Monday, June 29, 2015

More Ways to Save Summer Bounty

Last week I shared a recipe for pickled haricots verts, those thin green beans that are hard to preserve by regular freezing or canning. This week, I will offer some more ideas for saving summer's bright, fresh flavors for later use.

The first tool in your "saving summer" arsenal should be a good grasp of how to make "quick" pickles. Just about any fresh vegetable can be pickled this way, and the finished pickles will keep in the refrigerator for at least a month unopened. You should not use quick pickle recipes as a substitute for canned pickles. Canning recipes often have a stronger pickling brine, and the pickles require processing to give them shelf life. Processing times can vary depending upon the type of vegetable and amount of sugar in the recipe. If you want canned pickles, follow published recipes to the letter. Experimentation is not a great idea. In fact, it can be deadly if you make a serious mistake. Stick with published recipes, or keep pickles in the refrigerator.

Universal Pickling Solution

Having a recipe on hand that can be used to pickle any type of vegetable allows you to take advantage of seasonal abundance, or a special purchase from the farmer's market. Here is the recipe I always start with:

1 cup distilled white vinegar
1 cup distilled water
1 tablespoon pickling salt

If you want a sweet pickle, add 2 tablespoons of sugar to the mixture.

You can also add various spices and flavorings: mustard seed, celery seed, allspice, coriander seed, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, ginger, lemon peel, etc. Choose whatever seems to go well with the vegetable. Beets go well with cinnamon and cloves, beans seem to like dill, and mustard seed goes with cucumbers and just about everything else.

You can reduce the amount of salt or increase the amount of sugar, but it is important to keep the ratio of vinegar and water at 1:1. The acidity of the vinegar is doing the heavy lifting of preserving the pickles. You can substitute other vinegar, such as apple cider, wine or malt, but make sure the label says the vinegar contains at least 5 percent acidity. Do not use raw or homemade vinegars.

Using brown sugar will produce a "bread and butter" pickle flavor.

I use distilled water because our tap water contains a lot of minerals. These will tend to darken the color of the pickled vegetables, but are otherwise harmless. I like my pickles to retain the bright colors of the vegetables.

To make pickles, fill a clean pint jar with vegetables, trimmed to whatever size and shape you prefer. Combine the pickling solution ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar, if used. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for 10 minutes, then pour the hot liquid over the vegetables in the jar. Flavorings can be added to the jar with the vegetables, or cooked with the pickling liquid. The latter procedure will tend to intensify the flavor, while the former will be milder and mellower.

Some vegetables will benefit from blanching, prior to placing them in the jar. Blanching not only tenderizes crisp vegetables (celery root, carrots) but also helps to preserve their bright colors (green beans, snap peas, asparagus). To blanch, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Drop in the prepped vegetables. When the water returns to a boil, set a timer. Blanching time is 1 to 3 minutes, depending upon how dense the vegetable is. Test a piece with the edge of a metal spoon, beginning after 1 minute. If it cuts with just a little resistance, it is done. Drain the vegetables in a colander and immediately plunge them into ice water. Allow to sit for 1 minute, then drain thoroughly again and place in the jar.

When the jar is cool, cover with a lid and place in the refrigerator. Allow at least a week for the flavor to develop. After opening, use the pickles within two weeks.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Saving Summer

If you have a vegetable garden, chances are you are experiencing an over-abundance of one or more of your crops. Vegetable varieties can be amazingly productive, and a favorable season can spur any of them to higher levels.

Take the case of our French filet beans this year. Also called "haricots verts," these are green beans bred to be picked when they are about 3/16 of an inch in diameter, and eaten with minimal preparation. If you try to substitute immature snap beans, like Blue Lake or Kentucky Wonder, you will be disappointed in the lack of flavor and mushy texture. On the other hand, if you try to cook full size green beans as recommended for filet beans (as I recently experienced in an otherwise excellent restaurant) they will be so tough as to be inedible. If you find filet beans in the market, they are guaranteed to be expensive, because demand is small compared to other types of beans, and the yield, in terms of pounds-per-unit-effort for the grower, is low.

