Friday, December 19, 2014

What's Garden Trendy for 2015? I'll Take a Guess. . .

This is the time of year when we read and hear a lot about what is going to shape our lives for the coming year.  What color should we paint the living room?  According to which paint seller you believe, it is either a shade of coral or green.  Technology buffs tell us drones will be THE techie gadget to have and fashionistas are touting a 1970s influence on women's spring wardrobes.  Just when I thought I might not live long enough to endure the return of fringed jackets and earth-tone pantsuits . . .

Although I do not claim to be an expert garden forecaster, I do think there are a few heirloom plants that may prove to be trendy among North Carolina farmers.  You don't think foods can be trendy?  Perhaps you are not old enough to remember all those tasteless no-fat cookies that lined supermarket shelves in the 1980s and frozen TV dinners that made us 1960s kids feel like we were dining with the Jetsons?  While my crystal ball may be a bit cloudy, I offer the following list of heirloom plants I think will be popular additions to this year's backyard gardens and large produce farms. 

1.  Pink Okra
 In recent years, okra has been a darling of fine dining menus.  I'm not sure why we Southerners always sliced, battered and fried this versatile vegetable, but it is delicious grilled, stuffed and baked or eaten raw, fresh in the field, which I just tried this summer, and loved.  Pink Okra is perfect for those who do not like the "slime" associated with most varieties and although this plant is more hibiscus than true okra, it produces an edible pod with mild okra flavor and beautiful, deep pink blossoms that are delicious.  Shelf life for the flowers is very short, so pluck them from these compact plants and add them to salads for a wow factor.  Seed source:  www.rareseeds.com

Pink Okra is beautiful in both flower and vegetable gardens

2.  Christmas Beans
For bean lovers, this one is a special treat.  Large, creamy white lima-type beans and deep red striping make Christmas beans a beautiful dish and the pot liquor (cooked bean broth) they produce is rich and meaty.  Boasting chestnut flavor, these beans are great to lightly cook, chop and add to stuffings.   I received seeds from a Western NC man whose family heirlooms include Christmas beans, but they may be purchased at www.purcellmountainfarms.com.  Warning:  Christmas beans need a long growing season and lots of trellis to climb.  
Cooked in water, Christmas Beans make a hearty broth

3.  Peppers (Sweet & Hot)
North Carolina is an ideal growing climate for a variety of heirloom peppers and with a burgeoning regional palate that appreciates spicy foods, (think Thai, Indian and Vietnamese dishes) fresh peppers are in demand.  On the hot side, red and yellow Thai peppers, Lemon Drops and Omnicolor are some of my favorites.  Piquillo and Anaheim are two varieties that pack a flavorful punch, especially when roasted, without scalding the tongue.  Prolific producers, a single pepper plant will satisfy the needs of most backyard gardeners and most plants require little growing space.  Seed sources:  www.chilepepperinstitute.org or www.rareseeds.com  or www.sowtrueseed.com

4.  Interesting Eggplants
To produce a variety of interesting flavors and intriguing colors and shapes, it is hard to beat growing eggplants.   Resolve to include some new additions to your garden plan and prepare to wonder why you always grew only large purple eggplants.  One of my favorites is Aubergine Burkina du Faso, a compact fruit that is the perfect individual serving size, although the plants grow taller than most eggplants.  Be sure to take every measure to protect seedlings since every pest loves an eggplant.  Seed source:  www.rareseeds.com

Aubergie Burkina du Faso eggplants range in color from yellow to red
5.  Cream Sausage Tomatoes
Cream Sausage tomatoes are my absolute favorite canning tomato.  Creamy white, the fruit is shaped like a Roma and is a bit mealy and dry when fresh, but cooking these tomatoes releases intense flavor.  Perfect in soups, stews, pies, and salsas, Cream Sausage plants are compact and seldom require more than a small stake to keep them upright.  Caution: Cream Sausage plants appear to wilt and their leaves sometimes have a dusty appearance, but after observing them for several years, I now accept their puny appearance as part of their appeal and the abundant fruit they produce makes up for the plants' drab style.  www.rareseeds.com
A determinate tomato variety, Cream Sausage produces abundant fruit

