Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

I spent some time early this morning weeding and thinning the greens in my garden.  As I was weeding, I was struck by how new the garden felt. I plant many of the same things each year, and you would think the garden would be the same old, same old, year in, and year out.  Somehow it’s not. How is that?

Each year I watch the new seedlings begin to pop out of the ground and grow.  As they begin to reach their full size, I suddenly have the urge to start showing everyone their progress.  I feel like I’ve somehow achieved some sort of greatness.  It’s just plain weird.

The greens in my salad spinner above (from left to right) are Summer Perfection spinach (very heat tolerant), Petite Rouge lettuce (baby red romaine), Italian Arugula, and Tom Thumb lettuce (grows into tiny cabbage like heads). The lettuces are heirloom varieties from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Needless to say, my family will be having a large colorful salad with dinner this evening.

I’m also very excited that I will be able to pick peas shortly.  My Oregon Sugar Pod snow peas began blooming a couple of days ago.

I would love to show you my whole garden, but realize that it would be overkill, and this is meant to be a short post. I’ll just be happy with showing you the little Chelsea Prize English cucumber seedlings coming up among the volunteer dill plants.  What a perfect pairing! So tell me, how does your garden grow?

Seed Starting (AKA Anticipation!)

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I started collecting my seed starting paraphernalia in anticipation of the up coming gardening season. I’ve been starting my vegetable plants from seed for over 15 years thanks to this wonderful set of indoor plant lights my husband gifted me.  In the picture the stand is configured to 3 tiers, but in reality it’s a 4 tier stand.  Part of my preparations a couple of weeks ago  was cleaning up the houseplants, reconfiguring the stand to 4 tiers, and replacing the spent set of bulbs in the middle.

When my children were young and I wasn’t working a traditional job, I planted a HUGE garden.  Considering the size of my garden, starting my own vegetable plants from seed was very cost effective.  Additionally, seed starting has always provided me with a little encouragement as I’m trying to kick the end of winter doldrums, and find myself almost crazy for wanting spring and warmer temperatures. I suppose I look a little silly running my fingers through the dirt and petting my little green friends.

This past fall I saved some of my own tomato and pepper seeds for the first time, and I’m very interested in learning to save some of the more difficult seeds.  This first attempt at seed saving left me with a lot of questions, so recently I purchased a copy of  Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone serious about saving seeds (insert Monsanto/GMO rant here).

In the foreground are San Marzano Redorta tomato seeds, an indeterminate heirloom variety.  In the background are my heirloom Chervena Chushka pepper seeds,  an absolutely sublime roasting pepper I wrote about last summer.

These days my vegetable garden is limited to three 6′ x 12′ raised beds (plus another raised bed herb garden), which allows for a three year crop rotation. I’m a busy person, and I’ve found that raised beds are much less labor intensive than what I used to do.  Also, the local soil is very heavy clay which comes with a host of challenges I’d rather not deal with. OK, back to seed starting. I use some inexpensive seed flats, some seed starting soil mix, and a few jiffy pots I get from a local farm supply store. I’ve also been known to make pots from newspaper, but the jiffy pots hold up better, and the nice neat grid of square pots appeases my OCD sense of organization. I place the seed starting mix in the pots, place 3 or 4 seeds in each pot, cover with a layer of soil, and wet the soil by pouring water into the bottom of the seed flats to wick upwards through the pots.

At this point I find myself wandering to the plant stand to look for the first tiny shoots of green at every opportunity. It’s crazy to look only a day after I’ve planted the seeds, but I just can’t help myself! The tomatoes were up within about a week, but the peppers drove me nuts.  They can take up to 2 weeks to germinate, and this time around they took 10 or 11 days.

 

I also started Listada de Gandia eggplant (seedlings pictured at the beginning of this post), an Italian heirloom variety I’m hoping to be able to save seed from. Lastly, I started some Fino Fennel, a bulb type of fennel. I started experimenting with fennel last year, and I’m still trying to learn how to grow it here in Indiana. I direct sowed it in the garden last spring, but it didn’t do well thanks to unseasonably hot dry weather. This year I’m experimenting with planting times as well as giving the plants a head start indoors.

An Unfortunate Ending

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

My busy season in the shop is well underway, leaving me very little time for experiments in the kitchen.  In desperate need of some therapy, I decided to spend a little time in my fall garden the other evening. I love fall gardening, and I’m always a little amazed that most gardeners don’t take advantage of this time to extend their growing season. There are quite a few vegetables that thrive on the cooler temperatures leading into winter.

Here in northern Indiana spring jumped to hot summer temperatures so quickly that my snow peas did not do well.  However, a late summer planting resulted in beautiful peas that were ready to pick this week.  The variety is Oregon Sugar Pod II. I just love the way the vines end in these little twisty curls!

Another veggie I love to plant for fall harvesting, and also for overwintering, is spinach.  Unfortunately, I have nothing to show because my neighbor’s roaming German Shepherd dug it up ….. twice! I replanted after she dug it up the first time, and within a couple of days she came back and dug up the seed bed.

