A commenter asked for tips on growing strawberries recently. This is an important subject! Because although strawberry plants are one of the easiest crops to grow, getting a consistent harvest of berries in any significant quantity takes a lot of work.
First of all, let’s talk adaptation of species.
There are two different ways that plants pass their genetics into the future, one is by making seeds, the other is by spreading “vegetatively”– essentially cloning themselves through runners or rhizomes. Strawberries are the latter. This is important because it means that although they do make seeds (and the fruit that carries the seeds) what they really love to do is make runners. I like to say that strawberries are their own weeds. Left to itself, a strawberry bed will quickly become so thick with plants that you can hardly see the soil between them.
And when this happens, the plants stop making berries in any significant way.
To fulfill its potential, each strawberry plant needs about one square foot of space all to itself. If you want to grow actual berries, not just lots and lots of strawberry plants, rule #1 is clip the runners whenever they appear!
But, you will doubtlessly miss that moment, frequently, and the runners will touch down and grow into cute little “daughter” plants. So rule #2 is be ruthless and rip those cute baby plants out. I know it’s hard but, take a deep breath, be strong. Think about strawberry shortcake.
The next important thing about strawberries is that the plants are short lived, designed to be replaced (or over-run) by their offspring. The first year after planting you will get a few berries, but mostly this is the establishment year. The second year will be the banner year, the third year should still be decent, but by the fourth year the plants are basically spent.
What this means is that you can’t pick a place, plant a strawberry bed and that’s it forever and ever, amen. Nope. Rule #3 is to keep things moving, keep things fresh. Every year, you have to take some of those babies that you pulled up and plant them somewhere else. They will be next year’s strawberry shortcake.
And if this all sounds like a lot of work, wait until harvest comes! It’s all well and good to dream of growing enough strawberries to binge on in season, and still put a few gallons in the freezer, but the reality of that is spending 30-45 minutes squatting in the strawberry patch, every other day for a few weeks in June. And then another 30-45 minutes processing each batch for the freezer.
Like I said a few weeks ago, likely the most time consuming crop I grow.
Homegrown strawberries are the epitome of thrift = thrive. Although strawberry plants are one of the easiest in the garden, practically a weed, getting a reliable harvest of berries from them year after year takes a lot of work. In fact I think they are one of the most labor intensive crops I grow. Which is why truly fresh, ripestrawberries are so expensive to buy. At the farmer’s market I would have to spend $3 for one tiny little pint of berries, which just one of my kids could demolish in less than 2 minutes. There’s no way I could afford to keep our family supplied with strawberries, if I was buying them with money.
Instead, I buy them with my time. I invest many, many hours in my strawberry beds throughout the year, and when strawberry season comes around the dividends roll in. The kids can wander through the yard, picking and eating. I harvest basketfuls of strawberries and just leave them on the kitchen table as an indulgent snack. The kids embellish their granola with sliced strawberries every morning. We eat strawberry shortcake and strawberry pie. I have not yet cultivated enough ground to grow our year’s worth of strawberries, but during May and June, we have a glorious glut. And I feel positively, luxuriously, rich.
Early summer is rose season. I’ve always loved wild roses, and shortly after we moved to Eugene, I planted a Nootka rose. Rosa nootkana is the same species that grew in Alaska, the wild rose of my childhood, and it’s simple, fragrant pink flowers make me deeply happy. It grows about twice as big here in Oregon though, to almost eight feet tall, and spreads like a weed which also makes me happy.
Harvesting the petals is pure joy. Standing out in the sunshine amid a lazy bee buzz, pulling warm velvety petals away from stames of spun gold, all the while drunk on the haze of perfume! The experience always feels so rich, so indulgent. For me, there is no better way to connect to the sheer abundance of life than growing edible flowers.
We use the petals for Fairy Tea, my kids favorite. Mix about equal portions of rose petals, calendula petals, chamomile, hibiscus and mint, with just a dash of lavender. This is a calming tea– great for little ones, not bad for big ones either.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the changes we need to make to move towards more sustainable home lives, and how so many of those changes are built on the slow integration of deceptively simple habits like eating more vegetables (The Incredible Power of Habit). Even if you don’t yet have the time or the space to grow your own, you can start right now learning how to eat the vegetables that you will grow in your someday garden.
It sounds easy. Of course, if you had a garden, you would eat like Alice Waters, right? Doesn’t the ability to garnish poached beets with fresh chevre and call it dinner come automatically with that first harvest?
No. No it doesn’t. Not for very many of us.
Because although I adore poached beets and at least two other members of my family will deign to eat a few with me, I cannot call that dinner, cheese or no cheese. In my fantasy housewife life, I serve a small piece of grass fed meat with a simple pan reduction, alongside perfectly steamed local brown rice, those sweet poached beets and a pile of braised greens with garlic. A four part harmony of colors, half vegetables, 3/4 vegetable matter. A lovely, balanced, sustainable meal.
In real life, I remember to put the roast into the crock pot before lunch by some stoke of genius. I don’t think any farther than that until 5pm, when I remember in a rush I need to start the rice before I take the laundry off the line. As I’m setting the table it occurs to me that I have forgotten a vegetable, again. I run out to cut some collards, which I quickly steam with butter. But even I am tired of collards, and my lackluster approach certainly doesn’t appeal to anyone else at the table.
The problem with vegetables is many fold. At the heart of the matter is the fact that most of us didn’t grow up eating them as a central part of our meals. In our culture, vegetables are an afterthought, almost a garnish. When I consider the question of dinner, vegetables are the last thing on my mental list, after protein (1) and starch (2). By the time I get to them, I just don’t have the energy or time to attempt anything beyond ‘cooked, with butter.’
Because dinner, in real life, comes down to a tally of minutes. I usually allow myself about 50 of them to get the job done, start to finish. With kids underfoot. And I am a fast, experienced cook! How many of us can afford more than an hour to prepare dinner? And what can you do in an hour?
In magazines, even in the ‘weeknight dinner’ section hidden in the back, they give you a recipe for one thing, with the associated time estimate. Disregard for the moment the fact that their time estimates are ridiculously low for a first run with a recipe, and consider instead the meal in it’s entirety. Maybe you can make sauteed chicken breast with mango in 20 minutes, if you know your way around the kitchen and don’t pay too close attention to the recipe (following recipes is much more time consuming than just cooking) but the photo shows the chicken reclining on a bed of rice with nothing else on the plate. Is that dinner? Chicken and rice? Probably you are supposed to open a bag of baby salad greens, dump them into a bowl and grab the bottle of salad dressing from the fridge. Even still, between that and starting the rice, you are looking at 30 minutes, for a super efficient cook with mostly pre-prepared ingredients.
What about us? Who start with the whole chicken from the farmers market because it’s the best value, who cook brown rice because it’s a whole food full of nourishing goodness, who feel that vegetables should not come sealed in preservative gas. Real vegetables take time. You start with a plant, necessitating scrubbing/trimming/deveining/chopping or any number of other verbs, just to get it ready to cook.
Then comes– what to do with it?
I actually love plain vegetables steamed with butter. But I do get tired of the same vegetable steamed with butter night after night. And when you eat seasonally, that’s often what you get. Whole seasons of just a few kinds of vegetables. I want to learn new recipes, new ways to make the same old veggies seem different. But I get frustrated by how many “vegetable” recipes are half dairy products. Of course it will taste good if you add a pound of cheese and half a stick of butter. I don’t need a recipe to tell me that.
There are a few good basic tricks out there:
Roasting. The best trick in the book, I’d say. Toss almost any vegetable (except greens) with oil and salt and roast at 350-400 until caramelly brown around the edges and tender through. All root vegetables are divine this way, and some green things too, such as brussel sprouts and asparagus. Sadly, I have trouble justifying the high blast of mostly wasted heat involved with oven roasting and so I only do it occasionally.
Caramelizing is the stovetop version of oven roasting. If you have not learned the joys of properly caramelized onions, you have some magic ahead of you! There are two tricks– not crowding the pan and getting the temperature right. I’ve found the best way is to start out on medium until the onions just start to color and then turning the heat down to med-low and eventually to low (as the moisture cooks out of them they need a lower and lower heat to keep from burning.) You want a nice rich caramel color around the edges of very soft onions. Cooked this way, they are a side dish in their own right, or a start to the best greens you’ll ever eat (see below). Many other vegetables benefit from the same careful temperature treatment– mushrooms are glorious if cooked in a single uncrowded layer until golden brown on both sides; cabbage can be cut into thick wedges, arranged cut side down in a buttered pan and cooked over med-low heat (covered with a lid) until golden brown on both sides and barely tender throughout, one of my favorite ways to eat one of my favorite vegetables; caramelized carrots are a revelation. The downside of pan roasting is that since the vegetables need to be in a single layer you can’t really fit enough in a single skillet to feed a family.
With dressing. I feel Americans are unfairly disadvantaged in the salad department. We have such a narrow view of it. I myself am only sometimes fond of the leafy variety, but I adore many other vegetables dressed in my garlicky homemade goodness— sliced cooked beets, grated carrots, thinly sliced cabbage and/or kale, steamed broccoli, fresh sliced tomato… Though certainly not all at once! In fact, I generally prefer just one kind of vegetable in my salad.
