Gardening

Greens for Breakfast

One of my all-time favorite breakfasts is greens and eggs. Lucky for me, our garden is producing a lot of greens this winter! Lately, I’ve been really into the mizuna.

Mizuna is a mildly spicy Japanese green that you eat raw (like a lettuce). I like my mizuna topped with a simple homemade mustard vinaigrette, and I always cook my eggs the same way: over hard with a sprinkle of pepper and Old Bay seasoning. Today, I added a scoop of green olive tapanade from Trader Joe’s, which some friends gave us. So yummy!

Mustard Vinaigrette
(Adapted from my all-time favorite cookbook, Lorna Sass’s Complete Vegetarian Kitchen.)
1/3 c. oil
2 T. apple cider vinegar
1 T. maple syrup
2 T. brown mustard
pinch salt

Combine all ingredients in a small jar and shake vigorously. Keeps about a week in the fridge.

Cherry Tomato Sauce (to Freeze)

Let me just start by saying that we’ve learned our lesson, and next year we will be planting fewer cherry tomatoes and more “regular” tomatoes (we have three cherry tomato plants this year). John and I both love cherry tomatoes when they’re fresh off the vine, because they are so sweet and don’t require any prep (besides rinsing) before you can use them in salads. But they’re more difficult to preserve because they are almost impossible to efficiently peel, even using my favorite lazy method. And like I’ve said before, I’m just not ready to tackle the tomato-canning process. The only solution I’ve come up with to preserve cherry tomatoes is to make – and then freeze – cherry tomato sauce. The good news is that sauce made from cherry tomatoes is incredibly sweet and flavorful, so it’s totally worth the effort. I make a very basic sauce, because we often add extra ingredients when we use it later on, so I want this sauce to be adaptable. Here’s my basic recipe:

Cherry Tomato Sauce (to Freeze)
Makes about 5 pints, depending on how much you reduce the sauce.
1 c. olive oil
2 onions, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
about 5 quarts cherry tomatoes, rinsed
2 bay leaves
salt

1. Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. I use a lot of olive oil in my tomato sauce because I think it helps maintain the flavor of the sauce when it freezes. It’s also really tasty!
2. Add the onions and carrot and saute briefly.
3. Add the cherry tomatoes and stir occasionally until they start to pop and form a very watery sauce. Add the bay leaves and salt to taste (remember it will cook down, so go easy on the salt to start with).
4. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce seems more “saucy” than “watery,” then gradually reduce the heat as needed to keep the sauce from sputtering. Simmer for a couple of hours, until the sauce is a little thinner than you want it to be. Taste and add more salt if needed.
5. Puree the sauce in a blender, being careful not to put too much in at once. Make sure to let the steam vent out of the blender as you go.
6. Strain the sauce to remove the peels and seeds. I just pour the sauce through a plastic strainer, and use a silicone spatula to stir it around until I’m left with just peels and seeds (see photo below).
7. Pour the sauce into clean pint-sized freezer-safe jars, making sure to leave a generous 1/2-inch head space to allow for expansion when the sauce freezes. If you decide to use quart-sized jars, I recommend leaving 1 inch of head space.
8. Let cool to about room temperature (30-45 minutes), then screw on the lids, label and freeze.

If the process sounds involved, let me assure you it’s really not. The prep work is minimal, and you basically just let it do its thing for a few hours. The only part that requires any real effort is the blending and straining, and you can avoid that if you have a food mill (I don’t). Unfortunately, there’s no way around picking all those dang cherry tomatoes. Next year…

Freezing Tomatoes (The Lazy Way)

Over the holiday weekend, I was chatting with my friend J about different methods of preserving tomatoes. I knew that I was going to need to start processing some of our garden produce, and I’m never quite sure what to do with all of our tomatoes. I’ve frozen tomato sauce successfully, but we end up buying a lot of canned tomatoes during the winter. Canning tomatoes safely at home requires a very specific process that I’m just not ready to tackle. Most methods I’ve heard of for freezing tomatoes require you to blanch and peel them first. I’ve done that before, and it’s messy and time-consuming – enough so that I really, really didn’t want to do it. Still, one of my goals this season was to preserve more of our garden tomatoes and reduce our use of canned tomatoes.

