Drying Chilies

My husband and I like to travel a lot, and wherever we go, we find new varieties of peppers. In India alone we found Lal Mirc, Bili Mirc, Ganesh, a little fiery short pepper from Assam, and a long fruity red pepper with less heat. In Roswell, New Mexico, while my husband was checking out the UFOs, I was headfirst in the hardware store buying every chile seed they had. So what do we do with all that? Well, we chop them over eggs, we pickle them, we make lots and lots of fiery colorful hot sauce, we roast them, sweat them, peel and seed them and eat that, we stuff them with potatoes and cheese, we massage sore muscles with the infused oil of them, and we dry them.

String ‘Em Up

Stringing peppers to dry

Lal mirc

This is really easy. Choose thin-skinned chilies like cayenne for room-temperature drying. Pick only ripe, colorful ones. Get some thread- button thread is nice- and a big needle. Make a sloppy knot at the bottom. Run the needle through the hardest part of the green calyx at the top of the chile- not the stem as it will split, and not into the pepper. At the bottom of the stem where it is thick and the needle has a harder time getting through is where you want to be. For the first chile, go back around and run your needle through the knot at the bottom of the thread, where I told you to make it sloppy. That way the thread runs around the stem and it won’t pull through. Now just keep threading the chilies on, making sure the thread doesn’t tangle around the stems. Make it as short as you like but not more than 2 feet- that gets cumbersome. Hang it up in a decorative place where it won’t get knocked down.

Thicker Chilies

Stringing peppers to dry

Stringing peppers to dry

I noticed that some of my dried chilies tended to have mold inside them when I opened them.  I remembered that I had dried them in the greenhouse, which becomes an oven in summer, but gets cool and damp at night in the fall. Also, notice that chipotles, which are made from a ripened  jalapeno-like pepper, are smoke-dried. I got some amazing ones in Roswell- fantastic mole/fire-butter recipe to come eventually. Aha! So thicker peppers must be dehydrated in a really hot place, like my attic, or a smoker. The attic works perfectly as long as the weather is warm, but the improvised smoker -it remains to be seen. I smoked them with sassafrass leaves in my closed grill with a low heat, then slit them and put them in the dehydrator. We shall see. I did not string them because the last time I tried that the string burnt and the peppers fell in the fire….

To Trim or Not to Trim

At the top you may decide to tie some cornshucks for decoration. Get clean ones from the inside of the husk, tie the string around them, and shred, trim and fluff them so they make a nice top. I have sort of stopped bothering with that. I just hang them all over the house. They are pretty, and you can add them to food any time you want.

Make Your Own Chile Powder

toasting dried peppers

toasting dried peppers

Eventually I  take them down, dust them off, break them to release the seeds, toast them lightly by stirring in a dry cast iron pot, and throw them in the blender to create my own chile powder. I never have to buy it. The challenge is actually to grow chiles that are mild enough to get plenty of flavor before the heat becomes too much.

Nightshades: What To Do With Too Many Tomatoes

Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes

tying up tomatoes

In winter, I dream of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. I go through my seed file, smiling fondly as I pull out last year’s successes and failures, new seeds from places we have visited, trades and gifts, deciding what to grow in the rising year. The fact is that I eventually can’t choose and I grow them all, and then I can’t bear to compost the hundreds of extra plants, so I take them to the farmer’s market, and then I still have bazillions, so I end up growing about half a football field of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. It is kind of a nightshade nightmare. I must be crazy. Anyway. These are solanums; what people call nightshades, because they, -and potatoes, granadillas, groundcherries, henbane, etc., are in the same family as the mildly poisonous hedge growing plant nightshade. Some people think with a name like that they must be bad for your health. Well, imagine life without pizza, mashed potatoes, gazpacho, chili, eggplant parmigiana. Seriously. So now, if you are like me, you are drowning in tomatoes and something must be done, or you will be up to your eyeballs in rotten vegetables and your good work will be wasted.

Yes, We Can!

Canned tomatoes

Canned tomatoes

Seriously, canning is very easy. Today’s instructions make it sound very complex and dangerous. They just don’t want to be sued. Look at the older copies of Rodale’s Stocking Up. The newer versions are much more cautious. Just don’t eat anything out of a jar with a bad seal. Freezing is nice if you have the freezer space and you don’t mind risking a power outage. Dehydrating is fun, especially if you have a solar dehydrator, but I haven’t really been successful in producing really nice reconstituted vegetables. Dried tomatoes are like candy, but it’s really a sideline for me. Canning puts produce in glass jars which will be stable at a wide temperature range on your shelves for years, which makes them a favorite for preppers.

Equipment

Glass jars about the size of mayonnaise jars: Mason, Kerr, or Ball jars mainly- but you can reuse any clean glass jar, any size, that the disposable lids and rings fit. I recycle just about every glass jar that has a lid I can trust for one thing or another, and I have always scavenged spaghetti sauce jars and mayonnaise jars for tomatoes. You can buy new canning jars at the dollar store, but people are always throwing them out. Let your friends and family know to save them for you.

A really big pot for submerging Mason jars in boiling water. (If you want to go whole hog and get a pressure canner, you can still use it to do the easy open water bath canning for things like tomatoes and applesauce.)

Canning lids and rings The button in the middle of the lid is how you check if your seal is good. The rubber gasket, usually red, built into the lid, should be smooth and soft.

Funnels, especially a wide mouthed canning funnel.

Jar grabber/lifter– Like a big set of bottle grabbing tongs-totally essential for lifting hot jars out of boiling water.Trust me.

Tongs and a magnetic lid lifter are nice too. You can get all this stuff cheaply in five and dime or hardware stores, online, etc.

