Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pickled Peppers

The dog days of summer really are the time for your peppers to shine. I had planted 3 different kinds of peppers this spring that had been started from seed indoors. I love germinating my own seeds but that is another discussion for another post . . .
Anyway, the season was rife with cut worms, mold, disagreeable weather, and chewing bugs but as soon as late summer swelter settled in my peppers took off. I planted a variety of sweet pepper called "Super Shepherd". Traditionally, appalachian farmers have had trouble growing sweet peppers because of nematodes and this strain was supposed to be resistant. It is an italian strain that produces big long sweet peppers. Alas, the mold, the nematodes, or something ravaged mine. I did manage to come away with a total of 3 sweet peppers that I saved seed from. These I figure will be "Super Super Shepherds"! The hot peppers however positively exploded. I had tons of Jalapenos and Chinese Five Color Peppers. They just kept coming in by the basket full!
I decided to can them because my efforts to dry things in the past have not worked. I can remember my grandmother drying things in cardboard flats (she loved to do apple slices this way) as the wasps and flies tried in vain to make it through the cheese cloth barrier. I think she did this in the dead summer heat and by the time I got things in the fall rains were being disagreeable. Maybe an electric dryer (*gasp!*) will be in the stars for me next year. At any rate, this year is the year of the pressure canner. Yep, in the photo above is mom's pressure canner that she has given me. Circa 1975, it takes a lick'n and keeps on tick'n. The gauge is off by a pound so it only starts to rock at 16 psi but as long as we take that into account we're golden. I really do have fond memories helping mom can with my sister and listening to the weight rock and hiss on the steam vent like a giant agitated dragon. The double pot right next to it is my stock pot which is perking along making me some chicken stock. Well, I'm already tethered to the stove, right?

I pickled the peppers in a horseradish and garlic brine. I kept these Jalapenos whole with the intention of trying poppers at some point in the future. The leaves out of the window were beautiful in the sunlight and I tried to photograph them behind the peppers but the sun glared in too much so those images were lost. It did create this beautiful ghostly glow around them and they look like some preserved potion in professor Snape's office. Magical peppers!

The Chinese Five Color Peppers were really pretty jumbled together. I cut these in rings fresh and packed them in the glass and then poured brine over them. I tried to process them as minimally as possible because usually bright colors do not make it past the pressure cooking stage. The bright green of the Jalapenos certainly did not make it past the pressure cooking stage. I was surprised at the color of the Chinese ones when they came out. They look like a bottle full of dragon scales and I'm sure have all the kick of dragon scales too.

Everything got snugged into the dark cabinet I keep my tomatoes stored in to await their turn in winter recipes. Cooking in the winter time with foods preserved from ones garden really is a treat. When the seal pops on the glass jar and those veggies turn out it's got all the taste of a summer ray of sunshine.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tomato Paste Making

Ah! I have been over run by tomatoes! Seriously, this radio flyer full of tomatoes represents the tail end of the tomato harvest. I ended up canning 35 quarts of whole tomatoes and STILL ended up with this wagon full. I turned these into paste and gave up on the rest. This year's growing season was rough but still rewarding. The paste making was completed in the beginning of September but I haven't had time to sit down and post. The tomatoes are running my life! LOL!
The photo of the wagon full of tomatoes shows them fresh from the vine. You'll notice many of them have some shades of green. The bugs were so bad this year and rain so sporadic that I harvested the tomatoes as soon as they had shades of red in them. They ripened up just fine inside the house. Otherwise, the bugs would've chewed them to bits or they would've split during the next rain.
After they got red and soft, we dropped them in a boiling water bath until the skins split and then dropped them in ice water so that we could slip the skins off. In order to make paste we then pulled the seeds out of them. This was done easily in the Amish Paste Tomatoes but not so easily in the Mortgage Lifter Tomatoes. I think I will grow some Amish Paste Tomatoes next year just for the sole purpose of making paste. As you can see, that whole wagon full filled up this plastic tub. I think the tub represents a few gallons. If the tub began to fill up with water that the tomatoes weeped, we'd pour that off and add more tomatoes.
I finally got smart this year. Last year, my sister and I canned some paste and I rendered the tomatoes down on the stove. It took hours under a low burner. I was so busy this year I didn't have time and also the waste of having a propane burner on for hours seemed ridiculous to me. I whipped my slow cooker off the shelf and gave that a shot. I let it cook all day with the lid off and it worked like a charm. The tomatoes rendered down nicely. They don't look so hot in the blender but once they've been given a spin:
This velvety rich tomato paste rolls out of the blender and is better than anything the supermarket is going to try to sell you! The flavor is incredible! I ended up freezing mine but if I grow enough next year I'll probably try to can it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Twinkling Shallots

