When Life Gave Me Lemons…I Made Liqueur

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010
Organic supermarket lemons...a far cry from the 'real' thing.

Organic supermarket lemons...a far cry from the 'real' thing.

My friend, Lisa, has been putting to good use the lemon tree I left her.

When we lived in Austin, we used to own a dwarf Meyer lemon tree, a small citrus cultivar thought to be a cross between a lemon and a Mandarin orange that produces juicy, thin-skinned, sweeter-than-regular lemons.  If the fruit wasn’t enough pleasure, the (mostly) evergreen tree would produce spectacular tiny, white blooms in the spring that scented the entire back garden in a sweet, delicate aroma.  For a while, the sheer novelty of this northerner picking lemons from her own tree was enough to give the resultant olive oil & lemon juice dressings an ambrosial quality but soon enough I was wondering what else this fruit could do.  I’m not much of a baker, so it seemed a waste to use the fruit in a tart or cake that I would probably mess up, and I wanted to use it in an unusual way, expressive of how I thought of this lovely little tree.

An edition of The Herb Companion magazine brought me the inspiration I was looking for – an article on herbal liqueurs.  I chose two using lemons – Italian herb and rosemary & lemon – and, because I had a bumper crop of basil that year, decided to try the basil liqueur, as well.  After many weeks of anticipation (and shaking and smelling and salivating), the taste testing ensued.  The Italian herb liqueur came out a clear winner; the variety of ingredients produced a layered flavor, more complex and interesting than the one note flavors of the other two, especially with the overwhelming sweetness from the sugar syrup (I’d definitely half the sugar in the recipes).

I’d like to try growing a Meyer lemon tree here in Edmonton – wouldn’t it make an eye-catching houseplant?

I didn’t have much trouble growing it in Austin in a large (20 inch diameter) pot.  After planting it in a good-quality soil mix created for vegetable gardens, I top-dressed it with an inch of compost every year, fertilized it 2 or 3 times per growing season with fish fertilizer, watered it every week (more or less depending on dormancy and weather), mulched it with wine corks, and dealt with the few aphids with insecticidal soap.  Here, since it would spend most of its life inside, I’ll need a soil-less mix to mitigate the chances of disease and insect problems.  I imagine I’ll need to fit a floor lamp with a grow bulb since it won’t get enough sun (I don’t have an accessible south-facing window), and I’ll need to mist it frequently because of the dry indoor air.  When it blooms, in order to guarantee fruit, I’ll pretend I’m a bee and pollinate the flowers with a little brush.  It won’t be low care but being able to pick lemons from my own tree again would be well worth the effort.

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Seed Order Completed

Saturday, February 20th, 2010
The process is well underway.

The process is well underway.

It’s a good thing winter is long here in Edmonton because my seed order took me a while to put together this year.  No excuse but, for some reason, procrastination seized me halfway through the process and it took me a week longer than it should have.  Why the procrastination?  Well, it could be that after I’d inspected my existing seed collection and sorted out the ancient-therefore-no-longer-viable seed from the old-but-I’ll-just-sow-it-thicker seed to the yay-it’s-brand-new seed, made a list of what was left, made a list of what I was missing, filled in the details on the planting plan, and then went hunting for what I wanted in 8 seed catalogues, that I was just exhausted!  But with spring looming around the corner (sshh, don’t discourage me!), I finally got on with it and made my final selections (with the help of an Excel spreadsheet but you don’t need to know the dirty details).  I chose two companies that, between them, had all the varieties I was looking for – William Dam Seeds and West Coast Seeds.  I’m not going to run through the entire list since it will be linked on my final plan that I’ll post a little later, but I’ll share a few things I’m particularly excited about as they relate to my list.

In the ‘never grown it before’ category, I’ll be trying the Spanish Black Round radish and cumin.  Buoyed up by the bumper crop of coriander that I harvested last year and no reason to hope except that they combine so well together in my favorite Indian dishes, I have high hopes for the cumin.  If anyone has any advice for me about growing this herb/spice, I’d love to hear it.

In the ‘expensive and/or difficult to find’ category, I’m growing my own crop of tomatilloes – because I can’t keep mooching off the neighbors forever.

