In the Garden
We have just had a freakishly early first snow here in Queens. With temperatures in the mid 30s, summer is clearly long gone. And yet I am not surprised. It certainly has been a record year for natural (or should I say unnatural) occurences here in New York. Remember that one week this summer? First there was an earthquake, then a hurricane. In New York? All in the same week? It definitely had me wondering whether the apocalypse was truly upon us.
Well, we are all still here, and so are some of the pickles I made that week. The day before the hurricane was supposed to make it’s way up to New York, I spent the better part of the morning picking all my vegetable plants clean. Well, the hurricane came and went relatively uneventfully, and here I was left with a basket full of cucumbers and little unripe pear tomatoes that we were never going to finish before they spoiled. So naturally I just made a big batch of dill pickle brine and pickled ‘em all.
DILL PICKLED VEGETABLES
INGREDIENTS, yields about 2 quarts or 4 pints
2 qts. tightly packed cut cucumbers or green tomatoes
1 tsp. coriander seed
1 tsp. mustard seed
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 jalapeno, split lengthwise
1 c. white distilled vinegar
3 c. water
1/4 c. kosher salt
1. Wash and cut vegetables (cut cucumbers into spears or slices, and tomatoes into halves or quarters) and pack into sterile canning jars. Divide dill sprigs among the jars.
2. For the brine, combine coriander, mustard seed, garlic, jalapeno, vinegar, water, and salt in a stainless steel or non-reactive sauce pan. Bring to a boil.
3. Pour hot brine over vegetables, evenly dividing the spices, and leaving about 1/2″ headspace.
4. Seal jars with sterile bands and lids and process in a boiling water canner for 15 minutes. Let jars cool at room temperature for 12 hours. Check the seals. Remove the bands, then try pressing on the center of the lids, and lifting the jars by the lids. If the lids don’t give when you press them and don’t pop off, when you lift them, the jars are sealed. Properly processed and sealed jars may be stored in a cool dark place for up to 6 months.
5. Alternatively you can skip the canning process and store pickles in the refrigerator. They will keep for about 4 weeks.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Okay, so the whole Post a Week thing hasn’t exactly worked out. I won’t bother making lame excuses, but anyway here I am, back to the blog world.
We had a moderately successful garden this year, which for a some time, produced more tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs than two people could possibly eat. It was a daily battle with the mosquitoes though, to whom I am definitely prey. Once mosquito season got really bad, it became just too unbearable to stand out there with my camera. Daily I would pick, weed, water, then run back inside. It is simply a cruel joke of creation that I should be so attractive to mosquitoes while simultaneously being so allergic to their bites, but in the end, it was worth the torment.
This year we grew three heirloom tomato varieties: Black Krim, Yellow Pear, and Roman Plum Tomatoes. The Black Krims were by far the sweetest and most flavorful. The thing about having great summer produce is that it takes so little to make a delicious meal out of them. Our favorite way to enjoy our bounty of tomatoes was simply to arrange them on a platter with proscuitto and fresh mozzerella. I would drizzle them with good olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt, a generous turn of the pepper grinder, and top them with garden fresh basil. Then all it would take was a crusty loaf of peasant bread to round out this easy yet substantial late night meal for two.
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My zucchini plants keeled over last week. I had so much hope for them, cared for them, and resisted eating the flowers so that they could produce fruit. Alas, after battling off fungus gnats, aphids, and even maggots, it was stem rot that finally did them in. I stared sadly at the orange fungus that had eaten halfway through the base of the plant and knew there was nothing I could do to save them.
The zucchini plants weren’t the only ones I mourned last week. I’m also growing an heirloom cucumber known as Lemon Cucumbers (when they’re ripe they are the color and shape of lemons). For a while now they were looking kind of sad too. The leaves had developed spots of dusty white mildew, and while the fruit was getting bigger and ripening, they weren’t producing any new flowers or tendrils. So I pulled the vines out of the pot. It was just in time, it seems – there was a little stem rot on one of the plants too. I sowed new seeds and they’ve already germinated, so maybe I’ll have a second chance at some late season cukes.
I was able to salvage a few ripe cucumbers though, and it’s amazing how quickly they start to shrivel up without the commercial wax coating that you get on store-bought produce. So what to do with them? Inspired by an heirloom tomato salad we served while I was at “Restaurant BB,” I paired slices of cucumber with two kinds of home-grown basil and fresh tomatoes.
