Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Roadkill pumpkin pie

"Baker in training" says my daughter's apron on this day of making pumpkin pie.

Maybe it's because my mother is such an excellent cook that we tease her relentlessly about her dubious specialty, fresh pumpkin pie. "Is this roadkill again?" someone is bound to ask when dessert is served this Thanksgiving.

Once --  mind you, ONCE -- my mother salvaged a pumpkin thrown into the street, cooked it, mashed it and baked it into a pie.

This was when I was a teenager, that time in life when I knew very little about the behind-the-scenes preparation of the food I ate, nor cared. Garden, can, ho-hum, it was all the same to me. My mom could have kept the pumpkin's origin her little secret. Hmm. I wonder ... why did she tell us? Was she proud of her resourcefulness? How did she so badly miscalculate the comical effect on our family? We've never let her hear the end of it.

Homemade pies have come and gone over the years. When my husband joined the family the story took on new life. "Ah, roadkill pumpkin pie," he coined, and we laughed, a bit in disgust, because we wished we had thought of it first. That session my mom produced new details in justification. It was an errand to drop off my brother somewhere, you see, and when she took the same route home mere minutes later, she spied the newly shattered pumpkin. It hadn't been there before. Thus she established that the pumpkin was as good and fresh as if she had carved it herself, right? 

When I learned my mother shared roadkill standards with National Public Radio contributor Bailey White, I about burst a gasket. Her mother is also an excellent cook, but White refuses to eat unless her mom can provide the model and license plate number of the striking vehicle. (See White's fabulous book, Mama Makes Up Her Mind.) Delicious!

This Thanksgiving I wish all of you chances to create new stories, and to be with those whose love is strong enough to laugh alongside you at the old ones.

Do you have a crazy Thanksgiving food story? Do tell!

Pumpkin pie (or winter squash)

1 1/4 cup fresh pumpkin or winter squash (butternut, banana, etc.) cooked and pureed*
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Pastry for 1 9-inch unbaked pie crust.

Let pumpkin sit in sieve over bowl while gathering other ingredients, to remove excess water. Combine pumpkin, sugar, salt, spices and flour in mixing bowl. Add eggs and mix well. Add evaporated milk and vanilla; mix well. Pour into pastry lined pan. Bake in preheated 425 oven for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and bake 45 minutes longer or until set.

*To cook pumpkin or squash, cut in pieces, remove strings and seeds and prepare one of three ways: microwave, covered (20 minutes, to start); in 350-degree oven (about an hour); or in a slow cooker (about four hours, but the benefit is you can stack pieces and leave unattended). When fork easily pierces pieces all the way through they are done. Puree with potato masher, mixer or food mill.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Victory veterans

I am keenly grateful for men and women who served in the military to protect my freedom. On this day of honoring U.S. veterans I also want to recognize the fascinating history of how civilian backyard farmers supported the troops: through Victory Gardens.

James Montgomery Flagg, 1918, National War Garden Commission. Source: modernfamer.com

Victory Gardens had their heyday during WWII, but actually began during WWI. Herbert Hoover was head of the U.S. Food Administration under President Woodrow Wilson and formed the program that encouraged people to consume less and produce more of their own food in their yards, playgrounds or city spaces. (Source: Virginia Historical Society.) The increase of personal vegetable and fruit production reduced the need for wartime rationing, and also freed up resources to support military efforts. Consider the effect on transportation, for instance. As more people raised their own food locally, the trucks and trains previously used to transport food were used to support the war.

At the end of World War I many people continued to garden of course, but it wasn't until 1942 that the U.S. government once again promoted Victory Gardens. At the same time the country started the Food Rationing Program.

I enjoyed reading this article about Victory Gardens: "World War II: Victory Gardens the Second Time Around."

The author stated:

Gardens began, once again, to change in the eyes of Americans, just as they had in the first world war.  They were no longer just for the poor, or for those who could not feed themselves, but for everyone.  Gardening became popular not only for food security, but for  it mental and physical health benefits and its benefits to the community.  Gardens gave a feel of productivity that citizens on the home-front needed.  A garden plot feels much more useful, productive, and important than a vacant lot or lawn.  With loved one off at war, it greatly improved morale to have an outlet for the patriotism, fear, and anxiety that many Americans felt about the war.  In 1942, about 5.5 million gardeners participated in the war garden effort, making seed package sales rise 300%.  The USDA estimated over 20 million garden plots were planted with an estimated 9-10 million pounds of fruit and vegetables grown a year, 44 percent of the fresh vegetables in the United States. (Bassett 1981)  

Work cited
Bassett, Thomas J.  “Reaping on the Margins: A Century of Community Gardening in 
America.”  Landscape, 1981 v25 n2. 1-8.

British poster by Peter Fraser. Source: Wikipedia

Victory Gardens flourished in other countries, too, as citizens of England, Canada, Australia strove to raise their own food. The good people of Germany also worked together to raise gardens and address starvation in their war-torn land.