Glass jars are reusable and non-reactive. I have some Mason jars that are older than me, so I just run my finger around the edge to make sure there are no chips, and reuse them. (The blue ones are collector’s items, but I think they make the tomatoes look sickly.)The metal sealing rings are reusable but rust easily, and lids are risky to reuse, because although the rubber seal might reseal, the plastic film on the inside of the lid is easily damaged and then the underlying metal will corrode into your food.  I have heard of reuseable lids, and then there are glass jars with wire bails, glass lids and reusable rubber gaskets. They are expensive so I just try to find them in thrift stores. The gaskets last years.

Processing

I put my jars in the dishwasher, but I also check very carefully that each jar is clean and has no chips or cracks. Set up enough lids and rings in a separate pot of water to boil and sterilize for 15 minutes when you are getting ready to fill jars.  Put the wide mouth funnel in the mouth of the jar you are filling – it will be an exact fit so the mouth of the jar stays clean. Fill the jar until you have a half inch of space left- this is for the air that will exhaust and create your vaccuum seal. Remove the funnel, dip a clean cloth or paper towel in the water of the lids and make sure the rim of the jar is food-free, as little microorganism threads will climb up on food and break the seal, like weeds in a sidewalk, if you don’t. Using your jar lifter or tongs, put a lid on the jar, add the ring, and finger tighten, repeat.

boiling lids for canning

boiling lids-this was from a jam jar but it was late and I had no pictures….

When you have about seven jars filled, if you have the canning pot I think you do, put them in the pot, fill to cover with at least a half an inch of water over the top of the jars, and allow to boil until bubbles have been exhausting from the jars for 25 minutes. Many canning books quibble about the time, but my garden mentor, Steve Moaney, told me to just submerge the jars in water  and count 25 minutes from when it boils.Then use the jar lifter/grabber to carefully place the jars on a mat to cool. Make sure you have a secure grip before lifting clear of the water. You could make a serious mess and get badly scalded if you hurry.

As they cool, you will hear the lids suck down with a clicking sound. Check the “button” in the center of the lid and make sure it is down. If it didn’t go down or pops up, throw the contents out, unless you just canned it and it hasn’t had time to spoil. In that case you can eat or refrigerate it.

When the jars are cool, remove the rings, wipe, label, and store someplace they won’t freeze. Dry the rings so they don’t rust and put them away for reuse.The lids will stay on from the vaccuum seal until you pry them off with the side of a butter knife this winter. Some people like to cap the lids with a square or pinking shears circle of cloth- old clothes are fine- and tie a string around the top to hold the cloth cap in place. This is cute and keeps dust off the lid, plus if your seal is bad and the contents spoil the cloth will stain and show it. Not necessary and a time consumer, but it looks nice at the county fair. You can get cute labels and alll that. I know what tomatoes look like and only label my jams, jellies, and pepper sauces using plain white adhesive labels.

Labor Saving

sphaghetti sauce from summer tomatoesI used to skin and seed my tomatoes, pile them neatly into sterilized jars, and cover them with strained tomato juice. Later I would open the jar, chop the tomatoes, and add them to fried onions, peppers, eggplants, etc.  Lots of work. Why not make my own convenience foods? Tomatoes are acid, like applesauce, another easy canner. So what if I just made huge pots of the mixture I would usually make? I start with fried onions, add herbs, garlic, salt, peppers, eggplants- what ever I have- even okra or zucchini, and then pile in chunks of tomatoes. Each tomato that ripens gets quickly cored, bad parts cut out, and tossed into the big iron pot. It sears and melts into red deliciousness. Eventually it gets too watery, so I ladle off juice into a seive over a funnel over a mason jar or a sealable bottle. That way, when I open the jars, if I decide to make lasagna or spaghetti, it is thick enough. The tomato juice can be drunk, thrown into rice, or used as a soup base. I don’t peel anything but the onions and garlic, and I only slice the zucchini, if I have it. I get through my work a lot faster, and we eat our own tomatoes all year.

Just the Recipe

2 onions chopped

6 cloves garlic

1 tsp sea salt

2 tbsp olive oil

2 green peppers

4 Asian eggplants (long skinny, don’t have to be peeled or drained)

2 medium zucchini

8 large tomatoes

small bunch basil

1/2 tsp italian herbs

Slice and brown onions until nicely caramelized, add salt, garlic, chopped, Italian herbs ( just something dried and aromatic- I have oregano) add chopped peppers, chunked Asian eggplants, cook until softened, add zukes, sliced, and tomatoes, chunked. Cook until liquefied, add chopped basil. This is a way oversimplified recipe. I just put things in in a logical order, and use up what I have, in a basic tomato sauce so it is acid enough to can. Add whatever, mushrooms, okra, etc., except meat. Meat has to be pressure canned, and that is a whole ‘nother deal. Make sure it is still mostly tomatoes, especially if you are using low-acid tomatoes, because the acidity, as in vinegar pickles, is what makes the open bath bath canning technique safe.

In winter, when you look at your rows of gleaming tomato sauces, you will be pleased. They are like a meal in a jar. You can throw them on pizza, spaghetti, rice, or make soup, and the blissful taste of the summer garden is still there.

 

Jams and Jellies

How to make jam/jelly:

Plum pulp ready to make jam with no added pectin
Plum pulp ready to make jam with no added pectin

Jelly is just jam without pulp. It is easier to have jam come out right because the fruit can cover for you if it didn’t jell properly, but it’s really pretty easy. You make the juice by straining the cooked fruit through muslin- or an old t-shirt stretched over an upside down chair. Put a chair upside down on the table, stretch thin, clean white fabric over it- we used to have all these old fashioned diapers- I swear they were clean- and attach the corners firmly to the legs with strip of rag, rubber bands, what have you. Make sure it is very firmly tied or you will have boiling hot fruit splashed everywhere. Set a large bowl under the cloth on the bottom of the chair seat. Cook the fruit with water just peeking through the layer below the top layer When it is properly soft dump it carefully into your cloth strainer and let it drip overnight. Don’t squeeze the bag unless you aren’t worried about the clarity of the jelly.

