Saturday, December 28, 2013

Happy Anniversary

Happy Anniversary
Today is the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Endangered Species Act by President Richard Nixon, in 1973. Perhaps more than any other single piece of environmental legislation, this law has generated controversy almost from its inception.
Last August, also 40 years ago, marked the anniversary of the discovery of the snail darter in the Little Tennessee River, by Dr. David Etnier, now emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee. That event ultimately led to the first-ever test of the Endangered Species Act before the Supreme Court of the United States in 1978. In that case, known as “Hill v TVA,” the court ruled that the Tennessee Valley Authority (and by extension any government agency) was subject to the terms of the Act. This decision halted construction on the Tellico Dam, to prevent destruction of the darter’s critical habitat.

It is reasonable to ask how things have played out for the snail darter, and the rest of America’s biodiversity in the intervening 40 years.

Snail darter, photo by Conservation Fisheries
In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention that I have been good friends with Dr. Etnier for all of that 40 year period, and our acquaintance began even earlier, as he was the first biology professor whose class I took in 1968. My friendship with others who have been involved in the conservation of aquatic biodiversity in the Southeast goes back nearly as far. I have served on the board of Conservation Fisheries since its inception in the 1990s. Conservation Fisheries is a nonprofit organization founded by two of Dr. Etnier’s graduate students. It has accumulated an unsurpassed record of success in the captive propagation of endangered native fishes for restocking wild habitats. They have worked with over 25 listed species of fish. Much of this work was made possible by funding obtained under the Endangered Species Act, which requires that a recovery plan be developed for each and every listed species.

As an environmental issue, biodiversity preservation has been overshadowed by climate change in recent years. In one sense, this is appropriate, because the impact of climate change will be felt by all species on the planet. In another sense, however, it is unfortunate, because human activity continues to place animals and plants in peril.

The rivers and streams of the southern Appalachian region survive as treasure troves of biodiversity that is little known and vastly underappreciated. Tennessee and Georgia, for example, each have more than 300 species of native freshwater fish, a level of diversity that rivals some tropical habitats of similar size. The aquatic biodiversity of this region mirrors the diversity of our forests, which shelter thousands of plants, insects and fungi, many found nowhere else on the planet.

Today, therefore, let us take a moment to reflect on the remarkable ecological bounty harbored by our region, and renew a commitment to protect and preserve it for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Welcome Winter!

Today is the Winter Solstice. Yesterday, we had a minute more sun than today's allotment, which is 10 hours, the least of any day of the year. Tomorrow, we get a minute more. It is no wonder the ancients celebrated this "return" of the sun, because it meant for them the promise of a new growing season ahead, which in turn translated into food on the table. It is also no accident that the most important Christian holiday falls close to the solstice each year.

Gardening at this time of year is largely confined to locations where the temperature can be kept a little higher than outside, such as a coldframe. Only the hardiest vegetables can withstand long periods of cold and short, gloomy days. Kale, green onions and spinach are still harvestable in our garden, but not much else is. Even the cold-tolerant greens in the coldframe look a bit bedraggled, probably owing to lack of sun.

Now is a great time to start planning next year's garden. I have already received by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catlaog. You can browse it or request a paper copy at .

Next season, we plan to focus more on warm weather crops, as part of the ongoing research for my upcoming book about Southern food and food gardening. While we won't ignore spring greens and such, we will be devoting more space to corn, okra, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes and other veggies traditionally associated with Southern cooking. And tomatoes, of course.

My research on Southern food has turned up some fabulous traditional recipes that I plan to include in the book. Here's an example of a classic with my personal touches:

Hoppin’ John

2 cups cooked black-eyed peas (from 1 cup dried)
1 tablespoon lard
2 tablespoons country ham, chopped
¼ medium onion, chopped
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
1 cup water, or more if needed
2 cups cooked rice

Wash, sort and soak 1 cup black-eyed peas overnight in water to cover. This should yield 2 cups of peas. In a large, heavy pot over medium heat, cook the ham in the lard until most of the fat is rendered, then add the onion and cook until it is transparent. Add seasonings, water and soaked black-eyed peas. The water should barely cover the peas. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a bare simmer. Cover and cook about 30 minutes, or until peas are tender. Add a little hot water if the mixture begins to get too dry. Stir the hot cooked rice into the peas gently and serve steaming in bowls.

Leftovers keep well, or try this take on cabbage rolls. Stuff blanched collard leaves (stems removed) with hoppin' John. Roll up into packets and place in a greased baking dish. Cover with Creole sauce or Italian tomato sauce and bake until the sauce bubbles. You can substitute cabbage, if you prefer. Savoy cabbage is in season in winter, and makes excellent rolls. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Holiday Party Snacks

It started as an argument about, of all things, Chex™ Party Mix, AKA “Nuts ‘n’ Bolts,” “Scramble,” and “TV Mix.” A friend claimed to be using the “original recipe from the 1960s.” I found this claim to be suspect, since Betty Crocker first published a snack mix recipe in 1950, and the Chex™ Party Mix recipe first appeared on the boxes of Chex™ in 1952. In 1955, the wife of a Raulston Purina exec served the mix at a St. Louis holiday fete, and the popularity of the mix has grown ever since.
I asked my friend about the source of his party mix recipe. The recipe he uses appeared in a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook published in 1963, which my friend inherited from his mother. He was kind enough to lend me the book, and I have thoroughly enjoyed perusing the 50-year-old recipes for party snacks.

It has been almost as much fun to see the illustrations of “hostess accessories” which are used to display the foods. Whether in "Danish modern" style or otherwise, all of them look charmingly dated.

Following World War II, the cocktail party became an increasingly popular way for Americans, many of whom were enjoying the middle class lifestyle during the prosperous postwar years. Even for folks who avoided alcohol, party snacks began to take on a flair not previously seen outside high society. This was, in a way, America’s first step toward our modern obsession with food, not merely as sustenance, but as the product of a craft to be mastered.

This week, therefore, I decided to shift gears a little and talk about food. It is one of my favorite topics, especially during the holiday season. Some of my fondest holiday memories are of family gatherings where the tablecloth was almost hidden under dishes of food. When a friend recently loaned me a cookbook published in 1963, I found recipes for several of my favorites from way back then. Just in time for your holiday entertaining, then, here are some holiday snack recipes from 50 years ago.

I have modified them slightly for modern tastes and reduced salt content.

Original Chex Snack Mix
From the back of the box comes this classic recipe.  Makes 12 cups.

3 cups EACH Corn, Wheat and Rice Chex cereals
1 cup mixed nuts
1 cup bite size pretzels
1 cup bagel chips, broken in 1-inch pieces
6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
½ teaspoon seasoned salt
¾ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon onion powder
1/8 teaspoon celery seed

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. In a large roasting pan, melt the butter in the oven. Stir in the seasonings Gently stir in the other ingredients, stirring until well coated. Bake one hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Cool and store in an airtight container.

Company Clam Dip

1 can minced clams (6.5-7.5 oz.)
2 tablespoons minced onion
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon catsup
Few drops bottled hot pepper sauce
1 cup diced sharp American or Cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons chopped pitted ripe olives
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Drain clams, reserving the liquid. In a chafing dish, electric skillet or fondue pot, sauté the onion in the butter until tender, but not browned. Add the clams, 1 tablespoon of the reserved liquid (freeze the rest to use later) and the remaining ingredients. Heat and stir gently until the cheese melts and the mixture is hot. Makes 1 ¼ cups.
Serve with crackers and potato chips. [Or other vegetable chips suitable for dipping.]

