Sunday, December 27, 2009

Farewell 2009

I figure that things around here would be pretty slow for a while so I might as well get in one last post to bid farewell to 2009.

2009 was a transitional year for the garden. Moving and settling into our new house took a lot of my attention and energy. I had some nice successes, especially for my first year growing from seed. The peppers, eggplant, herbs, tomatoes, carrots, beets, and lettuce all produced, to varying degrees. My mother and aunt both had success with the seedlings I donated for their gardens.

My main concern for next year will be finding a way to keep the deer and squirrels from getting to my veggies before I do. I'm thinking this will require some type of fenced-in enclosure or netting. That will be something to think about in the coming wintery months.

I had a very successful year with canning. I made jam and tomato juice for the first time, as well as put away lots of whole tomatoes that are serving us well. My "canning shelf" in the pantry is a rainbow of color:


I'm sure in several months it will be less colorful as we work our way through the goods. Next year I would like to try canning some different things, like sour cherry jam, salsa, maybe even some tomato basil sauce. I'd also like to try my hand at freezing some pesto, if I can get my basil to get prolific enough.

For Christmas my parents got me a quart canner to supplement my pint canner. I now have the capability to do both pints and quarts. I'm finding that I go through whole tomatoes fast enough that I think I could use quarts and not have any waste.

Lots of good things happened this year, and there are lots of new things to look forward to next year. 2009 has been rough year for many people, and I'm sure a lot of us are glad to see it going.

Here's to hoping that 2010 is good to us all!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

The very best holiday of the year...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Autumn Eats

The onset of fall always makes me want to cook cozy, warm, spiced foods. Last weekend saw the advent of "Apple Butter 2.0". The apple butter I made last year was tasty - it's been long gone from the pantry - but I must admit, I can tell that even though I cooked it for a little over an hour, I didn't cook it long enough to get that signature smooth texture. This year I was determined to achieve it, even if it meant hours on the stove.

My husband and I drove the 40 or so minutes east to Milford to check out Rousters Apple House for some locally grown apples. Last year's experience at Iron's Fruit Farm was a tad more fulfilling because we were actually able to pick our own apples. At Rousters the fruit is already picked. Even still, the rustic barn that housed all of their apples was homey and smelled enticingly of warm apple fritters.

They had close to ten different varieties, ranging from tart to sweet. I wanted a good tart-to-sweet ratio for the butter, so I settled on half Jonathan (tart, on the left) and half Honeycrisp (sweet, on the right). I also picked up a small carton of Rouster's Apple Cider for the butter - more flavor than water.


Once I got home, I ended up slowly cooking the butter for a little over TWO hours. Now I understand why some people prefer to do this in the crock pot. However, after much spitting and plopping and bubbling, I achieved my goal - smooth, spiced, comforting apple butter.


In addition to apples, I always get a hankering to cook with squash and sweet potatoes in the fall. One of my favorite soup recipes is Moosewood's Gypsy Soup. Onion, celery, garlic, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, bell pepper, tomatoes, garbanzo beans, spiced with paprika, turmeric, basil, cayenne, bay leaf, and a dash of cinnamon - YUM!


All of my ingredients came from our local farmer's markets, and the tomatoes and tomato juice came from my canning efforts earlier this summer. Using canned homegrown tomatoes makes all the difference in a dish, especially soup. I'd take homemade tomato juice over a storebought stock any day.

I paired the soup with a loaf of my homemade kalamata olive bread, and voila, a perfectly cozy meal for two on a brisk fall evening.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Plums!

I think it can officially be said that I am a "Mad Canner", as my aunt would say. I just finished putting up five half pints of plum preserves.

It's a herculean task for me to make weekly trips to the farmer's market and see all of the beautiful produce that is in season and to NOT think wildly about how I'd love to savor it. This weekend I fell head-over-heels for some adorable local Stanley Plums from Backyard Orchards at the Hyde Park Farmer's Market.

