Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tuscan Kale Seeds Are In

The prolonged hot weather we've been having is moving everything in the garden along very quickly this year.  The Tuscan kale plants that I allowed to overwinter have already set their seed and matured it.  This seed, from plants I put in last year, represents three generations of survival here in southeastern PA.  Given the horrendous wet gardening year that was 2009, and our fairly impressive winter storms, this is a good start towards selecting for plants that will tolerate the wide swings that nature brings to this region.

I have enough seed to provide about a dozen of you with a small quantity of seed.  You'll need to let your plants go to seed in the second year if you want a larger quantity of seed.  But that will only mean that your seed is better adapted to your particular location as you save it year to year.  And the seed will be abundant.  This happens to be very easy seed to save.  Simply unfold a square of newspaper under the dry seed pods hanging off the plant, and rub the pods between your hands.  The seeds and some split pods will fall onto the newspaper.  Then you fold up the newspaper, keeping all the seeds in, and open it up somewhere cool and dim so all the insects can crawl away and the seed can completely dry.

Just so you know, this kale goes by several other names, including kale lacinato, dinosaur kale, and cavolo nero. In some parts of the US, if you plant this seed as soon as you receive it, you'll stand a good chance of getting a late fall crop.  Tuscan kale is pretty cold hardy and it takes a serious frost or two to shut it down for the year.  In my zone, 6b, about one half to two-thirds of the plants survive the winter with absolutely no help from me and go on to set seed in the next year.  I love the baby kale leaves I can harvest early in the spring from those plants.

If you're interested, leave a comment with your name and mailing address.  (I know I can legally mail seed to Canada, but I'm unsure about other countries.  If you can point me to references about the legality for your country, I'm game.)  I will delete all comments with personal information as I read them.  If you have something to say about this kale or seed saving other than asking for some seeds, leave a separate comment.  Oh, and whoever it was that wanted to trade some of your Russian kale seeds for some of my Tuscan kale seeds, I'm still interested.

Monday, June 28, 2010

We Eat from Glut to Glut

It's guest post time again.  My husband waxes lyrical, once again, on fruit:

I’d like to start out by saying I love raspberries (especially black). So when I found a wild black raspberry cane in the far back corner of our property last summer, I savored every berry. The one downside was that it was growing out of a pile of dirt for which I had other plans. I showed the cane to a friend and he said its life was spent. But he then proceeded to show me how to propagate the associated vines that had sprung from the main cane. So I started cutting, digging and planting my new wild black raspberry patch. The heartier cuttings bore fruit and it’s been a joy to find those luscious ripe berries hiding in the leaves just as in my youth. It was also a pleasure to see that even more would ripen on the cluster later. But now the season is nearly over. Daily harvest has dropped from almost ½ pound per day into the <50 gram region. When we were flush, it was black raspberry crumble for dessert. And one time it even included 12 of our precious new sour cherries. But the season is waning and it’s only enough to pour cream over, add a little sugar and eat with a spoon. Oh, delight! But the sadness of their passing is tempered by the signs of a massive wineberry harvest soon to come. On to the next season!

P.S. My wife found some excellent canvas forearm sleeves as protection when reaching in deep. Their effectiveness is profound.

(Kate says: the canvas gauntlets are from Fedco.  I expect them to really pay off in the blackberry brambles, which have much more formidable thorns than raspberries.)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Elderflower Cordial

Mmmm!  I'm thrilled to report that the two elder plants we put in last year have produced well already.  The one that died and came back from the root stock is much smaller than the real survivor, but both have set blossoms.  I was hugely excited to try making elderflower cordial from our own harvest.  (Despite the name, this cordial is non-alcoholic.) What little was left over when I'd filled my canning jars was just enough to pour over two tumblers of ice and mix with our good well water.  It's delicious.  Very different from the outrageously expensive bottled stuff from Austria that I used to buy.  Ours has more floral and green notes, and a more complex taste overall.  I think I honestly prefer ours on the basis of taste alone.  Add in the personal satisfaction, lower carbon footprint, and financial savings and there's no contest.  If I could make enough cordial, I'd drink this stuff every day of the year.