Olive Cheese Ball

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
8 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
¼ cup butter, softened
2/3 cup chopped pitted ripe olives (about 3 oz.)
1 tablespoon minced chives

1/3 cup chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Combine the cheeses and butter in a large bowl. Stir in the olives and chives until well combined. Chill for 20 minutes. Form into a dome-shape on a serving dish. Cover with plastic wrap. Chill thoroughly. Can be made several days ahead. To serve, sprinkle with nuts, pressing in gently. Garnish with parsley.
Serve with crackers. Makes 3 cups.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Windowsill Herbs

A listener to the radio show asked about growing herbs at the windowsill during the winter months. Not many of the popular herbs grow well during the short days and cold weather of December and January, but three that do reasonably well are parsley, chives, and chervil.

Chervil is the most shade tolerant of the three. The seeds can be started any time of year and need a week or more to germinate. Plant several in a small pot and keep well watered. When the first true leaves appear, use a pair of scissors to clip off all but one plant at the soil line. Feed lightly every couple of weeks and transplant to a larger container as needed. When the plant is 6 inches or more in diameter, you can harvest a few leaves, and continue to do so for the remainder of the season. In March, you can transplant the chervil outdoors, where it will continue to provide fresh leaves, and, eventually, a huge supply of seeds for next year and to share with friends. Chervil is milder than parsley and has a hint of tarragon flavor, so it goes well with many foods, especially fish, chicken and many vegetables.

Parsley grown indoors never gets as large as plants in the garden, but nevertheless it does adapt to the warm, dry air and low light indoors. If you have a sunny window, you can either dig up a plant from the garden, pot it up and bring it in, or start new plants from seed. Follow the directions given above for chervil plants. To speed germination, soak parsley seeds in water for four days, changing the water every day. You will see the seeds change from almost black to light brown, as the water removes germination inhibitors. Plant the seeds on the fourth day, and they should sprout in a week or less. Parsley needs nitrogen to keep it green and flavorful, so don't be stingy with the fertilizer.Well-established garden parsley usually overwinters in east Tennessee, and can be picked any time it is not frozen. It will bolt quickly, however, with the arrival of spring.

Chives are among the easiest of onions to grow. Just sprinkle seeds in a pot about 8 inches in diameter and wait for them to get as large as you like before harvesting. Clip the leaves with scissors and allow them to re-grow. You can transplant chives into the garden in spring, where they will remain for years without much attention other than weeding. Chive blooms are beautiful in bouquets and tasty, too.

Other herbs to try indoors in winter are mints and rosemary. The latter is available now as a topiary shaped like a little Christmas tree. It is a delicious seasoning for poultry and pork. Mints may be started from seed, but it is easier to root cuttings from the grocery store. Select healthy looking cuttings, remove the bottom two pairs of leaves (use them in cooking) and re-cut the stems with a sharp knife. Set the cuttings in a glass of water and change the water every few days. Soon, the cuttings will root and you can pot them up. Do not fertilize mint, but do keep it moist.

Having a few fresh herbs around is a wonderful way to perk up winter meals.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Microgreens and Holiday Citrus

I hope everyone had an enjoyable and safe Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends. Our menu included sweet potatoes and cucumber pickles from last year's garden along with fresh herbs and greens from the greenhouse.

Even if you only have a sunny window available for winter gardening, you can continue growing food. I discussed sprouts in the last blog post. Microgreens are sprouts taken a little further along. They are grown in a potting medium, but you harvest when they are only a couple of inches tall. Some of the most popular microgreens are cilantro, beets and sunflowers. All of the brassicas make good microgreens, as well.

Cilantro microgreens are popular with gourmet chefs because they develop flavor at a young age and have lacy foliage. Beets make the cut owing to their bright red coloration. Sunflowers are allowed to grow to about three or four inches tall, at which time they can be made into a satisfying salad, all by themselves.

To grow microgreens, fill a shallow container with sterile potting soil, water well and sow seeds thickly, but otherwise as you would sow them in the garden. Make sure the container drains well, or the seeds will simply rot. I like to reuse plastic containers from the produce department of the grocery store. The pint cartons that mushrooms come in work well. Just poke a few holes in the bottom with a sharp instrument.

Water your indoor garden regularly and keep in a sunny window or under lights. Seeds should germinate in the time indicated on the package. Depending on the variety, this can be a few days to a week or more. When the seedlings are the size you want, harvest by clipping them off a ground level with a pair of scissors. Microgreens are a great addition to any salad, and help perk up the flavor of winter produce like greenhouse tomatoes.

We will soon be harvesting Meyer lemons. If you are only going to try one citrus tree in a container, this is the one to go for. I have made plenty of mistakes, but we still have 11 lemons in various stages of maturity.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Growing Sprouts

During the cold, damp and dreary days of late fall and winter, not much is going on in the garden. While cold-hardy greens can be produced under protection, growth slows with reduced light and cooler temperatures.

The accompanying photo, courtesy of Patrick Rakes, shows his abundant cold frame garden. Kale, spinach, lettuce and other greens are growing abundantly. The photo will give you an idea of how to construct a PVC support for plastic film, converting a raised bed into a cold frame.

One way to satisfy the gardening itch in winter is to grow sprouts. All you need is some simple equipment and a sunny windowsill or kitchen counter.  Seeds for sprouting are available in specialty food stores like Earthfare and Three Rivers Market. You can sprout leftover garden seeds, too, but just make sure they have not been treated with pesticide before you begin. Among the best choices for a beginning sprout garden is alfalfa.

While you can purchase a ready-made seed sprouter, all you really need is a wide mouth jar, a piece of cheesecloth, and a rubber band. To grow about two cups of alfalfa sprouts, place one tablespoon of seeds in the empty jar. Cover the mouth with the cheesecloth, securing it with the rubber band. Add enough lukewarm water to cover the seeds by an inch. Leave on the kitchen counter overnight. The next morning, drain, rinse well, and place in a warm, dark place, such as a cupboard. Rinse the seeds with cold tap water two or three times every day, and move the jar into the light when roots have developed and are over 1/4 inch long. Within about five days, you will have a jar of green, delicious sprouts. They will keep another week if placed in the refrigerator in an airtight container. Put a paper towel on the bottom of the storage container to absorb excess moisture, which will shorten storage life.

Many other seeds besides alfalfa can be used to grow sprouts. Radish, broccoli and mung beans are some of the most commonly sprouted seeds, but just about any vegetable seed can be tried. Commercial bean sprouts are grown from mung beans under special conditions. You will not be able to duplicate these conditions in the kitchen, but you nevertheless can produce acceptable bean sprouts.

Radish and other mustard family sprouts have a spicy flavor that perks up a salad. Try using a mixture of sprouts on a sandwich instead of lettuce. I particularly like sprouts with chicken salad and egg salad. Sprouts can also be used to garnish a variety of dishes, adding color, flavor and nutrition.

Sprouts have sometimes been cited as the source of bacterial infections in children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Look for sprouting seeds that have been tested for contamination. This information will appear on the label. Observe proper sanitation in the kitchen when preparing sprouts, and you should not have any problems. It is worth noting that most reported issues have been with commercially mass-produced sprouts. Many producers now test each batch, so look for label assurances when you buy.

Discard the cheesecloth after each batch of sprouts, replacing it with a new one, or purchase perforated plastic lids that will fit a standard Mason jar. You can also purchase a complete sprouting system made from plastic. Either way, growing sprouts is a great way to garden when the weather outside is less than beckoning.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Cold Weather Gardening Tips

Now that we have had a couple of hard freezes, not much is growing in the garden. However, the cold hardy crops are holding well in the ground, and we are still harvesting. Last night I made a delicious vegetable stir fry with bak choy, kale, peppers (stored in the refrigerator since harvest), garlic, ginger and mushrooms, and only the mushrooms came from the market. With a little effort, I could have grown shiitakes, also. This veggie mélange made a great side for roast chicken.

