Saturday, October 18, 2014

Boots on the Ground Spell Sole Work

"You spelled your name wrong."  I was working, with my daughter, Kate, to set up our farmer's market booth in Blowing Rock and I looked up to see a man standing beside our sign.  He pointed a finger at the board.  "Sole.  It's supposed to be s-o-u-l."  I smiled at his smug face as I responded.  "Sir, you do not understand what I do."

It takes sole work to produce soul food
Years since that interaction, I often speak with people who attempt to correct my spelling, but gardeners who coax food from soil realize farming is its own "boots on the ground" job.  When I work in the fields, freshly plowed or covered with mile-high weeds, sturdy boots protect and support my feet and help to propel me from one task to the next.  Intense summer sunshine bakes both soil and soles and the vehicle's air conditioning brings welcome relief when I drive home after working in the heat.  Underfoot, ice crystals sometimes crunch as I harvest winter crops.  This week, after days of torrential downpours, knee-high waterproof boots kept my feet dry as I harvested Bok Choy, late tomatoes and fall greens.  Quicksand-like mud pulled at my ankles, threatening to toss me to the ground, but with the help of my boots, I traversed pools of standing water and stayed upright while I worked. 

Rubber boots protect feet from treacherous mud

Soon after we began to farm, Richard and I discovered the joy of harvesting and eating the fruits of our labor and we regard fresh produce as food for the body, mind and soul, but without sole work, it is not possible to grow a successful crop.  Sole work makes us more grateful for all food.  After losing almost an entire crop of butterbeans to hungry deer and groundhog attacks, the unexpected gift of the same variety of beans from a fellow gardener was a pleasant surprise.  Knowing the sole work behind the gift deepens my appreciation and enriches the bean flavor.

Worn soles reflect the day's toil
When shopping for soul food at the farmer's market, pause to consider the physical, financial and emotional investments made by sole workers who offer their wares.  Marvel at how each plant began life as a seed and offer thanks to those who humanely raised the protein ingredients you enjoy.  Occasionally, trade your street shoes for a pair of working boots and prepare to find yourself humbled by sole work as you grow your own food.
A potato heart sits in a boot print

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Exceptional Heirloom Eggplants

Just when I thought this summer's eggplant crop was a total failure, those tenacious plants produced colorful, delicious fruit. Despite attacks from Colorado potato, Harlequin and flea beetles, worms, deer and my Personal Arch Nemesis, the aptly named GROUNDHOG, the eggplants are sporting an abundant crop of babies.  As with other summer crops, my task is to preserve flavor for the coming winter.
Baby eggplants are perfect for pickling
One of my family's favorite eggplant treats is a pickled version I store in the refrigerator.  These tangy slices are uniquely eggplant-flavored and are delicious pizza toppings, antipasti components, fried rice or pasta sauce additives or finger food, fished from the jar.  Baby eggplants are best for this recipe, but for optimum flavor, harvest all eggplants before seeds turn dark.  
Do not peel baby eggplants; the skin colors are beautiful in this dish

Pickled Eggplant

Select several small eggplants.  Check to be sure skins are unblemished and flesh is firm.  Wash fruit and dry.  Use a sharp knife to slice into 1/4 inch slices.  A variety of heirlooms, with smooth skins, will add color and visual interest to this preparation.  Inside a large bowl, fit a colander that leaves enough space to allow eggplants slices to drain. 
Arrange eggplant slices in a single layer for best drainage
Place eggplant slices in a single layer and liberally sprinkle with kosher or sea salt.  Carefully top the eggplant with another bowl that weights the eggplant, forcing liquid to drain from the slices.  I use the bowl from a mortar and pestle to add pressure.  Store the eggplant in a refrigerator overnight.  