I’ve mentioned before that J knows a lot about keeping foods fresh, and this weekend she shared a tip that was almost too good to be true. J said that her Mother-in-Law and Grandmother-in-Law both freeze tomatoes – without blanching and peeling them – using an incredibly simple method. They just lop the top off the tomatoes and toss them in a bag in the freezer. When you defrost the tomatoes, the peel comes right off! Naturally, I was really excited to try this method myself.

I started by picked the ripe garden tomatoes. I’ve read that you get the best results when you process fruits and veggies as soon as possible after picking.

We don’t use any funky chemicals in our garden, but this year we started to get blossom-end rot, so we sprayed a calcium solution on the plant leaves (which was totally effective, by the way). Although the foliar calcium treatment is organic, I still soaked the tomatoes in water to remove any over-spray residue. Then I just cut off the tops, along with any old bits of blossom-end rot and any cracked areas.

I put the tomatoes in plastic bags in the freezer. I pulled a couple out the next morning to see if the method really works. I put the frozen tomatoes in a bowl to defrost (you can also run them under warm water).

After the outside of the tomatoes defrosted, I tried peeling them. Just like J said, the peels slipped right off, and I was left with perfectly peeled garden tomatoes to use in place of purchased canned tomatoes!

I am so thrilled with this easy and effective method of freezing tomatoes! I feel really proud that I can easily put up more of our garden tomatoes and reduce our need to buy canned tomatoes during the winter. Now I’m starting to think that preserving produce can actually be really easy if you just find the right method…and this method is even easier than driving to the store to buy a can of tomatoes!

Marinated Summer Veggies (and Garden Developments)

I think I’ve mentioned before that it’s been a strange gardening year here in Northern California. Everything is ripening a lot later than normal because of the unusually cold, wet Spring. Well, we’re still in the midst of the zucchini onslaught, but some of our other veggies* are finally starting to ripen. We have our first ripe tomatoes!

In honor of this momentous occasion, I ate about half the cherry tomatoes off the plant. And ate the only bigger ripe tomato like an apple, right there in the garden. It was fantastic! Seriously, I felt like all of the work that went into our garden this year was worth it for just that moment.

I did manage to save the rest of the ripe tomatoes, and I decided to make some marinated veggies with zucchini, onions, and basil from our garden. I wanted the veggies to be raw and crunchy, but I decided that I’d sear the zucchini and onions to give them a little extra flavor and sweetness. I just cut them in half and grilled them like I described here, but just until they were seared, not until they were cooked through.

I diced everything up (chopped the basil) and tossed it all together with some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. I stuck it in the fridge for a while until we were ready to eat dinner, but it doesn’t really need to marinade – it’s good to eat right after you make it.

In other garden news, we have some soybeans! John, who is obsessed with commodity crops, is very happy.

This is the first year we’ve planted pumpkins, and they are getting huuuuuuge! I hope they stick around until October so we can have homegrown Jack-O-Lanterns!

*Fruit, bulbs, herbs, whatever…it’s all “veggies” to me. 🙂

Zucchini Madness (How to Use All That Zucchini)

It seems like everyone I know is overrun with zucchini and summer squash right now. Just one plant in the garden seems to produce more than is possible for a single family to to consume. Every year, I try to think of new and different ways to use it all up, and every year I go back to the same old recipes I know and love. I like zucchini. I don’t want to cover up the flavor, I want to enjoy it! And I’m a lazy cook. I’ve tried my share of complicated recipes, and I generally find that they aren’t worth the time and effort. So, without further ado, here’s an exhaustive look at what we do with all that zucchini: tips, easy zucchini recipes, and how to freeze zucchini to use it later.

Picking Zucchini
Zucchini (and other summer squash) needs to be picked when it’s small and tender. Six to eight inches long is ideal. And make sure to check your plants daily and pick everything that’s ripe. Really get under and around the whole plant – those suckers like to hide, and they get huge before you know it.

You’re going to miss some. Go ahead and shred anything 8-12 inches long to use in baking (more on that later), but compost or trash anything larger. The ruler on the left in the photo below is a foot long…the big zuke on the left is a goner, but everything else can still be used.

