Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Departing Gift: An Heirloom Bean Mystery

A few weeks ago, I learned this would be my last Heart & Sole Food blog post for the Observer.  As I pondered what to write, I revisited my first post, Breaking Ground  for inspiration

Although I still can not explain why, in 2008, Richard and I broke ground to garden, as I walk through my home, I see stocked pantry shelves, loaded freezer racks and boxes and jars of dried heirloom seeds and I am thankful, not just for food, but for other gifts our small farm gives us.  Physical work that strengthens aging bodiesLessons taught by our grandparents that emerge from forgotten memory banks. Visceral connections to nature that clarify our own mortality.  An ever-changing kaleidoscope of beauty.
Spider eating bee in farm's old homeplace daffodil
Fresh air to breathe.  Life-affirming sunlight and rain.  For these things and more, we are grateful.

As I end this writing chapter, I thank each of you who contacted me via emails, texts, telephone calls and mailed notes and I appreciate the encouragement, advice and inspiration you shared.   I leave you with a mystery story . . .

Recently, my cousin, Pat Rhea, called and asked if I would like to have some heirloom seeds her mother saved more than ten years ago.  Pat delivered bean seeds and we identified White Mountain Half Runners, a productive family staple brought from Germany with our great-great-great grandmother, Polly Schmidt Bean.  As far as the second variety, Pat guessed they could be Greasy beans, so called because they have a slick pod surface.  Regardless of species, Pat's heirloom seeds are welcome additions and will connect past with present and, hopefully, the future. 
Heirloom Seed Saver Polly Schmidt Bean
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Happy Gardening!

Monday, June 20, 2016

In His Hands: Local Food, Local Chefs

After last summer's abundant pepper harvestPiquillos: The Little Beak With a Big Bite I decided to deliver Piquillos to three local chefs and ask these talented young men to offer opinions about the fruit and tips for using them.  The results were delicious. 
Chef Sam Ratchford holds Piquillo Peppers
Chef Sam Ratchford, of Vidalia Restaurant in Boone, NC, was the first chef customer for Heart & Sole Gardens and he never fails to showcase local ingredients in interesting and tasty dishes.  For some of the Piquillos, Chef Sam roasted and then stuffed them with local goat cheese and Watauga County country ham; with the remaining fruit, he pickled them in a sweet brine.
Chef Kyle McKnight's Marinated Piquillos With NC Drum
My next stop was Hickory, NC, to present peppers to Chef Kyle McKnight.  Chef Kyle actively seeks unusual local ingredients and he frequently collects seeds from fruits and vegetables and passes them along to farmers, expanding supply and serving as a seed swap source.  Chef Kyle marinated Piquillos and served them with fresh NC Drum, candy roaster squash, watermelon radish slices and greens and the sweet peppers were a perfect companion for the fish. 
NC Pepper Gochujang in Process at Heirloom Restaurant
Chef Clark Barlowe, of Heirloom Restaurant, in Charlotte, received the final pepper delivery.  After preserving some Piquillos in pickling brine and adding others to the restaurant's house pepper sauce, Chef Clark included the remainder in what may be the first Gochujang made entirely from NC peppers.  Gochujang, a slightly sweet, spicy fermented chili sauce, is a staple in many traditional Korean dishes. 
Roasted Piquillos, Stuffed with Herbed Cheese 
Back in my own kitchen, I decided to go with a simple Piquillo preparation.  Maybe not as ambitious as the dishes prepared by professional chefs, but tasty enough to satisfy this home cook's family.  Whether you try this recipe or create your own unique one, look for Piquillos at farmer's markets this summer and enjoy that smoky sweet flavor while at its peak.  

Roasted Piquillos Wrapped with Proscuitto

6 Ripe Piquillo Peppers
Broil peppers until skin chars on all sides.  Place peppers in a paper bag and close bag to allow peppers to steam and cool. Remove skin, seeds and stem ends.
Combine 2 ounces each Cream Cheese and Chevre in a glass bowl, microwave for about 15 seconds.
Stir cheeses and 1 tablespoon freshly snipped dill, thyme leaves and fennel.
Stuff peppers with cheese mixture.
Use kitchen shears to cut 1-2 slices Proscuitto into 1/2 inch strips.
Wrap Proscuitto around peppers, crossing strip.
Lightly brush each pepper with olive oil.
Bake on a lined baking sheet in a preheated, 375 degree oven for about 5-8 minutes or until Proscuitto is lightly browned. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

A 'New' Heirloom Tomato?

My first memory of heirloom tomatoes is helping my maternal grandmother harvest her crop.  Granny plucked fruit from her vines and taught me to carefully place colorful orbs in large baskets.  We carried baskets down the path from her garden to the backyard where she lifted them to an outdoor concrete table.  As Granny filled a huge galvanized tub with water from the faucet and carried it to the table, I climbed to stand on a bench so I could help drop tomatoes in cold well water.  Together, we worked, our hands touching underwater, to gently remove dirt. Clean fruit dried on newspaper before Granny took them to the kitchen.  Back then, we did not call these garden staples "heirlooms;" they were just tomatoes.  

Some of 2015's Heirloom Tomato Harvest

When Granny's heirloom bean, sunflower, pea, squash and cucumber seeds, saved for over twenty years, flourished in my garden, it was like having a bit of that special woman return.  Although grateful for each inherited heirloom seed, I miss Granny's tomatoes, but, with help from fellow seed savers and online sources, familiar colors and shapes produce abundantly at Heart & Sole Gardens. 
Ripe Chocolate Stripes Tomato

Perhaps I go a bit overboard when ordering tomato seeds, but glossy catalog photos and descriptions are just too tempting.  Along with old favorites like Cherokee Purple, Yellow Pear and German Pink, more exotic species like A. Grappoli D'Iverno and Ciskos Botermo sometimes grow in my tomato garden.
Tomato Seedling
Each summer, I save seeds from the most perfect fruit specimens to grow for the following year.  After growing over one hundred tomato varieties, I started to notice strange things happening.  A few years ago, from the seedling tray I labeled "Sungold," rather than tiny yellow cherry tomatoes I expected, plants produced bright red salad tomatoes.  At first, I attributed differences to mistakes I made, incorrect labeling, mixing saved seeds, etc., but then, I began to suspect another reason for garden surprises.  Both heirloom and hybrid tomato plants are self-pollinating, meaning blossoms contain both male and female components and do not require pollinators or wind to carry pollen from stamen to ovary.  However, if tomatoes are not separated by at least ten feet, it is possible for them to cross pollinate, resulting in seed that will produce fruit the following year that is not true to type.
The Seed Packet Was Labeled "Blue Beauty"
 Apparently, I am not alone when I inadvertently save cross pollinated seeds; several seed packets purchased from reputable sources also produce surprise plants.  Perhaps, due to increased customer demand for heirloom seeds, growers rush to fill orders and fail to test seeds for purity?  

A few years ago, I harvested a tomato unlike any fruit I intentionally planted; if it produces the same fruit this year, it is one worth preserving as pure seed.  With dark green skin, deep rosy purple flesh, creamy interior stripes and rich flavor, this large slicing tomato produced abundantly throughout last season.  Most likely, it is a cross between Chocolate Stripes, Green Velvet and perhaps, Cherokee Purple.  I shared seeds and seedlings with several other gardeners this spring, in hopes we can "trial" the plant.
A Delicious Tomato Surprise
Most plant specialists define heirloom seeds as those that produce consistently for many generations.  If this new tomato remains stable and seed savers are careful to maintain pure seed, perhaps one day the Heart & Sole Tomato may be a true heirloom.  For now, I anxiously await the first ripe fruit and hope its flavor in a tomato sandwich will live up to last year's taste memory.  Meanwhile, last summer's canned tomatoes are finding their way into many family meals as we clear pantry shelves to make space for what will, hopefully, be a bountiful harvest.
From Left: Mini Orange, San Marzano, Cream Sausage & Cherokee Purple
Fingers crossed!

After using canned tomatoes for soup, stew, salsa, casserole, etc., I decided to try something different.  This cheesecake is savory and would be a great appetizer for a summer party.  Be sure to drain the tomatoes well before adding to the batter.

Heirloom Tomato Cheesecake
For the crust:
1/3 cup each: pine nuts, pecans, slivered almonds, lightly toasted
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Pulse nuts in a food processor about 5-6 times.
In a quart-size plastic zip lock bag, combine nuts and butter, shaking to completely coat nuts with butter.
Spray bottom and sides of 6 inch springform pan with vegetable spray.
Empty bag of nuts/butter into pan and turn bag inside out to press nut mixture into bottom and slightly up sides of pan.
The Bag's Buttery Inside Makes for Easy Crust Pressing

Bake crust for 5 minutes in a preheated, 325 degree oven.
For the filling:
Using a stand mixer, beat 3 8-oz packages of cream cheese, softened, with 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp dried basil until fluffy.
Add 4 room-temperature eggs, one at a time and continue to beat until mixture is smooth.
Add 2 cups canned paste tomatoes, drained, and blend well.
Stir in 2 tblsp all-purpose flour until combined.
*For test purposes, I used a cup each: San Marzano (red) and Cream Sausage (white) paste tomatoes.

Pour batter into prepared spring form pan.
Bake cheesecake in preheated, 325 degree oven, for about 1 hour and ten minutes, or until the cake feels set, but still moves to the touch.
Cheesecake Puffs After Baking, Settles as it Cools

Allow to cool on wire rack for about an hour and refrigerate overnight.
Tomato Cheesecake 

To serve, top cheesecake with pepper jelly or pesto and, for a pretty presentation, place on a pedestal serving plate and surround the cake with fresh herbs and edible blossoms.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Go, Vols!

We opened the last jar this week.  An experiment from last summer, squash pickles proved to be a family favorite and pantry shelf space is already dedicated to what, fingers crossed, will be another bumper crop.  Crisper than cucumbers, these squash pickles are tart and addictive.

Include Fresh Herbs & Peppers in Squash Pickles
After tilling farm fields, squash seedlings emerged, thousands of them, and even though we thinned hundreds, with good growing weather, we will harvest more than we can possibly use.  Since these "volunteers" chose their own spot, we added rich composted manure to surrounding soil to add nutrients. 
Early May, 2016, Squash Seedlings
If Squash Season, 2015, is any indication, this summer's fruit may look different from what most gardeners grow, due to cross-pollination of numerous species.  For more about squash reproduction, see earlier blog: The Sexy Garden
A Few Specimens From 2015
A recent trip to Knoxville included dining at Blackberry Farm, a culinary mecca that deserves every accolade heaped upon its beautiful shoulders.  Blackberry grows many of the restaurant's food ingredients in surrounding gardens and even though most Tennessee fans would claim the menu's first course as a tribute to UT's Volunteers, it also acknowledged an heirloom garden's volunteer plants, ultimate "free food."
Reseeding Heirloom Plants Made a Delicious Salad
If your summer garden includes a bountiful squash harvest, plan to make these pickles.  Pickling solution may be made and stored in the refrigerator until squash are ready to pick.  For those who do not grow heirloom squash, make a friend who does.  These productive plants require daily harvest and usually overwhelm gardeners.  With all those seedlings in the field, I am making a list of friends, family, acquaintances and strangers.  Is you name in the phone book?

Squash Pickles

For the pickling solution, in a large pot, heat 2 cups white vinegar, 1 3/4 cups water and 4 tablespoons kosher salt.  (For best results, do not use iodized.)  Stir until salt dissolves and cool to room temperature before storing in the refrigerator.  This is a great solution for any pickle and I make it by the gallon.  

Remove ends and slice tender young squash lengthwise, into spear shapes.  Pack tightly into pint or quart jars and add fresh herbs, a garlic clove and brightly colored peppers, sliced in half.  For herbs, I add dill, oregano, thyme and basil.  Jalapeno, Serrano or Fish peppers are good choices for heat, while Jimmy Nardello (in above photo) is an excellent sweet pepper.  
Heat pickling solution to boiling and pour over packed squash, leaving 1/4 inch head space.  Process 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Honeybees and Their Keepers

Last year, while working at the farm, Richard and I witnessed one of Nature's most spectacular phenomena: a bee swarm.  Honeybee colonies are ruled by a single queen, but sometimes, a new queen hatches while the old queen still rules, so the colony divides itself and half the worker bees and one queen leave their home in search of new digs. 

Honeybees are Important Pollinators
Usually, the departing group, or swarm, will settle nearby, often in a tree or shrub, until suitable housing is found.  Last year's farm swarm was unusual because the bees left one hive to settle next door in a vacant box.  From start to finish, the entire fascinating process took about an hour and I filmed most of the action.  View the video here: Honeybee Swarm
While transplanting tomato and pepper plants to the farm last week, another large honeybee colony swarmed and settled into convenient housing next door, but due to the busyness of transplanting, we missed the show.  By the time I observed occupants in the hive box, empty that morning, the residents were working diligently to clean and tidy the new home.
Honeybee Swarm Captured by Richard
As beekeepers, Richard and I owe gratitude to others who teach us how to care for these fascinating creatures.  Tate Poarch, Willard, Howard and Richard Greene, Bruce Hamby, Scott Barlow, Pete Penley and others often share knowledge, time and resources with us.  Recently, a new generation of beekeepers is emerging and we rejoice to see young people include honeybees as part of the family.  Our son, Clark Barlowe, chef owner of Heirloom Restaurant, currently hosts ten rooftop honeybee colonies and the bees share honey with restaurant guests.  Bob Peters, master mixologist at The Ritz Carlton's bar, The Punch Room, also helps manage the hotel's rooftop hives and often includes honey in his unique and innovative concoctions. 
Clark Barlowe & Bob Peters With Honey Harvest (Photo: Peter Taylor)
Recently, Willard Greene shared three honeybee colonies with Drew Parrish, a young man who, along with his wife, plans to grow organic fruits and vegetables near Winston-Salem.  Eager to learn and excited to incorporate honeybees in his family's venture, Drew represents a growing population of young beekeepers who appreciate the balance of Nature and Human. 
Beekeeper Drew Parrish With Honeybee Hives
As we approach National Pollinator Week, June 20-26, plan to celebrate by becoming a beekeeper, befriending a beekeeper or just purchasing some of the magic elixir shared by honeybees.

Fresh Strawberry Bruschetta With Honey Drizzle
Fresh Strawberry Bruschetta With Honey Drizzle
Take advantage of strawberry and arugula seasons with this treat.  For best flavor, be sure to use local honey.

For each serving:
Simmer 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (I used strawberry infused) in a small pot until slightly reduced, about 4 minutes.  While balsamic is warm, add 1/2 cup chopped baby arugula leaves and about a tablespoon toasted pine nuts and stir to combine.
Heat 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil in a skillet, add 1 slice sourdough bread, brown both sides and drain on paper towel.
While bread is warm, spread a generous smear of fresh chevre (goat cheese) over one side. Top with the balsamic/arugula mixture and add fresh sliced strawberries.  Drizzle about a teaspoon of local honey over.  

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Do Ladybugs Like Their Eggs Scrambled?

Childhood memories often emerge when I work in the garden.  Although I did not realize it at the time, as I helped my grandmother pull weeds, squash bugs, trellis vines and harvest fruits and vegetables, I learned valuable life lessons.  Last week, while protecting potato plants from Colorado Potato Beetles, defoliating machines, I discovered an army of small insects aiding my efforts and I recalled a nursery rhyme Granny taught me.
Lady Beetles Feast on Aphids & Potato Beetle Eggs

Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home,
Your House is on Fire, Your Children Are Gone!
As many nursery rhymes do, this one seems a bit scary for children, but examining its origins reveals the message was intended to protect this helpful insect.  
Colorado Potato Beetles Decimate Plant Leaves