I'm pretty clueless when it comes to types of plums and what holds up better when canning. I bought about 2 lbs of the Stanley Plums, which were the only kind available today. These little guys were about the size and shape of an egg and a beautiful dusky purple hue. The flesh was a surprisingly golden yellow color.


I'm working on mastering the art of finding the "gel point" for jams. Very tricky. Basically you cook the fruit and sugar slowly first, and then quickly at a hard rolling boil until it reaches the "gel point" where the liquid sheets off of a spoon instead of dripping like water. It's important to master this art if you want to have jams and preserves that are not too runny yet not so solid that they won't spread. I think that's the hardest part for me when it comes to canning jams - getting that consistency just right.

After boiling the diced plums for a while, the purple skins infused the jam with a lush deep magenta color. Since the batch was not a huge one, I used my special "fancy" Ball jars that I've been saving:


I have to say I think I like the old fashioned quilted Ball jam/jelly jars the best. I love the rustic look and it's easier to get the nectar out of every last nook and cranny.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Black Krim

After months of patient waiting - waiting for the sun to burn hot and for the squirrels to stop pilfering - I have finally had the pleasure of picking my first (and perhaps only) Black Krim tomato.

Aside from a handful of Gold Nuggets and Black Cherries, I haven't had any other luck with my larger tomato plants this season. The weather hasn't been quite hot and sunny enough, and more importantly, animals have eaten every large tomato while it's still green. I had 10-15 nice large Pink Brandywines, Green Zebras, and Black Krims, but they were all eaten before they even started to ripen.

By some stroke of luck, this single Black Krim was allowed to soak up the sun and finally turn the characteristic rusty burnt orange with green hips. While it was only about the size of a tennis ball, I treasured all 3 or 4 bites. I have never had a tomato that tasted so smokey. I swore to my husband that someone had snuck some bacon in there somewhere. It would be killer on a faux BLT sandwich. Absolutely delicious.

Along with Black Krim, I also picked a handful of assorted cherries tonight. Quite a pretty rainbow, Mother Nature - the colors of late summer.

I'm at the point where I'm starting to plan what tomato varieties I'd like to grow next year, along with HOW I'd like to grow them. In other words, I'm going to need to animal-proof my containers with some sort of netting or fencing.

Black Krim is definitely a keeper in the taste department. I'm also very fond of the Black Cherries. The Gold Nuggets were very good, but a little too mild and low-acid for my taste. I like a tomato that has some bite, some tartness, paired with a sweet juiciness. I would like to give Green Zebras another chance, this time varmint-free.

My mom bought me a tomato "dictionary" a few weeks ago and I've been greedily reading through with visions dancing in my head.

Still plenty of time left to plan while this year's garden is starting to wind down.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Peach Preserves

My mom and I were discussing Red Haven peaches this week. Our family has long been of the opinion that these peaches, while smaller than average and full of stubborn pits, have the best flavor of any peach out there.

I have fond memories of day trips where our family would pile into the car and take a drive to more rural areas of Southwest Ohio, oftentimes searching for a park. Along the way we would see signs for farm stands and mom-and-pop produce carts. If we were lucky and it was the right season, we'd stop and fill up on some Red Haven deliciousness.

All this talk inspired me to make a batch of peach preserves this weekend. I HAD thought that I was done with canning for the year, but I've been giving away lots of jars to friends and relatives, and my husband has also been chipping away at our stash, so I figured what the heck.

Originally I was hoping to pick up some locally grown peaches at the Hyde Park Farmer's Market this morning, but unfortunately none of the vendors were selling peaches. On to Plan B, I popped up to Pipkins Fruit & Vegetable Market in Blue Ash in the hopes that they would have some farm fresh peaches, even if they weren't local. I was in luck - they had some very nice looking South Carolina peaches.


I brought them home and proceeded to dice, boil, sweeten, and jar. For some reason, this jam seems very feminine and beautiful. Not that my previous batches weren't easy on the eyes, but the soft sunglow color of today's preserves made me quite proud.


I can't wait to try some on a slice of homemade bread!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Baba Ghanoush

The past few weeks my mother has been bringing me some of the results of her bumper crop of Japanese Eggplant.


Eggplant is one of those vegetables that I'm pretty picky about. It has a texture that can be quite unpleasant if not prepared right. Nobody likes spongey or slimy eggplant. In my opinion, you can either bread/fry it, grill it, or roast it and puree into some yummy baba ghanoush, which is what I did today.

I roasted 6 or 7 long, thin eggplants until blistered and browned. You then take the smoky flesh and throw it in a food processor along with tahini, fresh garlic, fresh cilantro, lemon juice, olive oil, cumin, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.


We've been snacking on this delicious dip all afternoon, interspersed with breaks for my current home project - painting the kitchen.

Nothing like a nice lazy Sunday at home...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bounty

Lots of purty pictures to show off for ya. It's been a couple weeks and we've had some good fortune, both from my garden and from my parent's garden. I'll start with my garden.

My first cute Japanese Eggplant of the season, along with some Fish Peppers that have turned from a variegated green and white to a bright cherry red:


A good handful of Red Marconi Peppers - I finally let them stay on the vine long enough to turn a nice fire engine red. I roasted these guys in the oven last night and diced them into a pasta salad with smoked mozzarella, heirloom cherry tomatoes, and fresh basil:


Now onto the fruits of my parent's garden. While I didn't grow all of these beauties myself, I have to say that I'm still proud because they came from the seedlings I donated earlier this summer.

Firstly, some of those heirloom cherry tomato gems I mentioned earlier - these are from my adopted Gold Nugget and Black Cherry plants. They were both delicious, although I have to say I think the Black Cherries had a bit more flavor:


Kicking things up a notch, here is a MONSTER from the Pink Brandywine plant. I sliced this bad boy up tonight for dinner - heaaaaven! Juicy, meaty, sweet, and just the right amount of acidity. Definitely a keeper, although mine are nowhere near this size.


Lastly, my parents brought me two more flats of regular tomatoes for canning. On the heels of my whole-tomato fiesta the other week, I now had plans to can some tomato juice. Last night I canned 10 pints of tomato juice by simply cooking chunked tomatoes, sweet peppers, yellow onion, and a couple garlic cloves. This, along with the whole tomatoes, will make for great chili, marinara sauce, and sloppy joes this winter when the bounty of summer is long gone.

Before:


After:


This is the time of summer I love - when you're literally swimming in tomatoes. Not a meal goes by where you don't eat a fresh tomato of some sort.

Cheers!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Weeknight Canner

Last night after getting home late, I embarked on a mad canning adventure. Earlier this week my mom had dropped off several flats of homegrown tomatoes from their garden. Last year's canned whole tomatoes are long gone, so I wanted to put away quite a bit more this summer. While the tomatoes she dropped off were a little under-ripe earlier this week, they quickly turned ruby red and by last night were at THAT point - can or die.

So at about 8:30pm I started blanching, peeling, packing, and canning 14 pints of whole tomatoes. I was tired, hungry, and ready to veg in front of the TV for the night, but there was no waiting for these beauties. I ended up finishing around midnight, which wasn't so bad for a weeknight I suppose.

Today I surveyed the finished product:


The tomatoes were gorgeous, even with the blight problems we've had this year. I noticed a blight spot on one of my Black Krim's this week - rats.

The peppers are starting to turn - I've had to restrain myself from picking a Red Marconi while it's still green:


I made dinner for the in-laws last weekend and for the appetizer I made a balsamic marinated roasted red pepper crostini. When I roasted the red bell peppers, I threw in a couple whole Fish Peppers to add a little kick. It's safe to say that Fish Peppers are as hot if not hotter than jalapenos. Zesty!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Downsizing

I'm finally starting to just accept the fact that this year hasn't been the best for Cincinnati gardening.

