Sunday, October 4, 2015

Let There Be (Whippoorwill) Peas on Earth

My maternal grandmother's peas first grew at Heart & Sole Gardens in 2012, when my parents cleaned their freezer and passed these heirloom seeds to me.  Since Granny died in 1986, I was unsure about the germination abilities of more than twenty-five-year old seeds, so I sowed them thickly.  Granny's peas, a variety known as Whippoorwill, not only germinated at a high rate, they produced an abundant crop of delicious peas.  

Freshly shelled Whippoorwill Peas

According to information published on the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange site, African slaves introduced Whippoorwill peas to the United States and Thomas Jefferson grew the legumes in his Monticello gardens.  Although I do not know how Whippoorwill peas came to my family, I am very grateful for these high-yielding, delicious heirloom seeds.  
Whippoorwill peas bloom in early morning
One of several varieties known collectively as Cowpeas, field peas or Crowder peas, Whippoorwills, cooked only in water, create a thick, meaty broth, or pot liquor, that makes a hearty soup base.  Like other heirloom seeds at Heart & Sole, last year's Whippoorwills reseeded and I have harvested as many peas from those volunteer plants as from the more orderly rows I actually planted this spring.  As versatile as they are productive, Whippoorwill peas may be dried, canned or frozen.  Packed with healthy doses of protein, fiber, B vitamins and magnesium, a half-cup of cooked Whippoorwills is only about 80 calories.   
Fresh peas on left, dried seed peas on right

While in season, look for these delicious peas at your local farmer's market and try this recipe for Whippoorwill Hummus.  I like the texture of blanched peas, but for a smoother mixture, boil the peas until they are tender enough to mash with a fork.  Be sure to save the pot liquor!

Whippoorwill Pea Hummus
1 cup fresh shelled peas
1/2 clove garlic
1 red chile pepper, seeded
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon tahini
1 tablespoon pot liquor (pea broth)
1 teaspoon salt (I used NC's OBX sea salt)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

In a small pot, boil peas in water for about 2 minutes, longer if you would like a smoother hummus.  Place peas in ice water to blanch, reserving broth.
Blend peas, garlic, pepper, juice, tahini, pot liquor and salt in a food processor until all ingredients are incorporated into a thick mixture.  While processor is running, add olive oil in a thin stream and continue processing until mixture is desired consistency.

Serve with crudities, naan, crackers or just a spoon.  
Simple ingredients combine to make a decadent pea hummus

Friday, September 25, 2015

White Foods: Tasty and Healthy?

These days, we hear a lot about how healthy it is to eat colorful foods.  Purple potatoes are praised for a lower sugar content, farmer's markets offer a veritable rainbow of colorful heirloom tomatoes, radishes are marketed as Easter Egg colors and even some big box stores offer carrot bunches that do not include a single orange one.  While I admit I often grow foods because the color choices intrigue me, like the deep orange-red eggplants now in season, when it comes to taste, sometimes color is not always an indication of how delicious the food might be.

Beautiful eggplants look like baby pumpkins
When my daughter was about seven years old, she only ate white foods.  Bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, bananas, grits, all foods lacking in color were appealing to her.  Worried about her health, I mentioned my concern to her pediatrician, who assured me she was healthy and the all-white-food diet was a phase.  The stage lasted longer than I anticipated, but the pattern broke when our family dined at a restaurant that only served purple potatoes and she was faced with the choice of trying the purple potato mash or going hungry while the rest of her family enjoyed a meal.  She decided to try "just a bite," but after one taste, the kid cleaned her plate.  Following the purple potato success, red tomatoes became another favorite, succeeded by green beans, orange carrots and soon, I no longer worried about my daughter's diet.  

Recently, while reviewing farm notes, I noticed something that made me smile.  In addition to how certain plant varieties perform each season, I include comments about flavor.  For example, my notes for Cream Sausage tomatoes include, "One of the most delicious cooked tomatoes, intense tomato flavor."  Cream Sausage is a paste-type tomato that is creamy white.  I flipped through pages, smudged with farm soil and rain drops, and found my notes for my grandmother's white cucumbers.  "One of the best-tasting cucumbers, excellent for sandwiches and cold soup."  
Cream Sausage tomatoes make the best soup
As far as potatoes go, the purple ones may be healthy, but our family's favorite baking potato is Purple Viking, which, despite the name, has a brilliant white, buttery smooth flesh.
Within Purple Viking's colorful skin is bright white flesh
As I read my notes about summer squash, "Chef customer reports his favorite is the white one," and watermelon, "Small yellow fruit is almost white, but very sweet, with a nice crisp texture," I remembered worrying about my daughter's childhood food preferences.  Perhaps if I had known about the delicious white heirloom plants I now grow, we would have avoided unpleasant family meal discussions.  As a matter of fact, we all probably would have enjoyed a "white diet."  

