Just peachy

Life isn’t always just peachy, but on those rare occasions when life goes right, it’s important to celebrate.  Just so seasonal peaches.  The peach harvest isn’t always perfect, and indeed some years are so poor the peaches need to be scrapped altogether.  But when everything goes right, and the Spirits of Fruit bless us with an abundance of perfect peaches, it is our pleasure, nay, our obligation, to enjoy and preserve that gift so we can savor it long into the future.IMG_0787

Peaches are one of my favorite fruits.  Many a summer past I have looked longingly at what is on offer at my local supermarket in June, or even July, and imagine it might be tasty and delicious.  I imagine it’s sugary juice and perfectly ripe density as I bite into it.  I’ll pick up a peach and gently prod its unyielding flesh or bring it to my nose in hope of catching the sweet aroma of summer.  Foolishly, I may even be convinced to pay the outrageous sticker price for one or two with the notion that this time will be different, that these peaches were perhaps allowed to stay on the branch a little longer than most, or better yet were picked nearly ripe.  I’ll gently take the fruit home and set it on the counter to fulfill its natural destiny of becoming delicious.  When it’s stiffness finally yields under my thumb, it smells like actual peaches, and I deem it ripe enough to eat, I bite into its softness and feel tasteless mush coating my tongue like wallpaper paste.  Into the compost they go.  How did I get fooled again?

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The only good peaches are the ones you pick yourself, ripe from the tree.  And not always those.  Years past have given us hard nuggets that never ripen or worse, fall off the tree when they are the size of walnuts.  We’ve seen fruit with thick hairy skin and crunchy flesh, as well as wormy bland fruit that has the consistency of blueberries and leaves a slimy film on the tongue.  Timing and weather play important roles in a successful peach harvest, and only one of those things is within our control.  You make your own luck, my dad used to say.  God helps those who help themselves, my mom’s voice calls out from my past.  Every gardener knows those expressions are only partly true.  If nature won’t cooperate, and inclement weather strikes at in-opportune times, no amount of hard work can fix it.  A frost after the trees blossom will kill a harvest overnight.  Excessive heat, too much rain, blight, insects and many other things can ruin peaches.  But some things are within our prevue, and timing is essential.  Choosing which days to apply horticultural oils to protect the blossoms from egg laying insects, fertilizing the trees at the proper times, deciding when to thin the fruits; all these things can affect the harvest.  Once the fruits are established and ripening it is time to decide when to pick.

If you see a bunch of rotting peaches under the tree, you’re too late.

Start testing the fruit once one or two peaches have dropped on the ground.  If you are impatient, give the tree a gentle shake and see if any fruit falls off.  Once the first fruits drop the time is right to test the peaches for ripeness.  A gentle press with the thumb on the bottom flesh will give you an idea of the readiness of the peach.  If the flesh doesn’t yield, its not ripe.  When the bottom yields under the thumb, check the top of the peach near the branch.  This should just give under the finger.  If it is still firm-not ripe.  If it yields, give the peach a twist.  If it pops off-hurrah, it’s ripe. If the tree gives some resistance, perhaps it’s not ready to give up the fruit yet.  It’s telling you to wait another day.  Accept it.

There is only one reason to pick the peaches before they ripen on the tree and that is if the birds find them first.  Once the crows and their cronies get a taste of those lovely peaches, it’s all over.  They have an maddening way of pecking only the ripest part of the fruit, usually where the sun hits it, and leaving the harder unripe side intact.  They go from peach to peach and ruin each one, leaving the unprotected flesh open for fruit flies, ants and other pests to crawl in and spoil the fruit.  If you don’t want to share with your feathered friends I suggest that at the first sign of beak marks, you pick the fruit that’s unblemished and mostly ripe.  A few days on the counter, covered by cheesecloth to protect it, will eventually ripen the fruits.  Better yet, net the trees to protect from the birds.  IMG_0773

Once the fruits start to ripen on the tree, they come like a wave.  At first there are just a few ripe ones to tempt the appetite, eaten just rinsed in the sink, or grilled. As the days pass they ripen by the basket full, and soon the counter is covered with fruits in various stages of ripening, too many to eat each day.  Soon fresh peaches are a part of every meal, and the pies and kuchens and cobblers feel more like an obligation than a treat.   It’s time to put up the abundance so that when colder breezes blow, a mouthful of sweet deliciousness will recall to us the sun and warmth of humid August days.

All the ways to preserve the harvest start with the same first steps.  Jammed, jarred, frozen, liquored, candied, dehydrated, or even salsa-fied , the peaches must first be relieved of their fuzzy skin.  This is done by blanching the peaches in boiled water for 1 minute, and then plunging the peaches into cold water.  One minute.  Time it.  Longer and the peaches will begin to cook and become mushy, and then your only choice is jam.  Less and the skins won’t slip off.  You can tell during this first step if your peaches are indeed perfectly ripe because if they are, the skins will slide off leaving smooth peachy flesh underneath.  If they are a bit under-ripe, the skin will peel off taking some of the flesh with it, and the peach will be nubby looking.  See the difference in the picture below.