The heavy bowl of a mortar and pestle helps press liquid from eggplant slices

The following day, use your hands to toss the drained eggplant slices in a large bowl with about 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar.  Do not worry about rinsing the salt from the slices; it will add to the flavor of the finished product.  Place a whole garlic clove and several peppercorns in the bottom of a wide-mouth glass jar, either pint or quart, depending upon the amount of eggplant.  Fill the jar about 1/3 with eggplant and then add fresh herbs.  I like oregano, basil, thyme and parsley, but feel free to experiment with herbs and spices.  Slice a couple of peppers, hot, sweet or both, and slide the halves between the eggplant and the glass.  Layer the eggplant with herbs and/or peppers and use fingers to press the contents.  When the jar is full, leaving about 1/2 inch headspace, fill with good quality olive oil.  Wipe the jar rim with a clean cloth, screw on a lid and store in the refrigerator. 

Fresh peppers and herbs add beauty and flavor to pickled eggplant

The olive oil will solidify in the refrigerator, so allow the jar to stand at room temperature for about an hour before using.  After a couple of weeks, the eggplant will absorb enough flavor from the herbs and spices to use, but will be more delicious after a few months.  That is, if it lasts that long!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Real Friends Share Recipes

We all know cooks who, rather than share a special recipe, will take the secret ingredients to the grave.  Years ago, my mother-in-law, Tut Barlowe, belonged to a book club and one of the members prided herself on a delicious green bean casserole she often served at meetings.  Although members begged for the recipe, the cook would not divulge it.  Each time the casserole was served, members whispered about possible ingredients and speculated about cooking techniques.  Finally, Tut came up with her own recreation of the dish she loved.  Perhaps it is not exactly the same recipe, but when Tut makes her green bean casserole for family gatherings, there are never leftovers. 

Recently, a friend and former coworker, Karen Watson Tolbert, shared a recipe with me that will always be in my late-summer arsenal.  Originally part of the "Miles Away Farm Blog," the post for "August is for Tomatoes" ( includes this super-easy and delicious recipe.  As is the case with the best recipes, this one came to Karen by way of another friend, Margaret Greer.  Sometimes, tracking the source of recipes is akin to tracing genealogical roots.  Whatever the primary source may be, this roasted tomato sauce recipe is a fabulous way to use heirloom tomatoes that are just-on-the-verge of becoming compost.  So far, my freezer is holding twelve batches of this recipe, but with a few late tomato plants, I just might do a couple more runs. . .

Fresh herbs & garlic chive blossom heads add flavor to roasted tomatoes

Visit the Miles Away Farm Blog for the original recipe, but feel free to add your own special touches.  With a bumper crop of heirloom peppers, I usually add some hot Thai peppers or sweet Jimmy Nardellos, tuck in some fresh oregano, garlic chive blossom heads or whatever is growing in the herb or vegetable garden that calls to me.  Splashes of balsamic or herbed vinegar add flavor depth.  Both Karen and Margaret add their own special touches with this recipe and each achieves a finished product that satisfies and delights their families. 

Roasting tomatoes emit a tantalizing kitchen fragrance

"Bruise like a banana" is a familiar quote, but for heirloom tomato growers, no fruit bruises more easily than a perfectly ripe love apple.  For that reason alone, it is nearly impossible for supermarkets to stock heirloom tomatoes.  When I harvest Great White tomatoes, using small, sharp pruners to snip the fruit from the vine, carefully place the tomatoes in a basket and drive them home, I invariably find bruises on the soft flesh, signaling spots that will quickly deteriorate.  Thankfully, the roasted tomato sauce recipe is a simple way to preserve the flavor of these precious fruits. 

Blemished fruit finds a purpose in the Roasted Tomato Sauce recipe

You may use a food processor or blender to process the finished roasted product, but an immersion blender makes that step a breeze.  Ease the roasted fruit, vegetables and herbs into a pot, whirl the stick blender throughout the mixture and use the results for a rich spaghetti or lasagna sauce base, add a bit of cream for a hearty soup or spread the sauce on pizza crust.  One taste will inspire you to create a variety of delicious dishes.  

