12/28/11

Warning: Sinus Clearing Ahead

I was such a picky eater as a kid, no one would have predicted that I'd someday be a fan of hot, spicy, and strong flavored foods. Hot chile powder from New Mexico, wasabi paste with sushi, jalapenos - yum! Now I've up'd the bar, with my homegrown, homemade prepared horseradish.

One of those ugly dried roots in the grocery produce section caught my attention two years ago. I wondered if it would grow if I planted it in my veggie garden. I bought it, brought it home, dug a deep narrow hole, and buried the whole thick root in my spring garden soil. Boy, did it grow! Big, lush green foliage sprung up during the hot summer, first from the original root, then from the soil around the root. A little internet research told me that horseradish plants can be very invasive - oh no, I don't need a whole garden of horseradish! At the end of that first summer, I dug up the original plant and all the little baby plants it had sprouted. I replanted most of it, in an area I call my "excess" garden, where I allow invasive plants room to grow unrestricted (like mint). I kept some little roots, chopping fine and using with beef dishes. This was one potent horseradish!

I must add that I continued to pull up little horseradish volunteers in the vegetable garden during this past spring and summer. It wasn't hard to identify them - just break off a leaf and give it a whiff! The leaves are edible, by the way, and make a tasty addition to a salad, or an interesting flavor note in a stir-fry. By July, I stopped seeing any more horseradish greens, so I had cleared out all the invasive roots. In the excess garden where I had transplanted the horseradish the previous fall, the plants again grew vigorously. My November garden post pictures some roots I harvested this fall: horseradish, jerusalem artichokes, and beets.

Now, what to do with the horseradish roots? It wasn't difficult to find directions online for making my own prepared horseradish. I was warned by a friend that I should grind the roots outdoors, due to the very pungent horseradish "fumes" which would be released. If you are a fan of horseradish, you know the taste and smell will rush into your sinuses - a very different "hot" than with hot peppers. I had dug up several large pieces of root plus some long 1/2 inch diameter pieces, and I scrubbed them with a veggie brush, revealing beautiful white roots. It was good that I had harvested a sizable amount, since my Vitamix blender chops best when there is at least a cup of food in the container. (I reserved some horseradish chopped as thin slivers, to air-dehydrate and grind it into a powder, which worked out very well also). I read that freshly grated horseradish root can turn brown as it oxidizes, so I didn't cut it up until I was ready to use it.

So out to the porch table I went, ground the horseradish to a fine chop in the Vitamix - do not inhale when you open the lid! I added a touch of salt, then added a small amount of lemon juice (to keep it from discoloring) and vinegar. One recipe I read calls for 1/4 to 1/3 c vinegar, 1/2 to 1 tsp salt, and 2 cups of freshly grated horseradish. I wasn't so precise in my measurements; I watched the consistency as I blended, adding only as much liquid as needed to make it into a thick paste.

Viola! Extra-potent homemade horseradish! I made enough to fill 3 small jars, refrigerated one for immediate use, and froze two for future enjoyment. Cooking destroys the mustard oils which give horseradish its heat, so it's best to use uncooked, or add last to cooked dishes. Horseradish is traditional with roast beef, great with potato dishes, a good addition to sandwiches, and yummy in deviled eggs. Ask for a taste if you visit!

12/16/11

December in the Veggie Garden

Wild chickweed, edible and tasty, raw or cooked

My December garden doesn't look too much different from November. Our weather continues to be relatively mild with regular precipitation, so the winter vegetables are growing well. I was surprised and delighted to discover some "wild" greens I foraged last spring are lush and green again now. I confirmed the identity of Chickweed with my fellow foraging friend Judy; it's a mildly flavored, very nourishing plant, and can be used in a salad, in a green smoothie, or cooked lightly. It is growing in abundance in the rich soil outside my compost bin, and I am harvesting it to use almost daily.

From the garden, I've been picking romaine and leaf lettuce continually for salads, lots of beet greens (and beet "reds") to use raw and cooked, scallions from the onion bed, and tiny spinach leaves. I've twice harvested enough brussels sprouts for a meal. I lightly sauteed them with onions and they were delicious! As a first-time collard grower, I am waiting to see if the plants grow replacements where I've picked the Barbie-size cabbage heads at the intersections of the leaf with the main stem. I've also loved my collards. One morning I found them covered with beautiful lacy patterns of frost and figured they'd been killed. By afternoon the air was warm and they looked as healthy as ever, so their season continues. My "straw" mulch on the strawberry plants has proven to be a mistake; it's hay with seeds in it, so green grass is starting to grow everywhere - I'll be removing the straw and weeding soon!


I've also got a few things growing in the cold frame, which I keep closed unless the day is sunny and/or above 50 degrees. The flat leaf parsley in the cold frame is growing well, and the other seedlings I planted there are healthy although slow growing: romaine, spinach, red beets, leaf lettuce. The celeriac seedlings are still as tiny as they were months ago; I don't know what went wrong there.

Self-seeded cilantro, growing among larkspur and weeds!
I extended the growing season on some of my herbs by potting them in the fall and growing them by my south-facing basement window, where the temperature is usually 50-60 degrees. The lemon grass is growing tall and strong, so I'll be able to replant it outdoors in spring if the clumps I grew last year don't survive outside. I also have a pot of basil, which is a warm-weather annual. I have little pots of cilantro and mint also, but I am still able to harvest those from the outdoor gardens, along with lemon balm, parsley, rosemary, chives, sage, thyme, and fennel… yum! I planted a cilantro bed in the garden, but I also let it grow where it can go to seed (harvested as coriander) and replant itself, which it does very well. This time of year I also grow sprouts in the kitchen, for additional fresh harvests. I most often grow a mix of alfalfa, broccoli, and red clover sprouting seeds.


For those interested in learning more about cold weather gardening, I recommend the book The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman (fourseasonfarm.com). This man, with partner Barbara Damrosch, makes his living selling produce, year round - in Maine! He uses hot houses, cold houses, row covers, specially chosen varieties, and other means. The book is easy to read, very informative, and has a list of good resources. The successes and failures of his many years in business can be boiled down to methods a home gardener can employ.

If you are considering gardening for the first time, All New Square Foot Garden, by Mel Bartholomew (squarefootgardening.com), gives fabulous step by step instructions. The theory, based on growing in small, manageable raised beds, is helpful to experienced gardeners too. I've watched novice gardeners fail when, in their excitement, they plant a huge garden, only to discover they can't keep up with the work. They end up discouraged, with little to show for all their initial effort. This book helps you start small and enjoy success.

This time of year, gardeners like me start thinking about year's garden, especially when seed catalogs arrive in the mail. Somehow I got on the mailing list and received the most beautiful seed catalog I had ever seen last year. It's from Baker's Creek Heirloom Seeds. You can request it free and can view the entire catalog online: rareseeds.com. What amazed me were all the vegetables and fruits which I never even knew existed! This company has collected heirloom seeds from all over the world, with many interesting stories about the sources. There's page after page of tomato varieties, in all different colors, sizes, and shapes. There are squashes with colorful spots and bumpy textures on their skin. There are beans with "wings". Seeds from Iran, Thailand, former Soviet countries, and all over the USA. I love going through the catalog, over and over. Next month I'll report on new seeds I plan to grow in 2012.

'Hope you'll be enjoying home grown squashes and sweet potatoes as part of your holiday meals!

11/29/11

November in the Veggie Garden


Goodness... November is nearly over, and I haven't done my garden post. Life has been busy, even with my gardening work greatly reduced. My November garden looks empty, compared with previous months, but there's actually lots growing now. This autumn's weather has been the nicest in the seven years I've lived in East Tennessee. The first light frost didn't hit my garden until Nov. 10th, with a heavy frost one week later… late for our zone. Day length is short, but the leaves are off the trees so the garden gets lots of warmth from the sun. The warm weather crops have been dug up and added to the compost bin, and I've covered tender plants when the temps dipped below 32. I'm not certain about  some new things I've planted surviving the cold, but they will be on their own from now on, I'm not going to bother covering them any more. Here are the details:

  1. BEETS - The chioggia heirloom beets went to seed and replanted themselves, so I"ve been harvesting both the roots and the greens continually. The heirloom "bull's blood" beets which I planted from seeds didn't germinate real well, but I have about a dozen plants growing so I've been harvesting the leaves for salads. I'd like to let them reseed, but I'll need to be sure both varieties don't flower simultaneously or I won't get new plants true to the parent.
  2. LEMON GRASS - I moved the biggest clump of lemon grass to this part of the garden, and I also planted a clump in my "surplus garden" where I can let it grow without restriction. I am not certain it is winter-hardy here, so I've also taken a pot inside and it's growing well enough for me to harvest leaves occasionally… this way I'll have some to replant outside in spring if necessary.
  3. STRAWBERRIES - The main strawberry bed is still looking very healthy, and I bought some half-price Halloween straw to nestle around the plants, protecting them better from the winter cold. I loved my strawberries, and I want to be sure they produce next spring!
  4. CALENDULA - Also known as "pot marigold", the pretty yellow and orange flowers of the calendula are medicinal as well as edible. My summer plants bloomed profusely and I must have been neglectful in removing spent blooms, since I discovered many seedlings at the end of the summer. I organized them in a small patch, surprised that they would grow in fall. Mother Nature has her own tools for keeping growth to specific seasons; some seeds can lay on the ground for months, needing the freezing and thawing process to prepare them for warm weather growth. I had thought of calendula as a summer plant, like french marigolds, but this self-seeding might prove me wrong. In the meantime, I have some color in the garden, and I can harvest the petals, extract their vital components in oil, and create some nice salves and lotions with the filtered oil.
  5. BRUSSELS SPROUTS - The four seedlings planted a few months ago all have formed lovely little brussels sprouts at the intersections of the main stem and each leaf. A little cold is supposed to "sweeten" them, so I am anxious for harvesting soon! The plants I started from seed are still alive, but only a few inches tall, so I should have started them much earlier… next year I'll know better.
  6. ROMAINE - All the lettuce I started from seed is doing well, although everything grows much more slowly this time of year. Our occasional salads have been wonderful. Most recently I mixed lettuce greens, the dark red bull's blood beet leaves, the last tomato which ripened on the kitchen window sill, the last of the sweet green/red peppers, some crunchy sliced raw jerusalem artichokes, and fresh sprouts (alfalfa, clover, broccoli) grown in a jar indoors. Topped with my homemade Olive Garden style dressing it was a great meal. Lettuces can generally withstand temperatures as low as the mid 20's. I've also planted some in the cold frame, along with a few bull's blood beets, spinach and parsley.
  7. KALE - I haven't witnessed a return of the "woodchuck" type critter spotted eating my sweet potato vines in October, but something ate the gorgeous curly leaves off my kale plants. To protect them from further damage, I have covered them with the collapsable net hampers which I used last summer to ward off fleas from my eggplants. So far it's working, and I just pull up the stakes to harvest leaves.
  8. SPINACH - I love spinach, and I've now got it growing well in many areas of the garden, some still too small to show up well in this photo. This is one plant I know grows continually all winter, although slowly, and then takes off fast once the days lengthen in February. Yum!
  9. PARSLEY - The curly and flat leaf parsley will likely grow all winter too, and since the onions have strong green tops I can harvest and I still have mint in the herb garden I plan to try using dehydrated tomatoes to make some taboulli.

OTHER GARDEN NOTES:
SWEET POTATOES - I had only planted half as many sweet potato hills as last year, since I was overloaded, but my harvest this year was very disappointing. I am blaming it on the grasshoppers, zapping the energy from the plants to grow more leaves instead of roots.

WINTERING OVER PLANTS - Where I have empty space in the vegetable garden, I have submerged some potted outdoor plants in the soil. Plants in pots are more susceptible to freezing, but burying them gives added protection. I've done this with a lilac bush I had rooted during the summer as well as with some chrysanthemums. By spring the temperatures will be warm enough for me to dig them up and plant them in permanent locations.

HORSERADISH - Two years ago I bought a big ugly horseradish root from the supermarket and planted it in the veggie garden. It grew! Beware: it can be very invasive. So this spring I replanted the major root elsewhere, where it can flourish, and I kept digging up all the little volunteers which popped up. It grew vigorously all summer and I've dug up some roots recently. I'll do a later blog post on how I've preserved some of this spicy condiment.

HERBS - Many of my herbs, besides the parsley and fennel still growing in the vegetable garden, can be continue to be harvested, such as mints, thyme, rosemary, and lemon balm. I discovered a few years ago that cilantro is a cold-weather plant, when I found it had reseeded and was growing strong in the fall. So this year I planted cilantro seeds directly in the veggie garden. They are very slow to germinate, but I have a two foot bed of seedlings growing now. I'd rather have it when the tomatoes are ripe, to use in fresh salsa, but I have other recipes for which there is no substitute for the taste of cilantro.

11/2/11

Chocolate Mousse

Several friends have asked for this delicious recipe, which has unusual and surprising ingredients. It must be blended very smooth, so a powerful blender like a Vitamix or Blendtec works best. I adapted this from a recipe in a blog by Zoe V, a raw foodie, with slight changes. Remember, ingredients in bright red are explained in more detail on the INGREDIENTS list in the right sidebar.

CHOCOLATE MOUSSE
1/2 c soy milk or other liquid*
3 ripe avocados, peel and pit discarded
1/3 c honey OR light agave nectar
2 T coconut oil
1 t balsamic vinegar
2 t vanilla extract
1/2 t ground cinnamon
pinch of salt
1/3 c unsweetened cocoa powder
A few drops of liquid stevia, optional
More liquid* as needed

* For the liquid, choose according to your taste; organic soy or almond milk, 100% cherry juice, water

Add all ingredients except the cocao powder in the blender and emulsify. Because the mixture is dry you may need to use the temper to push the ingredients toward the blades. Turn the blender off, scrape the sides into the mix, and add the cocao powder. Blend until well incorporated, adding additional liquid until it is very creamy. Eat like a pudding, use as a fruit dip, or spoon into a pie crust and top with whipped cream!

Try your own taste variations, like adding peppermint leaves or extract to the mix, adding instant coffee or a coffee-flavored powder like Roma, organic orange zest, or try stirring chopped dark chocolate chunks into the finished mousse.

NOTES: Coconut oil is very healthful, and will be solid unless your room temperature is quite hot, so liquify by heating gently if necessary - I submerge it in a measuring cup within a container of hot water for a few minutes. Avocado sizes vary, but the portion amount is not critical to the success of this recipe; avocados are also very healthful and creamy but they don't have strong flavor on their own, so they add great texture to this recipe. I like to use Rapunzel Organic Cocoa Powder. I use either "Ohgave" light organic agave nectar or honey gathered and processed by my friend and neighbor, Susan. For a slightly sweeter taste, I add a few drops of liquid stevia extract, which I create myself from stevia leaves I grow.

10/26/11

October in the Veggie Garden

If you think this gardening season is over, you have to see my veggie garden. It's filled with plants still growing from summer and those planted for fall and winter harvests. I love gardening this time of year - everything grows slower with the shorter days, longer shadows, and cooler temperatures. There are no bugs bothering my plants (or biting me) and plant diseases seem non-existent. Hardly any weeds germinate, so that cuts back on the maintenance. This is extra-good, since work and life have been keeping me very occupied lately, and my gardening time has been very limited.

Plants which like cooler weather are primarily leafy vegetables, since there aren't bees around to pollinate fruit. Some, like brussels sprouts, won't grow in hot weather and supposedly taste better after a light frost. Others, like lettuces, will survive in temperatures down to the 20s F, even though they won't grow noticeable when it's really cold. Still others, like spinach, will continue to grow throughout our winter here in Zone 7. We've passed our average annual first frost date of October 24th without frost on my garden, and the next ten days don't show temperatures changing much, so the fall crops are in for great growing weather.

Here's what's growing for me now:

  1. AUTUMN - Notice how the leaves have turned color in the last month; our fall weather has been gorgeous this year, and the garden loves it.
  2. JALAPENOS - Everyone I know who has grown peppers this year has a bumper crop. My two jalapenos have produced over 200 pods each and are still going. The one in the red Kozy Koat was earlier to ripen, but production seems equal in both.
  3. SWEET POTATOES - I dug a couple of plants and was disappointed to find very few small potatoes had formed. Now I suspect the plants kept putting energy into regrowing the vines which were eaten by grasshoppers continually all summer, and the energy didn't go into creating roots. I am leaving the remaining plants in the ground for as long as possible, hoping more time will allow potatoes to form.
  4. ONIONS & GARLIC - The onion sets and starter garlic cloves I planted in September have come up great (see closeup photo). Both of these seem to pop up in the garden randomly if you have grown them in the past, so I've also dug and moved some volunteers around. I won't harvest the bulbs until next summer, but I can cut the green tops continually.
  5. BRUSSELS SPROUTS - These plants which I bought as seedlings are now beginning to form their little sprouts at the junction of each leaf with the central stem. The ones I started from seed are only about 2" tall, so I might not have enough growing weather to get them to maturity before winter.
  6. ROMAINE & LETTUCE - I set out seedlings I started indoors for baby romaine and black seeded simpson lettuce, and the Little Gem lettuce I grew last spring and let go to seed has also reseeded itself. I've been picking leaves and am looking forward to good harvests of all these.
  7. SWEET PEPPERS - For many nights when the temps were dipping below 40 degrees I have covered the pimento pepper and Chinese giant pepper plants with heavy black trash bags, since they don't like cold weather, so I am still picking lots of sweet red peppers.
  8. KALE - The kale seedlings are growing strong and I've harvested lots, in addition to the collard plants just below the pointer line. Both are highly nutritious and I am primarily using them raw in my green smoothies.
  9. COLD FRAME - I replaced the cold frame covers when the nighttime temps began to drop below 50 degrees. In the cold frame now are one tomato plant (all curled up on the ground), several parsley plants I will continue to pick from all winter, and one sweet potato plant in a pot (I'm hoping to be able to pick its leaves; might need to move the plant indoors when it gets really cold). I also have potted tiny CELERIAC seedlings in the cold frame, and they are extremely slow growers. I have to watch the temperatures, raising the cold frame tops when it's sunny and warm, and lowering or closing them when the temperature drops.
ELSEWHERE IN THE GARDEN:
COLLARDS - These greens have been phenomenal. I think I'd see the leaves grow if I sat a watched! I've only been eating them raw and in smoothies, but I'm getting such strong growth that I'll be trying them cooked soon.
SPINACH - I think I finally found a good way to insure germination of spinach seeds. First of all, they will not germinate in the garden until the temperatures are cool - all my efforts to plant them in August proved futile. I have tried cold stratification (putting seeds in and out of the freezer to simulate winter conditions) and don't know for sure if this helps. But I've had the best success by soaking the seeds in a cup of water for a day or two, then putting them on a damp paper towel and into a loosely closed zip bag on the top of the refrigerator (for warmth) for a few days. By then, nearly every seed has a tiny sprout started. When our daytime temperatures drop to the 70s, I plant these under about 1/4 inch of fertile garden soil, and keep them moist… They all seem to grow. Spinach is one plant which will actually continue to grow all winter here, and I usually have a huge harvest during early spring when their growth accelerates. I've already picked a few leaves to use fresh - takes a lot of spinach to make a serving of cooked greens.
BEETS - Some of my chioggia
SQUASH - One butternut squash is about 6" long, but I might not get more than that, due to my late planting and battles with insects. But my friend Susan was kind enough to share her harvest, so I won't go without!
CARROTS - The first bed of fall carrots I planted from seeds only grew one seedling. I'll blame it on bad seeds. So I've replanted a bed this month, with seeds that have grown well for me previously. I mulch the bed so the seeds stay moist since they are slow to germinate. I used old growth from my daylily bed as a mulch, so if this planting is not successful I'll be suspicious that the mulch was a problem, hindering growth.
CASABA - I only got one melon off this plant so I probably will not grow it again. The fruit was very tasty, perhaps would have been a bit sweeter if left on the vine longer.
MUMS - The pre-July cuttings have grown and flowered profusely, and I planted some elsewhere around the house. Most of those in the veggie garden I've cut for arrangements I bring when visiting friends. I'll move the rest of the plants early next spring, to permanent flower beds.
CALENDULA - This edible flower reseeded and it's growing strong. I didn't think it was a cool weather crop, but I've moved the volunteers into a bed and look forward to seeing how long they keep growing.
EGGPLANT - So delicious! Still getting a steady harvest to cook myself and share with friends too.
BASIL - The Thai basil will last until a freeze. It's purple flowers are lovely in my flower arrangements and the flavor of the leaves is very strong and delicious. I'll grow this again next year.
FENNEL - Reseeded itself and going strong. This plant should survive the winter here, as it did with two snowstorms last year.
CILANTRO - I struggled for several summers trying to grow cilantro and keep it from flowering. Then I discovered that some which had gone to seed began to grow again in October and survived all winter, without going to flower. So now I purposely plant it only in the fall. Just disappointed I don't have it fresh when tomatoes are ripening for salsa, but there are loads of other recipes for enjoying it.
CORN SALAD "MACHE" - This is a macro green for salads, and I tried sowing seeds for the first time. So far no sign of life.
JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES - I thought these were best dug after November, but my friend Judy was trying to move some in her gardens and discovered the tubers had formed already. So I dug up under one renegade stem I wanted to remove, and have been enjoying the handful of "chokes" I dug.

So if you live below the Mason-Dixon line and north of Florida and you've dug up your garden, go out and sow some spinach seeds for a bonus harvest with very little effort.

9/28/11

Dehydrating the Harvest

For many vegetables and fruits I grow, processing in my dehydrator is a great way of preserving the harvest. I've written about air drying to dehydrate herbs, but this time I am referring to using an electric dehydrator.

Even though I "cure" the home-grown onions and garlic I've dug up by air drying for a couple of weeks, I have not been successful keeping them in cellar storage for an extended time without many rotting. I've found dehydrating onions and garlic allows me to store them indefinitely, and I still find plenty of ways to use them - in soups, casseroles, dips, stews, etc. I've found this useful for my jalapeno harvest, which provides way more than I could ever use fresh. I'd love to dry them in decorative big bunches, as they do in New Mexico with their red chiles, but the first time I tried stringing my jalapenos together and hanging to air dry I just ended up with a lot of moldy peppers to throw away. Our east coast humidity doesn't quite do the trick, like the dry climate of Santa Fe! So my appliance of choice for these projects in my electric dehydrator.

My first electric dehydrator was given to me free from friends Gordon and Terry, who had bought it for venison jerky. They were no longer using it, so I gladly accepted the gift. It was circular, with the heat unit blowing air out from the center. There was no temperature control; just a lever for opening or closing the blowing air. It worked, but I found the drying to be very irregular; the trays had to be rotated up and down and the food had to be moved around from the outside to the inside areas on each level during the drying period. But I used it successfully, trying lots of different veggies and fruit. Tomatoes, bananas, apples, peaches, plums, and blueberries all dehydrated wonderfully. Dried green beans, sweet potatoes, carrots, greens, and most other vegetables didn't make the grade (kale chips are easier and better in my oven). Still, I was convinced that I'd keep dehydrating and decided I needed a better machine. My research showed the Excalibur to be the cadillac, and I bought  a 9-tray "factory reconditioned" model from the manufacturer's eBay store, with an adjustable thermostat and more even drying, with the motor and fan at the rear of square stacking trays. I've primarily used it for the past few years exclusively for drying fruits and veggies, and I sometimes make my own yogurt in it. I'm not big on eating fruit leathers and I haven't tried it for crackers or other recipes, but I might someday. From the start, it has worked fabulously.


So back to the onions, garlic, and jalapenos. I recommend dehydrating all of these outdoors, since the fumes are intense. I also recommend using a sheet of silicon parchment paper on each mesh tray, or the shrunken pieces will be falling through the trays as they dry. Excalibur sells pre-cut drying sheets (they call them disposable, but I rinse them and hang to dry from pant hangers so I can reuse them a few times) or you can cut your own from rolls of parchment paper from the supermarket baking aisle. For the onions and garlic, I peel and clean them, then pulse in my food processor only enough for a rough chop. Protecting my hands with gloves, I cut the stems off the jalapenos, then cut them lengthwise into quarters. The chopped pieces are spread in a single layer on the parchment sheets, right to the edges. Drying time varies, depending on the moisture content of what you are drying, the ambient temperature, the dehydrator temperature, the space around the items being dried, etc. I like to dry these 3 items until brittle, which might take 12 hours at 135 degrees. When dried thoroughly, I have the option to grind them into a fine powder, in a coffee grinder dedicated to herbs and spices (or in a food processor or high speed blender, when you have a big volume to grind). I also save the dried seeds which drop out of the jalapenos, and use them on pizzas. Rick dubbed the ground red jalapeno as my "secret powder", and my friend Julie likes me to keep her supplied - she sprinkles it on her homemade dark chocolate bark.

Dehydrated food will keep for a long time if stored in a cool dark area, and even longer if you vacuum seal them in bags or jars until ready to use. Enjoy!

