just like focal length. Use your best judgment.
  • SPECIMEN MEASUREMENTS: I used a tape measure for my kid’s project. If you were going to assemble a large number of small specimen photos, I would not recommend that. Just give the measurements in a caption.
  • SPELLING: FRIIIIICCCKKKK. So many errors along the way. If I were to make a book, I would require an editor.
  • EXOGYRA ARIETINA v. ILYMATOGYRA ARIETINA: I see both online. It seems like books prefer the Ilymatogyra genus. Fossil taxonomy: I am no expert. Just interested in the pics. Again, I would require an editor for a book.

 

 

 

More Moss!

Here’s some more pretty winter moss in Austin, Texas. I took these at the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve. 16 years in this city, and I never heard of the place until I was researching places to find fossils. My son has a science fair project, so….

I’d feel bad not knowing about the preserver but my husband is from Austin and never heard of it. I think we may need to get out more.

I “underexposed” (AKA exposed for the sun on the moss) these for a dramatic feel.
moss-in-light-web Continue reading “More Moss!”

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.

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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.

Eat the landscape: Pickled Peppers

Hot peppers are the perfect small bushes for hot, sunny areas where other plants may not survive. Habaneros are especially cute in the fall because they have orange fruit for your traditional fall color. It can be in short supply here, flaming sumac aside. It is reported that you can eat the fruits of the flaming sumac, but I haven’t tried them yet.

Wait for me to try the flaming sumac fruits, and see if I live to tell the tale before you go do it. If I have posted an unfamiliar native plant in my recipes, I assure you I have eaten it repeatedly with no ill effect. Then I give it to my son to eat and see what happens. He’s my first-born, and thus, the experimental child.

how-to-pickle-peppers
A colorful mix of peppers and onion on the left and pickled habaneros hiding on the right.

For this giardiniera recipe, I used the puny green bell peppers I managed to grow this year, jalapeños that turned red on the bush, and store-bought onions. The smaller jar contains pickled habaneros.

An Austin restaurant, Azul Tequila, serves a red onion-habanero pickle with their carnitas de puerco dish. I love it, and it is easy to make.  You don’t have to process that pickle dish to use it. YES, EASY PICKLE. You can make this “quick pickle” by soaking the onions and peppers in vinegar for a few hours before serving.

For canning purposes, you’ll have a few more steps. After years of pickling, I have come up with a flavor profile I prefer, but I am not going to throw that at you. My one piece of advice for flavoring is to mix water, vinegar, sugar, and salt in a proportion you find tasty. Then pick your choice of herbs/spices. If you don’t like vinegar, you must use another type of acid to lower the Ph. People have actually gotten botulism from home-canned goods.

Then again, some people are gross and leave the Thanksgiving turkey out all night on the table and make soup of it in the morning after the cats gnawed on it. (True story from a friend whose in-laws do not follow proper hand washing technique…and more! My friend did not eat the soup.)

Please, please boil the jars for at least ten minutes. But not the lid with the wax ring. You boil that, you weaken the seal when you put it on your finished product. Anyone who tells you otherwise is working with out-of-date information. Hot, soapy water will clean them sufficiently. No bumpy/jagged edges for the glass, either.

  1. A 3:1 vinegar (does not really matter which kind) to water ratio. Or more vinegar if you like it.
  2. Salt to taste. We aren’t fermenting, so it’s not that important. Only Kosher salt!
  3. Sugar to taste–or none. I like to take the edge off the vinegar with it.
  4. Spices/herbs like mustard seed, peppercorns, or dill. It’s really up to you and the herbs and spices you prefer.
  5. Tightly pack your veggies, and pour the hot brine on them. Leave a bit of space (1/4 inch or so) between the filling and rim. Wipe rim dry with a dampened towel.
  6. Put the lid and band on, and boil for at least 10 minutes. Take out, let cool before storing.

I’ve never had the seal not “pop” shut. But if a jar doesn’t pop shut after a couple of hours, do not store the jar. Process with a new lid.

I have overfilled jars before, which I notice when I put the lid on, try to close the jar, and hot brine overflows. WHOOPS.  Just dump some of the brine out, wipe the rim and lid, and close it again.

 

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.

Chile Pequin Recipe: Eat the Landscape

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Ingredients for a chile piquin hot sauce–Tabasco style.

 

I’ve dried these in the oven before for ground red pepper. You can also wait for them to dry on the plant. Then you cut the stems and shake the peppers off. 

You can pick the green or red peppers and use them in salsa–however you’d use a hot pepper.

There’s a lot of educational stuff below the recipe. Read it if you are interested in using more of your landscape for food. You probably should read it because, you know, zombie apocalypse. You’ll need this information when that happens.

Ingredients

  1. 1/2 cup chile pequin peppers (AKA Chile petin, Bird pepper, Turkey pepper)
  2. 1/2 cup onion
  3. 1.5 tbsp. minced garlic
  4. 1 cup vinegar
  5. Salt to taste

 

RECIPE (Go see Emeril Lagasse for a better explanation.)

  1. Get a kid to harvest the red berries of the Grand Chile Pequin. This will cost you a few additional dollars for allowance. But the tedium you avoid is worth a 5 note. I don’t use the green berries because they aren’t as fragrant.
  2. Emeril’s recipe: He says 20 serranos or tabascos. Depending on your love of spiciness, get 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup of the pequin peppers.
  3. A clove or two of minced garlic. I also mush mine with the knife and some salt. Mom taught me to do that.
  4. A half of a medium onion. He says to slice thinly. It hardly matters because:
  5. Sautee for 3 minutes. Put 2 cups of water in and cook down for about 20 minutes until the liquid is gone.
  6. Blender. With a cup of vinegar. He said to use white vinegar, so I did. I doubt something untoward will happen should you use white wine vinegar. BUT WHO KNOWS. I live dangerously.
  7. Sieve it. Then do it again. And again. And again. Until you’ve got more of a liquid than a thick Pepper Smoothie.
  8. Put in a sterile (boiled 10 minutes) jar. Lid. Put in fridge for at least 2 weeks. Because Emeril says so.

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ALL THE GOOD INFORMATION

Chile pequin is an excellent landscaping bush for scorching, dry locations. And you can eat the berries. Well, peppers. Those suckers are hot! I prefer to plant bushes that serve a dual purpose. Either feed me or some animal around here–or be gone. You can’t just sit here looking pretty!

Being a native plant, the piquin has done swimmingly through both the droughts and the rains. It’s found throughout the Americas. If you are in a northern region, it would probably be an annual. But I don’t know that for sure! It dies down to the ground here in cold winters. (Yes, it does get cold in Austin. Not Minnesota cold, but enough to kill most tropical/sub-tropical plants.)

There aren’t a whole heck of a lot of recipes for some of the native landscaping plants you can find in Austin. (winecups…they tell me at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center that you can eat the tubers. Huh.)

But these are chili peppers. Seriously. This is easy. Mash ’em. Fry ’em. Put ’em in a stew. <<<—waaaiiit. That’s taters. That’s the speech Samwise Gamgee gives to Golum. Wrong plant. WAIT AGAIN. Those capsicum annuums are members of the potato family.

 

 

 

 

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

 

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.