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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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!

 

 

 

The Season of Bounty

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It’s that time of the year when a quick evening browse around the garden with a cocktail yields a colorful basket of produce.  For a little while this early summer, I could get away with gathering into my upturned shirt, but with the warmer days and rainy afternoons, the harvest has begun in earnest, and I try to remember to bring out a basket along with my drink.  Garlic and green onions, early tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries, carrots, early beets, peas and peppers are all coming in by the handful.  I always try to balance my desire for fresh produce with the realization that if I leave it a while longer, it will grow bigger, but there is nothing like the taste of sweet baby carrots and tender beets steamed with a bat of butter on a steamy summer evening.  My favorite dish of the early summer is, of course, a simple salad of fresh newly picked veggies.  The thinly sliced Peruvian white habanero adds a super kick to this tasty dinner.Image

I am surprised to see the blueberries ripen so early this year, as I usually think of late July as blueberry season, but I predicted this to be the year of the berry, and it seems I have called it right.  Even the tangy and delectable wild black raspberries in the hedgerow are beginning to ripen early, and I got a sticky purple handful this morning for my trouble.  Unfortunately, as they grown amongst the nettles, I also got a prickly wrist.

On another note, for those of you who read “the Doctor is in”  I’m happy to report that my pepper plants are all thriving.  Many of them lost all their dark green foliage to the cold snap we had in May, but the smaller, lighter green leaves are beginning to thicken out the plants, and on many there are the first blooms.  Some did better than others and are already fruiting, hence the spicy salad, but most peppers like the heat, and will produce best from late July into early September.  During this pepper heyday, you will find me in the kitchen, gloves on, chopping peppers for hot sauces and salsas as fast as I can.

The Doctor is in!

This morning I went out to look at my garden, as is my custom most mornings after the bus has come and gone and I have a chance to finish my coffee.  Everything looked in order from afar, but as I honed in for a closer inspection, trying to sneak up on those pesky tomato suckers, I noticed my plants looked in somewhat ill health.  Not exactly sick, but queasy.  Now, I knew I took a risk by planting them in the dirt before Mothers Day, but the forecast looked good for an early planting, and I had been fastidious about hardening them off.  We did get a cold snap last week, but not a frost in our area, and they had looked fine the morning after.  The leaves were sort of yellowish, curling at the edges, with some brown spots on them.   What could it be?  Blight?  Bugs? Too much water? Not enough?  As I fondled each plant in turn, murmuring over them and worrying like the mother of a sick child (I have, after all, nurtured these babies since January!), It occurred to me that I might need some help.

I knew just where to get it, too.  I hurriedly plucked the worst looking of the leaves off pepper and tomato, hopped in my truck and beat feet (My dad’s expression) to the local greenhouse to talk with my good friend who runs the garden center.  She has been a resource for me over years, and one I have come to value and respect.  I knew together we could figure out what ailed my lovelies.  After a trot around the greenhouse with my fistfull of wilted leaves looking for my friend, who turned out not to be working that day, I decided to take a chance and ask someone else.  I found another woman and after a quick inspection she informed me that my plants weren’t that sick at all, but had a case of chill stemming from wet feet.  We had a chat, and she suggested in the nicest of ways that perhaps I had mulched too deeply, or perhaps too close to the stems.  The previous cold, combined with a wet wind and lots of rain has weakened the plants because the roots couldn’t breath.  She prescribed a treatment of kelp and seaweed mulch lightly applied to the area around the roots, and the mulch pulled back 6 inches.  It turns out everyone at that greenhouse knows stuff!  I rushed home to apply her advice.  Below is the result.  I’ll let you know in a week if my darling peppers and lovely tomatoes have recovered their former vigor.  ImageImage

Garden Planning

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If you live in the North East, it’s that time of year to begin planning out your garden.  Unless, like me, you have been planning since December.   That is when the John Scheeper’s and Burpee’s catalogues start to arrive in the post.  This is not to say that I have a plan.  I don’t   It’s just a plan in process.  The plan won’t actually be finished until about November, when I pull everything up.  Then I get a month of respite before I start my seeds for next year.

How you plan your garden says volumes about who you are as a person.  Here is an example.  I started 12 kinds of peppers in my bathtub this January.  I carefully marked each container so I could tell the difference between the Aji Jamaica and the Aji Major after they came up.  I watered them and kept the lights on them religiously, never really noticing that my painstakingly crafted markers were disintegrating in the constant moisture.   Truthfully, I kind of knew what was happening, but forgot to do anything about it as soon as I left the bathroom.  Some might say that that’s just lazy, and they’d be partly right, but the fact is I secretly don’t care that I can’t identify them anymore.  Now it’s a big mystery what might evolve from my luscious leafy pepper bushes, and I’m delighted to watch it unfold as the peppers bloom and grow.  That’s just who I am.  I try to be orderly, but the mystery and randomness of life pleases me too much to try very hard.  I would tell you that a garden is a microcosm of the larger world, and in that I’d be right.  I would tell you that the mystery and randomness one finds while gardening is how the world operates, but as it turns out, that’s just true for me.

Here is how I know.  Some years ago I helped some very wonderful people to start their vegetable garden.  They had bought a house with an existing garden that still held the remnants of summer, and they were inspired to plant again the following year.  The challenge was that the garden was hideously overgrown and they had never gardened vegetables before.  It was an interesting exercise for me in more ways than one.  I took it on as a personal challenge and began to plan…my way.   What I found over time was that my way was not necessarily their way, and in the end I admiringly backed out of having much of a hand in their garden.  My way leaves much to the whims of nature and admits that nothing is truly within my control.  For them, it was just a bit unstructured and random.  They wanted a more orderly and precise garden.  Well planned, I should say.  They chose vegetable types and locations in advance of whimsy and availability.  They chose to plant in marked rows that had been laid out in advance.  It was all slightly shocking to me.  In the end I admit that I learned quite a bit from their gardening practices, and continue to consider myself divinely fortunate to know them. 

Some people crave order.  Some people thrive on chaos.  I may be little of both.  I tell myself it is the sign of a flexible mind.  Which kind are you?