Butterflies, Bees, and Moths: Pollinator Week Back in Full Effect

After weeks of dreary, rainy days, the sun finally came out today and so did the pollinators. I walked through the garden after lunch and caught sight of tiny wasps, bees, moths, butterflies, and flower flies. The garden I planted out by the road last summer has really taken off and although it was intended as a butterfly garden, it has attracted way more than that.

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As an after vet check-up treat, I took my girl Ruby Joon to Native Nurseries today and got to see even more pollinators while she drank from all the water features. Captured this beauty (monarch?) proving that the nursery’s signage is accurate. The Brickellia in my garden isn’t blooming quite yet, but I hope it attracts big ones like this guy…

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Back home, I found that I have swallowtail butterflies on the way. Caterpillars are currently destroying the bronze fennel, which I plant just for them. I noticed the first few pillars yesterday and one of the plants is already looking a bit thin today. This beast probably has something to do with the fennel demolition.

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This whole “Pollinator Week” thing has really gotten me out taking a closer look at the garden. Instead of seeing it as a whole, I’ve focused on individual blooms, looked under leaves, and even checked the zinnias hanging down into the ditch. Not only have I learned of pollinators I never knew were out there doing their thing, but my drive to garden regardless of the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes is back up—I’m energized again. Bring on the dog days of summer. I have a lot of work to do to be ready for fall and I’m ready.

 

 

Pollinator Week: Wednesday Rewind

Today was another rainy day, so I couldn’t find many pollinators out and about in the garden. I did find a red-headed bush cricket and a common grasshopper, but decided instead to share a video I took on Monday of a bee on one of the best pollinator attracting perennials out there—the anise hyssop.

I still can’t believe the size of the pollen saddles on that bee! Impressive work, buddy.

C for Chemistry and a Cookie

Pretty sure I got a solid C in high school chemistry. I took it over the summer months and I’m confident the only reason I got that C was because my teacher was friends with my dad, who was a guidance counselor at my school. I remember spending most days getting out of class on the pretense that I was going to see my dad for some important reason or another, which for me was asking him for a snack from the vending machine or to snag me one of the donuts that were intended for faculty only.

So any chemistry I might have learned at one point, well, that didn’t happen. Side note: I also took every math class from 8th grade on twice. My spectacular performances in chemistry and math may be why I avoided baking for so long. I learned to cook through jobs in kitchens in college and I always enjoyed the freedom to experiment and create. But baking? Frankly, it scared me. It seemed too exacting and scientific.

I got over that fear. The need to be learning new things all the time overpowered the fear and I dove in a few years ago. Starting out mostly sticking to recipes, I recently began branching out on my own into the scary nether regions of recipe substitutions and adaptations.

Let’s get chemical! Chemical!     (I also like to substitute words in songs, creating ridiculousness.)

Moving on, cookie time. The other day at work we were informed about a office-wide meeting. I’m a hater of meetings. Not only do I not enjoy groups of people collected in a small space, I hate dumb questions. Those people that say there are no stupid questions are idiots. Call a pointless meeting and you’ll hear a stream of stupidity in the form of questions. They exist.

So I thought, if we’re going to have to sit through a meeting, might as well have something good…like a cookie. I went home and looked around at what I had on hand and found the rest of the white chocolate chips from a previous cookie endeavour. Decided I needed to get rid of those faux chocolately things and since I didn’t have any macadamia nuts, I kept looking for something to go with those little bastards.

Finding nothing that peeked my interest inside, I did what I often do when I need inspiration in the kitchen—I went out to the garden. Running my hands through the rosemary and basil bushes, pulling rose petals of he loves me/he loves me not, plucking chamber bitters from under the peppers, and crushing thyme in my palm. It wasn’t until my foster puppy ran through the lemon verbena, her paw stomping on a branch, releasing that sharp, clean, grassy-citrus scent, that I knew what would pair with the white chocolate.

I clipped a few pieces with both mature and baby leaves and headed back inside to try a new cookie–lemon verbena and white chocolate chip.

20160817_183432.jpgDeciding to use my usual cookie recipe as the base, I thought infusing the herb into the butter would work best. Instead of bringing the butter up to a fast browning, I put it on low and chopped about 12 leaves into it to warm for twenty to twenty five minutes. After that time, I then turned up the heat to medium high and browned the infused butter.

I tasted the butter before adding the rest of the ingredients and it wasn’t quite lemony enough for me. Lemon desserts are my favorite and I need more to balance with the sweetness of the chocolate, so I added about 6 raw, chopped leaves into the flour.

