Sunday, December 14, 2014

Add garden fresh taste to Christmas dishes

Garden herbs
Sunday, December 14, 2014

Add a fresh edge to your Christmas dinner by using herbs straight from your own garden.  Herbs can be harvested all the way through the entire winter in most years.  If you are growing vegetables in a greenhouse or are having a mild winter, you can also be harvesting cold hardy greens for salads or cooking.

Herbs are easy and care free to grow and almost all of them are perennials.  That means you plant once and they come back year after year.  For more details on growing your own herbs, see my blog here  http://victorygardenonthegolfcourse.blogspot.com/2012/06/kitchen-herb-garden.html

Jazzing up the flavor for the main dish
You can easily make poultry seasoning for poultry or red meat from herbs in your own garden.  Poultry seasoning adds great flavor to, of course, chicken or turkey, but also veggies, fish, casseroles, pasta.

The first commercial poultry seasoning was invented by William G. Bell, a Boston cook, in 1867.  His included sage, marjoram, rosemary, oregano, pepper and ginger.

I like to make my poultry seasoning with dried sage, parsley, thyme, rosemary, and marjoram.  Some add nutmeg, pepper, ginger , onion powder and/or cloves.

Here is my poultry seasoning recipe:
3 Tbl sage
1 Tbl parsley
1 Tbl thyme
1 Tbl marjoram or oregano
1 Tbl rosemary
  
For lamb, rosemary is a favorite herb pairing.  For all other red meats, I use a combination of whatever I grew in the garden this past summer.  I cut and dry at the end of the season, then mix in a paper bag and store in airtight containers.

“Herbes de Provence” contains herbs that are typical of the Provence region of southern France and are grown in French potagers (kitchen gardens).  I also include sage in my herbal seasoning mix.  These are herbs that were typically used in cooking by the French in this region:
*Thyme
*Marjoram/oregano
*Rosemary
*Savory
*Basil
*Tarragon

Insure all spices are crumbled into tiny pieces so they will disperse evenly in your favorite prepared dish.  You can transfer the amount needed to a kitchen spice jar.  Keep the rest in a cool, dark location.For any spices, you want to keep them as fresh as possible.  They lose their flavor over time and quicker if exposed to heat/light.

Potager gravy
To make 2 cups of gravy, cook in a sauce pan, 1/2 cup of fresh chopped carrots, 1/2 cup of fresh chopped celery, 1 cup of chopped onions, 3 cloves of peeled and mashed garlic until browned.  Add 1 bay leaf, 3 cups of chicken or beef stock.  Simmer on low uncovered for an hour or so until reduced in about half.  Strain out all solids and combine 1 cup of stock with 1/4 cup of cream and 1/4 cup of flour, whisk until smooth.  Bring remaining stock to boil, add cream mixture, defatted meat pan drippings if desired, simmer until thickened.

Herbed mashed potato options
There are a few options for snazzing up your mashed potatoes.  For 5 pounds of potatoes, you can add 5 cloves of roasted garlic, 1 cup of sour cream, 8 ounces of cream cheese and enough buttermilk for consistency you prefer.  

Or how about 5 pounds of small potatoes that are cooked until tender, then tossed with 1 cup of butter, 3/4 cup freshly, finely chopped parsley, marjoram, chives and/or thyme.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Garlic and herb roasted vegetables
This recipe works with any really firm vegetables you like.  Here is one variation.  Cut 4 sweet potatoes, 3 medium turnips into 1.5 inch cubes, and 2 large onions into 1.5 inch wedges.  In a gallon plastic bag, place 12 cloves crushed, peeled garlic, 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, 2 tablespoons fresh oregano or marjoram, 2 teaspoons salt, 6 tablespoons olive oil.  Mix thoroughly.  Add your cut veggies and squish them around until they are coated on all sides with the herb mixture.  Place on a cookie sheet in a single layer.  Roast in a 450F, preheated oven for 25-30 minutes until soft.

Potatoes, turnips and onions are all veggies that can be stored over winter if kept in the proper conditions.  Be sure to keep potatoes covered or in a dark place as when they turn green, they are toxic.  Sweet potatoes will keep for a month if kept in cool dry conditions and bagged with an apple to keep from sprouting.


Herbal salad dressing
You can keep it simple and flavor a good white wine vinegar with your favorite herb like tarragon for the salad.  Use a mild olive oil so that the flavor of the herb shines through.  Herbal vinegars are easy to make, but you need to make ahead.  Place the herbs in the vinegar and leave in a cool dark place for at least a week.  You can strain out the herbs before using after infused.

Homemade version of Hidden Valley Ranch is easy to make.  Just mix equal amounts of buttermilk, mayonnaise, and sour cream (half cup each).  Then add parsley, dill, garlic, onion (half teas), salt (quarter teas), and pepper (eighth teas) to taste.  If the mayonnaise is too overpowering, I substitute yogurt. 

This is the perfect time for fresh spinach salads.  Spinach and other greens are in season and loving this cool weather.

Artisanal butter
If you are making an herbal butter to serve, you would want more like 2 tablespoons of herbs to 1/2 cup of butter.  Add the herb that complements the dish you are serving.  

You can either serve in a dish, roll it into a log using plastic wrap, or form into a shape.  If you use a form, simply press the butter firmly into the form, then place the form in a shallow dish of hot water.  The butter should slide out easily after a little warming.

Mint inspired beverages and desserts
Mint is also still green and growing in our garden.  Mint is wonderful to add to teas, lemonades, hot chocolate or adult beverages, even to salads.  You can also incorporate into desserts.  Chop fresh mint and add to sorbet or ice cream.  You can incorporate in a food processor and refreeze until ready to serve.


Don't forget to check out your freezer for possibilities.  This year I am planning on incorporating frozen tomatoes into my Sicilian grandpa's spaghetti sauce and a tomato bisque, my frozen eggplant for eggplant parmesan, carrots and herbs in beef bourguignon, and frozen and fresh greens in a breakfast frittata.  Possibilities are endless for using herbs right from your garden and freezer to add fresh taste to any dish you make for the holidays!

Grow crunchy, colorful carrots practically year round

Carrots come in a variety of beautiful colors

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Carrots are rich in antioxidants, beta-carotenes, vitamin A, vitamin C, many B-complex vitamins like folic acid, B6, thiamin, pantothenic acid, as well as minerals like calcium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, copper.

Carrots, like turnips, have been around for thousands of years.  Its seeds were used for medicinal purposes.  Carrots likely originated in the Iran/Afghanistan area and spread to the Mediterranean.  It is shown in Egyptian tomb paintings from 2000 BC. The first records that it was used for the European kitchen was in the 900‘s in Spain.  Carrots were originally used mainly for livestock feed in the American colonies and for its aromatic leaves and seeds.

The first wild carrots were purple.  The wild carrot is known as Queen Anne’s lace and adapted very well in America.  The popular culinary orange colored variety did not become stable until the 1700’s.  It quickly became the most popular variety in both Europe and the colonies.  
Carrots are related to parsley, fennel, dill and cumin.  Like their cousins, the greenery also is edible.

All kinds of colors are now available-white (White Satin), red (Atomic Red), orange (the most popular in the US), yellow (Yellowbunch, Yellow Sun, YellowPak)), and purple (Purple Haze, Purple Sun, Purple, Deep Purple, Cosmic Purple, Purple Dragon).  There are also variety seed packets available so you can grow all the colors.

Carrots like loose, well dug soil rich in organic matter although they will also grow in moderately rich soil with a wide pH range of 5.5-7.0..  The ideal soil would be dug 6-10” deep and mixed with sand and compost.  The longer the root, the deeper the depth of loose soil needed to grow large, straight roots.