Pectin:

Making plum jam

Making plum jam

Some fruit has pectin; some does not. Pectin is what makes jams and jellies become firm. There is a lot of pectin in apples, the greener the better. It is possible to make your own liquid pectin from green apples, especially what we call the drops- the smaller apples that fall early and don’t really ripen. However I find I am not good at producing a consistent product so I don’t always do it. Yes, it is the right thing to do- we should not be dependent on a bought product if we can make it ourselves. But if my jelly turns out really tough or really runny, it is sort of a waste of my fruit and labor. I need to improve, but in the meantime, if you don’t mix apple juice with a non-pectin fruit like elderberry or suncherries or even hot peppers, there is Surejel and Ball Pectin, Dutch Jel (sold in bulk at Amish type bulk food stores), or many other brands. Follow the recipe, although I often try to reduce the sugar just a little and generally it is fine. If not, either use the runny jam on pancakes or follow the instructions on the pectin instructions for “if your jelly fails…..”

So, procedure wise:cukes and razz jam 004

Have your jars all ready: wash them with very hot water, set them to dry on a clean folder dish towel or thick cloth. Boil the lids for 15 minutes. There are magnetic lid lifters to get them out of the boiling water, or you can use tongs. Have more ready than you think you will need.

Measure your fruit or juice into a very large pot. It has to boil up a lot and you don’t want to boil over. Have your sugar measured out and ready. Bring your fruit or juice to a boil, with or without the pectin, boil for a minute, then add the sugar and bring to a boil. My female ancestors always skimmed the “scum” off, which was delicious foam to little me, but I don’t see why. Some people put a teaspoon of butter in to stop it scumming. I don’t think it matters to the end result. Maybe if you are making a very clear, pretty jelly you need to worry about skimming scum. The important part is to watch for sheeting. If you boil it too long first it will cool tough and stringy, with less fruity taste, and then it will be tough and brown, and pull like candy. Still yummy, but we’re making something to spread on bread here. Get a large wooden spoon. Spoon up a little of the liquid after it has boiled hard 1 minute. Let it cool about 10 seconds, then, turn the spoon over so that the jelly runs off the edge of the spoon. I prefer to let it roll over the back of the spoon. It seems to show the sheeting better. Watch the drips. What you see before it sheets is two  drips running off the spoon separately.  Stir and try again. Now the drips might start to run into each other but still become one normal shaped drip. Try again. Don’t leave it. Finally the two drips will run together but stay wide, like a flat blob, and fall off in a sheet. This is the perfect time to jar. If it never happens, perhaps your fruit was too ripe, you changed the recipe too much, or you went to the bathroom and it overboiled. In this case you can either reprocess your jam according to the “if your jam fails” directions on the package insert, you can just let it be runny and label it pancake syrup, and actually, some pectin added jellies will firm up over time. But it’s not that hard. Usually it is fine. Check out the raspberry jam recipe. That one needs only sugar.

raspberry jam

raspberry jam

I haven’t really experimented with methoxy and other low sugar options. I don’t use that much sugar normally and I am an old stick in the mud about new ideas that involve long words. It took me a long time to give in to pectin. My maiden name is Dabney; an old Virginia name. Did you ever hear this one? How many Virginians does it take to change a lightbulb? Oh, I’d say four or five. One to change it; the others to sit around and talk about how much better the old one was.

When you pour your boiling hot jam or jelly into the clean jars, having them on an old towel prevents damage to the tabletop.  Use a funnel to prevent drips. Make sure your funnel is clean by upending it in the boiling water you have the lids in. Check the edges of the jars for drips as that can prevent a good seal.

Two ways to seal:

Put the lids on finger tight. I invert the jars for 7 seconds and then set them up right-ways again. You will hear a soft hiss as air superheated by the hot jam exhausts  out of the jar. Then tighten it a bit more- as it is hotter you can do that. If I do this I find I don’t usually have to process in a hot water bath and I don’t get mold.

Or you can put on the lids finger tight and submerge them in a pot of hot water, boil for 15 minutes, then pull out and allow to cool. You can get jar lifters cheaply in the dollar store or many hardware stores. This will allow you to safely remove the jar to a clean towel where it can cool. It will be nice and clean to label and put in the pantry.

no knead bread
This is the “no knead” bread made famous by Mark Bittman.

Yum. Now, you need to make some proper bread to put that on, seriously. Remember I told you

Getting Ready for Spring

Plum tree in the snow

Plum tree in the snow

As I write it is wet and snowy out, but I can see the swelling of the buds on the plum trees. There is a lot to do, if you want to be ready for the warm weather. I am a little late in writing this for my area, but for those of you north of me, still timely.

Fruit trees

mostly done but I'm not happy about those two crowded branchesNot too late to prune. See my earlier article on that.

Spray dormant oil spray, which will smother emerging insects with a physical barrier rather than a poison. You will need a sprayer, and there are many kinds. If you have just a small garden you can get a small sprayer which holds a gallon or so, but I find a backpack sprayer frees your hands. You can get one for about $40-60, and 4 gallons is about all I can carry anyway. It has a hand pump on the side which you can work away at while scrambling around the trees. (Definitely prune before spraying.) The spray is sold concentrated, so designate a measuring tablespoon and hang it far from the kitchen. When using a sprayer be sure not to get any grass or dirt in it as this clogs the tip and then you have to stop and clear it. I use my sprayer a lot, primarily for applying a kaolin clay emulsion called Surround which I rave about- totally inert- you can eat it- but that can clog the sprayer occasionally.

