Thursday, July 31, 2014

Farm Fresh Dining

Storms can wreak havoc for gardeners.  A few nights ago, I listened to howling winds and crashing thunder while lightning flashed like strobe lighting.  Worried about my plants, so close to producing long-awaited fruits and vegetables, I hoped they would survive the night.

Pepper Plant, Damaged by Storm
The next day, I found plenty to do at Heart & Sole Gardens and luckily, my nephew, Ben, helped with labor.  A late Hopi corn crop, with plants about 2 1/2 feet tall and leaning in every direction, looked like a helicopter hovered above it.  I used a fire rake to pull soil close to the base of each plant as Ben and I straightened the stalks.  Next, we tackled pepper plants, many of which were lying flat.  After adding more stakes, I tied plants to secure them while Ben trimmed large leaves from the bases.  I was especially disturbed to see toppled tomato cages, heavy with the weight of huge plants, and unripe fruit scattered about.  Together, Ben and I lifted the massive plants and added stake supports and strong ties to help secure them from possible future storms.  After repairing damage as best we could, we harvested a few ripe tomatoes and peppers and my first squash and cucumbers of the season.  I really needed to weed and prune the okra, but I was afraid if I worked Ben too much, he might never come back to the farm . . .

Back at home, I picked blueberries before finally calling it quits for the day.  Too tired to plan and cook a meal, I looked at my harvest and knew it was going to be an eat-from-the-butcher-block evening.  Sometimes, after Richard and I work long hours at the farm, we prepare simple meals and eat while standing at the antique butcher block, which serves as a kitchen island.  I suppose we are afraid if we sit to dine, we might just fall asleep, face down in our plates!

Cherry tomatoes, tossed in fresh herbs, oil and vinegar
Taking scissors and a small bowl, I snipped fresh parsley, thyme, rosemary, basil, oregano and sage from the herb bed and tossed them in the bowl.  Noticing blooming oregano, I cut some of those blossoms, along with beautiful borage and nasturtium flowers.  Back in the kitchen, I chopped herbs, sliced some colorful cherry tomatoes and tossed both in a bowl with a splash of herbed vinegar and nice olive oil.  In a large skillet, I heated more olive oil and fried slices of a crusty Owl Creek Breadworks baguette I purchased from the Boone farmer's market.  Placing the bread on a foil lined baking sheet, I tossed a few chopped Chanterelle mushrooms Richard foraged in the hot oil and briefly sauteed them.  While the bread was still warm, I spread fresh chevre, also a farmer's market purchase, and topped the cheese with the mushrooms.  Finally, I added the tomato mixture and small chunks of fresh mozzarella.  After baking the bruschetta until the cheese was nicely melted, I topped each slice with the edible blossoms.
Nasturtium, Oregano & Borage blossoms add flavor & beauty

Standing at the butcher block, Richard and I savored our meal.  There was no tablecloth, no candles, no cloth napkins, crisply folded.  Heck, we didn't even have silverware.  Still, would I call it fine dining?  You betcha.
Fresh ingredients, simple preparation

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cast Iron History

What is it about cast iron pots and pans that both elevates and deepens flavors?  Cook or bake in cast iron cookware and cornbread, beans, cassoulet, roasted meats, braised greens  and even cakes are more beautiful, fragrant and delicious than foods cooked in glass or aluminum.  Perhaps it is the heavy weight that evenly distributes heat or maybe it is the unexpected presentation of cast iron that goes straight from oven to table, but foods prepared  in that heavy cookware seem to invoke a sense of comfort.

Heirloom Cast Iron Cookware Makes Food Taste Better
Not that we can totally claim cast iron cookware as our own, but Southern cooks treasure these durable pieces and often pass them to the next generation.  Many years ago, my maternal grandmother, Lora Bolick Minton, gave me her large cast iron skillet.  Although it has a lid, I seldom use it, since I usually reserve this pan for cornbread.  Seasoned from years of baking, it is a very heavy skillet and requires both hands to flip perfectly browned cakes onto serving plates.  Years ago, I mistakenly scoured the pan and my next cornbread attempt split in half, with one side landing on the serving plate and the other splatting on the kitchen floor.  After that traumatic experience, I learned to wipe the skillet with a damp cloth and appreciate the years of seasoning in its black interior.