With a simple cold frame, you can continue harvesting all the way to Christmas. I just finished pulling radishes from one of our walk-in cold frames, and we have plenty of arugula, corn salad, lettuce, green onions, and chervil. I expect to continue harvesting these until after Thanksgiving, and nothing beats a fresh salad for brightening up a comfort food meal on a chilly evening.

The first coldframe we ever used, and one of the easiest to construct, was made out of half-inch PVC pipe. We build raised beds about 3 feet by 8 feet. Five ten-foot long pieces of PVC pipe and a roll of transparent polyethylene sheeting will convert such a bed into a coldframe for about $20. Simply stick the pipe in the soil on one side of the bed, bend it over and similarly push it into the soil on the other side, forming a half-hoop to support the plastic. Place one pipe hoop at each end, and space the others each about three feet in from the ends. You can also use exterior screws to attach the pipe to the bed frame. Use the fifth piece of pipe to reinforce the others by running along the top of the hoops to form a "roof peak." Cut this piece of pipe to the required length, and secure it with duct tape or zip ties. The entire structure will be sturdier as a result. When the PVC frame is in place, cover with the plastic, anchored down with rocks or other weights along the edges. Instant coldframe! This arrangement is easy to disassemble and store when warm weather returns, also. As a rule, 4 mil polyethylene sheeting will last only one winter. If you want a more durable covering, use 6 mil polyethylene, which is a bit more costly.

You often read about the need to open a cold frame on warm days. We have found that unless the foliage of the plants is touching the transparent parts of the cold frame, there is little reason to do this. Plus, warming the soil helps keep the plants warmer that night. You may need to experiment to determine if your cold frame needs ventilating.

Time to get our your notebooks and start planning next year's garden. The seed catalogs will be arriving soon. If you plan to start your own transplants, remember that some, like celery, celery root, artichokes and leeks, need to be started in January because they grow so slowly.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thai Curry With Fall Produce

With the arrival of frost, we have harvested both lemongrass and ginger, and we have an abundance of each. At the same time, we have cool season green crops such as arugula and parsley, so I went in search of recipes that might encompass these products. I discovered the perfect recipe in a Thai cookbook I own. It is "Jungle Curry," an example of Thai "country cooking" than can be varied endlessly.

Ginger flowers in the fall garden
You may have seen the little cans of Thai curry paste in Asian markets. The basic ones are green, yellow and red. All of them are made by grinding different combinations of herbs and vegetables together, creating a complex flavor that surpasses the individual notes of which it is composed. Because the basic varieties of curry are somewhat "standard" in Thai cooking, many people rely on canned products. The result has been that the art of making curry by hand is becoming unfamiliar.

"Curry" simply means "mixture" or "blend." Thai curries and those of other southeast Asian countries differ from the spice mixture people often associate with Indian curry. Southeast Asian curries rely more on fresh ingredients and are therefore often wet pastes, rather than a dry powder. In this regard, they resemble the Middle Eastern condiment, harissa.

Jungle curry involves combining ingredients often found in other curry mixtures, chili peppers, lemongrass, ginger and cilantro, with herbs and greens more often seen in European than in Asian dishes. Traditionally, rural people would gather plants from the surrounding forest and incorporate these into their curries. Because the recipe varied depending upon what was available from Nature, these dishes can incorporate whatever ingredients you may have on hand.

Thai Jungle Curry with Grilled Beef and Vegetables
2 large servings

Curry paste:
1 large lemongrass stalk, trimmed and the lower 3 inches chopped coarsely
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
3 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
1 anchovy filet, oil packed, drained
1/3 cup chopped onions
5 green Serrano chilies, stemmed and chopped
3 red Thai chilies, or cayenne peppers, stemmed and chopped
1/2 cup fresh arugula leaves, torn
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, torn
1/4 cup chopped chives
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves, chopped

Grilled beef and vegetables:
1/2 pound flank or breakfast steak, thinly sliced across the grain
2 tablespoons soy sauce
black pepper, freshly ground
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
the zest from one lime
1 leek, trimmed and chopped
2 cups mixed vegetables in uniform pieces, such as broccoli florets, mushroom caps, cubes of squash, sliced carrots, baby corn, water chestnuts, etc.
3 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
1 cup beef stock, fresh or canned
1/2 cup fresh arugula leaves
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup chopped chives
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves
steamed jasmine rice, to serve

Make the curry paste in a large, heavy mortar, or use a food processor. The mortar will produce a more traditional curry, while the food processor will produce a smoother one. Combine the ingredients and pound or process until crushed and blended. Scrape down the work bowl of the processor several times, if using one. Transfer the curry to a small bowl and refrigerate until ready to use. The curry will keep a week in the refrigerator, or a month in the freezer. You can double the batch easily if you prefer to freeze the extra.

To complete the dish, place the sliced beef in a small bowl with the soy sauce and a generous amount of black pepper. Marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes. Prepare a charcoal grill, or heat a grill pan over high heat for about 10 minutes. Grill the beef slices until they are just marked but still slightly pink, about a minute per side. Discard the marinade. Set the beef aside on a plate.

Heat a wok or heavy skillet and add the oil. When it ripples, add the garlic and stir fry until it is pale golden. Add the lime zest and the curry paste and stir fry 30 seconds. Add the leek and the vegetables, and stir fry until they are crisp-tender. Add the sugar and the fish sauce, and stir fry until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the beef stock, lower the heat, and bring to a simmer. Add the reserved beef slices and the fresh herbs and greens. Simmer just until the herbs wilt. Serve hot over jasmine rice.

Grilled tofu can be substituted for the beef, in which case use vegetable stock. If you prefer a vegan dish, leave out the anchovy and fish sauce, substituting soy sauce, about a tablespoon for the anchovy and 3 tablespoons for the fish sauce. Similarly, you could use shrimp and seafood stock, or grilled chicken and chicken stock. Parsley, oregano, spinach, corn salad, or other greens and herbs can be substituted for those given in the recipe. Just make sure to use sufficient amounts to create a bold flavor.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Growing Undercover

With the arrival of the first frosts comes the time for season extenders that permit gardeners in the Valley to continue harvesting right on up until Christmas and beyond. By judicious selection of crop varieties, coupled with the use of a coldframe or unheated greenhouse, backyard farmers can continue production at least until the days grow short around the winter solstice.

Some crops have varieties bred to be planted out now for overwintering. Cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, leeks and onions are often grown this way. Transplants moved into the garden now will grow slowly and establish roots during the winter, before providing an extra-early harvest next spring. We have had great luck, for example, with the leek cultivar 'King Sieg,' when grown this way, and with the cabbage 'Savoy Perfection.'

The best way to extend the season is with a coldframe. This can be a very simple arrangement of straw bales with a couple of recycled window sashes on top, or a factory built structure. While we like the convenience of a walk-in space, a traditional raised-bed coldframe with a slanted, transparent top facing the sun will grow plenty of veggies. Don't imagine that you will produce tomatoes or cucumbers with such crude equipment! You will, however, be able to enjoy delicious lettuce, green onions, and various other salad greens in abundance. The key to coldframe salad production is to choose varieties that grow quickly and lend themselves to cut-and-come-again harvest. Arugula not only reaches harvestable size in about six weeks, it can be cut at least three times. Compact-growing bibb and buttercrunch lettuces are great choices for coldframe cultivation. Leaf lettuce varieties, like Black Seeded Simpson, are good for cutting more than once.

