Saturday, August 30, 2014

Iron Chef Eastern Shore

A few of the Green Team in Grandmom's kitchen
I didn’t know what Iron Chef was when Suzanne Etgen invited me to be part of an Iron Chef competition she was organizing. But, as our son, Matt always says: When cooks compete, everybody wins.”  So I figured that regardless of how it turns out, I can’t lose! I know Suzanne’s a terrific cook, who focuses on fresh, organic and locally sourced ingredients – the dinner at her and Rob’s wedding supper was created from virtually all local sources -- and I knew that at least several of those coming were likewise great cooks.

Suzanne had concocted this Iron Chef thing as part of what she describes as her yearlong 40th birthday celebration. (Some people go to Europe; Suz creates a cook-in). She and Rob live in a family compound built in the 1950’s by Suz’s grandfather, which made it easier to requisition several different kitchens from her relatives several of whom were also participants.
Anne stirring cheesy parslied grits

She had divided the 21 or so cooks into three teams. Initially, we gathered at the lodge where we set out the ingredients that had been assigned each of us to bring (for me it was fresh tomatoes, fresh herbs and a pint of sour cream). Most of what we had to choose from was farm market produce -- scallions, corn, sweet and hot peppers peaches. Theresa Mycek, manager/grower of Colchester Farm CSA brought watermelons and Jenny Lind melons, potatoes, multicolored sweet peppers, and about a peck of tomatillos. Others had been assigned things like coconut milk, half and half, cream cheese, bread, baking chocolate and olive oil. The three protein offerings that Suz provided were organic chicken, local pork and about four pounds of rockfish that Rob, an avid fisherman and head of The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, had caught the day before. The mystery ingredient, which according to Iron Chef rules must be somehow incorporated into all three courses -- hors d’oeuvre, main course and dessert -- was beets.

Sherry making beet chips
Teams took turns choosing ingredients based on what they imagined they might make with what was available. There was a time limit --3 hours to get to our respective kitchens, make the meals and return to the compound with what we had made for judging.

I ended up in Suz’s Grandmom’s kitchen with seven other people, four ranging in age from 15 to 23 or so, including one cousin’s 19-year-old boyfriend, and three other women my age only one of whom I knew going in. Planning a three-course meal with a bunch of strangers is, to say the least, a challenge. Add to that a time limit, unfamiliar equipment and beets in everything, and you’ve got a recipe for mayhem. But everyone was enthusiastic and had ideas. Annie curtailed what coud have been marathon planning with a practical quesiton: Who’s good at dessert? Which separated some of the bakers among us out immediately. That left Hors d’oeuvre and main course. The younger team members, who I later learned aren’t really cooks (although I think Carter, our only man, was something of a ringer), took charge of the hors d’oeuvre. They made grilled corn salsa (Carter grilled the corn) along with chopped Jenny Lind melon, serrano peppers, a scallion and, of course, beets. Fabulous. They spooned it into the hollowed-out Jenny Lind rinds since there were points for presentation. Sherry, the mother of a contestant on another team, found a recipe for beet chips – potato-chip-thin beet slices fried crisp and sprinkled with sea salt –on her iPhone. I’m convinced they would have been the piece de resistance had the day been less humid. As it was, the chips wilted en route to the judging, sadly. Anne did grits with Parmesan, chicken bullion and chopped fresh parsley, while I made broiled lemon rockfish with beet relish (chopped beets simmered with a dash of brown sugar, balsamic vinegar and a finely-diced half of serrano), and then sautéed tomatoes, peppers and onions with Cuban basil to dress the fish. The dessert makers came through with chocolate beet cake with beet-pink icing. Delicious.
Grilled corn and fruit salsa and beet chips

When we got back to the lodge, we discovered that the other teams had made a fabulous array of things, including roast chicken with sautéed beets and lemons, curried pork with vegetables (including beets of course), and beet bruschetta (we had planned to make bruschetta, but the other team grabbed the loaf of bread before we could get to it. Alexa had made the beet cake recipe -- like moist carrot cake but with beets and cream cheese icing --that she had done with the children one year during Kids’ Cooking Camp at Colchester Farm. Again, delicious.