With green beans in season at Heart & Sole, I pulled another inherited treasure from the shelf this week.  In traditional Southern style, Richard's grandmother, Dollie Smith Barlow, used a cast iron pot to cook her beans over low heat for hours.  The family joke was that "Mu" often burned her beans and her home always had a faint hint of scorched bean smell.  I love this particular pot because it is versatile, beautiful and has an intriguing story.  In the mid-1930s, Dollie's family built a stone house and while her husband and children worked to clear the land, Dollie built a fire and filled her pot with wild blackberries.  With the handle and a hook, she suspended the pot over the fire and cooked the blackberries, sweetened with a little sugar, until they were thick and delicious.  Her children remember taking breaks from their labor to grab a homemade biscuit, leftover from the morning's breakfast, and dip it in the blackberries for a makeshift cobbler treat.  Although I have never placed the pot over an open fire, I often picture those children, blackberry juice dripping from their chins, when I use it to cook beans.
Top beans with squash and potatoes for a one-pot meal

Southern-Style Green Beans

3 slices smoked pork side meat
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large sweet onion, diced
2 quarts canned green beans or 3-4 pounds fresh, washed and strings removed
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic granules
1/4 teaspoon onion granules

Heat oil in a large Dutch oven (cast iron is best), slowly cook side meat until fat renders.  Remove meat or leave in pot.
Add onion and stir to coat with oil, cook until tender, about 4 minutes
Add beans (if fresh, break into desired lengths)
Cover beans with water
Add salt, several grinds of black pepper, garlic and onion granules
Optional: Dash of red pepper flakes for a spicy kick

Place lid on Dutch oven and cook beans over medium heat until they are tender.

*For a vegetarian version, increase oil to 2 tablespoons and omit pork.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Magic Beans? I Believe . . .

Granny's Beans, 2009 Harvest

I was not always a seed saver.  Oh, there was the time in the early 1980s when I stuck a few lemon seeds in a pot of dirt and grew a small plant, but that was more novelty than plan.  With youthful ignorance, I believed the chemical companies' pitch about buying seeds that produced more yield, were resistant to pests and performed better in adverse growing conditions.  As backyard gardeners, my husband, Richard, and I eagerly anticipated the arrival of mail order seed catalogs and the intriguing descriptions enticed us to purchase packets of exotic varieties.  Not until 2008, when our farm became the next link in my family's seed-saving history, did I realize the power and importance of heirloom plants.

My role as seed saver began with my parents.  When they learned Richard and I planned to grow organic vegetables and fruits on his family's fifth-generation farm, my mother called to ask if I would like to have my grandmothers' old seeds.  Perhaps this question would not be so remarkable, except for the fact that my grandmothers died in 1986 and 1994 and their most recently saved seeds were at least fifteen years old, while others were stored in freezers for perhaps twenty-five years.  Doubtful the ancient seeds would germinate, I accepted the gifts and stored them in my own freezer until  I decided to plant my maternal grandmother's bean seeds in 2009.  The results were astonishing.

Lora Bolick Minton's beans thrive at Heart & Sole Gardens
Perhaps it was my imagination, but when I held those small seeds, Mountain White Half-Runners, in my hands, I could almost feel the enclosed life force.  Within days of planting, these bean seeds not only germinated close to 100 percent, they quickly grew and sent tendrils reaching for stakes and twine.  As if grateful for another life cycle, the plants produced bushels of tender beans and I happily canned, pickled and shared the bounty.  Heirloom seeds that grow in the same geographic area for years seem to adapt to growing conditions that are less than ideal.  The 2012 growing season included weeks without rain and even okra, a crop that loves hot, dry weather, suffered, but Granny's beans bloomed and produced abundantly.

Most people recognize the taste difference of heirloom tomatoes, compared to hybrids, but I find that every heirloom plant imparts intense flavor.  With the exception of some asparagus plants, almost every crop at Heart & Sole begins life as an heirloom seed.  Organic growing practices are important, but for a true taste experience, seek out heirloom plant varieties for your table.