I tried a new vegetable this year, and I’ve learned a lot.  I sowed Florence Fennel seed directly in the garden early this spring, but the bulbs didn’t develop very well.  After some reading I discovered it might perform better if planted early to late summer so the bulbs could form and mature in cooler weather. I went ahead and planted some seed about mid summer, but the plants are still small.  Next year I’ll try planting earlier.  I use fennel in place of celery when I cook, but it’s rather expensive in the markets in my area. I have two reasons for using fennel. First, I think celery is an evil, vile tasting thing.  Secondly, my husband is allergic to celery.

When most plants are turning brown and beginning to to die, I have a couple of herbs that provide beautiful,  vibrant splashes of color in the garden.

Calendula.

Pineapple Sage.

My basil had a wonderful year. It’s has been lush and prolific, thriving in the sweltering heat this summer.  I’ve frozen boatloads of pesto, and have been sending it home with friends and family by the bushel.  Really, I’m not kidding…. literal bushels! Because it’s threatening to go to seed, and harboring hope that I might find one more chance to make another batch of pesto, I decided to cut it back one last time.  Look who I found guarding my basil! Isn’t he beautiful?

With no one to take the basil off my hands, it had to go on the compost pile.  Thus the title of this blog post ….. “An Unfortunate Ending”.

Fire Roasting Peppers

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

This year I experimented with some new (to me) heirloom varieties of vegetables in my garden, among them these gorgeoumous (yeah, I know it’s not a real word) Bulgarian Chervena Chushka roasting peppers. I found the seeds at Seed Savers Exchange and planted them in late February so the seedlings would be ready to place in the garden by mid to late May. These peppers were a rousing success! After roasting this batch, I swore I would never mess around with a bell pepper again. The peppers ripened to a nice deep red and the flavor …. oh so sweet! I’ve only just begun harvesting, but it appears that each of the 8 plants I set out are producing up to 30 peppers per plant! I should mention that I mulched my peppers with a well composted manure, as peppers are heavy feeders. I get my composted manure from some friends who raise grass fed beef and adhere to organic farming practices.

Over the course of the summer I’ve spoken to the owner of a local wholesale greenhouse, an organic farmer, and a fruit and vegetable market owner, all having confirmed that this year has been a very poor year for peppers in my area.  All three were very surprised to hear about my bumper crop of roasting peppers, and two of them asked if I would be willing to save some seed for them.  Obviously, I will be saving seeds for next year.

If you’ve never roasted peppers before, I highly recommend giving it a go. You’ll never want to eat jarred roasted peppers again. I’m roasting large quantities, so the grill is the only way to go, but you can roast a single pepper over the flame on your gas range.

Before beginning, you will want to have a few things ready to go.  Once you start you will want to stay with your peppers until they are finished.  You will need the following:

Grill
Tongs
Bowl
Plastic wrap
Paring knife

Simply turn on your flame and place the peppers over the flame, turning them occasionally with tongs. Allow the skins to become charred.  When finished the skins don’t need to be entirely blackened, but the parts that are not blackened should at least appear shriveled. Despite throwing them on the grill at the same time, each pepper finishes in it’s own time. The pepper on the right is almost finished while the pepper on the left still has a way to go.

Once the peppers reach the desired done-ness, remove from the grill and place in the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the peppers to steam in their own heat. Steaming loosens the skins making them easy to remove. Keep them covered for at least 15 minutes, and resist the temptation to uncover and let the steam out. I’m a little like Pandora so I use a clear bowl …. it removes temptation, allowing me to see everything going on in the bowl.   I let my peppers sit for about an half hour so they would be cool enough to handle while removing the charred skins.

To remove the skins, use a sharp paring knife and start by cutting a circle around the stem. Then carefully pull the stem end out of the pepper, most of the seeds will come out with it. After removing the stem insert a finger and remove most of the remaining seeds. Next, using the edge of a paring knife peel the charred skin from the peppers. Most of the skins should be loose enough you can even use your fingers to peel them. Do NOT rinse your peppers! They may seem a bit messy, but rinsing will destroy that great fire roasted flavor you worked to so hard to get.

Once skinned,  slit each pepper down it’s length opening it like a book.  Scrape away any remaining seeds.

There are several things you can do with your roasted peppers. First, you can use them right away in your favorite recipe. I like to freeze mine in small heavy duty freezer bags. I usually freeze about 8 ounces to a bag which is the perfect amount for my favorite Roasted Red Pepper Soup. I suppose you’re going to want me to post the recipe. Another method for saving your roasted gems is to store them in olive oil in the refrigerator. This method is best for small quantities that you plan to use within a few weeks. Freezing is probably the best method for large quantities and long term storage. I imagine peppers could be canned, but I’ve not tried it so can’t recommend it.

Zucchini Fritters

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Have you ever seen the rock musical, Little Shop of Horrors?  I suspect that Audrey II (a plant that thrives on human blood and has aspirations to take over the world) may have been a zucchini plant. Every morning when I run out to my garden to pull a few weeds before work, I’m always amazed at the zucchini’s ability to grow overnight. I always try to pick them while they’re small, but every now and again one will escape my attention and grow into a baseball bat.  I’ve got a friend who says during zucchini season the people in her town have to lock their cars when they visit people, or a few zucchini will be slipped into their car while they aren’t looking.

