On Tomatoes

Homegrown, thanks to bedding plants from Desert Canyon Farm.

Revolting.

If you had asked me when I was a kid what I thought of tomatoes, that’s probably the word I would have offered—or “gross” maybe, or “disgusting” when I was a little older. Actually, you probably wouldn’t have had to ask. If a tomato, or slice or dice thereof, was anywhere in my vicinity, I would declare the judgment unsolicited, most likely accompanied by a gagging sound effect or hands-at-my-throat choking gesture.

When I was in high school and first heard George Carlin’s bit about tomatoes not looking like they’re fully developed yet, I laughed with the overblown hilarity reserved for the most fanatical of partisans.

At an extended family Thanksgiving dinner one year, I was pressed into service slicing tomatoes. One of my aunts paused to watch for a second before commenting icily that I didn’t know how to slice tomatoes. I think I smiled tightly and said, “Nope,” while I snarled internally: “I sure as shit don’t, and I can’t believe I’m touching this slimy disgusting thing, how can you people put them in your mouths??”

Then came salsa.

In my late twenties, I discovered the zippy charm of a good fresh salsa, redolent with onion and cilantro, laced with the hot crunch of jalapeno or serrano pepper: so addictive with salty tortilla chips. It was good, too, over burritos, tacos, or beans with rice: easy-to-prepare meatless staples I relied on as I entered into live-in arrangements with, then engagement and marriage to, a vegetarian (who has since lapsed…but his meat-eating hasn’t changed my relationship with fresh salsa).

Still, I always diced the tomatoes very, very small. A tomato was an object of suspicion, ever worthy of cautious handling. I never allowed a bit of tomato to pass my lips unaccompanied.

These days, I wouldn’t say I particularly like tomatoes, and I still refuse to eat them on their own. If I see someone pop a naked cherry tomato into their mouth, I cringe involuntarily. But I keep fresh tomatoes on hand for cooking, and I’ve come to appreciate them in salad, provided they’re well chopped up.

Not quite vine ripe, but getting there. This plant is in a container, so it will move indoors when frost is due.

I grow them—or try to do so; our high elevation isn’t conducive to timely ripening—because they’re so versatile as an ingredient. I even have a couple of recipes that feature them in starring roles.

Roma tomatoes are still probably available in your farmer’s market or, perhaps, in your garden. They’re popular as a paste tomato, but the meaty flesh makes terrific gazpacho. If the weather’s still as hot where you are as it is here in Colorado right now, give this no-cook recipe a try.

Even if you don’t particularly like tomatoes, you might like this.

 

Tichi’s Gazapcho
(from José Andrés’ Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America; I’ve included my comments and adaptations in italics)

2 pounds (about 10) plum tomatoes (if you use a less meaty tomato variety, skip the water while blending; be aware that this recipe will not redeem hard, mealy, or insipid tomatoes).

½ pound (about 1) cucumber

3 ounces (about ½) green bell pepper (I like a little kick, so usually use something with some heat; poblanos have the perfect combo of bite and flavor, but make the color of the soup a little murky; cubano peppers, if you can get them, work well)

1 garlic clove, peeled (if you don’t like living with raw garlic flavor in you mouth, heat the garlic in some olive oil for a few minutes to de-fang it)

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar (this is worth seeking out; red wine vinegar will serve in a pinch, but sherry vinegar is a magic elixir: trust me)

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil (if you have the conviction, go for it, but I’ve never used anywhere near this much; start with ¼ cup and use more if you think it needs more richness)

2 teaspoons salt (start with 1 teaspoon, add more to taste)

Core the tomatoes, peel and de-seed the cucumber and pepper, chop everything in rough chunks, and put it in the blender with the garlic, sherry vinegar, salt, and up to a half cup of water. Blend smooth. Adjust the vinegar, oil, or salt levels to taste. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

That’s it. Tasty and remarkably filling, what with all that fiber bound up in some nice rich olive oil. The original recipe calls for straining, but I never bother; there’s also a very fussy garnish protocol in the original, but the whole point of this, to me, is how easy it is.

The gazpacho keeps for a day or two; if it tastes flat, mix in a few drops of sherry vinegar and it will perk right up. It might sound crazy, but I love making this for road trips: put it in a mason jar to sip on as you drive. It’s flavorful and filling enough that it will keep you out of the chip bag.

If gazpacho season has passed where you are, fear not. Here’s another recipe from Andres’ book that’s perfect for fall. Lay in some more plum tomatoes and make a big batch of this for the freezer.

Romesco sauce, in case you haven’t had it before, is WAY better than ketchup. Have it on burgers, with steak, or with egg-based quiche/torta/tortilla recipes. Serve it with grilled veggies and the vegetarians and vegans in your life will swoon.

