The Magic Of Mexican Sour Gherkins

Pre-Pickled Gherkins

This summer, I organized the planting for a marvelous accessible play space called Owen’s Playground. Besides swings and slides and climbing rocks, we installed a spiraling series of beds that hold a wide assortment of sensory plants, including lots of edibles. One of my favorite features is a full skirted dome covered in wire mesh. I’d asked for a bean teepee structure and got a magical hobbit house instead.

I’d planned to cover it with scarlet runner beans, but by the time the bed was ready to plant, I changed my mind and filled it with Mexican Sour Gherkins. Now, if you think of gherkins as tiny cucumbers brined into pickles, you’re quite right. These, however, are something quite different. In fact, Mexican Sour Gherkins are so different that they’ve become a foodie fad and the new darling of haute chefs. Drinkmeisters also love them and they’ve found their way into many a mixicologist’s recipe book, since they have an affinity for gin.

Crowd & Kid Pleasers

Kids also love eating these spunky little nuggets, and my erstwhile bean teepee is now a popular hangout for adventurous eaters of all ages. Eat one and you’ll quickly figure out that Mexican Sour Gherkins are related to cucumbers (Cucumis sativus). These tiny melons (Melothria scabra) are native to South and Central America, where they are extremely popular. Sometimes called ‘mouse melons’, the fruit is about the size of my thumb joint, and looks exactly like a miniature watermelon, stripes and all. The skin is crisp while the juicy insides combine the flavors of cucumber and citrus with subtle sweetness. Pop one in your mouth and you get a mini explosion of bright-tart-sweet-cool flavors that leave a clean, fresh aftertaste. What’s not to love?

The fine-textured foliage and skinny, twining stems make Mexican Sour Gherkin seem like a natural climber, but unless it’s got firm trellising to grab, it’s more of a tumbler. You definitely want to keep them off the ground, since slugs love these little guys. Given a good start, these fast growers will cover a trellis with ease. At the playground, once the plants settled in, they scrambled up the head-high mesh with great good will. In my back deck garden, they’ve rambled through similar mesh panels and despite frequent harvesting are still covered with plump little fruit. Several gardeners I know keep theirs in big, overhead hanging baskets, where the plants cascade from containers to picking height.

So Easy To Grow

In any case, when they are happy, Mexican Sour Gherkins grow with ease, with few pests (apart from those slugs). They do fine in any good garden soil, and though, like all melons, they prefer warm summers, they are more tolerant of cool temperatures than the big guy watermelons. If you can grow other melons, you can grow these cute little puppies, and you can plan on harvesting right up to the first frost.

Many folks pickle Mexican Sour Gherkins, but I prefer them fresh, in salsas, pitas, and sandwiches, or added to stir fries, soups, and curries. That zesty flavor makes them a natural fit for salads of many kinds, from fruity to leafy. Here are a few especially tasty combinations to try:

Savory Summer Salad

2 cups chopped cucumber
2 cups peeled, cubed melon
1 cup Mexican sour gherkins, halved
1 cup blueberries or huckleberries
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1/4 cup stemmed Italian parsley
2 tablespoons minced mint
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Gently toss all ingredients and let stand for 20 minutes before serving. Serve cold or at room temperature. Serves 4-6.

Zippy Summer Salad

1 cup Greek plain yogurt
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 head Butter lettuce, torn in pieces
2 cups chopped cucumber
2 cups halved cherry tomatoes
1 cup halved Mexican sour gherkins
4 green onions, thinly sliced

Combine yogurt, garlic, basil, and sea salt, set aside for at least 10 minutes. In a serving bowl, combine remaining ingredients, toss with yogurt dressing and serve. Serves 4-6.

Perfect Poaching

If you find salmon hard to cook, try low-liquid poaching. This gentle technique is fast and foolproof, resulting in velvety, flavorful fish that’s never dry.

