Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Hallowed, Fallow Ground

Driving along the gravel, single-lane road, I glance to the right and note the manicured lawn.  Marred only by rain-deprived browned grass, the level area serves as backyard to a fine home.  As I peer closely, I see a rectangular outline of darker green grass and along that border, a stack of wire cages near a pile of compost, remnants of a once-productive, thriving backyard garden.  The gardener died, but the sweat from his brow, his tender care of plants and his eternal gardener's optimism remain, both in memory and soil he worked.  Maybe invisible to our human eyes, but that ground is special and, perhaps in the future, will again produce fruits and vegetables.  

This backyard used to be a productive garden site
I know what it is like to reclaim fallow land for farming.  In 2008, my husband and I visited his family's farm in the Gamewell community of Caldwell County and found weeds, trees, shrubs and a poorly engineered highway runoff area that dumped rainwater into a newly formed swamp.  Fallow for over forty years, this land spoke to us, whispering growth potential.  We imagined future rows of heirloom tomatoes, beans and okra where the untamed property lay.  We planned to drain the swamp and direct runoff water in the direction it needed to flow.  We strolled along the banks of an adjoining creek and saw possibilities for irrigation during droughts.  Maybe we peered through rose colored glasses, but we were ready to accept the physical challenges of organic gardening.
Clearing Brush at Heart & Sole Gardens, February, 2008
Friends and hired workers helped clear the land.  We burned brush, adding nutrients to the soil and opening areas to receive sunlight.  When my parents presented us with heirloom seeds from their freezer, saved by my grandmothers years earlier, we discovered not only was the physical work improving our bodies, but the emotional connection to food was touching our souls.  Each time we turned soil, treasures appeared.  Horse shoes.  The circular covering from a wagon wheel.  Links of rusted chain.  Tangible reminders of farmers who worked the land before our time.  Intrinsic hints about our own mortality.  Promises that time would, perhaps, allow this fertile soil to produce food long after we no longer farm.  
Pottery Shard Revealed by Tiller

In September, recalling my maternal grandmother's garden, a large expanse of property that produced abundant harvests, I decided to pay a visit, in hopes I would find a carefully tended autumn garden.  As I pulled into a street, much shorter than my childhood memory of it, there was no sign to indicate anyone lived at my grandmother's former home or at the one where I lived as a young child, but a neighbor was building a new front porch on his house.  I explained why I was there and the man offered to allow me to walk through his backyard to where the garden used to be, but when I reached the area where huge sunflowers once bloomed, I found tall trees growing among bushy shrubs and weeds so thick, it was impossible to walk through them.  Dismayed, I walked along what used to be a well maintained garden's edge until I came to the end where an apple tree used to stand, its small, tart green apples a taste memory I love.  I held hope the tree might still be living and I could take a small cutting, but there was no sign it ever existed.  As I turned to leave, I noticed a particularly tall weed and when I realized it was pokeweed, I smiled. 
Pokeweed grows in Granny's former garden
Every spring, Granny gathered young leaves from pokeweed to make a cooked salad.  I often accompanied her to help gather the leaves, but do not remember the wild plant growing near her home.  To find this familiar weed, drying in the autumn sunshine, growing where Granny's White Mountain Half Runner beans once thrived, was like receiving a wink from the past. 

As I took my leave, I paused to thank the man who allowed me to stroll across his property and a young girl appeared at his side.  Six years old, the man's daughter shyly smiled as I told her I used to live on the same street when I was her age.  I described my grandmother's garden and how I used to help pull weeds and pick vegetables and fruits.  The girl's brown eyes brightened and as I drove away, I hoped her family would plant a garden in their backyard, only feet away from where Granny's grew.  Perhaps, when spring warms the soil and frost danger is over, I will pay another visit and take some of Granny's heirloom seeds to the young girl.  I think Granny would like that.

Pokeweed Salad
*Note: Pokeweed can be toxic and this recipe should only be prepared with leaves that are very young and tender.  If cooking pokeweed for the first time, it is best to pick leaves with one who is experienced with harvesting.  Pokeweed berries are toxic, but make a beautiful dye for fabric or baskets.  This recipe is a traditional Southern Appalachian preparation. 

