Thursday, January 29, 2015

Time for roasted veggies!

Winter is the time to roast your vegetables! Especially all those root vegetables that you may still be digging up if you're a winter gardener, or taking out of storage from the fall, or buying because they look so intriguing.

Here's my selection from a few nights ago, which includes carrots (orange and red), rutabaga, and daikon radish. Roasting radishes is a great kitchen hint I only learned this year, and I am so glad because I plan on growing about fifteen different kinds this year (more or less) and you can only put so many in salads, sandwiches, stir-frys or pickles. Radishes lose their intense bite when roasted, but retain delicious flavor.

Some of my other favorites include potatoes, sweet potatoes, and parsnips. And non-root veggies make for great roasting, too; try squash, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, or kohlrabi.

Here's a nice Bon Appetit article with hints for roasting vegetables and avoiding common mistakes. I'm glad to see I've been doing some of these right all along, and have learned the others through trial and error! Here's my general process for roasting veggies:

  1. Clean, peel, and cut up the vegetables into bite-sized but not tiny pieces.
  2. You can hasten the roasting process through pre-steaming some vegetables (usually for about 10 minutes). I don't have a complete list of those that benefit from cooking ahead, but potatoes, carrots, and the harder brassicas are on it. If you're mixing them up with quicker cookers like sweet potatoes or squash this is particularly important. You don't want a blend of hard little nuggets and complete mush.
  3. Put all the veggies in a roasting pan or (as advised in article) on a sheet pan. I find that I need to make a decision ahead of the chopping process about whether I'm saving energy by using my toaster oven for a small batch, or roasting large amounts for leftovers in the big oven. It's very important not to crowd the veggies, and they should all be touching the pan, not be piled on top of each other.
  4. Season the veggies. Use olive or other oil, but just enough to coat - do it in stages till you're sure. You don't want excess oil sizzling in the pan. My default is to add some balsamic vinegar plus salt and pepper, but there are lots of options. Stir to cover evenly.
  5. Put the dish into a 400 degree oven and roast for between 20 and 45 minutes, depending; the veggies should be tender and starting to crisp. Stir about every 10 minutes. (Set the timer.)
  6. Enjoy! You might want to give them a final drizzle of high-quality oil or an extra shake of seasoning, if they need it.

What are your favorite vegetables to roast?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Starting transplants under fluorescent lights

Well, it's just about time to turn on my fluorescent lights and start growing onion and cabbage transplants for the garden. Other cool season transplants get started later in February.

In February 2013, I wrote a blog about germinating seed and growing transplants. This blog contained a lot of information and links to other informative articles.  Last year, I replace my T-12 fixtures which had served me for 30 year with T-8s simply because T-12 bulbs putting out 2600 lums (in my opinion, the minimum amount of light needed to grow strong stocky transplants) were getting harder to find.  My January 2014 blog described how I changed out the T-12 fixtures for T-8 troffers capable of growing 4 flats of transplants at a time.

So, now at the end of January 2015, I'm ready to start the new growing season.  I'll do this by first replacing the fluorescent tubes in all of my T-8 troffers.  I use my lights a lot (January through the end of July) and most fluorescent tubes start to lose brightness after 10% (2,000 hours) of their life (20,000) hours.  I know that 2,000 hours seems like a long time, but when the lights are on 16 hours a day, it only takes around 120 days or 4 months for tubes to lose some of their brightness.  So, if your transplants were a little weak and spindly last year, think about replacing your tubes with some new (at least 2600 lum) tubes.  I use both warm and cool white tubes in my fixtures to get both the blue and red sides of the light spectrum, but cool whites are just fine for starting transplants.  You really don't have to use expensive grow lights if you are just growing transplant,

If you are new to the "Grow It Eat It" blog, and have never started transplants using fluorescent lights, you can find information here.  That page also contains links to videos on seed starting, the whens and hows.

Inside greenery for a snowy day

I don't know about you, but in the middle of the winter I not only like to dream about summer gardens, I also want to have some greenery inside. Houseplants and I don't get along well (plus my cats like to chew on them) and I prefer something at least potentially edible. Once the seed-starting season is in full swing, those little seedlings satisfy the itch, but until then there are other possibilities.

This winter I found several root vegetables in the fridge that had started to sprout, and decided to encourage them. So I cut off the top parts of the roots with the emerging leaves and put them in small bowls with water, placing them on the windowsill above the sink where they look cheerful. (We ate the rest of the roots.)



Turnip (just about to flower!)
Possibly I could pot these up and let them develop into actual plants, but I don't think it's worth it (especially for sizable root vegetables). It's fun just to watch the leaves grow, and all these leaves are actually edible (I should cut that bolting turnip off right now and have it for lunch).

