Saturday, August 30, 2014

Plant Fall Greens Now!

The coming week will be your last opportunity to plant fall greens. Some of the best performers for this time of year are kale, mustards, and turnips.

Kale and other brassica plants are showing up in the garden centers. It is too late to start broccoli and cabbage from seed, but kales, especially the really cold hardy ones like 'Red Russian' and 'Lacinato,' will be able to make decent growth before the first frost. The plants are sufficiently cold hardy to provide a harvest well into December.

With about 45 days remaining until the first expected frost, look for greens crops that will mature quickly. Top choices include the turnip variety 'Seven Top,' and various mustards. Mizuna, tatsoi and bak choy. These Asian mustards will all mature before it gets too cold, as will both curly and red European mustard varieties. Also in the mustard family, radishes will have plenty of time to mature before frost. You can get in 2 or 3 sowings, a few days apart, between now and the end of the month. Another good choice is arugula. Plant small amounts every few days for a succession of crops in October.

All these greens are good in salads when they are small, and can be used as cooked greens when they get larger.

Garden centers also have lettuce plants in cell trays. If you don't already have some lettuce seeds germinating, the commercial plants will give you a quick crop or two before frost reduces the quality.

While you are at the garden center, why not purchase a row cover tunnel for your garden? Using one of these tunnels will protect late crops from frost, and extend the growing season by a week or two at least. Given the cost of fresh salad greens, the small investment in a row cover is paid back the first season in our garden.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Market Square Market Rocks!

Anyone in the Knoxville area who has not experienced the Saturday morning farmer's market at Market Square has missed one of the premier markets in the country. In fact, we ranked #20 out of a list of 101 top farmer's markets in the U.S., compiled by The Daily Meal. You can check out the complete list here. Clarksville and Memphis also made the list.

After I left the radio studio this morning I headed over to Market Square. Reasons for the high ranking became immediately apparent. For one thing, fresh produce and other food products, like honey, grass fed meats, and pepper sauces, dominate the offerings from vendors. Additional vendors selling hand-crafted items, such as soaps, woodcarvings, and pottery out-numbered those hawking retail merchandise and trinkets. This balance is a decided advantage for any market hoping to attract people serious about local food.

And what an abundance of local food we have! I lost track of the number of tomato varieties, but this being August everything from tiny currant tomatoes the size of a big blueberry to giant slicers and everything in between were on offer. Cherokee Purple is now so ubiquitous it is almost unfashionable, but those in the know keep buying it for taste alone. Beautiful eggplants in an array of colors, squash in assorted shapes, sizes and colors, and non-GMO sweet corn contributed to the bounty.

One of my favorite booths is operated by Jim Smith of Rushy Springs Farm in Talbot, TN. Jim specializes in growing chili peppers, and when I say specialize, I don't mean he grows one or two kinds really well. He grows dozens of different kinds and turns them into powders, spice mixes and salt-brine-fermented hot sauces that are just terrific. He told me the selection will only get better as we move later into the season.

Among the craftspeople, Dancing Edge Earthworks caught my eye. The selection of hypertufa pots should satisfy the most demanding gardener.

The find of the day could have been either the foraged wild yellow chanterelle mushrooms or the speckled butter beans, still in their tough-skinned pods. I opted for the butter beans, as the chanterelles will still be around next week. (I hope.)

Learn more about the Market Square Farmer's Market here. Bon appetit!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

6 Great Things To Do With Tomatoes

If you are like us, this time of year you are inundated with tomatoes. We have had an especially good year, both for the heirlooms and hybrids we grew. Our outstanding favorite among the hybrids is Whopper, developed by Park Seed Co. in South Carolina. It is a determinate tomato, but it branches profusely at the base, forming a "bush" about four feet in diameter. It definitely needs a sturdy wire cage to contain its exuberance. It also produces loads of tasty tomatoes, of uniform size and with small cores, the ideal tomato, in our view, for home canning. Check out the photo. The majority of the fruits are like these, about 8 ounces each. They are also delicious on a sandwich. Here are seven things to do with the seasonal abundance of tomatoes.
1. Freeze Them
Tomatoes freeze easily. Just wash, core and cut them in halves or quarters. Drop into freezer containers and place in the freezer. When thawed, the skins will slip right off and the tomatoes can be used for soup or to make tomato sauce.

