Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lemon Cucumber Caprese Salad: Size Doesn't Matter

The farmers market is always a place of discovery for me. Vegetables I’ve never seen before, mutant fruit, a curmudgeonly lady playing the didgeridoo – anything you can think of, I’ve encountered it at the Santa Barbara farmers market. Well, not anything you can think of. Be reasonable.

My newest discovery came before a dinner date with my friend Sasha. We were perusing the market for ingredients to make a tasty meal when we found what looked like a cross between a summer squash and a pumpkin.
Lemon cucumbers at the Milliken Farm stand
Turns out, these little nuggets are neither of the above: they’re cucumbers! Lemon cucumbers, to be exact. Despite what their name suggests, lemon cucumbers are not the creation of a mad scientist who wondered what would happen if a lemon and a cucumber had a mutant baby. They’re just stout, yellow cucumbers that are kind of shaped like a lemon and grow during the summer.

Lemon cucumbers have a sweeter flavor than regular cucumbers, but have the same crisp texture. They’re also called apple cucumbers, since some people apparently have trouble distinguishing between lemons and apples.

The Milliken Farm stand was selling them for $2.50 a pound, so I bought a few. I’ve been feeling kind of anti-traditional-salad lately, but I couldn’t think of another way to use these midget cukes in a meal.

Then I saw the fresh mozzarella at the Spring Hill Jersey Cheese stand. They only had one package of it left, so I snatched it up quicker than you can say “mozzarella-ella-ella-ey-ey-ey.” I was going Caprese style on these cukes.

Caprese salad is usually just sliced tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil drizzled with balsamic dressing and olive oil. It’s a refreshing, filling twist on a traditional salad and I basically subsist on it whenever I’m pretending to be in Italy.

So Sasha and I trekked home from the market and got to work slicing up fresh heirloom tomatoes, the Spring Hill mozzarella cheese, and the Lilliputian cucumbers:
The fresh ingredients
I layered the slices with basil from my mason jar herb garden and drizzled some balsamic vinegar and olive oil on top:
Yum! The cucumbers added a crunchy texture to the traditional Caprese salad. The difference in flavor from regular old cucumbers was just barely noticeable. So when it comes to cucumbers, does size matter? It depends on what you’re going to do with that cucumber.

I am assuming you’re going to put it in a salad, so the answer is nope! Size doesn’t matter. These pocket-sized little guys do the job just as well as their more common green cousins.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Meghan Gets Crafty: Mason Jar Herb Garden

Since moving into a new downtown apartment I can barely afford on my graduate-student salary, I’ve become quite crafty. And I don’t mean crafty like sly, manipulative, getting-what-I-want-when-I-want-it. I mean crafty like I’m too poor to buy new clothes so I make them myself out of old curtains.

Well, I would, if I could sew. Since I’m not Maria von Trapp (much to my constant chagrin), I have to stick to more manageable crafts.

For example, I like to think that my sad excuse for a kitchen presents a great opportunity for craftiness. Some people might look at my kitchen and laugh at the idea that it could even be called a kitchen. It’s more of a corner of my living room, designated by its unfortunate 1970s-era linoleum, a 3/4-size refrigerator that is barely large enough to fit a carton of eggs and a half-gallon of milk at the same time, and one row of cabinets above the stove. I like to call it a nook, since I think that word connotes coziness rather than destitution.

Since there is not enough space for all my food in my kitchen nook, I store some things in mason jars with cute little chalkboard labels, displayed on a bookcase. That way, I can pretend to myself that I actually prefer the lack of cabinet space – otherwise, there would be no reason for chalkboard labels and no one would know where I kept my quinoa.

My boyfriend David is generally a bit skeptical of my crafting ways. He’s seen the show Hoarders, and he worries that “Don’t throw out that old pair of jeans – I could turn it into a purse!” might lead to, “Don’t throw out that old diaper! I could add it to my growing pile of health-code violations!” somewhere down the road. Frankly, it’s not a completely irrational concern.

But in a recent bout of supportive craftiness, he surprised me with an afternoon project. It doesn’t get much more local than herbs grown in your own backyard, so David purchased the supplies to make a backyard herb garden. Since most of the ground space in my backyard is dominated by cacti and other local succulent plants, and since I have a love for mason jars that defies reason, my herbs would live adorably in hanging mason jars on my back porch.

First things first: wine.
Mason jars and wine! My two favorite inanimate things. One day, I will drink wine out of a mason jar and my life will be complete. Don’t worry, I’ll blog about it.

After the wine was poured, we got started on the hanging herb garden. Here’s what we used:

Two slabs of wood
Chalkboard pain
8 adjustable round brackets
Gold leaf paint
8 mason jars
Various screws
A power drill

First, we used a ruler to divide the slabs of wood into four equal parts. I measured a one-inch section at the bottom of each the four parts and painted it with chalkboard paint; that would be the label for each herb:
Then I used the gold leaf paint on the brackets for no reason other than that it looked pretty:
While I painted, David pulled a Tim The-Tool-Man Taylor and used the power drill to attach the brackets to the wood slabs. He attached the bottom three at an angle, so the herbs could grow diagonally upward without hitting the bottom of the next mason jar.
Once the brackets were attached, the mason jars could slide right in. We put the herbs in the mason jars before attaching them to the wood slabs: rosemary, thyme, cilantro, basil, parsley, and mint.
There were eight mason jars and only six herbs, so we put flowers in the top-most mason jars. I used colored chalk to label the herbs and voila! An adorable herb garden hanging right on my porch:
Unfortunately, like most beautiful things, this hanging herb garden is quite impractical. A quick online search about how to care for these herbs revealed to me that there are three things most herbs need: sunlight, water, and drainage.

Two out of three ain’t bad, right? No. Wrong. They get plenty of sunlight on my porch and I make sure to water them often. The problem is that mason jars don’t drain. So all these herbs will surely die, unless I replace the mason jars with more practical pots.

But what will I do with all those mason jars? I’m thinking something crafty like lanterns with tea lights… or utensil holders… or individual Barbie jacuzzi tubs… the possibilities are endless.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Honey, Honey, How You Thrill Me

If you know me, you know I like to sing. Heck, even if you don’t know me, you probably know I like to sing. Especially if you happen to live in my apartment complex, in which case you might know me as “that girl who sings I Have Confidence in Sunshine on her way back from the laundry room, swinging around a jug of detergent as if it’s a guitar case and trying to master the jump-and-heel-click move. That girl.”

Sometimes people even pay me to sing. So in order to keep those people happy (as well as my sleepless and resentful friendly and adoring apartment complex neighbors), I drink a lot of tea and honey to soothe my throat. Every singer has a different remedy for a sore throat (including cortisone shots to the jugular – I kid you not), but mine has always been chamomile tea sweetened with a tablespoon of honey.

Obviously, when I switched to a vegan diet a year and a half ago, I had to kick my honey habit. But now that I’ve reintroduced animal products into my diet, I’m back on the good stuff.

My honey provider of choice is San Marcos Farms, with locations in Santa Ynez (distance from me: 30 miles), Ojai (distance from me: 33 miles), and Santa Barbara. Owners Dan and Anne Cole were some of the first farmers to participate in local farmers markets in the 1980s. Now they sell honey and honey products at markets all over the Santa Barbara area and in local grocery stores.

My favorite variety is sage honey from Santa Ynez. I’ve even been substituting it for sugar in my coffee; it’s delicious. San Marcos Farms also produces orange blossom honey in Ojai and avocado and wildflower honey here in Santa Barbara.

The Coles make sure their bees have all the honey and pollen they need, extracting only the excess honey during the harvest. Compared to commercial honey, which is shipped to industrial honey packers in 650-pound barrels, this local stuff tastes incredible.
Sage honey in my coffee.
But their bees, like many, are victims of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder). CCD might be the result of mite infestations, viral and bacterial diseases, and/or new systemic pesticides. It’s bad news not just for bees and beekeepers, but for farmers who depend on honey bees to pollinate their fruits and vegetables.

The only way I can think of to fight CCD from my end is to keep supporting San Marcos Farms and other local honey producers, so they have the funds to keep their bees alive and healthy.

Meanwhile, I’ll be going all Winnie-the-Pooh-style on my sage honey, stuffing my mouth, nose, and chin into the biggest jar I can get my hands on and gulping it down.

Unfortunately, it’s a little tricky to sing in that position.

But don’t worry, neighbors! Once I emerge, I will don my light-blue, impossibly unflattering spandex jumpsuit and serenade you with my favorite honey-themed song and the inspiration for the title of this post: