Last Night I Dreamed About Tomato Sauce

I Really Did.

To quote my man Will Shakespeare, this is the “The stuff that dreams are made of,” as adapted by Bogey and John Huston in The Maltese Falcon. I woke up at six in the morning with the taste of tomato sauce in my mouth. It was then that I realized that I had been dreaming about it, possibly all night long..

It was a classic example of one part of what Dr. Freud said that dreams are made of, and this is not a particularly good translation, but it is the standard one: “the day’s residues.” For lunch the previous day I had a slice of leftover brick oven pizza, and it was still superb warmed up. It had Vidalia onion slices, Italian mozzarella, and a crust made from Caputo 00 flour from Italy. The star was still Melanie Jane’s tomato sauce. That’s what I dreamed about. Here’s her recipe, which will sauce two pizzas.

Ingredients

1 quart locally grown home canned Tomatoes–I believe these were Romas

1/2 of a diced Onion

Italian Tomato Paste in a tube–Tuscan, in this case, the brand being Tuscanini. (Aside–I had to buy this, as Toscanini is one of our favorite conductors of classical music, and his daughter married my wife’s favorite pianist, Vladimir Horowitz.)

Italian Pesto in a tube

Italian Garlic Paste in a tube–the secret weapon used by many pros

Oregano and Thyme

Salt and Pepper

This is considerably more complicated than what most Italians would make, but we aren’t Italian, at least the last time I checked. MJ then cooked it down to a concentrated strength, which gave me just enough time to get a roaring fire going in the brick oven.

Did it ever get hot. All I had was oak dead fall pieces, and they created an inferno. I didn’t burn the crust–I actually burned the sauce, as you can see from the little black line on my slice in the picture. I’ve never had that happen before.

It was still delicious. As I always tell people, don’t eat the burned part.

Native Rhododendrons, Part III–Rhododendron alabamense and Rhododendron atlanticum

Alabama Azalea

We are officially in the mid-season of the native’s bloom cycle, and the color of the day is white. Rhododendron alabamense is the showiest of these, with that prominent yellow blotch on one petal. Though said to be a small plant, I have one at 6.5′, and another at 7′.

Clouds of White and Yellow

This species was first described by the famous botanist Dr. Charles Mohr from the University of Alabama. Furthermore, he first found it in my home county of Cullman, and naturally, he mistakenly placed it as a variant of a different species. It was not until 1921 that it was recognized as a distinct species by the scientific community.

Not every plant has as dark a yellow dot. This one is faint enough that it is not visible on a photo.

A more sedate species is Rhododendron atlanticum, a native of the east coast, from Georgia to Pennsylvania. Also known as Dwarf Azalea, this is one that really is small, usually no more than 2 or 3′. It makes up for it by spreading underground, and forming colonies. It also has small flowers.

For people in different hardiness zones, these plants bloom at the same time as Trillium grandiflorum. Here’s one blooming now in my rock garden.

Alas, it is surrounded by five native Rhodys.

ISA Brown Chicks

At about Two to Three Weeks Old

I went to my local chicken purveyor with the intent of buying four Rhode Island Red chicks to add to my flock. They had a grand total of one Rhode Island Red chick. Therefore, I went with a descendant of theirs, the hybrid ISA Brown. Et Mon Dieu, the chicken turned out to have been developed in la belle France.

Technically, all chickens are hybrids anyway, though many breeds have been established for many years, and one generation looks much like the previous one. Apparently that is not true with these birds, though that could easily be just Monsanto like agit-prop disseminated by the company that owns the patent on this bird. Considering that it has been around since 1978, someone has obviously bred some of these fowl, and it would be interesting to find some stories based on first hand experience.

At any rate, the story began in 1975 with the French Ministry of Agriculture, the head of which was determined to produce a first rate bird for commercial Big Chicken. The project was headed by the firm Institut de Sélection Animale, which is where the name ISA comes from. Three years later, these birds were the result, a hybrid of many varieties, though which ones are considered a trade secret; but the most notable one is the Rhode Island Red.

As a bird designed for Big Chicken, these chicks mature quickly and lay eggs at a fast and furious rate. They are variously said to be short lived, or disease prone, but it is hard to believe that Big Chicken would fall in love with a sickly bird: disposable, yes, but sickly, no. A few small owners say they can live as long as eight years, if given proper care, instead of stuck in a battery cage. As it turns out, this variety has become a favorite with backyard chicken growers, though my chickens are actually in my front yard.

One of the best things about this bird is that it is a sex-link chicken, which means the sexes are different colors. Therefore, if the chick is brown, it is a hen; if it is white, it is a rooster. Thus, these four are definitely hens.

After a week here, they are already flying around the brooder, though there isn’t much runway space in that plastic container. I still put a lid on the insulated contraption to keep them from flying around our basement, or getting burned by the heat lamp.

