Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Local Food for the Holidays

If you still have some last minute shopping to do, consider stopping at Three Rivers Market on Central Street. Thanks to their support of local growers, there is an abundant selection of produce, meats and baked goods grown and made by our neighbors in the Tennessee Valley Region. Here are just a few of the items available:

If you have not tried a genuine free range farm egg, you are missing out. The market stocks eggs from several local farms. My personal choice is eggs from Circle V Farm in Hancock County. I like them because the carton is stamped with a "sell by" date that is 30 days from the date the eggs were harvested. As a result, you know exactly how old the eggs are. Circle V also packs duck eggs. They are highly valued for baking, as the amount of yolk is greater than a hen's egg of the same size, and they taste absolutely delicious prepared any way you like hen eggs.

Believe it or not, you can buy organic miso made locally. Check the cold case for the different varieties by "Miso Master." Miso is fermented from soybeans and has a delicious, almost meaty, flavor.

Three Rivers Market probably has the best selection of local and regional cheeses around. Check out "Shakerag Blue" from Sequatchie Cove Creamery, or sample one of the exceptional offerings from the legendary Blackberry Farm in Walland. Sweetwater Valley produces some fine cheddars and flavored cheddars, and you will be hard pressed to find a better Gouda than the one from Kenny's Farmhouse in Kentucky.

Meat Products
In addition the the best bacon and country ham in the world from Benton's of Madisonville, you will find sausages and pork from JEM Farms and West Wind Farms, and fresh beef from Strong Stock Farms and Mitchell Farms. The latter two are both located in east Knox County. Circle V Farms produces the ground turkey I noticed today, and you can get farm raised trout from across the mountains in North Carolina.

The abundance and quality of cool season vegetables now available, most from Grainger and Loudon Counties, is remarkable. I cannot recall seeing bak choy, beets, kale (several kinds), collards, and turnips of such fine quality anywhere else in the area.

Cornmeal is not, strictly speaking, a vegetable, but I could not fail to mention the stone ground cornmeal from Grainger County. Made from the heirloom Tennessee Red Cob dent corn, it will make a pan of cornbread so good you won't believe it. Best of all, it is found in the bulk section, so you only have to purchase the amount you need.

Baked Goods
Magpies, Flour Head, Tellico Grains, and several others have outdone themselves with holiday treats and breads. The big problem for shoppers will be resisting the temptation to try one of every kind of the cookies, cake and other sweets on offer. Flour Head, a sister company of the Tomato Head restaurant, makes excellent sandwich breads and buns, and for a true artisanal sourdough you can't beat Tellico Grains, with their brick oven.

Dozens of craft brews are available, many produced within a couple of hundred miles of Knoxville. My personal favorite is "Loose Caboose Lager" from Depot Street Brewing in Jonesboro, but there are numerous others to try. So much to do...

Non-Food Items
You can also find a great selection of books on cooking, food gardening and related topics, including one of mine, The New American Homestead. I am hoping that Santa will leave a copy of Sean Brock's Heritage under the tree this year. Brock is the executive chef of McCrady's in Charleston, SC, and Husk, with locations in Charleston and Nashville. He is well on his way to becoming one of America's foremost chefs who specializes in the traditions of Southern cooking. Like many other great chefs, he was in the kitchen at Blackberry Farm for a while.

Whether you are looking for a special treat for the holiday table, or just want to support local businesses, check out Three Rivers Market.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Recipes for Holiday Treats

This is the time of year for parties and party food, so we are sharing some recipes we discovered or invented recently. All are easy, quick, and can be done ahead of time, a big plus when you are throwing a party.

Pimento Cheese Empanadas

You can always substitute store bought pimento cheese to save even more time. Choose one that does not have too much mayonnaise, and a chunky consistency for best results.

6 empanadas

1 refrigerated pastry crust
6 tablespoons pimento cheese, preferably homemade

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Unroll the pastry crust on a work surface and cut four inch circles from it. I used a Ziploc screw top storage container and it worked perfectly. You should be able to get four circles from the crust. Then combine the scraps, roll out, and cut another circle. Finally, form the remaining scraps into a sixth circle.

