Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Grow It, Store It and Eventually Eat It Part

What a cold and rainy day.  Seems like a great day to make a pot of venison stew.  Good thing I have onions stored in my basement and that I dug some potatoes, carrots, parsnips and turnips yesterday when it was warm  and sunny. 


Because I have limited space to refrigerate fall root vegetables, I leave most of them in the garden during the winter.  I simply mulch them in with some leaves and dig them as I need them throughout the winter.
Preparation time - 30 minutes
Cooking time - 2 and a half to 3 hours
Ingredients are:
2 lbs. of venison or beef stew cubes
3 medium onions chopped (Copra harvested in summer and stored in my basement)
5 large carrots cut into 1 inch pieces
2 turnips cut into 1 inch pieces
1 large or two medium parsnips cut into 1 inch pieces
5 medium potatoes cut into 1 inch pieces
optional 8 ounces of peas
2 bay leaves
4 tablespoons of olive oil
beef stock to cover the ingredients
salt and pepper to taste

To start the stew, add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to a heavy cast iron casserole and brown the venison or beef in small batches.  If you are using a lean meat like venison, you may need to add a little more oil between batches.  After browning the meat, reserve it, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and add the onions and carrots to soften them.  After about 5 minutes, add the reserved meat, the bay leaves and enough beef broth to cover.  Simmer the stew for about 1 and a half to 2 hours.  I like my venison cubes very tender, so I tend to simmer the stew for 2 hours.  After simmering the stew for the appropriate time, add the parsnips, turnips and potatoes with enough beef broth to cover.  Simmer the stew for another hour or until the potatoes, parsnips and turnips are tender.  While this stew has some color in it, I like to add peas for their added color. The peas will need to cook for about 5 minutes.  Finally, add salt and pepper to taste and serve with some good crusty bread for dipping in the stew.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sweet Potatoes Baltimore

Sweet Potatoes Anna is a dish I've made many times: reliably delicious and a good way to use both sweet potatoes and leeks.

5 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into slices about 1/8-inch thick
2-3 leeks, white part only, cut in half and then into very thin slices
6 Tbl butter, melted
1 Tbl chopped fresh thyme or 1 tsp dried
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Butter a shallow, round 10-inch baking dish. Arrange a layer of sweet potato slices in the pan in overlapping circles. Brush with about 1/4 of the butter. Top with 1/2 the leeks and 1/2 the thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Repeat with another layer of sweet potatoes and butter and using the remaining leeks and thyme. Top with a final layer of the best-looking sweet potato slices. Brush the top layer with about 1/4 of the butter.

Cover the pan with aluminum foil. Place a heavy skillet or baking dish on top to press the potatoes into a compact mass. Bake for 30 minutes. Removes the skillet and foil and baste the top layer with the remaining butter. Continue baking for about 30 minutes, until the potatoes are very soft and the top and bottom layers have started to caramelize. (If the potatoes start to burn, cover with top with foil).

Mmm. The leftovers made a great brunch dish, too.

This year, of course, I had to make this incorporating my purple sweet potatoes, so I used one large purple tuber and one even larger orange one (not home-grown), and this is what I ended up with:

And even to residents of the Washington metro area, the new name was obvious: orange for the Orioles and purple for the Ravens - Sweet Potatoes Baltimore.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Kale: It's All the Rage

This is a guest post by Kurt Jacobson, who runs the Fast and Furious Cook blog. Thanks, Kurt!

I just got back from a class about cooking with spices at the International Culinary Center in New York City. At the end of the four hour class we were given a few minutes to ask questions, and one of the questions was, “what do you see as the current hot culinary trends?” The chef answered “kale,” which is no surprise to me. What was a surprise to me was the picture that was texted to me while I was in class showing my little angel of a 9 month old puppy who had just destroyed a bag of kale the pet sitter left unattended for 2 minutes! Don’t you just love the look of innocence on his face?

So you know it’s a hot food trend when even dogs are unafraid to commit a crime to get some.
I suspect I’m not the only one who grew kale this summer and had great results? I found many a way to cook with it and use it in salads too. Most days when I went out to the garden to pick some I would toss a leaf to my puppy who loved the stuff. Turns out that it’s good for dogs and many do like it. Now that the growing season is over I still long for that abundance I had in my little raised bed out back.
I also had a great summer of growing, eating, canning and freezing tomatoes. If you also had an abundance of tomatoes and put some in the freezer or canned a bunch like me it’s time to cook some up. With this really cold and crappy weather there’s nothing better than a hearty bowl of soup and my Italian Tomato Soup fits the bill. This soup uses plenty of tomatoes (that you grew) and can be made with spinach or kale. It cooks in less than an hour and is guaranteed to warm you up.
For those of you who want something simpler, try my 15 Minute Cream of Tomato Soup. This is one of my favorites when I am in a hurry but want home made soup.

Remember this. If you spend less time cooking you can spend more time shopping the seed and garden catalogs!
So from the Fast and Furious Cook I wish you all a happy holiday season and a hot bowl of healthy soup!

15 Minute Cream of Tomato Soup 
1 tablespoon oil or butter
1 tablespoon minced shallots, or yellow onion
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 vegetable bouillon cube or chicken bouillon
Salt and ground white pepper to taste
1 14.5 ounce can of diced tomatoes
14.5 ounces milk

In a one and a half to two quart pot saute shallots in oil on medium low heat until soft, about 3-5 minutes. Be careful not to brown the shallots. Add flour and cook for another 3 minutes stirring often. Add tomatoes, milk, bouillon, and turn up the heat to medium high stirring constantly. When soup starts to simmer turn off heat. If you want a smooth soup blend with an immersion blender and strain. You can also use a table top blender, but use caution with hot soup in it. It’s best to blend it in two parts for safety when using a table top blender.
Note: You can add 1/2 teaspoon dried basil for a nice tomato basil soup.
This soup doesn’t have to be blended if you don’t mind a chunky tomato soup. I like to use organic tomatoes for this soup.

Italian Tomato Soup
1/2 cup diced yellow onion
1 clove fresh garlic minced, or 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 15.5 oz can of diced tomatoes
1 5.5 oz can of V-8 vegetable juice
1 vegetable or chicken cube (bouillon)
4 cups water
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons basil
1 14.5 oz can of kidney beans
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 cup of small shell pasta, uncooked
2 cups fresh broccoli florets
1 cup fresh spinach
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Optional,1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

In a 4-5 quart pot add enough of the water to cover the bottom about a quarter inch and heat to simmering. Add onion and garlic and cook on medium low for 5 minutes stirring occasionally. Add canned tomatoes, beans, red pepper flakes, rest of the water, V-8, bouillon cube, and dried herbs. Cook at a simmer for 20 minutes, covered, stirring twice. Remove cover, turn heat up to a boil, and add pasta, stirring every 30 seconds for three minutes to keep the pasta from sticking to the bottom. Cook for 8 minutes uncovered, keeping it at a slow boil. Stir in broccoli and cook for 3 minutes simmering. Stir in spinach and cook for 3 minutes. Stir in parsley and serve.
Serves 4
Note: This is a thick soup, but you can add an additional cup water if you want it thinner. Green beans can be substituted for broccoli.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Derwood Demo Garden 2013 Wrap-Up

photo by Darlene Nicholson
So aside from the disconcerting tendency of praying mantises to eat bees instead of stink bugs, I'd say our Montgomery County demo garden, veggie division, had a pretty good year. We had some great harvests:

and donated 676 pounds of produce to Manna Food Center. Some other highlights:

  • Our 100-square-foot garden project, which was a trial for a statewide effort coming next year. It was run by a group of MG interns, produced 170 pounds of food, and taught us a lot about intensive growing. We'll be repeating this project next year using what we learned.
  • A straw bale planting project, not so successful, but interesting enough to try again on a larger scale next year.
  • A tomato tasting for MG volunteers, which was fun and informative and delicious.
  • Further reduction of our thuggish Jerusalem artichoke patch.
  • Success in keeping harlequin bugs and other pests out of our brassica crops using row covers. Some of them are still waiting for harvest under plastic tunnels, so we're expanding our season too.
  • Great crops for the Year of Root Vegetables, especially the spring beets, the onions, the carrots, and the delicious crunchy Andean tuber called yacon.
  • Tromboncino squash, which was just about the only cucurbit to resist pests all season.
  • Flowers to enjoy along with our vegetables.

We had some serious pest problems, especially Japanese beetles, squash vine borers, cucumber beetles, and wireworms, but fewer brown marmorated stink bugs and Colorado potato beetles than in previous years. This year's wet weather worsened fungal diseases, and some plants succumbed to early blight and powdery mildew. We also lost some plants to drought in the height of summer. But on the whole we enjoyed a productive year - and each other's company! And since this is Grow It Eat It and I've only been reporting on the vegetable garden, I should mention that the rest of our demonstration areas had a fantastic year too.

