Es Complicado

FidelWHY CUBA:

Most Patient Husband and I just got back from a wonderful National Geographic trip to Cuba. For a woman who spent most of her childhood hiding under her school desk for five minutes once a week in emergency-we-might-get-bombed-by-the-Soviets-who-have-a-toehold-in-Cuba, this was a big deal.

We don’t often get to go on big trips like this. It’s hard to leave the farm, but my terrific “little” brother came down from Ithaca to be on standby for Dad – and to farm-sit for us so that we could travel worry-free.

I suppose because I was one of those children who had too much imagination, while under my particle board desk it occurred to me that the Cuban children had desks too, and they probably spent time under them wondering, as I did, if they were strong enough to deflect bombs. So when Cuba opened up for cultural exchanges, I thought I’d better go find out.

Right now official travel from the US to Cuba is restricted. You can’t hop a flight from Houston and sip the ubiquitous welcome cocktail at Hemingway’s favorite bar an hour later. Right now you have to go prepared to learn through a cultural exchange that requires a 40 hour-a-week program. (The tour guide said that they have to document attendance and that the only reason for absence from the sessions is for illness. But there are plenty of welcome cocktails!) Or you can fly to another country that allows travel to Cuba and fly in and out from that location. But not officially. (OK, so as of 3/15/16, right after I posted this, the law changed. Stay tuned, more changes to come, I’m sure.)

So, we flew to Miami to catch the charter flight with the rest of our group. Once there, we had the opportunity to catch up with some extended family, who happen to be Cubanos in exile. These family member’s baby brother was our brother-in-law. (Sadly, we lost our brother, Ralph, and their brother, Mike, many years ago.)

These two, brother and sister, also still hate Fidel with such a passion that it transforms them when they talk about all that they lost in the revolution. It is hard to me to imagine how, in one day, the family went from privileged to pariahs. Their father was arrested and hauled off, and the family home and his medical practice became community property. Aside from one impassioned short outburst, neither wished to discuss what they had gone through beyond expressing gratitude for the Catholic church, which got them out through a program that helped to transport 1,000 children to America. The sister said that she prefers to dwell on the good life she’s had here, and the fact that she worked hard and was successful in that work. They no longer have family in Cuba itself, and have no wish to go there while “The Monsters” are in charge.

Man playing Cajon
Man playing a Cajon in Trinidad

With this in mind, Cuba was a revelation. Or, as our tour coordinator, Carol, said, “In Cuba, everything es complicado.” The people there, far from appearing to be under the heavy fist of a Monster, looked happy. The free health care, minimal subsidized food rations, and excellent free education in a wide-range of subjects were frequently mentioned during our tour. The fact that there are long lines for everything and that there are shortages thanks to the 60 year-long economic blockade were also mentioned multiple times. Our guide, Rigoberto, “Rigo” for short, was amazingly open and honest with his answers to some pretty tough questions our group asked him. While even five years ago his answers to things like, “Are there shortages?” would have resulted in a response of, “I love my job,” now he is able to respond honestly with, “Yes.”

In his early 30’s, Rigo lived through what the Cuban’s euphemistically call “Período especial” or the Special Period in Times of Peace. This began in 1989 when the Soviet Union’s economy went boom. Imagine a world in which there was no gasoline, not much food available, and that your immediate neighboring country had a blockade in place that prevented many other countries from coming to your aid. It was dire. Rigo joking said he would have been over six feet tall if he had been able to have adequate nutrition. But it’s not funny because it’s probably true. I imagine that Rigo’s generation will exhibit many of the traits that children of the depression era here in the US have. When he mentioned that many of the animals in the zoo were airlifted out of Cuba because they were starving, my heart leapt. “Oh good. They saved the animals!” Then I realized that standing before me was a boy who was not saved. A boy who was not sheltered from that deprivation and who indeed had suffered greatly. This very child grew into a young man who is willing to work taking tourists around Cuba because he recognizes the difference between governmental policy and the people who live in the country which wielded it. Such is the spirit of the Cuban people.

Child in Bee costume, dancing
My guide at the Little Beehive after school program in Havana

We went to several schools and after-school programs, both government-supported and private, where the arts flourish.