With the oil spray- at our hardware store they sell Vollk- just mix in the oil, shake it a bit, pump your sprayer up to pressure, and wet each tree all over. If yo get a breeze- but try for a still day-, stand to windward. A fine spray gives better coverage to the smaller twigs. Do it now, as soon as you have pruned, and again after the buds open but before the blooms open. Then it will be time to stop freaking out about fungicides such as sulfur, copper, bacillus subtilis, and neem. In Maryland that is an issue. Here is the last article I wrote about sprays.

Veggiestomato seedlings (2)

Never mind the garden now- if you planted a fall and winter garden that will soon be giving you delicious greens and salads. You won’t be able to do more than scratch the dirt by hand for a while yet, but you can have seedlings ready to go when it warms up. I seeded onions, leeks, tomatoes and peppers indoors- see articles- in late January. February is still fine but we are going to Ecuador and I want them to be potted out and in the greenhouse before we go.

growing greens all winter in an unheated greenhouseSince I have an unheated greenhouse we eat greens all winter, but unless you get your lettuce to the eating stage by October, it will just sit there. However once the days lengthen my Egyptian onions, which are kind of perennial, and my broccoli start to take off, followed by the arugula and Chinese cabbages, which are planning to bolt shortly. Now the little lettuces which sat by all winter looking miserable are starting to grow, and I need to seed more. If I have too many I will tuck into the garden, since I noticed not too much of the lettuce I threw at the garden actually came up last fall. I will also seed some red cabbage

red cabbage

amazing color and symmetry of a red cabbage

since the ones I seeded in the falll are actually heading up in the greenhouse. Brassicas can take a certain amount of frost- it actually sweetens them. Things like that should go in the garden once they are about 6 inches tall and the soil is workable. Here that would normally be late March early April, when it is cool and wet but not bitter, so they actually do some growing and establish their rooots. Be careful seeding too early; in very cool wet weather your seed may rot.

Using mulches to ready the garden for spring planting

A good trellis makes the cucumber vines more productive and keeps your cukes off the ground.

Note carpet mulch

I am gone a lot so I have gotten very inventive at avoiding weeding. I lay strips of old carpet between rows, which kills and composts any plants beneath them. Come spring, I simply pull up the strips and lay them on top of whatever I need killed, using the bare strip beneath to plant in. All winter it has been frost heaving so it has somewhat uncompacted itself after being walked on all summer. Now I take a weeding hoe, (favorite tools article) which is a nice little four pronged cultivating rake, scratch up the soil enough to plant seeds, and I’m done. If you rototill wet soil, it turns it to concrete, crushing all soil structure. Likewise with bone dry soil. Hoeing wet soil is difficult and has a similar effect. My solution works pretty well. The carpet strips I have used seem pretty stable as they have not come apart after eight years. Newspaper decays well, and they do use soy inks nowadays so that isn’t a problem, but you must use 3 layers for it to be effective, and it is time consuming and likes to blow away if not very securely weighted down with dirt or pinned down with landscaping pins, which then are lost all over the garden. I mostly tuck it between tomato and pepper plants, between pieces of carpet. Cardboard takes a long time to decay and may have plastic tape on it, so it isn’t a good solution for this purpose. It is however a great way to smother weeds if you are going to build a raised bed on top of it.

Flowers

nopales and verbena bonariensis

nopales and verbena bonariensis

Honestly, you really need to seed many wonderful fowers outdoors in the fall or early spring, when seeds would naturally fall. Definitely read the package for each seed you plant.Some actually need to get cold. Many seeds are very tiny and must be pressed into the surface only.  I like to fill those plastic salad boxes with soil, seed them, and put the lid back on, writing date and contents with a permanent marker. Later you can punch holes in the bottom and use the lid as a saucer. Check whether they need light to sprout, and what temperature they like. Tiny plants like impatiens and nicotania need constant moisture to sprout and then misting. Really easy ones are zinnias, morning glories, sunflowers, snapdragons, hollyhocks, nasturtiums, sweet peas- all those great cottage garden flowers. Cardinal vines and moonflower vines are easy but you should give them a little scarification (scratch up the seed coat with an emory board, or rub them on concrete with the flat of your finger) and soak overnight in hot water first. If you get them going 6-8 weeks before they go in the garden, you’ll have flowers sooner.

Herbs

This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

Many herbs are easiest grown from a rooted cutting, but if you want to start a lot, as in for a big bed of thyme, start you seeds now. I use my salad box flats for thyme, lavender, ashwaghanda, and basil. Thyme and basil don’t mild a chill; in fact basil sprouts better when it isn’t too cold, but lavender is not fond of cold, soggy soil, and ashwaghanda likes heat. I usually start fennel, parsley and dill directly in the garden, since I have it in the greenhouse all winter anyway.

Other stuff

artichoke plant

artichoke plant

I really love artichokes, and with care and good drainage we can grow them in Maryland. Although I have been told that artichoke seed should be put in a bag of potting soil in the fridge for 6 weeks, and they do germinate very well that way, I have also seen them germinate without all that fuss. They have a tap root, so if I could I’d direct seed, but I can’t, because they need a long season. I start them in pots and plant them in my best, sheltered spot with the best drainage and all the honor I can convey. They are gorgeous- architecturally so, like a giant white thistle with brilliant purple chokes, if you let them blossom. One we had up against the house made about 40 buds, which we enjoyed enormously. It came back the next year, but died after that. A lady I know grew one for three years. This year I have one under a peach basket with a carpet over it.  It has been a hard winter so I am holding my breath.

As for all the other warm weather stuff, like cucumbers, melons, okras, etc., wait on that. You are going to get a more natural root structure if you direct seed, so do that if you can.

