Garden Starts

img_20170122_074630886

These emerging cabbages on my basement grow table signal the beginning of the 2017 garden season here. They should be ready to plant in the garden in March. Near them on the grow table are lettuce, onions, shallots, kale, and beets. The cool season crops need an early start to mature before the heat of summer hits. The season for eating fresh from the garden is coming right up.

What’s New Here for 2017

The New Year is coming with some changes that I’m looking forward to. My seed order from Baker Creek will be arriving in the next few days. Shallots, Armenian cucumbers,and Red Express cabbage along with other varieties I’ve grown before have been shipped. Later this month I’ll need to set up my grow table for the starts that I plan to be planting in the garden in March.

img_20170110_173541664

While there is nothing new about a meal of soup and bread with my sweet wife, we have new ways of preparing it and new reasons for having vegetarian soups like the one above. We have decided not to buy meat from CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) farms when we shop. Local free range and organic meats are not going to fit our budget regularly and we feel good about a choice that is healthier for us and the world. The new method that was part of this soup involved our home canned tomatoes. We didn’t remove the skins when canning the tomatoes. Before adding them to our soup we used our new immersion blender to make a quick tomato sauce. And in January we like soups that are all around warm so there is a bit of horseradish, jalepeno, and ginger root in the pea soup. No ham and still flavorful.

One other change for the new year: in case you are one of the few who may have bookmarked the site homeflavors.com, I no longer own that. homeflavorschattanooga.com is where the blog is now found.

Halloween Salsa ?!

Normally, the end of October is time to gather all the green tomatoes because frost will damage them. But this has not been a normal growing season. Highs around 80 (26 C) and lows about 50 (10 C) are in the 10 day forecast. So I will likely be bringing in more nice tomatoes later than I ever have in my 14 years in Chattanooga.

The two varieties that I grow from saved seeds each year are Arkansas Traveler and Rutgers. The smaller perfectly round ones are Arkansas Traveler. The vines these grew on started producing the first week of July. Those were mostly baseball and tennis ball sized. As the season progresses, the average size shrinks. But they are consistently round, juicy and tasty. Most years, I pull the vines of those that begin bearing in early July some time in September. Fungal diseases that thrive in our heat and humidity do them in.

This year was hotter and much drier than normal. The reduced moisture probably reduced the level of fungal diseases and allowed the tomatoes to continue to produce. Our last month with above average rainfall was February. For the year we are more than 20 inches (50 cm) below normal. This month .08 inches of rain is the official total at the airport which is 2 miles from my place. Over 3 inches is normal for the month.

If it weren’t for those TVA dams built during the Great Depression, I would not have had water for my backyard blueberries and tomatoes this summer. Thanks, Roosevelt.

Back to that second variety of tomato: Those Rutgers are big, tangy, and meaty. The BLT’s have been good. I planted the Rutgers later, thinking I would have tomatoes in September as the earlier ones faded. The Arkansas Traveler’s continued to produce. But in this summer’s heat, the blossoms dropped on the Rutgers. The vine kept growing and when the weather cooled enough, the tomatoes set. These past two weeks are when I harvested more tomatoes than any time this season.

That is how I ended up canning salsa on Halloween. I also had the soaker hose running on my blueberry bushes  today. Other years I only have watered them while they are producing. But any young trees and perennials that go into winter stressed from drought are more susceptible to cold damage. If you are in the dry Southeast consider what might be thirsty in your yard. A slow trickle of water on dry roots will help plantings endure the coming chill.

 

My Harissa Chicken is not Your Harissa Chicken

Both yours and mine could have amazing flavor. But the chili and spice blend that goes into it will not be the same. And the next time I make mine, it won’t be an exact replica of what I made today. The chili peppers I had ripe from the garden today are not going to be just like what will be available next time.

Today was the first time I ever made harissa chicken. I grew up in a time and place when an adventurous cooking idea was to try canned cream of celery instead of cream of mushroom or chicken in a casserole. We have food choices that were unknown in most American homes of the 60’s and 70’s. Harissa chicken is one of those and its one I plan to keep in the repertoire.

An abundance of peppers and not enough tomatoes for salsa are what got me looking at harissa recipes. Mine started with what I had on hand.

I made the harissa sauce the day ahead and let the flavors blend. I blistered some Anaheim peppers in cast iron on the stove top. While the burner was hot, I toasted the coriander and caraway seeds, then ground them with a mortar and pestle. Next everything went into the blender: Roasted Anaheim peppers, dried shishito peppers (like those in the mason jar), one seeded jalepeno, garlic, mint, a small tomato, olive oil, salt, and lemon juice. Like pesto, it blends into a sauce quickly if there is enough liquid.

Since I planned ahead, I also soaked garbanzo beans overnight. This ensures no bpa’s from canned beans. The overnight soak also makes beans less gassy and more digestible. Another benefit is that the cooking water (not the soaking water) can become a flavorful broth to cook couscous or rice in. I added cumin, pepper, peanut oil, a jalepeno, turmeric, garlic, and salt to the water that I cooked the beans in. They were ready after 35 minutes of a slow boil.

img_20160912_163336266

Before cooking the beans I mixed some home fermented kefir with 3 Tablespoons of the harissa sauce. I marinated skinless chicken breasts in that for an hour. While the beans cooked I prepared onion and butternut squash wedges to roast with the chicken and beans. I had made about a cup of harissa sauce and mixed what remained with the onion, squash, and beans.

I put the beans and vegetables in a preheated oven at 425 F and roasted 10 minutes. The marinated chicken went on top and it all baked together another 35 minutes. While that was in the oven, I sliced some dried apricots and added to the bean broth. When it came to a boil I added the a package of couscous and cooked as directed. It looked like this:

img_20160912_174614849

And the old casserole dish that contained many cream of mushroom soup dishes in its earlier days ended up looking like this:img_20160912_174916934

Butterfly Burst

Pleasant surprises come along with growing your own food and drink. Yesterday, as I approached my compost pile that’s in the back corner of my lot, 15-20 butterflies burst into flight. Most of them were the spotted brown kind on the left, but there were two or three of the other two kinds as well. The red spotted purple is the only one I have a name for.

What attracted the crowd was the fermenting pears I had added to the pile the previous day. It will be months before  I know how the pear wine turns out, but the process has provided this unexpected butterfly gathering as an early benefit. I don’t know if the fermenting pears are the healthiest item the butterflies could be getting. But they seemed happy. And shortly after my appearance caused them to take off, they settled right back to have some more.

Figs Are Peachy

IMG_20160810_171010389

With an addition of lemon or lime juice, figs have a flavor that reminds me of peaches. And when they come in abundance as they have here this year that’s a great thing. The Brown Turkey and Mission figs in the photo I gathered for a fig pizza. Our local newspaper had an article praising fig pizza as a way of using the bounty. In this house, fig pizza was a one time experiment. Jam, chutney, salsa, wine, vinegar, and simply drying figs are all better uses for the abundant crop than as a pizza topping.

For my fig jam, I use a recipe from Emeril called fig preserves. But I add a tablespoon of lemon juice. It is essentially a reduction sauce with three ingredients: figs, sugar and lemon juice. The acidity of the lemon provides a bit of tang to the rich earthy fig flavor.

Fig salsa has been the best new use of figs here this summer. If peach salsa is something you like, fig salsa will also work well. Before making mine, I read several online recipes then started chopping. Gather the fresh ingredients, know what you like, trust your taste buds, and create your own. I like plenty of tang to balance the sweetness, so in addition to lime juice I added fig vinegar. Balsamic would also be fine if you don’t happen to have any fig from the last time they were abundant.

IMG_20160820_141529117

Desserts are another great possibility with fresh figs. Above is a simple favorite. Quarter figs, add a soft cheese, drizzle with honey, grind a little black pepper and melt the cheese. Brew some coffee to enjoy with it.

Figs grow without being bothered by insect pests or diseases. They are not at all like peaches which are extremely difficult to grow organically here. When they survive our winters without dieing back to the roots, it makes for a nice fruit season.

Time for Wine

Saturday was harvest day for my Norton (aka Cynthiana) grapes. After cleaning and sorting I had 16 lbs of fruit from three vines. I have a fourth vine but its on a different terrace level and I didn’t get a net over it. The birds harvested all it produced. They enjoy grapes well before the seeds turn brown which is an indication of readiness for wine.

The photo on the right is after washing and sorting. Quality fruit is a necessity for good wine and this is as good looking a harvest of red grapes as I have ever had. It is only the third year I’ve ever harvested this variety. The wine from previous years has not been remarkable. My daughter who worked at a local fine dining restaurant described it as palatable and something that could make a good sauce. Cooking wine quality is all I have produced from this variety so far. I’ve made better drinking wines from pears and figs.

I grew the grapes without any spraying or watering in what has been a dry summer for this area. Last year, I waited longer to harvest and I could smell the  scent of spoilage as I gathered the fruit. I heated the fruit to pasteurization temperature of 170 F to kill the spoilage organisms. This year the look and smell of the fruit is better, so I didn’t pasteurize. And I’m going for a wine with no chemical additives, so I didn’t add sulfites which are used in most wines.

My method was to put all the fruit in a cotton T shirt tied to hold it. A pillowcase would also work, but that would produce a tie-dyed pillowcase. This improvised fruit bag will make it easy to remove the fruit in a day or two. In a food grade fermenting bucket I pressed the fruit with my fists.  Then I added 2 an 1/2 gallons of water, 8 cups of cane sugar, and a packet of wine yeast. Its bubbling and I’ve been stirring it (punching down the cap) three times a day. Also, I have a towel tied over the bucket to keep flies out.

There is no doubt I’ll have alcohol. Whether I’ll have something that anyone cares to consume without additions to make it sangria or port style will be determined in some months.

Sauce and Cider

A warning: trying the activity in this post would mean significantly less time spent either playing Pokemon or watching the Olympics. This is about apple preservation using methods that were available to my grandparents and I have grandchildren. I started with backyard apples.

IMG_20160806_174420068

These are Liberty Apples, a variety developed at Cornell for disease resistance. My growing method has been essentially organic by neglect. I didn’t do any thinning and that combined with a dry summer made for very small apples. The largest were smaller than a tennis ball. The dots are evidence of fruit worms. But they have a nice flavor from some Macintosh parentage.

I removed the blossom and stem ends, cut them in quarters and boiled them in a large pot with an inch of water at the bottom. Taking time to peel and core the little apples would have been even more time consuming. When they were soft, I forced them through what my mother called a sieve but my wife calls a ricer.IMG_20160802_153109139

This separated the seeds from the sauce and left this core and peel residue.

IMG_20160802_191545230

Before dealing with this leftover deliciousness, I added cinnamon to the sauce, reheated it and ladled it into sterilized jars. I got ten pints filled and processed them in a hot water bath. All the lids sealed so I have 10 pints of organic applesauce with no sugar added to enjoy in coming months.

Next it was cider time. I could have added the leftover gunk to the compost pile, but what fun is that?IMG_20160802_192043181

Instead, I wrapped the leftovers in an old cotton tee shirt. It is in the crock now along with a gallon of water about 1.25 lbs sugar and wine yeast. It has been bubbling nicely for several days so it is time to transfer it to a jug and put an airlock on it. In a few more weeks I’ll see if I have decent cider or something to let go to vinegar.

I’m sure I missed the opportunity to capture a lot of Pokemon in the time I spent on the sauce and cider. But until I download the app, I’ll never know how many.

Garden to table to NYC

I’ve been away. In the middle of summer harvest season I took a break from gardening and preparing my own food. Just returned from New York City where we attended a matinee of the musical Hamilton. Above left is the actor who played Burr signing playbills after the show. My daughter got his autograph so it was a great week. The show is amazing. It didn’t win all those awards by being a lousy musical.

The right photo is what was left after I made a pilgrimage of sorts. The bag says Sullivan Street Bakery and we devoured the ciabatta before I thought of getting a shot of it. The bread I make regularly is from the recipe made famous by the head baker at this place.

It was a road trip for us and the photo above left I took at the Virginia Welcome Center on our way home. I thought it odd that this crepe myrtle had so few blooms when so many along the way were at their showy best. As I came closer I saw the reason: a Japanese beetle infestation. I had seen the dark glossy pests before but never in numbers like here. They hadn’t bothered the leaves, but they were all over every bloom and 90% of the flowers were gone.

The good news is that when we returned home, we saw no devastation like that. Multiple tasks were ready after being away. One of the first was to cover the Norton grapes above with netting. They are ripe enough for birds to enjoy or for jam making. But the wine will be much better if they get a little more hang time. Harvesting tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, figs and blueberries are other tasks I’ve attended to since returning. It was a nice time away and now its good to be back under my own vine and fig tree.

Winning the Aubergine Battle

Evidence of the battle is visible in the photos. Flee beetles have chewed holes in the leaves and some of them are still there. The white coating is kaolin clay which I sprayed to deter them. Before applying the clay I had steeped it with garlic and jalepeno pepper in a jar of water overnight. It is stinky clay. And its sticky consistency deters many insect pests. It certainly has not been 100% effective for me. But the fruit is forming.

That is a lot of trouble to go through for eggplant. Most of the vegetables I grow come with less trouble. So I have to call it by its French name. It would be eggplant if I just wanted a catch crop to keep the beetles off my potatoes and cucumbers and tomatoes. Eggplant would do that. It is the first choice of flee beetles here.

Lethal organic sprays exist, but I avoid them. I need pollinators when the flowers appear in order to get the fruit. Also, I saw what appeared to be an assassin bug on one of my eggp excuse me aubergine plants the other day. I don’t want to wipe out the predators.

So I have aubergine coming. Future meals of baba ganoush, ratatouille, vegetable curry, and aubergine parmagiana may be possible. That makes the battle worth fighting.