Here is just a short post to highlight an event that occurred back in June. That's right, my shallots came in for harvest! There were many of them and I was surprised at how prolific they were! It seemed that for every clove I planted 10 to 15 sprouted around them, yay!

What pretty colors!

But I was a little disappointed at how small they were. They were still only the size of a dime or nickel. I've decided to take most of them and replant them in the garden this fall and see how they overwinter. I also plan to plant garlic, walking onions, and yellow potato onions in this fashion as well. I did enjoy seeing all the different colors. These photos highlight the myriad of colors that came to light. Shades of yellow, sepia, peach, orange, even pink and purple drift in and out over their skins.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Brew'n the finest in our hobbit house

I have never had to "relearn" how to pick black berries as it was a favorite childhood past time. It was a mix of activities that included meditation (you're out in a thicket of brambles with the trees whispering and the birds chattering in your ears), patience (having picked wild berries over the years now the brambles hardly register pain unless they REALLY dig in), balance (stand on one foot on a rotten log while stretched out so you don't fall in and crush the berry plants or upset a hornet's nest), and puzzle solving (Is that a berry or beetle? Where did I see that last patch? How do I get over to those large berries without falling in?) One thing I never learned and am excited to try is how to make black berry wine. I found a recipe and got to it!
I had some black raspberries picked from last year that I was saving for a "special occasion" and then December came and my sister was making room for things in her freezer and found a bag of black berries. There were bequeathed to me and they sat next to my black raspberries in the freezer. Spring came and I got the notion to make tarts but never followed through and then I came upon a black berry wine recipe. I feel like making this would further connect me to my heritage and what the heck, we had beer making equipment already.

I should've taken a photo of the berries before mashing them all up but this is a photo of them right before we started our second stage. We mashed them all up in the first stage with our hands and then added boiled water (cooled of course) and some red star yeast specially for red wine. Actually, to clarify the water was turned into a simple syrup with granulated cane sugar. I made a point to purchase Domino brand Organic sugar to try and be good. The mash was then dumped into our five gallon bucket as pictured in the start of this post. We put a piece of muslin over the top and tied it off with a cotton string. I drove the fruit flies nuts who in turn drove us nuts. I exaggerate because it was only two fruit flies but they still got on my nerves.

The recipe mentioned "not to worry if bleaching occurs." The only thing I can think of is that maybe they mean the berries looking lighter as fermentation occurs like what we saw in the picture above. I wasn't worried. What I did notice though was the first 3 days my kitchen smelled like what rising bread smelled like. On the fourth day I didn't smell it as much and decided to peek under the muslin. Wham! The smell of alcohol smacked my nose. Hot damn! We've got wine!

For the second stage, we boiled more sugar and water and strained what had been fermenting into our beer carboy. Here is all the pulp from the berries above. This was thrown into the compost for another go at the food chain. We strained it through the muslin that had been tied to the top of the bucket. The white tile floor looked like we had slaughtered a goat because I really had to wring the juice out of the pulp and sometimes a wayward spray would issue from the muslin.

It didn't fill up much in our carboy but then the recipe said that it was only going to make a gallon of wine.

The juice was really dark though...

