Friday, January 28, 2011

This Week's Local Food Finds

A new shipment of winter squash has arrived from South Carolina. Otherwise, the local food scene this week is not much different from what we found in December. Apples from Hendersonville, NC, ginger from Alabama, and fresh herbs and sprouts from Nashville. Sweet potatoes from Georgia and Grainger County, TN, and as always delicious locally baked breads to go with cheeses from Locust Grove and Sweetwater Valley Farms.

The find of the month, however, has been sitting there on the shelf waiting for me every since last fall. White paper bags containing four pounds of organically grown, stone ground, one hundred percent Hickory King corn meal.

If you are not familiar with Hickory King corn, you should be. It is a "flint" type corn, with far less sugar than the sweet corn varieties most people grow in their gardens. It has been a southern favorite for a long time, since before 1875 according to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. (This company has one of my favorite catalogs of heirloom and organic vegetable seeds.) Not only does this corn make great roasting ears, it is preferred by many for hominy, grits and corn meal. Unfortunately, it is a bit unwieldy for the home garden. The stalks, which typically bear two ears each, grow up to twelve feet tall. Thus, I will leave it to Lakeview Farm in Bean Station, TN, to continue producing Hickory King corn meal.  It makes the best cornbread I have tasted since childhood. The recipe that is printed on the bag from Lakeview Farm might be a little hard for inexperienced cooks to follow, so I have included some additional instructions.

Hickory King Corn Bread
2 cups stone ground Hickory King corn meal
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups buttermilk
1 large egg
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Stir well with a wire whisk. In a separate bowl, whisk the buttermilk, egg and melted butter until thoroughly blended. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, dump in the liquid and whisk to make a uniform batter. Grease a 10 inch diameter cast iron skillet. Pour in the batter, place in the oven and bake until golden brown on top, about 30-35 minutes.

Leftovers (if any) make delicious dressing, I discovered. Next, I am going to use this meal to prepare cornbread according to my old recipe, which calls for self-rising corn meal mix. Ever since the local White Lily Milling Company retired its "Three Rivers" brand of cornmeal mix, I've been looking for a replacement, without much success.

John's Cornbread
1/2 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups Hickory King corn meal
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for the skillet
1 1/2 cups 2% milk

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Pour enough oil in the bottom of a 10-inch cast iron skillet to coat it well. Place the skillet in the oven to heat while you make the cornbread. In a mixing bowl combine the dry ingredients and whisk to produce a uniform mixture. Whisk the remaining ingredients in a separate bowl until they are well combined. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the liquid. Whisk just enough to fully incorporate the liquid. Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and pour the batter into it. The skillet should be hot enough that the batter sizzles. Return the skillet to the oven and bake until the top is golden brown and the cornbread has pulled away slightly from the sides of the skillet, about 30-40 minutes.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Start With Lettuce

If you are just getting started with food gardening, I suggest you try lettuce as your first crop. Lettuce is a cool weather crop that is easy to grow. It is almost always eaten fresh and uncooked, and costs more per pound in the market than the majority of other vegetables. It makes good sense, therefore, to grow lettuce at home. The plants grow well in containers and will tolerate some shade, making lettuce a good choice for balcony and patio container gardens. Most lettuce cultivars are ready to harvest within two months. By succession planting, you can have lettuce ready to pick during all but the warmest period of your growing season.
Lettuce will also grow satisfactorily in a solar cold frame throughout the winter here in Zones 7 or 6. (We live right on the transition between these two climate zones, with weather that is typically a few degrees cooler than nearby Knoxville, which is about 300 feet lower in elevation and near the Tennessee River.) One of our major projects for the coming season is constructing a small solar greenhouse for winter vegetable production.
Right now, however, we're gearing up for the coming Spring by starting our earliest cool season crops in the garage under lights. Here's a view of the setup.
Seed flats get light from shop lights and a south facing window.
On the left are lettuce plants started in November, 2010. They went into the cold frame bed today, and should produce an early crop as soon as the day length increases sufficiently. That two months were required for the plants to reach this size demonstrates how the availability of light controls plant growth, even in the absence of below-freezing temperatures. We tend to regard the difficulties of winter cultivation as due entirely to the cold, but plants also need adequate light. This explains why a solar greenhouse will give better results than an indoor system. Even with the sun's illumination, however, some crops require supplemental lighting to produce in wintertime.