Flowering quince in the snow

Flowering quince in the snow

 

Harvesting Garlic: That was Easy!

garlic plants

Garlic sits all winter growing slowly. Very trouble free

In September and October my nieces and nephews helped me plant the garlic cloves from the previous year’s harvest into the rows pictured, and in June/July, without having to buy one head of garlic all year, we are ready to harvest the crop. If I sound smug, I shouldn’t be.  Many’s the onion maggot we have dodged only by the grace of God. I can’t say enough how important it is to make sure you leave three years between allium plantings in the same spot. That’s about all you have to do. I hardly even weed them. So here we are.

You should check them when the tops start to go yellow. This is generally in late June, but watch it because it varies, and you don’t want to leave them too late. The bulbs will get loose and not store as well, and it will be harder to clean them up, which matters especially if you plan to sell or barter them.

garlic harvesting

from left to right, good harvest, late harvest, really late harvest, hardnecks.

Feel down to the bulb and see if it is large and well formed. Pull one up and use it uncured. It is delicious, and you will be able to judge if the bulb is still growing. Softnecks will have a flabby feeling in the neck.

Softneck garlic

Softneck garlic, nice and tight and easy to braid.

Here’s where you need your spading fork I mentioned in the article on tools. If you just yank on the garlic stem it’s liable to break, and you need the stem for hanging or braiding. Stick the tines about two inches back from the stem, step on the back of the fork and push down about three inches, rocking if you have to. Grab the stem with one hand and push back on the fork handle with the other. The bulb should come up easily if there is no rot. (If it comes apart when you dig it out of the ground you will probably smell the slightly sweet smell of rotting garlic. That’s another story.) Tap and shake the bulb gently to get rid of extra soil, lay it in the row and do the next one. A child can be very helpful in this wonderful and satisfying job. By the time you are done with the digging, the soil on the roots will likely shake off pretty well. I have heard people say to leave them in the garden to dry for a few days (and I’ve done it) but to me that is asking for trouble. You could get sunscald on them which will lead to rot. I spread mine to dry and cure for a few weeks in the shed. To be honest, until this year I always spread them on top of the car cover of my father’s 1955 Morgan, but he gave it to my sister, so now I have to set up a real rack. We made some tables out of two by fours and covered the tops with ratwire instead of wood. Ratwire is welded galvanized wire screen of the kind people put on the bottoms of their screen doors, squares about a half inch, to prevent animals from busting through mosquito screens. It is great for greenhouse benches.

Watch drying garlic carefully. In Maryland two weeks is the time it takes me to cure my garlic. If you leave it too long the tops can get too brittle to braid well (on the softnecks). When you are ready to make it into bunches or braids, clean off the extra leaves next to your compost pile. The outer ones will shatter and come off easily.  Then pile as much as you are working with in a basket and carry it somewhere comfortable to work. Leave what you aren’t going to do today on the rack. I once piled my whole crop in a pile and I am convinced it spread onion maggots. I could be wrong.

The Scourge; Onion Maggots:

If you do smell that sweetish funky rotting garlic smell, you have onion maggots. I had some mold on a few bulbs this spring but it didn’t smell the same at all. Identify as best you can which heads are infected by the softened cloves and the smell, and peel those cloves.  Actually this is pretty easy to do because the rot moistens the skins so they pop off very easily. Don’t get grossed out; you worked hard for this good garlic and you need to keep those little worms from taking it from you. Trim damaged cloves and use as soon as possible. Preserve undamaged peeled cloves in glass jars of olive oil in the refrigerator. Use them for cooking. The flavor changes over time in oil in a way that is fine cooked but is different from regular raw garlic. People do dehydrate and powder garlic, and that keeps forever and is useful for cooking, but I haven’t gotten into that.

Two Groups of Garlic

There are softneck and hardneck garlics. Softnecks have a soft neck like an onion, and hardnecks have a hard stem in the center of a radiating bunch of cloves.

The softnecks are fun to braid. As soon as your garlic leaves have dried but there is a little moisture left by the bulb so it won’t just break, it’s ready to braid. First rub off the dirtiest layers of outer skin on the garlic, and also the stem. You want it to look like Martha Stewart did it, -and it will! Get about 4 feet of jute twine and tie three big heads of garlic together with one end of it. Start braiding them, keeping the twine in the braid for strength, and add a head to each turn. I will put photos in when I do it. It’s like French braiding.  When you have done about two feet of heads, it will be getting heavy. To finish the braid, stop adding garlic, and braid the dried tops with the twine in it out to the end. Tie it off with the twine, bend it over into a loop handle, tie it off again, and make a twine loop as well. Now you have several options for hanging it. Go over the braid with scissors and neaten it up- trim the dried roots off. loose bits of skin, etc.

I have tried braiding hardnecks but it is awkward. Last year was the first year I grew them. They grew really well. I actually bought cheap garlic on sale at Wallyworld and planted a lot. Each tiny clove makes a nice big head of garlic. I cleaned off the outer, dirty skins, leaving plenty of tight, satiny white skin protecting the garlic, bound about 8 into a neat bunch with twine with a loop, and trimmed the stems to an identical length. I hung them and gave them to people. They looked nice, but not as nice as the braided softnecks.

garlic braidStorage: Mine are hanging all over the kitchen, but honestly, you should look for a cooler place to store them if you expect them to last until next summer. The dry heat of a house will dry them out over a year. Oddly enough the ones I hung on the back porch seemed unaffected by damp or freezing, and kept well. The ones on display sprouted and dried by spring. The elephant garlic kept better because of its size but was a tad spongy by the end. Possibly they would do well in a root cellar.

Garlic is a really good food which stores well and isn’t a lot of trouble to grow. Try it!