Wash about 1 pound fresh, tender young pokeweed leaves, cover with water and bring to a boil in a large pot.  Cook 20 minutes, then drain water and rinse pokeweed with fresh water.  Again, fill the pot with water, bring to a boil with the leaves and cook for another 20 minutes.  Drain pokeweed and again rinse with fresh water.  For a third time, add water to pokeweed and bring to a boil.  Cook for another 20 minutes, then drain water and rinse pokeweed.  Pat leaves dry or use a salad spinner to remove water.
In a large cast iron skillet, heat bacon fat until smoking hot.  Add cooked pokeweed leaves and lower heat.  Stir leaves with hot fat for a few minutes.  Add salt and pepper to taste, along with red pepper flakes or hot sauce, if you like a spicy kick.
Serve pokeweed salad with crumbled bacon and vinegar on the side.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

One Hot Pepper

I learned the meaning of the word "ornamental" when, at about three years of age, I tasted one of my grandmother's peppers.  Growing on a small bushy plant, the bright colors enticed me to pop a small fruit in my mouth where the searing heat exploded.  As she dried my tears, my grandmother explained she grew the pretty peppers for beauty, not for food.  Now that I grow peppers in my own garden, I appreciate their eye candy and respect the powerful punch of capsaicin, the spicy substance that gives peppers heat.

Omnicolor Peppers, Beautiful & HOT

I first learned of Padron peppers several years ago while flipping through the pages of a travel magazine.  A beautiful photograph of a platter of roasted peppers, deep green and liberally sprinkled with coarse salt, caught my eye.  I paused to read the article and what I read made me long to taste Padron peppers, pimientos de padron, named for the area of Northwest Spain where they grew.  Alas, I could find no source to buy Padron peppers or seeds to grow my own, but the travel writer's mouth-watering description became a gardener's mental note.  
Curate's Padron Peppers with Bonito Tuna 

Last fall, while visiting Asheville, my husband and I dined at Curate, a downtown Spanish tapas restaurant owned by award winning chef Katie Button.  On the menu was Padron peppers and we were powerless to resist this dish, which arrived at the table sizzling hot, topped with Bonito tuna flakes that danced in the pepper's heat, creating the effect of dinner and show on the plate.  We eagerly settled in for a game of Capsaicin Roulette.
Within the past five years or so, US growers discovered the delicious appeal of Padron peppers and they are available in markets during their early summer to late autumn seasonSome cooks substitute Japanese Shishito peppers when Padrons are not available, but I predict North Carolina will prove to be an excellent growing environment for Padrons, making them readily available for restaurants and farmer's markets.  
For Excitement in the Garden, Order Padron Seeds
Padron peppers are harvested when the fruit is small, about 1 1/2 - 2 inches in length and while most peppers are mild in flavor, about ten percent pack wicked heat.  Traditionally, Padrons are roasted or pan-blistered and served with a sprinkling of coarse salt and the only way to tell if a pepper is hot or mild is to eat it, making them interesting party food.  Although a hot Padron can feel like a blowtorch blasting one's palate, the delightful mild pepper flavor balances the tightrope walk of anticipation when enjoying Padrons.  

When shopping at farmer's markets or dining in local restaurants this summer, keep an eye out for Padron peppers.  It is ridiculously simple to prepare fresh peppers,  but be sure to serve plenty of cooling beverages alongside.  Just in case . . .

Blistered Padron Peppers

Fresh Padron peppers, washed
Olive oil, about 1 tablespoon per handful of peppers
Coarse sea salt

Heat oil in cast iron skillet until smoking hot.  Add peppers and toss.  When peppers begin to blister, remove from pan and sprinkle with salt.  


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Cool Beans

I believe in the power of heirloom seeds.  Although it may take a few growing seasons before some crops adapt to a new environment, if the gardener saves the best seed specimens for subsequent plantings, these smart plants will thrive in a variety of growing conditions, produce abundantly and develop resistance to pests.  At Heart & Sole Gardens, two bean varieties are excellent examples of how heirloom seeds acclimate to geographic areas.