The Color Green
All of those techniques are great, but one of the challenges I’ve had is that my lazy gardens, on both sides of this continent, have generally pumped out one thing in almost nauseating quantity. Greens. And I mean the sturdy brassica variety– kale back home in Alaska, and collards here in New Orleans. Now, understand that I adore greens. Adore them! If I could rotate the kind of greens, I think I could eat them every day. But even I get tired of the strong flavor of collards, day after day after day.
I feel like greens deserve their own little segment here because they are 1. the easiest thing to grow, no matter where you live, 2. unbelievably healthy and 3. completely undervalued and underloved.
When new gardeners ask me what they should grow I always say kale or collards, depending on latitude. These hardy brassicas are easy to grow from seed and they look beautiful while growing. Whereas other crops require more careful planning to mature before the end of the season, or on a succession schedule, brassica greens can go in anytime, anywhere. They can be harvested at any stage and over a long season be pulling outer leaves as needed. They grow fast, make lots of extremely nutritious food in a small space, require very little care and generally seem to love life. You can see why I am always inundated with them!
The caveat is that people aren’t used to eating greens more often than a few times a month, if that. And when Americans do eat greens, it’s almost always spinach. Even though homegrown kale and collards are miles better than the tough store-bought versions, they’re still not spinach. And there are precious few recipes for cooking these sturdy greens to inspire newcomers.
Here’s my own green missionary recipe:
Caramelize half an onion in 2 Tablespoons of butter, don’t let them burn! Meanwhile wash a bunch of kale, collards or chard. Trim the thick central stalk out from the middle of the leaf and throw it to the chickens (if using chard, save the stems for this muffin recipe!) Chop trimmed leaves into bite sized pieces. When the onions are nicely browned, throw the greens in along with 1/4 cup each of stock and chopped tomatoes (I keep chunks of each in the freezer for just such an occasion). Cover the pan and allow to steam/fry for about ten minutes, stirring several times. Cook until the greens are tender, adding water if necessary to keep the pan from drying out. Don’t cook so long as to get limp and brown though, that’s only good when there are large quantities of pork involved (and then, my oh my is it good!)
What is your favorite way to cook vegetables? In that post about habits, several of you mentioned favorite cookbooks, and I thought it would be nice to open things up to your advice again. Because despite all those good ideas above, I still find veggies going soft and wilty in my bottom drawer all the time! I myself am not a recipe follower but I am an avid cookbook reader (I read for ideas). As I mentioned earlier, I am often disappointed by the quantity of vegetables in ‘vegetable’ recipes. But then, I think I am trying to get something out of nothing, you know what I mean? I want to use up that 3 pound pile of collards in my fridge, and I don’t want to have to spend $10 on fancy cheese to do it. But I want the end result to taste different than the same old pile o’ collards I always make…. I am hoping for some kind of magic trick I guess.
There’s no magic involved, but I am incredibly inspired by Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens. This book is literally half about greens! All kinds of greens, in fact wild greens figure big, as do lesser used cultivated greens like endive and beet greens. Wolfert is an authority on authentic Mediterranean food, and she bases this book almost entirely on the traditional foodways of that region.
Sadly, and this is a lot of the problem for many of us I suspect, I am cooking for an increasingly picky audience. Most of these greens-rich recipes simply don’t get eaten. I perservere with cooking greens, partly out of an obligation to use up the glut of greens from my garden, partly so that at least my kids still see greens on the table, and see me eating and enjoying them. But considering that I am the primary eater, and I have 3 other eaters to cook for, I don’t find the time to sex my greens up. I’m lucky to get the onions caramelized for that missionary recipe above, let alone tantalizing, time consuming recipes like Paula Wolfert’s wild greens gnocchi.
Here are a few of my older posts on cooking with vegetables:
These few years in New Orleans have been really great, this place is as good as a city gets– charming old architecture steeped in history, a vitally important music and art scene, fabulous restaurants, a very un-American lack of prudishness, and whole seasons of jasmine and magnolia flowers. But, I am not a city girl. As our return to Alaska approaches I’m getting quite eager for our sleepy little hole in the wilderness where a Saturday drive ‘out the road’ yields adventures like this:
Just as much as the place, I am really yearning to be back in Our Own Home. This rental stuff is fine, but I have been realizing just how much my ‘work’ and my homeplace are intrinsically bonded. I can shop at the farmers’ market and grow a small garden anywhere, but that’s just treading water. To really move forward with the lifework I aim for, to climb the rungs of my chosen ‘career’ ladder, I need to stay in one place. One home which I can continually make more efficient, one chunk of land which I can build up towards my edible Eden, one particular ecosystem which I can come ever closer to knowing.
I have felt it here, the loss. The landscape so unfamiliar, the weather patterns confounding, the flora an almost complete blank (I am a wild plant buff in my home territory). Even eating confused me for a while– a responsible local diet here consists of things I had rarely let myself buy at home and didn’t know how to turn into mainstay meals; let alone that cooking itself is all wrong as a way to approach dinner when it’s 95 degrees in your kitchen. And unlike when I was young and resilient with energy to burn, I found it hard to rally myself for re-learning and re-building everything.
This homesteady lifestyle is all about investment and return. And I’m not talking metaphor. I have put 4 years of hard labor and hundreds of dollars worth of soil amendments into my Alaska garden. I built it up from a sorry looking lawn over a bare inch of topsoil with gravel fill substrate, to 160 square feet of luscious dirt in raised beds. In a town where you cannot, no matter how much you are willing to pay, order a truckload of dirt, those garden beds are pure gold. And they are only going to get better! After the very large up-front investment there is only so much work necessary every year to maintain the beds and build up fertility, but the return will continue to grow.
The garden is the best example, but really my entire lifework is wrapped around sticking to one place. Back in this now proverbial Home, I had also built a tight little chicken coop, put in a 20 foot long raspberry hedge to close off our yard, and spent years setting up an efficient kitchen (not to be underestimated!) Beyond the tangible accrual of humus and building projects, the knowledge of the area and the skills for using local resources grow slowly, over time. I had several years under my belt of ‘local university,’ learning which varieties of vegetables did best in our ridiculously rainy climate, how to process 35 whole sockeye salmon in two days, and creating an internal map of where all the best berries, wild mushrooms and edible plants grew in proliferation.
Very few of you have such an intensely localized tie to one place. Down here in rest of the 48 states, the most green responsible lifestyles are based of farming– whether you do it yourself or support someone else’s effort– and farming is at least recognizably similar throughout the temperate world. Even moving across country doesn’t shake everything you’ve ever known to the ground. Nevertheless, I think we all underestimate the profit to be realized from staying put.
The books always stress that “even renters can grow a garden,” and while that is true, I have built up and left behind a few times now, and I can tell you it is a certain kind of heartbreak. You don’t get to take your equity with you. No one else will recognize the value of your hard work, or care about the money you spent. When you leave, you leave it all behind.
I don’t mean to discourage those of you who do not own your own place, but rather to remind those of you who do how much it means. Don’t take your investments of time and money for granted. Just like in business, the ‘profit’ goes right back in as further investment for many years, which makes it hard to see. But so long as you manage to stay in place (a feat these days), you are building up for future dividends.
I can hardly wait to get back to my own double lot homestead and do some re-investing. My garden beds have been cover cropped for three years and I have a chicken coop full of aged manure. I’ll know what to plant, and when to do it. Times are going to be good.
Growing food in containers can be useful for so many situations– it’s quick to set up and can utilize very small outdoor spaces. Since it requires no commitment to a piece of ground, it’s renter friendly. Because growing in containers is so approachable, it’s where many people start gardening. Unfortunately, although the setup is undeniably quick and easy (albeit expensive) actually getting food plants to grow and produce in containers is often much more challenging than in the ground.
Perhaps the biggest problem for container growing is inconsistent moisture– while herbs and some flowers do fine with the occasional droughts, food plants often never recover from even short gaps in watering. When you’ve planted into the ground, once your plants get a good root system established there’s almost always a little moisture down under there, but a containers can go really and truly dry in not very much time at all. Unless you live in a cool damp place, and are a good every-day-without-fail waterer (very much not me!) you are likely to hit some trouble.
This is partly because of the other reason food in pots can fail– almost every garden pot sold is much too small. In addition to not providing enough root space for any food crops except lettuce, spinach and radishes (not coincidentally the three crops most sensitive to dry soil), a small amount of dirt is considerably more prone to drying out, especially if it’s in a terra cotta pot. Those suckers ought not to be allowed in sizes smaller than 12 inch. I’ve even managed to kill plants in small pots in Cordova, the cold northern end of the temperate rainforest! When something dies from lack of water in Cordova, it is truly impressive.