Suzanne had worked her head off, acting as a runner for a few extra ingredients like sea salt, balsamic vinegar and various pans not available in one kitchen or another, then brought everyone together at 5:45 to display and plate up the respective dishes for the panel of five judges. Wine was opened (actually it had been opened earlier, some contestants insist they, like Julia Child, create better with a little lubrication).

Plated meals waiting for judging
Judging, comments and inspections of other teams’ offerings ensured.

Our team didn’t win. But we didn’t lose either. We had shared an intense, laughter-filled afternoon with a bunch of fun people creating meals out of the season’s fresh organic local offerings and walked away with inspiration for what’s right now coming out of the gardens and off the farm stands. When cooks compete, everybody wins.  
L-R. Judges, black team (winners) and Suzanne in pink

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Finally, a tomato plant that works for us

Or maybe two.

Since 1933, All-America Selections (AAS) is an independent, non-profit organization that tests new vegetable and flower varieties,  then introduces only the best garden performers as AAS Winners.  According to their web site, “the AAS Winners offer gardeners reliable new varieties that have proven their superior garden performance in Trial Grounds across North America, thus, our tagline of "Tested Nationally and Proven Locally®". When you purchase an AAS Winner, you know that it has been put through its paces by an independent, neutral trialing organization and has been judged by experts in their field. The AAS Winner label is like a stamp of approval.”

For vegetables, many trial grounds, like Johnny’s Selected Seeds and many US state universities, exist across Canada and the USA.  Many display gardens exist across North America.  In Maryland, we have the Brookside Gardens (flowers) in Wheaton, the US Botanic Garden (flowers and vegetables) in DC and the Cylburn Arboretum (flowers and vegetables) in Baltimore.

2 Mountain Merit plants on the right, Chef’s Choice Orange plant on the left end of July.

The Mountain Merit is used sliced in your sandwich or diced to make bruschetta.  Being a determinate variety, the yield is spread over one month and the height reaches only 4 feet.  The Chef’s Choice Orange is to use in cooking or to make salsa.  A member of the Beefsteak variety, our plant reached the 8 foot mark upright by August.  Both need solid tomato cages.  The branches are very sturdy and heavy in fruits and can be supported with twine.  We have to brace our triangular tomato ladder pole on the Chef’s Choice Orange plant.  On the early blight disease side, both show in the garden good resistance with our watering schedule and a minimum spray fungicide program.  With the use of a high tunnel for 3 weeks in May, both varieties gave harvest spot on at 75 days.  I must say, my wife and I are pleased with the results.

I know that according to our picture, our Chef’s Choice Orange tomato looks more yellow-gold than orange.  Don’t worry – once cooked, the sauce is orange.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Grow100 Period 2 Update and Winner

Gardeners have shared some great insights along with stories of bountiful harvests and losses to pests. And people are busy filling vacant spots with fall vegetable seeds and plants.

David Marcovitz of Baltimore County is our pick for this period's $25 Gift Certificate to High Mowing Seeds!  David entered into the New to Gardening category and we're really impressed with his garden.  He's got six 4x4' raised beds with cucumbers (that he has been pickling), cherry tomatoes, green beans, herbs, and some extremely tall corn.  He's got deer protection in the form of PVC pipe and netting that he says has mostly held up this season.

David's corn, green beans, and cherry tomatoes.  Click to enlarge.