When choosing heirloom seeds to grow or shopping at your local farmer's market, try some white foods.  Sometimes, it is not all about color!
This small yellow melon is almost white


White summer squash was a chef customer's favorite 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Support Local Food with Fun Times!

Raise your hand if you like any (or all) of the following:  lively musical performances, thrilling amusement rides, delicious foods, craft brews, laughter, happy people.  If you did not raise your hand at least once, there is probably no reason to continue reading this blog and you can go back to whatever boring task engages you; however, if you want to enjoy yourself while you support North Carolina agriculture, read on . . .

Celebrate Local Food!
As most communities enjoy cooler temperatures and summer crop harvests slow, growers and local food supporters can look forward to celebrating our state's delicious bounty at numerous events.  Here is a sampling of where and when to join the fun.  

The Carolina Jubilee Festival
Sponsored by Charlotte local non-profit Carolina Farm Trust, the Jubilee is a two-day live music event, scheduled for October 16-17 on the grounds of beautiful VanHoy Farms, in Harmony, NC.  In addition to an extensive line-up of musical talent, local foods, beer and wines will be featured and vendors and organizations with focus on clean energy and promotion of eco-friendly products will be on hand to showcase their services and wares.  All profits go to Carolina Farm Land Trust to help preserve North Carolina's farms for future generations.  Campsites are available or attendees may purchase single day tickets.   For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Carolina Farm Trust

NC Agricultural Fairs
For thrilling rides, heart-throbbing competitions, agricultural product displays and treats like cotton candy and hot funnel cakes, plan to visit one of the many fairs held throughout the state.  In addition to Raleigh's NC State Fair, October 15-25, where you can cheer racing potbellied pigs, ducks and pygmy goats, many other fairs offer unique events and opportunities to meet real farmers.  For the full schedule of fairs, visit NC Department of Agriculture 

Central Fair prizes won by Karen Glasscock

PepperFest, Sponsored by Abundance NC Foundation
From the first tantalizing whiff of roasting peppers, visitors to the 8th annual PepperFest, held this year on Sunday, September 27th, at Chapel Hill's Great Meadow Park at Briar Chapel, will be in for all things pepper, from sweetly mild to blisteringly hot.  Chefs, farmers and beverage makers will showcase talents and The Stacks and Brett Harris will perform live music.  DIY workshops in Aquaponics and Beekeeping will inform adult attendees while children will enjoy Pepperpalooza activities.  For more information and to purchase tickets, visit PepperFest 2015 
Plethora of Heart & Sole Gardens Peppers

Monday, September 7, 2015

Dining Al Fresco With A Drone

During summer harvest season, I devote most waking hours to keeping weeds at bay, picking crops, washing fruits and veg, preserving food and saving seeds to plant the following year.  Those tasks do not allow for a lot of play time, but recently, I scheduled a late afternoon restaurant delivery in a nearby town and, as it happens, Richard also had an appointment in the same vicinity, so we decided to relax on the restaurant's patio and enjoy a pleasant weather evening.  

After seating us and delivering drinks, our server left to submit our food order to the kitchen.  Since it was a little early for the dinner crowd, we shared the patio with only a few other diners.  Enjoying the brief respite from busy lives, we chatted as a high cloud cover brought cool relief from the day's earlier high temperatures.  As I scanned the sky, checking to be sure there was no imminent rain headed our way, I noticed a small flying device approaching the patio.  Bobbing, gliding and occasionally hovering, I realized the object was a drone.  My first drone sighting and it looked as if the machine were stalking us as its prey.

Dinner below, drone above
After the initial surprise of the unwelcome visitor, Richard and I soon spotted the drone's operator, standing in an adjacent parking lot.  Since we had pointed at the intruder and I snapped a couple of photos of it, the operator knew we were aware of its presence and after he retrieved and packed the drone away, he walked into the downstairs restaurant.  As he crossed below our table, he called to us, "I hope that wasn't too intrusive!"  Since we had nothing nice to say, we said nothing.  Later, our server explained to us that the downstairs restaurant owner hired the drone operator to take some "test photos" for advertisement and he commiserated with us about feelings of privacy invasion.  

As we left, I wondered if perhaps this situation is something that diners will face more often in the future.  As we enjoy dining al fresco, will we be targets for anyone who wishes to photograph our private events, our food or, for Pete's sake, eavesdrop on private conversations?  Just something to consider when we ask for that table under the stars. . .

Monday, August 31, 2015

Setting the Dining Room Table With Heirlooms

Welcome to my dining room.  Mismatched plates?  No worries, each is carefully labeled with a name.  Perhaps it is a bit too crowded?  If I move this one, just a little, it is possible to squeeze another in.  No, I am not planning a dinner party; my late summer dining room table is holding what will be next year's tomato crop and I am working to make room for all.