Ever since I read about self irrigating planters (SIPs) on Root Simple years ago, I have been fascinated by them. The idea behind SIPs is to use a large container such as a rubbermaid tote, create a water resevoir in the bottom and some form of a wick up into a peat-heavy potting soil. When you water, you fill the resevoir, and it slowly wicks up into the soil providing consistently perfect moisture for your plants. I am a sucker for simple technology, particularly when it repurposes trash, and loved the quiet brilliance of this design.
At home in Cordova I had no reason to build a SIP, I had all the ground-based growing space I could manage. So I was excited when we moved to a rental house in New Orleans and I finally had a good excuse to give it a try. Shortly after our move, with a toddler helping and newborn fussing, I made three SIPs out of rubbermaid totes.
Of course, I don’t like to do anything the regular way, even the regular alternative way, so I made some adjustments to the classic SIP design. I’m not sure if my adjustments are an improvement, but it does make the design more accesible.
The classic design uses upright sections of PVC with holes drilled in them to hold up the divider between resevoir and soil, as well as a “pond basket” to hold the wick of pure peat moss. I didn’t want to have to drive all the way to Lowe’s to buy PVC and a pond basket. Even though these items are cheap, I had some kind of mental block against buying them, which for a few months prevented me from tackling the project at all. Do you do this? I knew I was being ridiculous, losing months of good growing weather, but I couldn’t get over the idea that I ought to be able to scrounge good substitutes.
Eventually I hit on a slightly different idea. Lots of materials wick water, couldn’t I use some kind of old cotton cloth? Like these old sheets, cut and braided into a fat wick?
And why did the resevoir need to be integral? Could I use something else, put into the tote, like…. an old milk jug?
So was born my super simple scrounge SIPs. I bet you have the materials on hand to make one of these right now!
one rubbermaid or similar large tote, not clear (or algae will grow)
two old gallon milk jugs, scrubbed scruppulously clean and bleached (if you can find water jugs in someone’s recycling you can skip the scrubbing and sterilizing)
two small (12 oz) drink bottles
one old bath towel or cotton sheet
razor blade or very sharp knife
With the traditional SIP design, you need the tote to be free of holes or cracks, but for this design, because the resevoir is in the jugs, you can use any old tote off the side of the road, so long as it’s sturdy enough to fill with soil. In fact, it needs to be able to drain so that rain doesn’t pool up in it. So, start by drilling a dozen or so holes in the bottom, or if you don’t have a drill, punch holes with a nail.
Cut your towel in half lengthwise, trim to about 2 and 1/2 feet long, and roll into a tight log. Squeeze your hand around the roll and try to estimate the size, then cut a similar sized round hole into the top of your milk jug. Cut it smaller than you think, you can always cut a bit more. You want the towel to fill the hole completely so that dirt doesn’t fall in. Work one end of the towel roll through the hole (a butter knife might help) and all the way to the bottom of the jug. Repeat with your other jug. [If you are using an old sheet, cut in half widthwise, then cut each half into three pieces. Braid them together and rubberband the ends to secure.]
Set the jugs into the tote at opposite ends of the same side, and flop the towel ends over the edge of the container. Cut the bottoms off of the small drink bottles, and invert, setting the mouth into the mouth of the milk jugs. These will be where you stick the hose to fill the resevoir jugs.
If you have access to top quality potting mix you can use it straight up, but if all you can find is that crap with sticks and chunks in it, mix with an equal quantity of good, finished compost or if you’re really desperate, peat moss and organic fertilizer. The mix needs to have a large proportion of fine organic material in order to wick the water around. Add in some perlite or vermiculite if you have it.
Pour soil mix in around the jugs, tamping down firmly as you go. When the dirt is even with the wicks (make sure it’s well tamped), lay them down on the surface. Being careful to keep the drink bottles in place, continue filling with dirt right up to the rim of the tote, it will settle a bit over the next few weeks.
Fill jugs by sticking hose into the inverted drink bottles, when the water level rises into the top bottle, it means the jug is full. Since it’s not a tight seal, extra water will leak out where the two mouths meet, but it doesn’t matter. Soak the soil itself thoroughly and then plant.
The classic SIP technique is to sprinkle fertilizer on the soil surface and then cover the whole thing with plastic mulch. You cut the middle out of the lid to make a rim, then just cover the tote with a black plastic bag (white if you live in a hot climate), snap on rim, and cut holes for your plants.
I never got around to doing this though, I just couldn’t get over cutting the soil off from the world to such a complete degree. The top plastic would keep a lot of moisture in, keep weeds from growing, and allow the top-dressing of fertilizer to absorb slowly. But plastic on all sides? Couldn’t do it. Instead I mulched my totes with a thick layer of leaves, just like I do in the garden. Worked great, but then our climate is very damp.
Which brings us to the question of outcome. How did my alternative SIP design work?
Well, it worked just fine, I only needed to water once every few days, and the soil stayed very moist. Plants grew large and healthy, and produced as well as those in the ground. But, given our incredibly damp climate (summer is downright wet) I was not entirely convinced that plain old totes would not have done the job perfectly well on their own. They hold such a large amount of soil that it even when I got lazy and forgot to water for days on end, the soil stayed reasonably moist 6 inches down and the plants seemed fine.
I grew out 3 seasons of plants before I dumped the soil out to refill with fresh stuff (I needed organic material for my dirt garden, if I hadn’t I would have added in a good quantity of compost and fertilizer and kept going with the same stuff for a few more seasons). When I dumped it out, I discovered that the wicks had almost completely disappeared. Oh! Of course! Cotton + consistent moisture + heat = compost. Whoops.
To be honest, I didn’t re-make them as SIPs. I just filled them up to use as regular, very large planters. I planted salad greens, who’s shallow roots are very sensitive to lapses in water, and so far they’re doing beautifully.
I’m still a fan of SIPs though. If you live in a dry place, or go out of town often, and want to give them a try, this super easy set-up has the advantage of immediacy. No complicated trips to the store, which can put a mama with kiddos back for months. No fancy tools. No questionable PVC. Almost no money outlay at all if you’ve got an old tote around, though you still have to buy potting mix. The wicks lasted at least a solid year, and replacing them every spring wouldn’t be hard.
Even easier though? Skip the stupidly small and infuriatingly shallow (but darn aren’t they pretty) regular garden pots and plant vegetables in a plain old large plastic tote with drainage holes. If you live in a damp climate, this will probably be enough to make the difference.
Just don’t tell your neighbors it was my idea.
For the bible of SIPs, including several designs as well as spacing recommendations for planting and other good tips, check out this pdf from Seattle Peak Oil Awareness. If you want to use a couple of old 5 gallon buckets, or just want to be entertained punk urban survival style, check out this video from the old Homegrown Evolution (now Root Simple.) Lastly, here’s a couple more great pictorals for totes and buckets from Crestone Solar School.
Apron Stringz is two years old! Over that time, the content has grown like a nursing baby with knee dimples. While much of what I write is just day-to-day flotsam, I do sometimes crank out a useful and, I feel, enduring post. And I hate that blogs (at least, free ones like mine) don’t support any decent kind of index for these posts. Blogs are ephemeral, meant to be enjoyed hot off the presses, I guess. But it bugs me to no end that our hard work, one week after publishing is more or less lost to the world.
So here is a directory of posts on the wide subject of food. These are all posts with a more practical edge, those that you might reference. There’s an equal number of my more journal-style posts which I have left out, particularly on the subject of gardening. They make an interesting read if you like that sort of thing (and if you read this blog, you probably do) but seemed less in need of reference-able indexing. If you’re going for the journal aspect, try the archives. A few brave souls have apparently read start to finish.
As an Alaskan, I think of weeds as small, relatively demure plants. Dandelion, plantain, horsetail. Buttercups were my hated nemesis back home.
What they call “weeds” here in New Orleans, and the speed and size to which those weeds can grow, continues to blow my mind right out of the water.
When we moved to our new house, I asked the landlord to give me a tour of the landscaping, so I would have an idea what out of the jungle of overgrowth was an intended plant, and what was eligible for culling. These big tropical plants below are apparently a weed called ‘canna,’ which grew out of an old attempt at a vegetable bed (note the block border). This photo was taken in May, when their stature as a “weed” impressed me. They are now more than 8 feet tall and advancing on the remainder of the backyard. And that is not because I haven’t battled them back, on several occasions!
But what really creeps my shit out is the cat’s claw. This photo looks innocuous enough right? Could be ivy almost. Except that this is about a month’s growth. We have to pull these long cat arms down pretty frequently to keep them from reaching the roof.
These innocent looking vines have actual claws on them. They literally climb your house, looking for a way in.
After we got back from our week long vacation, our daughter’s room had one growing in through her window. Yes, it was closed. And locked. The barbed fingers found a crack. The vine was two feet long, reaching for her bedside lamp.
Our immediate neighbor has one of those overgrown yards full of junk that everyone everywhere hates (I secretly am much more comfortable next to a junky yard than a manicured one). But here in New Orleans, there is a special reason to hate such yards. Among the many other “weeds” here are a number that grow up into actual trees. The trees support the cat’s claw. The cat’s claw climbs up over the neighbor’s fence and reaches into your roof.