9/16/11

September in the Vegetable Garden


My September garden looks empty compared with previous months, but it's a time of transition. I have pulled up plants which have stopped producing and I'm busy nourishing the soil with composted manure and lime for my fall plantings. The weather turned a bit cooler (highs in the low 80s) after we got about 8" of rain from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, and the soil was nicely loosened up by all the moisture so it's been easy to dig. Last week I stopped at my favorite fruit market to buy fresh produce (they have a ripe banana bin for 33¢/lb so I stock up and freeze them for smoothies) and I was delighted and surprised to find seedlings for many cool weather crops. Even though I'll plant seeds for many of the same crops, the 5" tall seedlings I purchased will give me a headstart. It's hard to see the small plants against the red clay soil in the photo above, but here's an update:
  1. One BUTTERNUT SQUASH plant has survived attacks from squash bugs and I am hoping there is time in its growing season for some to mature. For the past 2 years I've harvested about 25 butternut squashes from my garden, and they stored well in my basement until I used them all in about 9 months. I'll surely not get many this year, but I'd love a few!
  2. Both JALAPENOS are producing profusely (the second one is in the red Kozy Koat). The plants were so heavily laden with maturing peppers that they leaned over in the last windy storm. Now each one is in one of my largest tomato cages, anchored down with rebar. Remember, jalapeno and sweet peppers are not ripe in the green stage, even though that's how they are sold; let the jalapenos turn red/black, and bell peppers turn red (or purple, yellow, orange, depending on the variety). If you look at my Facebook page, you'll see my photo of a big bowl of red jalapenos I harvested recently. I dehydrated them and ground them into hot powder.
  3. The grasshopper raids on my SWEET POTATO bed seemed to have stopped and I am looking forward to digging lots, probably in October.
  4. I bought and planted a 4-pack of ROMAINE lettuce, planted on the edge of the garden so I can easily harvest a few leaves at a time.
  5. I pulled out the THAI LONG BEANS, since they were taking over everything. They were sold as a "bush" variety, but grew as long trailing vines for me. I got a decent harvest, and they are long and tasty when cooked, plus growing beans adds nitrogen to the soil they are in. But I am once again convinced that blue lake bush beans are my favorite green beans to grow - short plants, heavy yields, great taste, freeze well, and I like how they taste raw. In place of the long been plants, the CHRYSANTHEMUM babies, MARIGOLDS, FENNEL, and HOLY BASIL, which all were being covered over by the vines, are now happy. Every one of the 30 mum cuttings I planted last spring rooted, and the continuous pinching back now finds them loaded with flower buds, just in time for fall flowering. I need to move some into pots and other garden areas soon! I cut back the fennel plants after harvesting loads of seeds, and new young plants are growing from the root. I'm sure some of those seeds I missed will start new plants there too, and I'll be harvesting green fronds this fall.
  6. The red plastic mulch where the tomatoes had grown is now removed, up to this sprawling CANTALOUPE vine. Lots of flowers on it, but I haven't seen any fruit form, so it might have been planted too late. This plant hasn't been bothered by squash bugs … maybe it's due to the red mulch?
  7. I've planted nine seedlings of KALE here, and I'll be starting kale seeds elsewhere in the garden, as well as setting out seedlings I started indoors. Many fall (or early spring) seeds will not germinate in soil above 70 degrees, so I'm waiting for cooler temps to plant seeds directly in the garden so I won't waste seeds, as I have in the past due to my ignorance.
  8. I tried growing BRUSSELS SPROUTS unsuccessfully last spring; the weather warmed and the "sprouts" flowered right away. I knew it was a fall crop, but I tried anyway. Now I've planted 6 purchased seedlings and I will transplant the smaller seedlings which I started indoors last month when they get a bit stronger. I am looking for success this time!
  9. I've never grow COLLARDS, but I bought seedlings and planted them here. I will try them in my green smoothies as well as in many cooked recipes. The more veggies I eat, the more I like. Also in this area of the garden are small PARSLEY plants I purchased. Parsley is one of the only plants I have discovered which grows nearly year round in my garden, and it's yummy and nutritious. I love to make tabouli salad, use it in green smoothies, and use it as an herb in salads, sautes and soups.
   I have pulled out all but two TOMATO plants, after they succumbed to blight. I've already purchased two blight-resistant tomato seed varieties for next year, "Old Brooks" and "Legend". I have searched, unsuccessfully, for organic ways to rid my soil of the fungus which causes blight (the same blight which caused the Irish potato famine in the late 1800s). What's a garden without fresh tomatoes?
   The EGGPLANTS have also been under attack by grasshoppers, so I've had a lull in my harvest. Each plant has a couple of maturing fruit, so I am looking forward to making more Eggplant Parmesan with my new favorite recipe.
   One of my photos is a bit gross, but shows a TOMATO HORNWORM. When I discovered this one I was happy to see it covered with a natural parasite. The "braconid" wasp lays eggs on the hornworm and the larvae feed on the inside of the hornworm until the wasp is ready to "pupate" into a cocoon. The white, rice-shaped protrusions on the green hornworm are the cocoons. The wasps will kill the hornworms when they emerge and will seek others to parasitize, so I don't squish the hornworms when I find them in this state.
   The LEMON GRASS plant is enormous, and the lemon flavor is the strongest of any lemony herb I've grown. I hope it will survive the winter here.
   One CASABA melon plant is growing well, and I've warded off the attacking bugs with dustings of diatomaceous earth and sprayings of diluted kaolin clay. One melon has formed which is about 6" in diameter, but still green. I am hoping it will ripen to golden without being eaten by any critters except me!
   Some of my chioggia BEETS which had overwintered from last year grew flower stalks. I let them go to seed; some seedlings are starting where the plant dropped them and I have also spread some seeds which I harvested. In addition, on the south edge of the garden I've planted seeds for another variety of beets called "Bulls Blood" whose red leaves are recommended as colorful and good raw for salads.
   I've planted 100 seeds of a CARROT variety called "little fingers." I've also planted SPINACH seeds after using cold stratification to help them germinate better. I'll be planting lots more spinach - we love it, and it's one plant which grows here continuously all winter.
   I was happy to find some ONION SETS, more rarely sold in the fall than in the spring, so I'll be setting them out this weekend. It's about time to plant GARLIC also, and I have some heads left from my own harvest, which I'll divide and plant each clove about 3" deep and 5" apart.
   'Still harvesting lots of Thai BASIL to use fresh and to give to friends; there's lots of pesto in the freezer from last year, so no need to make more.
   I've transplanted the slow growing CELERIAC seedlings I started into larger pots. Only 7 plants germinated They are puny, and still in the basement window until large enough to go in the garden. My experiment with CELERY failed, due to the very hot weather, but I'll try it again under different conditions.

Don't stop gardening if you are in Zone 7 like me. The season is just beginning!

9/14/11

I'm Drinking Leaves!

Most of us eat leaves, although we think of them as lettuce or spinach, or perhaps as basil or parsley. Many Southerners eat vegetables I never heard of as a child in New England, like collards, kale, chard. But the typical modern diet - even for vegetarians and raw foodies - does not include a lot of "greens." Their bitterness is not real appealing, and our jaws, teeth, and digestive juices have changed so drastically from our prehistoric ancestors' that we are not even capable of extracting most of the nutrients from the greens we eat. I felt like I took a big step when I "learned" to love spinach, then did the same with kale when I discovered it was packed with lutein, so good for the health of our eyes. Now I've taken a mammoth leap forward and I'm eating a huge variety and large amounts of greens - actually, I'm drinking them!

I first learned of Green Smoothies several months ago, when my friend Gloria mentioned her new interest in making them. Blending fruits with spinach didn't sound too good, but I was intrigued. I googled it, and quickly realized I didn't have a blender with the power to chop up the leaves properly. I kept seeing mention of the Vitamix machine, a very powerful blender which can pulverize ingredients, break cell walls and create extra smooth consistencies - but with a huge price tag! I decided any blender which cost more than I paid a few years ago for my kitchen stove was not for me. So I continued using my food processor for our afternoon all-fruit smoothies.

Then I happened to watch a very interesting movie (which I highly recommend) called "Fat, Sick, & Nearly Dead" with my husband. For the first 10 minutes, Rick was not real taken with the message of juicing vegetables for improving health, weight loss, and "rebouting" your system, but I wanted to continue watching so he agreed. Fast forward to the end, and Rick was the one saying "I want to try this." I already owned a well-used Braun juicer, the centrifuge type which sends the juice out one slot and the pulp/skin/seeds out the other slot. Years ago I was making so much carrot juice that Rick's feet turned orange! My juicer is a basic, less powerful juicer than the one used in the movie to juice various combinations of vegetables and fruit, which also disposed of the pulp. Then I remembered the Vitamix, and started researching the pluses and minuses of it versus a juicer, particularly because the Vitamix doesn't remove the pulp, it pulverizes it to make it edible. Lots more fiber (which most of us need), and much added nutrition. I could tell from the recipes that making smoothies in a high speed blender required a smaller volume of raw ingredients than juicing in a juicer requires. Juicing one cup of carrot juice takes a lot of carrots. And a juicer can't extract from non-juicy fruits like bananas, while those are good smoothie ingredients. Green smoothie blenders break down whole foods to the cellular level and beyond, making the huge amount of nutrients readily available for your body. Juicers have their advantages for some, but talking with friends who own Vitamix machines convinced me that this was the best way for me to make veggie/fruit smoothies - as well as lots of other foods.