 

Once they are blanched there are endless choices for using or saving them.  If I have too many to process and not enough time, my first choice is to freeze them sliced into quart bags.  This is fast and easy, and allows for more creative uses when I have more time to spare.  Take care to fill the bags only partway full or they won’t stack well in the freezer.  To minimize the mess, I roll the top of the bag over to fill it.  Freezing the peaches does not require the use of citric or ascorbic acid to protect the color, but if you might want to jar them at a later time I suggest using it prior to freezing.  When they thaw out the bright peach color will tend to brown slightly, and pretty jars lined in the pantry look so much better if the peaches have been rinsed in a bit of acid first.  I use Ball brand Fruit-Fresh.

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Canning is another way to keep them safe for months to come, but it does require more effort, and some specialized equipment.  While you don’t need a pressure cooker for canning peaches, it does shorten the processing time. I can my peaches in a very light syrup if they were allowed to ripen on the tree.  I want to taste peach, not sugar, when I open the jar.  IMG_0795

If you are not patient enough to grow your peach trees, or don’t have the space, don’t despair.   Take a trip to a pick-your-own orchard, find a farmers market, or as a last resort, buy some from your market when it is peach season in your area.  Ask the provenance of the fruit and if it is local, give it a try.  Smell is the best way to judge ripeness in market fruits.  If you can find good fruits, it’s wise to invest now for a payout later.  Buy a bushel. Winter peaches are worth it.

If you have an interesting way to preserve peaches, or a receipt to share, post it here.

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Which season is this, anyway?

IMG_1781I bought myself a new pair of galoshes.  I love that word, galoshes.  It brings to mind yellow rubber duckies and chubby kneed toddlers jumping in puddles.  Purple umbrellas, rain streaking down window panes, and good books.  So I have a new pair.  Sleek, navy blue and mid-calf, with a bright orange lining, they are my new favorite shoes.  Partly because I get to wear them every day, morning and evening, and sometimes in between.  They are made by a company called Hunter, the Rolls Royce of rubber boots.  The last pair I had were made by Hunter too, although I cheaped out and bought them slightly used on Ebay.  I got  what I paid for, by the way.  They must have been more than “slightly” used, because they only lasted a few seasons.  After a few weeks of doing my chores in wet socks this spring I broke down and bought a new pair directly from the company.  And not a moment too soon.  The pretty box lined in bright orange with the fancy Hunter logo gave me almost enough gratification to justify the price.  At least they are getting a good workout.  IMG_0747

It’s been a wet summer here in the northeast.  Wet and hot.  A wet summer following a cold late spring.  Following a weird winter.  But no one needs me to tell them that the weather is out of whack, all you have to do is look out the window, or better yet look at your garden.  I’ve got tomatoes splitting open on the vine before they ripen, peppers dropping all their leaves and huge eggplant bushes with no blooms on them.  My carrots are two inches tall and as fat as sausages, the watermelon, winter squash and pumpkins have no fruit at all, and the raspberries mold before I can pick them.  I have cabbage spitting open like hatching eggs and basil plants with leaves as brown and slimy as pond scum.  Things are composting before I can harvest them.  It’s wet.

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It’s in my nature, sadly, to point out the tragic and flawed first.  When someone comes for a tour of the garden, or is just walking through, I’ll delightedly complain about all the garden failures.  Maybe it’s my way of deflecting blame, as if I’m somehow responsible for the weather.  I need everyone to know that despite all my efforts, things are not perfect, and I recognize it.  I make them note the worst so they know that I know the flaws exist.  That I’m not proudly displaying what is obviously not the way it should be.  It’s a terrible way to behave, and not very self-serving.  Most times, not only would they not have recognized the not-perfectness of things, but it robs them of the desired delusion that things really are perfect, and just the way they should be.  They leave thinking either I’m a downer, or just not very good at what I do.  Or worse, they feel the need to reassure me, and make me feel better for my multitude of failures. Ridiculous.

So, now that you’ve heard the worst, both practically and subconsciously, I’ll tell you the good news.  Onions the size of softballs.  Leeks that are three feet tall.  Abundant parsley, mint that is overflowing (isn’t it always) and cucumbers that just keep coming.  The garlic harvest was successful, fat white and purple heads drying on racks in the garage. The kohlrabi, while a bit tough on the outside, was none the less plump and crunchy.  And the summer squash.  Oh, the summer squash.  I’m reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal Vegetable Miracle where she informs her children that they lock the car doors in summer not to deter someone from stealing the car, but to prevent neighbors from dropping off  bags of calf sized zucchini on their back seat.   Lock your doors folks, it’s that kind of year.