Take measures to protect coldframe crops from slugs. The warmth of the frame attracts the mollusks, which should be deterred with copper tape or wire and lured elsewhere with poisoned baits in the vicinity  of the coldframe. Do not place bait inside the frame or you will invite slugs in! Aphids sometimes invade coldframes. Spray plants with insecticidal soap to help deter them, and be prepared to thoroughly wash your harvest. A drop of dish detergent in a sink full of cold water will eliminate the aphids from your harvest on the first rinse. Rinse the leaves at least two more times to remove soap and any stray insects.

Our best outdoor crop following the frost is 'Lacinato' kale. This dark-leaved heirloom shrugs off the coldest weather we are likely to receive here in the Tennessee Valley, and can be picked at will throughout the winter months. I have learned the importance of letting plants develop a good root system in the garden before the first frost. They should be started, therefore, in August and transplanted in September. After a month, you can begin harvesting a leaf or two from each plant as you wish to use them.

Time remains to plant perennial onions, shallots and garlic for the rest of the month. Cover the bed with a layer of mulch to help protect emerging shoots. If you already have these crops growing from an earlier planting, mulching them now will result in improved production next spring, by helping to moderate swings in the soil temperature.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Frost Ends Summer Season

After taking a few days off to visit Washington, DC, last week, we are back with the blog. One of the highlights of our visit was the National Botanic Garden, where we strolled through the conservatory filled with tropical plants. See the photo below.

Last night saw the first killing frost we have received here in the Tennessee Valley, thus marking the end of the summer gardening season. Basil leaves hang blackened and mushy from the stalks. The okra stalks are similarly festooned with dead foliage. Nevertheless, the garden is not done yet.

Begonia colors at the National Botanic Garden
The Sugar Snap peas remain harvestable. Frost sometimes damages the pods slightly, but there is an easy remedy for this. Instead of eating them raw or cooking them gently, simmer them in stock with a little onion and celery, a few leaves of lettuce, and a sprig of parsley until they are really tender, then puree and strain for a delicious green pea soup. All the ingredients, except the celery, will do very well here even after a light frost. Celery grows well as a fall crop if started in early summer, but is ruined by frost damage. I prefer to purchase organic celery at the market.

As an experiment this year, we planted peppers in one of our 6 by 8 plastic walk-in coldframes. (The frames shelter two plots of garden soil that we use for various off-season crops.) Peppers love growing in close proximity to each other, and thrive with the light shade afforded by the frame cover during the hot summer months. Earlier this week, we closed the windows and door to protect the peppers from frost. It will be interesting to see how long this extends our harvest. We have certainly had a bumper crop already.

We are thinking about next year already, and considering a similar experiment with determinate tomato varieties in one of the coldframes.

From the unprotected garden beds we will be able to harvest bak choy, cilantro, kale, lettuce, onions, parsley and spinach for a few more weeks. We have salad crops growing in the coldframe, also. With the protection of the frame, we expect to harvest arugula, corn salad, and radishes until Christmas. Arugula and corn salad are two winter crops worth growing indoors, either under lights or in a south-facing window. The "window box" style planters we use will accommodate enough arugula for six servings, and can be cut three times before the plants wear out. I cut two servings every other day this past week, and the plants will regrow in ten to fourteen days. Similarly, corn salad will yield several nice bunches that can be harvested over a period of weeks. Either of these tasty greens provides a lift and added nutrition when combined with salad from the market.

You still have time to plant bulbs of perennial onions, winter onions, shallots and garlic. All of these should be watered well and mulched to protect them from the harsher weather soon to arrive.

Please check out The New American Homestead Store for books and plants. There is still time for fall planting in the Tennessee Valley!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Harvest Time Food

What a great time of year to be a cook! Besides the tomatoes, squash, eggplant, beans okra and peppers that we associate with summertime, we also have greens, radishes and turnips that grow to perfection in cooler weather. This is a great time to go to any of the farmer's markets around the area. Not only can you supplement your own fresh produce with the best veggies and fruits from local farmers, you can also find meats, honey, eggs, cheeses and baked goods to round out the meal.We are still cutting basil and dill, even as the cool weather herbs, like parsley and cilantro, come into production. When it comes to making dinner with such readily available abundance, the hardest part may be choosing what NOT to eat. To help you decide, here are some great recipes that feature fresh seasonal vegetables.

Raw Vegan Thai Curry Soup

This chilled soup provides a perfect way to enjoy the abundance of fresh produce available at the end of the summer growing season. If you don’t have fresh lemongrass, add the juice and zest of a small lemon to the blender. 

2 cups plain coconut water, chilled
2 cloves garlic
½ cup chopped, peeled lemongrass stems
1 piece of fresh ginger, about the size of an olive
2 tablespoons soy sauce (preferably nama shoyu)
¼ teaspoon curry powder

heirloom tomato, diced
celery, thinly sliced
radish, small dice
leeks, white part, small dice
red bell pepper, small dice
fresh cayenne pepper, sliced into rings
zucchini, ¼” slices with skin, diced
fresh basil leaves, preferably purple, shredded
fresh mint leaves, shredded

In the jar of a blender, combine the coconut water, garlic, lemongrass and ginger and process until liquefied. Strain, discarding the solids, then add the soy sauce and curry powder. Stir well and chill until ready to serve. May be made 8 hours in advance. Meanwhile, prepare the garnishes.

Place small amounts of each of the garnishes in chilled soup bowls and ladle the soup over the top. Serve immediately.
Fried Green Tomato Napoleons with Green Sauce
This vegetarian main dish can be made either with unripened tomatoes, or one of the varieties that is green when ripe. The recipe makes two servings but is easily doubled.
2 green tomatoes, each about the size of a baseball
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cornbread mix, such as Martha White, for dredging
4 tablespoons canola oil
2 ounces fresh goat cheese
Two handfuls of fresh field greens, washed well and spun dry
Green dressing (Recipe follows)
Sriracha or other hot sauce (optional)
Slice the tomatoes into uniform slices about 3/8 inch thick, discarding the end pieces. You should have six nice slices. Spread the slices on a plate or tray and sprinkle lightly with salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet until its surface ripples. Dip the tomato slices in the cornbread mix, coating them well on both sides. Shake off the excess and fry in batches in the hot oil until golden, turning once, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer the cooked tomatoes to a wire rack set over paper towels and keep warm. When all of the tomatoes are cooked, assemble the dish on two warmed plates. Place a tomato slice in the center of the plate, top with a tablespoon of goat cheese, and a second tomato slice. Repeat with the remaining cheese and tomatoes. Surround the tomato napoleons with field greens and drizzle the green dressing over all. Spice it up with Sriracha sauce if desired.

Green Dressing
12 leaves mizuna or other mild mustard greens
  2 large stalks of fresh cilantro
  2 large sprigs of fresh parsley
  1 large clove garlic, peeled
  1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
  ½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Holding the mizuna, cilantro and parsley by the stems like a bouquet of flowers, immerse the leaves in the boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove and plunge into a bowl of ice water. Drain well. Cut off the unblanched portion of the stems and discard. Squeeze the greens dry in your hand, and transfer them to a blender jar. Add the remaining ingredients and blend until you have a uniform dressing. Serve immediately.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Perfect Days for Gardening

Our exceptionally pleasant fall weather continues. The low humidity has led to the need for some irrigation, but we will gladly buy the water in exchange for less mugginess. Already I am harvesting baby arugula, along with Sugar Snap peas, the last of the leeks and okra. The bak choy is coming on strong, and we will be able to pick a few leaves of kale within another week or so.

