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.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Perfect Summer Soup

As both a dedicated gardener and shameless foodie, I note how the traditional dishes of Western Europe match the availability of seasonal vegetables. For example, minestrone, a classic Italian vegetable soup, and its French cousins, paysanne or pistou soups, all utilize the vegetables of early summer. Here's the recipe for a version I made last night. The leeks and cabbage were stored from our earlier harvest. The tomato came from a commercial farm in Grainger County. (Ours are not quite ripe yet.) The other veggies, except the Great Northern beans, came directly from the garden. I also harvested basil and parsley for the pesto sauce, and the garlic was pulled a few weeks ago.

This recipe most resembles minestrone, in which the tomatoes are cooked along with the other aromatics. If tomatoes are omitted, the recipe will be closer to soup paysanne. Pistou, the French version of pesto, has more garlic than pesto. Each of these techniques imparts a subtly different flavor to the finished product. Feel free to modify the ingredients list to reflect what you have on hand. Corn and squash could be included, for example, although these are New World foods.

Classic Vegetable Soup with Pesto

1 leek, trimmed and well washed, chopped
1 large carrot, scraped, trimmed and chopped
1 tablespoon canola oil
pinch of salt
1 tomato, cored and chopped
1 potato, pared and cubed
1/2 cup cut green beans
1/2 cup cut yellow wax beans
1/2 cup canned Great Northern beans, rinsed well and drained
1/2 cup shredded green cabbage
a few leaves of celery, chopped
1/3 cup small noodles or pasta, any style
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large soup pot and add the leeks and carrots with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are translucent. Add the tomatoes, stir and cook gently, covered, until the oil separates and is colored red. Add 1 1/2 cups of water and raise the heat so the water simmers. Cover and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients along with another 1 1/2 cups water. Simmer gently, covered, until the vegetables are tender and the pasta is cooked, another 10-15 minutes.

While the soup simmers, place a dollop of pesto (recipe below) in the center of a rimmed soup plate. Ladle the soup into the plate and serve immediately with crusty bread. Pass additional pesto and grated cheese at the table.

You can use your favorite brand of pesto, but with basil abundant in summer, why not make your own. This recipe was especially delicious with Singing Brook cheese, made by Blackberry Farm in Walland. Singing Brook closely approximates Parmigiano-Reggiano, with subtle differences. The easiest way to make pesto is in a food processor.

Pesto Sauce

1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup walnuts, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup torn fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup grated Singing Brook cheese (or Parmigiano-Reggiano)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Mince the garlic by dropping it whole through the feed tube of the food processor while the blade is spinning. Add the walnuts to the work bowl and pulse to chop. Add the parsley leaves and pulse to mince them. Add the butter and basil leaves and pulse until combined. Add the cheese and olive oil and pulse until the mixture begins to hold together in a mass. Transfer the pesto to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Press the wrap down against the surface of the pesto to prevent discoloration. Refrigerate until needed. Pesto keeps in the refrigerator for a week or more.

I have posted a recipe for the more elaborate pistou soup and sauce on the In the Kitchen Page.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Too Much of a Good Thing

Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day.

We are way above normal on rainfall in the Tennessee Valley. The wet and cloudy weather has begun to take its toll on vegetable gardens. While most veggies need an inch of water each week to thrive, we have been averaging about four times that amount. The extra moisture, coupled with long periods with no sunshine, has created ideal conditions for fungi to attack our crops.

Cucumbers sometimes develop a black, fuzzy mold under these conditions. Pick of and destroy deformed or damaged fruits as soon as you find them. This will help curb spore production by the fungus. Keeping the fruits picked also keeps the plants blooming. Hopefully, as the weather improves the cukes will still be producing.

Summer squash may be showing signs of powdery mildew  on the leaves, and immature fruits may also develop mold growth.

Some varieties of tomatoes are showing signs of early blight. Brown spots form on the leaves before the leaves turn yellow and fall off the plant.

In all of these cases, there are some steps you can take to preserve at least some of your crop. Increase air circulation around plants by thinning leaves or even entire plants. Remove and destroy plant parts showing signs of fungal attack. Do not compost this material. Burn it or place it in the trash. Avoid watering (duh!) and fertilization when plants are stressed by too much moisture. Spray infected foliage with neem oil. This has proven effective for me with both powdery mildew and blight attacks. As a rule, plants growing in raised beds will fare better than in-ground plantings.

