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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mimosa Blossom Soap- Sort Of

Yesterday was a soapmaking day. My plan was to make some small test batches of new soaps. I knew exactly what I wanted the mimosa soap to look like. Sadly, whenever I know exactly what I want soap to look like, it never quite does. My plan was to incorporate the green of the ferny leaves topped with white and pink blossoms and something to give it a fluffy look. Of course, I was working with a previously untried fragrance oil blend, not knowing whether I would have a nice slow tracing soap with plenty of time to work with color, or whether I would have soap on a stick as soon as I stirred in the fragrance. Luckily, while the soap moved fast, it didn't move furiously fast. But it was setting up pretty quickly by the time I went to pour it in the mold. It didn't come out looking like I'd hoped it would, and definitely needs to be trimmed, but it could have been worse- and it does smell good- almost as good as the real thing!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Mimosa Musings

Living in Alabama as a child during the 50s, I spent summers playing with friends, barefoot and outdoors. One of our favorite pastimes was playing house. We would find a large patch of bare ground, usually under a tall, shady tree, then we’d haul in sticks, stones, dead leaves and whatever else we could find to lay out the outline of rooms, leaving gaps to serve as doors. The daddy, when he wasn’t off at work, usually stayed in the living room, reading the large leaves that served as a newspaper. Few of us girls wanted to play the daddy, and it was next to impossible to get any of the boys to play with us, so we just pretended he was away at work or on a trip. The mother stayed in the kitchen, cooking and fussing at her "children." or primping in the bedroom or entertaining her friends in the dining room. We sat and slept on pine straw sofas and beds and swept the floor with branches. Sometimes we were lucky enough to build our houses around a big flat tree stump or large flat rock. This wonderful architectural feature would serve as a table upon which we served pretend meals on leaf plates. In late summer, a staple of these meals was a pile of English peas still in the pod. In actuality, the “peas” were pods from the mimosa trees that grew all around us. It never occurred to us to eat any of the food we served, which is a good thing, since mimosa seeds contain a neurotoxic alkaloid that can poison cattle, sheep and dogs who ingest it. Besides, none of us liked English peas anyway, and usually had to be forced to eat them at home. Which may be why we enjoyed playing with pretend peas and discarding them, uneaten, without being fussed at by mothers who instructed us to clean our plates if we expected to eat dessert.

I’m reminded of those childhood summers every time I look out the back door and see the huge mimosa growing in the woods behind our house. Its limbs arch almost 40 feet high and nearly as wide, overhanging our fence, filling the air with the fragrance of its fuzzy pink flowers, and dropping seeds that pop up everywhere. And that’s part of the problem. The mimosa (Albrizia julibrissin) is one of those trees people hate or love- sometimes both at the same time. I love to look at it, with its delicate ferny leaves and those fragrant fluffy pink blooms that attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees. But I hate to pull the lebenty zillion little mimosa seedlings that pop up in the flowerbeds, veggie beds and a hundred other places they don’t belong. And when those pretty pink flowers turn brown, die, and are washed loose in a rain, they cling tenaciously and refuse to turn loose from whatever they land on, leaving ugly brown stringy wads on everything, including the chicken run fencing, the bush beans, the tomatoes, etc. Then there’s the fact that the mimosa is yet another of those imported species that has become invasive and is now threatening native flora.

It’s hard to drive past any open or wooded area along the roads and highways here without seeing mimosa trees. They seem to be everywhere, but the mimosa is not used as a landscape plant in the South as much now as it was during my childhood. One of the reasons it has fallen into disuse is that the mimosa is extremely susceptible to several diseases, including mimosa wilt, caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. Perniciosum, a devastating disease that has almost eliminated mimosas in many areas. Once infected, a mimosa may die within six weeks. Perhaps this is a case of Mother Nature intervening to remove the threat to native species. Who knows? I don't know how long we'll have the mimosa as a neighbor before it succumbs to disease or is cut down by developers. In the meantime, we'll continue in our love/hate relationship. I'll enjoy its beauty and complain about its pestiness. I might even make a mimosa soap, I can see and smell it now....

Friday, June 20, 2008

A Well Traveled Herb

This was one of those rare Alabama summer mornings--the temperature and humidity low enough to make working in the garden a pleasure rather than a painful necessity. Never mind that the idyllic state lasted only a couple of hours as the clouds drifted off, exposing the relentless rays of the sun. For a brief time, I was able to weed, water and enjoy the garden in blissful early morning coolness.

While I dispatched a number of weeds today, one weed I like to leave in place, or sometimes transplant to a more appropriate place, is mullein (Verbascum thapsus). Common Mullein is an herb that grows wild throughout North America in fields and along roadsides, but is often referred to as a weed, and has actually been classified as a noxious weed in Hawaii. I once thought that common mullein, being so widespread, was native to North America, but according to Steve Brill, mullein is Eurasian. It grows throughout most of Europe and temperate Asia, and has been used in European folk medicine for centuries. Soon after its arrival in the Americas, Native Americans discovered mullein’s healing properties, and adapted it to their own healing traditions. Known by various common names, including Our Lady's Flannel, Blanket Herb, Velvet Plant, Rag Paper, Candlewick Plant, Clown's Lungwort, Jupiter's Staff, Shepherd's Staff, Beggar's Stalk, Adam's Flannel, Beggar's Blanket, Old Man's Flannel, Hag's Taper, mullein has been used for everything from candles and candle-wicks to bandages to cures for colic, catarrh and diarrhea .

The mullein in my garden keeps guard beside the greenhouse, rising tall and erect from it's fuzzy gray feet, with a spiked cap of yellow flowers to beckon airborne pollinators (as you can see in the photo, one little winged critter is zooming in toward the flowers). In past times, mullein had a reputation in Europe and Asia as having the power to drive away evil spirits. Unfortunately, it does not drive away evil , seedling-chomping, seed-eating mice;it allows those nasty little greenhouse squatters free reign to come and go as they please. But I can forgive mullein this failing, and enjoy it for the many virtues it does possess, including those lovely yellow flowers.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Kudzu- it's everywhere- even in the bath!

Yesterday I almost sold out of chai tea soap( there's only one bar left for sale on my Etsy site), so had to make more. Now I'm completely sold out of Kudzu again, so tomorrow I must make more kudzu soap. A lot of people buy it to give as gifts to people up north- something quintessentially Southern, they tell me. But kudzu really isn't a southern native at all. It came here as a guest, then liked it so much that it refused to leave. A lot of folks think it wore out its welcome long ago. It's been called "The Vine That Ate the South," and with good reason- folks say that if you park your car too close to a kudzu patch overnight, you might find it completley covered come morning. In fact, there's an abandoned old house I pass nearly every day that is almost invisible come late summer, covered by kudzu.

Kudzu (Pueraria lobata) is a perennial woody vine, a member of the legume family, native to Japan and southeastern China, where it has been used as a food and in herbal medicine for centuries. Kudzu was brought to the United States for exhibit at the 1876 Bicentennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The plant, with its large leaves, beautiful magenta flower clusters and sweet, grape-like scent was a hit with gardeners, who used it as an ornamental plant. It was also promoted as a food source for animals and as a means to control soil erosion. It became so popular that it was referred to as “The Miracle Vine” and Kudzu Clubs were started in the 1940s in its honor. But by the 1950s kudzu had fallen out of favor and was becoming a pest, especially in the Southeastern US, where it found ideal growing conditions. Actually, it grew too well– with no native insects to threaten it, it grew as much as sixty feet a year, soon covering trees, power lines and anything else in its path, often blocking sunlight that native trees needed for growth. Resistant to herbicides (in fact, some herbicides actually stimulated its growth!) it became a threat to native species. The US Department of Agriculture declared Kudzu a weed in 1972, and people have fought to eradicate it ever since– mostly without success.

But Kudzu does have its virtues— every part of the kudzu plant can be used: the leaves not only make a great compost, but are high in vitamins C and A, and can be eaten (as long as they haven’t been sprayed with herbicides). You can boil them, steam them, fry them, pickle them, or even eat them raw. Bees love kudzu flowers, and produce a wonderfully scented honey from them. The flowers are also used to make tea and a delicious kudzu jelly. Kudzu vines can be woven into baskets and fiber from the vines can be used to make paper and cloth. The roots can be ground into a powder or used to make a tea. The tea and powder have been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a number of conditions, from skin rashes to alcoholism.

I've always been fond of kudzu, despite it's nasty habits, except when it invades my own garden, and thought it might be interesting to use it in soap. So I convinced poor Mr. G to wade into any likely kudzu patches he might pass by on his travels. That dear man willingly risks snakebites, chiggers and who knows what to bring me big bunches of kudzu flowers, which I make into tea, then freeze for later use in making soap. In years when the flowers are not abundant or easily accessible (or when Mr. G is unwilling to risk life and limb), I use tea made from the powdered root. It makes a nice soap that smells delicious- kind of like grape jelly ( I have to admit to adding fragrance to this soap, since the kudzu scent doesn't survive the saponification process, but the fragrance oil does make the soap smell more like the blossoms).
The flowers are really quite lovely, but they're hard to see, since they're often hidden under the large leaves. But if you walk or drive past a patch of kudzu in mid to late August and smell the scent of grape jelly, look closer- you just might see some of them, and understand why people fell in love with kudzu at the Bicentennial Exhibition. I don't know why people fell in love with my kudzu soap, but I'm glad they did.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Back from the Alabama Soap Meeting

Friday and Saturday I drove to Prattville, AL to attend the 10th Annual Alabama Soap Meeting, which was a whole lot of fun. We had wonderful door prizes, goody bags stuffed with neat samples, coupons, magazines and other wonderful things, vendor tables, garage sale tables to buy each other's surplus stuff, and wonderful talks and demos, including how to hand-dip candles, how to make massage candles and frosted soap cupcakes. Our extra-special guest speaker was Anne-Marie from Brambleberry and Otion, who spoke about how to succeed in business and how to set goals. Talk about a dynamo! She is so full of energy and enthusiasm that she made me feel like a sloth (anybody who accomplished as much as she did before the tender age of thirty AND goes running before breakfast makes me feel like a sloth!). I didn't take a camera, but my fellow soapmaker/friend/blogger extraordinaire, Karen, did. You can see her pics and read more about the meeting on her blog, Rurality.

The trip home yesterday was a little harrowing- it rained buckets--so heavy at times that you could barely see the car in front of you. Fortunately, the car in front of me during the worst of it turned on his flashers, so I didn't rear-end him(or her). At one point, though, I was behind a truck pulling a trailer with some tall box-like containers. The straps holding the boxes looked to be vibrating an awful lot and the boxes seemed to be swaying. I wondered whether the straps would break, sending the boxes crashing onto my car. Thank goodness they didn't, because when the rain let up and I was finally able to pass him, I saw the truck was hauling porta-johns. I have no idea whether they were full or empty, but if they'd fallen off, it would have been one stinking mess, for sure! I was so happy to finally exit off the Interstate for the last ten miles of the trip. Except that last ten miles took over an hour, thanks to a resurfacing project.

The rain here was good for the garden, but getting home at dusk/dark both nights, and being in a rush to leave in the mornings, I didn't check to see how the veggies were doing, so this morning I was picking some cucumbers, zucchini and yellow squash that had grown to elephant-like proportions! Since I don't like to cook humongous zucchini as a veggie, I'll probably grate them. I can see a zucchini cake in our future.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Miserable Manduca Monsters!

On my way out to close the chicken coop this evening I was shocked to see that the nicotiana plant that earlier had been blooming so merrily in the flower box on the deck had suddenly lost all its leaves and blooms. As I looked closer, I could see the cause. FOUR Tobacco hornworms (Manduca sexta) were chomping away, leaving mountains of frass behind (you can see it in the picture- it looks like little blackberries). Not just one or two, mind you, but four of those devils! On one poor little plant! Now I know that the hornworms are very useful in research and that they metamorphose into nice sphinx moths that pollinate night blooming flowers, but I'm just not willing to sacrifice my tomatoes and flowering tobacco plants to the cause. These four, red horns and all, have been dispatched to the great caterpillar resting place. I thought about picking them off and tossing them into the chicken run, but since Sam and Monique had already gone in for the evening, I figured the little devils would crawl out and start in on my tomatoes before the chickens got to them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Hungry Caterpillar

Caught in the act!

I nearly missed this little critter. He's almost the same shade of green as the bean pods that he was happily boring holes in, thinking, no doubt, that he was well camouflaged and would avoid detection.

I have no idea just what he is, although in trying to identify him, I've learned a great deal more about caterpillars. I looked here and thought he might be a cabbage or soybean looper or a green cloverworm, but he doesn't have the right number of leg segments or otherwise fully fit the description. Then I went here, and became fascinated by the diversity of caterpillars. Some I'm familiar with, like the tomato hornworm that nearly wiped out all my tomatoes one year. But being mesmerized by the images on the first two pages and spending much more time than I'd planned, I gave up, so still don't know what my little bean borer is. If you recognize him, please let me know.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

More Adventures in Cooking

We've been picking summer squash from the garden for a couple of weeks now, and the bush beans are coming in, too! Not very many at a time, but enough to make a meal for the two of us. This is today's harvest:

I used some of our yellow squash last Sunday in a recipe from Tables of Content, the newest cookbook from the Junior league of Birmingham. It's a lovely book; not only are the recipes very good, but the book contains photographs of the "tables" of food in landmark settings in and around Birmingham such as Sloss Furnaces, the zoo and botanical gardens, with information about the landmarks. The squash casserole was quite delicious, as are most of the recipes I've tried from the book. This recipe serves 6 to 8; I halved it for us and adjusted the cooking time accordingly.

Best Squash Casserole
10 yellow squash
2 eggs
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 envelope ranch salad dressing mix
1 cup (4 oz.) shredded mild cheddar cheese
1/3 cup chopped green onions (optional)
12 butter crackers, finely crushed
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Shredded mild cheddar cheese to taste(optional)
8 butter crackers, finely crushed
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Combine the squash with enough water to generously cover in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil 10 minutes or until tender and drain. Let stand until cool and slice. Drain the sliced squash in a colander, pressing with the back of a spoon to extract any remaining moisture. The cooked squash should measure 5 cups.
Beat the eggs in a bowl until blended. Stir in the mayonnaise and salad dressing mix. Fold in the squash, 1 cup cheese, the green onions, 12 crushed crackers, the garlic salt and pepper. Spoon the squash mixture into a 2-quart baking dish and sprinkle with additional cheese and 8 crushed crackers. Bake for 30 minutes.

The beets from Saturday's trip to the farmers market provided roasted beets using a recipe from The Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook another of my favorite cook books that gets a lot of use. Growing up, I never cared much for beets . We always had them either boiled or pickled, but since discovering roasted beets, I love them. They have an entirely different, deep flavor, and this recipe really brings out the delicious beet taste:

Roasted Beets with Warm Dijon Vinaigrette
3 pounds medium beets with greens
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup sliced green onions
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh dill
Leave root and 1-inch stem on beets; reserve greens. Scrub beets with a vegetable brush. Drizzle beets with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Roast beets in a small roasing pan at 400 degrees for 1 to 1 1/2 hours until tender.
Meanwhile, process green onions, vinegar and mustard in a food processor until smooth, stopping once to scrape down sides. Pour 1/3 cup olive oil through food chute with processor running, processing until smooth. Place vinegar mixture in a small saucepan; cook over low heat until thoroughly heated, stirring occasionally.
Wash beet greens thoroughly; pat dry with paper towels. Cut greens into thin strips. Place beet greens in a medium saucepan; cover with water, and add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered 10 minutes. Drain well. Set aside; keep warm.
Cool roasted beets. Trim off roots and stems, and rub off skins. Cut beets into 1/4 inch slices.
Place greens and beets on individual serving plates; top evenly with vinegar mixture. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper and dill. Serve immediately. Yield: 6 servings.
Note: I halved this recipe, too, but won't do that again because the small amount of vinaigrette dressing was hard to process and heat properly.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The best laid mulch

I don't know whether mulch, like plans, can "Gang aft a-gley," but if it can, I have a good idea what it might look like.

Yesterday morning I did some weeding in my little herb bed, then laid down some newspaper and covered it with a nice layer of mulch. Once finished, I admired the results: a pristine, weedless area with clumps of herbs and flowers emerging from a layer of pine straw.

Yesterday evening, I let Sam and Monique out for their evening walk-about. Sam was not in a good mood--he came out of the run full of himself, making menacing noises and strutting about like a rooster, which of course, can only be expected. He began running at me with his wing down, but seeing that I was in control of a broom to swat at him and not to be intimidated by his antics, he soon lost interest and began pecking and kicking furiously at the grass outside the run. Finding that surface hard and unyielding and a little too much work, he then headed straight for my nice little herb patch and began to wreak havoc with the mulch. By the time he had vented whatever anger he felt, my herb patch was a disaster, the tidy mulch replaced by exposed newspaper, bare patches of ground and pine straw scattered to the four winds. It is not, as you can see from this small section, a pretty sight. If that's not bad enough, an entire clump of thyme has gone missing.

Sam also decided that there was absolutely no need for me to know which pepper plants were which, and scratched all the pepper plant markers out of the ground. So aside from torn newpaper and scattered pine straw, the ground is also riddled with popsicle stick plant markers. The last laugh is on him, though, because while they all look pretty similar right now, I'm pretty sure that at some point in the plant cycle, I'll be able to tell a bell pepper from a cayenne pepper from a jalapeno, etc.

I gave some thought to straightening it all up today, but had some errands to run this morning. Now that I'm home, one look at the thermometer on the deck has convinced me that it can wait another day or so:

Saturday, June 07, 2008

To market, to market

For the past three summers, we sold soap from our booth at Pepper Place Market in downtown Birmingham. We loved selling at the market (well, maybe not the part about getting up at 4 AM every Saturday, rain or shine, or the 90+ degree days we often had); there's something very satisfying about being part of the farmers market experience. We weren't able to do the market this summer, so this year I visit as a customer. I headed there this morning to pick up some fresh veggies, visit the farmers and vendors and soak in the atmosphere. The booths were loaded with fresh squash, cucumbers, lettuces, peaches, beans, potatoes- even some tomatoes and corn! The smell of fresh baked bread, fresh brewed coffee and peaches filled the air, the bright colors of the produce and flowers and the buzz of conversation as people chatted with each other and filled their bags and baskets was exhilirating.

I bought peaches from Chilton County (Although they had a booth at the market today, the blackberries in the pic are from a mid-week trip back to Petals from the Past), hothouse tomatoes from Blackjack Farms near Birmingham, little red potatoes from Blount County, goat cheese from Notasulga, AL, some herbs from Cullman and some carr
ots and beets from Snow's Bend Farm near Tuscaloosa. The Snow's Bend Farm booth is one of my favorites- David Snow and Margaret Ann Toohey display their vegetables, herbs and flowers in such an eye-catching, artistic way that you have to stop and look. And having stopped, of course you can't resist buying. Once more, the camera wasn't functioning, but here's a pic of the Snow's Bend booth from a past market, when we had a neighboring booth. David can also be quite inventive; I remember being amused last year by the sign over the watermelon display: H2O melons, because, he explained, he couldn't fit "watermelon" on the sign.

Once home, I went out to our own little garden and found bush beans and summer squash ready to pick. We'll be eating well this week!