As with all heirloom plants, select the best fruit or vegetable specimens to save for seed.  After an initial purchase or gift from a gardening friend, heirloom seeds may be saved and planted every year of your gardening life.  And, unlike those 1970s fashions, these trendy foods will be welcome guests at your dinner table. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Farm is the Main Thing

Recently, I sat in a hospital waiting room while a family member was in surgery.  Surrounded by others who were equally anxious and hopeful for their own loved ones, I attempted to lose myself in the latest copy of Edible Charlotte.  One of my favorite publications, Edible never fails to deliver intriguing recipes, offer new planting ideas and showcase the best of Charlotte's food scene.

While reading, I overheard the man sitting next to me mention the word "farm."  I kept my eyes on the page, but shamelessly eavesdropped on the conversation between the man and the older woman to his left.  His words made me reflect on the growing emphasis on locally produced food, while inwardly I chuckled at his idealistic vision of the lives of restaurant owners and farmers.  Not that I doubt this man may someday live his dream, but as he talked, I remembered the heartbreak of crops I lost to drought, flood, freeze and blistering heat.  I recalled many chats with farm-to-table chefs and how these talented men and women struggle to maintain that delicate balance of stocking adequate fresh food ingredients for customers who may drop in unannounced, while attempting to provide an enticing menu for those who reserved tables in advance. 

Perhaps it is our hurried, busy lives that make us long for simplicity, a connection to the Earth and a renewed appreciation for the source of our food.  Maybe this man has a need in his life and he believes working with the land will fill that void.  I hope he overcomes the challenges ahead and I hope he realizes his dream.  Maybe someday, I will stumble across a restaurant, surrounded by a pastoral farm, that serves Saturday dinner only and the man's dream will echo in my memory.  I hope he lives his dream and I hope customers will come . . .

Hospital Waiting Room Soliloquy

I really want to farm.  When I retire, I hope to go where God leads me and have a farm.  I will work about 35 hours per week at my regular job and the rest of the time, I will work at the farm.  Gradually, I will only work at the farm.  I will plant vegetables and fruits.  One day, I will have cows and maybe pigs.  And chickens.  After I build the farm, I will open a restaurant.  I will serve food I grow.  Maybe I will do lunch or breakfast sometimes, but I will only open on Saturdays for dinner.  I will only serve two meal choices.  I don't want the restaurant to be too much; I will only do Saturday dinners and people will come from all around to eat.  The restaurant will not take much of my time.  The farm is the main thing.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Pumpkin is Personal

Pardon me while I jump on that out-of-control speeding autumn locomotive.  Yes, you know the one.  The Pumpkin Train.  There is no escaping the winter squash pandemonium, but my relationship with pumpkin goes way beyond cupcakes, candles, coffee, shampoo and body fragrance.  For me, pumpkin is not just business; it's personal.

Days before her death, Maw poses with great-grandson Clark in her pumpkin patch

I still miss those early fall telephone calls from my grandmother that heralded her pumpkin harvest.  Troops (I,cousin, Gwin Laws, aunt, Wanda Suddreth, and the four great-grandchildren: Zak, Clark, Mason and Kate) assembled at her Happy Valley home and followed Maw's instructions.  The two oldest kids rolled a wheelbarrow to the garden while Maw wielded her sharp knife to cut assorted pumpkins from their withered vines.  Gwin, Wanda and I provided muscle to move the largest squash to the wheelbarrow while the children gathered as many as they could carry. 
4-year-old Kate struggles with a large pumpkin

When the wheelbarrow groaned with a heavy load, Maw paused to pose for photos with the children before the group headed to her home to unload squash and dive into Aunt Wanda's Halloween treats. Buzzing with sugar highs and fresh fall air, each child chose a pumpkin for his/her own and happily planned carving a jack o'lantern face on the pale orange orb.
Maw Hamby with her pumpkin gatherers
Maw's Pumpkin Gatherings were an annual family event and her death, in 1994, just a few weeks before her last crop was ready for harvest, left a void in our family.  Thankfully, I inherited some of Maw's pumpkin seeds and the fruits of those seeds continue to replenish my stockpile of seeds, safely stored in a freezer.  Well, except for this year . . .

1994: The last gathering. Mason holds his baby sister, Hannah, born weeks after Maw's death
This summer, my nephew, Ben Hamby, helped plant some of Maw's pumpkin seeds at Heart & Sole.  Although she died years before his birth, Ben is familiar with stories of the Happy Valley Pumpkin Gatherings and he looked forward to harvesting his own squash in early fall.  Despite our best efforts to protect the pumpkin crop, both groundhogs and deer attacked seedlings.  Just before frost, when it was too late for the pumpkins to mature, the struggling plants finally produced several soccer ball sized fruit, but it was too late to harvest ripe pumpkins and save seeds.  It's a good thing I still have a stash of Maw's seeds in my freezer and Ben and I look forward to planting again next summer.  

Maw's pumpkins made great jack o' lanterns


At our family's Thanksgiving table, we are grateful for all those who helped shape us into the people we are and our traditional meal always includes dishes that honor special people who are no longer with us.  Our celebratory meal would be incomplete without Aunt Nancy's Vidalia onion pie, Granny's oyster dressing and Maw's pumpkin pie.  With fresh pumpkin in its chess-like filling, this recipe is decadent and as the pie bakes, its aromatic fragrance perfumes the kitchen.  Serve alone or with vanilla ice cream or sweetened whipped cream.  Enjoy and be grateful.  Very grateful. . .

Maw's (Ethel Bolick Hamby) Pumpkin Pie
 Yield:  2 pies (9 inch pie plates)
2 eggs
2 cups fresh pumpkin, cooked and pureed
3 1/4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 3/4 cups milk

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl, stirring to combine.  Pour into two prepared, unbaked pie shells and bake in a preheated 425 degree oven for 15 minutes.  Lower heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 45 minutes or until center of pies are set.  

Monday, November 17, 2014

Fall for Greens

My maternal grandmother often said, "Eat greens in the fall and you will not be sick in the winter."  Although there may be no scientific evidence to support her statement, I believe, as Granny did, that fresh autumn greens give a strong boost to a body's immune system.  As I gather kale, red and green mustard and turnip greens, I can almost smell that singular cooking aroma that filled Granny's kitchen on cool fall afternoons.

In memory, the dish is crystal clear.  Dark leafy greens with rich broth lapping at the bowl's edge.  Cider vinegar, tart and tingly, stands in a glass cruet, its fragrance biting the nose a bit.  Granny slices cornbread, hot from the oven, still in the cast iron skillet.  She places a steaming piece on top of the greens and we bless the food.  A simple meal, what some might call peasant food, but utterly delicious and satisfying.  Perhaps Granny's fall greens did not prevent winter illness, but they certainly boosted fall spirits. 

Two varieties of Bok Choy

After battling pests and weeds during the heat of summer, fall crops are satisfying to grow.  Rows of kale, mustard, lettuce, bok choy and arugula compete with few weeds and it is easy to harvest baskets in a matter of minutes.  In several areas of the farm, black radishes, kale and mustard grow abundantly, even though I did not plant them this fall.  Heirloom plants reseed from earlier seasons and I regard those as "free food."  Last week, I picked kale from a spot where I planted four years ago.  Since that first crop, kale grows each spring and fall.  Talk about permaculture!

