Monday, September 29, 2014

This year's best veggies

The year is not over yet in the Derwood Demo Garden - we hope to keep producing well into the fall and even winter, and to add quite a bit to our current total of 1471 pounds donated to Manna Food Center (well over twice last year's total). But the end of September is a good time to sit back a little and assess what worked well and what didn't.

I consulted with co-veggie-leader Robin Ritterhoff and Super-Intern Bill Newman about what the best performing vegetables of the year were, and here's a partial list of things we thought extraordinary, with the emphasis on what we hadn't grown before.

photo by Darlene Nicholson
Ground Cherries. I had never successfully grown these little sweet bites of goodness before, but Robin had, and she said both at home and in the demo garden they had a fantastic year. They are a member of the nightshade family, and the fruits grow in little husks as do tomatillos, but the taste is quite different. Mm.

We also grew another nightshade family member called Wonderberry or Sunberry, a plant developed by Luther Burbank in the early 20th century, which resembles some of its more poisonous relatives (I had to keep defending it against well-meaning weeders) and produces small black berries that should make good jam if you grew enough plants. We only had one, so we snacked; some of us liked the taste and some thought it was unpleasant. This is the sort of plant that needs to come with a warning NOT to assume similar fruit is edible - know where your seeds came from! - but it's worth trying if you like novelties.

Tomatoes. Now, the DDG tomato patch did very poorly on the whole this year - some combination of stressed plants and compacted soil, plus disease - but there were exceptions, and my own patch in the community garden did very well. I've already reviewed Indigo Apple, but its sister plant from Wild Boar Farms, Indigo Blue Berries, was a late starter at the demo garden but caught up fast and is still going strong.

The unripe fruits are startlingly all-blue and shiny, and then develop some red color as they ripen.

They have a pleasant taste with a good balance of sweet and acid. Robin says they crack much less easily than Sungold, and look fantastic in a salad with those favorite sweet orange tomatoes.

Other tomatoes that have done well for me this year include the prolific, large-fruited sauce tomato Polish Linguisa (its only fault being that the green fruits fall off spontaneously if you so much as threaten to touch them, so I've had a lot of indoor ripeners through the season), and the modest-sized green-and-red Gypsy, which provided lovely flavor and bountiful harvests. I've also had some delicious Brandywines and Abruzzos, but those aren't new to me. I was less than thrilled with Isis Candy Cherry, which spoiled easily, and unfortunately my Aunt Ruby's German Green plant was shadowed by an enormous volunteer sunflower that I couldn't bring myself to pull out (but the one at the DDG produced some nice-tasting green fruits).

Other plants worthy of mention include spring-grown heirloom kales Lark's Tongue and Hanover Salad - it was a great year for kale and other greens in general, due to lower temperatures and lack of harlequin bugs - and Dixie Speckled Butterpea bush lima beans, which produced a large crop all at once in late August. I've tried pole limas at the DDG before with no luck, because the frost hit before they'd matured, so bush limas seem to be the way to go. Next year is GIEI's Year of the Bean, so expect plenty more of these!

We also produced some lovely Cranberry Beans, which were grown out to dry stage and then cooked to share at a GIEI meeting. Unfortunately they turn a uniform brown when boiled instead of maintaining the gorgeous variegation, but the taste is meaty and excellent.

Since this is the Year of Cucurbits, I have to share our great (and unusual) successes in that realm, due largely to lack of the usual pests rather than to any innovative strategies in combating them (there's always next year). We had more cucumbers than ever before; I wish I could tell you which varieties did best, but they grew over each other so avidly I couldn't tell one vine from the next. The vegetable garden grew some lovely gourds by accident, and the children's garden grew many more on purpose.

We even had melons, which usually don't do well for us: some little Savor Charentais and some Sweet Granite muskmelons (some of which were supposed to be bitter gourd but got mislabeled, oh well). Thanks to Bill's impulse buy at an Asian market, we've had prolific Mao Gwa fuzzy gourds, which cook up nicely once you've removed the hairs, and we still have winter squash coming along. And of course the mouse melons did splendidly.

photo by Darlene Nicholson
We also managed to produce a watermelon in a container: this is the relatively new Sugar Pot cultivar. Okay, only one small watermelon, but it's nice to know you can do it.