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And I can’t forget the flowers. Almost everything was abundant, tall, vibrant and with enormous blooms.  My ‘Dinner Plate’ dahlias are actually the size of dinner plates.  It’s the best year I’ve seen for poppies, and the Sunflowers are 10 feet tall.  Of course the weeds are 10 feet tall too.  Some of the grasses growing in my flower beds have become ornamental.  I’m trying to go with it and resist loudly declaiming to whomever will listen that I didn’t plant it there, and I haven’t gotten around to pulling it out yet, and if it weren’t for all this blasted rain you wouldn’t notice it.

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I’ll let out a little secret.  We harvested about 6 gallons of honey from our two hives last week.  This is big news for all the folks to whom we give honey as a Christmas gift.  While a few of them no doubt have jars of honey stacked in the back of the pantry, I know for a fact the majority can’t wait for their Christmas bag of goodies from the Winter Pantry, the honey being the golden prize.  This years honey was pale, golden and sugary, redolent of clover blossoms, honeysuckle and apple.  Much different from previous years, when we’ve seen honey that has been almost molasses-like, dark amber and thick.  The weather makes a difference for the bees, too.

Not being a bee person didn’t stop me from helping this year.  Helping is a misnomer, really, but I was there, standing several yards away and trying to breathe deeply and radiate calm normality.  As if that’s my natural state.  Ha.  Only once did I do what I had promised myself not to; shreek, hop, and swat hysterically at my hair in an attempt to dislodge one furious lady trying in vain to defend her home.  Of course my husband, who is a bee person and for whom calm normality is a way of life, came to my rescue, and plucked the poor thing from my head before she could sting me and ruin both our lives.   He had repeatedly picked the angry things off his arms and neck without a peep, lifting out the heavily laden frames with calm aplomb.  Different nature, I guess.

And I must mention the fruit. The abundant rain and humid weather has certainly been a blessing for all the fruit setting plants.  Fat yellow plums are dripping off our diminutive trees and for some strange reason the birds haven’t yet discovered them.  Perhaps they are thrown off by the color?  It is wonderful to harvest so many unblemished fruits.   The downside being that they don’t spoil as fast, so I’m disinclined to make jam, or even to freeze them.  Sorry friends, no plum jam in the Christmas bag.   Instead they sit in big bowls on the counter and get gobbled down five at a time.  This time of year it’s not unlikely for me to make an entire meal of plums, blueberries and peaches while I stand at the counter dripping juice on myself.  Elegant.

 

Conclusion?  The weather is weird.  It’s different than last year, different than any other year before.  Science says it’s going to get weirder.  But nature will win out, in the end, I think.  And us gardeners, what can we do in the meantime?  We have to deal with what we get, acknowledge the bad and celebrate the good, and then go forth and try to be more responsible to the planet.  We plant and harvest and eat, we fail and succeed and mostly do the best we can.  It’s in our nature.

 

Morning Score

This morning, as I walked up the cool dewy driveway to feed the horses, I noticed something in their pasture that hadn’t been there yesterday.  The pasture grows rocks;  I know because I pick them up and toss them over the fence regularly, yet there still seem to be plenty around.  This didn’t look quite like rocks though, or any of the other paraphernalia the horses lose in the pasture, so I walked down to investigate.

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Hooray!  It was what I was hoping they might be…some puffball mushrooms.  They must have blossomed in the field after the hard, much needed rain we had yesterday afternoon. The horse had stepped on some of them, but I managed to salvage some good mushrooms  “for the pot”.  I didn’t have my camera with me, so I can’t show you, but there was clear swath of darker color in the grass where the fungus was growing, like a big comma, and there was a sweep of puffballs, the fruit of the fungus, blooming right down the center.

As I walked back home with my loot I got to reflecting about mushrooms, for which I have a deep fondness.  They often grow in dead or dying material. In other words, they are a product of decay.  It amazes me that nature is structured in such a way  that life flows naturally from death.  Take compost, for instance.  I have a compost pile into which I tossed a rotting pumpkin last year, as well as all my other garden waste.  This year I can’t see my compost pile for the hybrid squash/pumpkin Audrey III growing there.  Abundance from decay.  And yet we still see death as a finality.

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Back in the kitchen putting away the mushrooms, I was chagrined to remember that I have two dozen jalapenos, 10 ripe tomatoes, 4 cabbages, 6 cucumbers, 2 giant zucchini the size of my arm, 3 peppers, a basket of green beans and a watermelon already stuffed in the fridge.  Why can’t I find a score of puffball mushrooms in February, when there is nary a fresh thing in sight?  So I’ll make some hot sauce, roast the tomatoes for the freezer (a yummy trick I learned from my mother-in-law)  whip up  some coleslaw for dinner, jar some pickles, freeze the green beans, and leave the zucchini in my neighbors car, but I am definitely having a mushroom omelet for breakfast.

