Sunday, September 21, 2014

Heirloom Seed Saving, Perpetuating a Delicious Heritage

The beautiful array of colorful heirloom tomatoes that entice summer farmer's market shoppers are perhaps even more dear because their season is brief.  Tangy greens, candy-sweet pinks, earthy purples and citrus-scented yellows beguile our taste buds and delight our eyes.  Limited garden space and busy schedules prevent many of us from growing all the varieties we love, but with the appropriate container, almost anyone can harvest enough tomatoes to satisfy personal desires.  Plan now to grow a favorite heirloom tomato next year.

Caldwell Co. gardener, Ralph Triplett, grows this heirloom with seed he saves each year
For those interested in preserving agricultural heritage or employing sustainable growing techniques, heirloom seed saving is an important practice.  Preserve seed from fruit or vegetable specimens that exhibit the most desirable characteristics and note subsequent plants will produce higher yields, be more resistant to pests and disease and perform better in less-than-ideal weather growing conditions.  A nice side benefit for seed savers is harvesting food that is far superior in taste to supermarket wares. 

Although any heirloom plant seed may be saved for future planting seasons, tomatoes are a delicious beginning lesson for seed saving newbies.  Yes, it is possible to just smear tomato seeds on a paper towel, allow them to dry and then pull them from the paper to plant, but with a little time and patience, tomato seeds will be clean and ready to grow next spring.  Before eating that perfect specimen you purchased at the farmer's market, follow these simple steps to save seeds and enjoy growing your own heirloom tomatoes, either in your garden or a container. 

1.  Select fruit that is fully ripe and free of blemishes. 

2.  Slice the bottom (blossom) end to expose seeds.

3.  Squeeze seeds into a clear drinking glass or jar.

4.  Add water to cover seeds and pulp and use a spoon or finger to agitate contents.
Viable seeds sink to the bottom

5.  The following day, slowly pour off the pulpy water, taking care to leave seeds in the bottom of the container.

6.  Add fresh water to cover seeds and agitate.
Remove pulpy water and add clear until seeds are clean

8.  When water is clear, typically 1-3 days, leave a small amount of water with the seeds and pour contents onto a glass plate.

9.  Place plate out of direct sunlight until water has evaporated and seeds are completely dry, about 3 days.
A glass plate is best for drying seeds

10.  Use a knife or fingernail to carefully remove seeds from the plate and place them in a paper envelope.  Label the contents, with the date, and store seeds in a dry environment.  (An office desk or bedroom drawer is usually a good place to store seeds.)

As you join legions of heirloom seed savers, look forward to growing your own delicious fruit next year.  How to enjoy that first ripe tomato will likely be a difficult decision.  Sandwich?  Pie?  Salsa?  Sauce?  Give yourself permission to savor that first bite, alone, juice dripping from your chin, as you wait for the next ripe fruit. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

San Marzano Heirloom Tomatoes: NC's New Cash Crop?

One of the most difficult tasks for gardeners is deciding which plants to grow.  When I find seed catalogs in my mailbox, illustrated with an array of appealing photographs, I experience the same enticement I felt as a child when the Sears & Roebuck Christmas Wishbook arrived at our home.  After surveying hundreds of intriguing possibilities,  I tally my costs and begin to whittle my list to include only items I absolutely have to have.  Richard often reminds me that each seed requires a lot of work and he attempts, sometimes futilely, to curb my early-spring enthusiasm.  Fortunately, my seed orders decrease each year as I increase my collection of heirloom seeds, saved from plants I grow at Heart & Sole Gardens. 

After growing heirloom plants for years, I am impressed with their yield, hardiness and flavor and I believe the best heirlooms are ones that produce for generations in the same geographical area.  Unlike hybrid varieties, heirlooms adapt to soil and weather conditions and pass along protective traits in seed.  For best results, seed should be saved from the most desirable, fully ripe, fruits or vegetables.  With each successive generation of plants, gardeners will notice fewer flaws and more perfect specimens.  

My family loves fresh salsa and when tomatoes are not in season and we exhaust our canned summer bounty, I purchase whole canned tomatoes at the supermarket.  Although there are usually several choices, San Marzano tomatoes are more expensive than other types.  Research about this paste tomato reveals a murky past, although San Marzanos, like other domesticated tomatoes, probably originated in Peru. If you are interested to read more about this intriguing fruit, this site is a good resource:

San Marzano tomatoes, with a thin skin and rich flavor, make delicious salsa

Since San Marzano tomatoes make excellent salsa and they command a premium price, I decided to grow them, but three years ago, when other paste tomatoes produced abundant, beautiful fruit, the San Marzanos struggled.  Their plants, more susceptible to blight than other varieties, yielded few perfect specimens and most deflated on the vine, developed black spots on the skin or concealed a dark rotten spot inside the fruit.  Undeterred by the first, disappointing harvest, I saved seeds from a few nice tomatoes and hoped they would grow plants that would thrive in western NC's climate.  Last year's wet chilly summer season was less than ideal for growing tomatoes, but I did note the San Marzanos yielded fruit that was nicer than the previous year and again, I saved seeds from the best fruit.