Music is everywhere. The Little Beehive is a government sanctioned after-school dance and singing program for youth who are interested in becoming dentists, engineers, teachers and other professionals. (We asked.)

The Benny Moré Art School in Cienfuegos is a feeder school for the professional colleges. The program we saw there featured second grade dancers who choreographed their own really cool contemporary dance piece, an eight year old guitarist who nearly made me weep, and paintings done by school children that were so good I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.

artwork on a wall in Havana
Art from the free program at the Water Tower in a neighborhood center in Havana

One private arts organization in Havana had taken over a former municipal water tank and created a community arts center with free arts and music classes. Their education system works.

Can’t speak personally for their medical system because happily we did not need it. But…free health care. Not rationed. They send medical teams throughout the world to both teach and provide health care and they do it for free. Gotta say, that sounds better than good to me.

And music. Every single restaurant we enjoyed had people singing. (And getting a living wage for it! Imagine that.) The sound of music was on every street corner and people danced everywhere.

People enjoying dinner while outside the surrounding buildings crumble.
Farewell celebration.

Our last night was truly special. A rooftop farewell party at the hotel. Then down to the street to go to a Paladar for supper. Our guide surprised us with a fleet of colorful Buicks, Fords, Chevys and even a fire engine-red Edsel (our ride!) We cruised the entire length of the Malecón and back again. We arrived at our destination, a crumbling specimen of the architectural grandeur that is Havana.

Up we went, following an Italian marble staircase through a once-grand receiving room, and up to the top floor where a bustling restaurant serves elegant 5 star cuisine from a very modern commercial kitchen. Keeping in mind that four buildings a day collapse in Havana, (Note: My wonderful brother, an engineer, pointed out that this was probably an exaggeration. 4×365 is a lotta buildings going boom. So, while I did hear this statistic while in Havana, it’s probably four a month or four a year rather than four a day.) I was happy that this one at least seemed to be sturdy, even if the windows lacked glass, the marble handrails had fallen into disrepair and that most of the decorative details on the walls desperately needed varnish or a coat of paint. The photo I took of our group enjoying this feast summed up Cuba for me. Cuba’s buildings may be decaying, it’s people may have suffered heartbreaking loss and deprivation, but they are strong, and celebrate what they have rather than what they have lost.

While I never remembered to ask about the desks, and how sturdy theirs were, I learned quite a bit.

For goodness sake, ignore media blathering about what’s going on down there. Go. See it for yourself. Make up your own mind about what Cuba is and is not. Heck. Go anywhere and do the same. Learn stuff. Think for your own self. You’ll come home with a new appreciation for what home means and how very lucky we are to live where we do.

Sprouting Dirt

Large Roma Tomato

I am going to do something I have not done for a long time. I am not ordering seeds from any of my favorite catalogues.

This is breaking my heart, but, it is preferable to breaking my neck. Which, it appears, is what I’ve been doing to myself.

I am not giving up gardening, only cutting back. I will sow the seeds I saved from my tomatoes: Italian Heirloom gotten from Brad Stufflebeam of Home Sweet Farm fame, Carbon seeds saved from a shipment from Home Sweet Farm’s CSA back when I was a working shareholder, large Romas, and small and large Slicers. I call them Slicers because I had planted five varieties of “slicers” in that bed and I’m pretty sure they’re as mixed up as I am when trying to decipher my husband’s handwriting.

Got a couple of varieties of pepper, some herbs and greens. Cucumbers. Melons. Butternut and spaghetti squash. Not a whole lot else going in.   What’s that you say? You think this is a lot? Maybe I saved a lot more seed than I thought I had. Maybe – you don’t have to spend money on seeds to have a garden.   But, and here’s where I steer myself back on track again, you have to grow the dirt to grow the garden.

Cousin Emme Sue always said to put a fifty-cent plant in a five-dollar hole. I have followed that advice religiously. So to build up my soil, the first thing I’m doing is sampling the soil that is already in place. Then I’ll add in the yummy goodness that only compost can bring (My horses’s manure, leaves and kitchen scraps were churned all summer by the chickens and have rested for the past three months, waiting for the time when I break out the front loader on the tractor and dig into the middle of the pile. I have about three yards of compost this year. Should be enough to amend the kitchen garden beds and perhaps have enough left over to fill in that pesky dip in the backyard.