 

MUSHROOM OMELET

2/3 cup mushrooms of any kind, diced

2 fresh local eggs (3 if you are hungry)

2 tsp. butter divided

1 oz. goat cheese

Salt and pepper

Heat a nonstick pan on medium low heat.   Crack the eggs in a bowl and scramble lightly with a fork.  Saute the mushrooms in 1/2 the butter until tender and most of the water has evaporated.  If the mushrooms dry out before they are cooked through, add a tablespoon of water to the pan and cook until it’s dry again.  Add the eggs and the rest of the butter and cover for 2-3 min.  When the eggs are mostly cooked, add the cheese to one side and gently fold the eggs onto the cheese. Turn off the heat. Cover again for a few more minutes until eggs are cooked through.

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Pretending, and other stuff.

Hello friends

You may have wondered whatever happened to me and my sometimes blog.  Well, I’ll tell you.  Last spring I was offered my dream job.  I was hired to design, build and manage a teaching garden for the Marvelwood School, a small Connecticut private school that both my sons attend.  I get to spend part of each day planning, organizing and actually digging in the dirt.  It was a very successful first season, and it just keeps getting better.  I was offered the use of a small greenhouse on the campus so I can continue puttering about with growing things this winter.  I’ll tell you a little secret…I’m experimenting with aquaponics too!  I already have 8 little goldfish working hard to produce nitrogen for my sprouts.  Well, they actually produce ammonia that will turn into nitrites that will turn into…that’s a story for another day, though.  Today we’re gonna talk about a freakishly warm December.

It’s freakishly warm, right?  What the heck!  I waited until late late late in November to plant garlic, which I usually plant in the end of October, and still the garlic has sprouted and is 4 inches tall.   Further disturbing evidence of this unusual weather is the fact that my parsley is actually growing.  I have been pulling it in fist-fulls to use in the kitchen, but still it grows.  Hard not to when it’s 60 degrees out.  IMG_0679

I have still been able to plant narcissus bulbs, as the ground isn’t nearly frozen yet, and whenever I hit one that’s already there I find it has sprouted and is trying to pop out of the earth.  My strawberries have actual flowers, for crying out loud!  What gives?  Anyone?  Even I, who loves growing things, am ready for the season to end.  Enough already.

I’m trying to pretend it’s winter.  Despite the fact that they are still green and healthy, I pulled out my leeks today.  IMG_0677They last almost as long in the fridge as in the ground, and I keep telling myself there has to be a hard freeze soon, so I might as well get them out now.  Of course I was wearing a T-shirt while I dug, so it really was pretend.  I could have probably left them in another month.

I decided to make a real one pot winter style meal tonight with some of the leeks and other put-up foods to try to get in the winter mood.  I used the parsley, some potatoes and onions I have in the cellar, and some pheasant leg meat I had left over from a broth I made.  IMG_0682

I also had the good fortune to trade a venison sirloin for some guanciale with my good friend Sarah.  For those of you who are scratching your head (like me the first time I heard of it), it’s a pork jowl.  That’s right…pig cheeks.  and I’m here to tell you that it’s one tasty item!  It’s an Italian specialty food traditionally used in carbonara, and it is super yummy.  More delicate than pancetta, and with a stronger taste than bacon, it ramps up the flavor of any dish.  Here I sauteed it until crisp, removed it with a slotted spoon and cooked the leeks and onions in the fat left in the pan.

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The potatoes I diced and cooked until soft in salted water, added them to the leeks and fried them until a little crispy.  After that I added the removed guanciale, the parsley, the pheasant, salt and pepper to taste, a pinch of cayenne and finally shredded Havarti on the whole thing, covered it and turned off the heat.  Meanwhile I had a nice winter cocktail to get me in the holiday spirit.  Nothing wrong with rum and eggnog, am I right?

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The final product was a stick to your ribs one-dish meal that made everyone happy.  It’s still about 50 degrees out, but I’m going to go decorate my Christmas tree and pretend.  Happy Holidays!

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Sprouts and Kraut

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Eight days have passed since I tucked my tiny fragile jalapeno seeds into their specially prepared pre-moistened fist sized cloth pods nestled in a self contained semi-hydroponic plastic covered temperature regulated solar nest.   Along with my tucking I did some quick praying to speed their journey toward new life, prolific growth and eventually their ultimate demise in my sauce pan. It sounds a bit hard-hearted when I put it that way.  Today when I ducked under the lights to peak below the plastic I was rewarded with six new pepper sprouts. Hurrah!