We also like knowing that our visitors appreciate our efforts. And it was great fun to share the garden at three major events and for smaller groups as well.

We look forward to 2014!

(Unacknowledged photos by - I think - Darlene Nicholson, Melitta Carter, Julie Mangin, and me.)

Friday, December 13, 2013

The travelling GIEI show!

These words are not mine but from Jon Traunfeld* as a reaction to the picture below and its description.

 “As you can see on the picture, Donna and I taught the GIEI gospel outside of Maryland.  Today we were at the Inverness Garden Club in Inverness, IL, a northwest suburb of Chicago.

In short, we were here to visit Donna's sister and the presentation was for Donna's sister's mother-in-law's garden club.”

For the record, the presentation was adjusted – I added Illinois Extension links and updated the first and last frost dates for the area where the presentation was given.  Chicagoland has about a 4-weeks shorter growing season than we do here in Maryland.  Everyone really enjoyed our seminar and the enthusiasm for the subject we bring.

On the other hand, we are not the first ones to speak on behalf of the GIEI program outside of the Maryland/DC area.  Mr. Traunfeld did it on the Martha Stewart show in March 2009 with the salad table. The entire 10-minute section of the episode is available here. 

By the way, once you return from your holiday vacation, take a moment to cheer for the 5 year anniversary of the GIEI program.  The first blog post was posted on January 9, 2009.

*John Traunfeld is a University of Maryland Extension Specialist, the State Master Gardener coordinator, director of both Home and Garden Information Center and Grow It Eat It programs.

Monday, December 9, 2013

More snowy day citrus - Meyer lemon

I have had to deal with scale on calamondin oranges in the past. You are right, Erica, it is strangely satisfying!  This is my third season with this Meyer lemon. I put it out on the deck as soon as it warms up in the spring and bring it back into this cozy spot in the kitchen in late fall.
Fortunately, I haven't had any scale issues to speak of yet. Though I have had problems with spider mites every winter. When it is too cold to take it outside for a strong spray of water, I just wipe the mites off with a wet paper towel. Then when we get a warm day, I take it out and spray it thoroughly with a light weight of horticultural oil. That seems to knock them back enough to reduce damage. During the growing season I guess there are enough beneficial predators in the environment to keep the mites at bay.

I have a Mexican lime in a container too. I have the same spider mite problems with Mr. Lime. I haven't had any success with fruit production though. It is more cold sensitive than the lemon and all of the foliage died on it when I forgot to bring both of them inside on the night of Easter Monday. I thought it had totally bit the dust but it has come back and actually has some blossoms just getting ready to pop open. The thorns on the lime are deadly but the lemon only has a few minor thorns.

Right now I'm trying to decide just what to do with my lemon harvest.  I've already picked 2 but there are another 17 lemons left on the plant.  Mom looks tired and weary from all the effort of producing so many lemons.

I'm thinking limoncello for these babies! That way we can enjoy them over a longer period of time vs. a lemon meringue pie, which would be delicious but gone way too soon.
What would YOU do with this many lemons?

More on baking with purple sweet potatoes

And welcome back to the What the Heck Do I Do With All These Purple Sweet Potatoes series. Before succeeding with the pie, I baked a delicious but oddly-colored cake, and was determined to make something that used baking powder but stayed purple.

I have now had partial success. Here are yesterday's muffins going into the oven:

And here they are after coming out:

Still nicely purple inside, but they basically didn't rise at all.

Here's a nice explanation of the best method for making muffins. I'm pretty sure I didn't commit the sin of over-mixing, but I probably didn't let the batter sit long enough before putting it in the oven. Or possibly the fault lay in the ingredients, which I list below. The recipe is based on an old one for Louisiana Yam Muffins (let me say again: just about anything you see labeled as a yam in the US is a sweet potato), but I altered it considerably to suit my purposes. Makes 18 muffins.

1 3/4 cups flour (I used 1 cup white, 1/2 cup whole wheat, 1/4 cup coconut. Probably all white would have worked better.)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup sugar (or less; I wanted these more savory than sweet)
1/2 cup chopped cashews
1/4 cup flaked unsweetened coconut
2 eggs
3/4 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup melted butter
1 1/2 cups mashed purple sweet potatoes
1/4 cup crushed pineapple, with liquid

I was going for a slightly tropical feel. :)

So, why did my muffins stay purple while my cake turned green, and why didn't the muffins rise properly? You'll recall that the anthocyanin pigments in purple sweet potatoes react with alkaline ingredients (like baking powder) and turn green, so I tried to compensate by adding some acidic ingredients (yogurt and pineapple). I was guessing as to necessary amounts, but it seems to have worked. As far as the flatness goes: problems with the method as indicated above; heavier flours (I wanted to give the coconut flour a try, but it does tend to thicken batter); too much acid for the baking powder to work well (I might have added some baking soda, which is more strongly alkaline, except I bet that would have shifted the color into the yuck range); or just the sweet potatoes themselves being so heavy. They were leftovers from the previous night's dinner, already mashed with a little salt and pepper and broth added, but I don't think those ingredients affected the rise, or lack of. The sweet potatoes are just very, very dense-fleshed, and frankly kind of gluey at times. It's possible that pureeing them in the food processor, as I did to make the pie, would have added a little lightness.

Any pastry chefs want to weigh in? I'd like to try cookies next, if I don't run out of sweet potatoes before then. (I've promised a purple-and-orange Sweet Potatoes Anna at some point.)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Caring for citrus on a snowy day

I can't honestly say that there's nothing better than cleaning scale insects off a lime tree right next to a window with a view of snow, but it does make for a nice contrast.

Recently I discovered that the lime tree I've had for two years, this year spending the winter near a sunny window and therefore actually starting to make baby limes (after hand-pollinating on my part), had scale on a few of its branches. Scale insects spend most of their lives, after the youthful "crawler" stage, stuck in one place sucking out plant juices, and develop an exterior coating to protect themselves. Their presence is usually announced by the sticky honeydew they secrete, which will be found on the plant (or the floor) beneath their location.

This photo shows both the brown bumps of scale and the shiny drops of honeydew.

Searching Extension and other sources provides a range of solutions that don't require potent chemicals. Had I gotten around to dealing with this problem a few days ago, I could have taken the tree (it's a small tree as yet) outside and rinsed it with water to wash off the honeydew. It's a little cold for that today! I may still put it in the shower, but for now simply wiping the leaves with a wet cloth gets rid of much of the stickiness.

I dealt with the scale itself by scrubbing gently with an old toothbrush dipped in rubbing alcohol, and then cleaning the remains away with a paper towel. (Watch the thorns while doing this.) Insecticidal soap also works, as does plain water if you don't mind using your fingernails a little. (Gently!) This can be a tedious task if the scale is extensive, but the infestation on my tree hadn't spread very far. I'll keep monitoring to be sure it doesn't reappear.

Some day later this winter when we have a warm spell (over 60 degrees and not windy) I'll take the tree outside and spray it all over with horticultural oil, following package directions carefully. This will smother any remaining scale and prevent further attacks for a while. I'll do it again when I take the tree outside for the summer.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Compost, The Grow It Part

What a great lead in Nancy Taylor Robinson gave me with her sentence "And it all started with a lowly gift from the compost,"  In Nancy's case, it was her cheese pumpkins.  In my case, it's the black gold that I work back into my garden beds.  I have been composting and adding organic material to my gardens ever since I started vegetable gardening 36 years ago.   Compost is the premier soil amendment for improving soil structure and increasing the productivity and fertility of your soil.

In fact, University of Maryland recommends that a gardener add six inches of compost to new gardens for several years and one inch of compost to established garden every year.  While compost does not have high NPK values, it improves the soil structure of any type of soil.  In my Howard County clay, compost aggregates the small clay particles into larger particles which permit more air to permeate the soil and increase water drainage.  In sandy soils, compost holds moisture and retains nutrients in the soil.  Information on soil fertility and composting can be found on the University of Maryland's HGIC website. The links are soil fertility and conditioners and composting.