Fill each pastry circle with about a tablespoon of pimento cheese, then fold over like a fried pie. Crimp the edges and place the empanadas on a parchment lined baking sheet. Or store them in a covered container in the refrigerator, separating layers with waxed paper, if necessary. Bring to room temperature before baking.

Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Pomegranate Salsa

This is your basic salsa with a couple of additions that take it over the top. Serve with chips, or as an accompaniment to roasted meat or vegetables.

About 1 1/2 cups

1 pomegranate
1 medium tomato
1 medium jalapeno pepper
1/3 cup chopped red onion
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint leaves
juice of 1/2 a medium lime
salt, pepper and hot sauce

Working over a bowl to catch the juice, cut the pomegranate in half crosswise. Holding one half cut side down over the bowl, rap it all over the surface with the back of a soup spoon to dislodge the seeds. Repeat with the remaining half. Carefully remove and discard any white pith that has been loosened along with the seeds.

Core and chop the tomato and add it to the bowl. Stem, seed and chop the jalapeno and add it to the bowl, along with the next five ingredients. Taste carefully and add salt, pepper and hot sauce to your preference.

The salsa will keep a week in the refrigerator if stored in a covered container.

 All American Munch Mix

This irresistible mixture of nuts and fruit contains only ingredients that Native Americans might have eaten centuries ago. If you don't mind the cost, you can substitute black walnuts or hickory nuts for some of the other nuts. This mix has a lot of calories, but contains none of the processed ingredients found in traditional cereal-based holiday snack mix. Feel free to add more chili powder or to substitute a hotter chili, such as cayenne.

Makes about 4 cups

2 ounces raw hazelnuts 
2 ounces  raw wild pecans (or substitute Georgia pecans)
2 ounces  raw pepitas
2 ounces  raw sunflower kernels
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 teaspoon honey or agave nectar
½ teaspoon coarse sea salt
¼ teaspoon ancho chili powder
1 ½ ounces dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Combine the nuts and seeds in a large bowl. In a small microwavable bowl combine the oil, honey, salt and chili powder. Microwave until the liquids are combined, about 30 seconds. Drizzle the liquid over the nut mixture, tossing to coat well. Transfer the mixture to a parchment lined baking sheet, spreading it out into a thin layer. Bake for 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes, or until the pepitas begin to brown. Cool slightly, then mix with the cranberries. Cool to room temperature before storing in an airtight container.

Brie with Sun Dried Tomato Topping

This recipe is a modification of one I found in a food magazine eons ago. After I first offered it to guests, it became a regular on our party buffet, owing to the high praise it received.

Enough for 1 large wedge of Brie

6 cloves garlic, peeled
½ cup loosely packed parsley leaves
4 oil-packed sun dried tomatoes, drained, reserving the oil
6 fresh large basil leaves
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon oil from tomatoes
1 large wedge of Brie, top rind removed

Using a food processor, drop the garlic through the feed tube with the motor running to mince it finely. Turn off the machine, add the parsley, and pulse to mince. Add the tomatoes and basil and pulse to chop and combine all ingredients. Add the Parmesan and reserved oil and pulse to combine. Spread on top of brie and refrigerate at least three hours before serving with crackers. Garnish with a tomato rose and a sprig or two of parsley.

To make a tomato rose, peel a medium tomato using a serrated knife, keeping the peeling in a single unbroken strip. Roll the strip of peeling, cut side out, into a tight disc resembling a rose. Secure the rose with a toothpick. Use the rest of the tomato for another dish. 

