Sunday, October 28, 2007

Brussels Sprouts: A Lesson in Patience

I experienced a serious dose of plant envy when visiting friends in California last December. Seeing the rows of bright purple 'Falstaff' Brussels sprouts, I knew I had to have them in my garden.

I started them in late winterm, and they germinated pretty quickly. In a few weeks, I had a handful of promising starts. I planted them amongst the Swiss Chard 'Bright Lights' for an instant rainbow effect in my veggie patch. They stood proud like little soldiers in the soil.

Brussels sprouts behind the Swiss chard

Brussels sprouts are named for the country in which they originated and are related to mustard. For those who have never seen Brussels sprouts growing in the field or an entire stalk in the market, the starts look like a loose cabbage on a stem. As the main stalk grows and new leaves form on top, the stems of the older leaves (petioles) are angled out at a 45-degree angle. In between the petiole and main stalk is where the sprout forms starting out as small as a pea.

Now I am getting impatient with my crop. The sprouts are the size of almonds, but I should already have full-sized sprouts ready for cooking. I've been growing these plants for what seems like forever. The time for maturity for Brussels sprouts is around 100 days, so I guess my crop is doing okay given the lack of summer sun. It's easy to blame the weather when things aren't going your way, right? I feel no shame in bringing up how the Pacific Northwest was gypped out of summer this year.

Plus, mine have are struggling with slugs, snails, and grey aphids, yet seem to be plugging along. However, some of them are not standing so proudly anymore. Instead they're doing back flips. Maybe I should have staked them? Yesterday I found bright green caterpillars feasting on the leaves. Arg! I plucked them off and tossed them over the fence--this is my method of pest management.

I am really tempted to put them out of their misery and till them under. I'll then spread more cover crop seed to enrich the soil for next year. In the meantime, I'll buy them at Pike Place Market where they're advertised as "Little Green Blobs of Death." Brussels sprouts are a great side dish. The trick is to buy fresh and not to overcook them. Eldon prepares delicious Brussels sprouts using a recipe from the Bouchon cookbook (Bouchon is Thomas Keller's bistro next to The French Laundry near Napa, CA) featuring creme fraiche, mustard, and bacon.

Will I try them growing Brussels sprouts again next year? I like a challenge and I'm a sucker for purple plants so I most likely will. I may plant them against a wall for more warmth especially if we have (hopefully not!) a similar summer next year.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Forbidden Fig

"Have you ever had a fresh fig?" my professor asked while driving through the orchards in Davis, CA.

"The only figs I've had are in Fig Newtons," I replied.

"Fresh figs are totally different. There's nothing like them."

That autumn, I courageously bought a pint of Mission figs at the Co-Op and swooned at their honey-yet-jammy-like flavor. He was right.

Since moving into my house three summers ago, I have been looking forward to enjoying just one ripe fig from my tree. The first year, the tree didn't bear much fruit. Last year, we had a better crop, but the birds beat me to it. I had lots of green figs towards the end of the season which never fully ripened. I managed to snag a few semi-ripe figs. They were pithy and turned my mouth inside out. My craving for ripe figs overcame me. I bought a pint of overpriced organic Mission and Brown Turkey figs at Whole Foods. Twice. I ate them like they were going out of style.

This summer I was determined to eat one ripe fig darn it! I made sure to give the tree a few deep waterings during the summer to ensure less pithy fruit. At the end of August, I dabbed the ends of the figs with a little olive oil. I heard that this helps with ripening. Soon green was replaced by purple and the birds immediately honed in on them. I would come home to half eaten figs dangling on the trees as though they were checking whether they were ready or not. The least they could do was finish them. So I decided to do the same and tasted a couple that felt ripe enough. The flavor was more figgy, sweet, and less pithy, but not quite ready.

While I'm drinking coffeein my cozy living room on this cool grey Saturday morning, THEY descend on my fig tree: hundreds of starlings twittering about like crazy. I call for Mudsy, my German Wirehair Pointer/Boarder Collie mix, hoping his appearance in the window will scare them away. No such luck. These birds are feasting on all of the figs even if they have just the slightest tinge of purple. They're having a party, and I'm not invited.

Then it's silent. I see them flying away. "Good," I think, "maybe they've spared a few." Five minutes later, the twittering resumes, and 5 minutes later it's silent again.

"They couldn't have done that much damage, right?" I'm saying to myself as I go check on the crop. Yeah right. I shake my head at the sight of my tree adorned with dangling half-eaten figs. Wasteful birds! Couldn't they share amongst themselves if they can't finish one by themselves?!

Wait. They have spared one closest to the house that I can reach from the front porch. It's purple skin peaking from behind a leaf. I pull it from the tree and take a bite. The fig is sweet, gooey, and tastes like honey. I finally have my one fully-ripe fig of the season from my very own tree.

Will I take measures against the starlings next year? Should I tie mesh bags around the fruit to deter the "wildlife"? Hang flashing tape or CD's from the tree to scare them away? Or will doing this make way for the clever crow? The jury is still out on this one.

The Not-So-Ripe Fig. No evidence is left of the ripe one.