Our 2014 garden includes rows of Granny's beans, peas, peanuts and sunflowers, along with hills of squash and cucumbers.  From my paternal grandmother, Heart & Sole hosts pumpkins and marigolds.  Richard's cousin, Gene Hedrick, recently shared some Whippoorwill peas, heirloom seeds saved by generations of Hedricks and Barlowes and they are growing for the first time since 2010.
White Mountain Half-Runner Bean Seeds

When I walk through our fields at Heart & Sole Gardens, familial bonds surround me.  I experience a visceral connection to ancestors when I grow the foods of my childhood and when I harvest, I can actually hear my grandparents' voices and their laughter.  Recalling life lessons they taught, I find comfort in continuing a legacy and I look forward to sharing inherited heirloom treasures with the next generation.

One of Richard's favorite treats is pickled beans.  As a wedding gift, his grandmother presented me with her handwritten recipe for Dilly Beans. To enjoy these briny beans, use unblemished, young beans and remove all strings.

Gran's Dilly Beans

Vestal Anderson's Dilly Beans

In a large pot, heat 2 cups distilled white vinegar, 1 3/4 cups water, 3 tablespoons sugar (I omit this) and 4 tablespoons kosher or sea salt, stir until salt (and sugar, if added) dissolves, remove pan from heat
4 pints fresh, young beans, trim ends and remove strings
In a large pot, cover beans with boiling water and allow to gently cook for 10 minutes, use slotted spoon to remove beans from water and plunge them into ice water
In four pint jars, place one sprig of dill, one clove of garlic and pack the cooled beans vertically
Optional:  I sometimes add a pinch of dried pepper flakes, sliced fresh jalapeno peppers or small hot red peppers
Pour hot pickling mixture over packed beans and either store in the refrigerator or can in a water bath, boiling jars for 20 minutes.  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

That Taste of Wild Blackberries

Japanese beetles also enjoy wild blackberries

Lately, fresh juicy heirloom tomatoes seem to be everywhere.  Magazine covers, cooking shows, Instagram and Twitter posts.  Last night, I even dreamed I was picking tomatoes at my farm.  Alas, that was only a dream.  Heart & Sole tomatoes should be ripe in a week or two, but for now, I content myself with pruning plants and attempting to contain them in their cages.  After working in the hot sun for a few hours, I noticed the wild blackberry canes that edge our field held ripe berries and I decided to take a break.

Recently, Swiss company Firmenich proclaimed Blackberry to be the most popular flavor trend of 2014.  The largest privately-owned supplier of fragrance and flavor with a business presence in sixty-four countries, Firmenich bases its annual predictions upon consumer demand and popularity of flavor profiles.  Firmenich's announcement is no surprise to me.

Blackberries are one of my favorite fruits.  Although I will occasionally purchase a small box of hybrid berries, compared to their wild cousins, the taste never fails to disappoint.  If you have never picked wild blackberries, make plans now to do so.  Bramble scratches, stained hands and possible mosquito and chigger attacks should not deter one from enjoying this delicious and healthy treat.  Of course, if you are very lucky, you may find some wild berries at the local farmer's market and their unique flavor is worth a premium price.  As I child, I happily picked wild blackberries for my neighbor, who paid me the handsome sum of fifty cents per gallon. 

Before picking berries, always seek permission from property owners and be sure to dress appropriately.  Because blackberry briers grow in a tangle, it is often difficult to see the ground, so long pants are necessary to protect legs from scratches and possible lurking snakes.  Snakes do not eat blackberries, but they prey upon birds that do.  Wear tall boots or protective chaps or leggings and long-sleeved shirts to protect bare arms.

Harvest berries that are firm, but completely ripe
Long regarded as a natural folk remedy, ancient Greek physicians treated gout with blackberries and the leaves, roots and fruit have medicinal uses in many cultures.  Rich in tannins, blackberry leaves and dried roots were used to treat dysentery and other digestive issues in Native Americans and people have chewed blackberry leaves to cure gum ailments for thousands of years.  Fruit juice elicits a dark purple natural dye and both fruit and juice have high antioxidant levels.