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The sad news is that it’s been eight days for my eggplant seeds as well, and not one of the precious babies has responded to my careful attempts to coax  them into existence.  What is it exactly that makes a seed grow into a plant?  I mean, I know all the things a seed needs, as far as moisture, soil, sunlight, etc etc, but what actually makes it have new life?  What mystery is at work that causes some seeds to crack open and begin splitting cells to form the complex structures and mechanisms  for photosynthesis?  This for me, and I dare say for gardeners everywhere, is one of the fascinations of gardening.

But what about those seeds that don’t sprout? Could I have done something differently?  Are they just “bad seeds”?  Who can tell me this?  Instead of worrying about them, I have decided to go against my nature, be patience, have some faith, and wait another week.

On another note, after several failed attempts to set up a lacto-fermentation system for my sauerkraut, (I’m too cheap to purchase a proper crock and weights) I finally settled on a glass jar with a smaller glass inside to act as a weight pressing on a piece of plastic that I cut to fit the jar.  The benefit of glass is that I can monitor the moisture level so that no dangerous bacteria can breach the salted water and spoil the cabbage. Plus it’s fun to watch the bubbles!   The trick is to make sure that all of the food is below the level of the water so no nasty bacteria can land on a stray floater, travel down and spoil the food.  The brine acts like a barrier.  Meanwhile chemistry dictates that the Lactobacillus bacteria, which is on most surfaces already, is changing the sugars into lactic acid, a natural preservative, probiotic and probable anti-carcinogen. (or something like that). If you want to try it yourself, there are plenty of good sauerkraut receipts online.  In 4 to 6 weeks we’ll be chomping away at the heavenly kraut, increasing the beneficial bacteria in our digestive systems and preventing cancer at the same time.  Another Hurrah!

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Hope and Gardening: spring planning

February and March may seem like the absolute doldrums for gardeners in the North East, but for me this is really where the fun begins.  Starting in mid January my daily run to the post is enhanced by the plethora of seed catalogs and gardener supply fliers that inundate the more mundane sampling of bills and offers of credit.  These magazines, filled with flawless, sparkling, brightly colored fruits and flowers not only bring the remembrance of springtime just when it seems like winter will never end, but spark the planning and scheming process that every gardener goes through each year.  Moreover, for me they offer not just ideas and choices of what to grow, but actual hope for the delights of spring, and desire for a bountiful garden, in much the same way that ads for fancy skin cream lure us in with the unattainable promise of youth and beauty.  I know it sounds foolish, but there it is.

This winter, when John Scheepers and Gurney’s and Burpee came to tempt me with their seductive photos, I threw them immediately into the recycle bin, and here’s why.  Last fall on my birthday I received a wonderful present from a girlfriend of mine.  It was a gardeners journal, a subscription to Heirloom Gardener, and a seed catalog from Baker Creek.  She knows me well.  I devoured the magazine.  I learned more about GMOs and gardening history in the US, and I vowed that never again would I plant a seed whose origin was questionable.  I saved the seed catalog for February.

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The decision to plant a non GMO garden was a big one for me.  While I profess that organic is best, I’m not above sprinkling my soil with a little Seven when I can’t get rid of those pesky ants around my eggplant.  Even thought I detest chain department stores and all they do to wreck local economy,  I’ve been known to buy a tomato plant at Home Depot on impulse. While I tout the values of a nutrient rich, homegrown local and balanced diet, I’m the first one to order pizza when I’m too tired to cook.  So Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m a hypocrite.  But now it’s time to step up to the plate.  Genetically modified food is bad. Bad for us nutritionally, bad for local economy and a just plain bad for the environment.  Get more information on this at www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more

When I plan my garden in the spring I start with a list of what I’d like to grow.  Then I make a map of my garden and, referring to last years map, add each thing where I feel it would grow best.  When I actually do the work my plan often changes, if, for instance, I bought more tomatoes than will fit in the allotted space.  Sometimes I cluster, other years I might mix it up, say putting the carrots in with the beets or planting every other tomato and pepper.  My garden is quite small, so I often cram.  Every year I plant some things from seed, like beets, and beans, and carrots, and some things from plants that I purchase, like tomatoes and squash and melon.  The only things I start from seed indoors myself are pepper plants and this mostly because I have more of a selection than I can find at the greenhouse.  Deciding to choose heirloom and non GMO plants means that I have to either find a source for heirloom plants, or grow them myself.  While there is a local CSA that I believe sells plants in the spring, I didn’t want to limit my choices, and since I have had some luck with peppers, I decided to go ahead and start my entire garden from seed.  That means all the tomatoes, melons, squash, eggplant, cucumber, spices, cabbage and peppers.  Yikes!

