Deer and a Caterpillar

Scott and I planted a vegetable garden, some flowers, hostas, and a hydrangea this summer.  Some things were a success, but most things under-produced, or, in the case of the zucchini and summer squash, died.  We know we didn’t do everything right.  Sometimes we watered too little, and other times too much, but we tried.  We love our plants and are very proud of them when they do manage to flower or squeeze out a vegetable or two.  That is why when Scott and I woke up last Friday morning to this, 

and this, 

and this 

and this,

we were devastated.  Ok, maybe “devastated” is too strong a word, but we were very upset.  How could someone do this to us?  We had battled hard to give our plants life.  We almost lost our hydrangea in the heat of July, but through an emergency transplant surgery and valiant watering efforts we were able to bring it back.  We were so proud when it seemed to make a full recovery!  After all our hard work, to eat our plants to the ground in one only night was not only disrespectful to us, but also cruel to our poor plants.  Yes, they were developmentally behind, but that’s no reason to just cut them off!  With no chance of living their fullest life!  Equal rights for all!  Wait, are we still talking about plants?  Anyway, we were ticked, the problem however, was that we did not know who the culprit was.

Friday and Saturday passed with no signs of the offender.  Saturday night we went to church to see the African Children’s Choir perform and had an amazing time.  They were so good that I decided to go back Sunday morning to watch them again while Scott was at work.  As I was pulling out of my driveway Sunday morning I noticed movement to my right.  Standing there, in our yard, were five deer.  

I was shocked; I had never seen deer anywhere in our neighborhood before.  I stopped the car and stared, they stopped what they were doing (coming back for seconds no doubt) stared back at me.  We sat and stared at each other for a while, neither one of us moving or giving up our ground.  “Fine,” I thought, “bring it on.” I put my car into Drive and drove down the road towards them honking my horn along the way. Two of them turned and ran away.  I reversed back up the street and prepared to “charge” them again.  I drove towards them again twisting and turning my car sideways across the street so I would come “at” them.  Two more ran away.  I repeated the maneuver with my car and succeeded in getting what I assume was the leader to run away as well.  I’m sure if the neighbors were watching my psychotic driving and honking out their window they now think I am nuts.  But I’m o.k. with that, like a mother defends her child, I will do anything to defend my plants!

After church that day I went to Lowe’s, which is conveniently across the street from my church.  There I was told by one employee to buy this one fertilizer that is pelletized human excrement (i.e. poop), which apparently marks our territory to the deer and will keep them away.  I thought it was an interesting theory so I put a bag of the stuff in my cart.  Even if it didn’t work I figured it would be good for the plants.  Then I went to this overwhelming aisle (at least for a novice gardener and “city girl” like myself), 

which has a ridiculous number of products to keep away any type of garden pest, whether weeds, rattlesnakes, or deer. There I found these scary looking products.  

I bought the one that was “organic” because the others were definitely not safe to spray on plants whose fruits we wanted to eat.

**Warning, if bugs make you squeamish, you may want to skip the next part of this post as you might lose your appetite before you get to my two recipes.**

I went home and sprayed everything.  Then, just as I was finished spraying, thinking my plants were now safe, I saw this.  

Look closer, THIS.  

Are you grossed out yet?

My flash made it look extra freaky!
I hate caterpillars.  I don’t care what they may become; they are gross.  They look like a fat worm, their bodies are too squishy, and the muscular, suction-cup legs by which this variety clings to plants are oddly very strong.  I don’t like them.  I think they are the bug that makes me the most squeamish.  To top it off, this one had white things hanging all over it.  What are those?*  Since Scott was at work, I had to face this one alone.  I grabbed a sturdy long stick and started nervously poking at it.  After a bit of poking, it released half its body from the branch.  Wasting no time I stuck my stick under its belly and flicked it as I squealed aloud, worried I would flick the caterpillar onto myself.  Luckily it landed about twenty feet away.  

I flicked it with my stick again and it landed here.

It lost most of its white things. Weird.  Steeling my nerves, I picked up the piece of wood it landed on and ran to the street ballet-style with my toes pointing out in order to carry the 
caterpillar as smoothly as possible. 

I left the caterpillar in the middle of the street to meet its fate.  (I could not kill it myself because a) I was too scared and b) I would feel bad.) 

Relieved of my charge and breathing easier, I started raking our backyard so we can hopefully plant grass this fall (more on that another time).  Within minutes two cars passed by and I wondered if they had ran over the caterpillar, but then I saw a blue bird dive down to the exact place I had left the caterpillar and then fly back up to the power line with it in its mouth.