Lots of plants can be started inside from parts of vegetables. Here's one list with instructions and links (it's Buzzfeed, so clickbait headline and wowza prose, but the information seems good).

Another way to jumpstart the seed-starting urge is to grow microgreens. These little mini-plants are extra-high in nutrition and are great as salad or toppings for other meal items. Wendy at Greenish Thumb has quick instructions - and prettier pictures, but here's my current batch getting started:

You can buy packets of microgreen mixes, but you can also use up some of the seeds you have sitting around. Just make sure you know the leaves/stems of the plant are edible, even if they are crops you'd normally harvest roots or flowers or seeds from. I threw a whole bunch of seeds into this batch, and I'm still learning what grows well together. In this case, I think the large brassica-type seedlings are radishes, and they germinate well ahead of everything else, so probably don't play well with other seeds that catch up more slowly. I also put in onions, broccoli, cilantro, beets, basil, lettuce, and probably others I've forgotten. When they have grown a couple of inches high and produced the first set of leaves (or about the third set for the radishes, oh well), I'll snip them off above the soil and eat them.

The great thing about microgreens is that they're ready to eat in about two weeks (so I need to seed some more soon!) and grow fine in minimal light. Unlike the kind of sprouts you grow in a jar and put on sandwiches, you want them green (or red, in some cases), so some window light is good, but the intense light required for starting seedlings isn't necessary.

Next batch I'm going to try some legumes, since it is the Year of Beans and Peas after all. Perhaps I'll try to sprout some of the lentils I have in the cupboard. By the way, the other little flat sitting in the window is growing cat grass (so my cats have something to nibble on besides houseplants). I bought several overpriced packets of oat or wheat seed meant for the purpose before I remembered that I'd impulsively purchased a pound or so of wheat seed at an organic grocery and then never used it for cooking - so I've been repurposing it to succession-plant grass for kitties.

What plants are you using to satisfy the winter growing itch?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reviews of two bean cookbooks

Guest post by Sharon Gordon.

Fagioli: The Bean Cuisine of Italy by Judith Barrett, 2004.
Barrett shares the regional diversity of bean dishes eaten during her 20 years of travel in Italy.  Whether your favorites are cannellini, borlotti, chickpeas, favas, peas, lentils or less known beans such as fagioli di lamon, recipes are provided for every course.  For example, a bean appetizer might begin a meal with an Italian spiced hummus-like spread made of white beans, onions and tomatoes.
For the salad course, Barrett provides tips on how to make a delicious lentil salad dressed with onions and parsley in a vinaigrette arranged over a bed of mixed salad greens.   She also includes a recipe for a Carona beans salad spiced with garlic and bay and then combined with celery, carrot, red onion, and parsley before being dressed with olive oil.  A number of salads feature seafood with beans and include garden vegetables like peppers and tomatoes.
A featured side dish includes swiss chard, garlic, onion, carrot, red pepper flakes, wine and broth flavor chickpeas .  For the summer, there are a couple of bean and tomato side dishes.
The Soup chapter includes several variations on minestrone that mix spring and summer vegetables.  Soup of Lentils and Swiss Chard calls for green swiss chard, and I think it would add to the appeal to add a few yellow swiss chard leaves as well.  If you have a year where your escarole does well, Soup of Escarole and Cannellini can use two bunches of it.  Other soups feature asparagus, or fennel, or a mix of fresh garden vegetables.
Pasta and Beans are such a favorite that they have their own chapter.  Some of the simplest ones are flavored with garlic and herbs.  Others feature flavored tomato sauces, or flavored greens.
Main courses include bean and grain dishes flavored with some common herbs and vegetables  along with other Italian ingredients such as: onion, parsley, and pancetta; sage, broth, and parmigiano; sage, cabbage, tomato, broth, parsley, pancetta, and parmigiano.
Polenta gets a bean and herb flavored tomato sauce.
The meat chapters features stews and braises with a variety of meats and includes dishes flavored with marjoram and broth; red onion, carrot, celery, garlic, parsley, wine, broth, tomato, and pepperoncino; celery, garlic, tomato, parsley, and broth; a parsley based salsa verde; sage, tomatoes, and zucchini. Several of the fish and bean dishes feature tomatoes.