Just waiting for results from the soil lab so I know what to add in addition to the compost. Why would I need to add anything else Micronutrients. Something to raise or lower the pH. Provide balance to the N-K-Ph mix. An excuse to dig in my lovely new dirt?

 

Sorry — gotta go watch my dirt grow.

Almost planting time!

 

Julie

Payoff!

There is no better reason to garden than my supper this evening.

Spaghetti squash, just off the vine.
24 small yellow pear tomatoes, halved. (A fraction of what I picked today.)
three cloves of garlic (dug out of hydrator from spring harvest)
bell pepper (Picked this afternoon.)
salt and pepper to taste (Grocery store)

 

Cook squash in 375 degree oven for an hour.

While the squash is cooking is a good time to clean out your fridge, or sort the garlic to pull out your starts for the garden…or sit down with a glass of wine and finally read the paper…

 

When you have ten minutes left on the squash:

Saute garlic in oils of your choice. (I use Texas-grown olive oil from the farmer’s market.)

Add bell pepper and chopped tomatoes. (I used the yellow pear tomatoes because I have a bazillion of them — yes, I am bragging!)

Saute until tomatoes begin to collapse.

Top with chopped fresh basil, salt and pepper to taste.

Enjoy!

Oh, and for dessert?

 

Thursday’s Harvest

Since I’m leaving town for a Capital Region Pony Club Rally in Maryland, followed by a visit to Ithaca, NY to see my brother and sis-in-law, followed by my family reunion, followed by the Seven Daughters of Seven Sisters retreat before heading home again. I did a harvest for Paul to remember me by while I’m gone. He’s holding down the home fort, plucking the fruits (and veg) of our labors, and petting/cleaning up after/feeding all the critters. If you’re in Houston and want some tomatoes, this is the week to call!

My secret to prevent stink bug damage to tomatoes? Grow melons next to the tomatoes. They love melon more than they love tomatoes, then spray the melons with garlic/molasses/fish emulsion mix and voila — they all Go Away!
Happy gardening!

Spring is Sprung

I’m about to make Deb jealous again. I started my tomato seeds a few weeks ago and am about to stick the fledgling plants in the ground. Uh-huh. You heard me right. Second week in March. Tomatoes in the ground!

You see I garden on the Gulf Coast where the sea breezes coming from 100 miles away still reach my front pasture. (Where the kitchen garden resides.) Typical last frost used to be counted as Valentine’s Day hereabouts, but now it’s the first of March. I can tell it’s Spring by the blooms on the mulberry tree.

At least I thought I could. And then the temps went back down to the 40s. So much for my poor tomatoes in the ground. Thank goodness for freeze cloth!

Varieties planted in Spring 2011:  Vorlon, Carbon, Roma, Better Boy, Yellow Pear, Cour de Blue, Amish Paste.

Happy gardening!

Whirled Peas

“For the love of Pea, won’t you please grow?”

This is me, nervously watching, and occasionally verbally abusing, my spring plantings. I’ve currently got potatoes, fennel, cabbage (left from the fall) broccoli (ditto) and brussel spouts (ditto). I know I’ll never see actual edible stuff off that broccoli and brussel sprout plants, but I can’t give up on them, I just can’t. (But I’ve planted a few broccoli seeds, just in case.)

So far, the highlight of the coming of spring is the duet of Asparagus tips that appeared this week in the clump I established last year. If I hadn’t noticed them because Buttons was peeing on them, I might have harvested them…but now…thanks to the 6 pound wonderdog, not going there. (Note to self: put up fencing around the clump to prevent future “watering”.)

But those peas…wait…I think I see some green!

What do you mean you can’t see it? OK, I”ll go back out and take a better picture…

Wow those grow quickly! (Actual time-lapse between photos is three days.)

These are Lincoln garden peas, which I look forward to crunching in my spring salads. Last year I only got about three pea pods off my peas, but the year before I got tons, well, was able to freeze about two cups, and had fresh peas in my spring salads for about two months. Mmmmm. Lincoln peas are supposed to do better in warm climates. South Texas counts as warm which is why I’m planting this variety this time around.

