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.  




Thursday, August 6, 2015

Diary of a Summer Food Processor

I don't hear the question as often as I used to, but, invariably, it still pops up when I encounter someone from my former public school educator life:  Don't you get bored?  I have learned to smile and ignore the insensitivity of the questioner.  Bored is not a word often found in the typical gardener's vocabulary.  Take today, for example. . .
Freezing roasted tomato sauce makes a great winter "fast food"
Actually, today's schedule was set in motion with yesterday's activities.  Since late morning temperatures were already soaring, I decided to pick squash as soon as I gathered baskets, clippers and a long sleeved shirt to protect my arms from scratchy leaves.  After harvesting about fifty pounds of beautiful summer cucurbits, I noticed tomatoes ripening and after a brief, joyful moment, I picked until I filled all the baskets and pails I had.  Roughly estimating the harvest at about thirty pounds, I loaded the fruit in my vehicle and hurried to pick some beans, peppers, Whippoorwill peas, corn and okra.  Although the GroundHOG ate most of the okra crop, there were a few nice pods to cut.  When I pulled out of the field, I noted the temperature gauge registered ninety-four degrees.  No shade.

This morning, with a kitchen full of baskets, pails and bowls of washed fruit and veg, I turned up the music and made a list for the day's work.  

  • String and break beans
  • Shell peas
  • Blanch, peel and quarter tomatoes
  • Slice okra
  • Chop onions, squash
  • Peel and chop carrots
  • Scrub and cut potatoes  
  • Cook and can vegetable soup base
  • Shuck corn, cut kernels from cobs and freeze
  • Slice remaining okra and freeze
  • Pack 2 1/2 gallon jars with cherry tomatoes, peppers, garlic and herbs, add pickling solution and store in fridge
  • Blanch, peel and pack jars with paste tomatoes (Cream Sausage, San Marzano, Japanese Plum and Amish Paste)
  • Can tomatoes
  • Make 4 large pans of roasted tomato sauce, use immersion blender to process and freeze in 2 cup increments
  • Look at the squash.  Think about who might like to have them.  Make plans to deliver.  
2015: The Year of the Squash at Heart & Sole Gardens

Add a few errands, a couple of loads of laundry and a trip to the grocery and it is easy to see why I am pretty wiped out tonight.  Bored?  I think not.

 Easy Peasy Pickling

Cherry tomatoes are one of the garden's greatest gifts, but they can be overwhelming when they ripen abundantly.  Try this recipe to preserve their beauty and balance the inherent sweetness with a tart pickling solution.  After a few weeks, enjoy them as a special treat with a smear of goat or cream cheese on a cracker or crostini or just eat them from the jar.  

Pickling Solution
2 cups white vinegar
1 3/4 cup water
4 ounces kosher salt (not iodized)
Stir water, salt and vinegar over low heat until salt dissolves

2 pounds fresh cherry tomatoes, washed and stems removed
2-3 stems fresh basil
2 sprigs fresh oregano
1 large clove garlic
2 jalapeno peppers, sliced lengthwise (other hot peppers will work)
1 sweet pepper sliced lengthwise (Jimmy Nardello, Banana, etc.)

In a large glass jar, pack garlic, tomatoes and slide peppers, cut side out, between tomatoes and glass.  Place herbs attractively against the glass and pack tomatoes to hold them in place.  When the jar is tightly packed, add hot pickling solution until the tomatoes are covered.  Place tight lid on jar and store in refrigerator.  After a couple of weeks, tomatoes will be pickled and can be used for months.  Pickling flavor will intensify with time.  

Half gallon glass jars of pickled cherry tomatoes

Monday, July 27, 2015

One Potato, Two Potatoes

We made it.  After a slow dry growing season for potatoes at Heart & Sole Gardens, we enjoyed our first taste of this year's crop.  Soon, we will plow the harvest, but it is possible to dig a few hills to "rob" plants of some tubers that lie underground. It has been  years since I purchased supermarket spuds and the flavor of just-harvested potatoes never fails to delight.

GrandMom Tut holds a Purple Viking potato "head" from 2012
Gardening has a way of keeping one humble and Mother Nature's unpredictability means that crops that grow successfully one year may not do as well in other seasons.  Even with rotating crops, soil testing, sea kelp spraying, weeding and diligently hand removing Colorado potato beetles, too much rain can result in rotten tubers or, as in the case with 2012's crop, a flash flood that washed potato plants from the ground, exposing small tubers to damaging sunlight and destroying some of the crop.  This year, with several weeks of dry weather, the potato yield looks to be much lower than in years past and, judging by some hills we harvested last week, tubers are not only fewer in number, but smaller than expected.  If you would like to grow potatoes, but have limited space, try planting a few in a large container.  The plants have large leaves and the blossoms are beautiful, making potatoes both visually appealing and edible.
Colorado Potato Beetles are insect pests

Voles eat potatoes underground. After the tiller dug this one out, he ran away to eat another day!