In the backyard garden, however, a row of filet beans can easily produce more beans than you will care to eat fresh. We have already harvested about five pounds of them, and I have begun to run out of recipes, not to mention simply tiring of them. I know from previous experience they do not freeze well. The tender texture does not lend itself to freezing. My efforts at preserving them this way resulted in a mushy, olive-colored product with very little remaining flavor. I threw them into the compost bin.

When I checked with the National Center for Home Food Preservation, I found a lot of great ideas for what to do with summer produce, but, alas, nothing for haricots verts. If you are new to home canning, this web site has a wealth of essential information and dozens of laboratory tested recipes. I have found some of the recipes lifted verbatim and copied without attribution on other web sites. Why not go directly to the experts?

Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered a recipe for making pickles out of filet beans on a British food site. It called for a few exotic ingredients that would have entailed a trip out to West Knoxville to obtain, so I tweaked the recipe a bit.

Before I get to the actual recipe, however, I will offer a tip for saving money on summer canning projects. Those herbs and spices called for in just about every recipe for pickles can get expensive. Instead of getting the little bottles from the grocery store, look for bulk spices at Three Rivers Market or your favorite specialty retailer. I was able to buy four times the amount of mustard seed, for example, for half the price of the McCormick brand in the little jar, a savings of about 85 percent.

Pickled Haricots Verts

½ pound haricots verts
⅓ cup Champagne vinegar
⅓ cup water
2  lemons
1  tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1  teaspoon herbes de Provence
½ teaspoon sea salt
1  teaspoon sugar
1  teaspoon capers, drained
½ teaspoon chili flakes
½ teaspoon mustard seed

Wash a pint jar in hot, soapy water. Rinse well, and place the jar in a 180F oven while you prepare the beans and pickling liquid. Rinse and drain the beans. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Drop in the beans and blanch them 3 minutes. Drain the beans into a colander, rinse under cold water and plunge the colander into a bowl of ice water. They should be crisp and bright green. Arrange the beans on a tray so that all are oriented in the same direction. Reserve.

Remove the zest from the lemons and juice them, reserving the zest and juice separately. You should have about ⅓ cup juice. Strain out any seeds.

In a small nonreactive saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, lemon zest, peppercorns, herbes de Provence, salt, and sugar to a boil. Decrease the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. 

Pack the beans upright into the jar, taking care not to break them. This is easier if you start with the jar on its side, and if you use a wide mouth jar. Sprinkle the chili flakes, mustard seed, and capers over the beans. Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the beans, top with the lemon juice, and put a lid on the jar. Allow the jar to cool to room temperature, then place it in the refrigerator. Let the beans rest at least one week before using. They will keep for two months if unopened and refrigerated. After opening, use the beans within two weeks.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Mosquito Season

This is the time of year when people start asking questions about repelling mosquitoes, especially about the effectiveness of those "mosquito plants" that turn up in garden centers and big box stores. Supposedly, having a few of these around the deck will keep mosquitoes at bay. Unfortunately, this is not true. The plants are a geranium bred to produce citronella oil. Citronella oil has been shown to be effective as a repellant when rubbed on the skin. Its mere presence is unlikely to have any effect on skeeters.

Mountain Mint from the Lady Bird Johnson Center gallery
Those large citronella candles have been shown to work fairly well,  but much depends on such factors as the presence of wind, how many people are outdoors together, and how many mosquitoes are in the vicinity. Plus, you have to replace them as they burn down, and the burning wax adds a lot of carbon pollution to the atmosphere.

It appears that the application of citronella directly to the skin may be a better approach. Other natural plant oils that have a lemony fragrance also seem to work. Lemon balm oil is reported to be more effective than DEET, for example. (DEET is the most widely used synthetic repellent, found in products such as "Off.") Rose-scented geraniums produce both a citronella-like oil and geraniol, a rose-like scent. Even catnip has shown some repellent effect.

For those interested in native plants and traditional remedies, mountain mint (Pycnanthemum) has shown repellent activity, and you can find it blooming along roadsides around the summer solstice and later in the season at higher elevations. It's about 30 inches tall and the leaves around the blooms look like they have been daubed with white paint. It is adaptable as a garden plant, though can be rambunctious.