Earlier harvests included larger fruit, but 174 SM tomatoes on 9/12/14 is impressive

Perhaps the third time really is a charm, but third-generation San Marzano tomatoes are rock stars at Heart & Sole.  To date, five plants yielded hundreds of pounds of ripe fruit and most of them are free of blemishes.  Two plants are stronger than the others and their fruit is larger and more beautiful, therefore, I only saved seeds from those plants and shared seed fruit with a couple of Charlotte-area farmers who may help to bring this delicious fruit to local markets next year.   Perhaps San Marzano tomatoes could become a major North Carolina crop?  For fresh salsa lovers, that is a goal worth pursuing!

CB's Salsa

Note: I have made this recipe for over thirty years and often share it with friends who claim it does not taste the same when they make it.  I believe salsa, like other "hand" dishes, is a recipe that uses prescribed ingredients, but produces different results with each creator.  It is as if a bit of each cook's personality passes to the dish.   Measurements are not exact; add or subtract, according to individual taste and enjoy fresh salsa (some call it pico de gallo) with chips, grilled fish or chicken, or just eat it with a spoon. 

In a large food processor bowl, add the following:
1 large sweet onion, quartered
2 jalapeno peppers, seeds removed (add a few seeds, if you like extra heat)
1 handful fresh cilantro
About 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper (I grind 12-14 times)
Onion granules (about 1/2 teaspoon)
Garlic granules (about 1/2 teaspoon)
*I also add about 1/4-1/2 teaspoon Possum's Seasoning, but you could use any seasoning blend or omit)
Pulse onion, peppers, herb & seasoning 4 times

Pulse mixture 4 times, then add the following:

Fresh paste tomatoes (large slicing tomatoes elicit more juice), enough to fill the processor bowl; I used 14 San Marzanos.  Remove blossom end and slice tomatoes in half before adding.
*If using canned tomatoes, drain juice before adding fruit from 2 28-ounce cans.
Pulse about 4-6 more times.  Salsa will be chunky and release juice as the tomatoes rest.

Serve immediately or refrigerate and use within a week. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Hopi corn, a delicious heirloom

Late summer visitors to my home probably think they step into some kind of Weird Science experiment.  A dehydrator perfumes the air with dried tomato aroma, half-gallon Mason jars, filled with vinegar and herbs, line the back side of a counter, the butcher block and kitchen tables groan under the weight of hundreds of ripe tomatoes and strings of colorful peppers hang in the south-facing window.   Half-full glasses of murky liquids stand next to drying seeds and paper labels on glass plates fill every spare inch of available space.  Recently canned foods are ready to label and store in the basement pantry and even my dining room curtain rod holds a food ingredient, carefully tied between the open drapes.  Yes, Dear Guest, your eyes do not deceive you.  It is corn.
The dining room is a perfect drying environment for Hopi corn

Blue Hopi corn, to be precise.  For the past few years, Richard and I make a point to attend the Ashe County seed swap, an annual event where gardeners gather to share seeds, participate in workshops and network with other like-minded folks.  Admission is free and attendees take seeds with an honor system pledge to grow the plants and return the following year to share seeds with others.  A couple of years ago, I packaged my grandmothers' heirloom seeds and placed them on a table for others to take while I helped myself to pepper, bean and flower seeds.  An envelope of beautiful blue corn seeds intrigued me and I recalled a magazine article about Hopi blue corn.  Fortunately, the seed saver who grew this variety stood next to her seeds and we discussed the difficulties of protecting heirloom corn crops from marauding crows and raccoons as I ran my fingers over the kernels, noting the differences in color and size, unlike the cookie-cutter sameness of industrially produced seed.  The garnet red, indigo blue and deep pink mixture was beautiful.  I grabbed an envelope and scrawled "Blue Hopi Corn" on the front.  Scooping a handful into the opening, I thanked the seed saver and looked forward to planting at Heart & Sole.
Hopi corn silks are beautiful "redheads"

Later that spring, whirling pinwheels protected seedlings from crows and when silks formed, I applied a mist of mineral oil to each developing ear.  As harvest time neared, I tied a couple of Halloween toys in the stalks, motion-activated ghosts that screamed when anyone walked by, and their presence seemed to deter hungry raccoons.  I would love to have a photograph of those raccoons when they reached for an ear of corn and heard that unearthly noise! 