Learning about Victory Gardens thrills me. Can you imagine if such gardens made a comeback? What if every person with a yard raised a garden with the intent to make the world better? What if every gardener preserved the harvest and shared knowledge and veggies with a neighbor? What if every person with a sunny windowsill planted some herbs? What if every person who raises a a garden for recreation used the savings on groceries to write a check to a charity that feeds the hungry?

I return to my appreciation for veterans who fought -- and keep fighting -- to make my life better. As it happens, my favorite veteran and my favorite gardener are one and the same: my dad.

The Veterans Memorial in his town overlooks the beautiful valley where he raises a vegetable garden and keeps a lush lawn for family baseball games. (Yes, that's him mowing DURING a game, because that's my dad!) This land is my land thanks to him and so many other brave souls.

Thank you, Veterans!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Tips for storing end-of-season tomatoes

Last week I rushed to the garden to pick as many tomatoes as I could in anticipation of frost. The weather forecast frost forced my hand and I had to harvest RIGHT THEN, but once picked the still unripe tomatoes are rather undemanding about when I need to do anything with them. Today I separated the tomatoes by color or, in other words, by the degree of ripeness. I put a sheet of newspaper in nursery flats and use those as trays for sorting and storing the tomatoes spread out from each other. This is important -- tomatoes that touch each other are more likely to rot.

I will place these flats in a cool, dark area in my home. The color/ripeness classification makes it easy to identify which tomatoes need to be used first. (Pasta sauce, coming right up!) The sorting practice further makes me examine each tomato; those that have any cracks or soft spots aren't worth storing until they ripen. They'll spoil first.

You can either wait for tomatoes to slowly, slowly ripen in the cooler storage area, or you can bring a them into the warmth of your kitchen a few days before you expect to use them to hasten the ripening. The tomatoes probably won't reach the same brilliant red of summer, but they will pack a tasty punch.

Another tactic for long-term storage is to wrap green tomatoes singly in paper. A standard sheet, 8.5 by 11 inches, is the ideal size for one tomato. I had a wonderful next-door neighbor who swore by this method, and it was my privilege to help her with this and other gardening tasks when she was in her 90s. (I miss her!)  I can vouch she had tomatoes into January. When doing this check a few tomatoes every week to assess level of ripeness.

This year I'm putting that method to the test, by wrapping half of my green tomatoes in paper, and leaving the others spread out on the tray. I will store them in the same place and see what happens. I'll share the results. I'm not sure what benefit the paper offers. Anyone know? I had a theory that the paper makes a barrier from ethylene gas from nearby ripening fruit. I looked for substantiation online and found conflicting info in two articles on the same site. One said that putting a tomato in a paper bag will concentrate the ethylene gas and make the tomato ripen faster. The other, (mind you, at the same site), said wrapping tomatoes in paper reduces the build-up of ethylene and slows ripening. Okey-dokey. (An aside: My 11-year-old has a science fair project due this week -- don't know what it will be yet -- which perhaps fuels my scientific yearnings!) Stay tuned!

I mentioned that I first put a piece of newspaper in the flats, which is because the plastic bottom is a wide grid instead of a solid piece, and I don't want tomatoes to fall out. The coincidence of this ad made me smile and reminded me why I bother saving the tomatoes in the first place:

They'll be much more expensive in winter! How long have you successfully stored fresh tomatoes?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Pole vs. Bush

No, we're not talking political campaigns here (although, hey, it's election day!). Instead, this is a look at pole beans vs. bush beans in the home garden.

The classifications of green beans deal with growing habits. Pole beans create long vines that often intertwine and can be trained upward on a trellis or pole (a great space-saving measure); bush beans grow into compact plants about 18 inches tall.

This year I grew Slenderette bush beans and Blue Lake pole beans. Slenderette matures in 53 days; Blue Lake in 63 days.

Slenderette is my all-time favorite bean variety. The plants are prolific. I like to harvest when beans are the thickness of a pencil. One year I counted as I harvested, and consistently got about 40 beans this size per plant at the peak of the season -- with more growing for me to harvest in a few days.

Sadly, Slenderette beans did not do so fantastic in my garden this year. The seeds did not sprout well, and those few that did quickly succumbed to rot or pests (my quail challenge), resulting in my replanting three times. It's possible the seed was poor, but I bought it this spring from a reputable source. This was a wet cold spring, and I've had to plant seeds again other years to get viable plants, yet it was interesting to me that the pole beans weren't affected the same way. They sprouted just fine.

Then the pole bean leaves and vines went absolutely bonkers, quickly filling the teepee I built with lush green, and coloring out of the lines to invade nearby tomato cages. But where were the blossoms and beans?