In making the cordial, I took instruction from The River Cottage Preserves Handbook.  Basically, it's elderflower essence with citrus zest and juice, plus sugar - a pretty easy recipe and procedure so far as food preservation goes.  I'm so enamoured of all things River Cottage at the moment that I actually pre-ordered this title before it was published, and paid full price for it, though admittedly by using a gift card.  The Preserves Handbook is no less impressive than the two other River Cottage cookbooks I've got.  Really an inspiring range of usual and unusual preserves, and very much geared to those who like to graze the hedges and forage.  Though originally published in England, there's not much here that seems out of reach to my mid-Atlantic American milieu.  I don't know that we have fruiting edible hawthorns or wild gooseberries, but everything else at least sounds familiar. If you're accustomed to following USDA recommendations for canning, the British methods of preservation set out in this book will seem either a little lax or refreshingly low on the paranoia scale, depending on your perspective.  I found it easy enough to follow the recipe to prepare the syrup, and then use the Ball Blue Book recommendations for canning other syrups.  I may try to squeeze in another batch of this cordial this year.  If I can scare up some crab apples (I think our neighbors have a tree) I plan to use some of our elderberries in the Handbook's hedgerow jam recipe later in the year.  If not, the recipe for Pontack, a sweet-sour sauce made from elderberries, sounds right up my alley.

The River Cottage Preserves Handbook mentions that there's a lot of variation in the scent and flavor of blooms from one elder to the next, and I can see even from our tiny sample pool that this is quite true.  The first batch of elderflower essence I made from the blooms of the smaller plant had a strong green-grassy aroma, not all that pleasant in fact.  I ended up throwing that batch out before adding any of the citrus or sugar; not much invested, so no great loss.  The blossoms on the larger plant smelled better on the branch, and I also took the precaution of removing as much of the stem from the blooms as was feasible before steeping them.  It made all the difference.  I look forward next year to trying batches from the two different elders we put in this year.  In the meantime, maybe I can find some gasket-topped bottles to store the cordial in.  That would be both prettier and easier to pour.

What are you canning these days?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Birthday Loot

I really like having my birthday in June.  In childhood, it often meant final exams on my birthday, but even then I appreciated the fact that it was six months from Christmas - the other time of the year I got presents.  A six month spread seemed like a good thing then.  Now I just like that I can count on fairly nice weather for my birthday.

I got a pretty sweet lineup of gifts this year.  Garlic scapes and the first tiny zucchini of the year.  Last year the only gift I wanted was a full weekend of my husband's help on a project.  We got the rocket stove built over that weekend.  I liked the gift-project idea a lot, so the only thing I asked for this year was this project:

Why, yes.  How observant of you!  The mailbox does swivel.

This is our new hand tool depot at the entrance of our main garden bed.  Out of all the materials that went into this project, only the concrete and the paint were bought new.  The huge mailbox was a craigslist score, with a busted hinge that my husband repaired.  The post we pulled out of a dumpster a couple years back, and the hardware to make the whole mailbox swivel was lying around the work table in the garage.  All told, our costs came to about $25.  I think the mailbox-for-garden-hand-tools idea was first published in an old Rodale book a few decades back.  Just goes to show that good ideas stand the test of time.  I had fun with the colors, as you can see.  I'm not terribly creative or talented as far as visual arts go, but I do like color.  I guess painting the bee hives earlier this year got me on some sort of paint kick.  It seems with the mailbox I was thinking Mediterranean.  Or something.  I love seeing the bright colors in the garden; it makes me happy. Now I'd like to tear out the hideous wallpaper in both of our bathrooms and splash some riotous colors around those rooms.  Alas, calmer heads will probably prevail on that front.

Having storage for my tools right in the garden itself will not only clear up clutter in the shed, but it will shave several minutes off my gardening routine on a daily basis.  I am all about making the task of food production easier and less time-intensive.  Invariably I end up making several trips to and from the shed to retrieve and put away tools as I need them and finish with them.  I could use a few extra minutes every day, couldn't you?

Even though the hand tool depot was my only requested gift, I also got a breakfast of waffles topped with our own black raspberries, plus the large garden hod I've been coveting for the last few years.  Pretty sweet!  My husband definitely knows my tastes.  Thanks, honey!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sustainable Cooking: Curried Chickpeas with Tomato

I've made very little progress towards my goal of using our rocket stove and solar oven more frequently this year.  Of course I have excuses, and they're semi-legitimate, but they boil down to the universal excuses for everything that's wrong with our culture: I'm busy, and it's not convenient.  I'm working on making it more convenient to use either the rocket stove or the solar oven, but in the meantime, I need to just suck it up and cook out there anyway.

It helps that the heat has been infernal lately.  Who wants to cook inside with such weather?  So on Saturday evening I soaked a bunch of chickpeas.  On Sunday morning, I cleaned up the solar oven, and added a bunch of seasoning ingredients to the chickpeas.  The day was blazing hot and sunny almost all the time.  The dish didn't come out perfectly: I'd left a lot more liquid in with the beans than was really needed.  But they cooked through quite well and were tasty.

I wasn't working with a recipe, but here's what I did.  First I drained the soaking liquid the chickpeas were in and then recovered them with fresh water.  I chopped up about five cloves of garlic, and minced about an inch of a fat section of fresh ginger.  These were added to the soaking liquid along with a palmful of dried minced onion, and some spices, roughly in descending order of quantity: cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, cayenne, and amchoor.  I also added a good drizzle of oil and a coarsely diced fresh tomato.  This left my cooking pot for the solar oven absolutely brimming.  It went into the solar oven around 9am, and as I checked the temperature in the oven throughout the day it varied from 150-255 F (66-124 C) as the outdoor temperature climbed to 94 F (34 C) and clouds occasionally scudded across the sky.  I only added salt when the chickpeas were done cooking.

Towards the end of the day I put some basmati rice to cook in the steamer out on the porch.  I also went out to the garden to rustle up a quicky relish to go with what is essentially a beans and rice dish: roughly equal parts fresh cilantro (including soft stems) and spearmint (leaves only) along with a whole scallion, a pinch of salt, and a bit of lime juice.  Everything whizzed together in the food processor, with the sides scraped down a few times between bouts of whizzing.  This crude relish isn't shown in the picture but it added a lovely bit of green both visually and taste-wise.  Very refreshing it was too, on a hot evening.  I think adding a zucchini or two to the chickpeas for the last hour or so of cooking would have added a nicer balance of veg too.

I'd make this again but definitely reduce the amount of liquid that goes in the cooking pot.  It worked as a somewhat soupy dish because the rice could soak everything up.  But more concentrated flavor would be better.  Cooking in a solar oven is definitely an experimental endeavor for me.  It's a bit like baking in that you have to set things up and then relinquish the possibility of intervention once the actual cooking begins.  Because the cooking containers are very nearly airtight, I'm having to learn how much liquid to add.  And this is an iterative process.  Also it seems to me that flavors in solar-cooked dishes are more mellow and more diffuse than I would expect from conventionally cooked food.  The flavors in this dish reminded me of leftover curry that had been cooked a few days previously - all the seasonings had spread themselves out and reached a point of equilibrium among all ingredients.  So I might also learn to be a little heavy handed with the seasonings as I continue with the solar cooking goal for this year.

Oh, and by the way, Happy Solstice!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

An Unanticipated Addition to the Homestead

Farming friend has this wonderful knack of calling me up and saying, "Hey, do you want _____?"  What she's offering varies wildly, but it's always awesome, and always something I've never considered before.  Last fall it was the unloved bits from her hogs, which went into making my first batch of guanciale, or cured hog jowls.  They turned out really well, and I was sorry when they were gone.

This time she outdid herself.  She called me twice on Sunday with two of her characteristically amazing offers.  The first offer I'm going to hold in reserve, and write about it later if it works out. But secondly, she asked if I wanted a three-week-old turkey poult.  Now, as you know if you've read my blog very long, I have a policy of not turning down free handouts, which I think has a lot to do with why these offers keep coming.  However, farming friend's offers this time around were a bit of a challenge.  While I didn't want to say "no" to either offer, neither did I feel ready to say "yes" on the spot.  We'd never considered getting a turkey, so I really hadn't the slightest idea how to make that work.

This poult had either arrived as a hatchling at my friend's farm with a deformity, or had been abused by its flockmates.  In any case, it ended up blind in one eye, and was being picked on to the point that it was going to take some serious damage or be killed outright.  So farming friend isolated it in a separate brooder box, but didn't want the added chore of dealing with a single poult when there were so many other animals to attend to on a daily basis.  Of course, in principle I'd love to raise my own Thanksgiving turkey.  But I had so many questions!  Could the turkey stay with our laying hens?  (Not at such a young age.)  Do turkeys roost at night?  (Sometimes.  Our coop is very small, and the turkey will get pooped on by the hens if it's not up on the bar with them.)  Can it eat what the laying hens eat?  (Apparently not immediately; it'll need a higher protein feed for a while.)  Will the turkey take until fall to reach a good size for slaughter? (Pretty much.)  Will it be able to hold its own with the hens?  (Probably, once it reaches a certain size.)

Farming friend assured me that she would bring all that was required to take care of the poult for the next few weeks.  And that if it just didn't work out for us to keep it here, she'd take it back. With that sort of offer, I couldn't see any reason to say no.  So I said yes, and she came by Monday afternoon.  So now we've got a poult upstairs.  In a room with a door that latches securely (young cats in the house, you know).  It'll go outside in a week or two, in its own makeshift pen.  Right now it still seems to want the warmth of the heat lamp in its brooder box, despite the sultry summertime weather we're having.  When it's quite a bit bigger than it is now, I may try keeping it with the hens.  Farming friend figures they'd eat the turkey at this stage if they had the chance.  I don't know how fast it'll grow, but by its looks I'd guess it needs at least a month before it's bigger than the hens, maybe two.

This turkey is a Bourbon Red heritage breed turkey, so it'll put on weight slowly compared to the industrial standard, the broad breasted white.  We don't know yet whether it's male or female, which makes my decision not to name it that much easier.  I might - might - relent so far as to start calling it Thanksgiving.  Sex characteristics should begin to show in another four to five weeks.  Provided nothing goes wrong, we've got the main course for my favorite holiday meal all squared away.  I'm glad we've some experience slaughtering chickens already, because I don't think I'd want to start on a turkey.  If all goes well, I'll be able to try out Novella Carpenter's branch lopper execution method. 

A turkey was not in the homestead plan for this year, but what the heck!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What a Difference a Week Makes

Or, maybe it's really a month that makes the difference.  Our main garden bed is now 2000 square feet.  Potatoes and garlic are planted elsewhere, and there's another bed for the three sisters.  This bed is mainly just for annual vegetable crops with a few flowers and perennial herbs tucked in.  Every time I visit the garden, I see something new.  It's not always something very welcome: more weeds, beets nibbled down by rabbits, corn or onions pulled wantonly out of the ground by crows.  But there are happy events too.  The bean tendrils grown long enough to twine up the supports I put in for them.  The first baby zucchini of the year.  A hummingbird moth at the sage blooms.

But despite the daily evidence of change, I find it hard to see things really changing over the larger scale, even when I know that monumental work has gone into those 2000 square feet.  So I decided to do a little time lapse photography.  I've been taking a picture of the garden each Thursday.  At first even the photographs didn't show me much.  But lately the changes are becoming more obvious.  (Click any of the images below to embiggen.)

May 20th - Bean poles are in at the back, but major cleanup and planting remains to be done.  Notice all the weeds and lack of anything planted on most of the right side.