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Cut the sugar by a quarter from the regular recipe and only did one tablespoon of vanilla extract. I took the risk of messing up the chemistry of the cookie because I didn’t want the savory verbena to be overpowered. The dough ended up coming together despite my changes. Dropped large portions onto the baking sheet hoping the bigger size would even out the flavors and give me the texture I wanted.

After an excruciating twelve minutes, with a flip halfway through, I pulled the sheet from the oven and stared at them while they cooled. They were a beautiful blonde, slightly darker around the edges, the white chunks were highlighted by the visible bits of verbena and the smell was intoxicating. I was pleased with the appearance. Once I felt like I had waited long enough, I made my chamomile tea, grabbed one of those fancy pants cookies, and dove into the deliciousness.

Chemistry and math be damned, I did it.

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Lemon Verbena and White Chocolate Cookies (mine made 12 extra large cookies):

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

14 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 large egg yolk

1 large egg

3/4 cup white chocolate chips

15-20 leaves fresh lemon verbena

Melt 10 tablespoons butter in pan on low along with about 12 chopped verbena leaves. Allow that to warm for about 20-25 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 and get a cookie sheet ready with parchment paper.

Sift the flour, add baking soda and 6 raw, chopped verbena leaves. Set aside.

Bring the butter on the stove up to medium high heat and brown it. Once it has that nutty aroma, pour it into a bowl with the remaining 4 tablespoons butter cut into 1/2 inch pieces. Stir in the salt, vanilla extract, sugar, and eggs. Whisk for 30 seconds, let sit for 3 minutes. Repeat that two more times.

Add the flour mixture to the bowl and stir until just combined. Fold in the white chocolate chips.

Measure out dough into about 2 inch balls. I ended up with exactly 12. Bake on middle rack for 6 minutes, flip sheet around and bake another 6 minutes. Pull from oven and set the sheet on cooling racks. Allow to cool long enough to set…

then try not to eat all of them at once.

Tomadough Tart. Or something.

First, you grow some scrumptious heirloom tomatoes. Then you pick ’em ripe. After that, you put them in doubled-up dough with dijon, herbs and cheese, bake, and then cram it in yer piehole and make contented animal noises. Hello, summer.

It looks a little sumthin like this:

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Jenn’s Tomadough Tart Recipe

Tart dough (I doubled this because I like a thick dough):

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon sugar

1 rounded cup of flour

Put the butter, water, oil, and sugar in an oven-safe bowl and bake on 410 for 15 mins. until butter starts to brown on edges. Pull from oven, pour in flour, mix and put into tart pan to cool for a few before forming around pan.

I then cooked the dough at 375 for 15 mins. and let it cool completely before adding the filling.

Tart Filling:

As many tomatoes as will fill your tart. I know this is vague, but I used four different sizes of tomatoes for mine. I did three layers and that took one large, four medium, two small, and then six cherries. Do what feels right for you.

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**Be sure to put your sliced tomatoes out on a towel and salt them to pull the water out of them. You can do this while the dough is cooling. 

 

6 ounces of good goat cheese (you could use mozzarella if you prefer)

Pecorino romano, freshly grated

Fresh chopped herbs (I used scallions, thyme, and basil from my garden, but feel free to use whatever spices you like. Tomatoes go with most any of them.)

Dijon, enough to coat the bottom of the tart

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Coat the bottom of the cooked/cooled tart dough with dijon–a layer as thick as you would put on a sandwich. Then add your first layer of tomatoes. Tops with some of the herbs and a sparse sprinkling of grated pecorino romano cheese. Next layer of tomatoes and repeat with the herbs and cheese. Add the final layer of tomatoes, top with the goat cheese and any herbs you may have left. Pour the olive oil all over the top of the tart.

Bake at 425 for 30 mins. on the middle rack. Watch it so the cheese on top doesn’t brown too much.

Take it out and allow to cool for the flavors to meld and so it doesn’t fall apart when you cut into it.

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A Tart Despite Herself

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Summer is a time to cram sugar-laced fruits into butter-laden dough, bake until golden and bubbly, and then eat straight from the dish with a spoon. Or share it with others. Years ago, a friend of mine gifted me a magnet that says, “Love people. Cook them tasty food.” I’m not an emotionally expressive person, so this rang true to my core. It’s what I do. Instead of giving hugs or stuttering over sappy sentiments, I make food for those I care about.

After an almost two week vacation on the road visiting friends and family, I realized near the end of last week that I hadn’t made anything in a while. Whether it’s cooking, baking, gardening, writing, or some sort of craft, I can’t go too long without putting my hands to work. And it shows. My hands look about 20 years older than I am. Even so, they’re one of my favorite parts of me.