If you look carefully up under the eaves, you can see the brown shreds of some old cat’s claw that had grown up into the roof itself (before we got here). Imagine your rafters crawling with green fingers, ripping your roof apart.
There. Does that make you feel any better about your garden, and it’s summer accumulation of soft, leafy weeds?
As I’ve said before, I love eggplant. That’s why I planted six plants in my garden. What the fuck was I thinking?
I love eggplant, but my family? Not so much. Is this a female thing? My latest bloglove, The Girls Guide to Guns and Butter has the selfsame issue. She posted a wonderful looking recipe for easy moussaka recently, which I haven’t yet tried. I’m still busy trying to hide my eggplant, and subsequently force my family to eat it.
Because even though two of the plants didn’t make it, the remaining four are an endless waterfall of purple fruit. I go to my garden once a week lately (to my surprise, I’ve found that the thick leaf mulch on my garden, combined with the well established plants means I don’t need to water. At all. I haven’t watered in months. I barely have to weed because of my initial kick ass soil preparation and again, the mulch.) All I do is pop over to harvest. Every week a heaving bag full of eggplant and red marconi peppers. Neither of which anyone but me likes to eat.
Fortunately, although cohesive pieces of eggplant are entirely disagreeable to those who don’t like it, I’m finding it is easy to hide. It has little flavor of it’s own, and melts right into other foods if you cook it long enough. Last night I made a tomato (and red pepper) sauce with some roast chicken thrown in, and a heap of leftover grilled eggplant, which completely disappeared into the sauce. Even I couldn’t tell it was there. I served the sauce over gnocchi (which sounds fancy, but is actually the world’s easiest homemade pasta and it uses up leftover potatoes!)
Several weeks ago I blended up some fresh eggplant and added it into a batch of meatballs. I used the food processor to finely chop it and thoroughly squeezed the resulting mince over a fine mesh strainer to drain off the copious amount of juice (! Who knew those dry spongey seeming things had so much water?)
Then I added it to my usual meatball recipe. I used 2 full cups of it to a mere pound and a half of meat (meaning the “meat”balls were 1/3 eggplant), along with the usual egg and breadcrumbs.
No one noticed.
For myself, I made Paula Wolffert’s fabulous pate. The recipe calls it a ‘dip,’ but I remember from the book that she scooped it into a (flexible) container and chilled it, after which you can un-mold it and slice it, just like real pate. What a treat!
Eggplant’s also good for quicky mama lunches like this one.
Don’t forget that eggplant lasagna! That was a winner I I will surely make again. Also on my list (most definitely for myself) is caponata.
What are your favorite things to do with eggplant? Do you serve it front and center, or do you have to hide it too?
I am a master garden planner. I have sketch books, graph pads, notebooks, lists, calendars and homemade schematics of all kinds. When your garden is small, or your season short, planning is everything.
Oh, wait. No, there’s one more mildly critical factor.
I don’t think I have ever followed a single one of my 10+ years of garden plans. I mean, I sort of follow them. I start out good, with rows of pots germinating just the prescribed number of seeds. But then messy, messy life gets in the way, and pretty soon my garden beds are a jumble of unmarked varieties, empty spaces filled with whatever seed I had on me at the time. Nevertheless, my gardens still manage to be pretty productive, if only because I just change my diet to suit the harvest.
Everyone gardens for a different reason. Some people just want the opportunity to see plants growing. I can dig that, I do adore on some primal level the sheer visuals of gardening. Some people want to relax with a trowel at the end of their office day. That’s cool, I appreciate dirt as much as the next earthbound heathen. But for me, nothing trumps filling my kitchen and dinner table with food. I want to grow as much poundage, or at least nutritional value, as possible.
Our first two years here in New Orleans I cut myself some slack. In such a radically new climate (coming from Alaska) I figured successfully growing anything would be good. And I wanted to indulge the opportunity to grow things I can’t back home. Melons, squash, beans, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant! How truly thrilling for a freak like me. I took my focus off of efficiency and just played. It was good, it was fun (though certainly depressing in no small measure to try to grow anything here in the bug infested swamp). I dabbled, and I don’t regret it.
Now that our last long growing season is approaching (summer is the dead season here– fall, winter and spring are the growing seasons) I feel a return to my more classic gardening moral. Production. For our third winter, I want to be kicking ass with my garden.
I know that for the majority of my readers, talking about garden planning now is irrelevant, possibly rude. But plenty of you live south of the equator (a surprising number! Are there a disproportionate number of Aussies and New Zealanders on blogs in general, or is it the subject matter? And if so, how do I sign up to emigrate?) so you might be right about where I’m at, facing “spring” and the soon-to-be crush of planting.
There’s a weird alchemy about garden planning. By necessity it occurs ahead of the plantable season. Back in Alaska, garden planning happened in February or March, when the world was still hilarious inhospitable looking. Here in the sultry south, after poking around the wilty garden beds in late August under the hot iron of our sun, coming back inside to plan out the planting of peas and cabbage sounds absurd. You have to have faith that the time will come, that the world will be transformed and become genial to your little green starts.
You also have to have some concrete information about when exactly one could reasonably expect that transformation to occur. Of course every year is different, blah, blah, blah. But when we moved here, and the weather system and seasons were an enormous blank slate in my head, I realized just how important regional knowledge is. I had to base my garden plans on a calendar put out by the Extension Service for all of Louisiana, which is of course, much too general. Fortunately I had made a very savvy gardening friend here before we even moved (that’s how I roll, baby). He was the director for the community gardens, helped secure me a space, and even delivered a stack of scavenged materials for me to build my bed with. Yea for him, my guardian garden angel!
Through his expertise and vague recommendations (true experts will always give you vague recommendations), the Extension Service’s dates, and my little experience here, I put together this crudely detailed calendar:
I considered re-writing my calendar more legibly (and in pen) for you, but that’s just not my style. Also, I don’t have that kind of time. Anyway, this is not for you to print out and use, this is just to demonstrate a useful regional gardening calendar. The crops are listed on the left, and the months up top. The big dots are planting dates, the brown lines are the time each crop spends in the dirt, and the green are harvest windows. Note, this is an extreme guessing game! But, you gotta start somewhere.
This calendar is especially useful in a climate like this, with a 9-12 month growing season (depending on how hard you want to fight in the summer). Planning gets very complicated with ‘winter’ and ‘summer’ crops overlapping twice/year, and endless succession plantings twisting your brain up in knots. With the calendar, I can just look down each column and see what needs to be planted in any given week. This is a general calendar, I won’t be planting everything on it, but I can make a detailed schedule for each particular season and proceed from there.
And this year, this year! I swear I am going to follow that planting schedule. I will not plant all 6 cabbages at once just because I have the seeds in my hand. I will not spread 4 square feet of arugula. I will not plant once and then forget all about my calendar. I will practice restraint, organization, timeliness, perfection!
And then maybe the weather/pest/disease gods will look down on me with favor and not take out half my garden.
May my sowing be devout, may my harvest be bountiful.
Brianne over at the ever hilarious Real Mountain Values issued a plea for help yesterday. She is growing (her first?) garden and facing an oncoming glut of tomatoes. On the one hand I want to slap her, what with my own apparent inability to produce tomatoes. On the other hand I want to help a girl out.
Here’s the deal. That whole blanching and peeling business? I understand that some people feel it’s necessary, but I suspect they don’t have little squealers underfoot. In my personal, cowgirl Calamity opinion, blanching, peeling and seeding tomatoes in the hot of summer sounds like a curse akin to serpents and apples.
If you want some nicely peeled tomatoes for canning, save out your bigger babies and lavish them with the extra care. Then throw the rest of the sons-a-bitches in a big pot with half cup of water, stick a lid on, simmer until very soft, then blender the shit out of them. I love my stick blender for this, but a regular old blender will work fine so long as you let the ‘maters cool first to avoid explosions of boiling hot tomato all over your kitchen (seriously).
Make sure you process until they’re very smooth. I do find little bits of skin in my sauce, but it doesn’t bother me near so much as standing over a pot of boiling water for 40 minutes, dunking tomatoes three at a time. And the seeds have just never bothered me, though if they bother you, seeding fresh tomatoes is easy– cut in half across the equator, hold over your chicken bucket and squeeze. There, done.
As far as storage goes, you can freeze tomatoes whole, as in– throw those suckers in a bag and stick it in the freezer to process later. It works surprising well, but I don’t recommend it (unless you’re 9 months pregnant) because in my humble experience “later” is a faulty concept in homesteading endeavors. Like armagedon, “later” just never seems to come.
But what I do recommend if you have the freezer space is freezing the processed sauce. You can use plastic tupperware containers, straight sided jars (leave about 3/4 inch of space at the top for expansion) or even zip lock bags. I use wide-mouthed pint jars. I will admit to thawing them in the microwave when I’m in a hurry for dinner, but you can also stick them in a bowl of warm water to quick thaw. The advantage of tupperware is that you can pop the big square tomatosicle right out into the pot when you want it. Still, I feel funny about storing acidic foods in plastic, even though I apparently feel no compunction about the microwave. Go figure.
One last note, this no-nonsense sauce probably won’t be as thick and strongly tomato flavored as what you might be used to. An extra hour of simmering the puree will concentrate it, and a little spoon of sugar is never a bad idea with tomatoes. But if the tomato flavor still isn’t blowing your skirt up, and you aren’t yet producing your family’s entire yearly tomato supply anyway, why not just scrap the hard core ideals and stir in a can of store bought tomato paste? I’ve done it.
Most modern people think cooking dinner starts with deciding what they feel like eating. Some of us more pragmatic cooks think first about what’s in the fridge, then about what we could do with it. But there is yet another level, which I often find myself on, where the question of dinner is secondary altogether to the pressing concern of using up the food I’ve procured. Have you ever felt that way? I almost find it difficult to leave for the weekend because, like a pet that needs daily care, my food store is a Jenga-like construction of meals on their way. I can’t go camping this weekend, there’s a big pile of red peppers in there waiting to be roasted! I have meat thawed for a roast. The leftover garlic yogurt sauce needs falafel. What would happen without me?
Having a garden really brings the use-it-up struggle to a fine fervor. I don’t buy very many vegetables, and since my crops are heavily seasonal and furthermore a mix of pass and fail, I often only have two or three options at a time. Right now I have peppers and eggplant. Every meal is a question of how I can use up some more peppers and eggplant (made especially difficult since no one else in my family really likes either…)
Back home in Alaska, we only had one growing season– summer– and it only accommodated what here in New Orleans are “winter crops.” Kale, carrots, cabbage, kale, peas, chard, leeks, more kale. Every meal, how to use some kale. But also, more importantly even, the wild foods. Salmon, deer, black bear. Nettles, blueberries, cranberries, salmonberries. How to use them up. I spent a lot of years learning the answers, and really my whole way of cooking was based on those ingredients. Not that I didn’t have a whole pantry full of “regular” stuff like pasta, beans and oats. But the point was always to use as much wild and garden food as possible. Those were my focal points.
When I first discovered my love of Mediterranean Arabic food (one night at a Moroccan restaurant in Portland changed my life) it seemed so exotic. Such a far stray from my local food ways. I used to cook these enormous 8-course Moroccan meals for my birthday, spending $150-200 on ingredients. Whole cardamom, pomegranate molasses, orange blossom water. Pistachio oil to drizzle on a pate of roasted eggplant and ground walnuts. Mmmm, I swoon just naming them. All resolutely un-Alaskan ingredients, not pantry cooking.
I’m not sure when it happened but at some point I realized that I was just adventuring in someone else’s use-it-up food culture. Pomegranate molasses is the outcome of a shit ton of pomegranates. Roasted eggplant pate is what you make when you’ve got more eggplant than you know what to do with. And then I had the real epiphany. I consistently substituted wild game for beef or chicken in these recipes, thinking I was perverting them. But then I realized that the original recipes were often for wild game, and then converted to commercially available meat for American households. Even recipes for “lamb” were probably originally mutton (full grown sheep) and much closer to wild meat than beef.
The realization snowballed when I inter-library loaned Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens this spring. I adore her work, and this is an almost archival book that I hope to someday own (it’s got a cultish following, so it’s pretty pricey). As implied by the title, it’s half about greens. All kinds of greens, and all kinds of traditional recipes for them. She gives modern world substitutions (chard, endive, beet greens, etc) but the original recipes are based on mostly wild greens. Which are apparently the traditional greens of the Mediterranean. Nettles figure big. Also purslane, dandelion, and lots of green herbs. It struck me as funny realizing that when my friends and I made ‘nettle-kopita’ back in Alaska, we were quite a lot more on target than we could have imagined.
The subject of traditional cultures, what foods they harvested and how they cooked them is endlessly fascinating to me. Back at 17, when I was considering whether to go to college, ethnobotany and culinary anthropology were top on my list of ‘fields.’ In the end I decided to save my money, and I’m glad I did. I spent a lot of time traveling the world instead of studying textbooks, divining my own ethnobotanical cooking methods instead of taking tests. For myself anyway, a much better education.
Lately I’ve been running the subject through my fingers again as I consider this new culinary climate. In some ways it’s like starting over, but really, the principles of cooking with what you’ve got are universal. Stay loose, think creatively, abolish taboos.
Yesterday, with a big bag of eggplant weighing on my mind, I approached the subject of dinner. I looked online to see if I could find Paula Wolfert’s recipe for the roasted eggplant and walnut pate that so blew my mind years ago. Amazingly I did find it, pirated out of The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, one of the most beautiful cookbooks I’ve ever seen. I scribbled out the recipe, and then sighed, wondering how I could possibly call eggplant pate ‘dinner’ to my particular audience. The ricotta in the recipe must have been the key to my brilliance. Suddenly I realized its similarity to pureed eggplant, abandoned the pate and jumped straight to… lasagna!
Could I mash up the eggplant and use it in place of ricotta? Could I possibly get away with such heresy? The quick answer is yes.
It worked beautifully. I cut the eggplants into small chunks and sautéed slowly in plenty of olive oil. I mean plenty, you know how eggplant can suck it up. More fat the better, I always say. Especially when you’re trying to disguise a vegetable as a cheese! When the eggplant was about half done, I threw some onion in there, and a little green pepper. Once completely soft, I let it cool a bit, then pureed roughly. I was going to just mash it with a fork, but the peels were still too prominent, so out came the stick blender I bought just for soap making and now wouldn’t want to live without. To the puree I added a little heavy cream, not much, a few tablespoons maybe, an egg, plenty of salt (cheese is salty) and 1/4 cup of leftover yogurt-garlic-mint sauce. Surprised yet?
Lastly I mixed in some thawed collards (squeezed and chopped fine), and layered it with mozzarella, lasagna noodles and tomato sauce. Divine! And need I say, it went over much better at the dinner table than the aforementioned pate would have.
As I said in that last garden post, my harvests are mostly over till November, at the earliest. But, whether you base your meals on a constant garden supply, what’s in season at the farmer’s market, or just whatever is cheapest at the grocery store, the principles of cooking with what you’ve got are the same. Don’t start dinner by wondering what you feel like eating, start by looking around to see what needs using.
You are just the conduit through which the foods of your world are transformed into the meals for your family. First start lookin’ and then start cookin!
Need more ideas for over-exuberant garden goods? Try How to Hide, Err, Eat Eggplant all of which I think would work equally well with that dreaded August zucchini glut.
Mostly I love gardening. I mean, to the bone adore it. But goddamn, it can get disappointing sometimes! Especially here in the swamps, where everything grows like crazy, until you’re practically drooling, and then dies. Mysteriously.
Summer is the off season here. Gardens limp along. Smarter, richer people than me just cover the whole thing up with plastic to keep the weeds back, then get on a plane headed north. But I just had to at least try all those elusive true summer crops that I can’t grow in Alaska. Melons, tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers.
Last year cukes, peppers and beans were stars. No one but me is very keen on peppers in our house, even though the red-ripe homegrowns are so incredible. Cucumbers become pickles which are practically candy as far as the 4yo is concerned. Beans go over well at the dinner table, so I planted about half my summer garden to them. Mostly snap beans– a purple bush and a yellow Romano pole variety that produced like crazy last year. A few rows of limas too.
The only gardening “wisdom” I’ve learned in my almost 20 years is that whatever works banner one year may or may not ever work again. And similarly, whatever works for one person may or may not work for anybody else, including the next door neighbor.
This is a long way of saying that the beans are all, every single plant resolutely, dying. Tiny, stunted beans all over the succumbing plants. I want to cry. Why? Why? Why me? Have I not put in my years? Have I not said my Hail Marys? Hung my crystals? Consulted the Farmers’ Almanac?
(Oh, right. I didn’t do any of those things, I deserve what may come, heathen of faithlessness.)
That jungle up top looks so promising, right? That was on Saturday, at the beginning of my garden day. As lush as that is, there’s almost no actual food in that photo.
The tomatoes were not a surprise, they’re hard around here even for the non-organic growers. I was judicious at least, with their planting. Only 8 plants. Consider my restraint! Four of those withered and died without giving so much as a single ripe tomato. The plants are long gone.
The melon story, you’ve heard. Since that anti-climactic harvest the plants and the one ripening melon left completely died, rotted, and dehydrated within a single week.
I got a decent wave of cucumbers, enough for five jars of pickles, before those plants bit the big one, months ago.
On a more productive note, I have a long Italian red pepper pumping ’em out as fast as I can figure out how to disguise them into dinner. The eggplants are coming on too, just as I realize that, yet again, I’m the only person who eats eggplant in this house. Five plants? Umm, who planned this garden?
The problem is, you can’t grow the things my family does like in the hot New Orleans summer. No brassicas whatsoever, carrots, potatoes, beets, peas, spinach, all long gone around here. Even the chard gave up the ghost. And of the summer crops, the only one that really gets some love at our table are snap beans.
And here we are full circle, back at the bean issue.
