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.