Potatoes get a bad rep from folks who think they are a fattening food.  Actually, they are very low in calories and loaded with lots of nutritional benefits; it's butter, salt, cheese and other toppings we add that pack on pounds.  
Some of this year's first potatoes
For an eating experience that rivals true Nirvana, harvest a handful of fingerling potatoes or purchase some at the farmer's market, hours after they were still growing underground.  Choose potatoes that are very small, even for fingerlings.  Scrub them and note how the skin is tender and rubs off with only a little pressure.  Leave as much skin as possible and put potatoes, whole, in a glass baking dish.  Sprinkle with a bit of good quality olive oil (the kind that tickles the back of the throat) and use your hands to rub the oil into the potato skin.  Add a sprinkling of kosher salt and a few grinds of black pepper.  Maybe a bit of red pepper flakes or fresh thyme leaves, if you are in that sort of mood.  Place the dish in a preheated 400 degree oven and roast the potatoes for about 12 minutes, stirring halfway.  If potatoes are very fresh, they will cook quickly, so use a fork to check for doneness.  If flesh does not yield to the fork, roast a little longer, but take care not to overcook.   Ideally, potatoes will be cooked through, not mushy, and be slightly golden in color.  That's it.  All that's left is to enjoy one of the season's most delicious ingredients, simply prepared and served without fanfare.  After a taste, you may decide to eat them from the roasting dish.  With your fingers.  When food is that fresh and that good, there are no rules.

For more about Heart & Sole potatoes and a recipe for a great picnic salad, read "The Potato Lady," at Seedtales

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Preserve the Season

When it comes to preserving a North Carolina harvest, it is never too soon to start.  Late winter's greens lead to asparagus, sugar snap peas and strawberries, followed by bountiful summer crops, like tomatoes, peppers, squash, okra, beans, corn and eggplants and early Autumn's cooler temps signal it's time to bring in winter squash, potatoes and peanuts.  As moons cycle though months, gardeners can almost always find something to cut, pick or dig.  Kitchens are Ground Zero madness with canning, freezing, pickling, drying and storing and exhausted preservationists seldom have time to admire the bounty until winter, when pantry shelves and freezers hold delicious preserved harvests. 

Preserved harvest, 2015: It's a start

Preserving food is a great way to save ingredients that work well with fresh harvests from other seasons.  For example, cilantro is a cool weather crop and when tomatoes ripen in western NC, cilantro has long since bolted, bloomed and gone to seed.  San Marzano, Amish Paste, Japanese Plum and other paste tomato varieties are easy to can and when cilantro thrives, in late fall or early spring, canned tomatoes are perfect for salsas that highlight the fresh herb flavor.  

Our family loves oyster stew and several years ago, I developed a recipe for soup base that uses summer squash.  Since squash plants are long gone when oyster season arrives, I can the soup base and add a small amount of cream and fresh oysters when I serve it.  It is a delicious way to preserve a lot of squash and the soup is also good without oysters. For the recipe and instructions to make this soup, visit Seedtales
Canned squash soup base is healthy and delicious

Blueberries are now in season and between the air (birds) and ground (deer, squirrels and insects) assaults currently being waged at my home, I am fortunate to claim any for my kitchen.  Aside from jam and herbed vinegar, I preserve blueberries by freezing them.  To enjoy blueberry flavor throughout the entire year, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place berries in a single layer on the paper.  Pop in the freezer until berries are frozen and feel like marbles.  Store in freezer bags and use the frozen berries for pies, breads or cakes, top hot or cold cereals or just eat from the bag.  
Blueberries are easy to freeze

Happy Preserving!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Heirloom Tomato Anticipation

My gardening journals are nothing fancy.  Spiral-bound, wide-ruled notebooks, pages spotted with raindrops and smudged with garden soil, this stack of tattered tomes records the mundane (hand weeded peanut row) and the exciting (hawk swooped by, trying to catch a Purple Martin) events of my farm workdays.  Occasionally, I flip back through a previous year's notes to compare planting dates, crop yield or weather.  Although some days I forget to write a note or two, I always, without fail, record the first ripe heirloom tomatoes I harvest.
Spiral-bound notebooks are my gardening journals
Last year, I picked a nice Great White on July 17th.  With a smooth creamy skin and slightly garlicky flavor, this tomato makes a delicious sandwich and its size can easily dwarf a slice of bread.  After celebrating the first harvest with candles and a place of honor, Richard and I savored the fruit of our labor.  
Harvesting a Great White, cause for celebration in 2014

It looks as if this year's tomato season will begin later than usual, but the plants look healthy and are holding numerous green fruits.  Each day, we remove tomato horn worms, add more plant supports, trim unnecessary leaves and search, hoping to spot the first color change that will indicate summer's delectable love apples are on the way.  
Tomato hornworms love heirlooms as much as we do
Mid-September will probably bring the typical madness of harvesting, sorting, washing and endless processing, but for now, tomato season is an entrancing mirage, a bright ray of rewarding deliciousness for all those months of work.  
Summer harvest from a single day

For those of you fortunate enough to hold your first home-grown tomatoes in your hand, warm from the sun and beckoning you to take a bite, I admit envy, but will, hopefully, soon join you in celebrating the harvest.  As I gather recipes and dream, I offer the following suggestion for cherry tomatoes.  For a beautiful presentation, be sure to use a variety of colors.

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes
In a medium saucepan, heat 2/3 cup dry red wine and 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar.  Simmer over low/medium heat until the mixture is reduced by 1/2, about 20-30 minutes.  Remove from heat.

In a medium-sized glass baking dish, drizzle about 2 tablespoons olive oil.  Add 2 pints cherry tomatoes and sprinkle them with coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Stir to coat the tomatoes with the oil.  Pour the wine/vinegar mixture over tomatoes and stir to combine.  Scatter fresh thyme leaves over tomatoes.

Place dish in a preheated, 400 degree, oven and roast for about 20 -30 minutes, or until tomatoes begin to collapse.  *Stir once, halfway through roasting time.

Remove from oven and sprinkle about 2 tablespoons fresh shredded basil leaves over the tomatoes.  Serve warm or chill to add to cold salad.  
Roasted Cherry Tomatoes