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

 

Monday, June 29, 2015

When It Comes to Berries, Go WILD

Despite our recent hot, dry weather at Heart & Sole Gardens, blackberries are ripening along creek banks and I can not resist that taste when I take breaks from pulling weeds in almost 100 degree temperatures. The tart sweet flavor revives me and, with a good drink of water, farm work is again possible. 

Unlike hybrids, wild blackberries vary in size and flavor
Along the wooded tree line at our farm is a patch of wild raspberries, both red and black.  These fruits are smaller than supermarket hybrids, but like wild blackberries, possess more intense flavor.  Close to the raspberry canes is a mulberry tree and the last of its ripe fruit is another temptation, but most of those berries go to hungry birds that can reach those tall branches much easier than I. 
Japanese beetles also love wild berries
If you have never tried wild berries, plan to enjoy these seasonal treats this summer.  When I was a child, my neighbor paid me fifty cents per gallon for all the blackberries I could pick.  Despite summer's heat, battle scars from the prickly briers and the lurking fear of encountering snakes lying in wait for small rodents and birds that came to feast on the berries, I enjoyed picking blackberries.  Let me know if you find a child willing to sell wild berries for fifty cents per gallon . . .I will buy!  
Easy to identify, Wineberries are delicious wild treats
Another tasty wild berry that grows in North Carolina is the Japanese Wineberry.  Similar in shape and color to the red raspberry, Wineberries have a unique flavor and with an almost non-existent shelf life, it is imperative to consume or process them as soon as possible after harvesting.  To learn more about Japanese Wineberries, visit Seedtales and, if you are lucky enough to find Wineberries or happen to have some growing in your backyard, try the recipe, courtesy of Heirloom Restaurant's Chef Clark Barlowe, included in the blog.  
Visit seedtales.com for the recipe for Wineberry Upside Down Cakes



Monday, June 22, 2015

Heirloom Summer Squash

Finally, squash season arrived at Heart & Sole Gardens and it is a labor of love to harvest tiny squash while still blooming, small ones perfect for steaming, medium ones for frying, grilling or stuffing and those huge ones?  The ones that cleverly hide from view until suddenly appearing, rivaling the size of Little League baseball bats?  Why, those make delicious bread!  My blueberries should be ripe in a few weeks and I can not wait to try a recipe for zucchini blueberry bread posted at 
The Olive and the Sea 


Heirloom squash. The small thing in the center is a female stamen

As a grower, I can not take credit for this season's squash crop.  Because we left the last huge fruit in the field last summer, those cucurbits dried, broke open with the spring tilling and planted themselves.  Heirloom seeds are pretty crafty when it comes to perpetuating a life cycle.  Along with squash, okra, peas, beans, corn and lots of leafy greens popped up in the field.  Although some of those plants did not survive, due to our crop rotation plan, Richard, who can operate that six-foot tiller unlike anyone else I know, wiggled the tractor through several areas and saved the squash.  Our rewards are straightneck, crookneck, zucchini, patty pan and a cross variety that developed when I planted several varieties together a few years ago and then saved seeds.  Talk about "free" food!
 
Volunteer squash plants

If you have never eaten a squash blossom, raw, grilled or fried, vow to do so this summer and you will regret all those years you missed one of the season's special treats.  Harvest baby squash while blossoms are fresh and attached and remove the inner stamen from the bloom.  Carefully fill the blossom about halfway with fresh chevre, either plain or flavored with fresh herbs, and twist the ends of the blossom to close.  At this point, you have a choice.  Either eat the squash raw or cook it.  Brush a light coating of olive oil over the squash and grill over charcoal until the squash is heated, but still crunchy.  Alternatively, place the stuffed squash in a bowl of buttermilk and allow to rest for about 30 minutes.  Remove squash from buttermilk and gently shake with some seasoned flour or seafood breader mix, then fry in hot oil until golden.  
 
Visit seedtales for this stuffed squash recipe, topped with fried blossoms

Enjoy squash season and for more of Heart & Sole's free food crop story, along with some delicious recipes, be sure to read the blog at Seedtales

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Celebrate National Pollinator Week, Save Honeybee Lives!

Aren't flower gardens beautiful this year?  Recent rains boosted plants struggling during dry weeks and colorful blossoms now reward gardeners and passersby.  Greenhouses and garden centers at private and big box stores report lively sales as consumers choose plants to provide beauty for humans and forage for honeybees and other pollinators, but there is a dark side to buying plants.  Before reaching for another Shasta daisy or other enticing plant, pause to consider its source and whether it will be healthy food for foraging pollinators or an addictive, deadly enticement.  Yes, deadly. 