For that green bean casserole recipe, visit and look for "Tut's Fresh Green Bean Casserole" under the summer recipes.  Both Tut and I agree, recipes should never be secret . . .

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Support Local Food at the Source, Go to the FAIR!

Flashing lights, clanging bells, bellowing cattle, roasting peanuts and whirling amusement rides.  Yes, it's that time of year when North Carolinians celebrate all things agricultural at local fairs.  Perhaps it has been awhile since you attended such an event and, if that is the case, make plans now to visit an agricultural fair.  For those who support local food, there is no better opportunity to witness, firsthand, the best of what grows in our state.  From local honey to broil-your-tongue fresh peppers, an agricultural fair is a chance to see the incredible variety of what NC produces.

When I was a child, my brother, cousins and I eagerly anticipated the annual agricultural fair.  It was a time to stuff ourselves with candy apples, pluck plastic ducks from a trough of water to win a prize and let our imaginations run wild as we made our way through the haunted house.  Although we loved every trip to the fair, one year stands out in my memory.

My brother, Dale, was about three years old when he discovered a garden hose attached to a water faucet near the farm animal barn.  Breaking free from our group, he grabbed the spray nozzle and, to his delight, discovered the water was on and he was in control of a powerful toy.  My mother called to him to rejoin us, but he was in his element, spraying water in a wide circle.  My grandmother began to walk toward him, but he turned the nozzle and sprayed her.  It was the only time I can recall seeing my grandmother run, high-stepping in retreat as my brother soaked the back of her green dress.  My cousins and I attempted to encircle the culprit, who was now screaming with laughter, but each time one of us tried to approach him, he would turn the water on us.  Finally, my mother braved the blast and walked through the stream to wrestle the nozzle from her son's grasp, her bouffant hairdo wilting under the soaking water.  Wringing water from our clothing, we walked to our car, our fair visit cut short.  As we drove away, someone began to giggle and soon, the entire group was laughing, tears adding more moisture to our already wet faces.  To this day, it is a memory that makes me laugh aloud.

Earlier this week, I packed boxes of canned goods and fresh produce and delivered them to the Caldwell County Fairgrounds where I found Darlene Berry, Seth Nagy, Dolly Whisnant, Nancy Clark, Maggie Miller, Lois Hoyle, Lee Cox and Dick Mitchell, fair organizers and directors, whose hard work and planning are evident.  My friend, Karen Storie Glasscock, received several blue and red ribbons for her entries in the Mocksville, NC, fair, and she and I have a friendly competition to see who will win the most prizes.   Although award money is minimal, pride is at stake and Karen threw the gauntlet this year.   Competition at agricultural fairs is friendly, but I admit I will be sorely disappointed if my pretty pickled cherry tomatoes do not receive a prize!

A couple of Karen's prize ribbons from the Mocksville Fair

Local fairs focus on youth groups and visitors are inspired by a wide range of entries from young people, ages 5-19.  From food preservation to arts and crafts to horticulture and many other categories, it is gratifying to see the efforts of these talented youngsters.  The Junior Beef Heifer Show, open to exhibitors under 21 years old, is a hotly contested and thrilling event.  Caldwell County's show will be held on Saturday, September 27th, at 2 pm. 

It is not too late to plan a trip to a local fair.  Rowan County, Atlantic District, Caldwell County, Chowan County, Moore County and Madison County fairs run through Saturday, the 27th and the Harnett Regional fair ends on Sunday, the 28th.  Wayne, Wilkes, Onslow, Stanley and Cleveland Counties all host fairs during the first week of October and the BIG SHOW, the NC State Fair, will be in Raleigh from October 16-26.  Revisit your childhood with a trip to one of these events or take a child.  Just be sure to keep an eye out for unguarded water hoses!
Richard carries our son, Clark, into the Caldwell Fair, 1988. 

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: