Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Blooms, Bugs, and Birds in the Yard

Here's just a quick photo essay of what's going on in the yard. As I promised, I'm posting a photo of the Thelocactus hexaedrophorus which opened its two flowers today for the first time. It's native to northeastern Mexico.

I'm particularly excited about the blooming of my Jasmine Tobacco, Nicotiana alata, native to northern Argentina and southern Brazil. I grew these in the late 1980's in Oregon and I became enchanted with the fragrance back then. A couple years ago I ordered some seed from the incomparable Nichols Garden Nursery, and this year one of the seeds I rather carelessly scattered in the various pots around the yard actually took. The flowers open up around 6:00 p.m., start releasing fragrance a half hour later, and by dark are utterly intoxicating. I love it. My friend Brad Boyle commented on how the molecular composition of the fragrance must be very similar to that of the orchid Brassavola nodosa, which I've actually seen blooming in the Yucatán (but it was too high in a tree to smell; it sure looked fragrant.)

Here are some flowers of the native Desert Tobacco, Nicotiana obtusifolia, which has naturalized all over the yard. Sadly, it has no fragrance.

Here's another native flower that probably sprung up from some wildflower seed mixes that we've scattered about over the years and finally responded to the excellent winter rains we've had. It's an Exserted Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja exserta.

This is just a shot of the two species of aloes that are just past the peak of full bloom in the front of the yard. These thrive on neglect.

This poor photo is of a Great Purple Hairstreak, which I first noticed in the yard a couple weeks ago, a female laying eggs on a mistletoe in the native Velvet Mesquite just outside my bedroom window. This male is probably the same individual I saw darting around yesterday. Quite an exciting bug for the yard list.

Finally, we have FIVE pairs of Mourning Doves breeding in the yard. Or rather, had. I went out to take pictures and found one of the nests empty. It still had eggs yesterday, so perhaps some predator found them. But here are pictures of three, including one re-nesting on the fern asparagus on the east side of my house. The one in the top photo is nesting on an old Curve-billed Thrasher nest.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Mushroom Ciabatta – First Try

Today I had an eye exam, my first in 2 years and 9 months. They had me fill out a form with all the usual personal information, and at the end it asked what my hobbies were. As it seemed irrelevant, I didn't put baking bread. I've done a fair amount, but not in recent months, and with the recent pizza party, I'm getting back into it. Yesterday I attempted the Mushroom Ciabatta (Italian Slipper Bread), rated as "difficult" in my favorite bread book, pictured at left here.

There were two major flaws in the recipe. First, Peter doesn't mention the amount of water needed to make the right consistency of dough, though he does describe in a few words what the dough should be like in the end. In all other recipes he's quite precise. But here, it's only 2 cups, minus whatever water the dried mushrooms soak up (which will obviously be variable), plus whatever water is released by the sautéed fresh mushrooms (even more variable, depending on how big the pan is and how long your sauté the them, and he offers little help here). And even then he says you may not need to add all the water. Turns out I needed to add quite a bit more water to make the dough mixable and to get the right consistency. Second, when shaping the loaves, he says to stretch it to a rectangle 12 inches long. Can he possibly be unaware of the fact that a rectangle has two dimensions? How wide should I make them? Well, as you can see from my loaf (see the end), I made them much too wide, which limited how high the loaves would eventually rise. Now I know.

Here's the whole process.

Gather the ingredients:
The biga-style pre-ferment, which was a simple mixture of equal parts flour & water and a tiny bit of yeast that I made the day before, let rise 5 hours, and then stuck in the refrigerator overnight.

Weighing out the flour

Rehydrated dried mushrooms. The recipe calls for "6 dried porcini or shiitake mushrooms" but I used the bag of mixed wild mushrooms from Trader Joes. I think I should have used just half of a bag, but since the recipe doesn't give the weight required, I was only guessing.

Sautéed fresh mushrooms. He says to use shittake or crimini, but at Safeway I found these "baby bellas" which look the same. There's also about a teaspoon of pressed garlic in here. I probably used too big of a pan, as the released juices never did accumulate, which one is supposed to drain off and later use to add to the dough.

The ingredients are just barely mixed here.

The dough (along with rehydrated mushrooms) after about 15 minutes of strenuous mixing by hand (sure wish I had a mixer!). Ready for the first rise of 3 hours.

The dough is flattened to add the sautéed mushrooms...

...then rolled up lengthwise...

...then in the other direction to make a ball...

...then allowed to rest for 20 minutes closed up in a plastic bag.

Here's my too-wide rectangle in the final shaping of the dough. And now ready to be sealed up again for the second rise of about 3 hours.

OK, done rising, ready to bake. First spritz with water, then when shoving into the very hot oven onto the baking stone, 2 cups of hot water are poured into a pan in the bottom of the oven. This helps keep the crust moist during the first few minutes so the loaf can grow.

The finished loaf.

In any event, the end result looks a bit odd, but the flavor and crumb are exquisite. Check out this crumb.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Spring Birding in the Yard

There was a surprising little push of migrants in the yard yesterday. A Lincoln's Sparrow, which has been around for about a week is still there, but new for the year were three migrants: a "Mountain" White-crowned Sparrow (subspecies oriantha, distinctive for the black supraloral region and darker reddish-orange bill), a Common Yellowthroat, and two Pine Siskins (a pair, the male continually doing his rising "schwreeeeeeee" directed at the female, eventually pursuing her so aggressively they she led them both off). Finally, a Eurasian Collared-Dove announced its presence with its ringing "coo-COOO-coo" while sitting in a tree next to a White-winged Dove. I've seen a couple within a mile of the house, but this was a first for the yard. It's #124. Along with the residents, the wintering Yellow-rumped Warbler, a wandering Bronzed Cowbird and recently-
arrived Black-chinned Hummingbird, I had 25 species of birds in the yard yesterday. Western Kingbird will be arriving any day now.