Ready for the grill: zucchini, peppers, mushrooms, radicchio, and red onion tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper, and a touch of vinegar (might I recommend sherry vinegar?); throw slices of marinated eggplant on separately so you can monitor their cooking better.

This is kind of an idiot’s version of molé: much easier to make but very complex,  and with some crossover of ingredients. Having said that, this isn’t a particularly simple recipe, so give yourself time to lay in the ingredients plan to make it on a cool day when you don’t mind running the oven. It’s worth the effort: you’ll be able to pull some summer out of the freezer come winter.

 

Romesco Sauce

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil (Spanish), plus extra for coating the vegetables (again: works fine with less)

1 red bell pepper

6 ripe plum tomatoes

1 head garlic, halved, papery skin removed

1 Spanish onion

3 ñora chili peppers (or other dried sweet pepper)

¼ cup blanched almonds

1 oz. white bread, crust removed

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

1 teaspoon Spanish sweet paprika (I also like to add a pinch of smoked paprika for flavor/heat)

½ tablespoon salt

Heat oven to 350 degrees; brush olive oil on the fresh pepper, tomatoes, garlic, and onion, place them in a roasting pan, and roast until the veggies are soft, about 25 minutes.

While the vegetables are roasting, soak the ñora chilies in hot water for about 15 minutes. Strain, and remove the seeds. Place the chilies in a blender and puree until smooth. (You can sieve the puree, but I’ve never done so.)

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a small sauté pan over low heat. Brown the almonds slightly, about 1 minute; remove. Raise the heat to medium and add the bread; cook until it’s nicely browned, about 30 seconds on each side. Remove and set aside.

Add the pureed chili to the pan and cook for about 30 seconds, then remove the pan from the heat.

Once the vegetables are out of the oven and cool enough to handle, peel them, and seed the bell pepper and tomatoes. Place the roasted vegetables in a blender or food processor and add the almonds, toasted bread, pureed chili, vinegar, paprika and the remaining 7 tablespoons of oil. Blend until it forms a thick sauce. Add salt to taste. Serve at room temperature.

To freeze: I measure out 1 cup portions, pour them into plastic containers, and freeze. To save space, you can pop the frozen pucks out of the containers, wrap in waxed paper, label and store in zip-top bags. You should plan on refreshing the sauce with a dash of sherry vinegar when you thaw it.

Roasted vegetables ready for blending. You get a smoother sauce if you peel and de-seed the tomatoes and peel the peppers, but I don’t always bother.

Posted in cooking and recipes, fall, gardening, summer | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Vacation Reflections

Well, vacations—both the planned of July and the unplanned of August—are over: time to get back to writing work. What better way to get back into the routine than to reflect on the break?

About not writing in August, there’s nothing to say other than it happened. As for the July blog vacation, I recognize a level of absurdity in calling daily posts a “break,” but the idea was to relieve myself of the obligation to find a topic, draft a narrative, check sense and logic, organize the right words in the right order, edit, and all that. My break was intentional, total, and extended to my work-in-progress as well as the blog: I was released from guilt about a lack of progress. No angst, no pressure, no recrimination.

A separate goal was to maximize time outside while the wildflowers were at their peak, and to share the show; I wanted to spend some of my summer idling and ogling rather than immersed in The Busy.

Featuring flowers native to my part of Colorado offered a way to provide context without narrative. I knew going in that including names would complicate the project, but felt they were an important element in properly sharing the bloom. A flower picture on its own is a taxonomic assignment; pair it with a name and the viewer’s curiosity has a head start, should he or she be inclined to learn more.

The problem with plant names is that they sound definitive even though they’re not. Common names rely on whimsey, tradition, and local convention. Formal names lean on classification systems subject to debate and revision.

Then, when it comes to naming plants, we’re talking about living organisms rather than products manufactured within consistent and well-defined specifications. In flowering plants, elaborations of form, color, and scent are executed in the interest of reproduction. Even if plants are not locomotory, they do get around, if you know what I mean, and diversity is part of the point of sexual re-mixing.

In addition to the uncertainties built into labeling and genetics, you also have to take into account the fact that the field guides we use in identification are texts. As such, they perform a sly bait-and-switch. Declarations therein propose answers but cannot ensure certainty on the ground. Drawing a conclusion requires judgment, which almost inevitably demands further reflection, inquiry, or observation.

What field guides are best at is directing your attentiveness. They point the user to field marks and identifying characteristics. A good plant guide will coax you to look not just at flower color and petal shape, but also at the size of leaves and the height of the plant, at growth habit, soil type, slope exposure, moisture and light levels.

The daily blog posts of this past July were insistent and specific reminders of where I am, but they also located my local flowers and my experiences of them within a larger framework of human knowing and life on this planet. I hope my bloom-a-day July captured the gratitude I feel for this place, and for the privilege of being here.

What fun to have an excuse to immerse more deeply in my place. To go walkabout across this piece of Colorado’s bounty with the sole aim of documenting its divers wonders was a gift whose value I’m still finding ways to comprehend. It’s humbling to know just ignorant I remain, despite this latest chapter in my decades-long attempt to understand where it is I’ve located myself.

One of the mysteries I’m confronted with is the origin of the fantastic bloom. Unlike other parts of Colorado, where record snowfall fed botanical exuberance with unusually abundant water, the big NOAA rain gauge I monitor shows that year-to-date precipitation at this site is merely so-so.

I speculate that temperature was more critical to our spectacular 2019 Wildflower Summer than snow and rain. The winter was cold, and snow sat on the ground for months. The cover protected soil and plants from desiccating wind, and the accumulation provided a sizeable infusion of water once the ground thawed. All of our May precipitation came as snow, which soaked in more slowly than rain and kept the brakes on plant growth with cold temperatures. And then, unlike the pattern of the last several years, during which June seared with an unrelenting blare of hot, sun-filled, rain-scarce, and fire-prone days, the weather stayed cool. The weather station recorded 1.85 inches of precipitation: respectable, but not extravagant, unless you compare it to June 2018’s dismal 0.09.

And then came July. The weather warmed, and more rain came–in moderation, but it came. Plants up here know what to do with water; my 31 days of wildflower porn is a testament to their talents.

I’d like to think the display was memorable enough without my self-assigned documentary project, but I’m not sorry I challenged myself to record the field marks of an extraordinary season.

 

Postscript: At the end of July, I tallied up the plants I hadn’t gotten to, along with those that don’t bloom in mid-summer. There are enough native flowering plants I didn’t manage to document in July that I could to the bloom-a-day project for another month, without repeats.

 

Posted in observation, trees and plants, wildflowers, writing | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Sunny Flowers

If you’ve been following this series of blog posts featuring the wildflowers blooming in our part of Colorado this July, you may have noticed a relative dearth of the classic and recognizable form commonly referred to as sunflowers.

The local sunflower types tend to come out later in the summer; at our altitude, many are just beginning to bloom now. Fortunately, that’s just in time to close out my project with a cheery blast.

Identification, you might not be surprised to learn, is complicated; the plant family we’re talking about here (composites, or Asteraceae) includes not only the common sunflower and other disc-and-ray plants such as Black-eyed Susans, Blanketflowers and Coneflowers, but also goldenrods, thistles, nettles, artemisias, dandelions, and, as you might expect, asters.

Following my post on groundsels early on in this project, a friend commented, “You know, you could just call them DYCs, Damn Yellow Composites.”

Duly noted.

 

Posted in summer, trees and plants, wildflowers | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Penstemons

Thirty days ago, I was inspired to blog the bloom by a prolific little flower I called “the little purple penstemon that blooms earlier than most of the penstemons” (kindly identified as P. virens by Susan J. Tweit in the comments to that post).

Those plants have now gone to seed, but their larger penstemon compatriots are blooming now, and it seems appropriate to allocate a post to them as this project winds down, even if it must be a group recognition.

When I started this series of bloom-a-day posts on the first of July, it seemed like thirty-one days might about cover it, and it’s been good fun to share some of the abundance of flowering plants we’ve been seeing this summer. Still, there are flowers I won’t have time for: lupine, cut-leaved evening primrose, wild rose, blue mustard, pussytoes, wild strawberry, Rocky Mountain bee plant,  fairy candelabra, Platte thistle, cinquefoils, buckwheats, and cacti, never mind some very attractive grasses and the various sages and rabbitbrush just beginning their bloom phase now. We’ll also miss some plants that flowered earlier, such as pasqueflower and mountain bluebell, and others I haven’t seen blooming yet, including Rocky Mountain clematis and bottle gentian.

But, July is not over yet. The varieties of penstemon aren’t quite as dizzying as the astragulus array, but a handful of species is in full glory as I write. Their tall spikes are like pennants of color waving here and elsewhere across the West, urging us to slow down and look.

Look really close on that front-facing blossom, upper left.

 

Posted in summer, trees and plants, wildflowers | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Pioneers

Not all of our wildflowers insist on living “wild.”

Pioneer plants are the first to colonize disturbed ground, including construction sites and burn areas. They help recover disturbed soil by stabilizing against erosion and shading tender seedlings. What makes them pioneers rather than weeds is their willingness to share space: rather than simply taking over the place and keeping it to themselves, pioneers yield to successive, and typically more diverse, generations of plants.

For such plants, bare ground amounts to opportunity.

Yarrow is a willing pioneer where we live, and over the years I’ve been able to watch as solid patches of it gradually morph into the botanical mosaic characteristic of our grasslands: the yarrow is still there, but it’s a collegial part of the overall mix.