Granny's Beans, Growing in 2015 from Pre-1985 Seed

For many years, my maternal grandmother, Lora Bolick Minton, grew a large vegetable garden and saved seeds from her plants.  Most of the seeds she planted were inherited from immigrant ancestors who brought them from Germany.  After my grandmother died, in 1986, my parents stored her seeds in their freezer and when I cultivated a large 2008 garden, they offered me the seeds.  I planted Granny's beans in 2009 and, even though these seeds were dormant for almost twenty-five years, the plants thrived and I harvested bushels of Mountaineer White Half Runner beans.  Despite the abundant yield, I made a terrible mistake.
Pickled Dilly Beans, A Favorite Family Treat
Because I love to grow a variety of plants and seed catalogs' colorful photographs and exotic descriptions entice me to order, my 2010 garden included several varieties of beans.  Unfortunately, I neglected to separate each type by a sufficient distance and hardworking pollinators carried pollen from blossom to blossom, resulting in seeds that, when planted in 2011, produced beans that were not true to type, but carried traits from many parents.  Although these "mutt" heirlooms were delicious, I resolved to maintain true seed for my grandmother's beans.
Good Friday Planting Restored Pure Seed Stock

Fortunately, I still had a few pre-1985 bean seeds stored in my freezer and I decided to plant them on Good Friday, a traditional planting day, for an extra measure of luck.  Though the seeds were at least thirty years old and April 3rd was early enough to flirt with killing frost danger, the seeds germinated well, produced strong vines and enough beans to replenish my true seed supply as well as plenty for pickling, canning and eating fresh.  
Ted's Butter Beans
Another heirloom bean I love is one that Cranberry, NC, resident and lifelong farmer, Ted Hoilman, shared with me and friend, Kim Barnhardt.  Generations of Ted's family grew these heirlooms and the colors are beautiful, the beans large and the flavor delicious.  Since these seeds are acclimated to a cooler growing environment, they thrive in Kim's mountain garden, but struggle in my Caldwell County climate.  After saving a small amount of seeds for the past few years, 2015's crop seems to be well adapted to a new growing region and, with good growing conditions, should produce well for 2016.  Learning from past mistakes, I now separate beans at Heart & Sole, with hope to pass true seed to the next generation of family gardeners.  
Beautiful Butter Bean Blossoms

When I was a child, my grandmother picked bushels of green beans every summer.  I remember the snap, snap of beans as my grandmother, mother and aunt, prepared them for canning and the distinctive fragrance of cooking beans wafting from the kitchen.  Our family ate canned green beans several times each week and I recall a trip to the coast when we made green bean sandwiches from the jars we packed for the trek.  Although I use my canned beans for many recipes, the following is one that is a traditional family preparation.  Now that I think about it, green bean sandwiches would be fun to try as an adult . . .

Southern Style Green Beans
*I remember beans from my childhood were cooked until almost mush, but for optimum flavor and texture, do not overcook.

3 slices smoked pork side meat (or thick bacon)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (or olive oil)
1 medium onion, diced
2 quarts canned green beans or 3-4 pounds fresh snap beans, strings removed, washed and cut or broken to 2-3 inch pieces

Heat oil in a large Dutch oven and slowly cook meat until fat renders.  Remove meat or leave in pot.
Add onion and stir to coat with oil/fat.  Cook over low heat until tender, about 4 minutes.
Add beans and enough water to just cover.
Add 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, few grinds of black pepper, 1/4 teaspoon onion granules and 1/4 teaspoon garlic granules.  
For a spicy kick, add a pinch of red pepper flakes.
Place lid on pot and cook until beans are tender.

*Vegetarians may omit pork and increase oil to 2 tablespoons.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

What Lies Beneath? Baby Carrots!

As a four-year-old child, I watched my father take the frilly green leaves in his hand and pull.  To my astonishment, a long, bright orange vegetable emerged from the soil.  Although that first experience with pulling carrots was many years ago, the tantalizing excitement of discovery still exists when I harvest those root vegetables.  

Colorful Baby Carrots
Carrots are a satisfying crop to grow.  With good germination and few pests, carrots thrive in cool weather and yield both spring and fall harvests.  Carrots grow best in loose soil and raised rows, created with a hiller tractor attachment, are ideal for root development.  Of course, it also works to use a rake or hoe to make a raised row, with the added benefit of an ab workout!  Sow carrot seeds along the row top and lightly cover with soil, brushing hands across the seeds or using a push broom for larger areas and keep soil lightly moist.  When seeds germinate, in about 2-3 weeks, allow carrots to grow to a height of approximately 2-3 inches before thinning.  Use scissors to snip tops or gently pull smaller plants to allow remaining roots to grow straight.  After plants reach a height of about 4-5 inches, thin a second time.  Thinning is a stressful job and requires one to channel an inner Morticia.  After all, it is not easy to decide who will live and who will die . . .
If carrots are not thinned, roots create interesting "dancers"
During a recent trip to Charleston, SC, we visited several popular restaurants and enjoyed delicious meals, including a to-die-for burger at Husk, but one simple dish captured the essence of one of my favorite vegetables.  FIG (Food is Good), located in Downtown Charleston, led by James Beard Foundation's 2014 Best Chef Southeast, James Stanhope, serves a simple salad with complex flavor and interesting texture. Listed on the menu as "Spiced and Roasted Carrot Salad: greek yogurt, pine nuts, mint," this delightful concoction of baby carrots, nuts and tiny fresh mint leaves lingered in my taste memory.  Since I happen to have a nice row of colorful baby carrots at Heart & Sole, I decided to try to recreate this salad.  Excellent as a side dish and hearty enough for a vegetarian entree, grab some baby carrots and try this recipe.  If you want to experience the joy of pulling surprises from the ground, make plans now to plant a row of heirlooms for spring harvest.  

Roasted Spiced Baby Carrots with Greek Yogurt Dressing

Lightly toast 1/3 cup pine nuts until fragrant, set aside to cool

For the dressing, in a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup Greek yogurt, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, 1 teaspoon white vinegar (I used homemade, flavored with Thai herbs), 1/4 cup good quality olive oil, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon fresh minced dill, few grinds black pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt.  Cover bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve.

1/2 pound baby carrots, scrubbed and greens trimmed (reserve tops for another use)
1 tablespoon good quality olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt (I used French Grey Sea Salt)
Several grinds black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (for best results, grind from whole)

Place carrots in a ziplock bag and add oil and spices.  Toss to combine and refrigerate for about an hour or so.
Roast carrots until fork tender
Place carrots in a small roasting pan and roast in a preheated 450 degree oven until fork tender, stirring every five minutes, until carrots are fork tender, about 20-30 minutes.  Do not overcook carrots; they should retain a bit of crunch.

In a large bowl, combine carrots with nuts.
Serve with dressing and scatter fresh mint leaves over top.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Five Growing Trends for 2016

Here we go again.  The New Year's Eve confetti is scarcely swept away before it seems every marketing expert is primed to direct our attention to what is new and different for 2016 lives.  The "it" colors for this year?  Pink and blue. . . sorry, but the 1980s combo will not reappear in my home.  That 1986 mauve dining room, a shade too close to Pepto-Bismol for comfort, is best left to the young and impressionable.  

Colorful  Blossoms Make Beautiful Salad

It's time to make plans for what to plant, where to plant and how to plant in the 2016 garden and, even for die-hard growers who stick to a strict annual plan, there are enticing possibilities available.  While I am certainly no expert and my trendy selections are based entirely on unscientific sources like farmer's markets, my own experiments and chef/restaurant order requests, the following list includes plants I think will prove to be popular in 2016 gardens.  So, visit your local hardware and gardening store and purchase seeds or plants.  Even if you find something you grow to be unappealing, at least you can eat it.  Unlike that queasy dining room. . .
Okra Blossoms and Pods, Tasty Edibles

*Edible Flowers
Most fruits and vegetables produce blossoms that are both beautiful and delicious.  Violas and nasturtiums are popular salad ingredients, but vegetable blooms like beans, okra and squash are also tasty.  In the herb bed, grow borage for deep blue star-like blossoms that taste like cucumber or garlic and chives for pink, onion flavor.  Perhaps pink and blue can be garden trendy for 2016?