This weekend I planted out lettuce, cilantro, scallions and spinach that were started in cell trays September 7th. With rain on the way, the timing should be perfect. Mache growing in the greenhouse will soon be ready to transplant. I start the seeds in a 6 X 30 planter and transplant to thin them. The ones left behind in the planter will mature about ten days earlier than the transplants, extending the harvest to a month or so.

Many people do not transplant spinach, direct sowing instead. I find we get a bigger harvest with less work when we transplant and give the plants growing space. Japanese spinach farmers employ this technique.

We have been amazed at the productivity of the pond. In this year's experiment, we stocked two dozen immature tropical livebearers for mosquito control. By summer's end, we had harvested roughly 500 fish, which were sold to a local aquarium store as "feeders," for predatory pet fish. We moved 7 of the prettiest ones to a small aquarium where they will spend the winter and provide stock for next spring.

We have little interest in food fish, not wanting to have the trouble of cleaning them and dealing with wastes. Nevertheless, it is clear that even a small garden pond could theoretically supply some additional protein. Others who, like us, would prefer to sell live fish rather than dead ones, have the option of producing a small income from the pond by cultivating and harvesting smaller, tropical species. The key to this, of course, is finding an aquarium shop that wants to purchase your stock.

Next season, we intend to construct a growing bed that will filter the pond while providing space for additional crop production. This form of hydroponic growing, known as "aquaponics," uses the fish wastes to fertilize organic vegetables growing in an inert medium. Most of these culture systems rely on inputs of prepared fish foods and operate under the protection of a greenhouse room. Our interest lies in creating systems that can function year round in the local climate zone, with minimal inputs of fish food. By planting flowers and other plants around the pond and providing a diverse community of aquatic and semi-aquatic plants, it should be possible for the system to produce enough algae and insects to feed the fish. Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cool Down Boosts Veggie Production

The cooler weather and half an inch of rain have conspired to give the late summer garden a boost in productivity. Suddenly, the okra plants are producing two or three pods at a time, rather than doling them out one by one. Beans that we were ready to pull up and compost have caught their second wind. I froze several pints last week, and am going out this morning to harvest more.

Likewise, the peppers are flush with blooms and new green fruits. Because they are growing on one of our walk-in coldframes this year, the peppers should continue to bear until Thanksgiving. If the ground remains warm, even a light frost should not stop their production.

If you don't have a coldframe, you can nevertheless extend the pepper season by at least a couple of weeks. When frost is predicted, uproot the plants, shake off most of the soil and place the roots in a bucket of water. Set the plant in a protected spot, such as a garage, and the fruits should continue to ripen normally for a while longer.

Bak choy, lettuce, mache, cilantro, scallions, chervil, spinach and radishes that I have planted in the last few weeks are all up and going strong. I intend to transplant bak choy this afternoon. The others will take a bit longer to get large enough. The radishes will stay in their container until they mature. I have finally learned to thin radishes as soon as they are about an inch tall, keeping them about two inches apart. When they are the size of a marble, pull every other one for salad, and let the remaining ones mature to golf-ball size.

Jerusalem artichokes are blooming along the roadside near our house. The plant is Helianthus tuberosus, a North American native that has been used as food for centuries. They are exceptionally easy to grow, to the point that they can become invasive if not restrained. A large raised bed is best, because the plants are confined. If you plant them where they can spread freely, be sure to harvest every single tuber each fall, or they can become hard to control. Also, cut the flowers before seeds form. Otherwise, self-sown seedlings can pop up all over the garden. They make beautiful cut flowers. The tubers can be prepared in a variety of ways, much like potatoes.

Dill stars in the herb garden at this time of year, with its bright yellow flowers that attract butterflies, and the savory leaves for potato salad and fish dishes. Basil plants can start to look worn out if you have harvested them regularly. It is time to consider removing them to make way for parsley, chervil and cilantro. Preserve the flavor of fresh basil by making pesto, basil butter, or flavored oil. Recipes for all these abound on the Internet. Mint is at its best at this time of year. Harvest the smaller leaves for the best flavor. Mint can be preserved as syrup. Make a simple syrup consisting of two parts water and one part sugar. Bring to a simmer, dissolving all the sugar, and remove from the heat. Add an ounce or two of mint leaves, crushed, to the warm syrup. Allow to cool overnight, then strain. Freeze the syrup in ice cube trays, then store the cubes in a zipper bag in the freezer. Use them to add summer flavor to winter fruit dishes, and to drizzle over ice cream or cake.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Rain Bodes Good Leaf Display

At my house, we have received almost a half inch of rain since darkness fell last evening. We sure can use it. Despite our record summer rainfall, we have had a dry month so far. The soaker we are receiving should go a long way toward making up the "water debt." Not to mention allowing us to turn off the hose and keep the water bill down. Abundant moisture at this time of year typically helps produce a beautiful fall color display.

September is the month for lawn care, the perfect time to aerate, feed, over-seed and otherwise spruce up your cool season lawn. This is also a great time to go after winter annual weeds by applying a pre-emergence herbicide. Both chemical and organic versions exist, and they really save a lot of work by preventing weed seeds from germinating. Weeds that do appear should be removed promptly, to prevent them from producing a supply of seeds for next year.

Planting fall vegetables can continue through the month if you choose varieties wisely. For example, all the Asian mustards, such as bak choy, mizuna and tatsoi, grow well here in the autumn, and they mature a crop quickly, typically in less than two months. Seeds sown now will be ready to harvest around Halloween. Spinach is another great fall crop. It takes around 70 days to mature, but owing to its cold tolerance will keep right on growing even after frost arrives. Lettuce, which takes around 60 days to mature, can also be planted now, but the window is narrowing, unless you have a coldframe.

American Beautyberry
Speaking of coldframes, now is a good time to put out snail and slug bait around them. The pesky mollusks start looking for warm places to spend the winter months, and will move into your coldframe, feeding on your tender crops. Place bait around the perimeter of the frame, not inside. You don't want to invite the slugs in, but rather to stop them at the border. As I have mentioned before, a copper barrier is also effective.

If you plant by the moon, now is the correct time for root crops, like radishes, carrots and green onions, all of which thrive in cool weather. Radishes mature in a month, and carrots and green onions can be left in the ground all winter for harvesting as needed. Choose fast-maturing carrots to plant now, however, as their growth slows dramatically after the weather gets really cold.

With the autumnal equinox arriving on Sunday, we have about 60 days before the weather gets really bitter, so better get those seeds out this weekend. The weather is supposed to be beautiful tomorrow, and after the rain, the soil will be perfect for sowing seeds.

Our Plant of the Week on Garden Talk this morning is a little know edible ornamental, American beautyberry. Botanically Callicarpa americana, this easy-to-grow native shrub produces abundant, glossy purple berries in fall. The fruits contrast beautifully with the golden yellow fall foliage, and they can be harvested to produce jam or wine. Bear in mind, however, that you need a lot of berries, as the amount of pulp on each one is quite small. They don't taste inspiring, but when juiced and mixed with sugar, the berries provide a tart, pleasant flavor. The juice also has mosquito-repelling properties.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Fabulous Fall

It is shaping up to be a fabulous fall, according to Dr. Sue Hamilton, director of UT Gardens. She and I co-host "Garden Talk" every Saturday morning at 8:00 on WKVL AM 850. We discussed the sudden cool-down (it was 49 degrees at my house in Powell this morning) and the recent rain, and concluded that we can expect a beautiful fall season.