Every year, as my zucchini start setting fruit, I go on the hunt for new ways to use it. I sauté it with other veggies, pasta, and feta for quick meals and use it raw with vinaigrette in salads. Ever since I was a kid, my mom has always made a “pickle” relish using the prolific veggie. I recently made zucchini fritters based on my recipe for potato latkes. Because zucchini doesn’t contain the starch found in potatoes, I did bump up the amount of flour. I really liked these, but my guys are veggie challenged and weren’t big fans.  I probably won’t make them as much as I would like to.

Zucchini Fritters (makes 8 to 10 fritters)
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 medium zucchini, about 2 pounds, shredded
1/2 small onion, shredded
2 tablespoons yogurt, buttermilk, or sour milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
Olive oil

1. In a small bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt.  Set aside.

2. Place grated zucchini on a piece of cheesecloth or a dish towel and twist to wring out as much excess liquid as possible.  I use a dish towel and place the zucchini in a long strip (lengthwise) down the middle of the towel. Next, I fold the sides of the towel over the zucchini, grasp the ends of the towel, and begin twisting.

3. Place zucchini in a bowl with the shredded onion.

4. Combine  yogurt or buttermilk and egg to the zucchini mixture.

**Chemistry Alert** Using baking powder and some type of acidic milk will provide a little leavening in the fritters.

5. Stir flour mixture into the zucchini.

6. Heat olive oil in a skillet.  A note on olive oil … don’t use your good extra virgin or virgin grade olive oil for cooking. Instead, use the pure grade olive oil which is more refined, and has a higher smoke point.

7. Using about 1/4 cup of the mixture, form zucchini patties in the skillet.  Cook fritters for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, until firm. Turn again, cooking about 30 seconds more on each side until golden.

8. Remove from skillet to a paper towel lined plate.  Season with salt and pepper and serve with yogurt dill sauce or Tzatziki, a traditional Greek cucumber-yogurt condiment.  I’ll try to remember to post a Tzatziki recipe in the next couple of weeks.

Yogurt Dill Sauce
Thin some Greek style yogurt down with a little milk, or use plain yogurt. Mix in some snipped dill and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Extracting Chlorophyll from Leafy Greens

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

Chlorophyll extraction is considered an advanced cooking technique, which I think is ridiculous considering how easy it is.  I was surprised to discover that you can’t find much on the Interwebs about chlorophyll in cooking.  You ask, “Chlorophyll in cooking?  Huh?”  Chlorophyll imparts a beautiful green, tasteless color to foods. Additionally, it is very healthy.  If you’d like to do some further reading, here’s more information on chlorophyll than you ever wanted to know.

I’m going to cover chlorophyll in two parts.  Part 1 will be extraction. In Part 2 I’ll show you how to use chlorophyll to make gorgeous Pasta Verde. Also, I’ll follow up with a recipe using the pasta to make a  salad I’m planning to take to an annual family reunion on the 4th of July.

I hate waste.  When my spinach or arugula bolts I have a problem with pulling it up and throwing it on the compost pile.  Using bolted greens to extract chlorophyll is my solution to “wasting” the leafy greens that I go through so much trouble to grow in my  little garden.

This morning after the dew had dried, I cut the spinach stalks and stripped the leaves.  I ended up with a little over half a pound of spinach.  I plant small 18 x 18 inch square patches of spinach and arugula several times throughout the growing season, so I almost always have some available.  I have two  favorite varieties of spinach.  Monstrueux De Viroflay, an old French Heirloom variety,  is planted in the cooler temperatures of spring, and again in early fall for overwintering.   Summer Perfection, a heat tolerant variety from Renee’s Garden Seeds,  is planted once summer temperatures gear up.

The next step is to macerate the spinach with some water.  I used about 2 cups of water for my half pound of spinach, placed it in my food processor, and whizzed the behoozit out of it (thanks to my friend Tina for that wonderful new addition to my vocabulary).

Once the greens are processed, strain the pulp through a jelly bag or a couple of layers of fine cheesecloth or butter muslin to obtain a deep, dark green juice.  Squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the pulp. The pulp is what my compost pile finally gets.

This next part is the cool part! Place the juice in a heavy, stainless steel sauce pan and gently heat over medium heat to approximately 150 degrees. Be careful not to let it get too hot.  What you’ll be watching for is the chlorophyll to separate from the water portion of the juice.  You know you’re there when it looks sort of like algae floating in murky green pond water.

Remove from heat and pour the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Press very gently on the green paste in the strainer to remove some of the excess water (which I throw on my compost pile). The green paste is your chlorophyll. If you won’t be using it immediately, cover and store in the refrigerator.  It’s best if used within a couple of days.  I’ve never done it before, but some day I plan to experiment to see if it will freeze well.  I got about 1/4 cup of chlorophyll from the half pound of spinach.  1/4 cup is what will be needed for a batch of Pasta Verde.