Lettuce Cultivars
We've scarcely met a lettuce we don't like and have grown many over the years. We currently have plants of the following:

Lollo Rossa - Frilly, almost lacy, looseleaf with pale green and bronze coloration. Good for cut and come again harvest; produces well in the cold frame.
Red Romaine - One of our favorites. Deep red, loose head of elongated leaves with succulent, sweet ribs. Grows well in all seasons except the warmest part of summer.
Rouge d'Hiver - Green and red looseleaf type selected for overwintering under cover. Does poorly in warm weather. Beautiful leaves are tender and sweet.
Rougette de Montpelier - Buttercrunch type with red and green coloration. Good producer fall through early spring. Individual heads just right for one serving of salad.

All these lettuce plants will get darker when moved to the cold frame.

We find that red pigmented lettuces do better for us in winter than green ones do.

Lettuce seeds keep several years with proper storage. We have the following in our inventory, awaiting longer, warmer days:

Black Seeded Simpson - Pale yellow-green heirloom looseleaf type that was my grandfather's choice. I grow some every year for the nostalgia alone. Easy and reliable mid spring crop that does well in a large container, too.
Buttercrunch - Deep green butterhead with yellow center and fabulous flavor. Best in early spring from seed started indoors. Needs coddling for best quality.
Oakleaf - Pale green loosehead with interesting leaf shapes. Delicious and reliable as a spring crop.
Red Salad Bowl - Bright crimson looseaf type that makes a perfect companion for Black Seeded Simpson, whether in the ground or in a container.

Two varieties we are going to try this year, both from Burpee, are:

Ashley - Supposedly heat tolerant red loosehead with ruffled leaves.
Freckles - Another (supposedly) heat tolerant lettuce, this is a Romaine type sporting bright green leaves with red freckles.

Others we may try:

Little Gem - Baby green romaine type good for containers. We had good luck with mid-spring sowing of this one.
Thai Oakleaf - Bred to take the heat, this cultivar is available from Southern Exposure.
Tom Thumb - Makes a perfect little butterhead the size of a tennis ball. Too cute to pass up and ideal in containers. Early spring cropping is most successful.

Easy to grow and decorative, lettuce ranks highly for backyard gardens large or small.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What We Could Be Growing Now

January's cold, gray weather often keeps us indoors, so we make good use of the time by developing a garden plan for the coming year. Over time I have learned that planning a summer garden is relatively easy, while spring, fall and especially winter vegetable gardens are more challenging.

One trick I have learned for planning a winter garden is to make a list of vegetables I could be enjoying now, had I planned better last year. For example, I really should have potted up more rosemary to bring inside, as we have harvested all we dare from the one plant we saved. In fact, I intend to create a indoor herb garden for next winter by growing my favorite herbs in containers planted around the first of June. These won't be picked all summer, as we will have plenty of herbs in the garden beds, then. A month before bringing the pots inside, I'll give them all a good pruning, and use or dry the cuttings. That should cause them to put on new growth before they come inside around the end of October. My aim is to bring them indoors just before the first hard freeze. Besides French thyme, Greek oregano and rosemary, my three kitchen staples, I will certainly have a pot or two of parsley.
Because it tolerates some shade, parsley is excellent for growing in a windowsill garden. You can start plants just for the purpose, sowing seeds around the first of June, or in the fall dig a plant out of the garden and pot it up. Use a the largest pot you can manage, and feed the plant a soluble fertilizer to encourage plenty of foliage growth.

Coldframe Crops
With a larger coldframe we could be producing taller plants all winter. With more square feet under plastic, we could easily grow all the cilantro, parsley, dill, chervil, beets, Swiss chard, carrots, corn salad, arugula, mizuna, tatsoi, bak choi, chives, lettuce, scallions and leeks we could use. This is an area I intend to give more effort to during the 2011 growing season. Besides crops that are harvested in winter, cultivars selected for their ability to overwinter and produce a crop very early are worth some experimentation.