I’ve been growing both Greek Basil, and the more commonly seen Genovese Basil. You may have seen Greek Basil at the Farmer’s Market, but for those of you who are not familiar, it’s a bushy compact plant. It produces pretty little leaves that are smaller, rounder and more densely grouped than the Genovese variety. I tucked a bunch of seedlings into my tomato pot and they’ve grown so well, they actually need regular pruning.
Unfortunately the homegrown heirloom tomatoes weren’t ripe yet, so I had to settle for store bought. Still, a simple drizzle of olive oil and white balsamic vinegar, and a sprinkle of sea salt and pepper was just enough to bring out the sweetness of the tomatoes without overpowering the delicate flavor of the cucumbers.
Boyfriend and I enjoyed this salad with a simple pan seared rib steak and oven roasted potatoes. If you’re not a gardener, you may find Lemon Cucumbers and Greek Basil at your local farmer’s market. White balsamic vinegar adds just the right amount of acidity and sweetness, but if you can’t find that you can substitute sherry vinegar.
INGREDIENTS (serves 2, generously):
2 lemon cucumbers
2 medium tomatoes
a handful of fresh Greek Basil, picked
a few leaves of fresh Genovese Basil, chiffonade
2 Tbsp. good olive oil
1 Tbsp. white balsamic vinegar
coarse sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
Slice the cucumber and tomatoes. I like to use a combination of slices and wedges.
Combine the olive oil and vinegar, and a pinch of salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Gently toss the cucumbers in the bowl first, then remove them and dress the tomatoes.
Arrange the cucumber and tomatoes on a plate. If desired, drizzle some more of the dressing over them. Then top with the fresh basil and a sprinkle of sea salt.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 5 so far )
Yes, outside of working a lot, all I’ve been up to these days is obsessing over my plants. It’s hypnotic, relaxing and exciting all at the same time. Every morning before work I tend to my little urban garden – watering if necessary, and cleaning up any dried leaves and flowers. Afterward, I leave the balcony door open, sit down at the dining room table with my coffee and my laptop and just watch. I love seeing honey bees come and go. If they’re doing a good job of pollinating, maybe we’ll actually get some zucchini or cucumbers soon.
On my day off, I take care of messier and more time consuming tasks like going to the garden center to pick up supplies, re-potting plants as they get bigger, and sowing new seeds to ensure a continual supply of fresh herbs. That’s also the day I wage war on pests. There is a lot of great information on-line about natural and organic methods for warding off all manner of pests and disease that threaten plants. Golden Harvest Organics not only sells seeds and gardening products, but they also post extensive information about organic gardening and natural pest control. I purchased Neem Oil and Castille Soap to combat aphids, but apparently there are a number of other methods that can be employed. They range from placing tin foil on the soil surface to reflect light to the underside of the plant leaves, where they usually hang out, to spraying them with a tea made from tomato leaves. I’d love to get my hands on some ladybugs to do the job for me.
Another pest which has been a big problem is the fungus gnat, which breeds in damp conditions conducive to mold and fungus. It has rained almost every day this June, and while everything is lush and green, my balcony is now the perfect home for fungus gnats. It’s been nearly impossible to keep my plants dry. I removed the saucers from under all the pots since they only provided a breeding ground, and I covered the soil with cedar mulch to keep the surface dry. Despite my best efforts, some pots got really heavily infested, and I had to resort to an organic insecticide to keep them under control. Gnatrol, which I also purchased from Golden Harvest Organics, is a brand of Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis a bacteria that targets the larvae living in the soil. Apparently it biodegrades quickly, and is widely used for organic agricultural applications. Although most of the information on the web indicates that it’s safe for people and pets, the product safety sheet that came with advises measures taken to avoid direct contact with the product. So I take the necessary precautions, and won’t harvest anything to eat until the stuff has had a chance to degrade.
A server at the restaurant also has an organic garden on her rooftop, so we’ve traded both plants and ideas. She has also had a big problem with fungus gnats and is using Nemotodes, a species of roundworm that eat fungus gnat larvae.