May 27th - Weeds seriously knocked back, significant mulching done, tomatoes planted but still small.

week 3 - June 3rd - Tomatoes hard to see but beginning to ramp up, eggplants and peppers in the back still small.  Unloved brassicas from last year are cleared out of the center aisle as the bees finish with the blossoms.

Week 4 - June 10th.  Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and zucchini are up towards the back.  The comfrey (front left) has gotten a severe hack back and is already regrowing.  The lettuce and spinach now have a covered row (that white thing in the back on the left, it's open on the north side) to grow in. With some luck, the soil under there will stay cool enough to let us enjoy the greens through the summer.  This year's kale (just right of the entrance) is looking ready for harvest already. I'm not holding out much hope for the parsnip seeds due to the unseasonably hot weather we had in late May-early June.  I expect by next week the beans at the far end of the garden may have done enough climbing to be visible from where the picture is taken.

If I keep up with the Thursday picture taking, I'll try to update these observations from time to time.

Oh, and this is for absolutely no other reason than my cat cracks me up. I thought I'd share.  Mojo during the heat wave about ten days ago.  He's such a doofus.

That's probably all I got for this week. It's been pillar to post with house and garden work lately.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Food Production in Small Spaces: Beans on a Fence

This year I promised to discuss food production in small spaces on my blog.  A lot of people wouldn't consider our 2/3 acre residential lot to be a small space, and I have to admit that I don't really feel cramped here most of the time so far as food production goes.  Between the huge detached three car garage and three fully grown shade trees that dominate the front yard, plus the house itself, we're left with about 1/3 of an acre to really work with.  Three years into our serious food production project we still haven't fully utilized all the space we have available to us, and what we do use we haven't used to maximum effect.  But I'm working on it year by year.

One of the crops that I've enjoyed growing is pole beans.  We're not big fans of green beans, so we select varieties that produce good soup beans.  Beans are amazingly unfussy plants once they have established themselves.  They aren't too picky about soil quality since they make their own fertilizer by fixing nitrogen from the air.  Since I don't have to harvest beans that I intend to dry at any particular time, I can ignore the bean pods as they form, plump up, and then shrivel and dry.  I like a plant that doesn't demand harvesting when there are so many other things to attend to.  Pole beans, as the name indicates, like to climb.  For the space-constrained gardener, there are upsides and downsides to this trait.  On one hand, they don't require much in terms of (horizontal) square footage in the garden; on the other, they are quite capable of shading out things behind them if you plant them densely and give them the support they want.  I've found though that the harvest of dried beans from one bean plant is fairly small.  So I gave some thought to expanding the number of plants we could grow.

This is how my comparatively generous land allowance brings me to strategies for small space growing. I'm guessing that many people with limited space for food production have fences or other structures around the space they do have.  (Fire escapes, perhaps?)  Fences make great support for pole beans, and the beans won't do wooden fences any harm.  They only latch on to the surface of whatever they climb, rather than drilling into it, as ivy will.  If you have a slatted fence or any fence that is not perfectly tight, such that no light passes through it, pole beans will love it.  Obviously, you can use the fence line that is pole-ward (the fence on the north side of your property, which faces south - if you're in the northern hemisphere, and just the opposite if you're in the southern hemisphere).  In that case, you would plant the beans right up against the fence, but still inside your yard.  Any shading issues would be your neighbor's problem, though fences already cast shadows, so it's probably no issue at all.

A good trick though is to also use the fence line that is sun-ward.  That means planting just on the outside of your fence line, and it will mean the beans cast a heavier shade from that fence onto your property.  Provided that you have good relations with your neighbors and physical access to the outside of your own fence, this shouldn't be problematic.  In the US, at least, it is likely that the little bit of space just beyond your fence line belongs to your property anyway, since most zoning codes require a small set-back when fences are erected.  That means that if you plant right up against the fence, even though you're outside of your own yard, you're still working your own property.  I hope this all makes sense for you, spatially speaking.