Introducing my newest, most favorite, kitchen appliance - the Vitamix 5200, a high speed blender, reaching speeds of up to 240 miles per hour. The Vitamix brand has been around for decades, and owners rave about them. I discovered I had two friends who had Vitamix machines "somewhere" in storage units, unreachable for various reasons, so those were not options for me to purchase. I watched used ones go for nearly the cost of new on eBay, so I decided to return to the Vitamix web site. Then I saw a link to "Factory Reconditioned" models. Still pricey ($349), but less than a perfect model, and included full warranty of a new machine. I had bought a reduced-price "blemished" Excalibar dehydrator from its manufacturer two years ago, and had to search for anything wrong, but saved money. I justified the purchase of the Vitamix by reminding myself of the $300+ monthly cost of our Blue Cross catastrophic health insurance (with a $7000 deductible) and figured I'd rather have something tangible and valuable for that same amount of money, so I dove it and made my purchase, with a dealer's voucher which saved the $25 shipping charge. I have not regretted it once.

Since it arrived about two months ago, my Vitamix has been used at least once daily except for maybe two days. I love it! It is easy to use, easy to clean, comes with a big recipe book and CD, and has recipes online. For someone like me, who makes meals from scratch, Vitamix smoothies are a very easy, filling, satisfying, healthy, and fast meal… with no dishes. Rick and I are increasing the amount of living, raw, whole food in our diets, thus upping our intake of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, phytonutrients, omega 3s, and loads of other nutrients. I was surprised to learn that greens are a source of protein also. We are consuming a great deal of fruits and veggies, in place of meals. Smoothies from fruits and vegetables are ideal for anyone who gardens, like me, for both fresh and frozen ingredients. I had chopped and frozen spinach and kale last spring when they were growing in abundance, and now I can break up frozen pieces, adding concentrated amounts to smoothies. This is holding me until I can harvest cool-weather greens in my garden again this fall and winter, which I've already begun to plant in abundance.

I just finished reading two books given to me by my friend Judi, written by Victoria Boutenko, the pioneer and inventor of Green Smoothies and author of the Green Smoothies Blog. If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend her book Green Smoothie Revolution. I have absorbed loads of info from the author's extensive research and experimentation, on why greens are so nutritious and beneficial to our health, and have become even more convinced that buying the Vitamix is a lifestyle changing event for me. The book includes testimonials from those who have lost lots of weight, nourished and healed their bodies, and reversed signs of aging... things most everyone I know would like to do!

Rick and I did a 4-day smoothie fast when I began using the new Vitamix, and since then we have been substituting a smoothie for one meal per day. In addition to the green leaves, I sometimes add other vegetables, always mixed with fruit. I've found that frozen banana chunks (which have always been the mainstay in my fruit smoothies) really helps sweeten smoothies made with vegetables, to the point where you barely taste the vegetable ingredients. In addition to the bananas, I use one or more other fresh (preferably seasonal, which has been easy this summer) or frozen fruit, like berries, cherries, peaches, apples, pears, grapes, and plums, as well as citrus (lemon, orange, lime), fresh pineapple (shell cut away, but the core is easily chopped). I've recently been gathering wild passion fruit from my meadow and adding its pulpy seeds to smoothies. I do about a 40/60 mix of vegetables to fruit, using stronger flavored fruit (like blueberries) with stronger flavored veggies (like beet greens). It is important to vary the greens you use, rather than always using spinach, for example. For greens I've used spinach, kale, beet greens, romaine lettuce, parsley, and the green leaves of my sweet potato vines. For other veggies, I've added summer squash or zucchini; cucumbers, carrots, celery, yellow snap beans, tomatoes, and cooked sweet potatoes or winter squash or beets. (Note: Victoria Boutenko, the "inventor" of green smoothies mentioned above, recommends only non-starchy vegetables with greens.) I sometimes add fresh herbs, such as basil, fennel, mint, parsley, and lemon grass, and I will continue experimenting with others from my herb garden. If I find my combination a little bitter, usually just a few drops of diluted stevia are enough for me, but you can add agave or honey. I have grown stevia in the past, and plan to do so again - then I can just use the green leaves from it. The Vitamix easily grinds nutritious nuts, seeds, and soft grains, so I might add whole flax seeds, chia seeds, shelled hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, or raw rolled oats. Added flavorings I've used include cinnamon, fresh ginger root, dried coconut, carob powder, unsweetened cocoa powder, Roma (a roasted barley/chicory powder which tastes like coffee), spices like cloves and cardamon, vanilla and other extracts, and zest from organic citrus fruit. An avocado makes the smoothie very creamy, without altering the flavor, and tofu would also work. The blender needs some liquid to work properly, and I've used water, lemon juice, fruit juice, soy milk, homemade kefir, aloe juice, and also almond milk which I made in the Vitamix from raw nuts. I've read that dairy products will interfere with digestion of the greens, so I don't use milk or yogurt in the green smoothies. You can add lecithin or protein powders also. Rick prefers frozen smoothies, and the Vitamix has no trouble grinding ice cubes in with the smoothie ingredients… some frozen smoothies we've eaten with a spoon.

When I grow sprouts again this winter, I'll add those to smoothies. Harvesting wild foods from my land has fascinated me, and I continually try to educate myself with field guides and online references. I look forward to harvesting wild plants for my smoothies next spring, like dandelion, trillium leaves, chickweed, watercress, lambsquarters, purslane, wood sorrel, wild mustards, grape leaves, and daisy leaves. Many wildflowers which grow here are also edible, such as daylilies, violets, red bud, yucca, chicory, dandelions, and clover. If you know someone who's land is overrun with kudzu, they have an excellent source of edilble greens! Even now, in September, I am picking tender young leaves on the ends of the branches of sassafras and muscadine as I walk my trails, and adding these to my smoothies. Boutenko says wild green are more nutritious than cultivated vegetables. The possibilities for different combinations are endless, as you can see, and I am enjoying experimenting and creating different tastes and textures. Caution, many wild plants are very poisonous to eat, so be sure you know what you are using if you harvest them.



Beyond smoothies, I've been using my new Vitamix for many other dishes. I made delicious fresh marinara sauce so fast, since the organic tomatoes from my garden went into the blender whole (no peeling or seeding). A combo of my recipe and one in the Vitamix book produced the smoothest hummus ever, using whole toasted sesame seeds instead of tahini, and a peeled whole lemon vs. juice. Chocolate mousse is my favorite Vitamix indulgence so far, with curious ingredients including avocados and a touch of balsamic vinegar. I've also made salsa, dips, salad dressings, wonderful applesauce, and batter for my favorite gingerbread (it came out the best ever). The Vitamix can be purchased with a dry blender for grinding grains, but I have both a manual and electric flour mill so I didn't get that container option. But I ground dehydrated red hot chili peppers into a powder in seconds in my Vitamix, since the peppers are brittle not hard. Now you understand how I've put the Vitamix to so much use. The Vitamix can also make vegetables soups; running the motor for 3-5 minutes heats the contents, so the soup goes right from the blender to the serving bowl. I am anxious to try soups when the weather cools, as well as other recipes I've earmarked such as black bean brownies.

I promise not to fill this blog with green smoothie information and Vitamix recipes - there are others doing this much better than I can, plus I have loads to write about with gardening and food you chew! However, I highly recommend green smoothies, even to my friends who are long-time vegetarians. And if you have your own favorite green smoothies or Vitamix recipes, please share in my comments box.

I hope I've intrigued you enough to make you want to try a green smoothie yourself - or ask me for a taste test when you visit - and I'll be happy to share what I am learning with you.

8/26/11

Baked Vegetables Parmesan

With the abundance of fresh garden veggies this time of year, here is a great recipe for zucchini, yellow summer squash, eggplant, and even green tomatoes. It's gluten-free, low fat, and low carb - and delicious. The original recipe was for eggplant, given to me by my sister Jean, but I didn't want those of you who don't eat eggplant to bypass this recipe if I titled it "eggplant parmesan". I tried it with yellow summer squash and it was equally yummy. Give it a try!

1 eggplant OR zucchini or other firm fresh vegetable
4 egg whites *
4 T water
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1 tsp garlic powder
pepper to taste

Use a shallow pan, lined with parchment paper and very lightly sprayed with cooking spray. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

If using eggplant, peel and cut into 1/4" rounds. If using summer squash, cut into rounds or, if it is very large and seedy in the center, cut 1/4" slices lengthwise around the center. If using green tomatoes, slice into rounds.

Beat egg whites and water in a flat bottomed dish, such as a pie plate. Mix parmesan cheese with garlic powder and pepper in a second pie plate. If your veggie pieces are small, you might put the cheese mixture into a plastic bag and shake the veggie slice to coat it. Dip your veggies, one slice at a time, into the egg then into the cheese mixture. Use more cheese if necessary. Place the slices in a single layer in the pan. When the pan is filled, lightly spray the tops with cooking spray. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn each piece over and bake for another 10 minutes, until golden brown. Serve with sauteed veggies as I did (all from the garden: carmelized onions, green beans, tomatoes, minced garlic, chopped basil, fennel seeds), and your meal is complete!