The garden has become a great learning experience. Through trial and error, and some help along the way, I have learned things like how to replant seedlings with enough of their stems embedded so they form strong root systems (thanks to an info sheet sent to me by Golden Harvest with my FREE mystery tomato seeds). Sadly, some plants did succumb to my bumbling – to much water, too little water, not hardening off properly etc, but despite all the factors working against it, my little garden is showing lots of promise. Most of the plants are in their permanent pots now and are growing rapidly. I’ve even been able to re-plant cuttings from overcrowded pots and get new plants. The zucchini plants are producing squash blossoms now, and the lemon cucumber vines have already grabbed hold of the balcony railing and are threatening to take over. There’s cat grass for the feline members of our family, and best of all, I get to bond with our 9-month old puppy Sadie, who seems to love the garden as much as I do.
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I had two days off this week – two rainy days. Since I’ve started a little vegetable garden, I am actually appreciating the rainy days. Why? Well, the sunny windowsill in my apartment is getting a little overcrowded with seedlings now and the bigger ones just need to get outdoors. Overcast, slightly rainy days are actually the perfect condition (or so I’ve read) to start hardening off, or getting seedlings accustomed to being outside. A dry, sunny day can fry tender little seedlings, and temperatures too close to freezing are obviously no good either. I’ve never really had a very green thumb so I’ve been taking lessons from Rose Marie Nichols-McGee and Maggie Stuckey in the form of their book, The Bountiful Container.
I do however, have a singular childhood memory of picking cherry tomatoes in the summer, from the small garden that my mother used to have. Even though I didn’t like eating tomatoes as a child, I loved picking them – the smell of the vines, the light dusting of pollen on the fruit, and just being outside in the sun with my hands in the dirt. Like I said, I wasn’t crazy about tomatoes, but the homegrown variety were certainly far less offensive than the disgusting, mealy beefsteak tomatoes that were the grocery store standard at the time. Now, with the presence of supermarkets like Whole Foods in the suburbs, and a wider choice of ethnic markets, and farmer’s markets around the city we no longer have to settle for one mealy type of tomatoes. Almost any kind of produce is available to the average consumer. So why bother growing my own? Freshness for one. Sure, tomatoes, avacados and citrus fruits might be available year round at any local grocery, but they are being shipped thousands of miles from Mexico, Peru, and sunnier parts of the country like Florida and California. How fresh can they possibly be?
So, every Spring I fall prey to a longing to move to someplace like California. Anyone who had been to the farmer’s market at San Francisco’s Ferry Building can attest to the gorgeous and delicious array of fresh edibles available year round. Still, I’ve known people who have grown up in the Northeast and moved to milder climates, only to return. One of the most surprising reasons is that they miss the change of the seasons. Deep down, I think I would miss the cycle of toughing out snowy blustery Winters that clear the way for the hopeful new blossoms of Spring; and the lushness of lazy Summers that always seem to be cut too short by the onset of Autumn. The seasons change the way that we live, the way that we feel – both emotionally as well as physically – and the way that we eat. So reason number two for growing my own vegetables is to find out first hand what eating seasonally and locally means by actually bringing my food from seed to table.
(Oh, and do I need to mention all the food scares in the media? Salmonella in pistachios and peanut butter? Melamine in baby formula? At least I’ll know where my vegetables came from.)
Well, you can’t get more local, fresh, and seasonal than your own backyard. For my first vegetable garden, I figured I’d keep it small and grow a few things from containers on the small balcony of my apartment. The Bountiful Container does warn small space gardeners like me against going seed crazy – and wisely so. Catalogs and online suppliers offer seeds for a dizzying array of vegetables and I could see how it might be easy to get over-ambitious. As advised I made a plan, first limiting my purchases to heritage and organic seeds, then choosing produce we consume regularly, such as tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini, and herbs such as cilantro, oregano, and dill. I also chose a few items that we were unlikely to find at the grocery, such as lemon chiles, lemon cucumbers, greek basil, and edible flowers. Even with my plan, I think I may have gotten a little over-zealous myself.
Still, not a bad start. I planted my first set of seedlings at the end of March using Jiffy peat pellets and a little plastic greenhouse tray. I’ve had to re-pot the tomato plants once already and they are also outgrowing the deli-containers that I’ve been using as makeshift cloches to protect them from our cats. This first set of seedlings are going outside this week to make room on the windowsill for the second set that I planted yesterday.
So with Spring comes hope – hope that my thumb gets a little greener, hope that my little seedlings will thrive outdoors, and hope that with some organization and a little help from mother nature, we will be able to enjoy the fruits of my labor from late May through September.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )