Summer Squash Casserole

Yes, squash season is wrapping up . . . sort of. This casserole also works with patty-pan squash. You know, the little flattish white ones that look a bit like tops, and that everyone else uses to decorate with? Those. This is fairly simple once you get all the prep done, and you can make it the night before, refrigerate it raw, then bake it the next morning and take it to a brunch or the like.

Instead of saltines, I used Ritz™ crackers. You could also get fancy and use panko, or something similar.

Three pounds summer squash, sliced fairly thin*

Three red bell peppers (or orange and yellow), sliced into strips

1 C. finely chopped onion. The original calls for yellow. I used white, because the yellow onions have been past their prime recently.

Four cloves minced garlic (a large dollop)

1T plus 1t salt

4 cups shredded cheddar cheese, orange or white, your choice.

3 cups crushed crackers (or breadcrumbs)

1 tub of sour cream (16 ounces)

1 lightly beaten large egg

2 T fresh thyme

black pepper to taste (I omit)

5 T melted butter

Preheat oven to 350, and grease a 13X9 baking dish.

Combine squash, bell pepper, onion, garlic, and 1T salt in a large pot with water to cover (I use less water, because the squash have a lot of water in them). Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 6 minutes or so, depending on altitude, until the veggies are tender. Drain very well. You don’t want overly soggy veggies.

Combine squash and friends with 3 cups of the cheese, the sour cream, egg, and thyme, two cups crushed crackers or breadcrumbs, and 1t salt. Mix well, and put in the baking dish, spreading to make an even surface. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese over the top.

In a separate bowl, combine the melted butter with the rest of the crackers and blend. Put casserole into the oven. After ten minutes or so, cover the top with the cracker-butter blend, then bake for, well, supposedly 30 minutes, but I’m at 3600′ of elevation, and 45 was closer to the mark. Until it is fairly firm in the middle. You know, proper casserole consistency. It will be a little moist, but shouldn’t be too drippy.

It is rich, savory, and filling. This is an old school casserole, not one of your light-and-healthy ones. You know the ones, the kind your grandmother made to take to brunch, or delivered to the family of the deceased (if you are in the South or parts of the Midwest). It serves 10-12 people, or fewer if they like it and the meat isn’t too filling.

You could probably add a little bacon, but that might be gilding the lily. Or perhaps not.

*Fear not, this isn’t really as much as it sounds once you cook, then drain it.

Original recipe found at: https://www.justapinch.com/recipes/side/vegetable/bell-pepper-and-squash-casserole.html

Monarchs and Swallowtails 2.0

It’s that time of year.

Ours are on fennel.

Alas, the giant butterfly bush (Buddleia) in the front yard succumbed to age and hard winter weather.

Fair use from: https://gardenerdy.com/butterfly-bush-care-maintenance/

We had a lot of swallowtail caterpillars back in the summer. And the cardinals ate all of them. However, Mom spotted a few second-round caterpillars recently, and moved them to a dense stand of fennel, well hidden from cardinals and jays.

Ansel Oommen, budwood.org. Black Swallowtail Caterpillar. Used under Fair Use for non-commercial usages. Image from:https://www.invasive.org/browse/detail.cfm?imgnum=5560093

The monarch butterflies came through a few weeks back, in late August. This is early, and they didn’t linger. The main migration seems to have shifted east this year, although that might be due to the lack of rain in the few weeks before they appeared. NM and CO dried out a little before we did, and were hotter, so that might also have encouraged the shift. Plus we didn’t have much that the monarchs cared for. They were all next door, pestering something red and fluffy (not a Buddleia) at the neighbor’s place.

The Mississippi kites, which arrived late this year, departed about the same time. The cicadas went silent last week, more or less, and the crickets are not as numerous as in August. Spiders have begun moving into the building at Day Job. We’ve had a few cool fronts knocking the temperatures down from the mid-upper 90s to our seasonal average lower 80s, but nothing really huge, yet. Those came through in August. We are also dry, even for this time of year. It is as if a switch flipped. Last week was hot and muggy, this week is warm and dry (from upper 60s F dewpoints to upper 40s dewpoints).

Orion is at the peak of the sky when I go out at 0600 to walk. The year is turning, will we or nil we. I want cooler weather. I’m a little worried about a repeat of Snowvid 21, or the October storm of last year. But there’s nothing I can do to change the weather, or to stop the change of seasons.

I am peeved about the Buddleia, though. I have yet to find a replacement as hardy as the big yellow one in the front garden. And the big purple one in the back took quite a beating from the cold this past winter, and June’s heat didn’t help.

*shrug* Welcome to gardening on the edge of a high desert.

Howdy, hawk!

A lady Merlin.

For some reason, allll the other birds were really quiet. The dove on the birdbath didn’t move for a good 15 minutes, until the merlin departed.

It’s been a busy week for urban wildlife. LawDog’s avatar stopped by to visit.

I zoomed way in, while standing away from the window. I didn’t want to spook the fox. At first I thought it was the neighborhood not-a-stray cat, but the ears were too big. So I put on my glasses. That’s not a red tabby cat.

Season of the Squash

One of my coworkers set a large plastic bag on the table with a firm thump. “Would you like some squash?”

“I brought more squash!” a choir member announces as he placed the cardboard box of gourds, squash, and zucchini on the floor beside the piano.

DadRed glanced out at bedtime to see if the UPS truck had been by (they tend to leave the box and run). He opened the front door and brought in a plastic grocery bag full of squash and zucchini. And two onions.

Apparently, this cool, wet summer has been as good for squash and their cousins as it has been bad for tomatoes. The lack of heat and direct sunlight really set the tomatoes back, and they just haven’t done a lot. Too much smoke and too many overcast days don’t help tomatoes or cotton. However, the weekly rain and temperatures in the 80s-low 90s seem to have encouraged other things to go forth and multiply. Not just exponentially, no, we’re talking logarithmic increases in produce here. Anyone who goes and buys squash from the grocery store right now? They must have really cheezed off their neighbors.

So it’s time to start with squash-n-onions and go from there.

1 or 2 summer squash (two if they are small) cut into 1/2″ thick rounds, or thinner.

1 medium white or yellow onion, chopped or sliced (your preference)

olive oil (I like garlic or basil flavored)

Spices to taste (basil, garlic, marjoram, thyme . . . Rosemary doesn’t do much for me in this context, but you might give it a try)

  1. Drain the squash slightly by letting it “rest” on paper towels.
  2. Heat the oil to a slight shimmer.
  3. Add onion and cook until translucent.
  4. Add squash and spices.
  5. Sautee uncovered over medium heat until the squash is tender.

That’s it. Fast, fairly easy, and it takes about 30 minutes from start to finish. You don’t have to drain the squash, but I prefer a firmer vegetable. Tossing it straight into the pan tends to make for softer veggies, as does turning the heat down to low and covering the pan.

Yes, It’s Summer.

Cicadas – check.

More people in the pool than in the entire rest of the gym – check.

Watermelons all over the place – very check.

Last weekend I went to a regional Farmers’ Market with Dorothy Grant. We went to do research on “how people move through a crowded market” and to get tomatoes. That’s it, tomatoes. Really. And maybe to check out gluten-free breads, for a mutual friend who needs that kind of information. And perhaps get some farm-raised eggs. But that’s it.

My paw to Bast, it looked as if everyone leaving the market had a watermelon! Watermelons in wagons, carried in arms, filling cloth or net shopping backs, watermelons carried on shoulders . . . Just inside the entry area, a local charity was selling slices of watermelon, and a self-taught gent demonstrated fancy food carving. Dorothy and I both dropped something into the kitty, in part because we enjoyed the man’s work so much, and in part because the group provides a needed service.

Lots of vendors had watermelons, tomatoes, beautiful bell peppers and chili peppers, squash, and so on. You know, the things that are seasonal and ready right now. All the egg vendors had sold out already. I ended up getting mesquite-smoked cashews (they are addictive!) and Dorothy and I tried two different products from a gluten-free baker and caterer. Those lasted until Tuesday, if only because we had really large breakfasts and suppers that weekend and just couldn’t find room for nibbles. You could get everything from breads to dairy to fresh produce to pottery, popcorn, and candy. Food trucks sold coffee and snow-cone-type things. People threaded their way through, smiling and being normal people on a warm summer morning.

I was mildly surprised that we didn’t get stopped for not having a watermelon as we departed. 🙂

(For my readers who are not familiar with watermelons in summer, you do a thump test. You want a nice, meaty thump. Really good, sweet watermelons are messy, so plan to cut them outdoors, or on something indoors to catch the drips. The red heart is the best part, and my great-grandmother on the paternal side used to go around the table trimming the heart out of other people’s melon servings “since she didn’t want a whole slice.” Some things were not worth arguing over. Kids and watermelon are a natural combo. Have the kids put on bathing suits, go outdoors, and enjoy the watermelon. Then hose off the kids. It’s a lot easier to keep the house clean that way, trust me. 🙂 )

Hot, Busy, and Blessedly Normal

Blanco, Texas, is a small county-seat town on the Blanco River in the Texas Hill Country. It has a lovely old courthouse and courthouse square, an enormous BBQ place across from the courthouse, a very attractive if modern high school that serves the entire county, and an attractive setting. It is also the center of lavender growing in the state.

Lavender field near Blanco Texas. Fair Use under Creative Commons. Original Source: https://blairhouseinn.com/blog/lavender-fields-tx/

Every year in June, Blanco’s chamber of commerce hosts a Lavender Festival. This includes talks and demonstrations about growing and using lavender, trips to a lavender farm, food and cosmetics made with lavender, lavender-inspired clothing and art and jewelry, other regional products, and “fair food.” You know, frozen lemonade, funnel cake, and other things. (I highly recommend the lavender iced tea. Wow. Mom got the lavender snow cone and it rocked.) The festival centers on the courthouse square, with the talks taking place in a heavily shaded and breezy park just of the square, down toward a branch of the river. The Chamber had shaded tents with large misting fans and seats for those who might start feeling a bit peakéd. Why?

This being Texas and June, it was warm. You know, 93 F with a dewpoint of “ick.” That didn’t stop people from loading up on hot food (and cold food and drinks). However, there was a steady stream of customers for the shade/mister tent, and the hand-fans with the program and vendor list on them sold briskly. I know that I got a touch overwarm, but that’s just something you plan for and prepare for. EMS lurked quietly in a corner of the square, watching out for people who might be in trouble.

The former Court House in Blanco. The festival is on the lawn. Image Source: https://blancotexas.com/the-old-blanco-county-courthouse/

After parking, Mom, Dad and I met Sib and Co. They ate lunch after going riding. The rest of us found the port-a-lets (abundant and well located), then started looking at displays and festival booths. There was a lot of art on display, ranging from fine art photography to paintings to pressed lavender flowers used to make pictures. Jewelry too was common. Hats seemed to be selling well, and of course “things made with lavender” abounded. Mom got some hand lotion and mosquito spray. The spray really does work, and it’s safe for people and pets. I sighed over a few things, eyed walking sticks, giggled at some of the handbags for sale, and entertained fond thoughts of just hooking the car up to the entire sausages-for-sale display (freezers and all) in the food sales section and taking it home.

All the products I looked at were high quality. Most of the vendors were from the Hill Country or San Antonio, so everything that wasn’t clothing or leather came from the region, or close to it. I got a glass hair clip made by a glass-worker from Austin. There are also a lot of goat farms in the Hill Country, so goat-milk products with lavender were available. Wine, olive oil, spice blends, honey and wax products, and other regional ag wares rounded out the offerings. Did I mention lavender stuff? Oh, and pecans. Flavored pecans, roasted pecans, candied pecans, pecan oil, spicy pecans . . . Ahem, where was I? Oh, yes.

The best thing about the Blanco Lavender Festival? It was normal. Blessedly, wonderfully normal. A few people wore masks, but not many. Everyone smiled and seemed to be having a lovely time. Folks pulled toddlers in wagons and wiped ice cream off kids’ mouths, chatted with vendors, sighed about the heat, and clustered in the shade and always found room for one more. Folks with fans waved air at those resting in the shade. In other words, it was normal. No politics, no social distancing reminders, nada. Just people having a good day and grousing about the humidity, which happens to be a seasonal sport in Texas and other parts of the South. It was everything a small-town festival’s supposed to be.

Proceeds from the Blanco Lavender Fest go to the Chamber of Commerce. If you park off-site and take the shuttle buses in, the fee goes to the Fire/EMS Auxiliary. https://www.blancochamber.com/festival-info

Wildflowers!

A little past peak, but acres and acres of color . . .

Mid-June is a little past peak for wildflowers in the Hill Country. The Bluebonnets have already come and (mostly) gone, and the hot-season flowers are starting to rev up before the July-August Wilt. However, as you can see from the above photo at the LBJ State park (adjacent to the federal park, which is mostly closed for needed repairs), color still abounds. Indian Blanket (gaillardia) is the most common in the photo.

OK, so not all of the bluebonnets are gone . . . Coreopsis with bluebonnet and gaillardia. Still at the LBJ site. They have acres and acres of pasture that were in bloom in early June.
Just in the ditch, no place fancy . . .
A rather large blooming cactus . . .

Alas, when MomRed went back three days later at sunset, to catch the cactus in full glory, it had disappeared. If it hadn’t been for the bare dirt, she’d probably have thought that she’d lost her mind. The cactus was the second thing to vanish without warning.

The bar ditch of the same yard as the cactus, ten minutes after [yaaawwwnnn] sunrise. The home-owners left the ditch and large swaths of the front yard unmowed until the flowers set seed.

What? You want a few to take home? How many acres worth would you like?

One of the fields at Wildseed Farms, a commercial wildflower farm very close to where I stayed. I left the buffer between the parking lot and the flower field in the image to give you an idea of how big this is. The buffer is 20 feet. (I got seeds. And a tee-shirt. And walking stick. But that’s it. Really.)

https://www.wildseedfarms.com/pages/about-us

People are encouraged not to pick the wildflowers growing in yards or by the road. Bluebonnets are protected by state statute. However, not everyone studies law . . .

Sicut chervus . . .

We were waiting for the bats to emerge from Old Tunnel State Park. A deer showed up first. As you can guess, it doesn’t really worry about all the gawkers taking pictures of it instead of the bats.

Iris!

Spring is running two weeks late. Or at least the flowers are running two weeks late.

A storm was coming in, which made the light odd for a while.
Moving to the back yard . . .
Ye Olde Iris-colored Iris. With columbine, which are about to take over everything. The front of the house and four roses have vanished in the yellow columbine. I’m about to take pruning shears and start chopping.
Iris and foxglove. Please do not chew on the foxglove, even though it is sweet. (Digitalis sp.)
Fluffy rose.
Mini rose. Note paw for scale.
Another miniature, this one to replace a yellow one that failed to survive the -11 F temps.
Because columbine are cute.
Mom and Dad Red went for two bags of potting mix. That’s it, two bags of potting mix. This, and a peach-colored rose, and two bags of potting mix later . . .
A Yellow Rose in Texas. Not THE yellow rose, that’s Harrison’s Yellow, and they sprawl. This one is a super-hardy landscape rose that, for the first time ever, is actually doing as well as the red and pink ones are. Yellows seem to be a little more fragile than reds and pinks.

Heating-Degrees and Planting

In the US west (west of the 100th Meridian, or roughly the 20″ rainfall line), we worry more about drought than anything when we consider crop success or losses. Moisture, then too much heat, then frost seems to be the usual priority list.

Not this year. It is too cool to plant cotton, and maize is . . . interesting, based on the hybrids commonly grown in this area. The winter wheat looks OK, or did as of Sunday afternoon’s windshield survey.

When we talk about energy use in a building, we refer to “heating degree days,” based on a temperature of 65 F. In theory, at that temperature, a building uses the minimum amount of energy to be heated or cooled. However, I have heard it used in agriculture, as a short-hand for growing degree days. Growing degree days refers to the amount of heat energy needed for plants and insects to germinate, grow, and mature. They are very, very important in thinking about yield development and what type of seed to plant, if you are in an area that has a comparatively short growing season.

Different plant species have different GDD optima, but most food crops (corn, many wheats, soybeans, sorghum) do better above 50-55F, and growth levels off above 85F or so. Cotton needs a minimum of 60F, while alfalfa can take 41F. Soil temperature is also important, because if the soil is below a certain temperature, the seeds won’t germinate. They stay dormant, then rot if there’s enough moisture. There’s a “sweet spot” for ideal planting conditions, and then again for ideal growing conditions. Too hot and things can bake if the weather is dry, plus bugs get a head-start. Too cool and growth is slow and yields don’t reach their best level. Different pest plants also do better under different conditions. (Some places in the US and elsewhere have fields underwater. Unless you grow rice, that’s not a great situation, and even then you need the water to recede from time to time.)

Right now, the Texas Panhandle has been cool and dry. Too cool for cotton to be planted, and for most of the maize (corn) hybrids that are common in the area. If a farmer usually plants 120-day corn (estimated days to maturity and harvest), switching to 90-day corn can’t be done quickly. First you have to find someone with the seed, then get it down here, and so on. We’re pushing the northern edge of cotton growth up here, because we are cooler than where cotton usually grows (Deep South, South Plains). With cool soil and chilly weather, the farmers can’t get seed into the ground. This pushes back maturity and harvest, and no one wants unripe cotton to get hit by a freeze or snow (like October of 2019.) Ditto food crops.

Traditionally, US farmers worried about drought and heat, while Europe worried about cold and wet. This spring? Lots of the US and Europe are cold and wet. Solar energy output is low, which doesn’t help things like tomatoes. Anecdata about hone-grown tomatoes suggests that people are having to use cold-climate tomato breeds farther and farther south, and have been for the last decade or so. Canada has lost a lot of its grain to cold and wet weather the past few years. Global warming? Perhaps, but certainly not this spring, based on the weather patterns, and it is year-to-year that we produce food and fiber.

The High Plains region had a hard freeze the past two nights, with high temperatures in the 40s-50s. Things are supposed to warm over the next few days, then cool again. The Midwestern grain belt? Cool and damp. I haven’t been watching grain futures to see what the market thinks, but I would not be at all surprised to see futures prices start going up if the planting prognosis continues to be less than great.

I like cool weather for being out and about in. It’s not so great for agriculture.

Runaway Tulips: Free-range, or Feral?

One of the houses in the neighborhood has a, let us say, relaxed yard. It’s not scraggly or weed-filled, but is a bit shaggy compared to the rest of the block. And a miniature, all-white daffodil and solo red tulip are blooming beside the driveway. Something suspiciously like a random iris or two are growing toward the middle of the yard. Continue reading