Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cold Soups From the Summer Garden

With summer turning up the heat and the garden bursting with produce and herbs, why not try some cold soup recipes? I thought soup came out of a red and white can until I went to college. It was on a trip to Atlanta, sometime in the early 70s, that I learned to enjoy the most famous cold soup, gazpacho. I have been making it and other cold soups ever since.

Gazpacho has ancient roots. It began as a way to use stale bread, which, when combined with garlic, salt, olive oil and water, could be converted into a stiff paste that would keep a long time. Columbus packed a few barrels of this mixture on his voyages of discovery, for example. The Romans may have added vinegar to the mixture, which probably originated among the wheat-eating cultures of the Middle East during the earliest days of agriculture, roughly 10,000 years ago. The cucumber, cultivated for at least 3000 years and introduced to Europe by the Greeks or Romans from its native India, became an ingredient at some point, and when Spanish explorers brought back tomatoes and peppers from the New World, these found their way into gazpacho, as well. The "classic" version of gazpacho with tomatoes is generally associated with Andalusia, southern Spain, which includes Gibraltar, the gateway to the Mediterranean. Today, however, gazpacho turns up on restaurant menus with all sorts of non-traditional ingredients, from apples to grilled shrimp. There is even a version that is served hot.

One of my gardening goals is to have all the fresh ingredients needed for gazpacho available in the garden by August. Here is my recipe for a classic-style gazpacho. Keep in mind that all amounts are approximate. The soup will be delicious as long as you maintain the ingredients in roughly the same ratios. The quality of the bread matters. If you don't have some leftovers of really good bread, leave out the crumbs altogether.

Gazpacho is a great way to use all those cherry tomatoes!

Gazpacho Andaluz

2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 medium red onion, chopped
3 tablespoons breadcrumbs, from stale country-style bread
1 clove garlic, minced
Juice of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
A handful of mixed fresh herbs (parsley, basil, chives, tarragon, chervil) minced
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika
3 cups water, tomato juice, chicken stock or vegetable stock
Sour cream
Minced red or yellow bell peppers
Chopped scallions

You can use a food processor to chop the vegetables, but the texture will not be as good as if they are chopped by hand. Combine the chopped vegetables, breadcrumbs, garlic, lemon juice, olice oil, herbs, salt and paprika in a large bowl. Cover the mixture, and place it in the refrigerator to chill. Separately chill the 3 cups of liquid. These components can be held in the refrigerator overnight, if desired.

When ready to serve, combine the vegetable mix with the chilled liquid.   Stir well and serve topped with sour cream, minced peppers and chopped scallions.

This recipe is a variation on traditional gazpacho, in terms of both ingredients and technique. You can find an authentic Andalusian recipe here.

Here's another cold soup, a refreshing starter for a late meal on a hot night.

Uncooked Cold Cucumber Soup

2 cucumbers, peeled and seeded
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sour cream
1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons sherry vinegar, or to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

In a food processor or by hand, finely chop the cucumbers. Pieces should be 1/4 inch or less in diameter. Combine the chopped cucumber with the other ingredients in a large bowl and chill until very cold. Serve garnished with additional fresh dill, if desired.

Let's conclude with one more cold soup recipe. This one is for gazpacho's cousin, ajoblanco, made with almonds. Although like gazpacho its exact origins are unknown, ajoblanco is thought to have appeared first in Seville. Certainly the almonds, which are native to the Middle East, arrived in Spain with the Moors. Use a kitchen scale to accurately measure the dry ingredients.

Ajoblanco de Granada

3 1/2 ounces raw almonds, blanched and skins removed
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 ounces breadcrumbs, from stale country-style bread 
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup less 1 tablespoon Spanish olive oil
1 to 2 teaspoons Sherry vinegar
About 1 quart chilled water
Baked potatoes
Chopped parsley

Grind the blanched almonds with the salt in a food processor until you have a coarse meal. Add the breadcrumbs, garlic, olive oil and vinegar and process to a smooth paste. With the motor running, slowly add the water until the soup is the consistency of heavy cream. Chill until very cold.

Serve the soup in chilled bowls, garnished with an anchovy or two. Buttered baked potatoes garnished with parsley are a traditional accompaniment. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Life and Death In the Garden