Reading all of y’alls green sprouting luscious garden posts is making me righteously jealous. But then, I must remember, there are 3 growing seasons in a year here. This is the icky one, the might as well give up one. I should consider this winter, really. Then my Alaskan soul would pine appropriately for spring, which happens to come in late October. And, lucky me, I will get two lovely growing seasons before the ick comes back around.
Don’t get excited. I am not eating prosciutto e melone. I’m not, and it’s a tragedy.
Fourteen years ago, I spent a month in Italy with a dear, similarly food obsessed friend. We ate our way from Roma to Venezia, with a detour to the ridiculously picturesque Cinque Terre. We worked on farms where they milked sheep and made Pecorino, we sucked fallen plums off the ground, we discovered fruits we had only ever seen dried and packaged, we discovered in fact, everything we had ever eaten before, and how it could taste.
People talk about Italy with an obnoxious nostalgia. I know. But there’s nothing else one can say. Food in Italy is obnoxiously good. Everything down to a can of tuna blew our minds. We ate at cafeterias with better food than most American restaurants.
Everything about Italian cooking threw me on my head. They hardly did anything. They love their food, that is well known, and so they take care with it. But what I hadn’t realized was just how ridiculously simple the preparation can be when you start ingredients that good. There were several epiphanal moments, but perhaps the one that has haunted me most is the proscuitto e melone.
We were working on a farm, picking and washing vegetables for market all day. Towards evening they fired up the outdoor wood oven to make pizza. I’m sorry, this is going to get absurd, but it actually happened this way. We sat at a big wooden table, outside by the oven, drinking wine from a local vineyard. The sun was setting over the rolling farmland with that light, the hazy orange stuff you see in old European paintings. The farmer’s father, a stately old Italian gentleman, came out to join us. He had brought a large platter of home cured prosciutto and fresh melon. It seemed such a strange thought to my Alaskan mind, meat and cantalope…? But holy christ was that some kind of food. The prosciutto meltingly, ethereally rich; the melon weepingly ripe, sweet but complex like wine. The unlikely combination surely a gift from god.
And I’m sorry to say this, but you simply cannot make this divine “recipe” in the United States. Because it all depends on the quality of two ingredients that you simply cannot get. I have never liked any of the prosciutto I’ve eaten here, it has a strange bitterness to it. And the melon. Is nothing like that melon.
I didn’t know melon (or tomatoes, or peaches) could taste like that. I had hoped moving down here, I would rediscover those flavors. Thinking it was heat and freshness that produced them.
Sadly, I’ve been vastly disappointed by the farmer’s market produce here. Tomatoes taste slightly better than the ones from the store. Peaches, ditto. Everyone here raves about the peaches. I’m sorry. They’re very good… They’re just not…… My mind is not blown.
Then it must be the varieties, I decided. They are just planting the standard grocery store varieties. Small, local, fresh, but still hybrid commercial varieties.
And so my little Alaskan soul ordered the heirloom seeds, combing the catalog for any hint that the resultant melon would taste like those luscious, complex Italian melons. I planted the seeds in little pots. I mostly remembered to water the pots. I transplanted them lovingly, two to my garden at home, two to my community garden. I hoped with my heart, but not too much. A judicious hope.
The plants at home made two melons. Both were riddled with bug holes and I had to pick them before they were fully ripe. They were edible.
In the community garden I had another two melons growing, seemingly escaping the bugs. One of them grew huge and today when I went to water, lo and behold it was ripe! It “slipped” from the vine when I picked it up! Oh copious joy! Oh heart of my heart! Oh prosciutto where are you?
I put the enormous melon into my bag with some little eggplants and yet another load of red marconi peppers. I hurried home. I ran inside for a knife. I drooled in anticipation.
You already know the end to this story, so what’s the point. I might cry if I have to spell it out. Let’s just say I am saving my money for a mid-life crisis trip to Italy.
It’s been awhile since you had a look at my garden. We are winding down here, summer is the time of rest, too hot and jungly. Being mid-June, my summer crops are already succumbing to all manner of weird diseases and unknown bugs, and I’m slowly replacing them with a cover crop. Beans, peppers and eggplants are the only things I have still to look forward to.
My garden is sorely lacking any collards. I don’t understand how I let that slip. I do have one straggly looking start, which might still grow up to take over the world. I have trouble planning my garden right. I mean, I plan it beautifully, but I have trouble actually implementing the plan. It’s quite a bit more challenging here where there are essentially three growing seasons/year. A continual in and out, the ground is never bare all at once, I dig it up and amend in little chunks as plants finish out.
I’m really excited to have some eggplants growing. I hope they make it. I’ve never grown eggplant before, to my Alaskan self it seems quite exotic. I have two melons growing too, in the little bed at our house, but one of them has some kind of abscess so I don’t hold much hope. I harvested a few winter squash, which are equally exotic and exciting, but the plant got killed off by squash vine borers before they had a chance to fully ripen, so although they’re perfectly fine eating, they’re not sweet and luscious.
Gardening here is so anti-climactic. In Alaska things grow slow, but as long as you grow the right crops and the slugs don’t get them when they’re starts, they do mature and you get to eat them eventually. Here, you might have a big beautiful plant, covered in green tomatoes and next week a bunch of rotting, bug eaten fruit falling off of a withering diseased plant. Geez. You have to be strong. Keep up the morale.
Climbing yellow romano beans along that fence in back, and a lot of purple bush beans all over.
I pulled up some of my cover crop beans already, they grow crazy fast here. Look at those nodules of free nitrogen! Oh boy!
These pretty Striped Romas have since spoogified, the plants died and I pulled them up to plant cover crop. Boo hoo.
The only tomatoes I’ve had any success with here are hybrids, which they locally call “Creole Tomatoes” to make them sound fancy. They’re just Big Boys. This looks like a good harvest right? This is about all I got off of two plants. I got a bigger harvest digging through other people’s spent plants thrown into the compost heap in despair, still covered with half green tomatoes. Why do people go to all the trouble of growing a garden and then not even use the food they grew???? Oh, maybe because they, like me, still can’t stop ‘planting the dream’ instead of the reality…
My chard on the other hand, is finally giving up the ghost after many months of quiet, faithful service. Gotta love that stuff.
As the chard fades out, the peppers step in. Peppers and beans are the backbone of the summer garden here. Both are pretty hardy to the heat and buggies, and both keep pumping food out for quite awhile.
Well, okra is the backbone, and I suppose I should plant some just to be a good guest. But my kids don’t eat it and I’m only marginally fond of it myself, so although I bought the seed, I can’t bring myself to stick it in the ground. Anyone know any unusual, reliable crops for semi-tropical places? I’m open to ideas.
I got another culinary hair up my ass last week. For those of you who read Empanadas: A Confession, I am glad to report that I truly did make these for myself, to celebrate the last of my very sad looking chard. Those plants gave out for at least 4 months. The base of one of the plants was a full 4 inches across. Amazing.
Scroll down as far as you like, there are no photos of the actual ravioli in this post. I gave you the only good looking photo already. Homemade ravioli look like hell (but taste like heaven). I know, how am I supposed to convince you to make them if I don’t get the drool flowing with some food porn? Go visit Slow Living Essentials for some pretty pix, as well as good instructions for forming the raviolis. Although I notice that even Christine didn’t post photos of the cooked pastas, which wrinkle up in a most obscene way.
If you don’t want to go to the trouble of rolling out, filling and cutting ravioli, (and really, I’m telling’ ya, I’m a freak, this is not normal mother-of-two-littles behavior) you could make a damn fine lasagna with the same ingredients and a lot less work. Ain’t nothin’ second rate about lasagna!
(The 3yo, who loved these, called them wrap-a-rollies. And who can argue with that?)
Swiss Chard Wrap-a-Rollies
serves 4 adults and associated kids if there’s other food on the table, might I recommend a roast chicken?
for the pasta dough combine:
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
enough water to make a stiff dough
Knead until smooth and let rest, covered at least 30 minutes.
Erstwhile, remove the ribs from a big bunch of chard (use for these scrummy muffins) and chop very fine. Fry in some butter and a sprinkle of water, with a lid on, until tender. Smash 2 cloves of garlic and stir into the greens just as you turn off the heat. Let sit for a minute in the hot pan, then move into a mixing bowl and add about a cup of cottage cheese or whole milk ricotta (cottage cheese is cheaper and really just as good), a cup or more of shredded mozzarella, some finely grated parmesan, salt and fresh ground pepper to taste, and a whisper of nutmeg. Oh, and an egg. Beat it all together and set it in the fridge to cool while you roll out the pasta.
Working with one quarter of the dough at a time, roll out thin, fill, seal and set onto a lightly floured baking sheet. You can make much bigger ravioli than the traditional bite-size, it goes faster. Just make sure to use enough pasta, ie: don’t overstuff or you will live to regret it.
Leave out to dry slightly (an hour or so) before cooking in rapidly boiling, salted water. Cook this size recipe in two batches. They cook very fast, once they bob back up to the surface give them another 30 seconds, then fish them out, drain and boil the second batch.