* Twice I have successfully substituted for the egg whites - one time I didn't have eggs, so I used the little can of powdered egg whites I keep on hand, and couldn't tell any difference in the results. When I took these photos, I used two whole eggs, since they were from my friend Susan's free range chickens and I didn't want to discard the yokes. You could also use premixed egg substitutes, but I feel the added ingredients (like coloring to make it yellow) are unnecessary.

8/16/11

August in the Vegetable Garden


Several people in the last week have asked me if I am "winding down" my gardening season. No way! I'm harvesting continuously, growing late harvest plants, starting more seedlings, and getting ready for new crops when the weather cools. That's one of the pluses about living in Zone 7, with its long growing season.
  1. LEEKS - I just dug my first leek, to use in a stir fry later today. The stalk is about 1" diameter, and there is about 6" of white which is the part that grew below ground - not bad in our heavy clay soil. Don't think I'll grow these again, since I had to baby the seedling for a long period and many did not survive transplanting to the garden. Onions grow better for me.
  2. EGGPLANT - Both plants are producing fruit, but not so many that I am overwhelmed yet. Watch for my upcoming post of a recipe for Eggplant Parmesan - gluten free, low carbs - which is delicious.
  3. SWEET POTATOES - See the close up photos of how the grasshoppers keep defoliating the vines. I have been able to harvest some of the edible leaves  - which taste like mild spinach - when they grow back. Actually, it's a good system, since the new leaves are the most tender, vs. those that might grow on the vines for months.
  4. STRAWBERRIES - I thinned out the strawberry beds, discarding the overgrowth of babies. The main plants don't look very good, our hot weather causing dried brown leaves around the edges, but they are alive and show new growth in the centers. I had a great harvest this past spring from baby plants set out last fall, so I plan to do the same in any bare spots in the bed once our weather cools.
  5. THAI LONG BEANS - Pretty flowers, long vines and a long time for the beans to form. I hope to harvest a good crop very soon.
  6. TOMATOES - I removed the tomato plants most effected by blight and I keep pulling leaves from the lower stems of the remaining plants. So now I have several "topiary" tomato plants. But they are still producing a small crop, which I am happy to have. I've started a few late crop tomatoes again, since the first ones dried up and died in the heat.
  7. PEPPERS - The pointer is to my tall Chinese Giant sweet pepper plant, which, at long last, is producing little green peppers. Also, I took one of my strongest tomato cages and moved it as a support for the larger of my two jalapeno plants, since the branches were getting so heavy with ripening hot peppers. Green jalapenos are sold in markets, but I prefer to pick them when they turn red and black, sometimes with fine ivory veins on the skins.
  8. SQUASHES - I direct sowed seeds of various squash-family plants in July, and now I have a zucchini, 2 cantaloupes, 2 butternut squashes, 2 cucumbers and one casaba melon plant. I am keeping a close eye on them, and whenever I see the little brown egg clusters of the squash beetle I remove the leaf. I occasionally scatter [food grade] diatomaceous earth on the soil around these plants; it's an organic insecticide, an abrasive white powder made from fossilized remains of marine algae. Unfortunately, it washes away with watering and with rain. Every plant is flowering, and I am optimistic that the warm weather will continue so I can harvest these yummy veggies, since my earlier plantings succumbed to pests and disease.
  9. LEMON GRASS - I bought a little pot of Lemon Grass, a strong lemon flavored herb good in a stir fry or tea, and it's thriving in my garden. I am not sure if it will grow as a perennial in my zone; if so, I'll move it to the herb garden.
CELERY - I read of this trick online, and so far it is working: buy a celery stalk, cut about 2" above the bottom, and stick that end in about 1" of warm water for a few days. Soon, new greenery starts to grow from the center. At this point, I set the developing plant in my garden, mounding some soil around it and keeping it moist. It's continuing to grow taller, slowly. The instructions also recommended cutting the top and bottom from a liter bottle, pushing it into the soil around the plant. Otherwise, the stems fall over as they grow taller. Even if I only get celery green tops, it's a fun experiment.
BEANS - While I am waiting for the Long Beans to grow, another small bed of Bush Blue Lake green beans is about ready to harvest. I am giving up on yellow beans. Mine took a very long time to ripen, and the harvest is minimal. I don't think the flavor is as good as green beans either.

FALL GARDENING
After wasting lots of seeds by trying to germinate lettuce in the garden this summer, I learned from the internet that lettuce seeds have a thermal mechanism which tells them not to germinate at temperatures above 70 degrees F. Since our basement stays near 60 degrees year round, I started a big flat of baby romaine and black seeded simpson lettuces a few weeks ago. In two days, they had sprouted! Flats of kale and of brussels sprouts seeds, as well as two varieties of tomatoes, are growing well in the basement south-facing window. I'm also trying a new vegetable - celeriac. It is a big round root, a member of the celery family, very popular in Europe. It has celery flavor and can be stored like a potato. It is recommended as a fall crop, and takes weeks to germinate. So I started its very tiny seeds in a tray indoors also, and I've seen the first 3 seedlings emerge this week. Also, in preparation for fall planting, I have started "cold stratification" of some spinach seeds. This is done by putting the seeds in a small zipper bag with a tiny amount of water, then putting them in the freezer for about a week. Remove from the freezer for a day, then repeat. This method helps the germination of spinach seeds, as well as other seeds, by imitating the freezing and thawing of winter season.

8/3/11

Simple Air Dried Herbs

I like to make the most of the herbs I grow by drying them for year-round use. With the exception of cilantro and basil, which I think have their best flavor fresh, I use simple air-drying for my herb plants. Depending upon the type of plant, I dry leaves, stems, flowers, seeds and roots - mostly for culinary use and teas, but also some for ingredients in lotions and salves.

Examples of leafy herbs I dry are parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme (hey, sounds like a good song!), mint, lemon balm, lemon grass, chives, marjoram, stevia, holy basil, horsetail, and sassafras (called "filé" powder when dried and ground, an ingredient in southern gumbos). I dry the flowers of lavender, dandelion, and calendula. Seeds, which form after the flowers die, are pretty well dry by the time I gather them, and those I save include dill, fennel, coriander (the seeds of the cilantro plant), and nasturtium. Roots I harvest and dry include garlic, horseradish, bloodroot, echinacea, and - hopefully from this year's planting - licorice.

I primarily use four drying racks which slide in and out of a wood frame, a set-up I purchased a few years ago. I've never seen another like it, so I am sorry to say, I can't recommend where to buy a similar one. Each of the rack "drawers" is a rectangular wood frame lined with fine mesh screening. Air flow is essential for dehydration, and a single layer of herbs on the screen avoids mold or mildew forming. I set this up in my basement, which averages about 60 degrees in the summer. You can use old window screens or stretch a piece of screening bought at the hardware store over wood frames or artists' stretcher bars for a similar set-up.

Most guides recommend picking herbs for drying just after the morning dew has dried. If the herbs have large leaves, I strip them from the stems and lay in a single layer on the screening. For those with tiny leaves, like thyme, I keep the leaves on the stem until drying is complete, then just run my fingers down the stem and they drop off. For long leaves like chives and lemon grass, I cut the freshly picked leaves with scissors, into pieces 1/4-1/2" long. Flowers dry best when newly opened. If they are large or bulky, I dry them on the top drawer of my racks, which is open (see photo). For drying roots, which often hold a lot of moisture, I slice fresh, cleaned roots into smaller pieces, exposing more surfaces to the air to expedite drying.

Drying time is influenced by the type of herb, the type of drying rack, the amount of air circulation, and the ambient temperature. Most of those I dry are dehydrated in a few days.

To preserve the flavor of the dried herbs, store in a tightly covered jar, away from heat or light. I save the desiccant packets from vitamins and supplements and drop one in the jar with the dried herbs, just in case any moisture is released. If I have more of a dried herb than I'll use in 6 months, I often use the hose attachment of my FoodSaver and vacuum seal the herbs for longer-term storage in canning jars.

Herbs are relatively easy to grow - they don't demand picking all at once when "ripe", as most vegetables do, grow in pots as well as in the ground, don't require large gardens, and they aren't too fussy about soil requirements. Most prefer full sun. Perennial herbs come back yearly and grow into larger patches (beware of mints, they can take over); annuals such as basil or dill can be left to self-seed and the plants will return the following year. Some herbs are seasonal - I've found, to my dismay, that cilantro grows best for me in the winter months; basil demands warm weather.
Plant a pot of herbs, tuck some among your flowers, or dedicate an area to an herb garden, and enjoy the bounty!