Grilling Zucchini
My favorite way of preparing zucchini is to grill it on the barbeque. It’s so easy, so delicious, and it actually looks and tastes really gourmet. Here’s my method for grilling zucchini:

1. Cut your zucchini or summer squash lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Don’t cut them too thin, or they will fall apart when they cook.
2. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
3. Grill over medium heat until you have nice grill marks. I do 45 degree angles on both sides, and spear them with a fork to move/flip.
4. Don’t freak out if they’re good and brown but still not tender! Just put them in a covered dish and let them steam…they will finish cooking.
5. If you’re feeling extra-fancy, drizzle with balsamic vinegar and toss on some fresh basil. Heaven.



Using Raw Zucchini (Pasta Salad Recipe)
You can absolutely eat zucchini raw. It’s mild and has a soft-but-crunchy texture. You can put it in any kind of salad, or eat it as a crudité, but my favorite way to use it raw is in pasta salad. I’m usually not very brand-conscious, but this recipe is very all-American and brand-loyal. The dressing is key, and it just doesn’t taste the same to me if I don’t use Kraft and Best Foods. Feel free to substitute your favorites at your own risk! Here’s my recipe for pasta salad with zucchini:

8 oz. short pasta (cooked, drained, and rinsed under cold water until cool)
1 zucchini (cut in quarters lengthwise and thinly sliced)
1 red bell pepper (diced)
3 scallions (thinly sliced)
1/2 can medium olives (I leave them whole because John doesn’t like them)
2 slices sharp cheddar (cut in matchsticks)
4 oz. ham (diced if you’re lazy, otherwise matchsticks)
~1/4 c. Best Foods Light Mayo
~1/4 c. Kraft Italian Salad Dressing
black pepper

Mix the dressing: it’s just half mayo, half Italian salad dressing. Mix all the other ingredients in a large bowl. Add the dressing slowly until you have enough for your taste (I hate too much dressing on my pasta salad). Grind a bunch of black pepper over the top.

Simple, right? And infinitely variable. I didn’t have many of the ingredients on hand last night, but I definitely wasn’t going to make a special trip to the store. I whipped up a batch with what I did have: zucchini, red onion, and sharp cheddar. Delish. I really encourage you to experiment with this recipe.

Sautéing Zucchini (Stove Top Method)
Nowadays, my mom grills zucchini (I love you Mom!), but when I was growing up, we only ate zucchini one way: cooked in tomato sauce. I did not like it. The first time I had it prepared any other way was on a trip to Wisconsin, when a distant relative we were staying with sautéed zucchini with butter and basil. It was so delicious, and the first time I realized zucchini could be good. I still enjoy it cooked this way on the stovetop. Here’s my method for sautéing zucchini:

1. In a pan over medium heat, melt enough butter to coat the bottom of the pan.
2. Slice zucchini crosswise into 3/8-inch-thick rounds.
3. Put the zucchini rounds in a single layer in the hot pan and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and dried basil or marjoram.
4. Cook them until they start to brown on the first side, flip them, lower the heat, and cook until they’re just soft (don’t overcook). I spear them with a fork to flip them.
5. Put the zukes on a plate and (important!) drizzle the remaining browned butter over them.

Zucchini cooked this way is seriously unbelievably rich and delicious. John and I ate the entire pan I cooked in about two minutes.



Shredding and Freezing Zucchini
The National Center for Home Food Preservation doesn’t recommend canning zucchini or summer squash, so the only way to preserve it at home is to freeze it. But freezing causes the texture of zucchini to deteriorate. My preferred way to deal with this problem is to freeze shredded zucchini and use it later in baking (where the change in texture won’t be noticeable). I like to freeze my zucchini in pre-measured blocks so I only have to defrost what I need for a recipe. Here’s my method for freezing shredded zucchini:

1. Shred the zucchini finely.
2. Put it in a strainer over a bowl.
3. Let it drain until it’s a little wetter than shredded carrots, then stir it to make sure it’s uniformly moist.
4. Put plastic wrap down on a cookie sheet.
5. Measure half-cups of zucchini, roll them into rough balls, and put them on the cookie sheet.
6. Freeze the shredded zucchini balls on the cookie sheet until they’re solid, then toss them in a freezer bag and keep them frozen until you’re ready to defrost and use them.