Bed Prep:

  • Check the soil Ph. Optimum conditions for peas are a soil with a pH of between 6.0 or 7.0.
  • Add compost to make sure you have a good level of healthy soil.

Planting:

  • Inoculate your seed for better healthy growth.
  • Direct seed, space at 2″.
  • Plant 2″ deep.
  • Create Rows 2″ apart.
  • Sow additional seed in additional bed space every 2 – 3 weeks for succession plantings.

When to plant:

  • Depends on your climate.
  • Like cool weather, but are susceptible to easy freeze damage.

Where to plant:

  • Like raised beds for good drainage.
  • Rotate your crops. (Even if you have a small garden! The bed pictured above had squash and cucumbers in it last season, so the rotation worked out well for me.)
  • If you find that your peas turn dark they may have a fungal disease. Remove and dispose of separately. Don’t turn under as this won’t do you any favors — only continues the problem in that bed’s soil.

Happy gardening!

To Veg or not to Veg

Had the most wonderful butternut squash enchiladas last night at Bar Annie. It was a lovely night in so many ways — I was out with Jo Ann Fleischhauer, a brilliant artist, John DeMers, a local foodie here in Houston, and my long-time good friend Nancy Galeota-Wozny. I always love meeting new people — I learn so much about so many things — very stimulating, not to mention just plain fun.  Jo Ann, the true vegetarian among us, asked about good options for her, and as soon as the waiter rattled off the description of the enchiladas, I knew what I wanted.

 

John asked me why I got that particular item off the menu when I’m not a vegetarian. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes a good steak is the only thing that will hit the spot, but most of the time when I’m out in public, I seek out the veggies. I happen to think they taste wonderful, and they make me feel healthier after eating them. (Please do not correct this impression. My waistline is very happy this morning.)

 

This morning I looked up recipes (none of which I am sure comes close to Robert Del Grande’s creation) for butternut squash and found tons. Not surprising — as a winter squash, it keeps well, plus it’s versatile as heck.

 

Butternut squash is a relatively new variety, and definitely a New World kind of veg. Various internet reports have it originating in Massachusetts or Mexico. Since both start with M, we’ll let that interesting discrepancy slide. It has since reverse migrated, becoming a favorite as far away as South Africa. The orange color gives you a clue that it is high in Vitamin A and C, fiber (of course), manganese, magnesium and potassium. In other words — great for you.

 

My favorite home-cooked recipe for this veg is Butternut Soup. Grab a hunk of fresh baked bread, a crossword puzzle and enjoy. The apple in this particular recipe brings out the butternutty goodness of the squash really well.

 

Another favorite for a cozy dinner night at home is Butternut Squash Risotto. This is a dish that ranks pretty darn high on my comfort foods list. Light the fire, dish it up in a chunky bowl, grab a blanket to share with your spouse and Mmmmm.

 

So the next time you go out — or stay home — try a vegetarian option. It’s good enough to eat!

 

Swiss Chard — not as neutral as you’d think

Photo of Swish Chard from GardenGuides.com
Image from GardenGuides.com

I grew up in a family rabid about Ohio State Football. I never quite understood how this logically translated into a vegetable eating exhortation, “Julie, eat your spinach like Popeye, so that you can grow up to play football for Woody Hays,” but it was one I often heard. My parents would have been better served to have chosen Swiss Chard as the vegetable they associated with Ohio State Football as it actually comes in red.

I live in the Gulf Coast region of Texas and Spinach does not do well here — too much heat and too much rain. Swiss Chard, however, loves the climate. Also known as Spinach Beet (It’s actually a relative of the beet family.) this grew all spring and through the summer for me, although I did find evidence of insect damage at the height of summer.

I direct seeded the beds with seed from one of my favorite sources. I prepped the bed with the usual mixture of compost and some additional fertilizer, covered the seeds with about 1/2 to 1 inch of soil, and watered it in. They sprouted in about two weeks — a long time during which time I was certain the ants had enjoyed quite the picnic at my expence. Once they were up, I followed safe advice to thin the seedlings to six inches, using the thinned plants as garnishes in salads.