Poached Salmon With Sour Gherkin Salsa

For the fish:

1 pound wild salmon fillet, cut in four pieces
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice or dry white wine
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Rinse fish well and place skin side down in a wide, shallow pan. Add lemon juice to a depth of about 1/8 inch, splashing some on the fish. Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper. Bring liquid to a simmer over medium heat. Cover pan, reduce heat to low an simmer for 8-10 minutes, to interior temperature of 136 degrees F. (usually 10 minutes for inch-thick fillets). Add a little water if need be (usually not). Remove from heat, uncover pan and let stand for 10 minutes. Serve with salsa (see below). Serve four.

For the salsa:

Sour Gherkin Salsa

1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
1 ear fresh sweet corn, kernels trimmed
1 cup quartered cherry tomatoes
1 cup chopped Mexican sour gherkins
1/2 cup chopped sweet onion
1/4 cup stemmed fresh cilantro
2-3 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 jalapeno pepper, finely chopped (use gloves)

Combine first 6 ingredients, then add lime juice, sea salt, and jalapeno to taste. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving. Makes about 2 cups. Refrigerate leftovers for up to 2 days.

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Slow Roasting The Harvest

From Apples To Zucchini

Autumn is arriving with the usual wild winds in tow, and suddenly summer is fading gently away. The light drains from the sky so early in the evening, and dawns are darker and later each day. Lots of people find the equinoctial loss of light enervating, but I have always loved fall’s crispness, the brisk breezes sweeping through the woods and fields. The leaves have barely begun to tumble, but maples are coloring up, their stored sugars burning brighter every week. In the garden, this weekend’s wind storm left the usual disarray behind. The deck was littered with green and half-ripe tomatoes, an event that calls out the canning jars.

After washing this humble harvest, I set any tomatoes that are ripe and intact into egg cartons. There, air can flow freely around them and they hold quality quite nicely. The nightly rains made many of the almost-ripe split open, so those go into the soup pot or become pasta sauce. The greenest ones get slow roasted, an alchemical process that brings out the best in most vegetables and some fruits as well. It takes time, however, and hasty roasting or undercooking will not produce the result you want. Low and slow makes magic, while too much heat can cause edibles to scorch before they caramelize, and too little time leaves them starchy and leaden.

A Matter Of Density

Slow roasting works best when you work with a single ingredient at a time, or carefully match densities. Thus, you’ll have better luck roasting a pan of green tomatoes by themselves, rather than mixed in with riper ones. You can mix firm veggies like cauliflower, potatoes, sweet potatoes, or winter squash, especially when you take care to cut them into more-or-less equal sized pieces. If you want to add a handful of cranberries, gooseberries, or fresh currants to brighten the blend, wait until the main veg are close to done. Stir them a bit, add your softies, then give them another 10-15 minutes to meld.

Soggier things like peaches, plums, ripe tomatoes, and zucchini work best in larger pieces; halve the fruits and slice the squash into quarters lengthwise. These definitely need to be cooked in rimmed baking sheets to avoid slopping excess juices all over the oven. Rub the pan with a high temperature oil (I use avocado oil, which has a subtle, buttery flavor) and place them cut side up. Sprinkle with sea salt or raw sugar, depending on your intended use, and roast them at 300-350 degrees F  for 40-60 minutes.

Roasted Peaches

1 tablespoon avocado oil
4 ripe peaches, stoned and halved
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
OR
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Gently rub peach halves with oil and place cut side up on a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and paprika for the savory version or drizzle with maple syrup and coriander for the sweet one. Bake at 300 degrees F until soft and slightly caramelized (45-50 minutes). Serve warm. Serves 4-8.

Roasted Zucchini

2 firm 6-7 inch zucchini, sliced in quarters lengthwise
1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1 teaspoon minced rosemary
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 lemon, quartered

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Gently rub zucchini with oil and place on their sides on a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with rosemary and salt and bake at 325 degrees F until slightly caramelized (40-45 minutes). Serve warm, with a lemon wedge. Serves 4.

