Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Fall Garden Festival in Crossville

Jerry and I spent the day yesterday enjoying the Fall Garden Festival at the Plateau Experiment Station near Crossville, TN. In case you missed my presentation on fall vegetable gardening, I am posting the information from the handout I provided to festival attendees. You can email me with fall gardening questions, if you like.

Don’t Stop Now: Third Season Gardening in Tennessee
The approximate date of the first frost is October 20.
The approximate date of the first hard freeze is November 20.
You may have time for broccoli, Brussels sprouts or cauliflower if you can find good plants, or have already started seeds.
Think leafy greens and root crops for your main focus.
Fast maturity, frost tolerance, and overwintering capability are important considerations.
Pre-soak seeds to speed germination, especially carrots, parsley, beets and kale; direct sown seeds will germinate quickly in warm soil.
Some good choices and approximate maturity times are:

                arugula – 30-45 days
                bak choy – about 40 days
                beets – about 60 days, O
                carrots – about 60 days, O
                chard – about 60 days, O
                chervil – about 45 days, O
                cilantro – about 30 days, O
                cress – about 40 days
                kale – about 75 days, O
                lettuce – about 60 days
                mache – about 60 days
                mizuna – about 40 days
                mustard – about 40-60 days
                parsley – about 70 days, O
                scallions – about 60 days, O
                spinach—about 50 days
                tatsoi – about 45 days
                turnips – 30-45 days, O
O = often will overwinter in garden

Using season extending techniques can add up to a month of grow/harvest time.
Grow smaller plants in containers that can be moved indoors at night.
Use spaces where summer annuals grew for additional growing opportunities.
Covering a raised bed with plastic held up by PVC hoops has proven to be one of the cheapest, most effective methods for extending the season.
You can also build a temporary cold frame, using straw bales or concrete blocks and some old window sashes. (Check a window replacement company for these.)

Some Recommended Varieties

These recommendations are based on experience in our Zone 6b garden. All these vegetables can be direct seeded for fall harvest.

arugula – Speedy, Even’Star Winter, Roquette, “wild”
bak choy – Mei Quing
beets – Early Wonder, Detroit Dark Red, Early Wonder Tall Top
carrots – Atlas (containers), Little Finger, Danvers 126
chard – Lucullus, Neon Lights
chervil – Brussels Winter
cilantro – few named cultivars
cress – Belle Isle
kale – Dwarf Blue Curled, Lacinato, Red Russian, Vates
lettuce – Rougette de Montpelier, Tom Thumb, Ashley, Lollo Rossa, Rouge d’Hiver, Forrellenschluss,     Freckles, many others
mache – Salad Zing, Vit
mizuna – few named cultivars
mustard – Red Giant
parsley – Moss Curled, Italian
scallions – Evergreen White Bunching
spinach—Winter Bloomsdale
tatsoi –few named cultivars
turnips – Seven Top

                You can also plant transplants of these varieties. Garden centers typically have plants ready at the proper time for their location. These vegetables require about six weeks from seed to transplanting size, and so must be started in mid- to late-July for September transplanting. Once they resume growth, they are generally very cold tolerant.

broccoli—Di Cicco, Waltham 29
Brussels sprouts—Catskill
cabbage—Early Jersey Wakefield, Savoy Perfection
cauliflower—Snowball Self-Blanching (fall planted only)
kale—(see above)
kohlrabi—Early Purple Vienna
leek—King Sieg, Broad London, American Flag

Perennial onion bulbs are also planted in fall.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Green Beans and Haricots

My hometown of Greeneville, Tennessee, has a fine historic hotel on Main Street, The General Morgan Inn. Its restaurant, Brumley's, is well-regarded and serves up some of the best food in town. Last February, we dined there. I ordered the trout, which is sourced from a farm just across the mountain in North Carolina. It came with rice pilaf and "haricots verts" according to the menu. I was dubious about being served haricots verts in February, when they are anything but in season, especially given that these slender French green beans are notoriously difficult to preserve, either by freezing or canning. When the plate arrived, next to the fabulous trout were some ordinary Blue Lake type green beans, undoubtedly from Mexico given the season. They had been blanched sufficiently to brighten their green coloration. They were also as tough and fibrous as a cornstalk. I mentioned this to the waitress, who replied that "a lot of people" think they should instead be cooked Southern style. Indeed.

The chef may have demonstrated a lack of knowledge, by offering green beans as "haricots verts," which does literally mean "green beans." He may also have been trying to pass off the cheaper product upon an unsuspecting and presumably ignorant dining public. Therefore, to arm readers against such impositions in the future, here is the skinny on green beans.

As one blogger recently pointed out, when a Southerner tells you how to cook green beans, shut up and listen. Modern snap beans, the cultivars we most often think of when we think of "green beans" have been bred to survive unscathed the strictures of mechanical harvest and industrial scale processing. They are at their best after being subjected to the rigors of the canning process, which renders them tender and brings out their flavor. They require a reasonable amount of cooking time when prepared fresh, about 30 minutes to an hour, preferably in water with some sort of cured pork added to it.