Storage Crops
The next best thing to fresh, homegrown produce is produce that has been preserved at home, captured at the peak of flavor. Freezing is the main way I preserve fresh veggies, but I also make pickles. Next season, I may purchase a pressure canner and expand my options in the canning realm. Also, I hope to take advantage of seasonal abundance at the Farmer's Market to put up my own tomatoes, fruit preserves and jam.
The garden will have some space devoted to storage crops, a bit more than last year. Potatoes, garlic and shallots are the main ones, and we plan to experiment with perennial onions. They have to be fall planted, though, so we will not see results during 2011.
Root cellar crops, such as beets, carrots, cabbage and turnips, are also on our list. Another possibility is sweet potatoes, although they take up quite a bit of room in the garden. I seldom see my favorite type, the true yam or "white sweet potato" that my grandfather grew, although they turn up from time to time at the Farmer's Market. If I can find some plants, I'll make room for them. Otherwise, I'll rely on the Farmer's Market for sweet potatoes, along with winter squash and pumpkins. Squash family crops typically outgrow our space and many are beset by the squash vine borer, a serious pest.

New Introductions
One of our main garden goals for 2011 is to establish a berry patch. We want to grow our own strawberries, raspberries, and possibly blueberries. We will include progress reports on this and other projects in future posts.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

2010 Harvest Data

I finally managed to record all the raw data from last year's harvest in a spreadsheet. As usual, I am amazed at the quantity of food we can produce. Our vegetable garden consists of five raised beds made of pressure treated 2 x 12s. Three beds are15 square feet each, two are 16 square feet each, and the other is 32 square feet. We also have a permanent bed along one side of the house that is about 48 square feet total. This latter bed mostly held annual herbs and members of the onion family in 2010.

Here's what we harvested:

Beans, snap-23 pounds, most of which we froze
Cucumber-24 pounds
Leeks-36 mature plants, 1-1/4 inch in diameter, about 6 pounds total
Peas, snap-4 pounds, plus a smaller fall crop that was not recorded
Potatoes-17 pounds
Tomatoes-22 pounds, and this was a poor year for tomatoes
Squash, summer-4 pounds

Total Harvest: over 100 pounds of homegrown food!

In addition to these vegetables, we also harvested spinach, scallions, lettuce, mizuna, parsley, chervil, cilantro, dill, basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary and chives in abundance, though I did not keep records on these crops. I plan to improve my record-keeping for the 2011 season.

Growing Underway for 2011
For us the gardening season begins in January. We have sown leeks, broccoli and lettuce indoors for transplanting in February or March. The broccoli and lettuce are already up and growing with fluorescent lamps supplementing the sunlight they receive from a south-facing window in the garage.

Ginger plants are growing alongside orchids in the master bath, where the warm, humid conditions and a large, bright window facilitate cultivating tropical plants. Currently in 12-inch pots, the ginger will move to a garden bed after Memorial Day, when the weather outside will be warm enough. I plan to experiment with other tropical food plants, and will post the results. If you want to try ginger yourself, it couldn't be easier. I just pick a healthy-looking rhizome from the grocery, break it into chunks with about 3 "toes" each, and pot it up. The photo above shows a 12-inch pot with two pieces of ginger root, ready to be covered with additional potting mix. Below is the same pot after 62 days of growth.

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year's Resolutions

 Our New Year's resolutions for the New American Homestead:

 1. I will not again plant more stuff than I can take care of.
 2. I will take care of all the stuff I plant.
 3. I will stick to my garden plan.
 4. I will make a garden plan.
 5. I will not order more seeds in January than I can sow in June.
 6. I will win the annual battle with squash borers.
 7. I will not buy any more flower plants on impulse.
 8. I will faithfully keep my garden journal.
 9. I will freeze, can, dry, pickle or otherwise preserve everything I can.
10. I will grow a little more than I need and donate the extra to hungry people.

If we keep only Number 10, we'll count the list worth making.

Have a happy new gardening year!

Chinese praying mantis

The praying mantis is a great gardening companion! Lurking among foliage, mantids lie in wait for insect prey. With luck (depending upon your point of view) grasshoppers or other garden pests will be on the menu. Learn to recognize the insects, beneficial and otherwise, that inhabit your garden.