I harvested leaves as they got large enough to look good to eat. For me this meant anywhere from six inches tall to ten. The more I harvested, the more leaves appeared. I harvest from the outside in to allow the fresh leaves room to grow.

Nutritional Info: Leaves and stalks come loaded with vitamin A, C, and contain Vitamin B, Calcium, Iron, and Phosphorus. Does not contain the Oxilic Acid present in Spinach that blocks absorption of Calcium! Weight watching junkies like me will appreciate that they are very low in calories, while being high in fiber.

My favorite way to cook them is to stir-fry both the stems and the leaves together with some garlic in a little olive oil. Mmmmm!

Happy Gardening!

Julie

(Under) Ground Cherries

Spending time with my brother in Ithaca is always entertaining. Harold is a long time vegetarian and he and his wife are wonderful cooks. Each time I am with them I learn new ways of preparing food — plainer, simpler, yet yielding more complex textures and tastes.

Ground Cherries on the Counter

Sabrina has a lovely kitchen garden growing outside the back door. A hop, skip and a jump down the steps and you start tripping over greens, tomatoes and ground cherries. Yup. Those same free-to-me ground cheeries I’ve been ripping out of my garden all these years because <sob> I did not know they were edible — no, more than edible, delicious!Tomatillo looking things, these tiny yellow-green spheres pack a delicious whelp of  flavor. I could taste a tomato influence, but the taste was sharper, more More — if that makes any sense. I scarfed up handfuls at a time.

 

We had burritos one night, a delicious blend of stir fried tofu (Use the extra firm — worth it!) and vegetables, with a dolop of beans to hold it all together. Salsa of the homemade variety would go really well with this. Found an excellent recipe or two for Ground Cherry Salsa through my online search for ways to use this magnificent little vegetable that I am dying to try. I even found a recipe from Mother Earth News for a Ground Cherry Pie. Now that would be interesting.

I’ve been wondering what other wonderful treats I’ve been missing, so am off to do a collection and identification project on my weed collection. I excel in weed production so it would be some kind of wonderful if they all turned out to be as terrific as the ground cherry. Wish me luck.

Happy gardening!

Slow as Molasses

Fire ants hate it. Stink bugs explode from the inside out…And yes, it hits the beneficials as well, but doesn’t linger the way the chemicals do…

What is the best secret weapon you can use against insect invasions in your garden?

Molassas!

The way the expert nurserywoman at RCW Nurseries in NW Houston explained it to me, insects cannot digest this particular form of sugar. As it moves through their digestive system, it gives them gas. With the hard exoskeleton, this means the critter is smushed from the inside out. Almost seems mean doesn’t it? Color me bloodthirsty, but I really don’t miss having ant bites on my hands and legs all the time.

This all sounds great — no residue in the soil from chemicals with unknown side-effects, exploding those fire ants from the inside out, but what the heck is agricultural Molassas and is there scientific proof behind the practice?

From the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, CO (US), an abstract on the use of agricultural molasses by P. Simon mentions how the lack of runoff of nitrogen-based fertilizers would benefit ground water and cut the cost of chemical fertilizers. Molasses unlocks nutrients stored within the soil itself – a idea which really appeals to me.

According to material from Hawaii’s Agricultural Research Center:

It was added to soil as a fertilizer from time to time when the price happened to be low and served to increase sugarcane yields, particularly in low potassium areas (Anon. 1939, Story 1939). It soon became apparent that molasses was providing greater benefits to the crop in addition to nutrition. During the process of decomposition, molasses appeared to reduce damage to roots caused by root parasites (Anon. 1939, Story 1939).

In other words, it works. I decided to give this a try and trotted myself down to the local garden center. (See my Nursery page on my website for great resources in the Houston area.)

Here is RCW’s recipe for Insecticide:

  • 3 Tbsp Agricultural Molassas
  • 1 Tbsp Garlic Barrier
  • 1 Tbsp any organic liquid fertilizer

– Mix into one gallon of water and spray. For hose end prayers, add multiples of the recipe and set the dial to 5 Tbsp per gallon. Controls mosquitos up to 2 wks.”

I sprayed it directly on the garden bed before planting, and will reapply as needed for pesky repeat offender insects.

Happy Gardening!