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.