The ‘eye-catching plants’ category also needs to include nose-catching plants since I’m going to try sweet peas along the back fence.  This also falls into the ‘never grown it before’ category – which is shocking to me since I love their scent so much.

How about you?  Anything you can’t wait to see show up in your seed order?

Eating: Enchiladas

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

When we moved into this Edmonton neighborhood it was because the house wasn’t hideous, it was convenient to my sister, it had a garage, and the landlady was enthusiastic about us ripping up some lawn and planting a food garden.  The bonus, the icing on the cake, the cherry on top, if you will, was that we also got a couple of wonderful neighbors! 

You know the kind – willing to water the garden for you when you go on a two-week vacation (or worry about shutting off the irrigation when it rains every day you’re gone);driving you to the airport 20 minutes away and then offering to (no matter the day or time) pick you up again; invite you over for backyard barbeques that last well into the night even though y’all have to get up and go to work the next day but you don’t care because this, eating and laughing with friends, is what life is all about; offering seedlings and transplants and vegetables and preserves…

Which is how I got around to making enchiladas the other night.

Mirka and Chris, the aforementioned icing on the cake, and newbie gardeners, decided to try growing tomatilloes, a Tex-Mex staple, by the way.  Despite their inexperience and unfamiliarity with this fruit/vegetable, they had such success that it turned into their own version of zucchini  – as in, they were beginning to think they’d have to leave anonymous bags of the stuff on doorways around the ‘hood.  Eventually, as winter approached, the harvest tapered off and they were left with a lovely collection of canned tomatillo salsa to tide them over until spring.

A jar of summer

A jar of summer

Again, because they are the cherry on top, we received a jar of the salsa – which I hoarded for several weeks before deciding what to do with it.  Finally, in a moment of homesickness, missing my favorite dish of enchiladas verde at El Sol y la Luna in Austin, I decided to whip up my own version.

Because all the store-bought versions of tortillas I can find seem to have dough conditioners and perservatives, I decided to make my own version.  Using the Yellow Cornmeal Crepes recipe in my 1976 Better Homes and Gardens Crepes Cookbook, that I’ve had so long I don’t know where I got it from, I created my own facsimile of tortillas.  (Sorry, but I don’t want to do copyright infringement and post the recipe so maybe this will be a good substitute.)

Next, I sauteed half of a diced onion, a minced garlic clove, and half of a diced red pepper until soft in a cast iron frying pan with a little oil over medium heat.  Then I added about a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of ground cumin, a quarter of a cup of chopped cilantro, and a tablespoon of chopped pickled jalapenos.  While those ingredients had been cooking, I’d shredded about a cup of meat from a chicken I’d roasted the night before and I added that to the vegetables until the chicken was warm and coated with spices.  I guessed that the amount of filling would be enough for 7 crepes/tortillas.

Ingredients ready to be assembled.

Ingredients ready to be assembled.

I took a casserole dish, big enough to accommodate the rolled enchiladas in a single layer, and popped the top off the jar of tomatillo salsa.  A little taste of the tangy green sauce told me whether I’d need to add more heat (I didn’t) or more spice (nope) – it was good right out of the jar.  I spread a thin layer on the bottom of the casserole dish and then assembled my enchiladas – a tablespoon or so of filling spread in a line in the center of the crepe/tortilla, roll, place seam side down in dish.  Once the enchiladas were all in, I smothered them with the tomatillo salsa and a cup and a half of grated Monterey Jack cheese, and put them into a 350 deg. F. oven until the cheese melted.

If you want to be really authentic a la El Sol y la Luna, you serve the enchiladas with Spanish rice, black or refried beans, and chopped tomatoes.

My apologies for not having a picture of the finished dish but we were so hungry and it smelled so good that I’d dished it out and eaten it before I thought to take a picture!  And the embarrassing thing was that we didn’t even share with the neighbors who’d been so generous to us!  But I’ll remedy that soon; when Mirka found out that I hadn’t taken a picture, she gave me another jar of salsa so I could make it again – next time I’ll be sure to call over the fence and invite the cherries over.