The abundant water will also encourage a bumper crop when the plants get enough sun. Green beans, cucumbers and squash are all producing heavily in many gardens. Tomatoes are coming along, with early ones appearing in all the local markets, even though the real tomato season is the month of August.

Fall Vegetable Talk July 14
Please join me Sunday, July 14, at 2:00 PM at UT Gardens on Neyland Drive for a presentation and discussion on fall vegetable gardening in the Tennessee Valley. I will be offering advice on what to plant and when, to take advantage of our fall--and winter!--growing seasons.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Ah, the Summer Harvest

I hope everyone had a fun and safe (if wet) Fourth of July. We marked it by staying home and just taking it easy. The Independence Day holiday typically sees the first harvest of cucumbers, and this year was no exception. I picked two pounds and placed them in brine on Thursday afternoon. On Friday, I added a couple more. If more have matured by today, I will also add them to the crock. They will remain there for 14 days. This produces a "long-brined" cucumber that can be turned into various kinds of pickles. My favorite remains the sweet pickles my grandmother made, and I still make a batch using her recipe every summer.

Cucumbers can be turned into all sorts of pickles, of course. Check out the easy raw-pack dill pickle recipe on the In the Kitchen Page. You can find many other pickle recipes online. Fresh cucumbers can also be pickled in the refrigerator, if you have a couple of hours before dinner to prep them. Simply trim and slice the cucumbers into thin rounds, toss with a little salt, and set them in the refrigerator for an hour. Rinse, drain them well, and add a few dashes of vinegar, some freshly ground pepper, and, if you wish, some chopped onion or chives. Use these refrigerator pickles for a salad topping, or as a side dish with something rich, like a curry.

Our triumph this season has been artichokes. We harvested a total of four large ones and eight small ones from our single plant of 'Imperial Star.' The small ones are delicious when prepped as described below. If you did not grow them this year, you can find baby artichokes in the market in summertime.

Roasted Baby Artichokes

On the counter, have ready a large bowl of cold water to which you have added the juice of half a lemon. On the stove, bring a large pot of water, to which you have added the juice from the other half of the lemon, to a boil. Starting at the bottom, bend back and break off the leaves of each artichoke, working around the natural layers, until no hint of purple coloration is visible and all the exposed leaves are yellow-green. With a paring knife, carefully trim off the stem and any leaf bits remaining at the base of the bud. With a chef's knife, cut across and trim off the top half inch of the artichoke, then divide it in half lengthwise. Drop these halves in the prepared bowl of water. When all the buds have been prepared and the water is boiling, drain the artichokes and drop them into the pot. Set a timer for three minutes and refill the bowl with cold water and some ice. (No need for more lemon juice.) When the timer chimes, turn off the heat and use a slotted spoon to transfer the cooked artichokes to the bowl of ice water. Let them sit for two or three minutes, then drain well. Using a melon baller, remove the small bit of hairy "choke" at the base of the innermost leaves and discard it. Drain the artichokes thoroughly on paper towels and refrigerate. They can be prepared up to two days ahead. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the artichokes in an oiled baking dish large enough to just hold them in one layer, and drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake the artichokes until they are beginning to brown, about 25 minutes. Serve hot with a cheese sauce, or at room temperature with a vinaigrette dressing.

Green Beans Arriving

The first green beans arrived in the markets a couple of weeks ago, and ours are just now hitting their stride. We grew three types this year, spacing the plantings a couple of weeks apart so we don't get inundated with fresh beans. Roma II, a flat Italian type, started our harvest. These beans taste best with long cooking, and--in true East Tennessee fashion--the addition of a little bacon fat to the cooking water. This produces green beans prepared "as God intended," according to my friend, Glenda Ross of www.eatyouryard.biz. Our next harvest should be ready in a few days, as we have already picked a few early arrivals. This one is 'Goldrush,' a yellow wax bean perfect for quick cooking. Wax beans also star in bean salads, a favorite for picnics and potlucks. Just emerging from the warm, damp soil are seedlings of 'Provider.' This one is a round, brown-seeded bean good for canning and freezing as well as fresh eating. To freeze beans, simply toss the washed, trimmed beans into rapidly boiling salted water for three minutes, drain, and immediately place in an ice water bath to stop the cooking and set the color. Drain them thoroughly, dry on kitchen towels and pack into freezer bags. Don't forget to label the bags with the date. I prefer to use home frozen beans within three months. Canning green beans requires a pressure canner. It is dangerous to use other methods. Instructions are widely available if you choose to invest in a canner. We eat most of our beans soon after they are picked and seldom can them, but green beans are a great first subject for a home canning project.