Health benefits aside, wild blackberries are delicious.  Add to smoothies or juice them; blackberries have unique flavor and make beautiful jams and jellies.  A quick, easy way to preserve wild blackberries is to freeze them.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spread berries in a single layer.  Place the pan in the freezer until berries are frozen and then store them in plastic bags.

Try this recipe for a special brunch treat.  Fresh wild blackberries are naturally sweet, so there is no need to add a lot of sugar, but if you have a sweet tooth, increase the sugar in the cream cheese mixture.

Pancakes Stuffed with Cream Cheese & Wild Blackberries

Yield: 2 large pancakes, may double or triple recipe.

In a small saucepan, simmer 1 cup wild blackberries and 2 tablespoons sugar until berries release juices and are soft, about 10 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow to cool.

In small bowl, mix 4 ounces softened cream cheese, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla.  Fold in 1/3 cup blackberries.  Set aside while you make the pancakes.

Stir together:
1 cup flour (I used King Arthur All Purpose)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup buttermilk

In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil over high heat.  When pan is hot, add 1/2 the pancake batter.  Use a metal spoon to spread the batter so the cake will be fairly thin.  Cook over medium high heat until the bottom side is nicely browned.  Flip the cake and cook the other side.  Use a large spatula to press the cake to be sure it is cooked through.  Remove the cake to a plate and add remaining batter to cook the second pancake.

While cakes are hot, spread half the cream cheese mixture on one side of the pancake circle.  Roll the cake to form a log.  Spoon cooked berries and juice over the top.  Add fresh berries for garnish, if you like.  Optional: top with whipped cream or sprinkle with powdered sugar. 

Oh, and just in case you missed Firmenich's 2013 flavor trend, it was Lime. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Peas & Carrots & Ice Cream?

Like peas and carrots
There is nothing like the taste of fresh, just-harvested fruits and vegetables, especially when they are gathered at the peak of ripeness.  I often eat fresh greens, beans, asparagus, squash, cucumbers and other tempting treats while working at Heart & Sole Gardens.  Ripe cherry tomatoes, warm with sunshine, are addictive and I dream of tomato season as I harvest the last sugar snap peas and carrots.

Part of our growing strategy at the farm is that Richard and I try to plant enough to "share" with pests.  Although we planted hundreds of sugar snap pea seeds, many of the young plants were decimated by deer, those doe-eyed, nocturnal eating machines.  With the first few blossoms, I despaired of an abundant harvest and just hoped for enough peas to enjoy with a few meals.  Finally, the deer seemed to vanish (at least for the moment) and pods formed on the remaining plants.  Plucking the first tender mature pod from a vine, I popped it into Richard's mouth.  As he savored the sweet vegetable, he remarked, "I really can't blame the deer.  These are delicious!"

One of my favorite small kitchen appliances is a one-quart electric ice cream maker.  In a matter of minutes, this machine churns a few simple ingredients into a concoction that reminds me of the homemade ice cream we made at my grandparents' home when I was a child.  For an easy dessert, just mix whipping cream, seasonal fruit, a little sugar and vanilla flavoring, pour it into the frozen bowl and plug in the machine.  In about ten minutes, the ice cream is ready.  The other night, I planned to make vanilla ice cream and serve it with wild blackberries, but when I looked at the baskets of sugar snap peas and baby carrots I brought home from the farm, plans changed and I decided to experiment. After all, what goes together better than peas and carrots?

I will admit, sometimes when combining ingredients to develop a new dish, my efforts fall flat.  Such was the case when I used the deep-purple broth of red mustard to cook rice.  I hoped for a beautiful lavender color, but instead, wound up with rice that looked like dryer lint.  Unappetizing, to say the least.  Thankfully, "Peas and Carrots" ice cream was a success.  With the vegetables' natural sweetness, I used less sugar than the basic recipe and noted the frozen nuggets have a nutty texture and a fresh-vegetable explosion of flavor.  If you try this recipe, be sure to save the pea pods for another use.  They are terrific added to stir fry or lightly seasoned and sauteed in a splash of hot oil.