Reluctantly I've been pulling some of the plants that are limping along, like the melon, zucchini, squash, and last of the lettuce. I'm really disappointed to not have any zucchini or squash this year. The plants just never got big, and at no point were they nice and leafy green. There are several blooms right now but barely any foliage - no chance that they will ever pull through. Better luck next year.

So I've pared things down to the plants that are succeeding - I was starting to get tired of seeing a half-haggard garden every day. I'm left with the staples now: tomato, peppers, eggplant, and herbs.

The herbs seem to like the side of the house - sunny but not brutal. I have one mature eggplant and another on the way. Both types of peppers are loaded with goodies.

The tomatoes have been quite interesting this year. I've never grown this many varieties before and have never had experience with heirloom plants. I'm quite excited to see how certain types are fans of the Cincinnati climate while others are missing a little something.

While the Gold Nugget was the first to ripen, I've been blown away by the Black Krim this week - he gets the "Sleeper Award" of the summer. He was off to such a slow start that I thought he might not even fruit, but out of nowhere he has come from behind and is loaded with more fruit than any of the other plants!


On the opposite hand, the Pink Brandywine isn't as happy as he could be. I'm convinced that these plants are meant to have more room than I'm able to offer - they're meant to be grown in the ground so they can spread out and access all the nutrients possible so those huge fruits can grow. He still has several squatty tomatoes though.


The Black Cherry is tall and a little leggy, but dotted with little green globes.


Lastly, the Green Zebra has several tomatoes starting to swell and ripen.


At this point everything still looks like a bunch of green tomatoes, but if you are familiar with the nuances of the varieties, you can tell them apart - something for me to work on.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

First Heirloom Tomato

Gold Nugget: citrusy, bright, and light




Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Take a Good Look...

...this will probably be the biggest (and only) melon you're going to see from my garden this year:


Whatever it is that's been eating away at my curcurbits has finally claimed the last of my Minnesota Midget plants. I'm pretty bummed; I was hoping to have something completely new and exciting this year. I still might give it another shot and re-seed, I'm just not sure what to do with those bugs. Oh well.

In other news, my first ever Brandywine tomato has started swelling. He's got that Brandywine-characteristic bunchy folded pucker look:


Also, my first Japanese Eggplant is getting some purpley color:


In the garden you take the good with the bad, I suppose.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Less Working, More Canning

I took another day off of work today in the further pursuit of berry goodness. I'm starting to like this taking-time-off-work thing; maybe I'll make it a summer tradition to play hookie and pick fruit. My quest for the day took the form of two things: blueberries and black raspberries. I had planned to visit two different pick-ur-own farms: Hidden Valley Fruit Farm for the blueberries and Stokes Berry Farm for the black raspberries.

Hidden Vally Fruit Farm is located in quaint Lebanon, OH, about a 40 minute drive from our house. I had called earlier this week and they promised they'd be open for u-pick blueberries, but when I got there this morning I was informed that due to slim pickings, they had shut down the u-pick. They did have quite a bit of already-picked blueberries from their patch, so I acquiesced and bought several quarts. I wasn't planning on making blueberry jam - more just for fresh eating and possibly some freezing. For dessert tonight I ended up making an old-fashioned blueberry cobbler that was AMAZING:


(Thanks mom for passing down this recipe!)

The first stop on my journey completed, I then headed 20 minutes east to Stokes Berry Farm. I can't seem to stay away from this place. Today was much cooler than my previous trip - perfect weather for picking. Let me say this, I don't think I've ever seen black raspberries so nice as they were today. All it took was some tough skin to push aside the brambles and the plump clusters of raspberries were right there, nestled quietly.


I ended up picking a little over four quarts, just enough to make a batch of black raspberry jam.