Groundcherries, Native and Peruvian, and skimming the jam….

Husk tomatoes

Sexier than our native groundcherries

Groundcherries are a native plant in the Physalis family which is often overlooked as a forage food. They make those cute little Chinese lanterns which are sometimes sprayed orange and sold by florists at Halloween. They actually look like tomatillos as well. The plant is about 2 feet tall and the leaves are dull green, oval and pointed. Find ripe fruit by squeezing the lanterns. The best ones to squeeze may look a bit faded. When you find a small marble pick it and pop off the jacket. It will be sort of olive green. Taste it. It should be sweet tart. They can be dried, eaten fresh, or made into jam.

To be honest, I have been growing a more abundant and delicious version from seeds I was given by our Peruvian friend Leon in Yarinacocha. He told me that the husks could be made into a tea which is a treatment for the cough which accompanies congestive heart failure. It is also known to Guatemalan friends as Tomate de Sope, and is a favorite of children in South America. The Peruvian ones are sold dried as Inkaberries for an exorbitant sum in our local health food store. They make a lovely snack for hiking as they are so mall and concentrated. I find them hard to dry without a dehydrator because they have a slightly resinous surface, but to me they taste like extra-sweet yellow raisins.  The silver lining to that is that the Peruvian ones fall on the ground, rather than persisting as the North American ones do, but you can still collect them because they are in a little wrapping and they take a long time to rot. They create a carpet of fruit, and I gather buckets, then sit and husk them when I have to sit somewhere for a while.husk tomatoes

I throw them in the blender, then make jam using any ground cherry jam recipe on the internet. It needs pectin, and I have sometimes added a grate of lemon peel, but it has a sort of mild, luscious tropical flavor and a nice golden color.  Very seedy, but the seeds are tiny. They have become a weed in my garden, but a delicious one. I ended up cutting them all down to start the fall garden, but I will hang a bunch upside down in the shed for winter snacks.

The  Jam Recipe, (and how to do all that stuff)

The jam is so yummy- a bit like yellow plum jam but a hint of something tropical. I grated a bit of lemon peel into it. Here’s how I did it.

4 cups husked fruit

3 c. sugar

3 tbsp pectin

1/2 tsp grated lemon or lime peel, organic if available, or just scrub really well and offer a quick blessing…

1/4 cup lemon juice

Throw the fruit in the food processor and chop. Dump in pot, stir in pectin and lemon, bring to a rolling boil for one minute, add sugar, bring back to boil 1 minute, check for sheeting, pour into sterilized jars and cap when sheets.

“Sheeting?” OK, for those to whom all this jam making stuff is new, go to Jams and Jellies. Don’t be scared. You need to know this.

 

Variegated Tomatoes ho hum

I saw somebody was trying to find the variegated tomato. It does have green and white leaves, and is kind of spiky and compact. The tomatoes are sort of square and a little less than 2 inches square. The flavor is ok. It’s a pretty plant. You can get seeds from http://www.tomatogrowers.com. They have a lot of varieties.

Got Raspberries?

Red Heritage Raspberries

Red Heritage Raspberries

I think God really hit the nail on the head when He made raspberries. How could anything be more delicious?  And they are really not hard to grow. Once you have them established it’s easy to develop a big patch and keep them forever and ever, amen.

Raspberries like the edge of the woods, so dappled sunshine is better than shade or blast heat.  I find that Purple Emperor, which has more rugose (wrinkly/ridgy ) leaves, seems more tolerant of full sun than Red Heritage, which seems to develop more yellowish leaves and less abundant fruit in those conditions.  Purple Emperor has huge purple berries that look incredible on a cake, and bears heavily in June, then no more. I like Red Heritage though, because it has a better flavor and, beyond the two flushes- summer and fall- seems to usually have a few berries on it, even in warm patches of winter. It is a kid magnet beyond compare.

Red Heritage Raspberries

My niece in the razzes

I worked up a rich, fairly well-drained bed for mine years ago and planted them not too deep, as they are subject to crown rot. I put down landscape fabric and mulched them with wood chips, again, not too deep around the canes. I pounded in heavy metal stakes at either end and strung wire at three levels, with turnbuckles to tighten them as the wire stretched. A turnbuckle is a small, inexpensive tightener which you can get at the hardware store. Loop the wire at each end and it will be easy to keep your wires taut. I use the wires to keep the raspberry canes in some kind of order and up off the grass, using quick twists.

In winter I prune the canes to 2-3 feet, weeding and removing dead canes. These canes will produce berries in June. in zone 7. As those canes peter out, new, taller canes will emerge and bloom. I am tying those up right now. After a while the first canes will turn yellow and you will be able to remove them. Notice that established bushes will produce offsets- baby plants that come up  short distance from the parent plant. You can dig these up and replant them. The best way to do this, as they are at first not well rooted, is to drive a shovel into the dirt between the parent and child plants without digging it up. This severs the runner and forces the new plant to develop a more independent root system before you dig it up. In any case, plant it in line with the other plants, approximately 2-3 feet from the next bush, and definitely keep it well watered until it is established. This takes longer than you think. You aren’t out of the woods until the fall rains come. But once established, your raspberry bushes will be there for good, barring a serious crown rot epidemic.

stem borere damage on a raspberry bush

stem borere damage on a raspberry bush

Stem borers are a nuisance, as they take out the growing tip, and Japanese beetles  eat the leaves.  I remove and burn parts of the stem with borers in them, and crush Japanese beetles with my fingers as I see them.

Pick raspberries that are darker pinkish red and pull easily off the cluster. The soft ones are still good but may have lots of little beetles in them. These can be easily blown or rinsed away if you like. If the berry is too squishy I usually toss them somewhere inhospitable. Keep bushes well picked as unpicked bushes encourage beetles and a rotten raspberry is a tragic waste.