Cicada Killer Wasp
I walked out to the garden on a hot afternoon earlier this week and was confronted, or rather, investigated, by a giant wasp. No, this is not a science fiction story. The wasp in question was an eastern cicada killer, Sphecius speciosus.  At over two inches in length and marked with warning coloration like other wasps and hornets, this insect generally elicits alarm when it shows up in the garden. Fear not, however, as the energetic, territorial males—such as the one that approached me—have no sting, and are aggressive only toward other male wasps in the vicinity. They investigate any movement in their field of vision, however, and have no fear of humans. I was unable to get a shot, due to the frenetic activity. The image posted is from Texas A&M's web site. Female cicada killers have the ability to sting, but are so docile they can be picked up safely. Unless roughly handled, the wasp saves her sting for her prey, any of the several species of cicada that inhabit our area. Cicadas are paralyzed by the sting, and stored in a burrow dug by the female, where they serve as food for the wasp’s developing larvae. If you have male wasps in the garden, it is almost certain that you will also find the burrows made by the females. The entrance hole is about an inch in diameter, and there is usually a lot of spoil lying at the entrance, where the soil removed by the wasp was deposited. They like to locate them under flat stones or the surface roots of trees, for added protection. If you watch the entrance for a while, you may see a female laboriously hauling in a cicada. Cicada killer wasps are beneficial insects because cicadas can damage some crops and turfgrasses. The wasps are extremely unlikely to harm a human, and so should be welcomed into the garden.
Velvet "Ant" Wasp
Another interesting wasp typically appears at about this time each summer. It is the eastern velvet ant, Dasymutilla occidentalis, which only resembles an ant superficially. So far, I have only observed the males, which are easy to distinguish because they have wings. The wingless females spend their time on the ground searching for the burrows of solitary bumblebees. When she finds one, the female enters the burrow and lays her eggs on the developing pupae of the bumblebee. In so doing, she helps to control the bee population.
Owing to their bright red and black coloration, these insects are hard to mistake for anything else. Males have no stinger, but the females carry a sting so painful it is said to hurt “bad enough to kill a cow.” This has earned the name, “cow killer ant” for the bug, although it poses no actual threat of harm to a cow. More likely, the venom evolved to discourage insectivorous mammals, like shrews and possums. As with many venomous insects, the velvet ant advertises its weaponry with bright coloration and alternating stripes. Fortunately, the female velvet ant is so dedicated in her search for prey that she poses no threat to humans. Simply avoid her, and you won’t have anything to worry about.
A garden with many plant species and numerous micro-habitats within it will support many varieties of insects. Most will be either neutral or beneficial, as far as your food crops are concerned, and their presence will help to deter serious pests, like squash bugs. Finding a diversity of insects in the garden is a sign that you are managing your homestead wisely.

Learn more about cicada killers here. Learn more about velvet ants here.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Beating the Heat

I do not claim to be able to fortell the future, but I was certainly anticipating a hot summer when I filled this old firepit with soil and planted a collection of heat-loving annuals. Since the planter was once a firepit, I chose a fire-inspired color scheme. Black coals, gray ash, yellow sparks and red flames, supplied, respectively by petunia, dusty miller, lantana and coleus. All of these are southern favorites owing to their tolerance of heat and humidity. This summer, they are getting a real workout!

We have been days without rain here in the Tennessee Valley, although some folks have had the benefit of afternoon showers that are a common feature of summer weather around here. In my particular case, we have had no measurable rain in the garden for two weeks, and have been irrigating like mad. Despite the irrigation, the soil is drying out and cracking in places. Shrubs and trees are showing signs of heat and drought stress. No amount of irrigation can make up for a good, soaking rain.

Vegetable production continues largely because of our irrigation. We used 5600 gallons of water last month, according to our utility. This month, I expect the total to be at least double that amount. Fortunately for us, the utility caps sewer charges at 6500 gallons during June, July and August, so gardeners get a small break on the water bill (as do swimming pool owners and habitual car washers).

Fresh, potable water is a precious resource in most of the world, a fact lost on us in Tennessee, where waer is abundant. The city of Knoxville removes barely a tenth of the water that flows past us in the Tennessee River each day. With average rainfall around an inch per week during normal times, we are poster children for the old adage that water is never missed until there is a dry spell. But we gardeners really should always be thinking about saving water, not only because conserving saves money, but because waste is inconsistent with sustainable living. Here are some tips for reducing your water consumption this summer:

Install rain barrels or a holding pond to collect and manage runoff from your roof. It will rain again, eventually, providing you with free water.

Mulch, mulch, mulch. Although much of the water lost from the soil is transpired by plants growing there, mulch helps to keep soil moisture relatively constant between irrigation or rain events. This is important for summer crops like tomatoes and cucumbers that appreciate evenly moist soil.

Irrigate early in the morning or late in the day to minimize losses from evaporation. Use a hand held hose sprayer, rather than an overhead sprinkler. This allows you to give some plants more water, and hold back on water for the more tolerant denizens of the garden. Sprinklers waste a lot of water that evaporates before it reaches the ground, especially on punishingly hot days like we have had lately.

Anticipate summer dry spells and include drought-tolerant plants in major plantings. Most trees and shrubs, especially those native to the region, fare well in summer once established. If you have plants that demand irrigation just to stay alive, consider if they are worth the effort or if you might be wiser to replace them.

After the above was written, the weather finally broke. Thursday evening, July 5, we received 0.66 inches of rain. Unfortunately, the weather system that brought us rain and winds also brought far more severe weather in other parts of the region. Two people died in the Great Smoky Mountains. We accept the rain with gratitude, and count our blessings.