In the fall of 2004, we set up horsekeeping with a small field we now call the Barn Pasture. By the time we finished fencing additional fields on the other side of the driveway the next year, the horses had cropped those few acres short. High-traffic areas were trod into hardpan. Once the horses started spending most of their time in the larger pasture, the yarrow surged and, despite a fierce drought, the grasses soon followed.

Here’s a picture of part of that pasture about a year into the recovery, with our beloved Max soon after his arrival in September 2006.

Here’s how it looks today (sadly, without Max, who died in 2012).

 

Achillea millefolium

 

Another pioneer, Curly-cup Gumweed, thrives in the poor soil along the gravel roads. The plant pictured here has shot up since the area was scraped clean by the road grader in early June.

 

Grindelia squarrosa

Posted in summer, trees and plants, wildflowers | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Pioneers

Astragulus

Friends, the month of July is running out of days faster than I am running out of flowers to post.

Here, then, is a sampling of the flowers from the Astragulus genus. By sharing them as a group, I’m able to show you more of the floral abundance and variety, whilst avoiding any pretense of being able to sort out the difference species. Sources tell me there are dozens of species in Colorado, of which eight are pictured here. I’m going to call this a representative sample rather than a comprehensive survey.

The challenges of accurately sorting one from the other are summed up nicely on the Southwest Colorado Wildflowers site, where you can read more if you wish. Or you can simply enjoy these clips from our local show. The flowering is winding down now, as the plants concentrate on forming seed pods.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in summer, trees and plants, wildflowers | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Weedy Looking Not-Weeds

The conventional definition of a weed is a plant s growing where it’s not wanted. By that subjective measure, any of the twenty-six wildflowers featured on this blog over the past few weeks might qualify as a weed if it’s in the “wrong” spot.

More often, I suspect, we think of weeds as non-native or invasive plants, as those that misbehave by arming themselves with stickers and spines, as disruptive to orderly plantings or crops, or as toxic hazards to children, pets, or livestock.

Let’s face it, though, there are some plants we’re inclined to dismiss as weeds because they’re simply gangly or odd-looking. They’re weeds because they look…well, weedy.

               

Scorpionweed isn’t a pretty plant, and it’s also burdened with a common name with distinctly unpleasant associations. Its flowers, while obviously floral on close inspection, are small, of insipid color, and arranged peculiarly (the Latin name for the genus is Phacelia, which translates as “bundle”). After getting over my initial “What the heck is THAT?!” response and checking its native bona fides in my field guides, I’ve become rather fond of scorpionweed, but perhaps that’s because I can reliably remember its name.

These other two native plants look weedy, but when they’re in bloom, as they are now…the flowers. Oh, those flowers.

Eveningstars (Mentzelia spp), as the name hints, open at night. I have not pinned down the species present here, but I’m pretty crazy about the flowers and have been actively collecting seeds to try to get more of them blooming near the house where I’m likely to encounter them on an evening walk.

Prickly poppy is a fierce plant, unless you are diving straight into the heart of those frilly extravagant flowers.

 

Posted in summer, trees and plants, wildflowers | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Weedy Looking Not-Weeds

Yellowdot Saxifrage

This flower-a-day project has encouraged me to look closer at familiar blooms, but I’ve also found new ones, which has been great fun.

I knew this plant, but not its flower. The foliage grows in mats of tightly clustered rosettes, the plump leaves so tiny the plant resembles moss–and, in fact, I’ve thought of it as moss when I’ve walked past it in the dark timber on the shaded north-facing slope below our house.

This is clearly a vascular (flowering) plant, and not a moss. I am reminded (yet again) to both look beyond superficial appearances, and to check my assumptions before getting too reliant on them.

Saxifraga bronchialis

The flowers are small, their details hard to see without some magnification. Thank you, macro lens.

Posted in summer, trees and plants, wildflowers | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Yellow Owl-Clover

Charming little plants when in flower: like candles in the grass, with crayon-yellow flames.

Orthocarpus luteus

Posted in summer, trees and plants, wildflowers | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Yellow Owl-Clover

Nodding Onion

To my considerable relief, the nod of the Nodding Onion is distinctive, and I can assert with some confidence that this is Allium cernuum.

And since I have not yet had occasion to use the word “umbel”–and who wouldn’t want to use the word?–I will add this note: an umbel is a form in which flower stalks radiate from a common point. The shape is often described as an inverted or upside-down umbrella, with the ribs pointing up, but thanks to the characteristic nod, the umbrella in this species is right-side-up.

Although, looking from overhead, the umbel might also be likened to a UFO.

 

Posted in summer, trees and plants, wildflowers | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Nodding Onion