Last month I finally made my choices from the Bakers Creek Heirloom Seed Company catalog.  I highly recommend this company to anyone who is a vegetable fanatic.  Their selection is unbelievable and their knowledge extensive. Their website has tons of valuable information and it’s just fun to browse.   Check it out at www.rareseeds.com   After days and weeks of poring over the descriptions and photographs of exotic and divine vegetables (am I the only one who finds vegetables alluring?) I ordered 38 types of seeds.  10 types of tomato alone, with names like Green Zebra and Black Prince. Where I’ll put them is still a mystery.  I made a schedule by counting back in weeks from the average last frost date (May 20th).  I borrowed some growing lamps and purchased seed pots and starter mix.  I rearranged my bathroom and tub area to fit the seed trays.  I planted the onions and the eggplant.

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While I tell myself that it’s the best thing to do, I remain nervous about starting all the seeds myself.  I’m not a very technical person but I’m smart enough to know that if I was, I’d have a better chance of growing healthy plants.  There is a science to it that I have yet to figure out.  My policy of flying by the seat of my pants and hoping things work out for the best might not serve me so well in this instance.  If I were so inclined, I would spend some time figuring out optimal light cycles, temperatures, nitrogen mixes and hardening practices for different types of plants.  Then again, it’s just nature, after all, and there really is no stopping it.  The worst case scenario is that I have to source the plants after all.  It’s not like I’ll never eat another homegrown tomato if my seeds fail to thrive.  And there is hope!  Even though there is still 2 feet of snow on the ground, my 300 onions are already an inch tall.

I’d love to hear from anyone with any advice or expertise on starting plants indoors.  My set-up is not very complicated, but advice on light times, bulbs, best starter mix, or just about anything would be much appreciated.  Happy growing!

Fall Harvest, peppers and tomatoes

Wow, it’s been a long time since I wrote!  I had a very busy summer in the garden.  This New England summer was very mild, and the cooler than usual weather made for a lush and productive garden.  It was an exceptional year for tomatoes, and as we head into October I am still picking.  Most of my tomato plants got the blight, as usual, but this year it was so late as to not affect the fruit.  In fact as the days get shorter the plants are having a last comeback and still producing.  To prevent the fruit from splitting on the vine, I pick them under-ripe and mature them on the counter or in paper bags for a few days.  The flavor is a bit tangier than the full sun ripened fruit, but they are still delicious.  I will still have many green ones on the vine when the first frost comes in, so I’ve been perfecting my recipe for green tomato salsa in advance.

Green Tomato Salsa

This time of year is almost as exciting for me as the spring.  It is as much a time of abundance and good eating as the peak of summer.  This may be because I usually plant a garden heavy on fall producing veggies like kale, peppers and potatoes, parsnips, beets and carrots, but it’s also a time for preparing foods for the winter.  I’m spending my days chopping, stewing and freezing tomatoes, roasting hot and mild peppers and making chili sauces to spice up the long winter.  I’ve got quite a few things going on in the kitchen as well as the garden.

The peppers had a nice year.  I planted a mixed variety and like always, quickly lost track of what I planted where.  While this might bother some, I find it exciting to watch the unknown plants grow and see how they eventually reveal themselves.  This year we had a cayenne variety, jalapenos, poblanos, banana peppers, green chilies and regular old green bells.  The mix was great, as some we used for stuffing, some for fresh sauces, some for cooked sauces, some roasted and jarred, and some fresh with dip.  As peppers are perennial, I have even planted some in pots to bring inside and have for the winter. This is a first for me, but I have been reading up on it and I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Another first for me is fermenting cayenne peppers for sauce.  I’ve made plenty of hot sauce over the years, but I’ve never  fermented the chilies before hand.  It is exciting to watch them bubbling away on the top of the fridge.  I have them soaking in a sugary Reisling mixed with 2 % salt.  It can take anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks for the fermentation to be completed, so I just bide my time and watch the process in fascination. I’m making up my own recipe, but there are quite a few good websites on the process, and here’s one I like.  http://talesofakitchen.com/raw/fermented-hot-chili-sauce/

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Remember to always wear gloves when handling hot chilies.  Even the milder chilies can get under rings and nails and cause irritation and burning.  Lingering chili oil can make itself known when you try to take out your contacts.  Never never wipe your face or eyes.  I have learned these lessons the hard way and I always wear the kind of rubber gloves you find in the doctors office.  They fit close and keep the capsasin off the skin.   Also, instead of using a cutting board and knife, try snipping the chilies with scissors right into the bowl.  This will keep the oil out of the cutting board and therefore out of the next thing you cut on it.

 

One of my favorite things to do with the abundance of peppers is to make green chili sauce.  I first had it prepared by a very good friend and former roommate Rachael Risley (nee. Coulehan), who makes it with a slow cooked pork shoulder.  As it’s very difficult to get organic free range pork of any kind, let alone a shoulder roast, we usually make it with chicken.  Served with cornbread or tortilla chips, it’s a hearty and satisfying dish perfect for the cooler fall temps.  I make the sauce first, pour it over shredded or cubed chicken and bake it with cheese like a casserole.  The trick to really good sauce is to roast the peppers first, skin and seed them and then make the sauce. Chopped and sauteed, they just don’t have the rich flavor that roasting adds. It is an extra step, but well worth the effort.