Forget those mealy, almost tasteless orbs offered by supermarkets from early fall until late spring.  Sure, it's convenient to buy a melon without seeds, but for juicy, sweet flesh that slathers the face, grow an heirloom variety. Recent rumors that the Bradford watermelon, a popular 1800s heirloom, may reappear, spur me to search for seeds, but the Moon and Stars melon, with beautiful dark green skin spotted with yellow orbs and deep red flesh, is an excellent choice for backyard gardens. 
Moon & Stars Watermelons are Distinctive and Delicious

Any supermarket shopper who purchases fresh herbs, tiny snippets encased in small plastic packages, has doubtless suffered sticker shock at the price.  One of the easiest plants to grow, most herb varieties grow in poor soil and require little water.  As long as full sun is available, herb plants produce more than adequate amounts of leaves and blossoms and the excess can be easily dried or frozen for later use.  In addition to annuals like basil, plant rosemary, sage, oregano and thyme for year-round harvest.  For our area, rosemary is a particularly satisfying plant since it blooms during cold weather and the dainty blue flowers are a welcome sight in mostly-dormant gardens.  
Borage is a perfect container plant

Yes, King Kale has enjoyed a long reign as the most popular green, with good reason, but other greens, with delightful flavor and nutritional punch, deserve space in the 2016 garden.  Bok Choy, Malabar Spinach and Mache are good choices and Arugula, or Rocket, as the Brits know it, is a hardy salad green that produces abundant leaves, creamy blossoms and seeds that are also delicious.  The flavor of home-grown arugula is far superior to supermarket wares, as are all fresh greens.
Move over, Kale, and make room for Bok Choy

Industrially processed popcorn receives a great deal of negative press, but for those who crave a salty crunch and rich flavor, try growing an heirloom variety.  Cherokee Long Ear boasts beautifully colored kernels and was an abundant producer in my 2015 garden.  Strawberry, Dakota Black and Dynamite are other good choices.  Note:  Popcorn will "cross" with other corn varieties, so plant popcorn after sweet corn ears form or separate plantings for best results. 
Allow popcorn ears to dry before harvest
For 2016 and beyond, Happy Gardening!


Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Special Gift

There's something about a handwritten recipe.  I wrote about my grandmother's handwritten recipes in a seedtales blog, Bamboo Pickles, Family Recipes and Friendship and many readers contacted me to express love for handwritten recipes.   Perhaps it is a visceral connection to favorite foods or maybe, in today's digital world, we appreciate the time and effort it takes to write by hand, but for some reason, handwritten recipes become treasured talismans for a lot of us home cooks.

My grandmother gave me her collection of recipes before she died

My home really should be better organized by now; after all, I retired from my public school educator job over four years ago.  There is really no excuse for storing boxes that have remained unopened for years.  Recently, I entered Purge Mode and tossed, donated and sorted an area I neglected for too long.  It was there I discovered treasure. . . 
Handwritten Recipes, Including Vidalia Onion Pie

Not the kind of treasure most people would value, this envelope filled with recipes, many handwritten, enticed me to abandon my cleaning project and read.  When I unfolded a thin, yellowed sheet of paper, spotted with what looked to be cooking oil, I sighed.  It was my sister-in-law's prized Vidalia Onion Pie recipe and it was recorded in her handwriting.
Nan with Clark
Nancy Barlowe Ingram, Nan, to those who knew and loved her, was the mastermind behind hunting for pirate treasure at the coast, organizing Easter egg hunts and packing for hundreds of Sunday afternoon picnics at Price Park, in Blowing Rock.  A beloved kindergarten teacher, Nan knew how to make any activity fun and exciting and when she died, at age 43, her death left a void in our family gatherings.  Although Nan created many delicious dishes, her Vidalia Onion Pie was the family favorite and we always include it in the annual Thanksgiving celebration.  

