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Pass the Peas, Please!

January 19th, 2011

green peas on a plateIf you haven't grown peas, you're going to be very surprised when you see how easily you can have a plentiful crop of these wonderful pods.  They are a cool-weather plant, so you can get two crops if you plant in the very early spring, and again in the late summer for a fall harvest.  Provide them a rich well-draining soil, a stake, trellis or netting to vine on (depending on the growth habit of the varieties you choose), and you'll have some sweet green pearls in no time!

Standard pea pods including the Progress 9, or the All-America Winner Mr. Big Pea Plant, or an heirloom like the Green Arrow, produce 4-inch pods containing 7 to 10 peas each. Those peas should be picked when the pods are plump and rounded, meaning the mature peas growing inside can be felt by light squeezing of the pod. They should easily pluck off the stems right at their crowns.  Most varieties will mature in 60 to 70 days.  Peas should be shelled from their protective pods within several days of being picked from the vines, so they retain their moisture and sweet flavor.  They are a crunchy and satisfying raw snack (eaten like peanuts), and are also suitable for cooking immediately, as well as for canning or freezing.

Snap peas are meant to be eaten in their entirety, pods and all.  Stringless varieties like the Sugar Daddy and Sugar Sprint are the most tender and effortless to prepare.  Snap peas are delicious raw as a snack, or as an addition to cold salads. They can be cooked immediately or stored for up to a week in the refrigerator.  Their flavor lends itself well to pickling, canning or freezing, as well.  They mature at around 60 days and should easily snap right off the vines.  Remove any crown or stem before eating.

Chinese pea pods have tiny peas inside flat, edible pods. They reach maturity around 60-70 days and when they're 3 to 4 inches in length and a deep, rich emerald green color. Mammoth Melting and Oregon Sugar Pod II have their own unique traits. Most fans of snow pea pods prefer to remove the tough string that runs down the spine before consuming.

Peas can be planted from seeds or young plants. Determine your space limitations, including the plant height, the days to maturity, your climate, disease resistance needed, and how you intend to prepare the harvested vegetables.  All of those factors should be considered before you choose which varieties to grow.  You can study the unique qualities of each pea plant on Garden Harvest Supply's website so you can have the most successful harvest.  And don't forget to have some pea plants or seeds ready for a fall harvest!

Most varieties of peas require spacing of 2 inches between seeds or plants, and they'll need to be thinned to around 30 inches. Taller-growing varieties will need a support system for their vining habit.  Some grow squat and bushy, reaching only 2 feet in height; others require tall trellises or netting allowing them to soar to 5 to 7 feet tall.

Snap peas with edible pods are usually ripe at slightly shorter lengths than peas without edible pods. Chinese pea pods can be picked from 2 to 4 inches long. Either variety can be eaten raw or blanched, chilled and served on vegetable trays, or stir-fried in Asian dishes.

Cukes

December 28th, 2010

young cucumber growing in the gardenBesides being a crunchy, flavorful salad ingredient, cucumbers are pickles-to-be. So what garden is complete without them?

Cukes grow on vining or bush-type plants; your garden space will determine which varieties have a growth habit that is best suited for your needs. The other factors to consider when choosing the types of cucumbers to grow are how you plan to consume the fruit, and what qualities you seek in the flavor. If you want crisp, fresh cucumbers all summer long, choose a variety with a slower time to harvest. If you plan to make pickles, choose a variety like the Homemade Pickles Cucumber Plant that is mature and ready to harvest in 45 days, and between 2 to 5 inches in length.

Cucumbers like the Dasher II produce copious fruits that are ripe for harvest at 10-12 inches in length, and starting at around 2 months of growth. Some varieties are less acidic and easier to digest.

While you are at it, radishes make great companions for cucumbers. Companion planting means putting compatible plants together to provide benefits to one or both. In the case of cukes, if radishes are planted nearby or interplanted throughout the cucumber bed, they will deter the pesky striped cucumber beetle.

Cukes need a lot of moisture to grow and produce bountiful crops. The vining varieties require a trellis or stake support to allow the fruits to have space to grow. They mature best when allowed some shade underneath the plant’s leaves or from neighboring plants.

Harvest cucumbers when they reach their desired length and before they get too plump, which ensures sweeter fruit and it also keeps the plant producing more throughout the season. Also, never let cucumbers turn yellow, or they’ll develop a bitter or sour flavor and hard seeds and skin texture. The varieties you choose will have a recommended “days to maturity” rating that will tell you when to expect your first ripe fruits.

Wear gloves when harvesting cucumbers. They are covered with tiny prickly spines that can easily be removed with a gloved hand. To remove the fruits from the vine, simply hold the cucumber in one hand, and the stem in the other and snap off at the stem. If the fruit resists, pull the stem from the vine and keep it intact with the fruit.

The more you harvest, the more you encourage the plant to continue its production until the frost hits. Cukes like heat and generally aren’t very frost resistant.

plate full of garden grown cumumbersIf your cukes are ripening faster than you can eat them, you can store them in the refrigerator for up to a week. Or, you can make cucumber salad by preserving them in a vinegar-based brine, and they’ll keep like that for a week or so, refrigerated. The main thing is to keep picking them as they ripen to encourage the vines to continue providing new fruits.

An easy, refreshing and nutritious cucumber salad can be made combining white vinegar, salt and sugar to taste, added to diced red bell peppers, onions and cukes. Allow flavors to marry overnight. Also, the skin contains many nutrients, so if your garden is organic, don’t peel and discard the best part of the cuke!

Radish Harvest

August 25th, 2010

radish plantRadishes grow so effortlessly even a young child can be a successful radish gardener.  This root crop is quick to yield crunchy, nutrient-rich produce, often within a month.  So, plant early in the spring and re-seed your radishes throughout the summer season.  They do best in cooler conditions, so plant underneath taller, leafy vegetation or in partial shade areas as soon as the danger of frost is past in the spring.

Container gardening is also an option for radishes, due to their small size and relatively simple growing needs. Keep the soil evenly moist, to prevent the roots from becoming woody.  Radishes are a flavorful addition to salads when chopped or sliced raw.  They're delicious in soups, stews, and stir-fries, as well, adding a spicy piquant flavor. 

A popular heirloom variety is the German Giant, which produces baseball-size roots with deep ruby red outsides and crisp white interiors.  Their flavor is mild and their crunch is addictive.  They grow quickly and are not finicky about soil or water.  However, they do best with consistent moisture, especially in high heat.

Another interesting heirloom type is the Pink Beauty, which is a more standard size root that has a crisp white interior and a beautiful soft pink exterior.  The Sparkler Radish is half white and half pink.  Other varieties of globe-shaped radishes have purple, solid black or solid white exteriors.  The White Icicle is solid white with a long, carrot-like shape.

Radishes are best picked before they're past their prime, so follow the instructions that accompany the young plant or on the seed packet to determine days to maturity. Don't let them stay in the ground past their ideal time.  Their texture will become spongy and their flavor, too hot.  Pull them out of the ground (and they should be easy to remove from the soil with a gentle tug) as soon as the tops  of the roots indicate they've reached the right size for their variety. Thinning the crop will promote better growth throughout the summer.

Winter varieties will store for months in a root cellar, but traditional summer salad varieties need to be consumed within a week or so.  Remove the tops, and rinse and scrub the roots with a vegetable brush under cold water.  Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.  Don't discard the edible tops!  Like all cruciferous vegetables, the greens are loaded with nutrition and flavor.  Rinse them and store in plastic for up to a few days.  Serve the greens mixed into a stir-fry, soup, or stew.  The crunchy globes add color and texture to tossed salads, and they can be preserved in the same ways as turnips.

Don't peel summer varieties.  Eat the entire root, skin and all.  Winter varieties like daikon, with tougher skin, need to be peeled before eating.

How to Can Fresh Tomatoes

August 16th, 2010

Freshly canned tomato salsaTomatoes are one of the most popular vegetables grown in home gardens, and canning is a brilliant way to enjoy their flavor throughout the year. Tomatoes need to be preserved correctly to avoid spoilage and to ensure safe consumption by your family.

These canning tips should help you avoid the processing errors that can make your hard work a waste of time.

There is a great deal of satisfaction to be achieved by growing your own produce, and then harvesting and preserving your home-grown bounty. There is even greater satisfaction when you get to enjoy the fresh flavors of summer in the dead of winter. So, follow the simple tips below, and rest assured that the tomatoes you can today will be just as flavorful and nutritious months from now.

There are many things you can make with tomatoes, such as salads, sauces and salsas, but this article focuses only on canning whole, halved or chopped tomatoes.  The first thing you should know is how many tomatoes it will take to yield your desired number of quarts or pints. It takes approximately 2.5 to 3.5 pounds of fresh tomatoes to yield 1 quart or 2 pints, depending on whether you chop them. Having a kitchen scale can take a lot of the guesswork out of knowing how much you'll actually end up with, but experience is the best teacher.

Whether you can in pints or quarts will depend on the size of your family, the way you plan to use the tomatoes, and how you are preserving them (whole, halved or chopped). Your tomatoes should be vine-ripened, not bruised, and should have no sign of spoilage. You should not can overripe tomatoes or those that have been subject to diseases or insect or worm infestations. If you can store-bought tomatoes, use the recommendation below for adding lemon juice or citric acid. Tomatoes from the grocery store have usually been picked early and allowed to ripen off the vine, making them less acidic.

You will need clean and sterile canning jars. You may be able to find boxes of canning jars at garage or yard sales or even on Craigsist, which can save you a lot of money. If you go this route, check the rims for chips and rust and the jars for cracks, and discard any with these imperfections. If the jars have a white discoloration, don't even consider using them. Your jars should be free of staining and look new, once washed. You should also only buy jars meant for canning by Ball, Kerr or Mason. The name will be displayed on the jar. The screw-bands can also be bought second-hand or acquired from other people, but the lids or seals must be brand new or never used. The only way you can guarantee that is by buying a factory-sealed box of lids or by using lids you have personally purchased new. The screw-bands should not be dented or rusted.

Your jars should be washed with soap and very hot water (in the dishwasher is fine), even if they are brand new out-of-the-box. Rinse them really well. You want them to be sterile when you fill them, so you want to keep them hot. I put them in my canner and fill the jars with water and keep the water level over the top of the jars and bring them to a boil and then reduce the heat until I'm ready to use them.  As I use them, I pull them out of the water with a pair of tongs, emptying the water back into the canner and filling the jars as I go. Now my canner is already full of almost boiling water, which I can bring back to a boil quickly when putting the jars back in to process. This method leaves much more room in your kitchen and on your stove and leaves one less pan to clean up!

It's also best to wash the bands, but they don't have to be kept hot. The seals or lids, on the other hand, should be kept very hot. I place them around a saucepan, alternating lids by placing some up and some down, just because it keeps them from nesting. I cover them with water and heat them until the water is starting to steam and then lower the temp on the burner to keep them hot until I need them. You should not boil the lids. A magnetic lid lifter is one of the cheapest and most valuable tools in my canning arsenal.

Tomatoes can be highly acidic, so you might want to consider wearing rubber gloves of some kind. I prefer the doctor type because they come in sizes that fit my small hands and they make the jars and lids easier to handle. Green tomatoes are more acidic than ripened tomatoes but can be canned using the same method.
Once you've canned tomatoes without gloves, you will probably never do so again.

Wash the tomatoes well and drain. A large colander is handy for this purpose. Use a large slotted spoon to dip the tomatoes, one by one, into a boiling pot of water. You can use a small to medium saucepan for this. Count to 30 or 60 seconds or until the skins split, then dip quickly in ice cold water. This will loosen the skin, making it really easy to remove. Cut out the stem and the white core beneath the stem, peel the skin off and trim off any obviously bruised or discolored areas.