One not so favorite part is my brain and its exacting inability to follow directions. I thought I had beat this. I had gotten so consistent at reading through entire recipes before doing anything else. Then I’d gather ingredients and read through it again. Yeah, so I must not have done that enough times to make it an actual habit.

On Thursday afternoon, I asked a coworker if I should make a blueberry tart to bring into work the next day. Of course, the answer was yes, so I stopped at the store on the way home and picked up four pints of blueberries that were on sale. I always prefer using produce that is in season for cooking and baking, and since we’re coming to the end of the blueberry season here, I knew I wanted to do one more dessert with them.

I also thought I knew which recipe I wanted to use for the tart. Another one from Kate Lebo’s book, Pie School: a blueberry and lemon verbena galatte. Except as a tart. So I glanced over the recipe, mainly looking at the ingredients for the filling since I wasn’t doing a galatte dough. I planted lemon verbena in my garden this spring and was pumped to be able to use it.

This is where things got funky. I googled tart dough recipes and saw the classic French pastry dough recipe in which you bring the butter to a boil in the oven and I got all sorts of frazzled with excitement at the idea of that. And then it was all downhill from there.

I mixed the butter, oil, water, sugar, and salt in a pyrex bowl and put it in the oven. Forced to read those directions multiple times because of conversions, I then looked over the other recipe for time and temps. If you’re keeping up, I was working with two different recipes at that point–one for the dough, one for the filling ingredients. What else could I need, you ask? I am not the one that can answer that for you, but I do know that I started following a third recipe.

No clue why, but I started using the ingredient list on the third recipe and mixing said ingredients, minus the lemon zest and opting for lemon verbena instead. Are you confused yet? I’m confused just remembering the ordeal. I have no idea how my brain made all of it seem okay at the time. After mixing, I check the third recipe for a baking time and there wasn’t one…um, what? Only then did I read the actual recipe and realized they were cooking the blueberries ahead of time and then just adding to a pre-baked dough.

Wow. I’d really outdone myself. It was too late to fix the fact I had tossed corn starch20160625_215600.jpg straight in with lemon juice and sugar and blueberries and I wasn’t going to cook them because screw that, my dough was ready to go. The one thing I did correctly. It sure was a purty dough and smelled like straight browned butter of gloriousness. I was a bit concerned that there wasn’t really enough to fill out the tart pan, but with some heal-of-the-hand work, I stretched out it to cover. Yes, I could have baked the dough and pre-cooked the blueberries at this point to bring my mess closer to that third recipe, but did I do that?

20160625_215631.jpgI did not. I piled those little blue pellets of sweetness into the tart dough and moved ahead with my version. Put that possible disaster into the oven at 375 for 45 minutes. I checked it around 35 minutes, but the fruit wasn’t quite to the consistency I wanted to see. It was just where I wanted it to be at the 45 min. mark, knowing it would still cook down some after coming out of the oven. It looked a bit soupy when I set it on a cooling rack–I was nervous.

Once again, my inability to follow directions did not an atrocity make. The blueberry tart ended up turning out quite well. It didn’t hold together as much as I would have liked, but the flavor was a perfect balance of sweet and tart. It went very well with morning coffee. The people seemed pleased.

Another success despite myself!

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French Pastry Dough Recipe

  • 3 ounces (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 rounded cup flour

Preheat the oven to 410º F

1. In a medium-sized ovenproof bowl, such as a Pyrex bowl, combine the butter, oil, water, sugar, and salt.

2. Place the bowl in the oven for 15 minutes, until the butter is bubbling and starts to brown just around the edges.

3. When done, remove the bowl from oven, pour in flour and stir it in quickly, until it comes together and forms a ball which pulls away from the sides of the bowl.

4. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch tart mold with a removable bottom and spread it a bit with a spatula.

5. Once the dough is cool enough to handle, pat it into the shell with the heel of your and, and use your fingers to press it up the sides of the tart mold. Reserve a small piece of dough, about the size of a raspberry, for patching any cracks.

 

Blueberry Tart Filling

3 pints of blueberries, plus one cup set aside to top before serving

12-15 leaves of lemon verbena, finely chopped

2 tablespoons corn starch (I may use 5 tablespoons of flour next time instead)

2/3 cup of granulated sugar

3 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice

lemon zest for topping

 

Bake at 375 for 35-45 minutes. Check at 35. Refrigerate 45 minutes to cool or up to overnight. Top with fresh blueberries and lemon zest before cutting.