The Heat is On

I have already found them on the top perch, or just cold chilling, sitting on top of the water or feed jars. This morning all four were practicing flying at the same time, which resulted in some spectacular crashes.

Chances are good that my in-laws are in line for some free eggs, as we already regularly have three dozen sitting around our kitchen. Eggs, that is, not in-laws.

Native Rhododendrons, Part II: Rhododendron austrinum

Florida Flame Azalea, or Yellow Azalea

Rhododendron austrinum can make a giant shrub, if grown in the right conditions. It has taken over a large portion of my rock garden. How big does it get? So big that I could barely fit it into the frame of my picture.

Wide and Tall

Obviously, this species will make a multi-stemmed shrub. Though the max height is usually ten feet, this one is twelve, and still growing. I have one more normal sized plant. Swallowtail butterflies love both.

Spring is Here

This is definitely not the hardiest of the natives, but it still grows like crazy here on the southern end of zone 7. I will also add, they grow equally well without any fertilizer. Neither of my two plants have ever had any.

Planting Taters, Precious

The Dutch have Invaded My Tater Patch

After almost three months of non-stop rain, it finally dried up enough for me to plant my taters. We already have had our yearly average rainfall total and it is only the end of March. At least all the moisture made it easy to dig the trenches with a real old style tool.

Scovil Pattern Hoe

That hoe is usually reserved for mixing concrete, but it will move some earth as well. I planted four varieties of taters.

Yukon Gold (Six Pounds)

Red Norland (Five pounds)

Gold Rush (A New Variety for me. One Pound)

Russet (One Pound)

That made two and a half rows. The delay in planting meant that all the taters had sprouted well, which made it easy to use the classic American method of cutting in half any tuber that had more than four eyes on it, and every Red Norland did. Every cut tater was dipped in agricultural lime.

After I aligned my trenches with my homemade garden string combo, I lined each one with crushed egg shells for calcium, and pelletized lime for more calcium and magnesium. The final touch will be to top dress them all with some composted chicken manure. That will be my only source for nitrogen, until they leaf out, and then they get some liquid Alaska fish fertilizer.

Hopefully, the taters will no longer smell of rotten fish when I dig them.

Native Rhododendrons

Rare White R. canescens, right on my Driveway

Pollinators, like bumblebees, love plants with lots of pollen and flowers, and the deciduous Rhodies fit that description perfectly. Without lots of pollinators there would be no food. Native Rhododendrons get the bugs off to a fast springtime start. And do they ever bloom like crazy. The most common one in the Southeast is Rhododendron canescens, and it grows wild throughout our property.

More Common Pink R. canescens

All these pictures are current, and that is one honking large shrub. The great Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas says R. canescens never gets more than eight feet tall–this one is 9.5 feet, and still growing.

The flower structure is fascinating, and helps to explain the common name of “Honeysuckle Bush.”

Typical Bloom Cluster

Though not native to our property, the other very early blooming Rhody is Rhododendron flammeum, also known as the Oconee Flame Azalea, as deciduous Rhodies are often called “Azaleas.” It’s an eye catcher.

R. flammeum, bordering the Outdoor Kitchen

This plant is even more attractive close up.

Exquisite Color

These require marginally more water than the R. canescens, but we never water the wild ones anyway. That’s the way they have survived for centuries on their own. Here’s the view into one of our Rhody groves. I’ve lost track of how many species we have, and I will write about the others, in the sequence of their blooming cycle.

Just the Start

The yellow one that is about to bloom is Rhododendron austrinum, and it makes a massive plant with hundreds of blooms. I’ll write about it next. We are going to have the happiest bees in the neighborhood.

Spring Planting

Peaches, Waiting to Happen

When these plants bloom, it’s time for early Spring planting. The absolute first to bloom is in the next picture.

Neviusia alabamensis

That’s commonly known as Alabama Snow wreath, one of the rarest shrubs in the world, mainly because it only reproduces vegetatively, aka, by stolons instead of seeds. This year it began blooming during the second week of February, easily the earliest I have ever seen. That was when I got busy. Here’s a list of veg I planted, every one of which is up and growing.

Greens

Lettuce “Lolla Rossa Darkness”

Lettuce “Jericho”–can take some heat

Kale “Lacinato”

Brussel Sprouts “Catskill”

Mustard “Mizuna Red Streaks”–currently my favorite of the greens

Root Crops

Carrot “Kuroda”–also can take some heat

Radish “Lady Slipper”

Peas

I accidentally managed to plant all three types of peas–Snow, Sugar Snap, and English. They are growing like crazy, as it is supposed to be eighty degrees F here today.

Dwarf Grey Sugar-Snow Pea that actually grows to about five feet here

Sugar Daddy–Sugar Snap

Little Marvel–Heirloom English Pea

Here are the remains of the project.

J. L. Hudson, the anarchist seed seller in California, is the best around, for both quality, selection, and value. Still, I will also buy a commercial pack of heirloom seeds for fifty cents.