Tomato seeds on plates crowd the summer dining room table
Eating a fresh, ripe heirloom tomato, warm from summer sun, is one of life's great pleasures and when it comes to planning for the following year, now is the time seed savers begin.  For best results, choose this season's most beautiful, unblemished specimens, scoop out the seeds (you can still enjoy the fruit) and clean away pulp.  Allow seeds to dry and store in a cool, dry environment until you are ready to plant next year.  Alternatively, store seeds in a freezer, but dry them completely before doing so.  If you plan to save more than one seed variety, be sure to carefully label.  I repeat:  label seeds carefully.  I speak with the voice of experience, as one who mislabeled plants and found, without a great deal of pain, the cherry tomato I thought I planted was actually a huge slicing fruit.  After all, both were delicious!
Save seeds from the best specimens.  These are Cherokee Purple
Heirloom seeds grow plants that produce consistent traits.  Unlike hybrid or genetically engineered seeds, heirlooms are able to adapt to growing conditions and develop resistance to diseases, pests and weather that is either too wet or too dry.  When heirlooms grow in the same geographical area for many generations, those smart plants consistently produce better than ones that are newcomers to the region.  For the first time in four years, my tomato garden hosts a San Marzano tomato that is producing beautiful, abundant fruit and I am madly saving those special seeds.  After all, it took four years to grow fruit that is consistently free of black rot spots.
So far, the yield from one San Marzano plant is 14 quarts!
Even if you did not grow a favorite heirloom food you enjoy this summer, as long as it is a true heirloom, save seeds to grow your own for next year.  A few years ago, I purchased Indigo Rose tomatoes from a farmer's market vendor and scooped seeds from the beautiful fruit.  For the past couple of years, this variety has been one of our family favorites.  
Indigo Rose boasts lovely color and delicious flavor
When it comes to growing colorful, delicious heirloom fruits and vegetables, I admit I lack self-control, which is why each summer I vow, "Next year will be different. . . I will NOT plant as much."  Yea, right.  

Now, back to fitting everyone at the dining room table.  Guests can stand, but heirloom seeds deserve a place of honor.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Hearing Voices in the Garden

Be careful not to step on the vines.

Heirloom Squash Sometimes Surprise
My grandmother's voice is in my head as I harvest an abundant crop of heirloom squash.  Her saved seeds, passed from her mother to her and from her to me, are producing an an incredible rate and, as I reach into the bowels of Squash Central, I hear her voice, cautioning me to take care as I step among the tender plants to snip a summer cucurbit from its hiding place.  
Granny's White Cukes Grow on Tender Vines
I hear those same words when I carefully brush aside cucumber leaves to seek tiny white cucumbers growing beneath the thick foliage.  Many previous generations of my family grew these same cucumbers; I do not know how old the seeds are, but they are true heirlooms.  With a bright, almost citrus flavor, they are delicious pickled, processed in cold soup or just sliced and served fresh with a pinch of salt.  

Kill it.

Growing food without using chemicals to kill insect pests can be challenging.  Not all bugs in the garden are bad; some, like lady beetles, actually help control others that destroy plants.  As a child, my maternal grandmother took me into her garden classroom, a magical place where sunflowers towered over my head, cherry tomatoes were better-than-candy treats and bean and peanut blossoms rivaled orchids for beauty.  As a past-middle aged adult, when I encountered insects in my organic garden, I could hear Granny's voice, telling me which bugs were "good" and which were "bad."  I followed her instructions, squashing Mexican bean beetles, Colorado potato bugs and Squash beetles with my gloved fingers and searching under plant leaves for tiny eggs laid by these pests.  

Be careful with the bean vines.

Green beans.  Snap beans.  White Mountain Half-Runners.  No matter the name, these beans were a family diet staple when I was a child.  The original seeds came from Germany when my great-great-great grandmother, Mary "Polly" Schmidt Bolch, immigrated to the United States, packed them in her belongings and later passed them to her daughters.  My grandmother, mother and aunt spent countless hours, stringing and breaking bushels of these beans before canning them in quart jars in Granny's pressure canner.  Granny alone picked the beans, but when I was five years old, she took me to her bean rows and taught me how to carefully remove beans from vines, taking care not to break tender green tendrils and showing me how to gently guide sticky ends to climb the poles and twine that supported them.  When I pick those same beans today, I hear Granny's voice as I lift sections of vine and I use both hands to harvest, leaving the vines undamaged and ready to produce more beans.  