In all of these cases, the repellent plant is most effective if its essential oil is rubbed on the skin, and the effect lasts only about 30 minutes. However, this would be sufficient time for a stroll around the garden, for example.

Another important strategy is eliminating the places where mosquitoes can breed on your property. This includes obvious things like a wheelbarrow left out and collecting rain, to un-noticed things like a sag in your gutter, where water can stand. Asian tiger mosquitoes, to name but one of several species found around here, can breed in a tablespoon of water.

If you have a pond of any size, it should be stocked with goldfish, mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis) or small tropical fish such as guppies. The tropical fish will not survive a winter in the Tennessee Valley, but they will multiply all summer and turn your garden pond into an effective mosquito trap by consuming all the larvae that manage to hatch. If you don't want fish you can use "Mosquito Dunks" a commercially available product based on a species of bacteria that kills mosquito larvae without harming other organisms. (This product is comparable to Dipel, or Bt, used on vegetable gardens, and in fact is a different strain of the same bacterium.)

One article I found online mentioned using "native" fish in your garden pond for mosquito control. While this might be good advice in some locations, it is definitely bad advice in Tennessee, where the possession of any native non-game fish species "away from its native habitat" is prohibited by law. It is also illegal to keep game fish in captivity. There are a few "rough" fish species that are both native to the state and allowable by the fishing regulations, but why bother seeking them out when goldfish and guppies are available widely? (Large farm ponds can be stocked with certain game fishes, but we are talking here about garden ponds much smaller than the average swimming pool.)

Although it might seem counterintuitive, do not use pesticides to control mosquitoes, even the so-called "safe" products made for "kitchen and bath" use, and those intended for spraying around the patio before your party begins. All these products will accomplish is reducing the population of natural mosquito predators, such as spiders, dragonflies, and praying mantis. The active ingredients used in these products are harmful to aquatic organisms and definitely should not be used near a pond or any natural waters.

Mosquito traps range from highly efficient to totally ineffective. In particular, the untraviolet "bug zappers" that have been around for years rarely catch mosquitoes, as the mosquitoes are not attracted to the UV light. The more effective traps rely on chemical lures, often merely carbon dioxide, to draw mosquitoes to their untimely deaths. This kind of equipment, originally developed for the military, can be as expensive as a nice gas grill, and it also runs on a propane tank requiring regular replacement. Unless you live in the Okeefenokee, it is probably an unwise investment.

Screened porches and lawn tents with mosquito netting are among the most effective permanent solutions for outdoor living, and the long term cost is probably much lower than repellents or traps. Tents should be taken down and stored dry when not in use, which will greatly increase their lifespan.

Mosquitoes find a potential human target by following the trail of carbon dioxide that we exhale. If you are fond of beer or carbonated beverages, your carbon dioxide output will be higher than that of other folks, and you are likely to be bitten more frequently. However, the mosquito decides upon landing whether to bite, based on chemicals on the surface of your skin. People who have not bathed in a day or two are far more likely to be bitten than the more fastidious. (This may help explain the popularity of bathing in ancient Rome, where malaria was a well-known killer.) This also explains why the most effective repellents, whether natural or synthetic, are applied directly to the skin, and probably accounts for the claims made for commercial products that were not intended as repellents but do appear to work for some people. (Avon Skin-so-Soft is often cited.)

Bottom line: approach the problem with common sense. Temporary and all-natural protection is available for when you want to enjoy a cool drink on the porch and you live in the suburbs. If you live near a creek and spend a lot of time outdoors, you need additional control measures. If you are throwing a cookout party for friends and relatives, use citronella candles and offer everyone the repellent of your choice.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Joys of June

Ah! The joys of June are upons us! I speak specifically of green peas, beets and new potatoes, all of which we harvested in abundance last week. Together with plenty of fresh herbs that are also now flourishing in the garden, these fresh veggies have made for some great meals. This week, we share a favorite recipe for each one.

If you don't have these veggies in your garden, visit one of the many area farmer's markets, where you are sure to find them.