Bon appetit and Happy Holidays to all!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

More Thoughts on Indoor Vegetable Gardening

We have made a commitment to grow as many vegetables and herbs as possible indoors this winter, within the limitations of our equipment and space. We are using a 250-watt metal halide fixture, which adequately illuminates about 25 square feet of growing space. In this area we have the following:

2 Tiny Tim tomato plants, each in a 12-inch pot
6 Half Pint pea plants, in two 6-inch pots
8 Fantastic Filet bean plants, in a 30-inch planter
2 Bush Spicy Globe basil plants, each in a 6-inch pot
Arugula, 6-inch pot
Upland Cress, 6-inch pot
Scallions, 6-inch pot
Corn Salad, 6-inch pot
Cilantro, two 4-inch pots

All these plants are thriving with this amount of light. At present TVA electric rates, the lighting system costs about 30 cents a day to operate.

Commercial-scale indoor growing space
We have learned that surrounding the growing area with reflective surfaces, in our case some old wall mirrors, keeps the plants from leaning and causes them to grow much more uniformly.

The biggest problem we have uncovered with our indoor garden is the lack of modular growing containers. We are using an assortment of containers we happened to have on hand. If we used only square or rectangular containers, we could make more efficient use of the limited space. Check out the commercial system in the image, and you can see how the right equipment can improve efficiency.

It is important to give each crop its own container. While container gardens planted with multiple crops may look attractive, the different maturity times and growth requirements can result in inefficient space utilization. We have also found that the differing heights of mature plants means you have to be able to adjust the elevation of the pots. Tomatoes that start out only 6 inches beneath the lights when they are seedlings will need to be lowered as they grow into three or four foot tall mature plants. In our experience, really compact tomato varieties do not produce very tasty tomatoes. That's why we chose Tiny Tim, a small, but not tiny, variety, that produces 2-inch diameter fruits.

Select crops for the indoor garden with an eye toward getting the most savings in groceries. In winter, fresh herbs, tomatoes and leafy greens all command high prices at the market, and often the quality is poor. All these crops are relatively easy to grow indoors, if you select appropriate cultivars.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Garden in the Garage

If you have a spare room, garage, or other heated space, you can produce a lot of food this winter by gardening under lights. We have grown lettuce and other green crops for many years now, using only some cheap fluorescent shop lights from the big-box store. Recently, we experimented with LED lighting, and this winter we are growing under metal halide (MH) in the garage. Each of these lighting systems has its advantages and disadvantages, and we have had some success with all of them. Nevertheless, my conclusion is that MH lighting is far preferable, so long as you have a dedicated space for the light garden.

A dedicated space is important because MH lighting generates a lot of heat, and is not suitable for use around children or boisterous pets. If you enclose the lamp, you have to have forced air ventilation to avoid overheating and a possible fire hazard. Open fixtures are the easiest to use, but obviously are also the most hazardous. It costs about 30 cents per day to operate the unit we are using.

Fluorescent lighting has been great for finishing lettuce, allowing us to start more seeds under the MH system. The MH unit effectively illuminates about 25 square feet of growing space, which, by the way, is more than the standard recommendation for a "square foot garden." Two four-foot shop lights will illuminate about 8 square feet, but the lights must be close to the plants to be effective. That limits the crops to smaller varieties, such as lettuce or arugula. Taller plants, such as tomatoes or peppers, simply cannot be illuminated effectively using only fluorescent lighting.

LED units have numerous advantages. They are bright, safe, and cheap to operate. But they come with a high initial price tag, which is why they are not yet widely popular for home use. Professional growers, however, are relying on them more and more.

Boy howdy, does the metal halide unit grow the veggies! We have been harvesting lettuce and will soon have peas, arugula, scallions, beans and corn salad. We have the first tiny green tomatoes, and expect ripe ones in time for Christmas dinner. All the plants are growing in standard nursery containers using Bonnie Growing Mix. We fertilize weekly with Miracle Gro, diluted according to the label directions. We water every other day, although daily watering may be necessary when the humidity dips this winter.

Indoor light gardening equipment is widely available. There is a local retail store, and of course many online vendors. For gardeners with a suitable indoor space, you can continue to enjoy fresh, wholesome home grown food all winter, by growing under lights. We are experimenting with different vegetable varieties, fertilizers and techniques and will continue to report on our findings throughout the winter months.