Saturday, December 13, 2014

Late-Planted Hardneck Garlic

Cloves of garlic going in plate-down, pointed top up
It's a little late for garlic, planting-wise, but I’m looking at the garden and thinking I may still have a little time to shove in a few more cloves before we reach what is predicted to be a cold January and February. Since I first learned about hardneck garlic from Colchester CSA manager and grower, Theresa Mycek probably nine years ago, and started planting it in my own garden, I’ve come to depend on it. Hardneck garlic is terrific because it’s delicious, beautiful in the garden (those tall green tops with the curlicue scapes are such a nice visual counterpoint to the clumpy greens and beans), and like a culinary Double-mint gum: it’s two, two, two garlics in one.

The first one is the scape.

Wait; let me back up a little. First, sometime in late-October through November, you sit outside on a nice autumn day, separate garlic bulbs into cloves and plant the cloves about 8 inches apart – I plant in a grid, others do it in rows. Tuck them in gently beneath straw or some other light but effective mulch. In spring when the earth wakes up, the green shoots start coming through the mulch. In about May, you notice that the shoots have ground rather tall – knee high at least. In maybe mid-June, when the tall  stiff central shoots have continued to grow and are now curled around themselves a bit (i.e. turned into true scapes), you clip or break them off – it’s kinda like asparagus; you snap them where they are happy to be snapped – bring them in and cook them any one of a number of ways. We sometimes tempura them, or grill them for a great snack/ hors d’oeuvre/side dish, chop them into omelets, sauté them with other veggies, quick-pickle them in the fridge in a vinegar-and-herb-and-peppercorn bath or hang them by the kitchen door to ward off vampires. Whatever.
One of two garlic beds planted on 24 November

In July-ish, when the green tops have browned and died back sufficiently, you dig – or pull, depending on how soft the bed is – the now cloved-up bulbs, wipe off the earth, and hang them up to dry.  (I clump them in bunches of about 6-8 bulbs and hang them from the back porch). Then you use them.  They go into the spaghetti sauce I can during tomato-and-pepper harvest, into chicken cacciatore (which is ONLY truly delicious when made in season with fresh garlic, fresh basil and fresh parsley plucked only a few minutes before chopping wads into the red-wine-soaked braising liquid), into the oven to roast and then spread on homemade bread with good olive oil, into salad dressings, well, you get the idea.  But if you’ve planned right and the fates have shined on you and your little bed of hardneck garlic, you will also have enough to save, separate into cloves and plant to continue the whole cycle. (The miracle of gardening with its wonderful reminder that life works to perpetuate itself).

This year, my husband prepped a couple of beds in early November one lovely autumn afternoon while I sat outside, separated the bulbs I had grown and saved for next year's harvest along with the bulbs I bought from Colchester CSA. (My last summer's harvest was smaller than I had anticipated. I had more of them rot this past year than usual and so had to buy in seed stock). As I was in prayer position on my knees stuffing the cloves into the ground, I thought about a little garden plaque a friend gave me years ago that said: Who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits to see believes in God. whatever your spiritual convictions, that statement is an acknowledgement that while we can become really good gardeners, we are all at the mercy of so many other elements in life beyond our own control. But I have faith. And I keep on planting.  

Friday, December 12, 2014

Seasonal color in radishes and turnips

Ready for roasting: watermelon radishes (green skin and red flesh) and red-skinned, white-fleshed turnips (bought from Red Wiggler Farm). The world of radishes in particular is much larger than many of us grew up with, and I'm hoping to expand my knowledge of it by growing a rainbow's worth next year.

I also put sweet potatoes into this roasting mix, but didn't include them in the photo because the Violetta type I grew this year, while delicious, is less than aesthetically pleasing. They have purple skin and whitish flesh that darkens quickly when peeled or cut, and in the best case cooks to pale yellow, but in the worst to slightly green. I think next year I may go back to solid purple and/or good old orange.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Into the heart of the squash...