...depending upon what light you were in.

We popped the airlock on it and hauled it to the upstairs bathroom for a week of isolation and meditation to think and concentrate on the wonderful and delicious wine it was about to become. The airlock is a lovely little device filled with water that allows gas to escape the wine while keeping outside air and potential wild yeast/bacteria out. About two days later I checked its progress and found the airlock pleasantly gurgling away. As I peered into the glass I saw a huge four inch across bubble in the middle of the mix. Holy cow! Some find it gross but I found it intriguing and as usual my camera was around. This was a good sign that the yeast was still active and that our first attempt might not be vinegar. I hope.
This coming thursday is the third and final stage before bottling!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Fatter Fat Toad

I've been meaning for a while to post about a little friend that lives under our porch that Pat and I affectionately call Fatter Fat Toad because, well, she's HUGE! I first found Fatter Fat Toad last year one night when I was coming home from work. I work the evening shift so I get home around midnight and my husband leaves the porch light on for me. This is probably why she hung around our house. The porch light attracts all kinds of tasty bugs. As I pulled around the house I saw a large rock and got out of the car to check it out because more often than not large rocks end up being animals. Yep, she was a huge toad that was about the size of a baseball and she did not want to give up her prime hunting spot. She continued to hang out around our porch throughout the summer and quite often when found her (like in the picture above) hunkered down under the bleeding heart waiting for a hapless insect. She even let me feed her worms from my worm composter. Fatter Fat Toad was our good luck charm omen and I hoped that she found a good place to stay for the winter. Turns out she did.
This is a picture my husband took one spring morning. He emailed me that Fatter Fat was a awake and sure enough when I got home I saw a scuffled mud hole under the porch steps where she had slept. It was only about an inch or so under the soil at best. I remember slipping on the porch steps when we had the huge blizzard as the damn things were a sheet of ice. It's amazing that she slept there the entire winter.

She looks a little less fatter in this photo as her little flaps of skin sag over her little elbows but soon there would be a bounty of insects for her consumption and also the worms from my compost bin. But this was the last we saw of Fatter Fat Toad. I've yet to spot her so far and it's been a dryer summer for the most part than last year. I miss seeing her but I'm holding out hope that she might come back to the porch to hibernate.
I had a volunteer potato come up near the porch and I decided to cultivate it in hopes of a few potatoes, what the heck? A few days ago I was messing around it watering and decided to see if I had any baby potatoes yet for maybe a salad or something. Well, I found no potatoes but I did find a baby, toad that is. Could this be the next generation of Fatter Fat Toad?

He (she?) was teeny tiny and fast! I was able to take a few shots of him before dumping him back onto the potato plant he was guarding so well. I took a few shots of him on one of my packages in the mail just so you could see his diminutive size against a stamp.

He then decided that that was quite enough documentation thank you and proceeded to spring across my cutting mat that I had laid out on the table!

I hope he tells Fatter Fat Toad to come back for a visit.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Advance of the Green Dragons

Oh how the duties of watering and weeding wring the water from your brow and the will from your back! Between keeping my garden alive, preparing for my art show, and other projects I have neglected my blogs. Other updates to come in the future are my endeavours at making black berry wine, toad corralling, and bread making as well as my new found love for shopping at the farmer's market in Charlottesville.

My Amish Paste Tomatoes are laden with fruit. The Mortgage Lifters are trying to keep up. The Buhl Corn is growing, Super Shepherd and Jalapeno Peppers starting to fruit, and Golden Potatoes flowering. The real super star in the garden for the moment however is are the Galeux D'Eysines pumpkins. I planted 5 vines in total and they are the first to flower and are winding their way through my garden like great green pythons. The above photo makes it appear like a sleeping green dragon as it wraps its tail around and down the hill. I swear they grow a foot a day and I have to herd them about and pluck their grabby curling tendrils from an unwanted place before their fat little white roots anchor them down.

