Monday, September 27, 2010

fall, already and officially

I keep referring to our "fall garden" yet I'm having a hard time admitting the season has come. Even now when the weather is forcing me to wear tights and leggings with my summer dresses. Fall has actually been my favorite season for as long as I can remember - the crispness of the air, the cooler weather, and the promise of being able to pull my favorite boots out of the closet. This year I don't want summer to end because there's so much fall work to be done for us to get ready for next spring!

Fall does have it's perks for gardening though - we finally harvested enough lettuce for salads last week! The spinach, chard, and kale are all filling in nicely as well.

I'm in Seattle this week, so that's making the seasonal transition a bit more convincing. Beautiful clear skies the first day, but now it's rainy and cold enough that I'm wishing I'd packed my fingerless gloves. It's a shame I couldn't fit the boots in the suitcase too.

I did manage to get away from scheduled activities long enough to visit the famous Pike Place Market, though, which was a real treat.

I finally found an organic garlic braid to hang in the kitchen and use all winter as well. I'm thinking about going back for the peppers too. The small garlic braid was only $10 and is all wrapped up in newspaper to take home. :)

Hopefully, I can make it back down there again before the end of the trip.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

falling in love with figs

I had a fresh fig for the first time this summer. Really, the first time ever! I grew up loving Fig Newtons, but they hardly count. I'd come closer to an actual fig with a very tasty fig & prosciutto panini from Whole Foods... This was pretty much the extent of my fig experience until this summer when I finally gave in to my curiosity at the farmer's market and approached Ivan's Fig Farm. This is what I'd been missing??? I couldn't believe the unique flavor and texture. It was so rich and delicious! Luscious, amazing, figgy goodness.

Turns out, not only do they taste amazing, but they provide a lot of good health benefits:
  • Packed with potassium
  • Good source of fiber
  • Good source of calcium and magnesium. In fact, the fig has one of the highest calcium contents of any plant based food.
  • I haven't eaten the leaves, but they have apparently been shown to have antidiabetic properties and even lower levels of triglycerides. Maybe I should make these my next new food adventure!
They are quite high in natural sugars though, so I try to refrain from eating a whole box of them at once - as tempting as it is! I learned at the market that you should look for a deep, rich color and select figs that are plump but not mushy. If you don't plan to eat them in the next day or two, (or before you can even grab your wallet to pay for them as I've done) then select figs that are more firm.  When they begin to soften, use them or refrigerate them.  Once they're ripe, figs spoil very quickly. 

I've since bought some fresh figs from Whole Foods to use for some recipes and experiments with the food dehydrator. They're not as tasty as the ones from the market, but they're more affordable when you want a bunch for preserving. If you've never tried a fresh fig, I highly recommend grabbing some from your local farmer's market if they have them and from Ivan's if you're a St. Louis local - but hurry, the season is almost over!

Recipes I'm anxious to try:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

praying for a mantis.

Look who I found hanging out on the hummingbird feeder! The elusive praying mantis. Some say they are a gardener's dream for managing other plant pests. Plus, I'm one of those weirdos who think they are super cute with their little alien eyes and rotating heads. Apparently, the hummingbird feeder was leaking and the sugar water was attracting every ant for miles... enter the praying mantis for the all-you-can-eat ant buffet! :)

I brought him out to the garden with me and he climbed off the feeder somewhere around the mint and cucumbers. Though he'll have to work a tiny bit harder for his meals, I'm pretty sure he'll have enough food over there. Hopefully he will stay and help out with the remaining cucumber beetles and assassin bugs. Maybe "he" is even a "she" and more little mantises will start popping up.

Beneficial or harmful for the garden? It's true that the praying mantis does not discriminate. He'll eat a cucumber beetle or a beneficial lacewing, both are quite tasty for him. However, with a severe lack of beneficial bugs in the garden and an overgrowth of destructive ones, I'm happy to take my chances. Welcome home, Mr. (or Ms.) Mantis.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

from the garden: today's tomatoes

today's tomato harvest, plus one chili

Welcome September, the month of tomatoes? We finally have tons of green and recently red tomatoes popping up all over the garden. With 8 cherry tomato plants, about 6 brandywine, and 3 unidentified tomato plant gifts, we should be well-stocked for a while so long as the weather doesn't get too cold or wet.

One of the cherry tomato plants has been the star of the garden and has been producing tomatoes consistently for about a month, but never more than a few at a time. Today, I think I pulled 3x that amount from him and quite a few from his neighbors as well. The only productive brandywine (so far) is still all green, but there are about a dozen more fruits starting while we wait for the good-sized ones to ripen. The "gifted" tomato plants have been the most productive, but I admittedly question their fertilizing methods before arriving in our yard. For that reason, they're sequestered to their own area ;) but still far more edible than what I tend to find in a supermarket.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

salsa day: spicy tomato salsa

Out of all the recipes we tried during our canning day extravaganza, our favorite was definitely the Spicy Tomato Salsa, taken from the Ball Blue Book. I'd recommend the book to anyone getting started with canning. Lots of great recipes, tips, and technique info - including a Problem Solver section for those "wth happened to it???" moments.