Too Many Tomatoes?

Home grown tomatoes often ripen in a rush, leaving the cook with a pantry full of produce that won’t wait. If you don’t want to tie up your stovetop, slow roast them to brighten winter meals. You can freeze roasted tomatoes for up to three months, or longer if they’re prepared without seasonings that can develop off-flavors in the freezer (garlic is a major offender that way). Add your favorite flavorings when you thaw these luscious Reds instead, and the result will be rewarding indeed.

Roasted Reds

2 quarts medium red tomatoes, cut in half
1 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Rub each tomato, (skin side only) with oil, then place them cut-side-down in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake at 300 degrees F until soft and edges are lightly caramelized (about an hour). Pack in jars as is and seal or puree first for a smoother sauce. Freeze for up to 3 months (use bags, boxes or straight-sided jars and leave an inch of head room). Makes about 4 cups.

Favorite Red Sauce

Thawed or just made, pureed Roasted Reds are luscious in Rich Red Sauce, which tastes like you spent hours making it but cooks up in minutes. Serve over pasta, quinoa, or rice and prepare to receive complements.

Spunky Red Sauce

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 tablespoons pitted Kalamata olives, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 small carrot, coarsely grated
2 cups ripe tomatoes, chopped
2 cups pureed roasted tomatoes (thawed if frozen)
2 teaspoons capers, drained

In a sauce pan, heat oil, garlic, onion, salt and paprika over medium high heat for 2 minutes. Add olives and cook for 2 minutes. Add celery and carrot and cook until barely tender (3-4 minutes). Add chopped tomatoes, bring to a simmer, add roasted tomato puree and capers, bring to a simmer and serve at once over pasta or rice. Serves 4. Some plate licking may be involved…

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Playing With Plants

Fairy Houses & Face Cream

This weekend, I put on a fairy house birthday party for a five year old. I’ve run a fairy house building program at the local library for years, but this was the first time I’ve imported the experience and I was not at all sure how it would go. As it happened, the result was remarkable. At the library, the kids are a little older (6-9 years old) and the action takes place in our very public gardens. Because of that ‘public’ part, I always begin by setting up some ground rules about beer bottles, broken glass, dog poop, and used needles (sad realities). For a group of around 30 kids, we’ll have half a dozen teens and adults on tap to make sure everyone stays out of the parking lot and any unsafe materials lurking under the bushes are properly handled.

In this case, the very tidy, kidcentric yard is patrolled daily and no warnings were needed. The yard borders on woods and offers many choice locations for fairy houses, notably lots of mossy rocks and stumps. I stuffed my tiny Smart car with bags of infrastructure: twigs and bark, pebbles and shells, feathers and bird nests, and masses of moss. I packed bags with foliage, from feathery cedar and silvery santolina to velvety purple sage and woolly lamb’s ears. Huge, glossy bergenia and hydrangea leaves make splendid roofs or boats, while cinnamon colored Carex Cappucino makes marvelous thatch and the spangled seed bearing stems of pheasant tail grass make fluffy beds or magical looking clouds. Flowers were relatively scarce, but there were plenty of hydrangeas, some Russian sage, and a few handfuls of late roses to brighten the mix, and seed pods in all shapes and sizes.

Let ‘Em Rip

The library programs start with a gathering and a conversation, but birthday parties are far less organized. Families wander in with younger and older siblings in tow, friends dash off together to play, and there’s no gathering to be had. I was fascinated and very happy to observe that the kids needed no guidance at all to get playful and creative with this great array of materials. I usually include only natural stuff, but the threat of rain made me develop a backup plan. Because we might need to move indoors, I brought some colorful bendy straws and modeling clay to anchor them if need be. These were immediately turned into anything and everything by boys and girls alike, though the paper umbrellas (the kind used in girly drinks) were perhaps the most popular item.