It was one of these trio featured above who first burst into flower. My husband and I were making our way down the garden path and I was in a particularly crummy mood due to the usual combo of not enough time for things that need to be done and too much time spent on things I'd rather not be doing. I think everybody is laden down with this deal these days. As I moped down the path I looked up and the moment my eyes hit that familiar happy yellow all crappy thoughts were instantly erased. It's hard to describe wether or not this is a gardener's reaction or an instinct left over from childhood (I'm guessing the later). Just the sight of those first flowers from my pumpkin smiling up at me instantly threw me back to walking in the garden with my father how obsessed over his crook neck squash. I remember those squash blossoms in great detail. Seeing my pumpkin blossoms was an instant transport back to childhood and that moment...I needed that.

It did make me laugh out loud and I think my husband thinks I'm nuts. These two blossoms side by side peeped out from the huge leaves like little eyes. As a few days followed more blossoms burst out and the bees and beetles positively fought over the blossoms, getting well coated in thick heavy pollen in the process. I don't have to worry about cross pollination as the Rouge D'Vif and Tan Cheese Pumpkins have yet to bloom. The top ones are close to the cucumber trellis though and I'm kind of wondering about that.

I think an image similar to this of the trumpeting blossoms with their delicate fluting amongst the mammoth leaves would make a nice woodblock print...

A major difference between the squash blossoms of my childhood and the blossoms of my Galeux D'Eysines is hair. Yes, this close up shows that my french pumpkin has hairy blossoms. I'm curious to know if this is a pumpkin thing or just a trait particular to this breed. One thing that endears me to my Tan Cheese Pumpkins are its soft downy leaves. I love to stroke their velvety my husband another reason to have me committed.

Here is a lovely example of my Amish Paste Tomatoes fleshing out on their lovely and convenient stalks and meanwhile below is a photo of my Mortgage Lifter Tomatoes trying to catch up. I'm hoping that extra support of baling twine will help. Everyone knows you can fix anything with baling twine....

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Showers nourish my garden

After a somewhat tedious start we are getting some regular showers now which doesn't have me scrambling out of bed early to soak everything before the dragon sun comes up. Here is a lovely shot of my brussel's sprout cloaked in dew. I need to make setting up a water barrel and irrigation system this fall a priority. I don't like relying on the hose for all our garden water as out in the country you don't want to run the well dry and the subdivisions popping up everywhere around here are hard on the aquifer as it is. So when those dark clouds gather and the breeze starts to rush I breath in a sigh of relief. Watering is fine and good but a good storm soaking seems to breath fire into the garden. Suddenly tomatoes make a mad dash out of the ground and the seeds of things you've put into the ground to start just burst right out...most of the time.

I spotted this gent on my corn and lightly brushed him away. I'm not sure if he was beneficial or not but I do know that this will probably be the year of the bug. Is it because this is the second year of our garden and they know where to go now? Was it the extra moisture from all that snow that birthed these insects? Who knows. All I know is I had relatively little trouble with bugs but now this year they are a bigger pain. I've never had problems with cut worms but this year they killed several tomatoes and I will never harden off tomatoes again without sticks or nails. I've also freaked to discover some of my pepper seedlings sucked under and digested by caterpillars in the seed starting tray. The latest was a worm eating my newly sprouted corn. AHH! I've heard several people suggest different dusts, sprays, and covers. I decided not to put up the fence this year and I enjoy wandering in and out of my garden unfettered and have yet to have any animal damage. I've planted plenty and will just endure the bugs this year. It's enough to have the recycled bottle watering spikes as an eye sore. I'd rather not drape netting and garden fabric over everything. We'll see. There are other ways of doing things.