Fill the jars with tomatoeswhole, halved or choppedincluding any tomato juices that are made while slicing them. I use a plastic, flexible cutting board and a jar funnel for this purpose. Once the jars are full, add enough hot water or hot tomato juice to leave 1/2″ headspace, which is the space between the food and the top of the jar, to allow for expansion as it is processing in the hot water bath. Then remove any air bubbles by using a non-metallic spatula inserted between the jar and the food, slowly moving the spatula up and down as you turn the jar one full circle. Add more liquid to adjust the headspace if necessary. Use a wet clean cloth to clean the rim of the jar, put a hot seal or lid on the jar and add the screw-band. You only need to finger-tighten the band firmly; don't use a hard twist. Place in the canner, bring the water to a boil and then time for the recommended time for your altitude. You can either use a water bath or pressure canner, both of which should come with recommendations. You can also search online for recommendations from the USDA or from your local college extension services.

Once the jars are processed for the correct amount of time, use a jar lifter to remove them from the water and place them on a rack, a towel or on newspaper. Don't place them on a cold, hard surface, as they might crack from the temperature difference. When you start removing them, you are liable to hear metallic pops as the lids start sealing. (This always makes me smile.) It can take up to 24 hours for all of the lids to seal. Leave the jars alone and don't be tempted to push on the tops of the lids to test the seals before the 24-hour time limit is up. The center of the lid should be slightly concave and not move. If it is slightly convex and pops when you push it, the jar did not seal and you should reprocess* it immediately or discard the contents. If the jars are sealed, you may remove the screw-band, if you wish, label the jars with the date and the contents, and move them to a cool, dry, dark place, although you may be tempted to just leave them out for a few days to admire your work.

*You can reprocess any jars that did not seal by putting the contents into a pot. Heat the contents just to boiling and then repeat the process for your selected canner. If they still don't seal, discard that batch. You should also be aware that re-processing can result in a lessening of the Vitamin C and Vitamin B-complex and may also result in a slightly different texture. It's kind of like reheating leftovers.

You should also discard the contents of any jars in which the seals fail after a number of days or after a number of months. Some people make sure the acidity level of their tomatoes is up, which makes doubly sure that the processing will result in safe edibles, by adding 1 Tablespoon of bottled lemon juice or 1/4 teaspoon of citric acid per pint, or 2 Tablespoons of bottled lemon juice or 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid to a quart of tomatoes. You can add this to the bottom of each jar before adding the tomatoes and liquid, though it is usually not necessary when you are using high quality tomatoes right from your garden.

Once you get the hang of canning, you can experiment with new recipes on your own, maybe adding fresh herbs or onions to your tomatoes. You can search online for a recipe that sounds good to you and you will probably be presented with dozens, if not hundreds, of possibilities. The most important aspect to canning is that you have fun and that you do so safely. Your canned goods should be much better than commercially prepared foods. Enjoy!

Pick a Peck of Pickling Peppers

August 6th, 2010

sweet pepperSweet peppers have so much value in the kitchen, it's tough to tally all the ways a good harvest of peppers can be enjoyed. First of all, peppers are easy to grow, and their plants are neat and compact, taking up little space in the garden for the wealth of fruit they produce. They're relatively resistant to pests and disease.

It's time to pick your peppers when they reach the full size for their variety, based on the maturity date on the seed packet or growing instructions. Bell peppers should have a glossy surface and deep green or brilliant gold or vibrant red overall color. Some varieties have variegated hues at maturity. They should feel firm but not hard when squeezed with slight pressure. Sweet banana peppers are generally ripe when they reach a bright yellow, yellow-green, lime green or red color and yield to slight pressure, as well.

That's when to pick. And now for the how to pick and how to feast on your harvest.  Peppers sometimes are stubborn, so it's best to cut them off the plant with clean, sharp shears or a knife. Leave the stem end attached, to preserve the fruit as long as possible. Store at room temp, in a slightly cooler root cellar, or in the refrigerator, until ready for use. They're at their peak flavor when fresh off the plant.

Sweet peppers are delicious raw, and are colorful and crisp additions to veggie trays, served with hummus, ranch dip or cream cheese fillings. They can be sliced or diced to mix into tossed salads. And, they add color and texture when used as garnishes on entrees.

Cooked, bell and banana peppers are a bold flavor enhancer. They add a full, sweet taste to nearly any recipe. They can be cut into large or small pieces or long skinny slices.  Tiny diced red peppers add zing to simple cooked corn or green vegetables. They soften when cooked but can be added early or late in a dish's preparation, depending on how much crispness or wilting is preferred.

