potables and comestibles

The Waning Garden

Tangled TomatoesEach year, I attempt to grow a garden, and inevitably I engage in overambitious planting. I start off most assiduously, but as the summer progresses the neatly tended, weedless rows degenerate into wild (and often underwatered) tangles. Despite this, the harvest always includes a frightening quantity of tomatoes.
Chard EnvyOur neighbor is a retired Sicilian, and his backyard looks like a small patch of southern Italy. No weeds dare grow in his yard, and his plants are lush and productive. I have chard envy.

Tomatoes and AsparagusHis tomatoes are carefully trained up long poles, trimmed into strict compliance with his will. They tower over my bushy, uncontrolled specimens. In the picture to the right, my tomatoes are lower and in the front, mixed with asparagus fronds. The asparagus is in its second year and has been growing vigorously. I’m looking forward to next spring’s harvest.

Habaneros ready for pickingThe pepper harvest has been quite satisfactory, though I still need to figure out what to do with all these habaneros. The second major crop is ready for harvest.

This year, I managed to keep up with oppressing the weeds and picking the ripe fruit through July, earning approving comments. Inevitably, though, work and school absorbed my attention, and it doesn’t take long for tidiness to transform into a near-jungle.

A Wilderness of FennelTwo years ago I purchased a single purple fennel plant. It grew happily for a season and died among a few green plants that sprang up on their own. Last year, I had quite a few of both the green and purple varieties that grew themselves without any interference on my part, which made me happy. They’re quite attractive and tasty (great for salads, grilled fish, or my favorite coriander-crusted scallops in fennel broth).

This year, the fennel has decided it is in charge. I didn’t fully understand its agenda and let the plants grow as they wished. After they reach a certain height, their stems become woody and more or less impossible to uproot. They are now noticeably taller than I am. If I touch them, fennel seeds rain down on the soil, sealing my fate for next year.

Fennel ResurgentThey smell wonderful in the evenings, though. Arriving home late at night after a long day at work and evening at school, the air is scented with their anise-like aroma.

Despite the late season, a few new fennel plants have started to pop up. The specimen shown at left can be seen menacing my thyme.

Oy, Tarragon!My neighbor may not approve, but an overgrown herb garden is a wonderful thing. My role in tending them is mostly to act as a peacekeeper, setting boundary disputes that arise. I planted a scraggly frond of tarragon two years ago, and it has grown into a monstrous near-bush. I’ve had to tie it back to restrain its depredations against the sage plant that can be seen behind it.

Three SagesPerennial herbs are quite satisfactory, and I’ve had particular luck growing sage, an herb that is both attractive and tasty. Three different kinds can be seen in the picture at left, which I think turned out quite well. (In fact, I’ve cropped a bit of it to use as a header for this site, livening up my depressingly bland template.)

For the moment, the garden’s vigor is subsiding. Soon, I’ll pull out the dying tomato and pepper plants and compost them for use during the next planting. I’ll enjoy the respite from knowing that I really should get around to weeding. Perhaps next year I’ll manage to plant only a reasonable number of tomatoes and to keep everything tended at least through August—but where’s the fun in that?

potables and comestibles

The Masochist's Mixer: Sampling the Habanero Vodka

Habanero Vodka Sample Last night I transferred the bottle of habanero-vodka infusion into the freezer against tonight’s tasting . . . very cautious tasting, I might add. It was nicely chilled when I removed it and held it up to the light.

The vodka has acquired a very faint orange tint and has become slightly cloudy with tiny, floating particulates. I decanted a small amount (about a half-ounce) into a shot glass. The smell is quite wonderful, quite definitely habanero with a faint sweetness.

M—— took the first sip and was immediately in dire straits. I had to fetch a salt shaker for her, and fast. (This, by the way, is a good tip: If you eat something that’s painfully spicy, don’t reach for your water glass, which is about as effective as throwing water on a grease fire. Heavily salted tortilla chips are much more effective.) Her report: undrinkably painful, but with interesting potential.

I took a sip.

Hot sauce vendor Dave, of Dave’s Insanity Sauce fame, claims to have developed his concoction as a method of “encouraging” drunken, troublesome patrons to leave his bar. I suspect this vodka could be turned to similar ends, or possibly used as a weapon for interpersonal combat.

My initial impression was of a surprisingly tasty industrial solvent. I was extremely glad that the sip was a very small one. It took a moment for the sensation of heat to arrive, but arrive it did. The powerful burning sensation was most pronounced on the roof of my mouth and my lips. The strength of the infusion had become much hotter than I expected in such a short amount of time. Even though it was not unbearably painful, it felt a bit as if my palate were dissolving. I decided to exercise caution before proceeding.

I fetched a bowl of tortilla chips and doused them with salt, then added more salt. M—— immediately began consuming them.

Thus fortified, I ventured a second sip. While the potency of the capsaicin is certainly foremost in the experience, the flavor is actually quite good, with a curious sweetness lingering on the tongue. The flavor melds quite well with the salty corn of the chips, and it does indeed have a lot of potential.

For any sort of reasonable use, this batch will need to be diluted. I suspect that around 2–3 parts pure vodka to 1 part habanero infusion will be about right for use as a drink mixer . . . this will make a mean bloody mary. (M—— indicated that it would have to be 3:1 before she would consider trying it again.) This could work well in recipes, as well. I’d like to try using this in a marinade for a fish, perhaps striped bass.

Oh, and I did finish the sample, sipping slowly. I’ve always loved hot sauces that were more than a bit too hot to be comfortable, and this brought back memories of sitting in my dorm room in college with a bowl of chips and a bottle of Inner Beauty Real Hot Sauce.

Post Scriptum: It seems that Inner Beauty, alas, is no longer being produced. Perhaps I’ll use up a few of my habaneros on this recipe for a home-made substitute.

potables and comestibles

The soothing power of habanero vodka

Sliced chiliesThe garden is nearing the end of its season. The tomatoes have reduced their frenetic output to something nearly manageable, and the chilies are bright on the vine. This year, I have a disturbing number of habaneros . . . far more than is safe for any sane culinary pursuit. Happily, I am not excessively troubled with sanity, so I’ve processed the first batch and frozen them for the use during the long, coming winter.

Handle with careSadly, I’ve lost the little plastic tag that revealed the variety of the red peppers in the above photograph. They’re plenty hot, though not quite as fiery as their orange cousins to their right. It took about an hour and a half to sort through the harvest and prepare them for freezing. The garden also yielded several other kinds of peppers not pictured here, including a tasty Hungarian cultivar that fries up nicely and plenty of jalapeƱos. (A hint on jalapeƱos, by the way: if you grow them yourself, let them ripen all the way to bright red before harvesting. This adds a strain of sweetness to the heat, far superior to the watery, under-ripe green specimens you find in the the grocery.)

Handling cut chilies with bare skin is not recommended . . . really, not recommended. Despite a latex glove on my pepper-handling hand, my wrist was burning from the capsaicin spray after the first fifteen minutes.

Habanero VodkaI’ve been wanting to make some habenero vodka, so this was the perfect opportunity to experiment. I had a partial bottle of inexpensive (Gordon’s) vodka sitting around, so I popped sixteen quarter-pepper segments into around 400 mL. This is going to be hot! A sip immediately after I dropped them in had a faint heat to it, and another sample taken an hour later had a lovely burn.

The bottle is now sitting in the pantry, where it will infuse for several days before I take the next sample. I’ve seen suggestions that it sit up to half a year, but if I’m going to wait that long I’ll want to be a bit more certain of the results.