For a healthier holiday treat, make this ice cream and serve it with my grandmother's carrot cake recipe.  Warm from the oven, topped with a serving of vegetables, the kids will never realize this dessert is good for them.  Oops, gotta run.  I think Ben and Jerry are calling . . .they should call it "Peatah Rabbit."

Granny's carrot cake recipe at in Spring recipe section

 Peas & Carrots Ice Cream

2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup sugar (the vegetables' natural sweetness means adding less sugar than the original recipe's 1/2 cup)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup fresh sugar snap peas, shelled
1/4 cup fresh chopped carrots (I whirled these in the food processor, for easier preparation)

Combine ingredients and pour into electric ice cream freezer bowl.  Churn for about 10 minutes, until cream is firm.
*Note: Between uses, store the ice cream maker bowl in the freezer.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Eggplant, Loved by Every Pest

Eggplants: Beautiful and Delicious

When I was a child, most of our family's produce grew in our own garden or came from someone we knew.  During the summer growing season, my mother prepared beans, squash, cucumbers, corn, okra, tomatoes, potatoes and many other delicious vegetables and fruits, but I never saw an eggplant until, as an adult, I spotted a supermarket bin full of the fruit and I was intrigued by the deep purple flesh, but had no clue how to prepare this ingredient.  Now, after years of growing this plant and cooking its fruit, I can not imagine my garden, or my kitchen, without eggplant.

A member of the nightshade family, early eggplants were small and mostly white, hence the name, and cooks in India and Asian countries prepared eggplant for hundreds of years before it was introduced to European countries.  Historians credit Thomas Jefferson with bringing the first eggplants to the United States, where they were more likely to be ornamental display than food until ethnic dishes began to influence the general population's diet. Like squash, eggplant is a bit bland in flavor, but is a great "canvas" food and it easily incorporates spicy, sweet or savory flavors.

I start almost every plant I grow at Heart & Sole Gardens from heirloom seeds and each year I add at least one eggplant variety to my farm.  Eggplants love hot growing conditions and the tender plants typically have a slow start until the weather is warm enough for them to thrive.  Unfortunately, the flea beetle life cycle usually is at the point of lethal attack when I transplant my eggplants to the farm.  Several years ago, I witnessed that pest destroy my small plants within hours after they touched farm soil, so I now take drastic measures to protect them.  In addition to flea beetles, a variety of worms love to eat eggplant leaves, along with aphids, Colorado potato beetles and mites, plus, eggplants can be susceptible to blights and fungal diseases. 
Flea beetles attack potato leaves, but they love eggplant best
Last week, I decided to transplant eggplants to the farm and, fortunately, my nephew, Ben Hamby, agreed to be my farm helper that day.  Although he confessed he knew little about farming, Ben was a quick study and he impressed me with his attention to detail, his enthusiasm and his strong back.  With a storm approaching, Ben dug holes for the eggplants, I added a cocktail mixture of Epsom salts, blood and bone meal and crushed eggshells.  Ben quickly shoveled a bucket of composted manure to add to the holes while I fetched water from the creek.  Together we set the tender plants in their new homes, watered them and then placed sheer food covers over each eggplant.  I hammered stakes and Ben labeled each variety with duct tape and a permanent marker.  We finished the last of thirty plants just as a drenching rain began to fall.  As we drove away, Ben remarked that he did not know if he liked eggplant.  I assured him, if there is a harvest, we will cook with eggplant and I think he will love it.
With a storm approaching, Ben labels eggplants
Sheer picnic food covers and pinwheels will (hopefully) help protect young plants from pest attack

In a successful growing season, eggplants are one of the most prolific producers.  Be sure to harvest young eggplants before seeds turn dark. For a tasty way to use an abundant crop, try this twist on a hummus recipe.  It is delicious and fun to say, Baba Ghanoush!

