Sunday, August 24, 2014

Squash Season is Here, Lock Your Doors

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

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

Grilled Baby Squash with Blossoms

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

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

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Heirloom Tomato Processing: A Day in the Life

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Red Thumbs and Pinky Toes

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

Potato blossoms are pretty enough for the flower garden

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

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

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

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

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.