Pickled peppers are a good source of nutrition and a delicious side dish throughout the cold season, when store-bought peppers just don't satisfy. Peppers can be preserved in any traditional manner. Gourmet kitchens are never without roasted bell peppers in jars filled with brine or olive oil and they can be added last-minute to perk up even the most boring dish. Peppers can also be frozen for use months after the garden has retired for the season. Just chop and freeze in airtight containers.

The flavors and colors of sweet peppers marry well with onion, garlic, and most other vegetables, meats and spices. Many traditional American foods, as well as ethnic cuisines, call for sweet peppers, and no garden harvest is complete without them.

Hot-cha-cha-cha! Hot Peppers and Spicing Up Your World

July 22nd, 2010

Hot peppers on displayAs is the case with all produce, fresh-picked homegrown peppers have more flavor, color and nutritional value than their commercially grown counterparts at the supermarket. If you are new to growing hot peppers, look for the Scoville heating units that are listed for each variety. The higher the number, the hotter the pepper.

Every chef should have at least a few varieties of hot pepper plants in the garden or potted on the patio. They're easy to grow, add a ton of flavor to foods, and are amazingly versatile in the kitchen. From the hottest varieties, like Ghost, to the milder Anaheim, there are countless reasons to grow these flavorful fruits. Most hot peppers can be added to recipes raw, roasted, sautéed, steamed, or baked, and they can be preserved in many ways. Drying hot peppers causes some of their flavors and heat to be lost but allows the gardener to enjoy the fruits of the harvest for up to a year after ripe peppers are picked.

The best varieties of hot pepper to dry are the thin-skinned ones with the lowest moisture content. They can be sun-dried, roasted, or quick-dried in a food dehydrator. Once they're dry, crush the flesh into flakes or powder, and store in a cool, dark place in an airtight container. Peppers can also be frozen whole or diced, and straight off the plant, or blanched first. The meatier, thicker-fleshed varieties will freeze better and retain a nicer texture when thawed.

Some peppers ripen all at once, while others generate new fruits throughout the summer. For the chef who wants fresh-picked heat for each meal's preparation, choose a type that will keep producing ripening peppers. For preserving peppers by pickling, canning, or using salsas and hot sauces, choose a variety that ripens all at once.

Peppers are a cinch to harvest. They snap right off the stem of the plant when they're ripe, and they don't have spines or thorns, so gloves aren't needed to pick them. However, it is recommended that chefs wear latex kitchen gloves when preparing spicy peppers to add to dishes, to avoid getting the hot capsaicin oil on hands and then accidentally touching the face. Hot peppers will burn sensitive skin and eyes, and the sting is excruciating.

It's easiest to gauge the heat of your finished dish if you remove the innards and cook with only the green, red or orange fleshy part of the fruit.

Peppers are ripe and ready for picking as soon as they reach their full length, as suggested in their growing instructions. Their ripe color can vary. For example, jalapeños can be light or deep green, purple or red at maturity, although most purists prefer their flavor when they're firm, shiny and deep green.

The Joy of Canning

September 10th, 2009

Canning_JarsYour summer harvest is probably all in by now, and you may even have an overabundance of tomatoes, zucchini, or other crops. Have you thought about putting them up? Canning is a terrific end-of-summer activity, and after you've heard from our featured canner Suzanne McMinn and her friends at the online forum Chickens in the Road, you may want to give it a try, if you're not already doing it.

Suzanne is an example of a modern canner: she didn't learn until she was in her forties and moved from the suburbs to a farm. As with many people new to canning, Suzanne was soon hooked. Last week on her blog she wrote, I've canned a lot this summer already and I'm not done. I've canned things I've canned before–jams and butters, tomatoes and green beans, and I've canned things I haven't tried before–relishes and pickles and salsas. There are more new things I want to try before the summer canning season is over. There's always something new to try in canning.

Though Suzanne learned to can from a neighbor, she expanded her knowledge by reading, and some of her friends at Chickens in the Road learned entirely from books. The canning bible Suzanne recommends is the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving, which we currently have on hand in a beautifully designed centenary edition.