Sixty-four corn seeds grew strong plants and produced enough corn to eat fresh (deliciously sweet, while in milk stage), grind into grits and meal and dry seeds for the next year's planting.  The following year, I packed a large tub of kernels to return to Ashe County's seed swap and also shared with friends who were eager to grow heirloom corn, a crop that, like other heirloom plants, has been passed through generations of gardeners and produces consistent results.  Other seed, available from retail sources, may be genetically altered to produce higher yields, withstand drought and may even include insecticides that could harm our honey bees.  Since we love those hard-working girls, I refuse to grow any plant that is not beneficial to our pollinators.
Milk stage Hopi corn is sweet & white or yellow

Hopi blue is not for those who crave sugary sweet corn.  Large kernels have a fibrous texture and chewy substance, but for out-of-this-world cornbread or savory grits, Hopi corn is worth any protective measures a farmer can enact to produce a successful crop.

I realize readers are shaking heads and declaring only Silver Queen, Peaches and Cream and other super-sweet varieties are worth growing, but for my time and money, Hopi Blue is THE corn. Guests, take note: those colorful ears dangling from dining room curtain rods are not just rustic autumn decoration.  They are precious heirloom seeds, drying in an optimum environment, protected from pests, and their perpetuation may be crucial to our future food supply.
Mature Hopi corn, ready for drying

For information about how to save Hopi corn seed, visit:

Friday, August 29, 2014

Homemade Catsup, Tasty, but Time Consuming

Recently, I listened to an interview on National Public Radio as I drove to the farm  and a comment from a food expert made me laugh.  When asked what home cooks could do to make a healthy diet difference, the expert replied that people should make their own catsup.  I first attempted this condiment in 2010 and whether you call it catsup or ketchup, it is an arduous task and not something every home cook would choose to make.  Not that it is a difficult recipe, but it takes quite a bit of time. Of course, the homemade taste, not to mention the absence of high fructose corn syrup, is worth the effort.

After I found a basic recipe online, I modified for our family's taste.  We are not fond of sugary sweet catsup, so my recipe uses little sugar and relies on tomatoes' and peppers' natural sweetness.  In 2011, I accidentally dumped some turmeric in the pot of bubbling tomato mixture and with a pleasant result, I incorporated that ingredient in subsequent batches.  To up the ante for pepper flavor, I use a Thai red chile and a couple of sweet Jimmy Nardellos, a beautiful long red pepper that is identified as a member of the Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste.  Foods included in this living catalog are deemed delicious, but face extinction.  Easy to grow and an abundant producer, I recommend this pepper to gardeners who love sweet peppers.
Jimmy Nardello peppers are deep red and sweet

Of course, catsup's main ingredient is the paste tomato and I use a few varieties because I think they make the best product.  Amish Paste, with a heavy feel and dense flesh, is an excellent catsup tomato and with Japanese Plum, another weighty pear-shaped fruit, and San Marzano, it is difficult to make a catsup that is not delicious.  I know many readers are now shaking heads and saying, "What about Romas?"  Don't get me wrong, I like Romas, but after growing numerous paste tomatoes, I find Romas to be inferior in taste and texture to other varieties.  It is too late this year to grow your own, but if you plan to make catsup, check farmer's markets for heirloom paste tomatoes.
Amish Paste tomato

San Marzano tomato

Because it takes so long to reduce, I cook catsup for one day, refrigerate the mixture overnight and finish the following day.  Yes, it is a two-day job.  It is probably not necessary to use an immersion blender to finish this recipe, but if you like smooth catsup, I recommend this tool.  For about twenty bucks, you will find many uses for this handy device, which makes whipping cream and blending soups a snap and is much easier to clean than a standard bar blender.
Japanese Plum tomatoes are a heavy paste variety

Sure, it takes time to make homemade catsup and industrial brands are probably more cost effective, but when you taste the fruits of labor, made with heirloom goodness, you, too, may decide the flavor is worth the effort.  