Baking with Zucchini (Zucchini Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe)
Last year, my good friend J and her family came for a visit. J brought a batch of zucchini chocolate chip cookies that she baked using her version of Barbara Kingsolver’s recipe from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. They were delicious. J’s a great cook, and she also seems to know how to keep every baked good as fresh as the day she baked it. She told me that she always keeps her zucchini cookies in the freezer. In fact, they taste even better right out of the freezer! I now freeze all my cookies, but that’s a tale for another day. I modified Kingsolver’s recipe to use more zucchini and to omit the honey, which I rarely have on hand. These cookies are soft and cakey, not crisp. Here’s my recipe for zucchini chocolate chip cookies:

1/2 c. butter
1 c. brown sugar
1 egg
1 t. vanilla
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. baking soda
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. nutmeg
2 c. loosely packed zucchini (finely shredded, drained like I discussed above)
1 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. white flour
1 1/2 c. chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Beat the butter and the brown sugar with an electric mixer until fluffy, then beat in the egg and vanilla. With the mixer running, sprinkle in the salt, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg and mix thoroughly. From now on, be careful not to over-mix. Mix in the zucchini, then mix in the flours until barely mixed. Mix in the chocolate chips. Use 2T of dough per cookie, and make sure there are chocolate chips in every one. FYI, I use a cookie scooper, and I always bake my cookies on parchment on an air-insulated pan. Bake 15 minutes, or until set. After you take them out of the oven, let the cookies set for a few minutes on the sheet, then transfer to a wire rack to cool. Once cool, put those puppies in a freezer bag and keep them in the freezer! Makes a little less than 3 dozen.

Note: Okay, I know this could have been, like, six blog posts, but I just don’t work that way. I want all my zucchini madness to be in one (extremely long) post for easy reference. 🙂 I would love to hear how you use and store your abundance of zucchini – the easier, the better. Please share in the comments!

July Garden Update

This has been a strange year for gardening. It’s been a lot cooler than normal, and everything got a late start. We had to replant several things that didn’t make it through the cold May nights, and those plants that did survive seemed to stay the same size for the entire month. Here are some pics of the garden just about a month ago. Fortunately, the plants seem to be doing pretty well now, even if they are about six weeks behind a normal schedule! Here’s the garden this morning (you also get a preview of the new irrigation system!):

The tomatoes and tomatillos are going nuts.

We have pumpkin, zucchini, and yellow squash (straight-neck squash).

Japanese cucumbers.

John’s commodity crops (soybeans and corn).

Most exciting, our peppers are finally looking good this year. The past two years, they just haven’t thrived. I think some extra fertilizer did the trick this year, and the mulch may have helped too.

Anaheim Chili Pepper.

Bell Pepper.

Anyone else having a weird gardening year from this weird weather?

Mulch is the Answer

According to my new favorite book, How to Grow Fruits and Vegetables by the Organic Method (1961 Edition), mulch is the answer to all my problems. It controls weeds, helps keep moisture in the soil, adds nutrients to the soil as it decomposes, and helps control pests. In the winter, it also helps keep the soil warm, although Lord knows we don’t need that help now…it was in the high 90’s today.

The weeds have been taking over our garden. I think that some of the manure we used is to blame. After I spent a while weeding, I had things around the garden plants in the Back Forty under control.

Garden Before Mulch

I decided that hay would be the best choice for mulch because it’s cheap and readily available. Turns out, hay isn’t exactly “cheap.” Hay (alfalfa in this case) is used for fodder and runs $19/bale at our local feed store. Straw is what we wanted. Six dollars a bale and way fewer weeds and seeds to boot. I laid a nice thick layer (3-4 inches) around the base of the plants in the Back Forty, and only used about a third of a bale. I didn’t put any mulch around the crawling plants (melons and zucchini) because they were already on the ground. I didn’t mulch any of the raised beds because I figured they would act as a control of sorts.

After Mulch

After Mulch Closeup

I’m hopeful that the mulch will help with the weeds, and also help reduce our watering needs during the heat of summer. If the plants I mulched around look like they’re doing well after a few more weeks, I’ll probably go to town and mulch everything.

To reward myself after all that work in the hot sun, I enjoyed a treat from the garden. Blackberries right off the vine. I love summer.