The reasons people love to can are as varied as their personalities. When Suzanne cans staples like tomatoes, the process makes her feel practical and self-sufficient. When she concocts treats like Madeira Pear Mincemeat and Blackberries in Framboise and puts them up, canning allows her to express a gourmet flair.

You can get an incredible sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and creative fulfillment from putting up your own food, she says. There's nothing like the fresh taste of popping open a jar of summer in the middle of winter.

Nearly all the posters on Chickens In the Road would agree: their pleasure in hearing the pop of the lids as they open seems to be equaled only by their feeling of satisfaction when they hear the lids pop closed at the end of the canning process.

A forum member named Susan writes, I love hearing the pop, pop, pop of the lids sealing. This week it has been apples and tomatoes. Last week it was green beans, before that it was more tomatoes, salsa blackberries and cherry jam way back in June.

Likewise, Estella writes, I love the sound of the ‘ping' when the jar seals!  It is a magic sound of a job well done, a sigh of satisfaction from a full cupboard. The next few weeks are going to be very busy picking vegetables and canning.

The posters at Chickens In the Road also share Suzanne's overall good feelings about canning. A poster named Cindy writes, It gives me a feeling of accomplishment when I open a cupboard and see all of the pretty jars filled with our garden bounty, waiting to be opened in the middle of winter, or given as gifts. I love not having to go to the store to buy these things. They have gotten so expensive!

Another poster identified as Fencepost confided that since her husband has been out of work, he has become the Jelly King and Salsa Sultan, and that canning has been good therapy. He has laid up more than five cases of jelly and two cases of salsa and she plans to give them as Christmas gifts.

Some of the posters report that their children definitely prefer home canned to commercially canned food. Cyndi L, writes, My eight-year-old asked when we were going to have ‘real green beans again.' She would not eat store bought beansshe called them ‘fake beans.' I made the garden a priority this year, and have put up forty quarts of green beans and planted another two rows of fall beans, which are doing great and will hopefully give me another forty quarts.

Talking about children, it's interesting to note that while some of the forum members have been canning since they were very young, others have started as recently as this summer. We'll be hearing from some of these newcomers, but first we'd like to share some of the wonderful memories of the veteran canners.

Amy Buchanan writes, When I was four years old, my job was to stand on a chair and turn the crank of the meat grinder as Mom fed endless apricot halves into it. We spent a couple years living with my Grandparents while Dad was overseas. Gardening and canning were expected of everyone. When Dad got out of the army years later, we lived next door to my Grandma and Grandpa and continued that. My collection of beautiful filled jars makes me happy. Sharing them with my friends makes me happy. Having canned them with my kids (ages 2, 5, 7) makes me giddy beyond belief. It reaffirms the ties to my Mom and Grandma (and all the canners before them I never had the chance to meet), and brings back all those memories of the times we worked together.

Another long-time canner, Lola Dawn, writes, Nothing tasted as good as my Granny's homemade sauerkraut! White as snow, it was crunchy, tangy goodness. Store bought cannot even compare, the taste is not even close. My mom made a sour piccalilli that is a family favorite. It was a labor-intensive endeavor and spanned weeks of watching and prepping. But so worth it! I remember one summer we made thirty gallons of dill pickles. Going to the cellar to retrieve Mason jars and washing them by hand in unbelievably hot water, snapping green beans for hours, washing veggies, grinding, peeling, pitting.But I am thankful for what I was taught. Most of it can be applied as life lessons: finish what you start; hard work pays off; tried and true is usually best; prepare for the future.

Among the canners who have just started this summer is Maryann, who writes, I shunned all attempts at homemaking and homestead skills when I was young. How foolish that was. Now, I am learning as I go the things I could have learned as a child. I learn from books, team up with like-minded friends and spend a lot of time on the phone with my Mom. (Eating humble pie.) The best thing I've done in a long time was to pick strawberries and cherries with my Mom and Dad while they visited this summer and turn our work into strawberry jam and canned cherries. My Mom said it was so good to work side by side with me in this.