Lettuce 'Jericho'
Now is the time to plant any of the cool weather greens crops, including lettuce, spinach and kale. Often overlooked are the various Asian greens, such as mizuna and bak choy, which perform far better here in fall than they do in the springtime. These Asian mustards are typically ready to harvest in about six weeks, and are ideal for integrating into planters or beds along with herbs and flowers.

Create a completely edible container for your front porch with violas, cilantro, parsley, mizuna, red mustard, Swiss chard, beets, miniature dianthus and various other leafy greens, edible flowers and cool season herbs. With so many good plants to select from, the container combinations are endless. One of my favorite herbs for fall and winter is chervil, a seldom seen member of the carrot family. It looks like lacy parsley, but packs a clean, fresh flavor with overtones of tarragon, and it makes a great substitute for tarragon in winter, when the cold weather keeps the tarragon from growing. It makes a good "filler" for a mixed planter and would look great with the bold, red foliage of beets and yellow and white viola blooms.

In the ornamental garden, various members of the huge Aster family dominate the show. Among the most popular is Michaelmas daisy or New York aster, Symphyotrichum (formerly Aster) novae-belgii. This low mounding perennial covers itself with blue, purple, pink or white flowers from September until frost, and is easy to grow in ordinary soil in full sun. The related New England aster (S. novae-angliae) offers a similar color palatte to its cousin, but on a taller plant more suited to the back of the border. These, along with most other fall asters, including chrysanthemums, will provide the best floral display and resist wind better if cut back hard before the end of July.

A less frequently seen choice is smooth aster (S. laevis). The cultivar 'Bluebird' covers itself with sky blue flowers in autumn, and tolerates dappled shade better than the other members of its genus. This and the two previous species are all native to the eastern United States and thus remain relatively free of pest or disease problems with minimal attention once they are established in the garden.

Numerous other native American asters put on a show along nearly every roadside this time of year. These include the sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, ironweed, Joe Pye weed, snakeroots, coreopsis, bidens, and several species of goldenrods. All these beautiful native asters are sometimes unfairly blamed for seasonal pollen allergies that many people experience. This is completely untrue. All the asters with showy flowers are pollinated by insects and do not release their pollen into the air. The real culprit is wind-pollinated ragweed (Ambrosia sp.), yet another member of the aster family It produces insignificant, yellow-green flowers and millions of grains of pollen from every plant. Ragweed is commonly seen blooming alongside its showier relatives in sunny, open sites with disturbed soil from late August until the first freeze. If you, like me, get itchy eyes and a runny nose this time of year, ragweed is to blame.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

September Is the New April

For gardeners in the Tennessee Valley region, September can be as busy a month as April is. The mild weather we usually experience at this time of year allows us to grow a "third season" of vegetable crops.

Keep picking summer vegetables, like okra, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, to keep them producing. Most of these will bear right up until frost damages them.

From now until the end of the month is a good time to transplant any of the cole crops: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and kohlrabi. Plants are available at garden centers throughout the region. If you don't find the plants you want, make a note for next year to start them yourself from seeds, which should go into trays in late July through early August. Allow four to six weeks from seed to transplant size.

Cilantro is a great fall crop.
Now is also the perfect time to start seeds of lettuce, spinach, bak choy and other fall greens. While you can direct sow these seeds and thin after they germinate, I find it more efficient to start them in 36-cell trays. I sow two or three seeds per cell, then thin to one per cell as soon as true leaves appear. After thinning, I feed lightly with timed-release fertilizer, and leave the plants in the trays for about 30 days total. When the plants are ready, set them out at the spacing recommended on the seed packet, or about six inches apart when in doubt, and fertilize again. Allowing the plants plenty of room to grow will yield nice, uniform heads of lettuce. Spinach handled this way can grow leaves the size of ping pong paddles. Bok choy will produce harvestable heads within two weeks of transplanting.

Scallions and cilantro also lend themselves to starting in cell trays. Put a pinch of seed in each cell. Do not thin. When the plants are three inches tall, transplant the entire plug to the garden. This will produce a bunch of onions or a clump of cilantro from each plug. Harvest by pulling the whole bunch. You will get clumps roughly the size of those bunches you find in the grocery store.

You still have time to plant garlic and shallots. They should be in the ground by the end of September, however, to encourage the biggest yield next summer.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Plant Garlic Now

Summer's unofficial end is this weekend, with the Labor Day holiday, even though the autumnal equinox is a few weeks away. From now until about the middle of September is the perfect time to plant garlic and shallots for next year's harvest.

You can purchase seed bulbs of both garlic and shallots from many garden centers, but I just shop for mine at the local market. I select organically grown, large, healthy bulbs and, in the case of the garlic, separate them into cloves, planting only the largest ones. Do not remove the papery skin, which protects the cloves against rot. Just press them into prepared soil, spacing garlic cloves about six inches apart, and shallots about a foot apart. Keep well-watered until the weather cools down and growth slows in November. Add organic fertilizer to the planting bed, or side dress after the shoots emerge. Feed them again in the spring and once more when they are about a foot tall. Keep the growing bed free of weeds, which can severely limit production. They will be ready to harvest next July.

Fall vegetable starts will appear in garden centers this week. Now is a great time to transplant starts of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale. Lettuce plants can also go in the ground now, or you can direct seed for a row of cutting greens. September is also a great time to sow cilantro and chervil, two herbs that can add flavor to your cooking all winter. Growing either one in an unheated greenhouse or coldframe will assure a long harvest. Cilantro seldom does well in a pot, but chervil will grow into a specimen in a ten to twelve inch wide container. Keep both herbs well-watered if rainfall is insufficient, or they are growing under cover.

Our Plant of the Week on this morning's edition of "Garden Talk" was lilyturf, Liriope muscari. This is a tough plant for creating a border between a flower bed and a lawn, as grass has difficulty invading an established clump of lilyturf. Ideal conditions are rich, moist soil in partial shade, but this is a durable and tolerant plant that grows just about anywhere, yet remains non-invasive. A large number of cultivars are available, including some with variegated foliage, gold foliage, and flowers in white, pink, and various shades of purple. The size range is from about a foot tall to over two feet. Plants form clumps a foot or so across, and do not spread. Creeping lilyturf, L. spicata, is also available for use as a groundcover, as it does spread by underground rhizomes.

Among the most abundant veggies in the garden this time of year is okra, and frying is one of the favorite ways to enjoy it. You can cut down on carbs and fat by frying okra without breading. Breading okra was invented, possibly, as a way to spruce up pods that were a bit beyond their prime and therefore less flavorful than freshly picked. If you have okra in the garden, you can capture all the flavor by frying it without breading. After picking, simply wipe the pods with a kitchen towel and leave them at room temperature until you are ready to cook them. Do not wash the pods. This will encourage mold if they need to keep for a day or two, and if done prior to slicing will make the okra slimy.

Fried Okra
2 cups sliced fresh okra
1 tablespoon bacon drippings (optional)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
seasoned salt (recipe follows)

In a heavy cast iron skillet, heat the oil (with the bacon fat, if used) until it ripples and a small piece of okra sizzles as soon as it is dropped in. Dump in the remainder of the okra and cook, turning occasionally, until most of the okra pieces are as well-browned as you prefer. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with seasoned salt. Serve immediately.

Seasoned Salt
Combine 1/4 teaspoon each of paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Use a much or as little as you like on freshly fried okra, and store the rest in an airtight container.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Frog Update and More

In case you did not see my Facebook post, we have determined that our resident frog, whom we have affectionately named, "Gladys," is actually an American bullfrog, Rana catesbeiana. She's a female, for sure, because her throat is marked with brownish gray markings over her white skin, whereas male bullfrogs have yellow throats. Bullfrogs are generalized ambush predators, and are unique among our native frogs in having the ability to catch underwater prey. Demonstrating this several times each evening, Gladys feeds voraciously on the little fish attracted to the surface of our pond when we add food pellets for the goldfish. She can leap a foot or more to pounce on the distracted guppies. She supplements the fish with insects. I was trying to photograph a mating pair of dragonflies when Gladys appeared out of nowhere and snapped up them both before I could snap the shutter.

Male Tiger Swallowtail
One of our favorite late summer insects is the tiger swallowtail butterfly, Papilio glaucus. This is the largest butterfly in our area, and is unmistakable as it flits from flower to flower, preferring to be out and about when the weather is hottest in mid-afternoon. Nevertheless, it remains active until almost dark. In our garden, it feeds on Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), Texas sage (Salvia coccinea), scarlet sage (S. vanhouttenii), marigolds (Tagetes hybrids), and the tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica. The butterfly lays its eggs on tulip poplar trees, and the enormous caterpillar is rarely seen outside the tree tops. In our area, we mostly have the black form of female tiger swallowtails, and only the males are yellow. That is because we also have the pipevine swallowtail, which the female tiger swallowtail mimics. Birds that try a pipevine swallowtail will quickly learn that it is not good to eat, and they react to the imposter tiger swallowtails by avoiding them. Some other butterflies also practice this form of deception, known as "Batesian mimicry."

Beans, okra and peppers dominate our garden harvest this week. We are picking okra every day and beans about every three days. The current bean crop is 'Provider,' and, boy howdy, is it properly named. We have made three pickings already and a fourth will soon be ready. The beans get amazingly long, up to eight inches, before the seeds swell much, and they remain completely stringless even if a bit over-mature. They are easy to pick and the flowers are a decorative pink color, too. We will grow this one again next year. It is great for any recipe calling for green beans.

We have not been impressed with the productivity of the dwarf okra cultivar, 'Baby Bubba.' We pulled this one off the Burpee rack just to try. While it definitely bears okra while remaining under three feet tall, we should have twice as many plants as we do in order to provide a reasonable harvest. By "reasonable harvest," I mean three or four servings of okra every three days. Picked pods keep only about three days from harvest, so unless you have lots of recipes calling for a little bit of okra, I suggest sticking with a small planting of old standby 'Clemson Spineless.' After we received 3/4 inch of rain last Thursday, the pods have really begun to set, forcing us to pick daily. This variety is also tops for flavor, according to many people.

From now until the week after Labor Day is the preferred time to plant garlic. Choose the largest bulbs from last year's crop and plant the largest cloves from these bulbs, to insure the biggest and best crop next season. Garlic needs fertile, weed-free soil, but thrives here with little extra attention. Purchase seed garlic from your favorite independent garden center, or just plant organic garlic from the grocery store.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Frog Files

I have written repeatedly about my fascination with the frogs that have managed to find our new pond. We do have permanent water, a tiny creek, about 100 yards away from the house, but when you think about it, 100 yards is a long hike for a little frog. Especially since it must run the gauntlet of household pets lurking between the creek and our backyard. Frogs also need to keep their skin moist, so they must travel when the weather is damp. Perhaps our unusually wet summer has facilitated their migrations. We had spring peepers, a couple of kinds of tree frogs, and the lady in the photo.

I am no herpetologist, but I suspect this is a common green frog, Rana clamitans. It occurs throughout the Southeast wherever there is adequate water. Apparently our 1500 gallon pond is sufficient. Of course, the pond offers something the frog will not find everywhere, small fish. Earlier in the season I added about two dozen livebearers from the aquarium store. Now we have hundreds. We are in the habit of feeding these and our two goldfish every evening an hour or so before sunset. The frog has gotten used to this ritual, and gorges herself on fish. I thought frogs only ate insects, but a quick search of the Internet revealed the green frog eats all sorts of prey, including birds. The American bullfrog, Rana catesbiana, which looks like the green frog on steroids, also preys on fish, birds and even small mammals. With concern growing that some frog species are threatened with extinction, it is nice to know this droll-looking little predator seems to be thriving.

Vegetable Notes

Vegetable gardeners should be thinking about sowing seeds for fall greens, if you haven't already done so. We started cell trays with kale, savoy cabbage and lettuces this week. I also planted a pot of leeks. All these should be ready to transplant within about 30 days, with the exception of the leeks. The leek variety is 'King Sieg.' It was bred to overwinter for spring harvest, and last year's crop was excellent. They are good keepers, too. We ate the last of the stored ones in July.

The kale variety is 'Lacinato.' It is highly cold tolerant, and I expect to harvest leaves all winter long. The cabbage will be transplanted to the coldframe in September. Lasy year, 'Savoy Perfection' was our best winter cabbage, and we are aiming for an even better crop this season.

I planted heat tolerant 'Jericho' lettuce, in case we have a warm fall season. I also planted a tray of 'Tom Thumb,' a delicious butterhead that makes midget heads about the size of a softball. This time of year, it is important to check and water lettuce seedlings every day, as one bout of hot, dry conditions can kill them all.

Late August is a good time to sow beets, carrots, turnips, and scallions. By the end of the month, you should get good results with direct seeded spinach, too.

Cucumbers planted a couple of weeks ago have succumbed to a pathogen. Rather than try to figure out why, we just ripped them out and planted 'Sugar Snap' peas instead.

Today we are continuing to pick beans and okra, and we have the most beautiful sweet basil that we have grown in years. With the cooler, less humid weather, we are shaping up to have a spectacular autumn season, both in the garden and in beautiful East Tennessee.

Saturday, August 10, 2013


Is there a more quintessentially Southern dish than gumbo? USA Today this week ran a feature on Southern foods that tourists should not miss. Barbecue and fried green tomatoes made the list, but so did some questionable entries, like tamales. But they left out gumbo. Given that okra is difficult to grow north of the Mason Dixon line, you would think the traditional stew of meat, veggies and tomatoes would have made the cut.

"Gumbo" is thought to derive from the African word for okra, something like "quingombo." There is no doubt that the vegetable made its way into the Southern cook's repertoire via Africans who were brought here against their will in the 18th Century. It is a member of the hibiscus family, a fact revealed when the large, showy flowers open for a single day, typically as the weather gets really hot and muggy in late July or early August. Okra will not germinate in cool soil, so gardeners typically wait until Memorial Day to plant the BB-like seeds. Soaking them overnight helps to insure complete germination, and they will fairly leap from the ground within a few days of planting. They need little in the way of attention once they are about six inches tall. Irrigation is necessary only now and then, and too much fertilizer will result in large plants with few blooms.

Once the pods begin to appear, the plants will continue producing non-stop until the first hard frost. It is important to pick each pod as soon as they become large enough at 3-4 inches. Leaving pods to mature on the plant will reduce subsequent yield. Store the harvest at room temperature and use within three days. If dark spots begin to show, it is over the hill. Individual plants will bear from one to three usable pods every day.

Cooks who find themselves with an over-abundance of okra, a not uncommon condition, can easily preserve the harvest by freezing. Simply wipe whole pods with a kitchen cloth to remove any foreign matter, drop them into containers and freeze. Blanching is not necessary. Don't bother to cut or trim the pods. You can do that after you thaw them later. Okra also makes great pickles. Follow the recipe for raw pack dill pickles on our In The Kitchen page substituting okra for the cucumbers. Do not cut the okra, leave pods whole.