It was heartening to watch these kids at play, older ones eagerly helping the youngsters if they got frustrated. The garden goodies were laid out in discrete piles on the deck, so the kids could stroll along, selecting a globe thistle (prickly leaves removed) or a fluffy plume of Miscanthus to add that special note to their construction. I laid out the more solid building materials at one end and the decorative stuff at the other, making about 20 feet of smorgasbord. This free play activity kept them very happily occupied, without squabbling or tears, for about an hour and a half, which seemed like a minor miracle to some parents. After the kids left, clean up consisted up sweeping the deck and carrying it to the compost heap, perhaps the easiest party aftermath ever.

Adults At Play

Watching all this, I wished I had thought to bring along some dried herbs for the adults to play with as well. Some of my most successful adult programs involved making savory or sweet herbal blends for cooking or tea, as well as herbal bath salts and pot pourri. Cooking and crafting appeal to pretty much everyone on some level, and it’s easy to add the element of free play that’s so often missing from adult activities. Though summer is speeding away, this is a great time to weave small kitchen wreaths from rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano, decorating with dried chilies and garlic. Simple wire wreath frames in various sizes are available at many nurseries, or you can make your own with grape vine prunings or willow wands.

If you grow lots of herbs, you can easily create fragrant pot pourris, bug-repelling sachets, and soothing bath salts for gifting and home use. For closet sachets, add some citrus zest and cloves to lavender sachets to discourage moths. Fill small muslin bags with rosemary or lavender to tumble with drying clothing, or stuff them with rose petals and fragrant herbs to toss into a steaming tub. Gently warm grapeseed or avocado oil with rose petals or lavender, then strain to make your own fragrant massage oil. For a calming bedside pot pourri, blend rose petals, lavender, and chamomile and stir to release the fragrance at bedtime. Make herbal bath salts by combining equal amounts of coarse sea salt and Epsom salts with a few tablespoons of lavender, rosemary, or lemon balm. Be sure to sew bath salt bags shut to prevent clogged drains…

Herbal Skin Cream

Pure, virgin coconut oil makes the base for this silky cream, which can be used on the face and body. Like any cream, it melts at body temperature, so apply around eyes only at night before bedtime.

Rose & Honey Face Cream

2 cups virgin, unfiltered coconut oil
1/4 cup avocado oil
2 tablespoons local honey
1 tablespoon fresh organic rose petals

Combine in a glass bowl set over a pan of simmering water until honey dissolves (5-6 minutes), stir well and let stand for 20 minutes. Pour through a fine-mesh tea strainer into glass jars and seal tightly. Cream will turn opaque and firm as it cools. Keeps for up to 3 months if stored out of direct light.

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Protecting Plants From Grazers

Wiring The Garden

I recently replanted my entry gardens, which had become dangerously overgrown. Plantings can be dangerous when trees begin to shed branches or fall in high winds, but in this case, the danger lay more in blocking views to the front door, which meant EMTs could not find their way to my mom’s bedside in a timely manner. (The pizza guy found the door just fine, though, go figure.) There was also the issue of tree rats frolicking in the attic crawl space, and the fact that landscapes designed to last 20 years don’t always function well in year 35. In any case, the overgrown trees and shrubs came down, the stumps were dug out (no picnic, I assure you) and the soil replenished.

The front door is on the north side of the house, with a large blank wall to one side. This space cried out for something sculptural, a plant with architectural strength that would not outgrow its position even in maturity. After some searching, I found a shapely golden full moon maple (Acer shirasawanum Aureum) that will in time become the centerpiece of the front entry. These are exquisite trees, and if you choose one with a handsome structure, over time, it will mature into a small but spectacular showpiece. Unless, of course, the deer nibble on it.