7/21/11

July in the Vegetable Garden

July has brought successes and failures in my veggie garden. The sun is strong, the temperature is very hot and the humidity is high, so I try to be out early when I need to do some garden work. Rain has been fairly regular, most often in heavy downpours. Despite all this, I've been eating, freezing, canning, and dehydrating my harvests, and the vegetable garden is free of weeds and looking good. (Can't say the same about some of my flower gardens, unfortunately!) Here are the details:
  1. SWEET POTATOES - My plants are still surviving attacks by leaf-eaters - probably grasshoppers, as reported early. Leaves grow back, pests come again, and the cycle repeats. I don't think this is harming the development of the sweet potatoes themselves, since the abundant green leaves can be harvested and cooked like spinach.
  2. EGGPLANTS - I took off the protective covers, and the leaves looked better than if I hadn't protected them, although some flea damage is still evident. Purple flowers have now formed into glossy eggplants and I picked the first one today. Anxious to try a new eggplant parmesan recipe from my sister Jean tonight!
  3. LEEKS - Growing well, while being fully ignored.
  4. BEANS - I harvested loads of delicious Blue Lake Bush green beans, and pulled up all the plants last week. The yellow beans, planted as seeds at the same time, are only just flowering now, but the plants are healthy. Overflowing the north side of the garden is a bed of Thai Suranaree "Long Beans", now in the flower stage. They were described in the catalog as "bush" but seem to be growing in long vines, so I am letting them trail. My beans need constant attention this year, to keep away whatever eats little holes in the leaves and beans. I spray with Garlic Barrier and keep scattering marigold petals over the beds. So far, so good. I froze 12 bags of green beans and I've started another small crop which will be great to eat fresh next month.
  5. FENNEL - I over-wintered fennel plants and now I have a huge flourish of flower heads, which I am letting mature so I can gather the licorice-flavored seeds. I'll have enough to supply an Italian sausage factory! The seeds are good for digestion.
  6. TOMATOES - I am now deep in battle with tomato blight, spread by a fungus in the soil. All the organic measures I have employeed to avoid it have only delayed the inevitable. I've already removed two of the plants, and three more are fighting blight. I've got some cherry tomato plants growing from my friend Sherry's seedlings, and they are healthier so far. I picked 13 beautiful half-pound tomatoes today, and in the last month I have harvested enough tomatoes to make lots of salsa (fresh, frozen, and canned) and salads, as well as eating them warm from the garden, like biting an apple. I plan to spoon a homemade bruschetta over the eggplant for dinner this evening. The white line points to a row where I've covered the soil with a garden weed-barrier cloth and transplanted 3 new tomato seedlings, so I hope to get a late crop, and I wish it to be blight-free!
  7. CUCUMBER - One cucumber plant succumbed to "wilt" which is spread by the cucumber beetle, a bug about 1/4" long with yellow and black stripes or dots. You'll see the leaves begin to wilt, one by one (see photo to the right). I delayed the damage by cutting off the bad leaves, but eventually it killed the plant. My other cuc plant, a different variety, is doing ok in comparison. I've planted seeds to start another plant.
  8. PEPPERS - In the collage of photos above, you can see the jalapeno plant which has been in the red Kozy Koat since I planted it last spring... it loves the heat and is loaded with peppers, with the plant growing tall above the red jacket. I've also picked a couple of sweet pimento peppers, but the sweet "Chinese Giant" variety (the tall one I've pointed to in the photo of the whole garden) hasn't formed any peppers yet. Funny thing, a friend to whom I gave one of these seedlings reports picking peppers already.
  9. MELONS & SQUASHES - I've started my late crop of cantaloupe - one here where I removed a tomato plant - as well as casaba melon and zucchini, next to the cold frame. I've put in 2 butternut squash plants also. I am hoping these late plantings are beyond the season for squash bugs, and our growing season is long, so I should have plenty of time for the fruits to mature.
In other growing news, I continue to plant successive rows of carrots, which I really like because they are content waiting underground until I decide to harvest a few for fresh eating - unlike other crops which need immediate picking when ripe. I'm still digging up beets, as needed, and some I had over-wintered are sending up flower stalks. I transplanted a few beets which I dug that were tiny, and some have re-rooted for a late harvest. Onions seedlings I planted last month are providing me with scallions while the bulbs form and grow. The Little Gem Lettuce started sending up flower stalks, as the leaves became too bitter to use. I'm letting it go to seed, since it's the only lettuce in the garden now; the seeds will not have been crosspollinated with another variety, so I can save them for future plantings. I've not been successful starting lettuce lately, even varieties described as heat tolerant. I even resorted to buying romaine last week, to have a big salad with all the other garden goodies. The flat leaf and curly parsley, as well as the Thai basil, are big bushy plants now, which do best with frequent harvesting by cutting off the plant tops. I picked enough parsley to dry some last week.

I found loads of ripe grapes on my two concord grapevines last week, and devoured a few handfuls. When I anxiously went to harvest a bucketful today I discovered some critter wiped out the entire crop (raccoon? deer?). I was so disappointed, after my careful pruning last February, fighting off a wormy thing in the spring, and saving the vines from Japanese beetles recently. I'll need to correct my timing next year. My garden education continues, and I hope you learn something from my experiences!



7/18/11

The Numbers Are In…

As you know from my writings, I am a big proponent of a good nutrition as part of a healthy lifestyle. One reason why I share my recipes, my choices of ingredients, and info on growing organic food is to help others. Certainly genetics are a factor in our health; reducing stress is important, and making time for laughter, good friends, and fun activities has positive effects. But I lean heavily in favor of a healthy diet and regular exercise. Is it ok to eat a bowl of ice cream or side of fried onion rings once in a while? Of course! But by maintaining a basis of every-day good eating, you'll most likely never need to "diet."

I just got results from a medical checkup, and I am pleased to be able to brag. I don't take any prescription meds, and, at age 56, my weight is about the same as it was 30 years ago, my blood sugar is 85, my total cholesterol is 184, my LDL (bad) cholesterol is 102, and my blood pressure is 100/70.

So thanks for following this blog and I hope the information helps you maintain or start a healthier life!

7/12/11

Therapeutic Elderberry Syrup

My friend Josie is picking fresh elderberries this week, so I thought it would be timely to post this recipe. Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a natural remedy with high levels of antioxidants for building a healthy immune system, and with proven antiviral properties for treating strains of influenza viruses. A traditional remedy for fever, colds and colic, black elderberries grow wild here in the Southeast and can be cultivated. You can purchase ready-made elderberry syrups and tablets, but I prefer to make my own, adding other natural ingredients which make it even more soothing and tasty. If you don't have access to fresh elderberries, dried berries are sold in some health food stores or online from companies such as Mountain Rose Herbs.

Very soothing and therapeutic for coughs and sore throats due to viruses such as the flu, this syrup has no pharmaceutical ingredients and doesn't cause drowsiness.
  • 1 c fresh OR 1/2 c dried elderberries
  • 3 c water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3 cloves
  • 1/2 in piece of peeled fresh ginger root
  • 1 c honey
Combine all ingredients, except the honey, in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer 30 minutes. Smash the berries, strain the mixture. Cool. Stir in the honey. Stores 2-3 months in the refrigerator. Use as needed, by the teaspoon.

This is so tasty and healthful, there is not reason why you couldn't enjoy this syrup even if you don't feel ill! Thicken the initial mixture with a dilution of cornstarch or arrowroot powder and use it mixed into plain yogurt.

7/7/11

Tabouli, Fresh from the Garden


I love to make this salad / appetizer when the tomatoes, scallions, and herbs are fresh from my garden. Tabouli (aka tabbouli, tabouleh, tabbouleh) is a traditional Middle Eastern salad. Bulgur is a quick-cooking version of whole wheat kernels which have been soaked, boiled, dried, and cracked after the bran is removed. For a whole grain variation, I sometime use 2-1/2 cups of cooked quinoa in place of the bulgur.
  • 1 c bulgur wheat
  • 1 t salt
  • 1-1/4 c boiling water
Mix the bulgur and salt in a heat-proof bowl. Pour the boiling water on top and stir. Cover loosely with a towel and let stand for 30 minutes. Drain if necessary.
  • 1 c chopped parsley, packed
  • 1/2 c chopped scallions
  • 2 T chopped fresh mint
  • 1 c peeled tomato
  • 1/4 c olive oil
  • 1/4 c fresh lemon juice
  • salt & pepper to taste 
Mix the above ingredients with the bulgur and chill until serving time. Traditionally served with pita bread, and Scoops work well too.