2. Can Them
Tomatoes are easy to can because of their acidity, which helps prevent spoilage. You need some special equipment for canning, but the investment is small and the equipment will last many seasons. A large water bath canner with a rack to hold the jars is the main item. If you invest in a jar lifter, canning funnel, and a pair of stainless steel tongs, your canning experience will go much more smoothly.

For instructions on canning tomatoes, visit the web site of the National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia. There you will also find instructions and recipes for many other home canned foods.

3. Juice Them
Tomato juice is canned in exactly the same way as whole tomatoes. A gallon of cored, quartered tomatoes will yield about a half gallon of juice. Tomato juice can be seasoned with small amounts of salt, sugar or spices, like garlic powder or black pepper. It is worth noting that some upscale bars are serving a bloody Mary made with heirloom tomato juice.

4. Sauce Them
Skin, core and chop a couple of quarts of tomatoes. Place them in a saucepan, bring to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for 20 minutes. Press through a sieve to remove the seeds. Return the tomato sauce to the heat, add you favorite herbs, a big pinch of salt and some chopped onions, and cook slowly, stirring frequently, until the sauce is thickened. Toss with pasta or use on pizza. Alternatively, cool the sauce to room temperature, transfer to a suitable container, and freeze.

5. Make Stewed Tomatoes
Stewed tomatoes were a popular side dish in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, when long cooking was thought to render vegetables more healthful. Peel and core tomatoes and cut them into chunks. Place in a saucepan, bring to a simmer, and cook 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a little sugar. Cool to room temperature and store, covered, in the refrigerator for a week.

6. Make Tomato Pudding
If you happen to have any leftover stewed tomatoes, you can make them into tomato pudding. Oil a baking dish, and line the bottom with stale bread. You can use cornbread, biscuits, yeast bread, or sourdough. Each will give the dish its own character. Break the bread into chunks about the size of a grape. You want a layer about an inch deep on the bottom of the dish. Top the bread with stewed tomatoes, adding a little more salt, sugar and pepper. If you have enough tomatoes, repeat with a second layer of bread, again topping with stewed tomatoes. Sprinkle the top with grated cheese and allow the dish to sit at room temperature for a half hour, to allow the bread to soak up some of the tomato juice. Place in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes, or until the top is light brown and the edges are bubbly. Serve warm or at room temperature. This basic recipe can be varied endlessly with different seasonings and additions. That is why is was so popular with farm wives, like my grandmother, a century ago.

To Remove Skins
To skin tomatoes, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Select and wash the tomatoes. Using a serrated knife, cut an "X" into the blossom end, cutting just through the skin. Drop a few tomatoes into the boiling water. After 20-30 seconds, remove them with a slotted spoon and transfer to a big bowl of cold water. You will see the skins split immediately, if they have not already. The skin will now easily slip off. Core the tomatoes, transfer them to a bowl, and repeat the process until you have peeled all you need.  

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Preserving Summer's Bounty

If you are like most gardeners in the Tennessee Valley, you will have a glut of produce during the month of August. We have been canning and freezing like mad. Tomatoes, corn, vegetable soup mix, and beans have been our primary focus.

Today, however, I wanted to share our discovery regarding one of the best ways to preserve authentic summer flavor without too much work. The secret: frozen gazpacho. The recipe can easily be double or tripled.

John's Frozen Gazpacho Base
1 green pepper, trimmed and seeded, coarsely chopped
4 pickling cucumbers, trimmed and seeded, coarsely chopped
6 firm ripe tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
1 cup chopped onions
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
18 large fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves
1/4 cup Sherry vinegar, or other vinegar or lemon juice
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon paprika

Working in batches, chop the vegetables and herbs in a food processor. The mixture should be a bit chunky. Do not liquefy everything. You can also do the chopping by hand. Transfer everything to a large bowl and add the vinegar, salt and paprika. Stir well to combine. Chill overnight, covered.

Transfer the soup base to freezer containers, label and place in the freezer.

To serve, allow the soup base to thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Combine with an equal volume of chilled stock or water. (More or less, to achieve the consistency you prefer.) Serve cold, garnished with croutons, sour cream, and chopped scallions.

This makes a delightful substitute for a salad course. The bright flavors are a welcome change from the winter taste of supermarket produce.