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Blister the chilies on high heat, flipping once to get both sides.  Put the chilies in a glass bowl, cover with a plate and let cool.  This will steam the chilies and make it easier to remove the skins.  When cool, remove the skin, seeds and ribs, reserving the liquid in the bowl.  Set aside.

Green Chile Sauce

2 tbs olive oil

2 large onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tbs flour

2 cups broth

a dozen or so roasted and seeded green chilies, about 2 cups (any variety, but mostly not too hot)

Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium sauce pot, saute the onions in the olive oil until fragrant, about 10 minutes.  Add the garlic and saute two minutes more. Stir in the flour.  Add the broth and cook until thick and bubbly.  Add the chilies and cook for 5 minutes more.  With an immersion blender puree the mixture, leaving some peppers and onions whole.  If you don’t have an immersion blender, add 3/4 of the mixture to a blender, cover with a dish cloth to allow steam to escape and blend on high 1 minute.  Return to pan.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Serve over chopped or shredded chicken, pork or enchiladas.  Enjoy!

 

 

 

Time to Pick The Garlic

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I use a lot of garlic.  There is nothing like that fragrant allium for flavoring all kinds of dishes, from meats and pastas to vegetables of every sort.  Very easy to grow, it’s planted in the late fall and harvested in the summer.  Not bothered by pests, there is nothing much to it, really.  Unless, of course you forget all about it.  I had so much garlic from the previous year that I forgotten about the garlic patch until it made itself know to me by sprouting again last September as I was putting my garden to bed. Uh-oh.  September is not the time to harvest garlic.  So I left them.  They withered and died and sprouted again the next spring, but this time instead of single stalks from individual cloves, I had many many sprouts from whole heads of garlic. Bushes of garlic.  This year I determined to harvest them at the right time.  Plus I was out of garlic.  

Garlic should be picked when the stalks are still green but beginning to brown.  It’s not rocket science, but it does need to be done.  If you pick it too early, the paper is hard and difficult to peel, and the heads won’t be fully formed.  Too late and you risk the bulbs separating, the paper will be too thin and then they won’t store well.  July is a good time to do it.  Although it’s tempting to grab those sturdy stalks and yank, unless you loosen the ground first they will break and then you’ll be digging around with your trowel and risk damaging the bulb.  I dig a big scoop out of the dirt in front of the garlic, and then bend it toward the loosened earth until it comes free.  Because I had left mine so long in the ground and the bulbs had sprouted close together, most of the garlic was very small.  Perfect for a garlic braid!  I made sure to pick every one; the ones I get next year will be the ones I plant this fall!  

Garlic is excellent fresh, but it must be cured in order to keep.  This is best done out of the sun, in a cool, well ventilated area, and takes a few weeks until the papery stalks dry.  Leave the stalks on for this, and cut them only when you transfer the cured garlic to its storage area.  I keep mine in a basket in our cool basement.  Keep it away from moisture unless you want it to sprout in the basket.  

Last night we had beet greens braised with garlic cloves.  The fresh cloves are much milder than the cured.  It was really delicious and a good way to get in those healthy greens.  

SIMPLE GARLICY GREENS

1 large bunch of beet greens, or whatever hearty green you have to hand, collard, mustard, kale…

1 head of garlic, preferably fresh

1 cup of flavorful broth, vegetable, or chicken

 

Wash and chop the greens and add them to a large stock pot.  (add as much as will fit.  They cook down to nothing)  Peel and crush, not chop, the cloves of 1 head of garlic.  Add to the greens and pour the broth over.  Cover and simmer 20 min, longer for sturdier greens.  Enjoy!

 

To Pick or Not to Pick; Fried Green Tomatoes

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Everything in the garden has a season.  Most often just when we are entirely sick of one vegetable, another begins to ripen, giving us a change for a while until we are sick of that one too.  Some we never get tired of eating and they are gone all too soon, like peas and strawberries, but others come in hard and fast, in abundance, and we have to eat them, freeze them, pickle or jar them, or just give them away as fast as we can. Take green beans, for instance. We have been eating radishes, lettuces, kale and cucumbers for weeks now, and I have been watching the delicate purple flowers of the beans develop anxiously.  Haricot verts thinner than a cu-tip, lightly steamed and gobbled up with just a touch of salt are simply divine.   But in just a few days of picking I start to notice the ones I missed on the first few rounds are now the size of a pencil, and no longer bright green but dusky and even purplish.  I sweep through the bean patch, picking everything I see, and haul in about 3 gallons of beans.  Some we eat fresh. Some we pickle.  Some we freeze.  The next day….more beans.  Ugh!  But I know there is an end in sight, and I’ll be happy to use the ones I put up in soups and salads throughout the long months of winter.  Today, though, I’m sick of beans.