Green beans that lend themselves to quick cooking exist. Most are heirloom varieties. Carefully read catalog listings if you are looking for a green bean that lends itself to cooking "Yankee-style."

On the other hand, true haricots verts, also called "filet beans," are intended to be cooked only a few minutes. They are tender, buttery and full-flavored when they are about an eighth of an inch in diameter. At this size, most varieties are about five to six inches in length.

Gardeners who want green beans for fresh use (as opposed to canning) should consider growing the true haricots. This season, we have grown 'Fantastic Filet' from Burpee. We have been getting three pickings from each group of plants. Some of the best have been from containers, surprisingly. We sowed an oblong planter as part of a demonstration of container vegetable gardening, and were surprised when it avoided bean beetles and yielded up as large a harvest as a comparable planting in the ground. The 30-inch long planter provided just the right amount of beans for two servings, about every four days. Filet beans mature quickly, in about 60 days, so there is still time for a planting or two before the end of the season.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Sandwich of Summer

With August comes an abundance of tomatoes in the Tennessee Valley, and throughout much of the country. And therein lies an interesting story. In the days before refrigeration, one of the most important methods of preserving meat was curing it with salt. Pigs were slaughtered during cool or cold weather, but once the meat was salted down, it could be kept for months. Thus, it was possible to enjoy a bacon and tomato sandwich in August in Tennessee, even though hog-killing time is January. The combination of bacon and tomato (lettuce was added later to create the BLT) was so popular that investors would buy up salted pork bellies while they were cheap in winter, and then hold them until tomato season when demand for bacon could be counted upon. It has only been a few years since pork bellies were an investment vehicle on the commodities market. Refrigeration made bacon available at any time of the year, and the opportunity for significant profit evaporated.

Refrigeration also made iceberg lettuce available year round, and the spread of the technology seems to coincide with the history of the BLT. The sandwich was probably not around prior to 1900, but by the 1950s it was being mentioned in the popular media of the time, such as the Saturday Evening Post. Today, it is considered by some to be second only to the ham sandwich in popularity with Americans.

In the prime tomato country of the upper South, and the Tennessee Valley in particular, tomatoes have been an important crop for decades, certainly long before refrigeration was commonplace here.  It seems likely that a sandwich of bacon and tomato, with or without a garnish of leafy greens, was a favorite here well before the BLT became famous. And of course a lot of folks would not have had bacon. The simple tomato and mayonnaise sandwich has long been revered in this region, and recently made the cover of Garden and Gun.

Growing iceberg lettuce in Tennessee in the summer is impossible. What, therefore, is the gardener to grow with which to garnish the beloved BLT? If you plan ahead, you can have several options for summer lettuce substitutes. Malabar spinach is easy to grow and productive. Another possibility is basil. Large-leaved varieties like 'Mammoth' are perfect. If you grow sweet potatoes in your garden, you can also harvest their leaves to add to a sandwich now and then. The leaves of nasturtiums taste like watercress. Also consider green onion tops, chives, and squash blossoms. In all cases, younger, smaller leaves are likely to be the most tender and tasty.

Not growing any of these? Try sprouting some alfalfa or growing some microgreens. Either one is ready in about a week. You can grow sprouts right on the kitchen counter, if you like. Purchase seeds intended for sprouting. They are available at Three Rivers Market, Earthfare and other natural foods stores. A tablespoon of alfalfa seeds will yield about a quart of sprouts, which will keep a week in the refrigerator after sprouting. Microgreens can be grown in a variety of containers, such as those plastic clamshells that berries come in. Unlike sprouts, microgreens are grown in a soil-like medium. Typically, seeds are sown thickly and the plants harvested a week or so after germination. Microgreens require more light than sprouts, which will green up in indirect light. Microgreens need a south-facing window or an artificial light source for best results.

With a little imagination, you can improvise upon the classic BLT to discover your own favorite summer sandwich. Because the recipe is so simple, quality ingredients are important. Here is my favorite recipe:

Ultimate Knoxville Bacon and Tomato Sandwich

Yield: 1 sandwich

2 slices sandwich bread from Flour Head Bakery, white or wheat as you prefer
Duke's mayonnaise
Freshly ground black pepper
1 slice of tomato, preferably homegrown and vine ripened, or more as desired
2 slices Benton's bacon, cooked to your desired degree of crispness
1 or 2 fresh basil leaves
2 or 3 fresh nasturtium leaves
2 tablespoons alfalfa sprouts

Spread one side of each slice of bread with mayonnaise and top with a few grinds of black pepper. Place the tomato on one slice. Break the bacon into pieces and place it on top of the tomato. Add the basil, nasturtium leaves, and alfalfa sprouts, and top with the other slice of bread.

Serve the sandwich with potato chips and vegetable pickles.