Toss gently with a very simple tomato sauce. Mine was just good garden tomatoes cooked down with a little salt added.
If you want to make a lasagna instead, I recommend ‘no-boil’ lasagna sheets. It took me years to come around, but they really do make lasagna a weeknight meal. Make sure to spread the filling just on the sheets themselves, not around the edges, because as they cook, they expand outward carrying the filling with them. I think it would be really good to alternate layers, instead of putting some filling and some sauce on every layer. As in, tomato sauce first, then pasta, then cheese/chard, then pasta, then sauce, then pasta, etc. I think this would make it more ravioli-ey. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake 25 minutes, then remove foil and bake another 15.
I don’t know why spinach lasagna always has to have a white sauce. Are we so afraid of vegetables that we have to drown them completely in animal fat? I mean, with all that cheese, can’t we go red with the sauce?
Since I’m using you all as a lifesaving device during this tight spot, I carry you with me throughout my day. It’s true. Sad, perhaps. Modern, for certain. The little virtual angels on my shoulder, encouraging me to take heart, go forth and do good things. Or lock myself in the bathroom and ball my eyes out, depending on the situation.
I kept my camera at hand yesterday, and thought I’d share with you some high points and low.
We had breakfast with a friend (thank you!) and then rode over to the community garden to water. It’s officially summer here. Hot. Time to water every other day. And the harvests are rolling in. More chard. Even with the trickiest muffin recipe ever, I still didn’t manage to use up all the stalks from the last bunch. Into the compost. Enter the new beauties.
The carrots are sizing up, just in the nick of time. I do so adore garden carrots– for taste, and even just for looking at. Gorgeous.
My garlic on the other hand is meeting the same sad fate my onions met last month. I don’t understand this. I planted both last fall, they grew fantastically all winter, thick as leeks some of them. I was counting my chickens, certain I would be getting huge bulbs. Then the onions started to die off. Sweet! I thought at first, the bulbs must be about ready. But no, nothing down there. I kept waiting, thinking maybe this was a normal part of the process. My local garden guru doesn’t do onions, so had no advice for me.
Soon they just flat out were rotting. I pulled what was left, peeled off the rotten layers and got some decent green onions at least. When the formerly verdant green garlic started to lose it’s luster, I didn’t wait so long. I gave them a little time, with a kernal of hope. Then I started pulling them. Same deal, dying and starting to rot from the outside in, but no bulbs.
Boo hoo! I am crushed! This time, I’m eatin’ those suckers before the rot really sets in.
Last week we were gone, so I didn’t get a chance to harvest salad greens, and of course this week it was just out of control.
Am I the only one who can’t get the salad greens thing figured out? It’s always feast or famine. Especially the lettuces. This mix has precious little lettuce in it, and hey, I like me some spice, but pure chicory and arugula makes for a burly salad. Especially when you’ve let the leaves get so big.
Here’s my tactic for large quantities of greens. Wash, drain, dump into a pillow case. Drain more into the tub, then go out in the yard and wing that MF like a helicopter. Then just store in the fridge as is. This lets some of that extra moisture wick out into the fridge’s dry air. When the pillow case starts to feel dry, in a day or two, put the lot into a garbage bag. Don’t forget that part, it won’t last long in the cloth before it starts to dry out too much.
I had to clean out my fridge to accommodate the new batch of garden lovelies. Time to get cookin! I made stir fried rice with carrots, garlic greens and chard stems for dinner. (That’s some beet and cabbage sauerkraut on the left there from last month’s big cabbage harvest. Gotta love that color, right?)
Of course, my day wasn’t all playing with vegetables. In fact, the 1YO who fell perfectly asleep in the bike trailer on the way home from the garden, didn’t transfer. He woke up when I tried to put him in his crib, and once he’s gotten more that 2 minutes of sleep he thinks he’s done napping.
It was a rough afternoon.
There were some sweetnesses–
Some mama guilt (yes, that’s an iPad, and yes, I’m embarrassed)–
And plenty of messes, on every available surface–
Including (no picture here, you lucky devils) the 3YO peeing in a box of unpacked clothes, and subsequent cussing by yours truly. I tried to at least keep the F word out of it.
Fortunately, I made up a batch of mama treats last week. It’s good to have a few tricks up your sleeve. This easier-than-pie recipe stretches that expensive fair trade chocolate nicely. And doesn’t require a hot oven.
Gotta keep these in the fridge in this climate. I prefer a camo container, such as this Nancy’s yogurt tub. Keep your secret secret.
Swiss chard (silverbeet for some of you) is good eating, don’t get me wrong. But damn is it fine to look at! Those Rubenesque stems in every color imaginable. Those enormous succulent dark green wrinkled velvet leaves. Oh my!
I like Orange Fantasia and Pink Lipstick. I mean, in varieties of chard. The only problem with chard is that the prettiest varieties are the ones with mammoth stems, and the 36-24-36 proportions that look so heady on the plant never seem quite right in the kitchen. So little leaf, so much stem. So few ideas how to use those stems…
And that chard, true to it’s lascivious proportions, keeps on putting out! Every trip to the garden lately finds me returning with a 10 pound bouquet.
Enter my latest, and possibly best to date, recipe brainchild. Unlike that last recipe for empanadas, this is easy! Quick! Nutritious! And extremely tasty! Dare I say, these muffins do a better housewife make….
Now, understand that I do not mean savory, cheesy chard muffins, which would be delicious in their own right. I mean sweet chard muffins. Like carrot cake or zucchini bread. I’m not the first person to think of vegetables going sweet, but I’ve never heard of a sweet greens recipes before. Have any of you?
I first got the fire under my kettle for Swiss chard muffins a few weeks ago. I don’t remember how or why, but suddenly I found myself thinking, ‘chard stems—rhubarb… chard greens—sorrel pudding (Icelandic)… zucchini bread… chard muffins!’ and I knew I had to try it.
I did almost chicken-out at the last minute and go the savory direction. But fortunately for all of us, and generations to come, I powered through the second-guessing and gave it a go. What’ve I got to lose anyway?
There is an ever so slightly mineral, beety flavor to these which could potentially put picky people off, but it’s very, very slight. I can almost guarantee that if you like zucchini bread you’ll like these. I personally found that the barely detectable mineral flavor gave the sweetness complexity.
If you wash your chard, be sure to dry it thoroughly before adding it, or it will make the batter too wet. You can use both stems and leaves, or just the stems. I’ve tried both and couldn’t really taste the difference. But if you have little people who might be offended by green specks, leave them out. Plus, isn’t it nice to have a way to use up all that extra stem?
Slice the stems very thinly, almost shredding them. If the ribs are very wide, cut in half lengthwise first.
This recipe makes one dozen. When I make muffins lately I like to bake off half in my little six cup tin in the toaster oven. Then I line another muffin tin with paper liners, fill and freeze the rest. Cook’s Illustrated turned me on to this. Muffin batter freezes great, and you can bake them off straight from the freezer! Who knew? Muffins, especially the whole grain variety, are so much better freshly baked. Now you don’t have to eat them any other way! The frozen muffins only take an extra 10 minutes or so to bake.
Unlike those pesky empanadas, this is a great recipe for cooks of any skill level!
CJ’s Best Brain Child
1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup white all purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon each salt, baking powder, baking soda, powdered ginger and cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon each nutmeg and allspice*
1/4 cup melted butter
1/4 cup oil
2 cups firmly-packed shredded chard stems and leaves, or just stems
1/2-1 cup walnuts, optional of course
apx 2 Tablespoons water
*If you don’t have all those particular spices, use whatever you have. Or use pumpkin pie spice, which is really a great mix. As long as your spices are reasonably fresh (I mean, less than 2 years old) it’ll be good.
Preheat oven to 425 F. Starting out at a high heat helps make the lovely domed tops that whole grain muffins often lack.
Mix all dry ingredients together in a big bowl. Crack in the eggs, pour in the fats, chard and nuts, and gently fold/stir the lot together. An advantage of whole wheat pastry flour is you really don’t have to worry about overworking the batter.
When everything is mostly incorporated, drizzle on the water and keep folding until you have a very thick but workable batter. You might not need both tablespoons of water.
Scoop into well buttered or paper lined tins. Fill each cup completely, the old advice of 2/3 full might work for white flour muffins, but it doesn’t work for wheat.
Put into your preheated oven and leave for ten minutes or so until the edges have set, then lower the temperature to 375 F. Leave another 5-15 minutes. Muffins are done when you can press your finger lightly into the top and feel the spring back of a squishy muffin, instead of the give of puffed raw batter. If you aren’t certain, stick a butter knife into the center muffin. It should come out clean, wet crumbs maybe, but no batter clinging.
Allow muffins to rest in pan for ten minutes, then carefully remove to a rack to cool.
Or bounce hot muffins back and forth between your fingers, jumping up and down yipping like a coyote. If you want to make your kidlets laugh.