Local retailers offer blooming plants treated with Neonicotinoids
Environmental protection group, Friends of the Earth, revealed in a June, 2014, study that neonicotinoid pesticides were detected in over fifty percent of sampled "bee friendly" plants sold by major retailers in eighteen Canada and US cities.  Neonicotinoid pesticides are chemically similar to nicotine and a research report recently published in Nature indicates pollinators, including honeybees, prefer food laced with this substance, which kills insect pests, but also kills non-target species, like honeybees and bumblebees, attacking their central nervous systems, causing paralysis, then death.  Some companies, including Home Depot and BJ's Wholesale Club, now require wholesale growers to label neonicotinoid-treated plants and Lowes Home Improvement stores, over the next four years, plan to phase out selling products that contain neonicotinoids.   
Neonicotinoids kill pests, but can be deadly to helpful pollinators

Heart & Sole Gardens is honored to host honeybees and not only do these unpaid farm laborers increase crop yield, they share delicious honey and provide entertainment and instruction as we observe their lives.  During a recent visit to the garden center at a local retailer, I happened to meet a grower delivering neonicotinoid treated plants.  When I asked about the label, the grower assured me the chemicals are safe and greatly reduce the number of pesticides growers use to "protect" the plants.  Although this grower's company labels plants, as mandated by their retailer, other growers selling through different venues may not label plants treated with neonicotinoids, making consumers responsible for seeking that information. 
Approved by EPA, currently banned in European Union
As we chatted, I observed four pollinator species foraging among the store's blooming plants, all of which held labels that identified the presence of neonicotinoids.  After years of observing pollinators at work, I noted these bees were almost frantically feeding, quickly flying from bloom to bloom, rather than pausing to forage before seeking another food source, as pollinators do at Heart & Sole.  Were these bees "buzzed" from the insecticide or was it my imagination?  I hope someone will conduct a study about foraging behavior with emphasis on plants treated with neonicotinoids.  
The bumblebee's jerky movements made it difficult to capture a photo
With a strong national emphasis underway to increase awareness of the importance of all pollinators, including honeybees, proponents like President Barack Obama, are alarmed by reports that, since 2006, US honeybee colonies show an annual decrease in number.  As experts look for pollinator death causes and solutions to prevent future losses, what can we, as individuals, do to support honeybee health?  For starters, consider the following:


*Begin by celebrating National Pollinator Week, as designated by the non-profit organization, Pollinator Partnership, and the US Department of Agriculture.  For 2015, National Pollinator Week is June 15-21.  

*If any NC citizen suspects honeybee pesticide poisoning, the first course of action is to contact the NC Department of Agriculture.  An inspector will test and evaluate the hive and report results to the beekeeper.  Contact information for the Apiary Division is: NC Dept of Ag Apiary Division  

*When purchasing plants from a major retailer or private greenhouse, check to see if there is a label indicating the plants were treated with neonicotinoid pesticides.  If there is no label, ask the supervisor or owner.

*Designate part of your garden as bee forage and grow plants from chemical free heirloom seeds.  

*Visit bee expert Gunther Hauk, either virtually at Spikenard Farm or at his Virginia honeybee sanctuary where he and his wife, Vivian,  lead tours and conduct biodynamic beekeeping classes for novices and advanced students. 

 *Avoid using lawn chemicals and allow wild bee forage, like clover and dandelions, to bloom.

*Join a local beekeepers association and support those who host honeybee colonies.  Enroll in a local beekeeping class, such as the one offered through Heirloom Restaurant or volunteer to help a beekeeper friend as you learn about these extraordinary creatures.

*With every bite of fresh fruits and vegetables, pause to be grateful to the tiny pollinators who made it possible to enjoy those treats.

***Visit Seedtales 
For more information about pollinator health, neonicotinoid issues, relationships between farmers and beekeepers and what is being done in North Carolina to protect pollinators.



Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Waste Not From the Garden

Growing one's own food instills a level of appreciation that is not achieved by shopping at the supermarket.  After planting seeds, carefully tending plants and protecting them from pests, then harvesting the fruits of all that labor, it's hard to waste any part of the gift. 

Radishes: Can't you just hear the conversation?

Since most vegetable and fruit plants are edible from sprout to blossom to ripe goodness, I often look for ways to use components I used to just toss in the compost bin.
Five pounds of radishes
With a bountiful harvest of radishes, carrots and a variety of greens, spring is a perfect time to combine some of the "trim" from these crops in a delicious soup.  Whether you enjoy it immediately or make a huge batch to preserve for later, this recipe is one that you will appreciate for its simplicity, its healthy content, its spring-on-the-tongue flavor and its use of vegetable components that frequently end up as compost.  
 
Not all radishes are round and red

Potatoes thicken the soup and cream is not necessary, but adds a certain rich gild to the lily.  Soup is usually better a day after it is made, to allow flavors to meld, but after tasting this one, it will be hard to resist eating as soon as it is done.


Colorful radish slices & blossoms are lovely spring garnishes


Waste Not Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 large sweet onion, chopped
1 teaspoon minced garlic (fresh, green, if available)
1-2 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/4 in rounds
4 cups fresh radish, carrot, beet greens (or any fresh green "trim")
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
Salt/pepper to taste
Fresh radishes, thinly sliced, and radish blossoms (for garnish)

Heat oil over medium heat in a large stock pot.  Add onion and garlic and saute until translucent, about 2-3 minutes.  Add potato slices and fresh greens, stir to coat with oil.  Add stock and bring to a boil.  Lower heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, or until potatoes are tender.
Remove from heat and allow to slightly cool.  Use an immersion blender to blend ingredients into a smooth mixture.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add cream (if using) and warm soup over low heat, but do not boil.  
Serve hot with garnishes. 

*This soup is delicious with fresh herbs mixed with the other greens.  Sage leaves, parsley, borage leaves, dill, oregano, basil, mint, chives, *rosemary and *thyme are all possibilities.  Experiment to create your own favorite flavors. 
*Remove leaves from woody stems before adding to soup base.