When I arrived back home, I immediately started doing up the jam. Same procedure as a few weeks ago. I ended up with 15 half pints of deep, winey, lush blackberry jam. I'm waiting for the jam to set up over night and will be taste testing tomorrow.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Anniversary

My husband and I celebrated our two year anniversary tonight by grilling out - for the first time - EVER. I'm happy to report that everything was edible, and in fact, quite tasty, even for amateur grillers such as ourselves.


We threw on a couple of our favorite veg snausages from Field Roast - "Smoked Apple Sage" and "Italian". Both were fantastic (even though I'll admit they don't look that appetizing in the picture). I much prefer wheat-based veg products such as seitan over soy-based veg products.

In addition to the snausages, we grilled a cornucopia of veggies: purple onions, sweet red peppers, zucchini, asparagus, and shiitake and cremini mushrooms. I whisked up a quick marinade with lemon juice, olive oil, dijon mustard, fresh oregano and thyme, and salt and pepper.


Our 18" Weber grill is the perfect size for two people. We definitely learned a few things, but all told, it was much easier than I imagined.


So Happy Anniverary to us - I love you babe!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Come and Get It!

Saturday mornings are the only time of the week that I'm able to treat us to a nice homemade breakfast. This morning I was inspired by the Fine Verde Basil that's been flourishing these first days of summer. In past years, I've always grown traditional basil with the big fat leaves. This year is a bit of a departure for me - my heirloom basil is loaded with tons of fine sweet little anisey leaves that look almost like thyme:


For breakfast, first I scrambled some eggs with fresh basil and black pepper. Then I sauteed some cremini mushrooms and red onion until nice and browned. Quartered cherry tomatoes and more fresh basil topped it off:


Deee-licious! I can't wait until I'm able to use fresh tomatoes from MY garden instead of the store.

Speaking of the garden, things are still coming along nicely. Whatever was nipping at my tomato blossoms seems to have stopped and I'm seeing lots of shy little green tomatoes peeking out from under their fuzzy caps. The peppers have started taking off, too - plenty of little green ones out there.

I'm seeing something very interesting going on with the Fish Pepper. I have three plants growing, and two are fairly uniformly green, but the third is a variegated white and green. This holds true for both the leaves AND the first little pepper I saw this morning:


Curious to me how there could be such differences within the same variety of plant - maybe this is due to the fact that they're heirloom? It's gorgeous and I can't wait to see how hot (or not hot) a Fish Pepper is.

I had been noticing a strange beetle lurking around my squash, zucchini, and melon plants over the past few weeks. It's about the size of a grain of rice and has yellow and black stripes. From what I can tell, it appears to be a Cucumber Beetle and he has been feasting on my cucurbits. The leaves are spotty and lacy and one of my melon plants even wilted up and died. I'm hoping that the beetles will just go away as the plants get bigger and stronger and the leaves aren't as tender. So far I've managed to stay completely organic this year and I'd like to keep it that way.

The Cucumber Beetles got me thinking about how odd it is that you never seem to have the same pest problems two years in a row. Last year I had major aphid problems but nothing else. This year the aphids were very minimal but I'm dealing with these cucurbit monsters. I guess Mother Nature likes to keep us on our toes - wouldn't want us gardeners to get too complacent, now would she?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Carrots

This morning I felt it was time - time to pull my first carrots.

I have been secretly poking at my carrots for the past few weeks, checking for done-ness, if you will. I pulled 3-4 each of both varieties that were planted this spring: Cosmic Purple and St. Valery. For some reason I didn't really think I'd ever be able to grow PURPLE carrots, like there must be some sort of secret trick to it, but lo-and-behold...



The St. Valery was orange and had more of that classic carrot taste. The Cosmic Purple was a berry-stained maroon and sweeter and more mild. Both very good, very crunchy. The carrots seemed to have more root and less foliage than last year - I guess that's why I'm pulling them earlier. I'm so proud!