Since I'm writing about some of these space-saving techniques the same year I'm trying them myself, I don't have any pictures that really show what the techniques might achieve.  But I don't want to wait to write about this until my beans are tall, and twined around the fence and bearing their purple pods.  I'd rather share this now and hope that some of you might get your beans into the ground this year.  It's not too late in most parts of the US at least.  The picture at the top of my post shows the fence enclosing our property with little bean seedlings beginning to grow.  I'm standing on my neighbor's long driveway, and through the slatted fence you see a bit of our backyard.  This is the south-facing side of the fence along our south property line.

As the seedlings grow a bit more, I'll begin to train them to the fence.  All they'll need is the suggestion of where to grow.  I'll just tuck a tendril from each plant between a gap in the fence, and the plant will begin to grow up the vertical surface, twining around and around each upright board in the fence.  My guess is that the plants will put most of the bean pods and leaves on the south side of the fence to maximize solar exposure.  The picture above only shows a short stretch of beans I've planted this year.  I've found in past years that it takes quite a few plants to produce a good quantity of dried beans.  So when I planted I put two beans in most of the holes.  I think the plants that germinate and survive will be able to share the space nicely.  I'll try to post an update later in the summer when the beans have grown up the fence and I have a sense for how this project is working out.

Of course, if you prefer green beans to dried beans, you can use the same technique.  You'll get a larger volume and heavier harvest weight with green beans, since you'll be eating the whole pod and harvesting when they're still full of water.   If you have a slatted fence that would present problems for a climbing plant, you could consider hanging netting on or over the fence, or placing a length of hardware cloth or wire caging along the fence to give the beans some purchase.

If you're using this technique for beans or any other crop, I'd love to hear about it.  Please let me know.

More food production in small spaces:
Honey bees
Fig trees in containers

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Harvest Meal: Garlic Scape Risotto

I decided to harvest some of the garlic scapes on the early side this year.  Last year I let them go a while and the lower ends of them got a little tough.  I took all of the scapes from two of the four varieties of hardneck garlic we're growing.  One more hardneck variety has scapes ready to harvest, and the last one is just now forming its scapes.  We also have a softneck variety this year, Kettle River Giant.  Supposedly the softneck varieties store better, so we're hoping to chip away at the garlic gap (that period of the year when we don't have homegrown garlic) with the help of this variety.

Despite the heat, I'm drawn these days to hot dinners.  Last night it was a simple risotto made with three key  ingredients we produced ourselves: lardo, chicken stock, and garlic scapes.  We used purchased Arborio rice, onions (I can't quite bring myself to pull our little garden onions yet), parmesan cheese, salt and pepper to complete the dish.  I particularly like the fact that our cured and smoked fatback can substitute for either olive oil or butter as a cooking fat.  I love to watch the lardons turn from opaque to translucent, and then begin to release their fat and finally brown up.  They give a subtle smoky taste to dishes and have a nice meaty-chewy texture themselves once cooked.  Most people will tell you that since risotto hails from northern Italy, it should be cooked with butter.  But there are some staunch traditionalists who insist that pork fat - not even olive oil - is the true and universal fat of Italian cooking.  I couldn't speak to how things were really done in Italy throughout the ages.  But I can say that my lardo makes a mean risotto.

The chicken stock was truly a home product.  Not just made at home after the roast of a purchased local chicken, but the last of the White Marans hens we tried out briefly last summer and slaughtered in early fall.  I put most of the chopped up scapes in the risotto early.  Probably a bit too early, as they lost their lovely bright green tone.  But they retained a pleasing firmness which reminded us of little green beans or thin asparagus.  I held a small amount of chopped scapes in reserve to add at almost the last minute.  These kept their color better.  I'd probably choose to add the scapes just past the mid-way point in cooking this risotto if I did it over again.  Of course, as seasonal as this dish is, the chances of me remembering this observation are slight.  I just don't get to work with garlic scapes more than once or twice per year.

I won't even bother to give a sketch of my recipe here.  Risotto is ridiculously easy to prepare and there are a thousand recipes easily accessible online.  Just use a rice meant for risotto (Arborio, Carnaroli, Vialone Nano, etc.), use whatever vegetable and stock you have on hand, and keep stirring.