I have five compost bins made up of four foot oak pallets rescued from the Howard County dump, wood waste facility. They are always in use since I stockpile my browns (leaves) for use throughout the spring and summer.
While the green season is mostly over, I am still harvesting some grass clippings, garden and kitchen waste for addition to the browns I am collecting through the  Howard County Master Gardener Rake and Take Program.  Rake and Take 
Later this winter, I will be adding manufactured nitrogen in the form of urea.  I run hot compost piles all winter long and with a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 25 to 1, the piles will heat up to approximately 160 degrees regardless of the outside temperature.
I regularly collect 2 to 3 hundred bags of leaves during the fall which are used to create about 7 cubic yards of compost for my 2,000 square foot garden.  It takes me around 3 or 4 months to produce about a half yard of leaf compost from my one and a half yard compost bins.
My most recent piles were started using equal weights of leaves and grass clippings mowed from my lawn.  A spreadsheet showing the ratios for greens and browns can be found at this link.  The Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio spreadsheet is listed on the right side of the page under useful links.
Browns and greens are mixed together (I find this more effective than layering) and added to the bin along with some moisture which I add using a syphon mixer, a five gallon bucket and a water breaker.  Fall leaves are very dry and the microbes which break down the browns like a damp medium.  I use the syphon mixer to add a water/detergent mixture (surfactant) from the bucket to the hose stream.  The surfactant lessens the surface tension of the water and allows it to coat the dry leaves.

After about ten days, the compost needs to be turned into an empty bin to renew its oxygen supply.  My main turning equipment is a mini tiller and a pitchfork.
The mini tiller does a wonderful job of breaking up the matted leaves and adding air to the compost mix.   Then it is a matter of forking the mixture into an empty bin.  As the browns start to break down, the microbes will use up the available nitrogen in the mixture.  After 8 to 12 weeks of turning and transferring the compost between bins, the temperature of the pile will decrease as the browns breakdown and the available nitrogen is used up. Once the pile no longer generates heat, allow it to age for about a month. After aging, the compost is ready to be used in the garden.  Some people screen their compost to remove the larger uncomposted material, but I just use it as it comes out of the pile.
  Winter is a great time to add compost to your garden beds.  While you're at it, do a soil test if you haven't done one in the last three years.
Compost is truly black gold and will increase the productivity of your garden.  In fact, I have been accused of being a Miraclegro gardener, when in fact it's the black gold which improves soil structure holding water and nutrients in the soil permitting plants to reach their optimum potential.

Oca: a non-successful root crop story

I started out 2013 with the ambition to grow as many root crops as possible… because it was the Year of the Root Crop! So, among my carrots and beets and turnips - and yacon, which did spectacularly well again this year - I ordered some oca seed tubers.

What's oca, you ask? It's another one of those great root crops native to the Andes (the most famous being the potato) that's high in nutritional value and apparently very tasty, though I've never had it. For more information, I will refer you to William Woys Weaver in this Mother Earth News article. Oca is day-length sensitive and only starts making tubers when the sun is up for fewer than twelve hours a day, which means it shouldn't be harvested until well into December. Not only that, but it's not frost-hardy, yet doesn't like the heat, so it must be planted after the last frost in spring but early enough that it gets established before summer, and preferably in some degree of shade (though not too much). And of course in the fall it may die of cold. So, yes, it's a challenge, but Weaver manages to grow it in Pennsylvania, so I thought I'd try it here in Maryland.

First mistake: that planting date business. As you recall, we had a very late frost in May this year, and because I was running around like a mad thing saving my tomatoes (or not) and then leaving on vacation, I left my oca tubers sitting in their little bag in my house (at least I hadn't planted them yet to get frozen out) and basically forgot about them until well after I returned home in early June. They finally went into the ground, or into potting soil in a container, about the third week of June, which is far too late.

However, the plants did well (I had the container in a partly shady spot on my deck) and finished out the summer growing out some nice spreading stems:

It's an oxalis, by the way, which those of you who have either grown ornamental versions or weeded out wood sorrel can tell.

Second mistake: getting busy and forgetting to fertilize, which oca really needs in the fall, according to Weaver. I did generally remember to water it, but that was all. The plants would probably have done better planted directly in the ground, too, but in a container they definitely need feeding.

When it started getting down near freezing outside, I covered the container with two sheets of clear plastic - which made watering tricky - and tried to keep the plants from succumbing. That worked until temperatures hit the low 20s this past week (and I was away all week) - that was it for the oca.

So I pulled out the plants and dug around looking for tubers; this is all I found:

The start of some edible tubers, but very few of them, and not big enough to bother with.

I am going to try again, and this is what I'll do differently:
  • Put the seed tubers in at the right time.
  • Grow in large containers, one plant per, and move them into the greenhouse that I am indeed getting someday, or:
  • Grow directly in the garden and cover with a cold frame in the fall, and:
  • Do whatever it takes to keep the plants alive until late December.
  • Also, remember to fertilize and water.
Whether it'll be worth it in the end, I can't say, but growing oca is something I want to succeed at, at least once.