For those new readers out there, I tend a hard won bed at a community garden. Two actually, one which I built and payed to fill which is about 4×12, and the neighboring 5×12 foot bed which I took over after proving my worth building the first. Combined this is about the same space as the other plots. Although this space is just about right for me, I kind of think it’s too much for most people. I have seen many a bolted and flowering broccoli and lettuce since I’ve been gardening here, and every time it kills me.
There’s a million ways to lose track in the garden, particularly here where it’s a year round caper. I know as well as anybody how quickly good intentions, careful planning, and earnest beginnings can unravel in the light of day. I always plan my gardens, heavily.
I never follow my plans.
Planning is so damn fun! I just sit there with my coffee, my graph pad and my pencil and give form to my dreams. Seed catalogs are juicy love letters written just to me. I scale out my beds, of course, but also have been known to make elaborate charts of planting dates, transplanting dates, harvest windows and even approximated consumption and storage periods in order to determine how much of what to grow and when.
And then I proceed to disregard it all.
When it comes time and the weather is finally just right, I am always behind. I lose track of the dates, forget to bring my garden map with me, realize that although I pored over the seed catalog when it arrived in January, I never actually made an order and don’t have the seed I need. I buy starts from the market on a whim and try to fit them somewhere. Inevitably many crops take longer or shorter than I thought they would and I find myself with extra space or not enough accordingly.
I started gardening more than 12 years ago, and like any novice I thought it would take me awhile to get the hang of it. Like maybe a few years. Then I’d know what I was doing. In 5 years I’d be a pro, right?
I often feel like I lose ground every year. The more I put seeds in the dirt and watch them grow or not grow, the more confused I get. Of course, moving to the other side of the continent didn’t help, but even my last year in Alaska, my 10th garden, I was thinking ‘What the fuck?’ all season long.
Gardening for the table. It sounds simple. It sounds like what we’re all out to do, right? A no-brainer for gals like us. Maybe a few flowers, to put on the table, but mostly we go for food. The vegetable porn stars of those seed catalog fold outs.
We wet our panties over the catalogs, get high on coffee over our graph tablets, and devise perfect Degas-like scenes of vegetable Edens.
Two months later the radishes wither in the back of the fridge.
Because oh my dear god those French Breakfast radishes are a still life in my hand when I pull them up. My heart leaps as I wash the dirt off to reveal their watercolor perfection. I adore them.
To look at.
Eating…. Not so much.
Tomatoes, the ripe luscious swollen beauties I remember from Italy, why do the tomatoes I grow never taste like that? And why do my occasionally successful homegrowns melt into a puddle in the fridge? And more to the point, why do I keep growing them in such numbers????
When people in Alaska would ask for advice on what to plant in their first garden, I would always recommend kale. My girl-next-door. Here it’s collards. Holy shit is it collards. Three plants, 12 months, all the greens I could eat and then some for the neighbor.
But really, most people don’t eat many greens. The best answer to ‘what should I grow’ will always be a tightrope walk of what grows good in your area and, not to be underestimated, what do you like to eat?
Before you even pick up a seed catalog, consider what you currently actually buy at the grocery store. What vegetables are your staples? And what vegetables do you buy yourself as a treat? The dizzying array of winter squashes, each with their own distinct cosmic pattern, is nothing but a siren if you don’t cook squash. Burgundy okra, who knew? And given that there are 27 varieties of lettuce, shouldn’t I plant at least 5?
This is not an original thought. It’s a cliche of course, you’ve heard it a million times. All the gardening book cliches– start small, plant what you like to eat, don’t fall prey to catalog temptresses– are so true. They’re so true that we don’t even listen. ‘Oh yeah, of course. Well, that’s too obvious.’ we say smugly to ourselves, somehow feeling exempt from this classic advice. Then we lay down $85 for seeds and make another pot of coffee.
But I say it again. To you beginners, to you old timers, and especially to myself. Although some playfulness is absolutely necessary, for the most part I want to grow food that will make it to the table. Food that I will cook, not just in theory, but at 4:30 when I was supposed to start dinner half an hour ago. Food that myself and My Man and even the kiddos will eat.
Here’s our list, ranked for edibility in the real world:
.And although I will continue to order French Breakfast radishes and plant them in open spaces in the garden, I vow to stop telling myself the fairy tale about how I love to eat them. I fess up. I grow radishes because they’re pretty.
A couple of weeks ago, I sorted what was left of my slowly ripening tomatoes. The ones that were still very green, I decided to make into a green tomato jam. I had been enjoying slices of green tomato, fried simply (unbreaded) with my eggs in the morning, and then stacked all together on whole wheat toast. Yum. I imagined a savory jam which captured that fried green tomato flavor, and I could use it in the same toasty egg combination. I quartered them, roasted them at 350 for an hour (since I had the oven on anyway) then promptly forgot about them. Still in the oven, yes, days later when I remembered. They looked fine, it’s been cool here.
I chucked them into a pot, covered with water and boiled them for some long time, till they were falling apart soft, then rubbed them through a fine mesh strainer to puree them. Then I stopped for a moment and noticed they didn’t smell… that good. I mean, they smelled fine, but extremely vegetal. Not like anything I could imagine calling ‘jam,’ even of the savory variety. I shoved the pot to the back of the fridge to think more about later.
Or preferably to try to forget until rotten so I could dump it.
Yesterday I finally pulled the pot out, sure they had reached “dumpable” by now. I took the lid off and tentatively sniffed. Damn. Still fine. Still that sort of weird smell, but not remotely rotten. Guess I really have to figure out how to use these, I sighed to myself.
I kept ‘green tomato puree ideas’ in the background of my mind overnight, hoping for a brainstorm.
That slightly weird smell was in fact quite a lot like a tomatillo smell. Hmmm, green enchiladas have chicken, but I didn’t have any chicken. If I got a whole chicken at the farmers market, it would have to thaw, then cook and wouldn’t be ready for enchiladas for days. Hmmmm…
I still had several packs of Thanksgiving turkey left in the freezer. It seemed like I’d even heard of turkey enchiladas with green sauce. It was brilliant!
Or rather, the idea was brilliant. I still had some trepidation as I committed lots of time and good ingredients to that slightly weird smelling sauce. I assembled it in the afternoon, so the suspense was at a fever pitch by 5 o’clock when I set it on the table, with a nice Mexican slaw alongside.
Yum! After all that neglect and weirdness, it came out sooooo good. It was like spinning straw into gold, without any fear of losing a first-born child to a tricky dwarf.
Most likely y’all are done using up green tomatoes in any way possible, but in case you have any still kicking around– fresh, jarred or frozen (I chucked some into a ziplock in the freezer back in my early December panic)– I can’t recommend this highly enough. Of course I don’t have any kind of real recipe to offer up, but here’s the basics.
Fry an onion. Add some garlic. Shake on not too much cumin, and whatever other mexican spices are your faves. I had a jar of chipotle sauce, so added a tablespoon of that and let it fry for a minute. Then I stirred in about 1/2 cup of dark beer. I love cooking with beer, not only does it give a great flavor, but then– oh darn, what am I gonna do with the rest of this beer?
I dumped in the green tomato puree (oh, something like 3 cups) and the juice of one blood orange. Hey, it needed to get used up. Think creatively, right? Then I added my defrosted turkey scraps and let the whole thing simmer for an hour or more. Salt to taste.
(If you had any green chiles they would be ever so appropriate here. I was actually concerned about the quality of green enchiladas without green chiles, but they turned out dandy.)
Grate plenty of cheese, I used a mix of cheddar and mozzarella.
Fry your corn tortillas. This is a must for really good enchiladas, whatever the color. I used about 12, I think.
Then I strained the sauce off of the turkey mixture (reserve sauce of course) and kind of mashed the turkey around to shred it, it was super tender by now. I mixed the turkey with a cup of cottage cheese– again, cuz I had it– and because I was adding the cottage cheese I thought I’d better throw in an egg. Then a big heap of cilantro from my garden. Check the salt.
I used a 7×11 inch pyrex. A smear of sauce in the bottom, then 3 tortillas, evenly spaced and overlapped. Lump a third of the turkey filling over the tortillas and spread it evenly, not to the edge of the pan, but just to the edge of the tortillas. Thin sprinkle of cheese, 3 more tortillas, and repeat for two more layers. Finish off with tortillas, the rest of the sauce, a bit of cilantro and cheese. If you have what seems like too much sauce, and it pools down into the space between the tortilla stack and the edges of the pan, don’t worry– it thickens right up into a nice extra tangy side spooge.
We’re big fans of coleslaw round these parts. Particularly, the 3YO who can shovel away a good pint of it all to herself if she hasn’t had it in awhile. And who am I to stop her? Whenever we eat Tex-Mex, I add a bit of cilantro to my regular slaw, and lime juice instead of vinegar if I have it. It adds just the right lift to the otherwise heavy Americanized Mexican food. Plus, well did you see the size of the cabbage in the last post? We’ve been at it for weeks already.
(Sorry I don’t have any photos, our camera is in a bad mood lately. But honestly, it wasn’t pretty food. Delicious, yes. Pretty, not so much.)
Here’s to green tomatoes and using up the harvest!