The real stars (and donation weight providers) have been the summer squash, especially our stalwart Tromboncino (climbing up and overwhelming its large trellis). Several ground-dwelling relatives produced well also, but all other zucchini were put to shame by lovely and delicious (even at, ahem, rather excessive sizes) Costata Romanesco, which is the variety I'll turn to in preference from now on.

Here are its scallop-edged slices brightening up a stir-fry: firm, meaty, and pretty too. Despite the plants having developed powdery mildew in August, it's still producing squash, if not quite as exuberantly as earlier in the season.

photo by Darlene Nicholson

And in root vegetable land, I'll mention our fingerling potatoes, which turned out really more like hands than fingers.

Please share your favorite varieties of the year in the comments!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Quick and easy tomato-sweet potato sauce

Polish Linguisa tomato shaped like a penguin. Because.
My tomatoes are close to being finished for the season, but until recently we were being occasionally overwhelmed by the production of only eight plants (or really five, because three never amounted to much) and after I got back from a trip I found myself with many ripe tomatoes and no time to make tomato sauce the long-cooking way - and needed something to put on the ravioli! So here was my quick solution:

Tomato Sweet-Potato Sauce

You can vary the amount of sauce produced depending on how many tomatoes you want to use up. I started with about 5 medium-sized tomatoes and one sweet potato.

Trim any unripe or nasty bits off the tomatoes (no need to peel) and cut them into quarters or eighths depending on size. Paste-type tomatoes, or other solid-fleshed ones, work better for this, but whatever you have will do fine. It works best to scoop out some of the seeds and watery pulp, but you don't need to get it all. (I have generally been letting cut tomatoes sit in a colander over a bowl and mushing them down a bit to extract juice - which can be saved for other purposes - but didn't bother with that this time.) Put the tomato pieces into a blender and puree.

Cook the sweet potato(es) - 5 minutes in the microwave will do it for all but the largest (make sure to pierce with a fork first). Scrape out the flesh and add it to the blender, then puree that too.

The resulting sauce was thick enough for me to use without further cooking down, but if yours is thin, put it into a pot and cook it on the stove for a while until it's thicker. Season as desired (salt and pepper, oregano, thyme, etc.) and then use as a pasta sauce or however you want. I cooked some vegetables separately and then added the sauce, and used it on top of vegetable-and-cheese-stuffed ravioli. Nice red-orange color and sweet-tart taste!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Carroll County Grow It Eat It concludes a successful 2014

How time flies.  It seems like yesterday since the first GIEI gardening class of 2014 but somehow we've completed another nine month Grow It Eat It program year, delivering great programs and receiving great feedback from our customers.  We asked ourselves back in January if the snow and cold would ever diminish and let us execute on the promised eight weekly (sixteen topic) gardening classes to our faithful attendees.

We averaged just over 50 visitors each week who learned about Getting started in the Garden and Raised Bed Gardening; Knowing your Soil; Seed Saving; Cucurbits; Herbs; Container Gardening; Square Foot Gardening; IPM (pest and disease management); Pollination and Pollinators; the Good, the Bad and the Ugly bugs; Extending the Gardening Season; Backyard Greenhouses; Kitchen gardens; CSAs (community supported agriculture); Small fruits and Tree fruits.  We concluded our class room discussions with a session on Companion planting.  During each session we treated our attendees with a great treat and cooking demonstration.

By mid March we were busy planning our monthly Twilight Meetings.  Beginning April and continuing the third Monday evening of each month, we delivered six well attended gardening programs to interested public.  Our topics included Pruning; Tomatoes

and Vertical Gardening; Drip Irrigation; Composting and Garden Diseases; Seed Saving; Cover Crops and Winterizing the Garden.  In total, we delivered 1720 hours of learning to our customers.  We often hear reference to "it takes a community" to be successful.

Our community is a dedicated group of Master Gardeners who make up a fantastic team.  We focus on our mission then plan and deliver while having fun at the same time. I"m proud to be part of such a dedicated group of volunteers. Now it's off to begin planning another fantastic Grow It Eat It program for 2015.  See you there.  Butch Willard

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.