I eat them fresh, in a bowl of milk, cream or yoghurt, with granola, scattered in a salad, crushed in a drink over ice, cooked into a jam or a sauce, or made into a syrup that can be canned and diluted into a drink. Today I poured some ginger ale my kids bought into a glass of raspberry flavored plum juice with ice cubes. Yummy.

raspberry jam

raspberry jam

Raspberry Jam, conventional

Prepare 6 jam jars and boil the lids in water for 15 minutes. Take 4 or 5 c. raspberries and crush them thoroughly with a potato masher. Measure the lovely slop. Boil without lid for 5 minutes. Measure and add an equal amount of sugar. Boil without lid 5 minutes or less if it sheets before that.  No need to skim, really. Just don’t let it boil over- big mess! I know it’s a lot of sugar but if you use less it won’t gel so well, and the raspberries are very tart, especially if you pick a few under ripe ones- not white but just a little lighter and firmer.

Don’t bother with seedless raspberry jelly unless you are dealing with a dietary condition like diverticulitis. The pectin is in the seeds, and the crunch is nice. I haven’t even tried making it. I’m guessing you would strain it after boiling 5 minutes, which would give you the pectin.

What is sheeting? My mother had a cookbook that showed a picture of sheeting. Joy of Cooking, I think. Here’s what to do. Stir the cooking jelly or jam with a wooden spoon that has a smooth shape. Scoop up a little and spin the spoon so that the liquid runs around on the spoon and cools a little but doesn’t spill. A few seconds. Then hold the spoon sideways with the edge down in front of you. Watch the drips coming down the face or back of the wooden spoon. Two drips will run down and drip into the pot, sometimes running together at the end. As the jam or jelly begins to jell, the quality of the drip will change, and eventually the two drips will run together in a sort of small sheet, rather than one running into the other. That’s it. Turn off the heat, fill the jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace, and seal with the clean, boiled lids. Process in an open water bath for 15 minutes. Cool and label. Awesome.

A tarter jam: Now, you can also just sweeten your crushed, cooked raspberries to taste and can them. It won’t gel, but there is enough thickness that it is still useable on toast. It just sort of soaks into the bread more the less sugar you use.That is more to my husband’s taste, You can also make a syrup of raspberries and sieve out the seeds, and can that. Easy, if you know how to can. Or you can just put it in the refrigerator and eat it before mold sets in. Awesome.

What I don’t know about: I haven’t used honey because I love to eat all my honey, which has such a delicate flavor. Also sugar interferes less with the taste of the berries. I know sugar is death, but we use it so rarely, and we try to afford the raw sugar in bulk. I just want to put all my prejudices aside and show gratitude for the berries by making sure we have them all year! I haven’t tried yellow raspberries. They say they are less attractive to birds. I don’t have a bird problem so far knock on wood. My experience with pigment lacking fruits and vegetables is that they are sweeter because they lack a counterbalancing strong flavor. This isn’t all bad- white sweet potatoes are heavenly- sugar sweet and delicate, almost vanilla. White tomatoes are subacid and very sweet- highly attractive to bugs, I found. White peaches are very pretty and slightly more delicate tasting. I don’t remember if I’ve tasted a yellow raspberry, but I am suspicious that they would lack oomph. I’ll let you know when I do. But remember I am of Virginian descent, and you know how many Virginians it takes to change a lightbulb.

Saving Lettuce, Coriander and Arugula Seed

Rocky Top seed mix from baker's creek

Nice heirloom mix from Baker Creek

You can go buy some seed in a packet and go ahead and toss your spent plants in the compost pile, but if you have the room and the patience to let your plants mature, you can save your own seed. Will it come true- will the new plants be like the old ones? Depends if you used a hybrid seed, if there are other varieties it could cross pollinate with, and if it is likely that it did.

I have a speckled romaine that comes from romaine and some red lettuce I grew that crossed, probably Red Sails. I like it. My own quasi Forellenschuss. I have just cleaned seed from a Brune D’Hiver French heirloom lettuce plant that was all by itself in the greenhouse, so probably it didn’t cross. I plan to save seed from the cool Baker Creek Rocky Top mix and see what happens. Life is too short to just grow one lettuce a year so you can save pure seed. Luckily I only have one kind of arugula. It volunteers in my garden all year long, but it is fun and easy to save.

Let your plants bloom and go to seed. This is actually good for your garden because you attract beneficial insects. I also find that the dreaded Harlequin beetles

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

will stay on flowering brassica crops and leave leafy crops alone, if pressure is not that high, It’s also pretty. Endives are in the chicory family so they have pretty blue flowers. Once the seedheads are dry enough for the seed to “shatter;” fall into your hand when you crush the seed head, you’re ready. Get a big clean bucket and cut the tops of the plants into it. Sometimes I just pick the tiny dandelion looking heads of the lettuce into a little bowl. If you pull up the plants it is easy to get crumbs of soil in with your seeds. This is fixable but extra work. Set the bucket somewhere  to dry if there is any flexibility in the plant material.  When you are ready to clean the seed out, crush the seed heads so the seeds fall into the bucket. Discard the stems. At this point I generally transfer the seeds and chaff to a light mixing bowl.

Arugula seeds with chaff in a bowl

Arugula seeds with chaff in a bowl

Arugula and mustards drop a lot of seedcases. The seed settles so you can actually pick most of that off the top and compost it. You should do this outdoors. Put a wide bowl on top of a sheet in a place where there is  a light breeze. Holding the other bowl about 2 feet in the air, pour it into the bowl on he sheet. You will see that the chaff falls at a different angle from the seed, and even that different colored or sized seed falls differently. You will soon get the knack of winnowing- humans have been doing this for thousands of years- and won’t need a sheet any more. Look through your seed, blow on it to remove last bits of crud, check it for dirt and insects. Light seed will tend to blow away, leaving you with the best seed. Crush a seed with your fingernail to make sure it is dry enough to store. If you put moist seeds in plastic they will mold. Let is sit out in an open bowl until you are confident that it is dry enough to store. It’s less critical if you are using a paper envelope.  Put it in an envelope, label and date it, and put it in your seed file.