Creamless Cream of Pea Soup

This technique vastly reduces the calories in a springtime favorite.

1 cup shelled peas
12 pea pods
1 tablespoon safflower oil
1/2 cup diced onions
1/2 cup diced celery
2 cups stock (chicken or vegetable)
1/2 cup cooked rice
1 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon leaves, plus additional for garnish
freshly ground black pepper

Bring a pot of water to a boil over high heat. Drop in the peas and pods. When the water returns to a boil, set a timer for 2 minutes. When the timer sounds, remove the peas and pods from the heat, strain them through a colander, rinse well under cold water and reserve them in two separate bowls.

Heat the oil in a soup pot. Add the onions and celery and cook, stirring, until the onion is translucent. Add the stock, the rice and the tarragon. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat and cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Add the pea pods and about half the peas and cook three minutes longer. Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes. Transfer the soup to a food processor or blender and puree. Strain the soup through a sieve and into a clean soup pot. Add the remaining peas, salt and a few grinds of pepper. Heat through. Serve immediately, garnished with more tarragon leaves.

Roasted New Potatoes
This recipe works best if all the potatoes are the same size.

1 pound new potatoes
2 tablespoons bacon drippings (preferably from Benton's bacon)
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Wash the potatoes and remove any damaged or soft spots. Drop the potatoes into a pot of rapidly boiling salted water and cook 10 minutes. Drain in a colander and refresh under cold water. Allow the potatoes to cool enough to handle, then rub off loose peelings.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Put the bacon drippings in a baking pan and set the pan in the oven for 2 or 3 minutes. When the fat is hot, add the potatoes, shaking the pan to coat them well. Return the pan to the oven and roast, shaking now and then, until the potatoes are golden brown, about half an hour. Remove the pan from the oven and sprinkle the potatoes with the rosemary, salt and pepper, tossing them to coat well. Serve at once.

Flourless Chocolate Beet Cake
For those who claim to dislike beets, we offer this, which we have modified from a recipe given in Vegetables by the late master chef, Charlie Trotter. This is one of the richest chocolate cakes you will ever eat. A food processor makes shredding the beets a breeze. Use a kitchen scale to measure the chocolate and cocoa accurately.

Cherries are also in season now. Serving this with some pitted fresh cherries and a scoop of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream will take it totally over the top.

2 1/2 cups shredded beets (about 10 beets, each an inch and a half in diameter, peeled and trimmed)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
5 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup water
3 ounces dark chocolate chips
3 1/2 ounces baking cocoa
9 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup sugar
3 eggs

In a large saucepan, combine the first three ingredients. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Strain the beets through a sieve, return the juice to the saucepan, and reserve the beets in a bowl. Bring the beet juice to a simmer and cook another 30 minutes, or until it coats a spoon. Pour half of this syrup over the beets, saving the remainder for garnishing the plate later.

In another saucepan, bring the 5 tablespoons of sugar and 1/3 cup water to a boil. Add the chocolate and cocoa. Stir until the chocolate is melted. Add the butter and stir until the mixture is uniform. Remove from the heat.

Butter 6 one-cup ramekins. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the remaining sugar and eggs on high speed with an electric mixer until the mixture is light in color. Stop the mixer occasionally and lift the beaters above the mixture. When the eggs run off the beaters in a continuous ribbon, they are ready for the next step. With a spoon, fold the chocolate mixture into the eggs, stirring to produce a uniform mixture. Fold the reserved beets into the batter. Fill the ramekins about 3/4 full of batter. (Do not overfill. Use extra ramekins if you have too much batter.)

Set the filled ramekins on a baking sheet, place in the oven and bake undisturbed for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. As they cool, the cakes will pull away from the sides of the ramekins.

To serve, tap a cake out of a ramekin and onto a plate. Add a dollop of ice cream and/or some fresh fruit, drizzle some of the reserved beet syrup over all, and enjoy.

Monday, June 1, 2015

"Do Everything" Time

I was relieved to read that John Coykendall, chief gardener at Blackberry Farm in Walland, TN, abandons his do-list at this time of year, and simply writes "Do Everything!" on the blackboard in his workspace. This is indeed the time of year to "do everything" in your garden.