Baba Ghanoush

4 small eggplants, halved and lightly coated with olive oil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and place eggplants, cut side down, on foil-lined baking sheet
Roast eggplants for about 15 minutes, until soft, allow to cool slightly
Use a spoon to scoop out eggplant flesh and place in food processor, discard skin
Add 2 cloves garlic, minced and 2 tablespoons tahini
Pulse until blended, add 2 tablespoons lemon juice and 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Pulse a few times, then add about 1/4 cup sun dried tomatoes, 2 tablespoons pitted kalamata olives and about 1/4 cup olive oil, adding oil and blending until smooth

Serve with pita bread, crackers or tortilla chips

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Remembering Rosemary

Rosemary, a hardy, fragrant and delicious perennial herb
In William Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, it was the character, Ophelia, who said, There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember.  I recalled that line earlier today when I went to weed my kitchen garden herb bed.  A raised 20'x12' area should not be difficult to maintain, but when most of my gardening time is spent at Heart & Sole, sometimes the herb bed suffers and I took advantage of a pleasant weather morning to tackle overgrown areas.  Sadly, I noticed my elderly rosemary bush, planted in 2001, was dead. 
Dead rosemary, planted in 2001
Thankfully, a couple of years ago, when the herb began to show signs of aging, I took cuttings from the plant and stuck them in a vase of water on my kitchen window sill.  Those small branches took root and I placed them in the herb bed near the parent plant.  Today, those cuttings are a thriving small bush and I am glad to have rosemary included in my herb collection.  One of the hardiest herbs for our area, rosemary blossoms are a beautiful shade of blue and the plant usually blooms during cold winter days, imparting a rare glimpse of coming spring.  Woody rosemary branches make excellent skewers for grilling meats and vegetables and I like to place them, along with other herbs, under beef or lamb before oven roasting.  The herbs form a natural and flavorful roasting rack for the meat.  Rosemary is a primary ingredient in many of my herbed vinegar recipes and the branches make sturdy additions to flower arrangements. 

As I surveyed the two rosemary bushes, one vibrant green and the other a tangle of brown, brittle branches, I reflected upon how gardening mirrors other life cycles.  Birth, reproduction and death are all important components of a healthy garden.  Even though the dead rosemary bush will no longer produce its pungent leaves, I cut each branch and put them in a huge plastic bag.  Chef Clark Barlowe plans to use the branches for smoking meats at Heirloom Restaurant and I am glad this beloved plant will have one final culinary use.  As I cut the branches away from the gnarled trunk, I discovered one of the rosemary branches was bent to the ground.  Where it touched the soil, the branch formed roots and a plant was growing from this branch.  Smiling at the unexpected surprise, I trimmed away the dead branches and tidied the plant's area.  It is not the prettiest rosemary shrub, but tucked into the back of my herb bed, against the south-facing wall of our home, it may survive for quite some time. At any rate, after thirteen productive years, I think it deserves a chance.
Before its death, the elderly rosemary produced an offspring  
Add fresh herbs to dishes for flavor and nutritional value.  Herbs also are a delicious alternative to salt.  One of the easiest ways to use herbs, this recipe is a family favorite at my home.  Use the herbs in the recipe or others you like.  This recipe is about mixing flavorful herbs and is a great one to vary, according to taste preference.  Sometimes, I add minced garlic or onions or the pink "blossoms," called bubils, on garlic scapes.  Whether you grow your own herbs or purchase them at a farmer's market, be sure to select plants with tender, young leaves.  If you pick your own, harvest them in the morning when they pack more flavor.
Garlic bubils add visual interest and flavor to chopped herbs

Herb Dip

1 sprig rosemary and 3 sprigs thyme, remove leaves from woody stems, discard stems
2 basil leaves
2 sage leaves
2 small sprigs dill
1 small fennel frond
1 small borage leaf
5 sprigs flat leaf parsley
1 sprig oregano, remove leaves and discard stem
5 chives, onion or garlic varieties, or both

Place all herb leaves on a large cutting board and finely chop with a large knife.
In a serving bowl, add chopped herbs, a pinch of dried red pepper flakes, a tiny pinch of salt (optional) and a few grinds of black pepper.
Pour good quality olive oil over mixture, add a splash of balsamic vinegar and immediately serve with warm bread.
The gnarled rosemary trunk attests to the plant's longevity