When I saw the recipe, I immediately knew who should have it.  My son, Clark, frequently names Aunt Nancy's Vidalia Onion Pie as his favorite Thanksgiving dish and since he became the official host for a large gathering of friends and family for that holiday, it is only fitting he should own the recipe.  Encased in a shadowbox, in case he wants to hold it, the recipe is wrapped and lying beneath my Christmas tree.  By the time he reads this, Clark will have opened the gift and I know it will be one he loves.

My holiday wish for each reader is that you are able to share a special gift with someone.  Whether it is something you make with your own hands, purchase at a store or includes that most valuable commodity of time shared, I hope your gift is as precious to you as to the one who receives it.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Pass the Black Peanuts

As the year draws to a close, it is a good time to reflect about gardening successes and failures.  2015's heirloom tomato crop was abundant at Heart & Sole Gardens, but the potato harvest was poor.  Peppers produced well, but deer and groundhogs ate more okra than we did.  Fortunately, one special plant thrived and generated enough seeds to share with other NC farmers.  Let's hear that cheer for black peanuts, also known as the North Carolina Peanut!

The North Carolina Black Peanut germinates quickly
It is not often we receive an opportunity to revive an agriculture crop.  With chemical companies' seed wares dominating the shelves of most big box stores, savvy gardeners rely on local businesses, like Renfrow Hardware, in Matthews, NC, or online resources to supply heirloom seed.  Fortunately, my cousin, Ruth Bolick, saved black peanut seeds for about thirty years and, this spring, she shared some with me.  For more of that story, see the earlier blog: Heirloom Seeds by Mail
Richard prepares a row for 25 Black Peanut seeds
That earlier blog post served as an introduction to Gordon Schronce, a lifelong Iron Station gardener who provides seeds, including the Carolina Black Peanut, to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange  Gordon's son, Arty, writes a lovely gardening blog for The Georgia Department of Agriculture and, for souls who long for spring planting season, a visit to Arty's Garden is a pleasant way to survive cold winter days. 
Black Peanuts drying in my dining room 
On May 16th, Richard and I planted 25 Black Peanut seeds at H&S.  For insurance, I also planted a few in containers at my home, in case pests attacked the farm plants.  After quickly germinating and thriving throughout the summer, the peanut plants were ready for harvest in early October.  I spread them on a large outside table to dry, but I forgot about the Titmouse bird and how he loves peanuts more than any other food.  When I saw that tiny winged creature attacking the harvest, I moved the peanuts to my dining room where they safely remained for a few weeks. 
Inferior for seed, these Black Peanuts are delicious to eat
Although I planted less than forty Black Peanut seeds, the plants were extremely productive and I sorted the best specimens for next year's seed, saving the remainder to use as food.  With only a cup of Black Peanuts, I decided to use a special recipe, a handwritten one from my grandmother, Lora Bolick Minton. 
Granny's Recipe for Sugar-Coated Peanuts 
After dissolving 1/4 cup sugar in 1/2 cup water over low heat, I added peanuts and stirred the mixture until the syrup coated the peanuts, leaving no liquid in the pot.  Pouring the mixture on a parchment paper lined jelly roll pan, the peanuts baked for 30 minutes in a 300 degree oven, with a good stir every five minutes. 
Black Peanuts in syrup look like blueberries 
In this season of sharing, the candied Black Peanuts will go to Ruth, a small token of how special her seed gift was.  As for the seeds, after reserving some for Heart & Sole's 2016 season, the rest will go to local farmers like Shelby's Jamie Swofford, Concord's Brad Hinckley and others.  A limited amount is also available at Renfrow Hardware, in Matthews.  With a concerted effort, perhaps the North Carolina Peanut will be available at local farmer's markets next fall and we can all celebrate this delicious flavor. 
Candied Black Peanuts