Blackberries

Late Winter/Early Spring Garden

There hasn’t been much action in the garden in the last six weeks or so (at least on our part…the birds and the mole have still been busy). The broccoli and brussels sprouts we planted then are doing well.

The weather has been a little bit funky and stormy lately. Just a few days a go, we got a surprise early-morning dusting of snow.

We’re supposed to get another cold spell later this week, but we decided to get a few more things in the ground anyway. We planted bok choy seedlings, and snow peas, celery and carrots from seed. It was so nice and sunny today. This photo has some funky lens effects, but it does capture the intensity of the sun today.

Starting with the bed John’s kneeling at, and working clockwise, here’s what’s in the four regular beds:

Carrots (2 rows)
Celery (1 row)
Bok Choy (half bed)
Brussels Sprouts (half bed)
Broccoli (full bed)
Garlic (3/4 bed)
Mole Trap (1/4 bed)

The long bed on the left by the fence has:

Red Onions (first planting, 1/5 bed)
Shallots (2/5 bed)
Red Onions (second planting 1/5 bed)
Walla Walla Onions (1/5 bed)

I’m going to get some herbs and tomatoes started from seed indoors in the next week or so, but those won’t get planted for another couple of months. It’s a slow garden time! Any suggestions for more things to plant now? The Back Forty is empty, and we don’t have any plans for it until May or so…

Update: The sunset today ended up being kind of nice, too!

Tips for Freezing Vegetables

When I came across the 1973 edition of this book at the thrift store last week, and I snatched it up. We just bought a chest freezer, and I’m looking forward to being able to store some of our overabundance of summer garden veggies for later use.

I know the canning sections of this book are probably out of date. I like to refer to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, which has the most recent USDA Canning Guide online. Canning freaks me out. Freezing, not so much. Although the NCHFP also has a lot of tips on freezing foods, which I’ll have to check out. I’ll probably get freaked out about freezing if I read them all!

In the meantime, my new (old) book has been very informative. Did you know that you pretty much have to blanch vegetables before you freeze them? Here’s what the book says:

Vegetables, as they come from the garden, have enzymes working in them. These break down Vitamin C in a short time and convert starch to sugar. They are all slowed down (not stopped) by cold temperatures, but they are destroyed by heat – by blanching. […B]lanching makes certain enzymes inactive which would otherwise cause unnatural colors and disagreeable flavors and odors to develop while the foods remain frozen. […] Vitamin C is retained in much greater amounts in many of those [vegetables] blanched before freezing.

According to the book, the basic rule of thumb for freezing veggies is: pretty much any vegetable that cooks well will freeze well. Here’s the method they recommend (click for readable versions):

I can’t wait to freeze my own peas, beans, and corn! And I’m excited to see if I can freeze my own cooked tomatoes to use in soups and sauces. Does anyone else do any preserving? I totally want a root cellar.

It Took Us Four Years to Plant Fruit Trees

We’ve been talking about planting some fruit trees since we moved into our house in July 2006. And yet, we never did anything about it. We were too busy with other house projects to tackle gardening and landscaping; it took us two years just to get a vegetable garden started! Part of the problem is that it seems like such a commitment to plant a tree. It’s not like you can just move it if you don’t like where it’s planted. We finally decided to plant the trees in between our house and the road to the backyard. Here’s our new micro-orchard:

The road is on the left along the fence line, and our house is up on the right. You can see a bit of the shed, too. John did all the work while I spent the day with my Mom. My role was consulting on varieties and location. We chose an apple, a peach, a cherry, a three-way grafted apricot, and a mandarin orange (which hasn’t been planted yet). We’re also going to plant a navel orange, but our local nursery was out of the variety we wanted. John did a great job planting the trees…look how nice the base of the tree and the drainage look!

In other garden news, our lilac is budding! I love that thing, it smells absolutely heavenly when it blooms, and is gorgeous to boot!

I’ll admit that my big fear with the fruit trees is that they’ll die. We don’t have any real irrigation system, so we’ll have to figure out a watering schedule. And I know we’re prone to scale, so we might have issues with that. Do you all have fruit trees? Good resources? Tips for organic pest control and irrigation schedules? My friends at REOlistic Renovation inherited an amazing little orchard in their backyard! Hopefully they’ll be willing to trade veggies for fruit until our trees mature! 🙂