Indiscriminate Eaters

When this happened to my young maple, I was most unhappily surprised. None of the many maples I have planted over the years had been browsed by deer, nor have I seen signs of deer dining on native maples. Seeing the size of the culprit’s hoof prints in my dairy manure mulch, I realized that I was a fool not to provide some protection for the tempting array of fresh fodder I had thoughtfully provided. Despite my good luck in the past, I know perfectly well that deer are garden omnivores, especially when young.

While older deer develop favorite garden snacks, youngsters are indiscriminate. In a word, they’ll eat pretty much anything, at least once. Even when they decide they don’t really like a plant, they may remove the leaves and spit them out repeatedly. Adults may also ignore certain plants for years, then decide they love them (or perhaps new deer with more cosmopolitan tastes have arrived on the scene). This is very frustrating behavior, since we can’t ever be really sure that a given plant won’t be deer damaged. Deer have browsed new growth on my neighbor’s ivy, and I once lost a large and datura to a deer (I’ve always wondered what effect datura’s entheogens had on the poor unsuspecting critter).

Cagey Practices

I still have half a roll of 4 foot high, 2 x 4 inch mesh galvanized wire goat pen mesh left over from building Sophie’s catio on my upper deck. This stuff is pretty stout, but I got a couple of pals to help me make a cage wide enough to encircle the tree. Stout stakes hold it in place so eager noses can’t bump it aside as the tree puts on new foliage. Happily, the wounded tree is recovering well and has even extended its lovely branches, necessitating a secondary wreathing of the cage with chicken wire. The result is not precisely attractive, but it certainly does the job, as the proliferation of hoof prints around the protected tree reveals.

Fool Me Twice

Nearby, I planted a gorgeous specimen of Acer palmatum Orangeola, with glossy, dissected leaves that offer a long sequence of color changes from spring into autumn. This tree had not been touched when its companion was nibbled, so… Yup. Really. I left it unprotected until the day I found several branches torn off. Sad but true. Once again, it took several people to help me bend the stiff wire into a hoop wide enough to encircle the tree AND allow for future growth. (I do learn, just a little slowly sometimes.)

By now, I was looking a bit more carefully through the garden and of course found more damage. Thus, my dwarf golden sumac (Rhus typhina Bailtiger Tiger Eyes) now sports a handsome yellow powder coated tomato cage (it’s tasteful to try to color-match the cage with its captive) wrapped with chicken wire, as does fluffy golden Spirea thunbergii Ogon. What it it with these deer liking golden foliage this year? The good news, though, is that galvanized wire fencing and chicken wire can partner to make deer proof, rabbit proof and kid proof cages for pretty much any plant you need to protect.

Bigger Plants, Bigger Protection

When I’ve been involved with large scale plantings where cattle browsing was an issue, we’ve used vaca cages to protect young trees for the first few years. If your browsers are big guys like cattle or elk, the wire has to be both galvanized and at least 12 gauge or more. We used the same size mesh, 2 x 4 inches, because 4 x 4 mesh can allow smaller snoots to push in and nibble off branches, let alone leaves. The wire needs to be at least 56 inches high to give the trees a chance to develop sturdy branching, and 5 feet is better, especially in heavily browsed areas where the cages may need to remain in place for a decade or longer.

For stakes, use tall, heavy weight steel T posts, fastened to the cage with heavy gauge galvanized wire, which definitely holds up better than flimsier stuff. The heavy duty stakes help protect against bucks rubbing antlers against trunks as well, since bucks seem to prefer the steel stakes over tree trunks. When protecting young trees, the cages can be made fairly slim; 56 inches around (or about 18 inches in diameter) is the standard in cattle country and works fine in these parts as well. Cut each cage section about a quarter inch from a vertical wire, so the cut ends at one end are nearly 2 inches long. These can be wrapped around the vertical wire at the opposite end of the tube, so you don’t need to extra wire twists. Where rabbits are a problem, line the lowest few feet of each tree cage with chicken wire. This double wire whammy delivers excellent yet light weight and inexpensive protection.

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