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!


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!


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.