Monday, July 26, 2010

August arrives with grape expectations

A peacock parades past a row of scuppernong grapes at Tommy Free's Lake Apshawa you-pick grape farm in Clermont.  August is harvest month for grapes.

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 26, 2010)

On my office wall is a chart I made in 1998. It's an "at a glance" list, showing which month I can expect to harvest local fruits. On countless occasions I've looked up from writing projects to gaze wistfully at the chart, anticipating this or that delicacy in the weeks ahead.

A quick look the other day reminded me that August is harvest month for grapes. It's almost time to take a break from work and drive over to Tommy Free's farm on the shores of Lake Apshawa in Clermont to gather a couple bucketfuls of his wonderful scuppernong grapes.

As the crow flies, Tommy's vineyard is less than two miles from my home. By roads it's a little farther, but I don't mind the drive. Getting there is almost as much fun as picking and eating the sweet grapes themselves. It's an excuse to travel over a series of scenic, two-lane byways. On the way there, I'm bound to see cattle grazing in grassy fields and horses roaming in fenced pastures.

Wildlife abounds in Tommy's still-rural neighborhood. When I'm driving down West Apshawa Road, I often see sandhill cranes or ospreys flying overhead. One time when I was picking grapes, I even had some fancy feathered company. A pair of colorful peacocks paraded up and down the row next to mine!

The grapes Tommy grows are so special that I can understand why peacocks, opossums, foxes and other animals are attracted to his farm. What I can't quite understand is why more people aren't also enjoying the pleasure of fresh-picked, locally grown fruit.

Grapes are one of the easiest crops to harvest. Unlike blackberries, they don't have thorns. They're not low-growing like strawberries, so there's no bending over. And you don't have to struggle to reach high, as is often the case with peaches or oranges. The grapes at Tommy's vineyard grow at eye level along wires stretched between poles. To harvest fruit, all you have to do is walk down a row, lift a few leaves and pluck the grapes off the vine. Before you know it, your bucket is full.

Scuppernongs are a large, round seeded variety of muscadine grapes that are either dark purple or amber-gold. I'm partial to the amber-skin varieties. When I go to Tommy's, I fill my bucket almost exclusively with those.

Scuppernong grapes make delicious jelly, a flavorful juice and wonderful wine, but I'm too lazy to spend time creating such concoctions. I'm perfectly content eating the fresh fruit by the bowlful, one grape at a time, until my belly rebels.

"You did it again" is Ralph's usual response when I complain that I might have eaten a few grapes too many. "Won't you ever learn not to eat so much at once?"

Probably not. There are worse things in life than being a grape glutton.

Tommy's opens to the public Saturday, and I plan to be there filling a pail. When I leave, there's no doubt I'll be popping grapes into my mouth as I drive home along lazy back roads. There's also no doubt that I'll continue enjoying them when I'm back at the house, and I probably won't stop until, once again, my stomach insists that I step away from the fruit bowl.

Some people get excited about soccer, the latest blockbuster movie, new shoes or shopping excursions. Me, I get goofy over locally grown fruit. Scuppernong season is almost here and for that, I will always be grapeful.

Tommy Free's you-pick grape farm is at 18030 W. Apshawa Road, Clermont.  For picking times and prices call 352-394-3313.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Rain in Florida never loses its power to surprise

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 19, 2010)

I like to watch rain. I like to sit on the porch, look out at the lake and watch raindrops make circles in the still water. I like listening to the tattoo of rain on a metal roof, and I'm especially fond of the way showers appear out of nowhere, only to disappear just as quickly.

The other day I experienced one of those sudden downpours in a most unusual way.

Ralph and I were taking a late-afternoon swim to cool off and relax. We were more than halfway across the lake, chatting amiably about the day's events and doing lazy breaststrokes through the still water. Ralph was midsentence when I interrupted him.

"Do you hear that?" I asked, somewhat anxiously. "I think it's about to rain on us."

No more than two minutes after Ralph turned his head to look where I was pointing, a wave of coolness swept over us. As the temperature dipped, the sky darkened and a noise not unlike the sound of oncoming traffic grew louder.

"It's either rain or a train heading our way," he replied.

Instinctively, we turned around and began swimming back home. The shore in front of our house seemed farther away than usual. As we increased the speed of our strokes, raindrops began to dot the water just south of where we were swimming.

"Here it comes," I said, pointing to the curtain of droplets quickly closing in on us.

Moments later, percussive pellets of water landed on our heads. The downpour had caught up with us.

"Good thing we're already wet," I said. "Otherwise, we'd be soaked."

Ralph smiled and looked my way. I could see that his glasses had begun to fog up. On the shore our towels were waiting, but by the time we reached the beach, I knew they'd be too wet to do us much good. We stopped talking and swam on. The noise of the falling rain would have made conversation impossible anyway.

Eventually we touched bottom, stood up and stepped out of the warm lake. Despite the rain, we'd been comfortable while swimming. But exposed to the air, our bodies felt chilled. We grabbed our wet towels and ran to the house.

Since I've been living in Florida, I've seen it rain on one side of a street and not on the other. I've watched dark walls of precipitation fall from distant clouds and rainbows appear after showers. I've driven through thunderstorms so intense that I had to pull over because my windshield wipers couldn't keep up. I've seen the dry soil soak up water like a sponge and large puddles evaporate in the summer sun. I've played in the rain with my children and bounced on the trampoline while rain splashed around us. But until recently, I had never experienced a rainstorm while swimming.

"I'm glad it was just a shower and not a thunderstorm," Ralph said, once we were back on land and toweled dry.

I couldn't have agreed more.

Monday, July 12, 2010

After a few growing pains, fig trees are fruitful

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 11, 2010)

My husband is happy. Every day he walks out to check the fig trees and returns home with a bowlful of fruit. Like a child with a new toy, he likes to show off his treasure.

"Look how many figs I got today," he says after tracking me down to the laundry room, where I'm sorting through clean clothes and folding towels. "We're going to have a great harvest this year."

I'm happy for my husband. I like figs, but Ralph loves them. His passion for this member of the mulberry family of plants isn't new. He has been growing figs for more than 30 years, though his early attempts were not especially … fruitful.

In the 1970s and early '80s, we lived on Cape Cod, where fig trees grew but were susceptible to cold. To protect the plants in winter, he would partially uproot the trees and tip them over before blanketing them with a thick layer of mulch.

The theory behind all this effort was that the mulch would provide sufficient warmth to prevent the cold from damaging the plant.

In spring, when the weather warmed, he reversed the process. He removed the mulch, righted the plants and tamped down the earth. It worked, to an extent. The trees survived, but they never thrived. Despite all his pampering, I can't recall a single harvest.

Nonetheless, he continued trying.

When we moved to Florida, land of mild winters, Ralph went a little crazy. He bought several varieties of fig trees and planted them around the property. Unfortunately, Florida soil is susceptible to infestations of nematodes, microscopic roundworms that live in the soil and attack the roots of certain plants. Nematodes are a fig tree's nemesis.

Although nematodes didn't kill the trees, they severely limited fig production. Nematode-infested plants produce figs that drop off the tree before they're mature.

Unwilling to give up, Ralph sought out nematode-resistant cultivars. Somewhere along the line he chanced upon the LSU purple fig, a nematode-resistant variety developed by Ed O'Rourke, professor of horticulture at Louisiana State University. O'Rourke released the LSU purple fig in 1991. Ralph purchased some trees shortly after they came on the market, and he has been growing them ever since.

The LSU purple fig resembles the black mission fig in size and shape. It is a vigorous grower and prolific producer of sweet, medium-size fruit. Ralph has more than a dozen mature trees planted not far from the house. He can walk outside with a large plate or bowl and within minutes return to the kitchen with more fresh figs than any one person can possibly eat.

"Sixty figs," he announced last night. "That's how many I just picked."