There are also shorter root varieties that can be sown if you do not want to dig that deeply or if you want to grow them in pots.  Some short varieties are Little Finger (4” long), Adelaide (the size of your pinky), Short n Sweet (4”), Thumbelina (1-1.5” diameter), Parmex (1.2-2” diameter), Tonda di Parigi (1.5-2” diameter).

Sow every 2 weeks March-August.  First plantings should be about 2 weeks prior to your first frost.  Carrots do not like to be transplanted so direct sowing is best.  Soak seeds 6 hours before sowing.  Sow 1/4” deep, 1/2” apart thinning to 2-4”.  Thinning is critical to having nice roots.  Keep evenly moist, do not allow to dry out, for the up to 14 day germination period.

I have used my Aerogarden for growing seedlings indoors prior to planting out into pots and have had good luck.

Carrot seed is tiny.  There are a couple of techniques you can use to not sow too thickly.  You can mix 1/4 teaspoon with a gallon of sand and sow uniformly.  Another technique used is to mix radish seeds and carrot seeds together and sow.  The radishes come up quickly and are ready to harvest well before the carrots so you get 2 crops for the effort of 1.  Be sure that a hard crust does not form over the top of the seeds.  These seedlings are not strong enough to push through.  You can cover lightly with organic potting soil, vermiculite or compost.

For your last plantings of the season look for a type like Napoli, Autumn King or Nantes that can be harvested throughout the winter.  Merida can be planted in late September for an early spring harvest.  Frost actually makes the carrots sweeter so leaving them in the ground in the fall will improve their flavor.  The only barrier to winter harvesting is if the ground freezes solid.  

Giving the carrot patch a nice coat of straw and/or covering after reaching harvestable size with a gardening fabric like Reemay can keep the ground from freezing solid.  This type of floating cover can increase the temperature of the ground approximately 5 degrees and allows 75% light transmission while allowing air flow and rain through.  It can be placed directly on your plants.  Just place loosely and hold down the edges with mulch, rocks or a board.  You can use the row cover in the spring for protecting your plants from insects and even in summer for reducing sun scald.  It is very handy, but is lightweight so will only last a season or two.


If you want to bring indoors to store, placing in a cool place in sand that is kept moist is the best indoor long term storage for the winter.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Veggies for small spaces


Sunday, December 7, 2014

It appears winter is settling in.  Before we know it, spring will be rolling back around!  Some seeds can be started 8-12 weeks before your first frost date.  This is January/February in our Zone 6 garden.   
Winter is the time for dreaming of what you are going to plant and harvest next season.  I have already started getting seed catalogues!

If you are just starting out and have limited space, look for descriptions like “patio”, “compact”, “great for pots”, “container”, etc.  Here are some recommendations for your garden.

Greens-Pak choi or Toy Choy Pak Choi, arugula, leaf lettuce like Oak Leaf (for cut and come again harvests), Little Gem lettuce for whole heads, Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch Kale, Orach, Dazzle lettuce, Tennis Ball butterhead, Gala mache, Space Hybrid spinach.  The list goes on and on!

Onions-I grow Egyptian walking onions in a pot.  You can use the bulb for cooking and the tops as chives.  Chives and garlic chives are also great for small spaces or pots.

Beets-any.  I plant these around my pepper plants.

Carrots-get the short ones like Atlas and Parisian.

Celery surprisingly does very well in a pot.  It loves water so I would keep it by itself.  Chard as well.  Chard comes in beautiful colors, too, so you can plant them in your flower bed as an ornamental that you get to snack on.

Cucumber-Bush Champion, Spacemaster, Rocky, Lemon.

Eggplant-All I have tried in a pot grows well.  For flavor, I think the White Egg does very well and does not get bitter in the hot days of summer.  Other small varieties include Fairy Tale, Gretel, Hansel, India Paint, and Thai Purple Blush hybrid.

A word about hybrids.  If you want to save seed, hybrids will not come back true to the “mother” plant.  You will want open pollinated or heirloom varieties for seed saving.  The strength of hybrids is that they have been bred to withstand different common diseases.

Green beans-go for pole beans and use a trellis so they grow up.  If you don’t like removing the “string” that some green beans have, look for “stringless.”  We discovered a new variety we really liked from a local farmer-an Italian flat green bean.  I looked up Italian pole green beans and I found the variety Roma, Supermarconi, and the yellow Bean Marvel of Venice, Bean di Spagna Bianco.  May have to try one of these this year!  Produces right up until frost.  The great thing about beans is that they make nitrogen so they fertilize the soil.  I plant petunias in the same pot.

Pepper in pot with petunias

Peppers-I have found that hot peppers do great in pots.  I plant one pepper type per pot.  Sweet peppers, like Bell, seem do best in the ground in my garden.

Summer squash - Bush Zucchini, Lunar Eclipse/Sunburst, Piccolo, Small Wonder Spaghetti squash.

Winter squash-Acorn or butternut.  Plant where you are okay with them running on the ground or train them up a trellis.  You will get about 2 per vine.

Tomatoes-look for patio or container types.  Varieties like Balcony Patio Princess, Balcony, Tumbler, Lizzano, BushSteak, Tumbling Tom to name  a few.  Bush types are also great for small spaces-Early Girl Hybrid Bush, Big Boy Bush, Baxter’s Bush Cherry.

Couple of seed finding tips-you can do a seed search at Mother Earth News.  Here is the link:  http://www.motherearthnews.com/find-seeds-plants.aspx 

You can also get a listing of seed companies at Mother Earth News to see where they are located and what they sell (organic, biodynamic, heirloom, etc.).     

Saturday, December 6, 2014

All about beautiful beets

Freshly pulled beet from pot in early summer

Saturday, December 6, 2014
The beet ancestor is chard and is native to the Mediterranean region.  Chard itself has been around for thousands of years.  It is thought that a mutation of spinach resulted thick ribs which were cultivated into what became chard.  Then some chard  grew with thick roots.  These were cultivated to become the beet.  Beets are a biennial and sometimes a perennial.

The beet was grown mainly for its greens until French chefs made the root popular in the 1800's.  Beets came to America with the settlers of the colonies.  Thomas Jefferson even grew them in his garden.

Beets are a natural source of tryptophan, boron, folate, manganese and also contains betaines which may help reduce homocysteine.  There has been some research that shows beetroot juice can reduce blood pressure.  Beet juice is also used as a red food coloring and sweetener.  Be careful handling red beets as the juice can stain!

Beets can be sown from early spring when the daffodils bloom into June.  Then again in mid-July for a fall harvest.  The beet seed is actually a fruit containing a cluster of seeds.  When you plant, expect to have to thin to 2-4” apart.  You can use the beet thinning in salads or separate and replant elsewhere.  There are 'monogerm" seeds available that have only one seed in the pod.

I like growing beets in pots.  Potting soil is loose which beets really like.  If planting in the ground, loosen the soil prior to planting.  If you want a dedicated plot to beets and carrots, adding sand to the soil provides the perfect growing spot.  A soil rich in organic matter also provides a good growing medium.

I'll ring a potted pepper plant with beet seeds.  The beets will be ready to pull well before the pepper plant starts producing.
The secret to great beets is consistency in water and fertilizer.  If growing in a pot, apply a balanced fertilizer weekly.  Letting the soil get too dry will result in a woody beet.
The root and the leaves are both edible.  Beet thinnings and new leaves are tasty in salads.  You can take up to one third of the beet greens without harming the beet.  As the beet ages, the greens get stronger.  If too strong for taste raw, they can be steamed like spinach or chard.
Check the seed packet for days to harvest.  Beets are ready anywhere between 50-80 days depending on the type.  Beets should be pulled when they are 1.5” in diameter up to 3” in diameter.  Before storing, cut the greens from the root, leaving only an inch or two of stalk.  The leaves will wilt well before the beet shrivels.  Beets keep in the frig 2-3 weeks.  Beets can be roasted, grilled or steamed. 

I wasn't too sure if I liked beets or not until I grilled them.  Grilling concentrates the sugars and totally changes the taste.  They are fabulous grilled!  With all my grilled veggies, I just slice, coat with olive oil and grill at about 340 degrees to stay below the smoke point of olive oil.  Sometimes I leave them plain with oil, other times I add my season salt or just my dried herb mix.

Variety of baby beets


There are different types and colors of beets.  There are round beets and beets that resemble carrots.  The oldest round variety that is a deep red will bleed on anything it is cooked with.  Then there are yellow beets, white beets, pink beets.  The round Chioggia beet is an Italian heirloom from Venice.  It is a striking  pink and red with intermittent rings of color and white.  They are quite cool looking when sliced and don't bleed.  The cylindrical beet like Cylindra gives about 4 times the harvest in a pot since it grows up.  The cylindrical types actually grow up out of the soil.  Making it easy to tell when they are ready to be pulled.

Try some this next season!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Home grown medicinal teas

Thyme in flower

Sunday, November 30, 2014

You can make your own teas from common herbs growing in your garden or to spice up store bought teas. You may have growing in your garden what you need for your own home grown medicinal teas.

Burdock-can be used to help with constipation and skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
Chamomile-used to reduce inflammation, muscle spasms, and restlessness.  It is well known for its relaxing effect.  Be careful using, though, if you have a ragweed allergy.
Echinacea-the dried root of this coneflower is a well known immune system support.
Fennel-used for osteoporosis, stomach cramps.
Lavender-for anxiety, insomnia, irritability, restlessness.
Lemon balm-for digestion, nervousness, skin conditions.
Plantain-for coughing, inflammation, insect/animal bites.
Red clover-menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis, skin conditions.
Rosemary-been used since ancient times for memory.
Sage-for digestive problems, menopausal symptoms.
Thyme-for allergies, colds, cuts or scrapes, fungal infections, respiratory infections.
Valerian-used in many sleeping aids, has a relaxing effect.

You can use stevia, an herb rich in antioxidants, to help sweeten your tea.  A little goes a long way and too much can cause a bitter taste.  1/8 teaspoon or less is all that is needed. 

You can place in cheesecloth or a tea ball.  Steep for 4-6 minutes. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

December garden planner

Chives in front, sage and rosemary in back


Saturday, November 29, 2014

December is a time of digging in and staying warm.  It may appear that everything is dead outside, but there is still life in the garden.  In the beds, kale, cabbage, salad burnet, sorrel, rosemary, oregano, garlic, onions, lettuce, leeks, chard, dill, celery, sage, carrots, spinach are all still green in December.

Fresh herbs are just steps away from the back door.  Most Mediterranean herbs are perennials so you get to enjoy them almost year round.  You can also grow many herbs indoors as well like chives, oregano, rosemary, parsley, chervil, and basil.  Just place your potted herbs in a sunny window.

If you are using a greenhouse, your kale, celery, mustard, lettuce, chard, spinach, cabbage, broccoli are still happy under cover.  They will not grow much until sunlight gets back to 10 hours per day in late January.  Be sure on sunny, warm days to pop the top on your greenhouse or you will scorch your greens.

All cold crops are at their sweetest during the cold weather.  Hardy greens like chard, kale, spinach, mustard greens and collard greens make great salads and are tasty steamed or braised.

Make sure if you have any potted veggies to put them on the ground if they are on coasters and move them to a sheltered area on the south side of the house.  I also move them up against the wall.  This does double duty-southern exposure gets the most sun and warmth.

The Buying Local Option
You can check on line to see if you have a farmers market in your area.  Many have farmers markets year round where you can get fresh produce, canned, baked goods, and meats locally grown.  A great place for finding what is near you is the on line resource at www.localharvest.org

CSA
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  It is where you invest in a local farmer in January when they have to purchase their seeds and supplies for the upcoming gardening season.  You then get a weekly share of the farmers harvest from May through October.

Before I started our own garden, we joined a CSA.  It was great.  We got lots of super fresh produce, our weekly grocery bill was significantly reduced as our meals were planned around the vegetables, and it was an adventure getting to try new recipes with veggies we had never ate before. 

A CSA shows you what grows well in your area.  You can find out the varieties you like and when they come into season.  You can even save the seeds from the varieties that you want to grow in your future garden if you partner with an organic CSA that grows open pollinated or heirloom vegetables and fruits.

To advertise as “organic” you have to be certified.  Many farmers cannot afford to do this.  If you are interested in produce grown without pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals, ask if the farmer uses organic practices.  Go visit them to see the garden for yourself before you commit.  You can also check out reviews on line.

Where to find a CSA?  Again, a great resource is the web site at www.localharvest,org 

Many sell out so don’t delay if you want to join!

Preserving the harvest
It is easy to store winter squash in your pantry to pull out anytime.  We have eaten butternut squash from the garden all the way into June of the following year.

If you put garlic in your pantry and some have dried out, make garlic powder.  Just process the dried garlic in a coffee or spice grinder.  Now you have great flavor to add to burgers, sauces, or steaks.  

I take the herbs I had drying in paper bags and remove all leafs.  I store my herbs in quart canning jars.  I mix them all together for a homemade “Herbes de Provence”.  I used it on everything!  It is great in sauces, on meats, in dressings.

If you threw your extra tomatoes into the freezer and are now thinking it would be nice to have tomato sauce, canning tomato sauce is simple and easy to do.  I use Weck’s canning jars.  They are all glass so no worries about what is lining the lid.  And they are a really pretty shape.

All you need to can tomato sauce is a large pot, canning jars, a metal funnel, and canning tongs.  A pressure canner is not needed for acidic foods like tomatoes.  Always follow the recipe as written to insure food safety.

I throw the entire tomato (de-stemmed) into the food processor.  Most recipes say to remove the peel and seeds so you don’t have a bitter taste, but I have not noticed any issue with bitterness.

Here is the recipe from Ball’s “Complete Book of Home Preserving” for tomato paste:
9 cups of pureed tomatoes, 1½ cups of chopped sweet bell peppers, 2 bay leaves, 1 teas salt, 1 clove of garlic.

I put it all into a large pot and let simmer until it is the consistency and taste I like, about 2.5 hours.  Remove the bay leaves and garlic.  Boil the jars, lids, and seals as the sauce is close to done.

Add 3 teas of lemon juice to each hot pint jar, fill with the hot tomato sauce to within ½ inch of the top, and seal the lid, following the instructions for the type of jar you are using.  Place all the filled jars in a large pot, insuring they are fully covered with water.  Bring to a boil and process for 45 minutes.  Remove from canner.  Let cool.  Test the seal after the jar is completely cool.  It should not lift off.  That’s it!  

Other high acid foods you can using a water bath are jams, jellies, condiments, salsas, pickles, and relishes.  Consult with a canning book for more tips.

Winter is time to savor the fresh herbs from the garden along with what you have preserved, browsing for canning ideas, and planning next year's garden.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Slow growing in winter months

Potted lettuce


Sunday, November 23, 2014

If you have noticed that plants stop growing in the winter, whether indoors or out, you would be right.  It is not just the temperatures that affect this slow down.  It is the amount of sunlight.

Basically, plants go dormant when receiving less than 10 hours of daylight.  For my latitude, this is from November 17-January 24.  You can look on the weather channel to see when your daylight hits 10 hours.

When planting in the fall for winter crops, you need to plan that they are at full, harvestable size by November 17th.  They will remain basically this size until the end of January, when they begin regrowing.

Growth starts back up at the end of January, for indoor and outdoor plants.  The lettuce, chard, sorrel, cabbage, kale, celery, and herbs that have overwintered will start growing with vigor again after this time with clear days and warmer temperatures.


Covering plants with row covers or portable greenhouses can help your plants grow; warmth does make a difference.  Just don’t expect significant growth until we get back to at least 10 hours of sunlight.