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.