Other highlights:

Click to enlarge. From left to right: Rats ate Like rats ate the Early girl tomatoes and strawberries in Abby Lynch’s one city garden but seemed to leave the cherry tomatoes, cukes, and squash. Kohlrabi was a favorite vegetable for Rasma Plato, who also attracted beneficial insects with borage, calendula, alyssum, and sunflowers. Kim Roman tried unsuccessfully to control powdery mildew on her squash plants with an organic fungicide but this fungal disease has not affected production. Just goes to show that in many instances healthy plants can take some insect and disease injury without much yield reduction.
Click to enlarge. From Left to right: Nathan Parrish observed that his containerized cuke and pepper plants did better than those in the ground, while the reverse was true to his tomatoes. Pam Leifer isn’t letting her weeds go to waste. She’s been eating purslane and lambsquarter! As of the first week in August, Montgomery Co. Master Gardeners harvested 209 lbs. of produce from their 100 square ft. demo garden at the Extension office in Derwood.

Thanks to the 11 gardeners still with us who sent photos in! One more two-month period is left.  We are looking foward to seeing the final update materials and choosing an overal winner. 

Update period 3 is over on October 15.  You can find the form here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book reviews: local/regional food gardening

This post has been on my list of things to do for months. Sorry for the delay, but consider it as a recommendation for winter reading/Christmas gifts.

There are many excellent food gardening books out there, but few of them are specific to our climate zone here in Maryland (USDA zone 7a, at least where I live). So it's immensely valuable to have two of them come out in the same year, especially since both are well-organized, useful additions to a gardening library.

Ira Wallace's Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast is a good reference for any food gardener, but I'd recommend it particularly to new gardeners, with the caveat that it does cover the entire southeast part of the U.S., so not every plant or technique mentioned is going to work here in the upper-upper southeast. The text specifies regional differences, however, so you'll just need to pass your eyes over what goes on in Georgia or Florida, and stick with what's realistic here.

The book starts with a "Gardening 101" section, continues into monthly to-do lists with information relevant to each part of the year, and also includes an alphabetical list of edibles with growing, harvesting and seed-saving information, plus recommended varieties. Throughout the book, you'll find tons of useful hints discovered through lots of on-the-ground experience. Just about everything you need to know to start and maintain a garden is touched on. You may want to seek out more detail elsewhere if you get interested in particular areas like composting or season extension, but all the basics are here in one easy-to-carry volume.

Ira is one of the founding members of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and grows in central Virginia. You can meet her and hear her speak at the upcoming Monticello Heritage Harvest Festival - she's a lovely person!

Pam Dawling manages the farm at Twin Oaks Community, also in central Virginia, and has a lot of experience with producing food for a large group of residents who depend on a regular, reliable supply of vegetables. She's translated this experience into a book called Sustainable Market Farming - but please don't stop reading here because you don't run a farm! I found this book to be extremely useful for planning and managing a vegetable garden as well, because it's based in real-life experience and is full of detailed specifics about developing plans, making the best use of space, planting, growing, dealing with pest problems, harvest/storage, etc. etc.

I'd recommend this book mainly for food gardeners with a year or more of experience, but beginners could benefit from it if they're not daunted by lots of charts and lists and nuggets of information. It's organized to be handy, and it's also well-written and even funny in places (why is this so unusual in gardening books?). I laughed reading this book, in a good way, and also made many "ooh!" noises of discovery and admiration. Also, the reference list is fantastic, if you want to pursue topics further.

You can follow Pam's adventures on the Sustainable Market Farming blog.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A few cucurbit links

Here are some links I've come across recently dealing with our plant family of the year.

The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange blog has advice about using winter squash as summer squash. Most of the squashes we let mature to fully ripe and consume as winter squash can also be eaten in their immature stage. This is particularly useful to know if your plant dies before the squash are "finished."

SESE photo: "winter" squash ready to be eaten immature
Jay, the "Scientific Gardener," writes about the best way to plant cucurbit seeds so that they maximize use of sunlight and get off to a stronger start.

And last - you all know my affection for mouse melons or Mexican sour gherkins, which taste like cucumbers and look like tiny watermelons and go by the scientific name Melothria scabra. They are a member of the Cucurbitaceae that are not hardy in this region, though they tend to come up year after year from the seed in dropped fruits very nicely.

Well, there is also a member of that genus native to our region, Creeping Cucumber or Melothria pendula, which you can read about here at Eat the Weeds. Of course I now want to grow this, if I can find seed. I found out about it through a Facebook post by the Maryland Native Plant Society, which says that "There is reportedly a large colony of Creeping Cucumber along the floodplain of the Anacostia River at the U.S. National Arboretum, in D.C. It also grows at the edge of Shell-Marl Ravine Forest at Flag Ponds Nature Park, Calvert County, Maryland. Brown and Brown, in their 1984 book “Herbaceous Plants of Maryland,” report it from Prince George’s County, Maryland, and it was discovered a couple of years ago in the City of Alexandria, Virginia."

comment on my linked mouse melon post above mentioned black mouse melons, which I strongly suspect were Melothria pendula, since they turn black at full ripeness (and shouldn't be eaten at that stage). Melothria scabra doesn't do this, at least not in my experience - they stay green until they fall off the plant.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Review: Indigo Apple Tomato

I really didn't need to buy any new tomato seeds this year, but occasionally I just can't resist trying something that's hyped up in catalogs, and the blue tomatoes from Wild Boar Farms in California grabbed my attention. (They are not actually blue all over, but the photos were striking.) So I ordered the Indigo Apple and have grown it successfully (one plant at least; it's been a tough year for tomatoes chez moi).

Reviews were very mixed on the internet, so I was curious. My personal conclusion: I'd grow this one again. It was the earliest producer of my eight plants except for Isis Candy Cherry, which snuck in right ahead, and it's been extremely prolific. You can see that the plant has early blight, but so do they all at this point, and it's hanging in there. Flavor is good, not the most extraordinary tomato I've ever tasted, but solid and a nice balance of acid and sweet. The two-inch fruits start out green with blue shoulders, and finish up red with the blue still mostly there: it's an eye-catching look.

Indigo Apples in the center, with a couple of Gypsy to the right, one Orange Icicle to the left, and some Isis Candy at top.

I did hear that in our Tomato Room at the recent GIEI event, the purple and blue tomatoes were getting lots of "ugliest" votes (a Black Prince eventually won; I though it was lovely), so I want to put in a plug for these unusual-looking fruits. Not only do they have higher levels of antioxidants than other tomatoes, but they taste good too!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Cucurbits in green and white

Another view of one of the many beautiful gourds from the one volunteer plant that has taken over multiple yards of space at the Derwood Demo Garden (do not plant this in your 100-square-foot plot!). There are so many enormous gourds on the fence now that it's falling over; we had to prop it up with stakes.

It's a species of gourd that has white flowers, open only early in the morning.

And from an entirely different though related plant:

This is a scallop squash called Patisson Panaché Vert et Blanc. It's very lovely, but I found it when it was rather on the mature side, which is when it develops its finest coloring but has a tough skin and big seeds; you should really pick them at about three inches wide and still pale green. I also discovered at the same time (a few days after thoroughly exploring the plants, I swear) three yellow crookneck squash that had turned almost orange and hard as a rock on the outside.

None of these seemed likely to have the best flavor for baking like a winter squash, and the insides were still tender, so what I ended up doing was laboriously peeling them, scooping out the seeds, and then grating the flesh in a food processor. I also grated (in my first experiment) a sweet potato, and (in the second experiment) some onion and mildly hot pepper, mixed the vegetables up with an egg (or two if needed to moisten everything), salt and pepper, and a few tablespoons of chickpea flour, along with a tablespoon or so each of sesame seeds and flax seeds, for a protein and flavor boost. Then I made the mix into patties and fried them in oil. Both times we ate them with a salad containing beans (out of a can - don't have my own dried beans yet) and delicious homegrown tomatoes.

This is a very good year for discussion about what to do with all the squash - but summer squash that's a bit past its prime is a different challenge than huge zucchini that are still tender all through. Some years I've just grated the flesh, stuffed it in bags and stored it in the freezer until I got inspired!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Grow It Eat It is everywhere!

Or, at least, in surprising places. This is at the Germantown branch of Montgomery County Public Libraries.

Have you seen this sign in your community?