Some folks say they don't like okra because it has a slimy texture. This effect results from pectins and complex sugars within the pod, and can be avoided by several techniques. First, do not wash the pods, always wipe clean with a kitchen cloth or paper towels. Otherwise, the added water will activate the gummy contents as soon as you cut the pod open. Second, cooking okra in hot oil or in a dry skillet will prevent the juice from turning slimy. Third, acid also inactivates the slime components, so pickled okra loses this tendency. Tomatoes also reduce the effect.

What you want to avoid is dropping raw okra directly into a liquid that is neither scalding hot nor acidic, like soup stock. This will result in thickening the liquid, and is probably how the stew, gumbo, was originally thickened. French and Native American influences on gumbo, however, have led to different methods of thickening.

Native Americans no doubt introduced the use of dried young leaves of the sassafrass tree as a thickening agent. This is filé (pronounced FEEL-ay) powder. Gumbo thickened at the end of the cooking process by the addition of a bit of filé  powder is often called "filé gumbo."

The other thickening technique, and the most common in my experience, was contributed by the French. Cooking fat and flour together to produce a roux, as is done with many types of sauces and gravies, allows the cook to control not only the thickness of the gumbo, but also its flavor. Depending upon how long the roux is cooked, it gives a different character to the gumbo. Longer cooking produces a progressively darker roux that loses thickening power as it increases in robustness of flavor. This can provide many opportunities for experimentation and customization. Gumbo can truly be any cook's special, personal creation.

Here is a generalized recipe for gumbo that can be varied endlessly, depending upon what you have on hand and what is in season. You can substitute any protein for the shrimp and sausage, keeping the total amount to about one cup. Any type of stock will work, also. Keep the "trinity" of onions, green peppers and celery, however, for true Creole flavor, along with the tomatoes.

John’s Creole Style Gumbo
8 servings
1/2 pound small raw shrimp
1/2 pound Andouille sausage (can substitute kielbasa), cut in 1/4" rounds
1/4 cup vegetable oil or bacon drippings
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup chopped onions
1/4 cup chopped green bell peppers
1/4 cup chopped celery
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup sliced okra
1/4 cup peeled, seeded and chopped fresh tomatoes
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon Creole Seasoning (recipe follows)
freshly ground black pepper
3 bay leaves
3 cups chicken  or seafood stock, fresh or canned
1/2 teaspoon Worchestershire sauce
hot sauce, such as Tabasco
3/4 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon shredded fresh basil leaves
cooked rice
chopped green onions
hard boiled eggs
Peel and devein the shrimp.  Refrigerate. In a heavy cast iron skillet, heat 1/4 cup of vegetable oil over medium high heat. Fry the Andouille sausage until it is lightly browned, remove with a slotted spoon, and drain on paper towels. Reserve. Pour the fat into a heatproof measuring cup, discarding all but 1/4 cup. Return the fat to the skillet, add the flour, and stir continuously with a wire whisk until the roux is the color of milk chocolate, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan and incorporating them into the roux. Take care not to splatter the roux on your skin! It is extremely hot. When the roux is the right color, add the onions, peppers and celery, turn off the heat, and continue stirring until the mixture stops sizzling. Set aside.
In a large stew pot, heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil until it ripples. Add the okra, and stir fry until most of the okra has brown spots. Add the tomatoes, garlic, Creole seasoning, a few grinds of pepper, and the bay leaves. Stir fry for one minute. Add the stock, Worchestershire sauce, a few drops of hot sauce, and the fresh herbs. Bring to a simmer, then add the reserved roux-vegetable mixture by spoonfuls, stirring with each addition. The stew should become slightly thickened. Return the stew to a gentle simmer. Add the reserved sausage and the shrimp, and cook just until the shrimp turn pink, about 2 or 3 minutes. Taste carefully and adjust the seasoning
Serve the gumbo over cooked rice, garnished with chopped green onions and hard-boiled eggs. Pass additional hot sauce. All you need is a salad for a complete meal.
Creole Seasoning Mix
1-1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
Combine all ingredients and store tightly sealed in a cool, dark place for up to one year.


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Summer Sweet Corn

Nothing says "summertime" like fresh sweet corn.

Here's a great way to enjoy it.

Sweet Corn Pudding

3 ears fresh sweet corn, such as Ambrosia
1/4 to 1/2 cup heavy cream
white pepper

Generously butter an oval gratin dish. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Scrape the corn off the cob. Do not cut the kernels off! You will want to do this outside, over a large bowl, using a sharp paring knife. The scraped corn will have lots of milky juice and not many kernels will remain whole. Combine the corn with enough cream to give the mixture the texture of a wet batter, about 1/4 cup cream per cup of corn. Season with a pinch of salt and several grinds of white pepper and transfer to the prepared gratin dish. Dot the top with butter. Bake for 1 hour, or until almost all the liquid is gone and the pudding is beginning to brown at the edges. Serve immediately.

Fall Planting Continues

We planted more bush beans earlier this week, along with a couple of hills of cucumbers and some sugar snap peas. All should have time to mature before cold weather arrives. It is also time to plant cole crops for transplanting if you have not done so already. Seeds started now will be ready in about three weeks. Look for 'Thompson' broccoli for a fall crop. Not only is this variety cold-tolerant, it produces many side shoots after the main flower is cut. Cabbage 'Savoy Perfection' is a great choice for a fall cabbage crop, and this one is not only easy to grow but beautiful with its dark green, deeply crinkled leaves.

Start Romaine lettuces now for transplanting at the end of the month. By the end of August, it should be cool enough to start buttercrunch and looseleaf lettuces, also. Carrots, beets, Swiss chard and spinach can all be planted after the middle of August.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Rain, Rain, Rain

Wow, one wonders how much longer the unusual precipitation pattern is going to remain. We are already way above normal and more rain is on the way. This has been a boon to some things in the garden, and a bane to others.

Sweet corn, which we just started picking this week, has done far better than we had hoped. Tomatoes, on the other hand, have suffered. Nevertheless, we have been able to pick enough veggies every day to feed two people quite well. Besides corn and tomatoes, we are harvesting cucumbers, parsley, basil (by the ton, it seems), tarragon, chives, peppers and zucchini. With these and the garlic, leeks and potatoes we have stored, creating healthy, delicious meals is a snap.

Whenever I have plenty of sweet corn, one of the recipes I like to turn to is fried corn. This traditional summer staple can be made in as many ways as there are cooks, and it never fails to please. I am guessing it is based upon the Native American dish, succotash, and that variations have accumulated over the years.

Fried Corn with Zucchini

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
Fresh corn kernels, cut from two ears, about 1 1/2 cups
1 medium zucchini, trimmed and sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds
2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon
salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a heavy cast iron skillet and sauté the onion until it is translucent. Add the corn and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to brown on the bottom. Add the zucchini and continue to cook, stirring and tossing to prevent sticking, until the squash begins to brown and most of the corn has browned lightly. Remove from the heat, stir in the tarragon and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately as a side dish.

Fried corn goes particularly well with seafoods that have a touch of sweetness, such as scallops, shrimp, and lobster, and with pork. For a vegetarian meal, pair fried corn with a bean dish.

Don't forget to listen every Saturday morning at 8:00 for "Garden Talk" on WKVL AM 850. I'll be there, along with Dr. Sue Hamilton and Andy the Garden Guy, to answer your gardening questions.

Check out Dr. Sue's article in this week's Knoxville News Sentinel.