First recorded in 18th century England, the original rhyme's main character was "Ladybird," rather than Ladybug and many sources refer to both religious and political basis, but my favorite historical reference is one that includes farmers.  In order to control pests and weeds, farmers burned fields and, appreciative of helpful lady beetles, as they lit fires, they would chant the nursery rhyme.  Although I found no reliable source to support my theory, perhaps parents taught children this rhyme to prevent them from squashing "good" bugs?
Lady Beetle on Potato Leaf Damaged by Potato Beetle
Unchecked, potato beetles lay eggs on the underside of leaves and hatch countless larvae that riddle entire plants within a few days. 
Colorado Potato Beetle Eggs
Fortunately, the Lady Beetle, with its distinctive red and black coloring, is a big fan of those tiny yellow orbs.  Noticing the abundance of lady beetles in this year's potato rows, I was intrigued by their work and their varied number of spots.  More research gave me a deeper appreciation for these tiny unpaid farm workers.
Asian Lady Beetle
When native lady beetle numbers declined in the 1980s, the US Government imported aggressive species, including the Asian ladybug from Japan.  Like the invasive kudzu plant, this species populated rapidly and, unlike native lady beetles, Asian ladybugs prefer to overwinter in human homes, making them unpopular with many homeowners, who are sometimes allergic to the insects' secretions, which also stain ceilings and walls.  
Native Lady Beetles Overwinter in Trees

In an attempt to enlist protective help for native species from US citizens, Cornell University entomologist, John Losey, created the Lost Ladybug Project
Losey's site encourages people to photograph lady beetles and send the images to the project.  As of May 5, 2016, over thirty-five thousand lady beetle images have been submitted and the site includes an identification guide for various species, some of which are considered endangered and very rare.  
Squashing Potato Beetle Eggs: Do Lady Beetles Eat Them Scrambled?

With beautiful weather forecast for the weekend, head to the nearest organic garden or your own backyard to observe lady beetles.  Capture photographs and compare the species you discover to an identification guide.  Perhaps you will be fortunate and observe a rare nine-spotted ladybug or the two-spotted native.  Regardless of the species you see, pause to be grateful for these farmer-friendly insects and the work they do to control pests.  

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Spring Into Asparagus

The first warm Spring days always deliver the same concerning thought: What if there is no asparagus this year?  Now that we are into the third week of harvest, that fear is replaced by another thought:  How will we use all the asparagus?  Fortunately, there are plenty of friends, family and chefs who willingly share our bounty. 

For optimum flavor, eat asparagus asap after harvest 
Although supermarkets sell asparagus almost year round, these spears taste nothing like fresh, in season, local asparagus.  Since asparagus continues to age after harvest, spears toughen and become bitter, so it is desirable to eat asparagus as soon as possible after cutting.  
Fresh asparagus taste is vastly superior to supermarket produce  

By early June, asparagus season will end for North Carolina, so enjoy this delicious spring harbinger while it is available. 
Refrigerate fresh asparagus, upright in water
While trying out new preparations, I used asparagus to make slaw and salad.  Since I could not decide which I preferred, I am including both recipes.  Wild sorrel, with delicate yellow flowers and tangy flavor, makes a great edible garnish for both. 
Wild Sorrel
Asparagus Slaw
(Reserve tender asparagus spear tips for another use)
2 cups finely chopped asparagus spears
2 medium radishes, minced
1 small scallion, white and green tips minced
1/2 cup grated carrot 
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Splash of vinegar (Test purposes, ramp infused vinegar)
1-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients, refrigerate for at least three hours before serving.

Asparagus slaw and salad with wild sorrel garnish
Asparagus Salad
2 cups fresh asparagus spears, finely chopped
2 medium radishes, minced
1 small scallion, white and green tips, minced
2 hard boiled eggs, diced
1/2 cup grated carrot
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons Duke's mayo (add more if needed, to taste)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients, refrigerate for at least three hours before serving.