Kale reseeds and provides free food

In addition to numerous nutritional health benefits, leafy greens are versatile and delicious.  Add a handful of fresh arugula to hot pasta, toss the mixture in a large skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil, scramble an egg to bind the pasta and greens, season with a pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper, grate or shred a bit of Parmesan cheese over the pasta and enjoy a delicious meal that is  quick and easy to prepare.  Brush kale leaves with vinaigrette and bake them in a 400 degree oven until they crisp.  Lightly sprinkle coarse kosher salt over the chips and enjoy a healthy snack.  Remove bok choy leaves and fill the tender white stems with pimento cheese or peanut butter for a tempting appetizer. 
Mustard thrives beside spent summer squash

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Parsnips = Time and Space

Ever wonder why local autumn farmer's market vendors do not offer parsnips in the same abundant numbers as summer heirloom tomatoes?  After all, these root vegetables are as much poster children for their season as those juicy, colorful orbs are for summer.  I think I have the answer to the question as to why parsnips can be in short supply:  they require time and space.

To produce a successful parsnip crop, try this basic recipe:

1.  Purchase heirloom seeds.  Parsnips can have a low germination rate, so purchase extra.

2.  In early spring, prepare the soil.  Parsnips are root vegetables, so be sure the soil is deeply worked, about two feet.  For best results, use a tractor hiller attachment to raise the row where you plan to plant parsnips, otherwise, use a rake or hoe to make a raised row.

3.  After the danger of frost has passed, place seeds atop the row and cover with about one-half inch of soil.

4.  When parsnips begin to grow, thin the plants to allow space for roots to grow, about three inches apart.

5.  Diligently weed the parsnip row as often as possible, taking care to not damage the tender seedlings.  Apply a layer of mulch to help control weeds.

Late spring Parsnip row, weeded in foreground

6.  Keep weeding throughout summer and early fall.

7.  After a few frosts, begin to harvest parsnips.  A shovel is helpful to dig the roots, since they can be quite long  Some mature parsnips may be more than ten inches in length.

8.  Throughout winter, harvest parsnips.  Hardy plants, the roots store well in the ground, unless the winter is exceptionally harsh.  Cold weather makes the roots sweeter.

For some gardeners, growing parsnips is too labor intensive to justify the  time and real estate necessary to produce a successful crop; however, for those who crave that unique sweet flavor, sort of carrot, but not really, these long season tubers are worth the effort.  When I look at my parsnip row, frilly leaves standing tall, I anticipate the harvest and look forward to enjoying these root veggies in soups, roasted or boiled and mashed.  For a pure taste of the autumn season, fresh parsnips are the ultimate flavor.
Parsnip/Carrot soup: recipe at www.seedtales.com

Not only are parsnips delicious, they can sometimes be surprising.  Several years ago, I harvested my first parsnip crop.  It was mid-winter and the soil was cold and hard.  I used my foot to push the shovel deep into soil surrounding parsnip leaves.  When I tried to pull the vegetable from the ground, it seemed to be stuck.  After removing several spadefuls of dirt from the area, I finally worked the prize free.  When I saw what I held in my hand, I had to laugh aloud.  Who says farm work is without humor?
Passionate Parsnips


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Piquillos: The Little Beak with Big Bite

I first tasted roasted Piquillo peppers at Chef Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc restaurant, in the Napa Valley.  Not only were the peppers beautifully presented, filled with a slow-roasted beef short rib stuffing and served over pearled cous cous in a cast iron skillet, they were incredibly delicious.  Sweet and spicy.  I wanted to eat them every day.  Unfortunately, back home in North Carolina, no local supermarket sold them and online shopping was not what it is today.  I tried to recreate the dish I loved, using other canned, roasted peppers as a substitute, but the flavor did not compare to those little red peppers.

A few years ago, I decided to plant Piquillo peppers at Heart & Sole Gardens.  Cultivated primarily in Northern Spain, Piquillos are thick-fleshed sweet peppers that sport a pointed tip end, hence, the Spanish name, which translates to "little beak."  After ordering seeds from the New Mexico Chile Pepper Institute, I looked forward to growing and harvesting Piquillos in North Carolina, but as with many heirloom crops that are not adapted to particular geographic regions, my first pepper yield was disappointing.  This year, after years of saving seeds from the best specimens, Piquillos seem to like our western NC climate and, finally, I have enough peppers to make the dish I love and preserve some for later use.