Senta Sandberg has a similar story, but one that is particularly touching: My Grandmother had planned on teaching me this year and she did, but from her death bed, literally! She planted six rows of green pintos just for me, and she talked me through the process while in her hospital bed. Now I know how much she loved me, all those years she shared her canning treatsit takes a lot of love and work to make it all work out just right. But I'm glad I gave it a try and I'm even gladder that she was still alive to share in the accomplishment with me. Even though we lost her in June, I will always cherish our last summer of canning together.

Finally, don't be discouraged if there is no one around to personally show you how to can. Our master gardener Karen is happy to answer your questions, and the folks at Suzanne's online forum are ready and willing to lend a virtual helping hand. As you can tell from their comments, canning is about much more than preserving food: it's about self-sufficiency, creativity, family traditions, and love!

Greens: mustard, collards, turnip, and kale

January 15th, 2009

Freshly picked greens from the garenDark, leafy greens are an all-around best value for gardeners. They're nutrient dense, versatile and easy to prepare, and they are prolific growers with very little coddling. Some are even extremely aesthetic plants and can be used as decorative garden borders, like Russian Red kale. Many greens are related to the cabbage family.

A few types of greens are considered delicacies in certain cultures. The tops of beets, kohlrabi, and turnips are examples of greens that some growers enjoy preparing and eating as much as the roots, and in many cases, the greens contain more nutrients than the more popular roots. Some varieties, like seven top heirloom turnip, are grown to produce the heartiest greens and don't even generate much of an edible root.

Bottom line is greens can be used so many ways in the kitchen that every garden should grow some. Collard greens are a staple on Southern menus, boiled or slow-cooked, prepared with ham hocks or pigs' feet. Kale roasted in olive oil and garlic will caramelize to bring out all the sweetness. Peppery mustard greens sautéed with olive oil, onion, garlic and a touch of sesame oil is the perfect complement to any Asian meal. Beet greens can be chopped and steamed right along with the deep red roots. Greens also preserve wonderfully in any type of vinegar pickling brine.

Freezing greens is an excellent way to store them for use in the winter. Any vegetable freezing method worksblanching, parboiling or steaming and packaging them in quick-thaw portions will have them ready to add to recipes in a snap. Greens can also be canned by traditional methods. The juice that's left over from boiling or steaming greens contains a ton of their valuable nutrients, so don't throw it away. Use it for soup stock and as a base for any dishes containing the cooked greens.

Greens vary in tenderness. Some cook in a flash, while others need to spend much longer on the stove. Mustard stems retain a nice crunch, where collard stems are too tough for some palates. Consult recipes to determine the best way to cook your particular variety of greens. But none are complicated or time-consuming. Greens are slightly to extremely bitter, and some are spicy, so be advised that not all taste great raw.

Young greens are the most flavorful, but you can harvest any time during the growing season. Just snip leaves with a sharp knife, and the plants will produce more. Cut off the entire plant and the root may generate an entirely new plant in an effort to produce seed.

High in dietary fiber, low in fat, and rich in chlorophyll, greens all contain a wealth of vitamins and minerals.

The best part about greens is they thrive in most garden conditions. Give them sunshine and well-drained soil, and they'll provide a constant source of vegetation. Some even taste best after being exposed to a light frost, so plant early and enjoy throughout your growing season.

Around the globe: Turnips

January 12th, 2009

Elegant white apple-sized globes with purple tops, or lush golden roots, turnips aren’t just for admiring from afar. This garden jewel is a treasure awaiting your discovery. Besides being tasty and super-nutritious, turnips are easy to grow, and they take up minimal space in your garden. This vegetable is in the cruciferous family, along with cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli.

Turnips are a root crop, meaning the dense, fleshy root is a prize in the kitchen. The green tops are also edible and nutritiousand some varieties are grown for their prolific greens alonebut that's for the next blog. This page is all about the root, the part that is savored by gourmet and amateur chefs alike.

Turnips can be sown in the early spring to late fall, as long as you allow 2 months to maturity. If you plant late in the season, turnips can be stored for winter use. Turnips, like all root veggies, do best with ample water in the beginningand they shouldn’t be allowed to dry out for long periods during the growing season. Whether grown from seeds or starter plants, they need a good drink to get established in your garden. Successive plantings each 10 days or so will provide good-sized roots to pull throughout the summer and fall.