The end.

 * Upon googling "Green caterpillar" I found out that the name of this creature is a tomato horn worm and according to this website that those white things are actually the cocoons of parasitic wasps whose larva eat the caterpillar from the inside out!   EEEWWWW!  I now know that I did that caterpillar a big favor by letting a bird eat it instead.  The website even suggests putting the caterpillar in a jar and feeding it until it dies--I'm sorry but why would you want to watch a caterpillar be eaten from the inside out?  Gross.  Anyway, before you totally lose your appetites, let us move on to the food part of this post below!

Luckily for Scott and I, neither the deer nor the caterpillar ate our peppers!  Speaking of peppers . . . this summer I’ve made some great Mexican and Spanish inspired dishes with peppers.  I’ve made chicken mole adapting this recipe to use some fresh peppers I bought at the farmer’s market. 

I have also made chicken fajitas using our favorite fajita recipe, which are quite juicy thanks to the garlic-lime mojo.  Yum!  And just last night I made a Spanish inspired red pepper soup that had a slightly sweet flavor from the peppers and the caramelized onions and a wonderful richness from the toasted almonds.   Scott and I both loved it and lamented I had not made more!  I have included both recipes for you below.
Roasted Red Pepper and Almond Soup, served with focaccia and a selection of cheeses

Chicken Fajitas
Serves 4
1 Tablespoon Canola oil
½ large white onion, cut into ½-inch-thick slices, (about 1 cup)
1 large green bell pepper, ribs and seeds removed, cut into ½-inch-thick slices (I often do ½ a green and ½ a red bell pepper each for extra color)
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 2 small ones), sliced ½-inch-thick
8 6-inch (or 4 10-inch) flour or whole wheat tortillas, warmed
1 recipe Mojo de Ajo (recipe is below)
Guacamole, for serving
Pico de Gallo, for serving
Sour cream or plain yogurt, for serving
Shredded mild cheddar cheese, for serving
Heat a large, heavy skillet over high heat.  Add oil, and gently swirl to coat.  Add onion and bell pepper, and season with ¼ teaspoon salt.  Cook, stirring frequently to prevent burning, until onion is browned in spots and pepper has softened slightly and skin is blistered, about 5 minutes.  Season the chicken with salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until chicken is browned and cooked through, 5-7 minutes.  Add the mojo de ajo, and stir to coat.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve immediately with warmed tortillas, guacomole, pico de gallo, sour cream, and cheese.
For the Mojo de Ajo:
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tablespoons minced garlic (4-6 cloves depending on their size)
3 Tablespoons fresh lime juice (from two small limes)
1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes (add more if you like it hot)
½ teaspoon coarse salt
Cook oil and garlic in a small saucepan over low heat until garlic is soft and fragrant, about eight minutes.  The heat must be quite low to cook garlic for eight minutes without burning, or even caramelizing, it.  Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice, red-pepper flakes, and salt.

Roasted Red Pepper and Almond Soup
Serves 2 as a first course
Inspired by a soup I ate at Lincoln Cafe in Mt. Vernon, IA and also from this recipe on Pioneer Woman's website
3 large red peppers or four small ones
½ medium onion, chopped
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup almonds
1 cup chicken stock
¾ cup milk, half and half, or even cream if you’re feeling dangerous
Salt and pepper

Oil your grill rack or put a small amount of Canola oil in a large skillet.  Start your grill or heat the skillet on high heat.  Char the red peppers thoroughly, turning the peppers every few minutes so the skins get nice and black.  The blacker it is the easier it will be to peel the skin off.  Take the peppers off the grill/skillet and place them into a large plastic bag to “sweat” for a few minutes.  This isn’t entirely necessary but will aid in peeling the skins off.  While the peppers sweat, heat a soup pot over medium heat and toast the almonds until fragrant (skip this if you are using already toasted almonds), about five minutes.  Set the almonds aside.  In the same pan, heat some olive oil in the skillet and saut√© the onion, stirring often until nicely caramelized.  Add the garlic and the cumin to the onion and cook for a minute or two more.  When peppers are cool enough to handle peel off as much of their skin as possible and de-seed and de-rib them.  Cut the peppers into large chunks and put them in a blender with the almonds, onions and garlic, and chicken stock.  Puree on your highest setting until all is “liquefied” as much as possible.  A few small, sand-sized pieces of almonds are fine and add some texture.  Return this mixture to the soup pot, add the milk to create desired thickness of soup (I left mine pretty thick), season with salt and pepper, and heat until ready to serve.

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