Warm season weeds will be growing strong, and you should remove them while they are small, before they produce seeds for another crop. It is a good idea to apply a germination inhibitor to the area after weeding. Disturbing the soil by pulling up weeds can bring more seeds to the surface, where they will germinate. There are both organic and non-organic germination inhibitors on the market. Both are sold under the "Preen" brand, so read the label, and always follow the label directions. Be careful of using germination inhibitors in any area of the vegetable garden in which you intend to direct sow seeds. Using the inhibitor around transplants, such as tomatoes, is OK, as only sprouting seeds are affected by these products.

Now is the time to plant all the crops that are associated with Southern food and cooking: corn, okra, tomatoes, peppers, field peas, sweet potatoes and pole beans all have plenty of time to mature before the weather cools down again. Cucurbits, too, thrive on summer heat. Now is the time to plant watermelon, winter squash and pumpkins, as well as the faster-maturing summer squash and cucumbers. If you have room to grow pole lima beans or field peas, the flavor of freshly shelled ones is well worth the trouble. It is difficult to produce them in quantity with limited growing space.

Plenty of time remains for growing basil and eggplant. Protect the latter from flea beetles with a fabric cover, or grow dwarf plants in hanging baskets. The beetles do not fly very far off the ground, so hanging baskets provide a measure of protection from this major eggplant pest. Basil, on the other hand, is typically pest free and will produce abundantly until the temperature dips into the 40s again. You can find basil plants in a range of sizes, colors and flavors. Try them all if you have room. Basil needs plenty of water, but not much fertilizer. If growing in containers, they need to be fed about every two weeks. One or two feedings druing the season is enough for plants growing in the ground. For container production, we like Bush Spicy Globe, as it has great flavor and remains small.

Early June is also the time when the first shelling peas arrive. We have grown Sugar Snap peas in recent years, but this year we decided to grow shelling, or English, peas instead. The variety we chose is Green Arrow, a very old heirloom cultivar we purchased at Mayo Garden Center. It is easy to see why this pea has been grown for so long. Despite producing vines only about 30 inches in height, it bears heavy crops of pods, each with 10 to 12 peas inside. The pods are easy to shell, and are said to be preferred for making green pea soup. It should be noted that all pea pods, not just those from Sugar Snap types, are edible, but they are typically too tough to be eaten without being cooked, pureed, and strained to eliminate fibrous material. The characteristics that make pea pods easy to shell unfortunately also make them tough.

The photo shows two other crops that are reaching perfection right about now. Zinnias are among the hardest working flowers in the garden, as they attract pollinators as well as providing lots of cut flowers for the house. Mint has been growing well since April, but the warm, wet weather of late has produced some enormous, flavorful leaves and plenty of greenery for the flower vase. Mint won't wilt after cutting if you immerse it in plain water. In fact, it will remain in fine shape for days and will root if you place the plants where they will get some sunshine. You will need to replace the zinnias after a few days, however. Fortunately, they will continue to produce blooms until frost if tended properly.

Now is also the time to harvest new potatoes. You can "steal" a few or dig up most of your crop for canning, provided you have a pressure canner. Otherwise, leave the plants alone until they turn yellow and fall over. Spring-planted beets and carrots will also be ready to harvest now.

Crops that mature together in the garden often go together in the kitchen. Early June peas are perfect when seasoned with fresh mint, for example. Here is a simple recipe:

Peas With Mint

(2 servings)

1 cup freshly shelled peas
1 tablespoon safflower oil or olive oil
2 scallions, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
pinch of salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil, add the peas, reduce the heat and cook for exactly 3 minutes. Drain the peas in a strainer, rinse them under cold water, and set aside.

In a small skillet, warm the oil and add the scallions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they are softened but not browned. Add the peas to the skillet, followed by the reamining ingredients. Heat through, tossing or stirring occasionally. Serve immediately as a side dish.

A few steamed new potatoes, some roasted carrots and/or beets, and your protein of choice would make a superb dinner!