I was excited to see the corn pop up but not all the 5 seedlings in each matrix came up. I waited a week to see if any stragglers were late in coming but alas nothing. While watering the tomatoes this morning I made the discovery that I had planted a row of corn between them and the peppers. Thank goodness for insurance policies like that. I had totally forgotten that I planted that and quickly went about scooping the sprouts up lightly and popping them in where the the duds had been. I dug lightly around in the hills for the duds before that and sure enough each one had molded. I guess sweet corn can be a pain that way. My cinderella pumpkins (Rouge Vif D'Etampes) haven't sprouted yet either but maybe it is because they have a longer germination period. I may start some inside just in case.

Here is my ugly pumpkin (Galeux D'Eysines) that I'm sure to consider beautiful. I planted two in the three sisters patch and three in the old potato hill above the tomatoes. It is a winter squash from France that comes out a pink and then develops sugar scarification as it ages. It's supposed to be delectable in soup, sauces, and pie but I'm hoping to make some pumpkin curry. Delish!

This is also the year of the pumpkin for me as I've got this weird fascination for them. Here is a shot of the tan cheese pumpkin coming up. This thing is a monster. I've never seen a squash sprout so big and I swear to god that it grows centimeters in the time it takes me to turn and water something and then turn around again. I hope it's a good squash and won't get a taste for blood and decide to throttle me because at the rate this thing is growing I don't think I could fend it off. Sadly, it's companion was ravaged by a bug.

I gave this guy a few days because I could see the beginning of an adult leave but alas because it didn't have the energy it could've had from its first leaves it foundered. Still being May I just popped another seed in the ground and hope for the best. But lets examine the survivor pumpkin on steroids.

The little monster is nestled next to the shed and I can only guess at how big it might get if I continue watering it.

The peppers are content in the humidity and I have a feeling that will a little more rain fall they will take off too. They are thankfully receiving minimal insect damage at the moment.

I found this specimen one afternoon while having tea on the porch. I grew potatoes as an afterthought last year near the porch at the back of the house. The ants and slugs got those and left me with just potato skins so I decided not to do that again this year. This must be from a potato that I didn't find. I saw in sprouting and decided that if it was willing so was I. I've since also learned about earthing up to produce more potatoes so I'm interested to see how this one might do.
This is definitely a nice change from the blizzarding this past winter.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Appearance of a Good Omen

So, after the whirl of my upcoming show in July is over I plan on working on some projects that I have been putting off. One of those in particular is a collection of works dedicated to my omens. On my own growing up I began to mark signals of being on the right path or even just special acknowledgements as sightings of different creatures that one normally doesn't see. I now realize that some of this is simply being cognizant of your surroundings and taking the time to actually look. At any rate, I have a collection of creatures that I consider to be good omens. I'll share one with you right now.
After my shift at the hospital was over I was entertaining particularly good thoughts because I was now looking ahead to a nice weekend off and I was breathing and functioning on my own. Working at a hospital ICU will make you grateful for such things. The weather was pleasant and the breeze was nice. The moon was full and highlighting a beautiful display of cumulus clouds. I was contemplating people's fortunes and thinking that if a stressful environment washes the body in cortisol that it manufactures itself then perhaps a smooth and good demeanor washes the body is beneficial chemicals and heals wounded parts. Perhaps that's the key to life anyway is to be naturally happy.
When I arrived at my house I decided to pull the car around to the side of the kitchen. When I looked up I saw this lovely specimen perched on the kitchen window sill. She's the first Luna Moth of the season for me. I assumed she was a she because I don't really know how to sex a Luna Moth but I was guessing such. She was happy to crawl on my hand and didn't want to go back to the window but I knew I couldn't take her in the house. She even stayed the night and was waiting for breakfast in the morning. That's when I shot these photos. Her poor little wings were chewed on the ends but she had beautiful colors and lovely antennae. Her little purple legs were fat and fluffy and her charcoal eyes were peacefully nestled in her downy pale yellow face. As the sun rose and began to grow warm I went for a jog and by the time I got back she was gone but I did enjoy her visit and I hope she went on to make many children who will come back and visit me again.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Turning new soil in The Shire

As usual it's been way too long since I've last updated but as usual life is busy, busy, busy! I have registered our garden in as The Shire. I have Rivendell dreams on a Shire budget. Here is a path that we take from the back of the house down to the garden. Not everyone has a canopy of pine needles and leafy hardwood saplings to wander through before reaching their garden and I'm very grateful for it. It smells wonderful when the temperature rises and the sap in the pines gets very aromatic.