"We're going to have to start drying them," I said as I surveyed the kitchen counter where plates full of ripening figs covered most available surfaces.

Last year, Ralph froze our extra figs. It turned out that figs freeze remarkably well. When thawed, they lose very little taste or quality of texture. This year, however, fresh-picked blueberries fill our freezer.

Unless I start making several pies each day (highly unlikely), there won't be room for too many bags of figs. We haven't experimented much with drying figs, but I expect we will soon begin.

Then again, our oldest son is due to arrive home in a few days and, like my husband, he has a passion for figs. Timmy has an uncanny ability to make food disappear, which might turn the "problem" of excess figs into a non-issue.

If you're going to have a problem, having too much of a good thing is a great problem to have.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Pesto: Top-notch topping for summertime meals

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 5, 2010)

About twice a week I snip half a dozen leafy basil stems off our garden plants and whip up a batch of pesto. Pesto has become a regular part of our summertime menu. Although it's used primarily with noodles, we also add the basil-based topping to roasted vegetables, stir-fries and omelets.

Pesto is an uncooked condiment made from crushed basil leaves, olive oil, nuts and garlic. Most recipes also call for salt and parmesan cheese, but I leave both out. Ralph and I add parmesan or Romano cheese at the table so that we can use only as much as we each like. But the salt shaker stays in the cupboard.

For decades, I've excluded salt from just about every recipe. Salt is a vastly overused seasoning with a great potential to cause harm. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we need less than 500 milligrams a day of sodium to keep our bodies working properly, but the average daily sodium intake for Americans ages 2 and older is 3,436 milligrams.

Sodium intake directly affects blood pressure, and high blood pressure leads to two of the top three causes of death — heart disease and stroke. Omitting salt from recipes is an easy and painless first step toward improving eating habits and overall health.

Traditional pesto recipes call for fresh basil leaves crushed by hand with a mortar and pestle, but I use a mini-blender, a kitchen tool I found at Walmart for less than $10. Instead of using pignoli nuts, another traditional ingredient, I usually prepare my pesto with walnuts. They're a less expensive and easier-to-find substitute for pignolis, which are also called pine nuts.

I put about a quarter-cup of walnuts into the mini-blender, press the "blend" button and let the machine chop the nuts into tiny pieces. I then add a half cup of extra virgin olive oil, two or three cloves of fresh pressed garlic and as many clean basil leaves as can be stuffed into the plastic mini-blender container.

I push the button and presto — I have pesto!

A batch of pesto will keep in the fridge for about a week, but if you don't use it all, don't worry. Leftover pesto is easy to freeze. The simplest thing to do is to put spoonfuls of pesto into ice-cube trays, freeze the trays and then store the frozen cubes in plastic bags or glass jars. The nice thing about freezing ice-cube-size portions is that one cube is usually the right amount to season a bowl of noodles or flavor a stir-fry.

Until this year, we always planted basil in the ground, but a few months ago we experimented with container plantings. Ralph sowed basil seeds into 15-gallon nursery pots filled with a rich mix of peat, compost, manure and wood chips for aeration. Within a couple of weeks, basil seedlings emerged.

As the seedlings grew, Ralph thinned them out, leaving one to three sprouts per container. The result is lush canopies of fragrant basil leaves that overflow the pots. Basil does best when its top growth is regularly snipped back, which works for me because those snipped leaves are the ones I use for pesto.

Basil is a warm-weather crop, so there's still plenty of time to sow some seeds or transplant a young, store-bought plant into a larger container or directly into the ground. You don't need a lot of land to grow a kitchen garden. A few potted plants on a balcony or porch or outside the front door are sufficient to fulfill most families' needs for fresh herbs.

Basil originated in Asia, India and Africa thousands of years ago. The ancient Greeks considered it a noble and sacred herb and gave it its name, derived from basilikohn, which means "royal." In India, basil was considered an icon of hospitality, while in Italy it represented love.

I find basil easy to love. I also find it easy to enjoy in the form of pesto, a delicious addition to many a summertime meal.