Thursday, July 18, 2013

Something Lurks or Storage Crops

Onions on the living room floor
Yesterday I brought the onions inside to finish drying as it's been so humid I was afraid they would rot.  This year I had the idea of drying them under the shed using a wire cage.  This worked fabulously, the tops of the onions strung through the wire to hang down the middle with the onion bulbs outside to cure.  
The drying rack
Some years I have braided them for storage, but the tops seemed too mildewy from the recent moisture so I opted to cut them off and will store the onions in net bags once they dry a little more in the living room.  It will be a miracle if we eat all of these before they start to sprout, but we will give it our best try.  This years haul was about 60 pounds.

The down side to growing a surplus of veggies, even those that store well such as onions, is not really having a very good place to keep them.  I long for a root cellar or something like it where crops would be safe from critters, cool and dark enough to prevent sprouting or rotting, just moist enough to keep things fresh.  Alas, we have no such place in our house.  There is a crawl space underneath, but the mustiness and presence of crickets and mice make me leery of putting anything down there for long.  So we just try to grow enough, but not too much, and eat things up while they are fresh.

But we often face this sort of situation:
 Last years sweet potatoes; the too big, too small, too ugly 
These never got cooked and are sprouting in the closet.  I will see if they are still worth eating in the next week or so, but they might end up on the compost pile, all their goodness gone into those two foot tall sprouts. And there are more in the ground now, growing for the fall harvest.
 In the bedroom
Always looking for a good spot to store things or at least get them cured, I've discovered under the bed is a good spot for the taters, dry but dark.  I still have one of those beautiful Long Island Cheese squashes from last fall sitting in the kitchen, it seems to be holding up well, but I'm sure its lost its goodness from sitting in the house for 8 months.  They are so big each one made lots of cooked squash and confession- there is still cooked pureed squash in the freezer too. As I've mentioned in a previous post, won't grow that one again, we are back to butternuts, sweeter and smaller.

I hate to waste things and have started making a regular donation to our local women's shelter from our surplus, but I get greedy, so much effort in the growing that I want to eat everything up or preserve it some how.  So I inevitably end up with things like those crazy sweet potatoes, too far gone to give away.  It's a constant crap shoot trying to figure how much of everything to plant, some years the harvest is poor so you plant more, then you get a whopper harvest and can't eat it all.  Ah well, such is life.  

The freezer is groaning, its 25 years old and needs to be replaced with a larger model, I hope we organize that before the old one dies...

Monday, July 15, 2013

Red Alert- Tomato Emergency!

I planted extra tomatoes this year with canning in mind.  I've always made sauce and frozen it, but last year I also canned pints and quarts and they turned out so well and didn't take up freezer space so I decided I wanted to do more canning this season.  When I made that decision I didn't know it would be the wettest summer on record.  In case you didn't know, tomatoes don't really like humidity and wet weather.  What was one of the best looking tomato patches we've had in a long time; healthy, lush plants loaded with green fruit, has been turned, in the course of three very wet weeks, into this.
This batch of Red Agate romas have lost almost all of their leaves. Not pictured are the Marianna hybrid which are doing a little better but the fruit is only beginning to ripen.  Granted, the fruit set is fantastic as you can see, but the tomatoes are starting to rot before they fully ripen due to too much moisture.  So today I picked everything that was remotely red and brought it into the kitchen. I dried off and left on the counter all that looked like they would make it a few days to get redder. Look close to see the little spots that in a few days turn into black rot.
The rest I washed and processed for sauce.  I have a method that is probably not the most efficient but I like the result so I labor away.  First I remove any spots and the cores from the tomatoes, cut in chunks and put them in a big pot with some salt and cook until soft, 20 or 30 minutes.  Then I put that mixture through the food mill to remove skins and most of the seeds.  In addition, because I like my sauce to be a bit chunky, I peel and seed some of the better looking ones and chop those up.  So the result is two batches, one of chopped and one of puree.
I heat some fruity olive oil in a large heavy bottom pot, cook chopped onions and garlic until starting to soften, then add both batches of tomatoes along with about a cup of chopped fresh basil, marjoram and oregano and a bay leaf and let the whole thing simmer for at least an hour to meld the flavors and cook away some of the water. This yields a rich, thick sauce that I can freeze in baggies for winter pizza's and pasta.
The final product, burbling away
I was at this for three hours this morning between the picking, sorting, peeling, chopping, not to mention washing the dishes that mount in a process like this, but it will be worthwhile in the end.  I hope the remaining tomatoes in the garden are going to ripen up before the plants go down completely so I can actually get some into jars as I had planned.  The weather is finally turning hot and dry this week, with 90+ degree days  forecast every day  I am not looking forward to that very much, but at least we are already half way through July.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Berries = Pie

 Bowl of blue deliciousness
The blueberries started ripening in earnest this week and then the blackberries began to follow suit. The blues have been the plumpest ever thanks to our record breaking rainfall over the past month.  Ten inches of rain fell in June and we've had another 1.5 inches just in the past 48 hours, it seems like it just won't stop.  But I'm trying not to complain given how much I've complained about drought over the past few years.

I do begin to feel like I'm living in a rainforest.
The berry patch
We have about 18 blueberry bushes of varying age and variety.  Most are rabbiteye and they begin bearing in July and continue into late August/early September.  The oldest were planted about 8 years ago, the newest last season.  The varieties include Premier, Columbus, Tifblue, Delite, Onslow, O'Neal and Powder Blue.  The older ones came from Finch Blueberry Nursery, a well known NC blueberry grower, the newer ones from Camellia Forest.
A few ripe blueberries with many more to come
And blackberries too
I'm not as happy with our blackberries, they are a thorn less variety, can't remember the name though they are all named for native tribes, I think Arapaho or maybe Navajo?  Not sure why they are named this way.

I would like to try a different variety and see if we have better luck, while these do make nice large berries, they are not as sweet as one would hope, nor as plump as other varieties I've seen.  They'll do for now.  If you have a favorite blackberry variety, please comment and tell me what it is and where you found it.

So with some berries mounting up I knew it was pie time.  I like to use my friend Karen Barkers recipe from her Sweet Stuff book. She includes orange zest and juice and a hint of cinnamon, that together with the 2 kinds of berries yields a really fragrant flavor, not too cloying, not too sweet.  I used 3 cups of blues and 1 cup of blacks (Her recipe calls for 4 cups of blues and 2 of blacks, I didn't have that many and it turned out fine, I just reduced the sugar and flower a smidgen.)
This is what I am talking about!
With ice cream for dessert last night, with cappuccino for breakfast this morning, and more to come. Not exactly slimming for my waistline but I'm getting to where I think that slimming my waistline may be a lost cause.

For a little more pie fun, check out the movie Sweet Land, a wonderful film about a mail order German bride coming to the Midwest in 1920, there is a fantastic pie scene about 45 minutes in and the whole movie is a very sweet love story worth watching.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Carrots and Beets and Nematodes! Uh Oh

I try to get all my root crops out of the ground by early July so they don't start to rot or be invaded by various worms and other critters.  I managed to get all the potatoes and onions out of the ground about 10 days ago just before our torrential rains hit. Phew. Onions are safely drying in the shed, potatoes under the bed.  Then yesterday I harvested the second planting of carrots and beets I had sown in Mid-April.  They had been looking pitiful, not growing well despite additions of organic fertilizer, lots of water and even some compost tea.  When I pulled them out I understood the problem immediately.

Root knot nematodes, they were causing all these crazy looking nodes on the roots and in doing some research I learned this is hard on the plants for sure.  Supposedly some ways to cope with the problem are to solarize the soil by putting clear plastic on top and baking it so it kills the little buggers. Otherwise, crop rotations, growing grain cover crops like Sudan grass, or planting marigolds which have a toxin that kills the nematodes were all recommended on various websites.  If you have experience with this problem, post a comment to help me and others know what to do!

I still managed to get close to 2 pounds of carrots and with the final harvest from my first planting plus the wimpy ones, I got about 4 more pounds of beets.  Now I need to be eating some carrots because the ones I dug a couple of weeks ago are still sitting in the crisper and while they store well, I know they won't keep for ever, been visualizing one of those grated carrot salads with lemon and raisins, but visualization ain't gonna make it happen, I've got to actually go in there and get out the grater!

I also need to eat up these beets as I've got 8 pints already pickled and I think that's going to do us for the year, I like pickled beets, but a few go a long way which is the general truth about pickles I think.  When I was rooting around in the cupboard to make space for the beets I unearthed several jars of dilly beans, circa 2009 as well as some pickled okra and lost jars of fig preserves, time to get cranking on consuming some of that stuff.

I'm thinking some beet and cucumber borscht with all the cukes that are starting to pile up in the fridge.

It must be July.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Tart Cherries!

Yeasted Cherry Cheese Coffee Cake

It all started with our trip to the orchard back in June.  We watched and waited until the cherry hotline announced the tart cherries would be ripe at the same time as the dark cherries.  We packed a lunch, piled into the car with our best pals John and Michele and headed down the highway to Mayberry (Mt Airy) and north to the edge of Virginia.  There, outside the town of Ararat, the 105 year old Levering Orchard sits perched on the side of a very steep mountain, much like Noah's fabled ark on the peak of Mount Ararat. They feature 44 varieties of cherries as well as apples, peaches and nectarines.

We first visited the orchard 2 years ago with friends and picked buckets of sweet bing cherries that day.  We had romantic memories of the breezy afternoon spent with jolly friends, happily picking and picnicking in the shade of the ancient cherry trees.  Something felt different this time, as if the cherry orchard had fallen on hard times.  The buildings were more ramshackle, the grass more overgrown, and we learned that they had lost 80% of the sweet cherry crop from the rains the previous week brought by tropical storm Andrea.

David still managed to find a half bucket of decent dark cherries and we picked and picked the tarts, they were at their prime, slipping easily by handfuls from the trees and into our buckets as we swayed atop tall skinny ladders set precariously into the tree branches.  We stumbled up and down the steep slope, over briars and poison ivy in search of the best trees, the ripest fruit.  When we had filled four buckets we knew we better stop, the tarts are more expensive than the sweets, being a rare and perishable treat, even the "pick your own" price was $3.79 a pound.

We found a rough spot to sit and eat our picnic, hot and tired from scrambling around the mountain side.  But we enjoyed a view of the distant blue ridge and watched tanagers and orchard orioles flit around in the trees.  Then we packed up and headed to the weighing shed.  We knew the bill would be high, the previous time we'd been shocked that we had picked $50 worth of cherries, but blew off the worry each time we ate another handful of the dark sweet fruit, remembering our happy day with friends.

The tarts, being more expensive, and filling the buckets more fully as they are smaller, caused our bill this day to total out at $83.00!!!   Oh well, it was done, we piled back in the car and began the 2.5 hour drive back home.  So you might ask, in the scheme of things, was it worth it?  We asked that question too.  But the reality is, you can rarely buy tart cherries here, they are hard to grow in our climate, and man are they good.
Fresh from the Orchard
I'm sorry I didn't get a photo of the state fair prize worthy lattice topped pie I baked a few weeks back, but I'll post a photo of the next one, and there will be another.  Once home we got right to work processing.  We washed, pitted and froze 7 quarts and the next day David used the last 3 quarts to make 5 half pints of cherry conserve.

Washing, Sorting, Pitting
We did the math- they were something like $8 a pound once we pitted them and tossed out the less than perfect fruits.  I don't know that we will do it again, the $8 per pound doesn't even figure in the gas and time spent driving all the way out there, but it is as much about the adventure as it is about the fruit.  Right?
 Glistening and frozen ready to be bagged

Yesterday we made the bodacious coffee cake pictured at the top of this post.
The recipe, I must admit, came from Martha Stewart and you can find it here

The yeasted dough was sexy, silky, with a whole stick of butter and a couple of eggs, nice to handle, it didn't stick to the table as we rolled it out and prepared the cake. We spread sweetened cream cheese over the dough and topped it with cherries before rolling into a log and twisting into a coil.

The snail, ready to rise one last time before baking 

Quite a production.  Once it was baked and cooled slightly I drizzled the confectioners sugar and milk icing over the top.  The flavor and texture of that white glaze shot me instantly back to the Ann Page (A&P) pecan coffee cakes my mother would buy for a special treat on Sundays at our house.  Damn it was good.  We criticized the lack of enough cherries in each bite, the wetness at the bottom of the cake as a result of the cherries having been frozen and settled to the bottom during rising.  We continued to be critical as we ate slice after slice.  I said anyone else would have been screaming at how delicious the thing was, before we fell into a carb induced coma on the couch.  And it wasn't bad nibbled last night before bed or warmed up this morning alongside the coffee.  And there is more- it was a monster of a cake that we'll enjoy for at least one more day.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Me and Davey J

David's friend Brad, Me and David in our first garden, 1986

Today marks 27 years since David drove in the driveway of the ramshackle farm house I had found for us and revamped in preparation of his arrival. We had met the previous year in Texas, spent 6 months in a deeply passionate courtship before I packed up and left Austin for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which was my mothers recent debilitating stroke.  We missed each other something terrible so he removed the back seat of his army green Gran Torino to hold all his worldly possessions, and drove east to join me in Chapel Hill where we had decided to give co-habitation a shot. 

We are still enjoying life together.  I was 27 years old that year, and I'm 54 now, I've spent half my life with this creative, brilliant, funny, thoughtful, tender man.  This morning as he left for work he called me out to see the resident garter snake, stretched out by the front gate in the sun.  I told him of the handsome box turtle I saw on the driveway when I went for milk first thing this morning. These are the things that have always turned us on, that continue to turn us on. 

This week also marks 16 years in our home, where we spend most of our spare time gardening together, growing food and flowers and seeing what manner of wildlife might happen by.  We've never made this match official, never saw the need, only created legal documents and wills to protect and prove we share our property.  And that has worked out fine for us.

Here we are lately
A little grayer
A little plumper
Still smiling