Even though I started my tomatoes and peppers in egg cartons like last year something like this was what I really wanted and it turns out needed. I picked up this little domed starter and wished I had gotten it from the beginning. It came from a cool little shop in the dairy district of Charlottesville, VA. The place is called Fifth Season and it's a wonderful little oasis of all things hydroponic, organic, and even home brewing! The staff was very friendly and the place had all kinds of wonderful things to make the gardener drool. (Check out their website: I had already put some of my peppers into larger peat pots when I picked this little starter dome up but I instantly saw improvement once the plants were placed inside. My peppers had taken FOREVER to start and most of them didn't start at all. This was most likely due to cool conditions. I know that a grow (heated) mat would solve my problems but I'm trying to steer clear of gardening methods that make me dependent on the grid. I found with other paid for starter boxes that once the plants began to grow there was no room for the sprouts to go up without hitting the top of the plastic and starting to rot. Most kits have a clear plastic top that is about 2 to 3 inches high. The nice thing about this kit is that the top is more like 6 or so inches high and you can also control the humidity with two little sliding vents. This allows you to grow out the sprouts high enough for hardening off and even starting that process by messing with the vents.

Here my little pepper sprouts are happy under the jungle like conditions of the dome. I'm glad I purchased this. I think the peppers are too!

Here's a shot of "The Shire Garden" from the bottom of the path behind the house. I should have shot some before pictures but if ifs and buts were cherries and nuts then everyday would be Christmas. Those large mounds are going to be used for the three sisters method. Those represent one plot and my intentions were for three plots but since this entire garden was dug with the shovel my husband and I wore out before the intents were met. I still think we'll have a lovely garden and this was double the ground covered from last year.

Now hind site is 20/20 and I learned last year that the puny cages that I bought for the tomatoes just weren't cutting it. My sprouts turned into monsters that fell over at every turn. This year we sunk fence posts into the ground and ran a series of wires around the whole to act as a support. I looked longingly at some of the pretty tomato staking methods that were sturdy and decorative but at $50.00 a pop that just wasn't going to make it in the Shire budget. I found some rusty discount fence posts at the Home Depot for $3.98 and they should do just fine. Who's going to see the rust once they are laden with big fat tomatoes? I also laid down some cypress mulch. Last year we spent forever trying to make sure the tomatoes had enough water. I'm going to try mulch to see if it retains more water. AquaCones also made it into the budget though I've never used them before. I have to attach 2 liter soda bottles to the ends and that's going to look REAL attractive but at least the soda bottle gets repurposed.
Here's a shot of the first crop I put down. The shallots were planted in April and have a very cool healthy green glow dusting them. I just finished potting the volunteer mini pumpkins that were invading the bed yesterday. I was taking these pictures and took a closer look. I thought to myself "are those what I think they are?" I pinched up a small sprout that was congregating near a clump of shallots and smelled it. Yep, tomatoes. A ton of volunteer tomatoes has sprouted up around my shallots. I know what that means. I'm sure the compost that I put down with the shallots contained some unwanted tomato seeds. I guess I'll let those go for a little while longer and then pull them out too. I have plenty of friends that would like free tomato plants.

Last year my sister gave me some wonderful strawberry plants that had a myriad of babies. I carefully pinned and potted up all the babies and meant to establish a permanent bed for them but alas like all intentions these days they got away from me. They were happy to spill out of their pots and nestled down in the driveway. Since they seem so happy and are going to fruit I'll just let them be until those plants have babies. They are near the compost tumbler so are probably enjoying some of the tea that runs out from it occasionally. I suppose we'll see how many strawberries I get after the birds and chipmunks take their share...