At this point I must agree with the last sentence of Candide, the great work by Voltaire: “That is very well put, said Candide, but we must go and work our garden.” No wonder Thomas Jefferson had a bust of Voltaire, in the entrance hallway at Monticello.

Peach Bourbon Glaze

Peach Glazed Galette

This is more of a cooking exercise than anything else, as this glaze has only three ingredients. They happen to be two of the South’s finest products, which make this a perfect match for the apples and pecans in the galette. It’s all about the process.

Ingredients

2 Tablespoons Peach Preserves

2 Tablespoons Bourbon

Water

The key to this glaze is choosing a happy medium. Cook the glaze long enough to get rid of the alcohol in the bourbon, and to partly liquefy the peaches, but not so long that it dries out or turns into peach brittle.

The other key is to find a really high quality Peach Preserve. I just made my own last summer, using local peaches, organic sugar, and lemon juice (we grew the lemons). This was a fitting way to say goodbye to the last two tablespoons.

I always get this too thick, so a kettle of water is nearby, to help get the glaze to the proper consistency. Once it’s done, you just need some pastry to glaze.

Just Right

I should say that the citrus master, my wife Melanie Jane, has been “rusticated” by the giant corporation she works for, and is currently working from home, due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. She had to bring all her tech with her. We now have a home office consisting of three computers, four monitors, and two iPads. It’s a great sacrifice to live as primitively as this. We have had to make up for it by cooking up a storm.

Julia Child’s Olive Oil Mayonnaise

Yes, that is Mellow Yellow Mayo

Having made a decent regular mayo with peanut oil, I decided to up my game and make a version that Julia Child made. She actually has more than a dozen recipes in the classic Mastering the Art of French cooking, so I had to pick and choose. I just went with a version of the first one.

Ingredients

2 Egg Yolks

2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice

1/4 teaspoon Salt

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

1 cup Olive Oil (approximately)

I made this in our ancient Kitchenaid Stand Mixer, which is well into its thirties. Add the yolks first, and whisk for a couple of minutes. Add everything else but the oil, and mix for a few seconds to incorporate those. Then comes the only tricky part.

Crank up the machine again, and whisk in the oil very slowly at the beginning, barely a drop at a time. Make sure that an emulsification is forming before you add more. Once chemistry begins to happen, add the oil more quickly. When the stuff looks like mayo, it’s done. Throw it in a jar, and store in the fridge.

Olive oil makes a very strong tasting mayo that makes a superb salad dressing. The amount of oil needed is actually dependent on the size of the egg yolks used, so there will be some variation. I do have one of the simplest pseudo French Dressing recipes in history, which I made with this. It was delicious.

Ingredients

Olive oil mayo

Ketchup

Sweet Pickle Relish

That’s it. Vary the proportions any way you like. I go three mayos to one ketchup, and relish to taste. Additions can include onions, herbs, vinegar, pepper, honey, sugar, and anything else you desire. This is a perfect recipe for people who are in their salad years.

Pickled Spiced Mushrooms

Let the Pickle Begin

This recipe is based on one in the superb book Preserving Italy, by Domenica Marchetti. I tasted one of these after I let them pickle for a day, and I may forsake my usual jar of emergency canned mushrooms for these. There could hardly be anything easier to make. Here’s my take on the project.

Ingredients

1 pound button Mushrooms

1 cup apple cider Vinegar

1/2 cup wine Vinegar

3/4 cup apple Wine, or any white Wine

1/4 cup peanut Oil

1 tablespoon Himalayan Pink Salt

1/2 teaspoon whole Peppercorns

3 whole Cloves

Small piece of a Cinnamon Stick

1 bay Leaf

Good Olive Oil

I didn’t have and/or disliked some of the ingredients in the original, and I didn’t want to wait for my personal corporate overlord Jeff Bezos to have a tiny overpriced bottle of white wine vinegar hand delivered to me in two cardboard boxes, and wrapped in a yard of bubble wrap, so I went full on Italian, and just used what I had, and what I like. The process is straight forward.

Clean the mushrooms, cut off the stems, and cut them into quarters (you can cut the small ones in half). While doing this, bring all the other ingredients to a boil, and remember the definition of non-reactive. Add the mushrooms after the boil starts, and cook for five minutes, and then let them rest. I left mine overnight, as I was up to my butt in alligators (figuratively), and had a dozen other things to do.

Get rid of the bay leaf, and put the final pickle in half pint jars, as a pound made three half pints for me. Pour a little olive oil in each jar after it is packed, which is an Italian trick that I was unaware of, but one which makes perfect sense. Process the fellows in a hot water bath for fifteen minutes.

Bath Time

That’s just a pressure canner with jars filled over the lids with water. Everyone should have one, but for some reason we own two, which is a long story.

Mine all sealed perfectly, and now get to age gracefully for a couple of weeks. After that, they are to be devoured.