The Great Vegan Bean Book by Kathy Hester, 2013.
Hester starts the morning with beans in the muffins, waffles, hash, pancakes, and biscuits.  Several of the recipes make good use of herbs.
Then she’s on to creamy bean spreads including one with basil and a Creamy Spinach Artichoke and White Bean Dip.
Soups feature a hearty Cream of Tomato Soup thickened with pureed white beans, and a White Bean Chowder with butternut squash, a Garden Soup with 8 vegetables and 3 herbs.  Chickpea Veggie Tagine spices things up with Indian flavors and includes carrots, sweet potato, and cauliflower.  Thai Sweet Potato Bean Stew attractively presents beans and sweet potatoes in a ginger and lemongrass infused coconut milk.
Salads feature around the world flavors from France, India, Vietnam, and Greece.
Portable bean recipes make good use of herbs.  An unusual variation on refried beans adds butternut squash to the mix.
A chapter of one dish meals features enchiladas, tarts, casseroles, pastas, and grain dishes.  Inside-out Enchilada Casserole makes good use of  abundant summer vegetables such as tomatoes and squash.  In White Bean Potato Tart, a layer of creamy smoky beans are topped with potato slices and cheese.
Adventurously, Hester includes bean dessert recipes.  If you have an abundance of summer squash, Chocolate Summer Squash Cake can make use of two cups of grated squash.  Butternut squash might be good in the same recipe in the fall.
Please tell us in the comments about your favorite bean cookbooks, or cookbooks with especially good bean chapters.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Scheduling your garden

Kathy Jentz of Washington Gardener magazine posts a "tip of the day" for gardeners (which you can read by following her on Twitter or Facebook). This one popped up yesterday:

Plan your ornamental and vegetable gardens around your annual schedule. In other words, don't plant tulips that peak in May, if that is when you are away at a business conference, or cucumbers that produce in August, if that is your annual vacation time.

Such a simple concept but one we often don't think about. Garden planning is frequently based on the idea that there are certain things we should have, as if there were a universal garden to aspire to and we fail by not achieving parts of it. But really, if you're going to miss seeing or harvesting something, why bother even growing it?

Now, I'm going to tweak this a bit. Can't help it about the tulips, though if that business conference is only a week you can always find some that peak earlier or later. But vegetables can be scheduled to some extent. Here are some suggestions for achieving that cucumber or tomato harvest even if you're away during August.

  1. Know the maturity period for what you're planting. Seed packets and/or seed catalogs should provide you with a days-till-harvest number. This will usually mean from seeding if the crop is customarily grown by putting seeds directly in the ground (e.g. cucumbers), or from transplant if plants must be started inside or bought as seedlings (e.g. tomatoes). Our Vegetable Planting Calendar gives you this information for common crops, but remember that different varieties may have considerable difference in maturity dates. (Also, maturity may be affected by local conditions, but let's just assume the numbers are more or less accurate.)
  2. Know when plants or seeds can be safely put in the ground. Warm-weather plants such as tomatoes shouldn't be planted outside until the chance of frost has diminished to close to none. (See frost date information here.) And cool-weather plants don't like growing into the hot summer. But look at the Planting Calendar again - there's not just one date on which you can plant each crop, but a long range of dates. For example, cucumbers can be planted (by seed outside) from early May to early July.
  3. Do the math and put together a schedule that works for you. Maybe you want to plant your cucumbers as early as possible, using a variety that matures quickly, and harvest a lot in July before you go away. Or put your tomatoes in quite late and plan for a September harvest. (You may need to start your own tomato plants in this case, since nursery supplies dwindle and/or get over-mature by June. But there is no rule stating that you need to start tomato plants in March! Relax and wait.)
  4. If you're the competitive sort, think about using season extension techniques (tunnels, row covers, cloches, wall-o-water-type devices) to rush the season and harvest the earliest tomatoes in your neighborhood. Perhaps choose a determinate variety to get an early harvest and pick over a short period of time. Learn about canning or freezing to preserve that large harvest.
  5. Also consider combinations of varieties that will give you both early and late harvests, like some early plantings of bush beans, along with longer-producing pole beans, followed by even more bush beans. If you really like beans.
  6. Whatever you end up planting, remember that your plants will need watering and caring for while you're away. Trade favors with a neighbor, hire someone, or set up a drip irrigation system with a timer (but still get someone to check that it's working, and that the health of your garden as a whole is good, and to harvest what doesn't decide to stick to the schedule). Mulch well to limit the amount of weeding necessary. Stake your plants so they don't overgrow and flop.
Using the knowledge you can glean from information resources like those above, you can come up with your own list of techniques for other extended absences. If it's May you miss and you never get to enjoy fresh spinach, consider planting it in the fall and giving it some mulch for protection, or a tunnel or cold frame, to enjoy very early spring harvests. Or try some winter-hardy greens like mache or claytonia. Or grow spinach-like plants that can be harvested in the summer, like chard, New Zealand spinach, or Malabar spinach. Or just hang on for fall.

If long trips or busy schedules make growing some vegetables just too much trouble, remember that gardens can be prioritized toward less labor-intensive crops, and that no matter where you go, there is probably a farmer's market where you can buy big delicious tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, and whatever else your heart (and stomach) desires.