Not so tomatoes.  I could eat a fresh tomato every day of my life and be a happy person for it. Anyone who has had a tomato fresh out of someones garden, still warm from the afternoon sun, knows there is little resemblance to a store bought tomato.  The abundance of flavor, the fresh tangy sweetness and juicy texture;  It’s as good as a fresh peach, and each summer we wait and wait for the tomatoes to ripen.  We eat the best ones fresh with sea salt, or a bit of good balsamic vinegar glaze, and the rest, the ones marred by bugs, rot, or blemishes, go into the freezer.  We never seem to have enough to last throughout the winter, and each summer, as the beautiful fruits get larger and begin to ripen on the vine I wonder, Should I pick them yet?

The dilemma is this.  If I pick them green, they won’t get to ripen into the luscious red fruits that I love.  If I don’t pick them green, I won’t get to have fried green tomatoes.

Fried Green Tomatoes are traditionally thought to be deeply southern dish and one I had never tried until my (Italian) mother in law decided to grow a garden.  The recipe’s inclusion in cookbooks actually date back to the early 1830’s in the United States and are possibly of Jewish origin, first seen in the Midwest.  In any case they are prepared throughout the US and everyone who has tried them know they are well worth the effort.  In the end, I picked!

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FRIED GREEN TOMATOES

serves 4

4 Green hard tomatoes

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

approximately 1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs or cornmeal, seasoned with salt and pepper

Vegetable oil

Remoulade to serve

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Slice the tomatoes into 1/4 inch thick rounds, slicing off and discarding the top and bottoms (the breadcrumbs don’t stick to them) Mix the egg and milk together with a whisk.  Heat a cast iron skillet to medium heat and add about a 1/4 inch of oil.  Dip the tomatoes in the egg mixture and coat them with the breadcrumbs.  

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Fry the tomatoes in a single layer, flipping once when the breadcrumbs turn nicely brown.  Drain on paper towels and keep in a warm oven.  Serve with a remoulade of your choice.  I made mine from mayonnaise, catsup, lemon juice and tabasco. Enjoy!

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Berry Season

Summer’s heat is upon us, with temperatures climbing towards the 90’s, and with the heat comes the season of the berry. Blueberries and black raspberries are the first out of the gate in early July, changing almost overnight from pale green and rose to deep blue and black, respectively.

Wild black raspberries are one of my favorite summer treats. Of all the things I forage for in the wild, these luscious gems are a truly one of my favorites. Sweet yet tart, they are best eaten right away, or as soon as you can get them home and into a bowl of cream. They are very delicate and don’t hold up well to storage, unless you plan to freeze them. If you intend to make anything other than jam with the frozen ones, it’s best to freeze them in a single layer on a sheet. Otherwise they will end up as juice in a bag.

Picking black raspberries is no picnic, as they say, and this is one treat you have to work for. They mostly grow along hedgerows and by the sides of dirt roads, and are often laced with stinging nettle and Multi-flora rose brambles, neither of which feels good on bare skin. They like shade and the first ones to ripen are often under other plants. Plan your berry picking foray to include boots and long pants, as well as a wide brimmed hat to protect against the ever present gnats. A long sleeved shirt and some bug repellent go a long way toward making it a pleasant experience. Berries ripen over time, so if you want any quantity for jam or jelly, plan on picking every two days while they are in season.

Picking fresh blueberries is somewhat easier, especially if you have a well tended patch, as we do. I was just in the nick of time in getting mine covered against the birds this summer, as the day after I put up the netting they began to turn blue. Experience has taught me that the berries I deem to be “almost ripe” are perfectly edible to the host of birds hovering just over my shoulder waiting for me to leave. We have lost entire crops of the succulent morsels by waiting one too many days to put up the nets. The protective tent only helps so much though; almost every day I shoo out a hungry fellow that has managed to find a hole or sneak under.

Blueberries are very easy to maintain. They don’t require spraying and are not bothered by pests. They need little pruning and seem to winter well. We have not had any problems with the deer eating them. Harvest seems to depend more on the weather than any other factor and this year they are ripening early. Ours have grown slowly over time, but are abundant producers and we average about 5 gallons a year from 10 bushes. Pie, and more pie, is our first choice for stored berries, especially in the winter months. They freeze well, but I can’t tell you how long they keep because they don’t last long!

Berries are one of natures super-foods, and wild berries even more so. Packed with antioxidants, vitamins and fiber, they not only taste delicious but are really good for you. Everyone should save a spot in their garden for a blueberry bush or two, and if you don’t have a garden, try growing them in pots. It’s well worth the effort, for your taste buds as well as your health.