6/22/11

June in the Vegetable Garden

June has seen many changes to the vegetable garden. We've had about 1" of rain in the last week, after nearly 8 weeks of dry hot weather. I resorted to watering with the sprinkler, which you can see outside the corner of the garden. On the longest day of the year, June 21st, our area officially got 12 hours and 34 minutes of daylight, with sunset at 8:56pm. Here's the garden update:

  1. SWEET POTATOES - I planted 11 sweet potato plants, half as many as last year: two which I grew from last year's potatoes (my other efforts failed) and a 9-pack of "slips" I bought,  all "Beauregard," a dependable variety for our area, and the most common supermarket sweet potato variety. I planted where the edible pea pods had been, after they had stopped producing in late May. About 2 weeks ago I noticed the sweet potato leaves were being eaten, and, when I sprayed my Garlic Barrier on them, I saw grasshoppers jumping away. I've never had a grasshopper problem, but I've heard they can devour the garden. In addition to spraying, I've also been scattering cut-up garlic greens around the plants and this seems to have solved the problem.
  2. EGGPLANTS - I bought 2 mesh laundry hampers and turned them upside down over the wire cage on each eggplant to help protect the plants from the bug which eats the young tender leaves. I used wicket-type garden stakes to hold the handles of the hampers in the soil. It's helping so far. I'll have to remove the coverings when the plants flower, so the bees can pollinate. As the season progresses last year, the bugs became less of a problem and the plants flourished, so perhaps I can go into flowering with healthier plants this year. These laundry hampers do not have netting on the top, but rain or sprinkler spray gets in on all sides. They fold down flat for easy storage too.
  3. JALAPENO - I kept one jalapeno plant in the red Kozy Koat and it already has pods! Couldn't resist planting a second seedling I had started, but there is a noticeable difference in the size of the two plants.
  4. MELON - One "casaba" melon is growing well and has a green fruit about 6" big already. I keep checking the plant for insects which attack squash family plants (see photo and zucchini info).
  5. LEEKS - Most of the transplanted leeks didn't survive, but I'll still have plenty. Don't think I'll try them again though.
  6. CUCUMBERS - My attempt to grow the cucumber plants in vertical cages is going well. They send out tendrils, and I usually just have to coax them to grab and wrap around the cage wire. The fruit is clean and perfectly shaped. I've been picking both varieties, one pickling size and the other a 6-8" salad cucumber. I keep watching the undersides of the leaves for the brown eggs of the squash bug (see photo), and discard any leaves with eggs.
  7. TOMATOES - The photo shows the growth of the tomato plants in the past month, but I nearly lost them to an attack by big fat healthy tomato hornworms. The earliest plant I had put in the garden, which had looked gorgeously healthy just one day earlier, was totally defoliated. The other 5 plants each has one or more worms eating away. Fortunately, I caught them right away (it pays to visit your garden daily) and successfully treated with "Dipel," an organic biological insecticide for leaf-eating worms and caterpillars ("bacillus thuringiensis"). I dug up the defoliated tomato and replaced it with one of 3 cherry tomato plants a friend gave me, which I had planted in the cold frame. I've also kept the bottom 10" of the tomato plants trimmed to the center stem, which seems to be helping me avoid tomato blight, which is a fungus spread from the soil to the lower leaves. When I see a leaf with yellow spotting I immediately pick it off and discard. With all this effort, I've now been picking juicy red tomatoes for 3 weeks from the Riessentraube and the Al Kuffa heirloom varieties. I'm keeping a close eye out for pests.
  8. BEANS - My favorite variety of green beans is Blue Lake. I plant the "bush" version vs. "pole" beans, which grow only about 12" tall and don't need trellising. Blue Lake tastes great and freezes well. I planted marigolds around the beans and keep breaking up the spent marigold flower heads on top of the bean plants, to deter an invisible insect which eats holes in the bean leaves, and potentially, in the beans. L:sat year the bugs ruined my crop. I've picked just a couple of ripe beans in the last couple of days and eaten them raw, and I'll have lots to harvest for dinner starting in a few days. I've also started a small bed of Golden Wax bush beans and a long bean from Thailand.
  9. GARLIC - Before we got last week's rain I harvested about 2 dozen garlic heads. Garlic is ready to dig up when the green tops turn tan and dry. It's best to dig them when they are not wet. I rinsed them off right away, which is not recommended, but our clay soil is either like peanut butter when wet or like concrete when dry. Then I dried them in the sun for a few hot dry days before moving them onto newspapers in the shade of the porch to dry for a few weeks. This prepares them for storing.
Also in the garden...



CARROTS - I've finally been harvesting carrots and they are delicious. I like that it's a crop I can leave in the ground, just pulling what I want to use immediately. I've decided I have the patience to grow them, and I've continued to do more plantings from seeds.

BEETS - We ate beet greens initially, and now I've been roasting the pink and white zebra striped Chioggia beets. I'm proud to say I successfully grew them from seeds I harvested from my own plants in their 2nd year. The size of the beet root seems more dependent upon how much room you allow between plants than on how long they are in the ground.

ZUCCHINI - Pulled up the one zucchini plant which had quickly gone from lush and healthy to wilted and sickly. I think it suffered from a squash vine borer. I'll try another plant again in July.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS - I also had to dig up the brussels sprouts. Just as the little Barbie-doll size cabbages began to form on the stem, the leaves unfolded immediately. This is due to our hot weather. I'll try growing it again in the fall, which is what is recommended for my zone.

LETTUCE - We ate the last of the romaine and Little Gem Lettuce. So far I haven't been able to get any of my heat-tolerant varieties of lettuce to germinate well. :-(

BASIL - With lots of pesto still in the freezer from last year, I only put in 4 Thai basil plants, which have a really strong flavor. This way I have some to pick fresh, which I love in a Salad Caprese, with tomatoes and mozzarella.

FENNEL - I moved small fennel plants which had over-wintered and now they are flowering. I will save the seeds which follow the flower, a licorice taste used in Italian cooking, and I've been slicing up the stems and adding to roasting vegetables.

PARSLEY - Both curly and flatleaf parsley plants I started from seed are growing well. This week I picked lots and made tabouli, and I'll share my recipe on this blog soon.

POPPIES - In another garden bed I am growing "Breadseed Poppies" and the flower is an old-fashioned purple shade. I grow red poppies and the seeds they produce are tiny, so I am hopeful that this variety will be larger and suitable for me to use in cooking.

GARDEN HUCKLEBERRIES - My two garden huckleberry plants have suffered from bug-eaten leaves since I first set the seedlings out, but this hasn't hampered the production of flowers and berries. I picked a cup full one day recently, put them in a saucepan with a small amount of honey and some cornstarch dissolved in blueberry juice, to thicken as it cooked. I mixed the cooled sauce into plain yogurt and it tasted great. The raw berries sort of taste like blueberries but with a slightly bitter bite, but were great when cooked.

STRAWBERRIES - My strawberries ended production in late May, and I dug up approximately 12 dozen plants from the big mass I had left to grow at the west end of the strawberry border. I am trying to keep the baby plants clipped off the established bed, but will allow some to root later in the summer for more friends who want to start their own bed. Let me know if you want any.
I removed the coldframe covers, and the frame itself is permanently attached to the garden corner. Two little cherry tomato plants are all that is growing inside now.

Happy gardening!

6/3/11

Cool Strawberry Cream Pie

It's been in the 90s all week... the perfect time for a no-bake pie made from freshly picked strawberries. You can short-cut this recipe by using a purchased graham cracker crust and topping my cream filling with your favorite strawberry jam. But I'll guarantee my made-from-scratch version is luscious! My short-cut is to use the food processor for each of the three layers.

CRUST:
2 c granola*
2 T softened butter or coconut oil

CREAM FILLING:
8 oz Neufchatel cheese (or cream cheese), softened
1/2 c cottage cheese or plain yogurt
2 T lemon juice
1 t grated dried orange peel
2 T honey

FRUIT TOPPING:
3 c fresh cleaned and hulled strawberries
10 drops liquid stevia (or other sweetener)
1/2 t ground cinnamon
1/3 c fruit juice
1 t agar agar flakes** (or 1 T corn starch or arrowroot)

Whirl the granola into fine crumbs in a food processor and mix well with the butter or oil. Press the mixture into the bottom and sides of a 9" pie plate.

Rinse the food processor and mix all the cream filling ingredients until smooth. Dump the filling into prepared pie shell, spreading to the top of the granola crumbs and smoothing the top flat. No one will ever guess that cottage cheese is used in this delicious slightly sweet filling!

Rinse out the food processor and chop the strawberries by pulsing a just a few times - don't over process or you'll end up with a wet puree. Put the chopped berries in a bowl and add the stevia (or your choice of sweetener) and cinnamon. If the berries have shed a lot of juice, pour this off into a measuring cup; otherwise use 100% fruit juice, like blueberry or grape juice, and heat 1/3 cup to boiling. Stir in agar agar flakes and simmer 5-10 minutes until the mixture thickens. Add this to the strawberries and mix well. Let this mixture cool. Spoon the strawberry mixture over the cream filling, and refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.

This recipe will work well with other fresh fruit, like blueberries, blackberries, peaches, and others. Try fresh red raspberries with a chocolate cookie crust - yum!

* See this blog for my recipe for homemade granola, or use your favorite purchased mixture

** Agar agar flakes are a thickener, much like unflavored gelatin, derived from a sea weed. It is commonly sold in health food stores. Alternately, you can thicken the juice with cornstarch, used in the same way as the agar agar flakes.