If turnips are allowed to grow too large, they get tough and woody. So, harvest your roots when the purple or gold tops, protruding out of the soil, are 2 to 3 inches in diameter, or medium-sized. Turnips store well in the refrigerator, in the produce drawer, where they won't dry out. They can often withstand early fall frosts, making them a great late-harvest vegetable. Cool weather produces the sweetest flesh. A root cellar and some sawdust will keep your turnips always at the ready for winter recipes.

Turnips are nothing if not versatile. Simply rinse, remove the stringy roots, and trim off the skin to reveal the fully edible white interior. Include them in mashed potatoes to add additional cancer-fighting nutrients and rich flavor. Use turnips instead of cabbage to make a crunchy slaw or kraut. Raw turnips, cut in juliennes, add a wholesome and crisp addition to vegetable trays and salads. Steamed turnips topped with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice will satisfy a dieter's low-calorie goals and craving for sweet flavor.

Turnips have a mild, delicate flavor and a texture that lends itself to boiling, broiling, baking, roasting (to caramelize and sweeten the vegetable for a little bit of heaven), steaming, and cubing for adding to soups and stews. Raw, with dips like ranch dressing or hummus, turnips make a great crunchy snack or addition to appetizer assortments. For the less health conscious, turnip fries can't be beat on the flavor scales!

Low in saturated fat and cholesterol, raw or cooked turnips are a good source of vitamin C and fiber, as well as many essential minerals. With all this nutrient content and versatility in preparation, how could any garden be complete without turnips?

Winter Squash

December 1st, 2008

Summer squashes (green and yellow) have a soft skin that's edible, and they are meant to be harvested when the seeds and entire interiors are soft enough to eat, as well. Winter squash is different in that the seeds are mature and hard, and the skin is a rindtough and hard, and not meant to be consumed. Remove the skin and seeds, and what's left is flesh that is a culinary treasure. The hard outer skin on winter squash is what protects it and allows it to be stored over 3-6 months, through the winter and into the spring.

Squash is a vegetable that mostly grows on sturdy vines, but some can also be semi-vining or bushy plants. The most common types of winter squash are acorn, butternut and spaghettithe one with the interior that becomes stringy like long noodles when it's cooked. There are numerous specialized varieties, as well. Each has a unique flavor, and ranging from slightly sweet to peanuty. Some common seasonings used with cooked squash are butter, cinnamon, nutmeg, maple syrup, and ginger.

The difference between winter squash and pumpkins is mostly nomenclature. Some people interchange the terms. And, some cooks interchange them in pies, with squash doing a superb job without being detected as a faux pumpkin. Winter squash can have skin that is smooth or bumpy, thin or thick, and in colors ranging from light yellow to blue-grey to dark green to vibrant orange. They also vary greatly in size and shape. All contain flesh that is light yellow to deep, rich orange.

Plant winter squash in the spring. It will mature over the summer and be ready for an autumn harvest, before the first frost. Most winter squashes will store wonderfully over several months in a cool cellar throughout the winter. Some varieties benefit from an initial curing stage immediately after harvest, kept at around 70 degrees for 10 to 20 days, then moved to a cool, dry place, with 45- to 60-degree temps.

For the health-conscious, squash ranks high on the charts of nutrition-dense foods. It is high in fiber, and also contains potassium, niacin, iron and beta carotene, which converts to Vitamin A in the body.

Winter squash will be the sweetest and mildest when prepared with the seeds scraped out before cooking. The skin can be removed either before or after cooking. The flesh can be boiled, broiled, baked, or steamed. Then, it can be cubed, mashed, pureed, or in the case of spaghetti squash, used in place of pasta, for a healthier, lower calorie and more flavorful base for marinara sauce.

Squash seeds can be roasted with a little salt or tamari (soy) sauce and eaten as a healthy snack. Butternut squash soup is simple to prepare, with most recipes calling for few ingredients, and it's popular with meat and potatoes gangs as well as uber-gourmets. Cooked squash freezes well, whether alone or in prepared dishes and soups.

Most vining squash plants will require a lot of room, so plan your garden space accordingly, and try a few varieties, to keep a range of flavors to enjoy over the winter months.

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