Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The great root vegetable cook-off begins

In other words, I now have to use up all the root vegetable props shown in my last post. (The jicama and one of the sunchokes molded and had to be composted, but the rest survived storage in plastic bags at room temperature for a couple of days. Next time I'm going to use paper bags, though.)

So this was last night's dinner:

Top is a stir-fry with snow peas (not a root vegetable, I realize, but they needed to be used), tempeh, and lotus root, seasoned with tamari, galangal, and garlic. Lotus root is irresistibly elegant, and is crunchy-starchy in texture, fairly bland in taste. I don't have a pond so I won't be growing it anytime soon, but I'll definitely buy it again now that I know how simple it is to prepare. I have more in the fridge and plan to try making chips. Galangal is a close relative of ginger (often called Thai ginger) that has a stronger and more complex flavor; it mellowed a lot on cooking.

Bottom is roasted radish (one of my new favorites!), celeriac, sunchoke, sweet potato, and purple yam. The last is a true yam, not a sweet potato, and it started out pale purple and darkened as it cooked. Not as sweet or distinctive as my purple sweet potatoes, but tasty.

More posts will be coming, since I have more vegetables to get through and nothing else to write about except the few cute little seedlings starting to emerge in my laundry room. Meanwhile, it's snowing again…

Monday, February 17, 2014

The traveling root vegetable show

I'm giving a talk this coming Saturday on growing root vegetables (with a cooking demo by fellow MG Maro Nalabandian) at the Montgomery County MGs' spring gardening conference. And since the event is full and you can't sign up if you haven't already, I will give you a glimpse of my props, which are of course a whole bunch of root vegetables. (They are not striped; that's just bad photography.)

I've been shopping! And I've organized my purchases into groups according to what botanical type of "root" they belong to, just for fun and edification.

Here's what I have (from just two supermarkets! - an international one and one with a gourmet produce section):

Carrot, parsnip, beet, celery root, jicama, rutabaga, turnip, daikon, radish, horseradish

Tuberous roots
Yacon (I grew that one actually), sweet potato, yam, yuca

Potato, sunchoke

Taro, malanga

Ginger, galangal, lotus root

Leek, onion, garlic, shallot, elephant garlic

The first two categories are true roots, and the rest except bulbs are modified plant stems. Just so you know. There are of course many other types of root vegetable out there, a few of which I saw and neglected to buy, because there are only so many I can deal with at once. But I'm looking forward to trying all these when they return home from the lecture circuit.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Know your squash species

Since this is the Year of the Cucurbit here at GIEI, we're going to be talking about squash a lot. I thought, therefore, that this would be a good time to remind our readers that squashes come not just in lots of different varieties and appearances, but also in four distinct species. (Actually more, but four that we commonly grow in this country.) Why is it important to know this? Well, for one thing, if you're planning to save seed from your open-pollinated squash for replanting, you need to realize that when more than one variety of squash in the same species is growing in your garden or in nearby gardens, they are likely to cross-pollinate and produce seed that won't grow a plant like its parent. You can prevent this either by using seed-saving techniques like isolation and hand-pollination (see books such as Seed to Seed to learn how) or by planting only one variety per species (though you'll still have to find out what your close neighbors are planting).

Another reason to learn to identify the different species of squash is that they vary in degree of susceptibility to pests and diseases.

So, meet the squashes.

photo by Bob Nixon
Cucurbita pepo includes nearly all summer squash, such as zucchinis, yellow crooknecks, patty pans, etc. Many pumpkins are part of this species, along with winter squash such as acorn, delicata, and spaghetti.

C. pepo squashes have a mild flavor, mature relatively quickly, and don't store very well; even winter squashes need to be used within a few months.

Galeux d'Eysines squash, C. maxima
Cucurbita maxima squashes are good for winter storage and come in many varieties, including large pumpkins, Hubbards, Kabochas, buttercups, and many others in a range of colors and shapes (though mostly roundish). They are quite susceptible to pests and diseases, but with persistence and luck can be grown well, and are usually rich in flavor.

photo by Nancy Robson
The Cucurbita moschata squashes offer the best option both for pest avoidance and for long-term storage (plus they taste delicious). This group includes butternuts, Long Island cheese, Pennsylvania neck pumpkin and other tan-colored squash, as well as a group of dark green Asian squash (such as Futsu Black) and my favorite summer squash, Tromboncino. These squashes have hard stems that resist vine borers, and are often more resistant to squash bugs and diseases such as powdery mildew.

The final group is Cucurbita argyrosperma, formerly known as C. mixta. This group includes cushaw squash, commonly grown in the South, with good resistance to pests and to drought. They are less sweet in taste than many other squash.

So how do you know which species of squash you are planting? Many seed packets and catalogs will provide species information for every variety, but some don't, so - ask! Or, if that doesn't appeal to you, Google is your friend.

Also please note that many types of ornamental "gourds" are actually squash varieties (usually C. pepo or C. maxima). So these may cross with your squash as well, and produce odd seed results.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Cover Crop Comparison

I took some photos a few weeks ago of  cover crops I planted mid-September. Barley is a cereal grass that is less winter-hardy than cereal rye but usually survives Central MD winter weather. Not this year. And oats are more reliably killed by "typical" winter weather in MD. So while I won't have to worry about spring re-growth of the oats and barley I do have to be ready for the chickweed, deadnettle, and henbit that grows very nicely in the dead cover crop.

The winter rye will have to be cut (or smothered) and killed before I can plant spring veggies, and that can be a chore. But rye, with its massive rye root system, can pull up three times as much nitrogen from the soil than can oats or barley. And it's hard to beat for sheer quantity of biomass and ability to improve soil structure.

Clockwise from lower left: oats, barley, leaves, cereal rye

Winter-killed oats

Winter-killed barley

Cereal rye can take the cold!