Every vegetable deserves a closeup, right?

To pull back a little… I cut into my last Piena di Napoli squash yesterday:

(Never thought of my countertop as squash-colored before. Huh.)

The occasion for making the cut (and the reason I'll have to do more squash-cooking in the next day or so, before it spoils) was the annual holiday lunch for the Master Gardeners here in Montgomery County. I paged through cookbooks to find some new squash recipes, and ended up making two simultaneously, one for the lunch (which I hardly ate any of, so I'll have to make it again) and one for dinner at home. This was easier than it sounds, because they were variations on the same recipe, out of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I like the approach he takes to dishes like this one, laying out a basic recipe and then offering alternatives using additional or changed ingredients, although there is a lot of glancing back and forth between base and variation to make sure you haven't put in the wrong things. And, in my case, keeping track of two pans and not mixing up the ingredient lists.

The basic recipe is called Panfried Pumpkin with Tomato Sauce (which works perfectly fine with other winter squash that are not pumpkins), and the variation we ate for dinner adds cocoa and pumpkin seeds. Here's what it looks like on the plate:

It has a nice warm taste and a varied mouth-feel (stew-like, with chewy and crunchy bits). If I made it again I'd probably up the cocoa a little so it made its presence known, and put in more hot pepper (I just used about half a dried fish pepper, crumbled with the seeds included).

Panfried Pumpkin with Tomato Sauce, Cocoa and Pumpkin Seeds

1/4 cup neutral oil (I used safflower; he recommends grapeseed or corn)
2 pounds pumpkin, peeled, seeded, and cut into chunks
Salt and pepper
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced fresh chile, or hot pepper flakes or cayenne to taste
1/2 cup red wine or vegetable stock
3 cups chopped ripe tomato (canned is fine)
1 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
1/4 unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Small bunch of cilantro, chopped

(Notes on ingredients: 1) How much is 2 pounds pumpkin? If you have a regular butternut squash and it's, say, one to three pounds, by all means just use it and adjust accordingly. If you have a giant mutant squash like I do, slice off one-inch slices and keep weighing them until you reach the right amount. 2) Bittman says "large chunks." I wanted a bite-sized feel, so my squash chunks were about an inch square. Smaller would also work; just don't go tiny. 3) This was a good use for summer-frozen oh-help-do-something-with-them stewed tomatoes, which were skin-on seeds-in and either cut into pieces, or cherries halved. Canned would be tidier. 4) You can pan-toast the seeds from your own squash if that's how it works out. I used store-bought pepitas, because I haven't yet reached the seed cavity of Mega-Squash and besides I needed to save time.)

Put the oil into a Dutch oven or other deep pan with a lid, over medium-high heat. Add one layer of the pumpkin chunks (you will probably have to do this in batches). Salt and pepper them. Brown the chunks (5 minutes or so), turn them, and keep cooking until all or several sides are browned. Remove the squash to a bowl, and add another batch. Repeat as necessary.

Take out all the squash and add the onion and garlic to the oil. Cook and stir until they are softened (5 minutes).

Pour in the wine or stock, scrape up any sticky bits, let the mixture simmer for a few minutes until slightly reduced, and then add the tomato (with juice). Bring the sauce to a boil and then reduce the heat and let it simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Put the squash back in the pot, bring the mixture back to a boil, then cover the pan and turn the heat to low. Cook for about 10 minutes or until the pumpkin is soft but not falling apart. Add the pumpkin seeds, cocoa and cinnamon, stir, taste and season as necessary. Garnish with cilantro and serve.

Panfried Pumpkin with Cranberries and Pistachios

This is the lunch variation I made. It's prepared basically the same way, but note the total absence of tomatoes.

1/4 cup neutral oil
2 pounds pumpkin, peeled, seeded, and cut into chunks
Salt and pepper
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced fresh chile, or hot pepper flakes or cayenne to taste
1/2 cup red wine or vegetable stock
3 cups cranberries, combined with 2 cups orange juice
1/2 cup chopped pistachios

Proceed as above, except where the tomatoes are added, add cranberries and orange juice instead. (Also, no cocoa, cinnamon, or cilantro.) Garnish with pistachios.

I'm impressed that this is not unduly sour, given that there's no sugar in it. The orange juice sweetens the cranberries some (I've made cranberry sauce before with no sweeteners but orange juice and candied ginger, which does have sugar on it but hush) and so do the caramelized squash and onion, and I deglazed the pan with sherry, but still, three cups. It works! But you could add some honey if you wish.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Giving Thanks

With Thanksgiving coming  up, I'm thinking about all the things I have to be thankful for.  But since this is a vegetable gardening blog, I'll give thanks to the wonderful gardening year which has produced such a wonderful bounty of vegetables since early April (wintered over kale and spinach) and continues right up though today.

Spring crops included beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, fennel, lettuce, potatoes and turnips.

Summer crops, of course, included lots of tomatoes (both paste and slicing), peppers and onions for sauce, green beans, butternut squash and lots of other cucurbits.

However, the highlight of the summer was picking black raspberries with Tyler.  This is his favorite berry and he eats them by the handful.  Any extra berries and either frozen for winter blueberry/ black raspberry cobbler or turned into jelly.

Fall has been great with the highlight being the Romanesco which is a green nutty flavored cauliflower and the purple Grafitti which looks great on a raw dip tray.

Prior to the early freeze up, I went out and mulched in a lot of my fall root vegetables and am picking them for Thanksgiving dinner.  Shown are celeriac (used when making mashed garlic potatoes), rutabagas, beets, carrots leeks and Brussels sprouts which the freeze didn't bother.

So, all in all, its been a great gardening year and I'm looking forward to starting cool weather vegetable seeds under my fluorescent lights in February.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Big squash update

Since my previous post on the subject, I've decided that my enormous squashes are perhaps not Rogosa Violina, but in fact Piena di Napoli (which are still green on the outside when ripe). I know, I should do a better job at labeling, but sometimes labels vanish or I am convinced that I'll remember.

Anyway, it turned out that the plant had produced not two but three fantastically large squashes - one of them was completely hidden under my Malabar spinach vines, and emerged when I cleaned them up after a frost.

I baked another of the huge butternut-relative fruits.

Interior, seed end

Slices of the neck end
Interestingly, the seed and neck ends have different textures, the neck end being hard and smooth and the seed end softer, with a cooked texture almost like spaghetti squash though not forming long enough tendrils to treat as "pasta." This squash, if I'm identifying it right, is used in pasta traditionally, and also to make jam, which I have not tried yet. I have another uncooked squash to play with still, though, and a lot of frozen cooked flesh.

What I have made, besides soup: squash bread with lots of spices in it. Squash and Stilton Biscuits (warning: I found the "moist dough" warning was an understatement, and had to add lots more flour just to be able to handle the dough at all. Also, they are very rich, so make them for a crowd). And squash pizza dough (perfect for a Neapolitan squash!).

I could give you a recipe (I based mine on one by Deborah Madison) but if you already make pizza dough from scratch you probably have a favorite method. Just add about 1/3 to 3/4 cup of cooked pureed squash to the dough, depending on how much the recipe makes (low end for one pizza, high end for two or more). You may need to cut back on other liquids and/or add flour. Dough should be springy and moist but not so sticky you can't knead it. I also added some fresh marjoram that was about to freeze outside.

Here's my finished pizza, topped with leftover greens (with onion), a bit of Gorgonzola cheese, and bacon.

closeup of golden squashy crust
I need to learn not to put too many toppings on homemade pizza, because the center never bakes solid. Maybe pre-baking the crust briefly would help? I've got another batch of dough in the freezer to do something with. The logical topping for Squash Pizza 2.0 would be… squash.