See that spot?  That's an eye.  Don't cut through the eye.
Seed potato with prominent eyes
Although I most often hear my grandmothers' voices in the garden, when it comes to preparing seed potatoes for planting, it is my paternal grandfather who patiently explained the process to me and it is his voice I hear as my adult hands slice tubers.  When he first showed me an "eye," I imagined the potato as a creature that could see from every angle.  He guided my childish fingers, trusting that I could safely wield the sharp knife to cut enough potato flesh to support the plant as it sprouted and grew.

This will choke a plant.  Pull it out before it gets going.

When I work my way through a row of beans, corn or any number of seedling plants, crawling on dirty knees, I often hear both my grandmothers' voices, helping me identify weeds.  Morning glories, in particular, grew prolifically in both their gardens and they cautioned me to pull those vining plants before they began to reach for support, smothering young seedlings as they grew at an alarming rate.  Many weeds grow in close proximity to plants they mimic in size, color and leaf shape; morning glories bear a striking resemblance to beans and, if unchecked, will twist vines among the beans, competing for moisture, soil nutrients and space.  As I pull buckets full of morning glories, vetch, pigweed, Johnson grass, ragweed, Creeping Charlie and many other nemeses, I am grateful for my grandmothers' helpful lessons.  
Spot the morning glory among bean seedlings?
If you were fortunate to learn gardening lessons as a child, perhaps you also "hear" those voices when you work.  If it has been awhile since you grew your own food, this is an excellent time to recapture childhood memories and recall your own life lessons.  Of course, you could always invite a child to be your garden helper and maybe, someday, it will be your voice that is fondly remembered.   

Although my maternal grandfather never offered gardening advice, I find Pa Joe's work attire to be perfect for my farming role.  Read Professional Dress Code for Farmers  at Seedtales.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Ruth, Story of a Special Cantaloupe

There is a lot to love about a cantaloupe.  Start with that fragrance.  It perfumes the garden air long before the visitor reaches the vines, which, unlike cucurbit cousins Pumpkin, Cucumber and Gourd, grow compactly and make weeding a manageable task.  The perky blossoms are bright yellow and attract a host of pollinators to their stamens.  And, then, of course, there is the flavor.  Summer gold on the tongue, to be sure.

The RUTH, a special heirloom cantaloupe
So, why did I never grow cantaloupe before this year?  Although I hate to admit it, cantaloupe has never been my favorite food.  As a matter of fact, it is one of the very few foods I typically avoid.  All that changed when my cousin, Ruth Bolick, mailed some heirloom cantaloupe seeds to my home and I planted a hill this spring.  After diligently weeding and caring for the plants, my reward was four beautiful melons.  
Ruth's cantaloupes in late spring
Just after the orbs swelled to about softball size, I took the cap off a ball point pen and carefully scratched the surface of two melons.  R U T H.  The lines of the letters oozed and left faint marks which healed and became more apparent as the melons matured.  

On harvest day, I placed the four cantaloupes in a box and drove them home, noting the two bearing Ruth's name were unblemished, unlike the others, which hosted soft spots and dark marks.  When I sliced one of the blemished melons, I expected to find a rotten center, but to my surprise, the interior was firm, richly colored and deliciously juicy.  I carefully scraped seeds from the center, peeled and sliced the cantaloupe and stored it in the refrigerator after sneaking several bites.

Packing the two "named" melons in a cardboard box, I called Ruth and told her I was planning to deliver a present.  She rewarded me with a bright smile as she lifted a melon to her face to inhale the fragrance.  We chatted and compared gardening notes and she offered instructions about saving cantaloupe seeds, which her mother taught her to do.  
Cousin Ruth holds her namesake melon

Heirloom fruits and vegetables are true treasures, not only for longevity, but for incomparable flavor.  After tasting Ruth's cantaloupes, I am now a fan and the following recipe offers an easy preparation that highlights the melon's sweetness while salty Prosciutto and smoky Chipotle pepper provide flavor balance.  Serve it as a side dish or appetizer.  Bonus points for using heirloom cantaloupe!
Cantaloupe + Prosciutto + Chipotle = Delicous

Roasted Cantaloupe Bites Wrapped in Prosciutto
6 servings
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Peel and cut ripe cantaloupe into 12 2-inch cubes.
In a small bowl, combine the following:
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg 
1/4 teaspoon Chipotle powder

Toss melon cubes in mixture and rub to coat.
Use a sharp knife to cut 4 slices Prosciutto into 1/2 inch lengths.
Wrap melon cubes with Prosciutto, crossing to form an "X" pattern.
Line a baking sheet with foil and drizzle olive oil lightly over foil.
Place wrapped melon on baking sheet and bake in preheated oven for 8 minutes, turning melon at the 4 minute mark.
Turn oven to broil and broil melon for one minute, then flip to broil the other side.  
Serve warm and, for those with a sweet tooth, lightly drizzle with honey before serving.