We've already gone through about 2 quarts of the salsa we made last time, so while the tomatoes are fresh, I decided to do another batch over the weekend. I admit to having a bit of 'canning anxiety' in the sense that I want to get tons of tomatoes preserved while they're still in full swing seasonally. Fortunately, the garden is now, in September, finally loaded with green tomatoes just waiting to ripen. This may be the first of many tomato preserving days!

Spicy Tomato Salsa
Makes about 6 pints
Adapted from the Ball Blue Book of Preserving
6 pounds tomatoes (about 12 large)
9 dried hot chilies, seeds removed
15 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 cups diced red onion
6 jalapeño peppers, seeded and diced
1 1/2 cups chopped cilantro, packed tightly
1 tablespoon salt
3/4 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
3/4 cup red wine vinegar, 5% acidity
Note: When cutting or seeding hot peppers, wear rubber gloves to prevent hands from being burned. (seriously, from experience, wear the gloves!)

The salsa is easy enough to make, but the prep takes some time. I don't mind having the seeds & tomato skin in the salsa (especially since we usually purée it before consuming anyway) so I skip this step, which saves some time. I've also been using a nifty trick I learned in the canning class - if you have any metal pastry tips on hand, they are great tools for coring tomatoes (and onions, strawberries, etc.). Just poke the tip into the top of the tomato and give it a little twist. The top will usually pop right out.

Sterilize jars and lids.
Peel, seed and dice tomatoes into 1/4-inch size pieces. Place chilies in a small bowl. Pour boiling water over chilies just to cover. Secure plastic wrap over bowl and allow peppers to steep for 15 minutes. Drain half the water from chilies. Purée chilies and remaining water in blender for 1 minute or until smooth. I also substitute parsley in place of cilantro, since so many people I know seem to find cilantro downright offensive. I actually like it, but I've found parsley works just as well.

Once prepped, combine all ingredients into a large saucepan, bring to a boil, then let it simmer for about 10 minutes or until mixture has thickened, then it's ready to be put in jars!

Carefully ladle hot salsa into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles with a nonmetallic spatula. Wipe rim and threads of jar with a clean damp cloth. Adjust the two-piece caps. Screw band down evenly and firmly just until resistance is met – fingertip tight.

Process 15 minutes in a boiling-water canner.

Yum. :) This batch should be a bit spicier than the first one we tried since it has a little bit of extra jalapeno. Looking forward to my diet cheat day (more on that later) so I can try it out without worrying about how many tortilla chips I've had!

Monday, September 6, 2010

proper prior planning

Maybe it's the project manager in me, but I've found recently that I really love preserving foods. Ok, I like anything that's well-planned out, but the idea of taking foods that are at their peak in freshness, taste, and nutrition now and finding a way to make them last all winter is one of the most ingenious plans ever created.

Originally, the whole food-preserving thing came from the idealistic notion that our garden would produce more than we could consume (which didn't exactly happen this year). I signed up for a canning class at The Kitchen Conservatory that was taught by a local urban farmer. I enjoyed the class, not just for the canning techniques, but the general cooking info and recipes as well. Also, it settled all those initial fears about canning - you know, the voice that says, "I'd love to give preserves & sauces as holiday gifts." Then quickly follows with, "Nothing says I love you like the gift of botulism." Turns out, if you follow some pretty common sense guidelines, canning is actually really easy. Sterilize your jars, use the correct equipment, and follow tried & true recipes.

While in the class, I was working with another couple prepping some onions when I mentioned that I got my boyfriend a pressure canner for our anniversary (yeah, we're that kind of couple). Turns out, they're that kind of couple too, so we chatted after the class & picked a day for the four of us to get together and try our hand at some of this. Still awaiting the big boom of the garden, we decided to hit the farmer's market in Tower Grove for our "Canning Day" ingredients. A general tip for the market - if you want a deal on large amounts of produce, get there later in the day. The vendors may be willing to sell you the rest of what they have for a bit less. If you're looking for specific items and need a certain amount (as we did), arrive earlier for a better selection.

Lessons learned:
  • The first lesson we learned is to not attempt too many recipes at once.
    We decided on 5 recipes between 4 of us and, in retrospect, I wouldn't have tried more than 3 in a day. It ended up being a fun but tiring 8 hour event, which none of us anticipated, though we certainly got a lot of food out of it!
  • Prep work can take a long time, especially for something like salsa or pasta sauce. Time the work so there's always at least 2 things going at once. For instance, while the salsa ingredients are being prepped, jars can be put in boiling water for sterilization.
    We had a few periods where we were standing in the hot kitchen just waiting for one thing to finish so something else could be started.
  • Always, always, always wear gloves when working with hot peppers!
    Learned the hard way by means of fingers that burned for 6 hours, not to mention the accidental touch of fingers to face. If this happens, try putting vinegar, milk, or lemon juice on the affected area.
  • If you compost, this is a great day to fill your bin with kitchen scraps.
    The other couple may have thought we were crazy, but we took home a giant bag of all the kitchen scraps from the day. The compost looks better than ever for it!
  • Don't fear the pressure canner.
    This seemed daunting at first, but we followed the step-by-step directions and had no problems at all.

Recipes included canned corn, dill pickles, spicy tomato salsa, pepper marmalade, and pasta sauce.