Before adapting to NC climate, Piquillo peppers frequently rotted before ripening

When perfectly ripe, Piquillo peppers are easy to roast and peel.  With a sharp knife, slice the stem end from each pepper and use your fingers to remove the seeds.  Place peppers on a baking sheet, lined with foil.  With the oven rack set to the highest position, broil peppers, turning often, until they are charred on all sides.  Immediately, remove from the oven and place peppers in a brown paper bag and fold the top of the bag to close.  Allow peppers to cool and then slip the charred skin from the pepper's flesh.  Use immediately or freeze roasted Piquillos. 

Dry pepper seeds to save for future planting

Perhaps there are other NC farmers who grow Piquillos, but I have yet to see them at a local farmer's market.  With a rich flavor that trumps other stuffing peppers, I predict that fresh Piquillos will prove to be popular with consumers.  Until they become available, try growing your own plant next summer, in your garden or a container.  For now, experiment with supermarket canned Piquillos, but look forward to enjoying fresh ones in the future. 
Stuffed Piquillo peppers make a pretty presentation


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Eat Each Season

Fall is in the air; can you smell it?  Summer plants are dying, decaying and adding nutrients to our soil as they pass.  There is a crispness to the breeze that makes it easier for bodies to breathe.  After frenetic summer harvests and food processes, I find autumn's slower garden pace to be relaxing.  Shelling my grandmother's peas is a task I enjoy and as they simmer, creating a rich pot liquor broth and earthy fragrance, my body craves those fruits and vegetables that are as much a part of their season as falling leaves. 


Granny's peas are as delicious as they are beautiful

We grow a large percentage of the food we eat and Richard and I find our bodies and taste buds eagerly anticipate each season's crops.  Nothing compares to the taste of a sun-warmed, perfectly ripe, heirloom tomato, until tiny sweet carrots and spicy radishes are ready to pull.  Then, there is fragrant arugula, crisp leaves that make delicious salads, pesto or sandwich components.  Combine and braise hearty kale, collards, mustard greens and turnip leaves and that cold weather dish feels like a pure dose of immune system boosting power.  Brush snow from spinach plants to uncover tender leaves that encourage nibbling as numb fingers work to pick them.  Green garlic shoots, sugar snap peas, asparagus spears and even dandelion leaves and wild onions are harbingers of their season and whet appetites for the wealth of summer's fruit and veg bounty.

Supporting local food is about more than purchasing fresh ingredients at a farmer's market, ordering from a farm-to-table menu or unpacking a box of goodies from a CSA; it's about relishing each season's unique flavors, textures and nutrients.   This fall, vow to appreciate parsnips, greens, apples, pumpkins and other autumn crops.  Listen to your body.  Go for a long walk.  Breathe deeply.  Savor each bite.  All too soon, temperatures will drop and icy winds will blow, but on some of our coldest days, rosemary will bloom and fresh spinach will nestle under snow, encouraging us to seek winter's tastes.  Eat each season. 

Southern Style Fresh Peas

My maternal grandmother called her peas "black-eyed peas," but they are a type of cowpea, also known as crowder peas, for the way they "crowd" into each pod.  This year, in addition to Granny's peas, we also grew Whippoorwill peas at Heart & Sole.  A cousin, Gene Hedrick, shared heirloom seeds with us that he reports grew in the Hedrick/Barlowe family for generations.  Both peas produced well and look almost identical.  A perfect fall dish, fresh peas are easy to prepare and delicious to eat.

Remove fresh peas from pods, rinse and drain.  Allow 3/4 cups fresh shelled peas for each serving.
In a large pot, heat about 1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil.  (Meat lovers may use bacon fat.)  Saute 1/2 cup chopped onion until translucent.  Add peas and enough water to cover.  Season with salt and pepper, to taste.  Stir and bring to a boil.  Lower heat, cover pot and allow peas to simmer until they are the texture you prefer, anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours.
Serve with hot cornbread. 
Cooked only in water, Granny's peas make a hearty pot liquor broth