With lettuce I tend to sit with my morning coffee and pick off seed heads, then crumble them into a small bowl. The fluff comes off as you rub it between your fingers. You can then go outdoors to winnow out the fluff. I just pour it into my palm, pour it into the bowl, blow on it, and play with it until I have a few teaspoons of clean seed to put away; enough to seed several hundred lettuces. Some people knit.

The next seed I will be saving is cilantro. It makes a lot of seed, and guess what- that is coriander seed! You should never have to buy that from the store. It’s too easy! I use a lot of that for Indian cooking, like this fabulicious venison curry, inspired by lamb vindaloo but not,

venison curry

venison curry

and it is so good for you! This keeps me from being too sad when the cilantro bolts. Speaking of which, it is now cool enough for me to go back out and seed some more cilantro. Later.

OK. I forgot to take pictures. I cut off the dead cilantro plants, carried to the shed, and let them sit on a rack out of the rain for a few days. Then I put them on a sheet and crumbled the seed heads to make the little round seeds come off. This left me with a lot of broken up dead plant material which went right in the compost. It rolled into a bunch on the sheet and I picked it up together. What was left I poured off the sheet into the big mixing bowl. I took a smaller bowl- no particular reason, – and went outside to winnow. I crumbled the seeds against each other to break off little stems, and rubbed them to get tiny chunks of dirt to become dust which is easy to winnow out. I poured the chaffy seeds from one bowl to another, holding the bowls up in the slight breeze. The chaff poured off to the side while the heavier seeds poured straight into the bowl. Eventually I had to resort to blowing, swirling, etc., and the dust was clinging, I wonder how hard it would be to get them dry if you washed coriander seeds. I poured them into a couple of small jam jars and labeled them.

Best Yummy Venison Curry, garam!

Delicious Venison Curry

Sorry about the photo- we ate so much of it!

Not that I was getting tired of making our deer meat into my Granny’s fabulous Chili con Carne or my mother’s velvety Hungarian Goulasch, but I just had a yen for curry- Curry Goat, Lamb Vindaloo- so why not try something like that with venison?  Having been to India twice and gotten a serious Aunty Manjula YouTube addiction I felt equal to winging it. It came out very well- looks like lamb vindaloo, with the slightly softer texture of venison, with a complex fragrance, just the right heat for us- just short of pain, and leaves a gentle warmth in your stomach, as if the ginger is helping your digestion.

In following this recipe don’t just dump the ingredients in the pot as you read them off. Do follow the traditional steps. It makes a world of difference in the flavor.

You will need:

A big heavy pot with a lid

1 quart-sized freezer bag of venison stewing chunks.

11/2 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon mustard seeds ( I have substituted any brassica seed)

2 tablespoons butter, coconut oil, or other healthy fat.

1 onion, chopped

4 carrots, peeled and chopped bite sized

3 potatoes, peeled and chopped bite sized

a knob of ginger root about the size of a walnut

4 big cloves of garlic

4 dried chilies, cayenne type (reduce if you can’t take heat)

1 tablespoon cardamom pods

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 inch of cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons turmeric powder

1 tomato or 4 tablespoons tomato sauce

Water to cover

salt to taste

OK, put the coriander seeds, which you can save from when your cilantro bolts, in the coffee grinder with the peppercorns, the cinnamon bark(break it up with your fingers first), the cardamon pods, and the dry chilies. If you feel the chilies are not really brittle, you should toast them briefly in your dry pot, without turning your back. (This is a nice extra step, and you should learn how fast chilies toast, because you can make your own chili powder. ) Powder your spices finely, and transfer them to your blender or small chopper. Add the garlic, ginger root, and turmeric, and whiz to a coarse paste. BTW if you don’t have dry chilies, I have added fresh ones to the garlic, ginger, etc. and it was great. Slightly different.

Put the cumin seed and mustard seed in the pot dry and toast them on a medium flame until the mustard seeds start popping.  Add the paste and 2 tablespoons butter or oil. I have used half and half coconut oil and butter. Stir over medium heat until it smells delicious- maybe 3-4 minutes. Compliments will be pouring in. Add onions and carrots and continue to stir so the mixture doesn’t burn but the onions are softened and the sugars are caramelizing a little. Add the meat and stir until the juices that come out of the meat have evaporated and the meat is brown- you won’t really be able to get it brown without burning so- well, gray is fine. Just don’t let it burn. Add a lot of water to cover, tomato, and maybe a 1/2 tsp salt to start with. Simmer covered 30-40 minutes -until the meat is tender, add the potatoes- just sort of tuck them in and submerge them well, then remove the lid and let it cook down until the broth turns into a thick gravy. Be especially careful towards the end that it doesn’t scorch on the bottom. Check the seasonings at this stage. It should be nice and spicy. See if it needs another pinch of garam masala. Many Indian recipes use garam masala at the end, and it is a nice, sweet/spicy rich flavor which adds to the complexity.

It goes well with with Basmati rice, a creamy sour element (raita), a sweet fruity element( chutney), and in our house, steamed greens. Last time I put some very thick Kefir on the table, which substituted nicely for raita. I should have taken a flashlight to the garden for cilantro but I got lazy. Fresh mango or peach or melon chutney is great, but it is winter and I didn’t have any. I think we need to try something with watermelon pickle.

And of course Kingfisher beer!