Finished product

Catsup (August 21, 2014)  
Total Yield = 76 ounces
(Total weight for tomatoes should be about ten pounds)
12 San Marzano tomatoes
4 Japanese Plum tomatoes
18 Amish Paste tomaotes
2 Jimmy Nardello sweet peppers
1 Thai red chile pepper (remove seeds)
4 sweet onions
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon Turmeric
5 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon ground paprika pepper (I dry and grind these with a mortar and pestle)
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt (I use coarse Himalayan Pink)
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Wash, trim ends and cut tomatoes in chunks before pureeing them in a food processor with peppers.  Use a food mill to strain the puree and remove skins and seeds.  Puree onions and stir into the tomato mixture in a large stainless steel pot.  Cook and stir occasionally over low heat until the mixture reduces by about one third.  (Note: This step took five hours.)

In a small pot, combine vinegar and  other ingredients and simmer for about thirty minutes.  Use a strainer to remove solids as you add about half the spiced vinegar to the tomato mixture.  Continue cooking and reduce a bit more.  Remove the pot from the heat and place in a deep sink.  Use an immersion blender to smooth the catsup.  Return to heat and cook until the mixture is the desired consistency.

Pour hot mixture into hot jars or bottles, leaving about 1/8 inch headspace.  Use a boiling water bath to process jars for fifteen minutes.  Remove jars from boiling water bath and immediately invert them for five minutes.  Upright jars and cover with a heavy towel for 24 hours.  Check to be sure lids sealed and refrigerate any that fail to do so. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Squash Season is Here, Lock Your Doors

If you have lived through a southern squash season, you have probably heard the joke about not leaving your car doors unlocked, for fear a gardening neighbor will deposit a bag filled with that fruit in your vehicle.  An abundant producer, summer squash presents gardeners with a challenge to keep the harvest in check.  Sneaky zucchini squash, with deep green flesh that matches the host plant, are adept at hiding in thick foliage until they emerge, huge and resembling baseball bats.  A versatile fruit that is delicious raw and cooked, summer squash produces beautiful edible blossoms.  Last week, Richard and I experimented with some squash blossoms attached to baby squash and found the results to be one of our favorite summer dishes.  Summer squash produces male and female blossoms.  Both are delicious, but only the female blossoms will form squash.

Helping hands (or paws) are welcome for squash harvests
Remove stamens inside squash blossoms before preparing them.  They are edible, but slightly bitter.  Ideally, squash blossoms should be harvested within hours of preparation and it is best to pick them in morning hours when they are fully open.  Always carefully check inside blossoms for honeybees and other pollinators!

Grilled Baby Squash with Blossoms

Clean several baby squash with attached blossoms, taking care to keep blossoms attached to fruit.
Stuff each blossom with a small amount of cheese and twist the end of the blossom to keep the cheese inside.  I used farmer's market goat cheese flavored with pimento and jalapeno peppers, but cream cheese or any soft cheese will work.
Brush the squash and blossoms with olive oil and season with salt and pepper or a seasoning blend.  I use Possum's Seasoning, a recipe developed by our friend, James Todd, III, that is available in local markets.
Over medium hot charcoal, grill the squash, turning once, for about three minutes.  The cheese will bubble inside the blossom and the fruit will be slightly crunchy.
Alternatively, the squash may be oven-baked, but the smoky flavor of wood charcoal is incredible. 

For more squash recipes, visit and click on the "Farm Fresh Recipes" tab.  The Trompe L'Oeil Oyster Stew recipe is one of my favorite ways to use lots of yellow summer squash and I can several jars of the soup base to enjoy when squash is not in season.

For now, during squash season, leave your car doors unlocked and hope for the best.  Perhaps an overwhelmed gardener will leave a sack of summer squash for you to enjoy.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Heirloom Tomato Processing: A Day in the Life

A couple of years ago, Richard and I grew about 400 tomato plants and we learned that number is way beyond the maintenance abilities of two, past middle-age, people.  Recognizing limitations of time and physical endurance, this summer's crop includes ninety plants that represent our favorite varieties.  We planted later than most local gardeners and picked our first real harvest yesterday.  The plants may be fewer in number this year, but I can't remember the last time it took both of us over three hours to pick tomatoes and our best guesstimate is the haul was over 200 pounds.  Back at home, we spent another two hours washing and sorting the fruit and when I walked into my kitchen this morning, I knew I had my work cut out for me.

The day's work
 It's a good thing I love heirloom tomatoes.  Even now, as I write this with aching feet, a throbbing back and hands shriveled from hours of working in water, I still love processing tomatoes.  It is a precise practice that elicits the most delicious winter treats and produces satisfaction for a job well done.   With the help of my grandmother's workhorse 1966 pressure cooker, I canned seven quarts of paste tomatoes, seven quarts of quartered large tomatoes and five jars of marinara sauce.  We started the sauce the previous night when we separated tomatoes that were soft or blemished and put unpeeled sections of usable product in a large stockpot.  After cooking until the tomatoes released juice, I stored the pot in the refrigerator overnight.  My first morning task, after making a tomato omelette for our breakfast,  was to pass the tomatoes through my grandmother's ancient food mill, discard seeds and peels and cook the sauce over low heat until it reduced by about one third, about seven hours.

1966 "Modern" still relevant today
My grandmother's food mill is a great tool
While the sauce cooked, I canned tomatoes and loaded the dehydrator with three varieties of small tomatoes, A. Grappoli D'Iverno, Egg and Black Plum.  Around 2:30 pm, I made a tomato sandwich for lunch, slicing a Great White and Green Zebra because I could not decide between the two.  Great White has a bright, slightly garlicky flavor and Green Zebra is tangy and naturally salty.  On sourdough bread, with a slathering of Duke's Mayo (don't even start with the Hellmann's/Duke's debate) and a scattering of fresh basil leaves, it was the perfect meal.  Finally, I pickled some of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of cherry tomatoes we harvested.
Beautiful and delicious, who can resist cherry tomatoes?
Pleased with the day's work, I look forward to adding to my canned goods pantry and enjoying the preserved harvest when days are cold and winds bite to the bone.  I hope to remember how sweat burned my eyes, mosquitoes feasted on my bare arms and mud caked my boots as I reached through tangled vines encased in tall cages to harvest our summer bounty.  Slap me when I say we are having "fast food" as I open a jar of marinara sauce or make salsa from canned paste tomatoes. 

Dinner was the last of the marinara sauce and some al dente pasta, along with a sliced tomato, mozzarella and basil salad.  'Tis the season, folks.  Enjoy it while it lasts. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Red Thumbs and Pinky Toes

Until several years ago, I knew no one who grew more than a couple potato varieties.  When I was a child, my family grew potatoes.  Period.  Our potatoes were russets and after harvesting, we stored them in a dark cellar and used them until they were too shriveled to peel, but usually, by then, it would be time to harvest the next year's crop.  We also grew a small red-skinned potato variety our family called "new potatoes," but when I discovered the extensive varieties and flavor differences that exist in these root vegetables, potatoes became one of the largest crops at Heart & Sole and at harvest time, I love to see the colorful wake created by the plow.

Potato blossoms are pretty enough for the flower garden

On July 17th, we plowed our first row and gathered over one hundred and thirty pounds of Red Thumb fingerlings and Charlotte, a new variety we tried this year.  After several rainy days, the ground finally dried enough this week to plow a row of Purple Vikings and the yield is impressive.  Last year's cool wet summer severely limited the potato crop, but after two rows, our harvest is well over two hundred pounds, the amount of seed potatoes we planted.  With seven more rows to harvest, 2014 could be our Year of the Potato.
Sorting through baskets of fresh potatoes, I noticed there are many that are too small for long-term storage.  These tiny potatoes are delicious, but will become soft in a few days.  As I placed the smallest tubers in a bucket, I wondered what to do with them.  Potatoes, especially fingerlings, are great for canning and we enjoy those in late winter when our stored potatoes begin to sprout and deteriorate, but these baby potatoes are probably not the best candidates for pressure canning.
Tiny potatoes: pickling prospects?
Why not pickle them?  I thought.  Other root vegetables, like beets, carrots and onions pickle well.  Why not potatoes? 

Online research revealed that, indeed, potatoes may be pickled, but there were few instructions for doing so.  I learned pickled potatoes are traditional Mexican bar food and are served in a jar, along with toothpicks for spearing them.  The few photographs I found depicted potatoes larger than mine and some were sliced or peeled.  I decided to experiment. . .

After scrubbing the potatoes with a vegetable brush, I placed them in a large pot of boiling water for three minutes, then plunged them into ice water, to stop the cooking process.  Adding fresh herbs, hot and sweet peppers and a clove of garlic, I packed the potatoes in glass jars and covered them with a pickling solution.  (For the recipe, see June 17th blog, Magic Beans.)  I stored the jars in the refrigerator and Richard enjoys tasting a potato every day, to test the pickling degree.  Perhaps because the skin is a bit thicker, the Red Thumb variety takes more time to absorb pickling flavor, but it inspired me to dub my efforts as "Pinky Toes."
Pinky Toes: Pickled tiny potatoes, herbs, garlic & peppers

Hopefully, there will be more "too small" potatoes in our future harvests and I plan to try processing these, for longer shelf life.  If any readers have pickled potatoes, please share your comments or suggestions.