In other news, my eggplant has sent out its first bloom of the season - Yeah!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Baby Veggies

In the past week it's finally become evident that I'm actually going to have peppers, tomatoes, and other goodies this summer. It's a miracle that never fails to astonish.

Here's my first pepper - it's a sweet Red Marconi:


And here's my first tomatoes, the Gold Nugget:


And lastly here's my first EVER melon - Minnesota Midget:


The melon plants are loaded with baby melons - I've read that it's best to let a few healthy fruits grow and pinch off all others. This seems so cruel, just like thinning out seedlings. I'll see how many actually start plumping up.

I've noticed that something (most likely a STARLING) has been enjoying my tomato plants. Specifically, something has been snipping off the Pink Brandywine blossoms - I'm having flashbacks to last year's Starling Trouble. I'm fairly helpless in this situation, unless I decide to put up some ugly netting - the neighbors would love that. Hopefully this is just a passing fancy...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Stokes Berry Farm

This morning I trekked up to Wilmington to visit Stokes Berry Farm.


My goal was to pick enough strawberries to make a batch or two of strawberry-rhubarb jam. This was my first time picking strawberries since my Grandparents closed their patch, and when I turned the bend in the gravel road and spotted the rows of plants and straw, tears welled up in my eyes as I recalled so many tender memories from my childhood.


Everyone at Stokes is extremely friendly. I was amazed by the variety of people picking at 9:30 on a Sunday morning: a Latino couple, several Indian families, a caravan of young Japanese families, a group of soccer moms, and little ol' me. The woman at the counter told me that all of their berries are "All Star" variety - a type that my grandparents grew and I'm familiar with.

Picking was pretty good - not a free-for-all, but steady. The berries were medium to small sized, but as any seasoned canner knows, the smaller and sweeter the berry, the better jam they make.

I quickly filled my tray with the intoxicating crimson beauties. I only wish I could bottle the smell of warm sun-drenched strawberries - the aroma is flowery, fruity...quintessentially STRAWBERRY.


After picking more than enough strawberries (it was really hard for me to stop myself), I noticed that yesterday was Stokes first day picking red raspberries. I was warned that picking was slow, but what the heck, I was having such a good time. The morning was dewy, there was a slight breeze, birds were whizzing through the air and singing, and bees were orbiting fruit blossoms in a drunken stupor.


I found the red raspberry patch and while there wasn't a boatload of fruit to be had, I managed to pick a very rounded quart. As far as I'm concerned, I lucked-out that there were even raspberries in season. I've always liked red raspberries better than black raspberries; I'll be back in a month or so to pick some blacks.





When I got home, I commenced to cannin'. First up was the strawberry-rhubarb jam - I had decided to do a double batch (some for us and some for gifts). Mind you, I've never made jam before, so I'm putting my faith in the Ball Blue Book and my mother's seasoned advice. Wash berries, chop rhubarb (bought at Findlay Market yesterday), heat with lemon juice, sugar, and pectin, wash jars and lids, pour in the goodness, screw on the lids, and boil in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.


Next up was the serendipitous red raspberry jam. Just a single batch this time. Same procedure as before, only no pectin or lemon juice. By the time I was finished the windows in the kitchen were completely fogged over. Canning is not for those who have a problem with sweating over a hot stove.

Final count:
  • Strawberry Rhubarb Jam - 17 half pints
  • Red Raspberry Jam - 6 half pints
Isn't nature amazing? Two completely different shades of red and all 100% natural:


All 23 jars clicked giving me 100% sealage - nice! The final test will be tomorrow morning when I have some jam on some homemade bread. I'll be able to see how well the jam set up.

I have to say, I'm pooped, but satisfied (and, dare I say it, pretty proud). Knowing that I can carry on two family traditions - picking strawberries and canning summer's harvest - makes me appreciate and love my roots that much more.