Meanwhile my few Slenderette bush plants were Davids to the Goliath at the teepee, but even though they sprouted more than a week later, they delivered a harvest well before the other made blossoms.

Eventually, the pole beans set blossoms, but the vines were increasingly territorial. This photo shows the bean teepee toward the middle, with scout vines in the left foreground -- about six feet and two tomato cages away from where the seeds sprouted. Crazy! The campaign to take over my garden certainly worked 

Both varieties produced delicious beans when harvested young. However, the pole beans foliage hid forming beans so well that I often did not see them until they had outgrown their tastiness. That was a disappointment. Also, while the pole bean plants seemed to do better than the bush plants in extreme heat, the actual beans dried out on the pole plants first, despite the lushness. 

Here's how I rank these two varieties on gardening issues of the day:

Taste: Tie
Best germination: Blue Lake 
First to produce: Slenderette (this, despite a later germination)
Ease of harvest: Slenderette 
Plays nice (doesn't take over neighboring plants): Slenderette
Harvest to space ratio: Slenderette (took less space and produced more)

Overall winner: Slenderette

I probably will plant pole beans again because I think they're fun, but next year they are for sure going against a fence where they can't block anything else. 

What seed varieties get your vote?

Friday, October 30, 2015

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween! If you find one of these in garden, let's hope it's with your eyes first (from a distance), and not with your face!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Halloween story idea

Here at Backyard Farming one of my goals is to find joy in the seasons and share it with others. Join me in taking a break from gardening chores to create this Halloween story. It is fun to do one-on-one with a child or with a group of children, such as for a Halloween party.

I first heard it years ago from a library storyteller, and so charmed was I, I went through stacks of paper sharing it with all the littles in my life. (And bigs, too, who are young at heart.)

Tell the story as you do the cutting, and be prepared for all your listeners to want to recreate the tale themselves.

Here is my own version of The Witch's House:

A little witch was traveling home after visiting her friend. It suddenly became so windy that she couldn't continue flying on her broom. She decided to make herself and her cat a house for the night.

The first thing she found when she landed was a piece of paper. Now, to you and me that might not seem special. But witches are magic!

1. She folded the paper in half so she could go inside. (Fold widthwise.)

 2. She cut off the top corners to make a roof (non-folded edge).

3. Got to have a door! The witch started to make one. When she got to the top she decided the door should be pointy so her pointy hat would fit.

4. "Meow," said the cat. He wanted his own door, the silly thing! The witch cut a very small door next to hers, just the cat's size.

They both went inside. The house was warm, but oh, so dark!

5. The little witch went back outside and cut out a window in the shape of a half moon -- just right for letting the moonlight shine in. (Fold paper between witch's door and left edge up about halfway. Cut window farther left than cat's door -- near where thumb is in photo.)

The witch loved her new house. Can you see why?

Seeing your audience wide-eyed in wonder will make your day. I promise.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Poor-man's vacuum sealer, and freezing tomatoes

The demand of my time to preserve the garden's bounty greatly decreased when I discovered how easy it is to freeze tomatoes. There are two methods: whole without peeling (for real!), or by first blanching to remove skins.

I did the latter method for the tomatoes in these pictures. I dipped the tomatoes in boiling water for 30-60 seconds, then removed to an ice water bath. The peels slip off easily. I cored and cut the tomatoes into slices before packing into zipper freezer bags. I find that slicing helps me fit them into bags more efficiently.

My poor-man's vacuum sealer is a straw. Put the straw against one edge of the bag, taking care not to submerge into liquid. Close the zipper all the way against the straw, pushing against the bag to squeeze out air. Be careful not to splash! If desired, you can do do a final, gentle inhale on the straw to draw out any remaining air. Watch as you go so you don't suck up any liquid.

This works great to pull out air. It is especially efficient with items not packed in juice, such as green beans. You can pull the sides of the bag right next to your food, eliminating the air pockets that invite freezer burn.

I fill quart-size bags with 3-4 cups of tomato slices with their juice. Lay the bags flat on a cookie sheet and transport to the freezer. This helps them freeze flat without molding to the shelf. The tray also corrals any drips as you walk to the freezer (not that I would know about this!). Once frozen you can take bags off the tray. I like to store them upright, like books on a shelf. You could also do smaller amounts in a bag to create a thinner sheet of tomato goodness that you can easily break off when you want to throw some flavor into what you're cooking.

The other method of freezing I mentioned is to freeze tomatoes whole. First remove the core. Then place on a sheet for flash freezing (so they don't stick to other tomatoes). Place in bag once frozen. You can do the straw method to remove extra air from the bag.

When you want to use a frozen tomato, run it under warm water to gently remove the peel.

Freezing tomatoes whole is a huge time saver but does take more freezer space than blanching and slicing.

I still can tomatoes, but I don't always have enough tomatoes at once to do a full batch. And oh, the time canning takes! Freezing tomatoes instead is a fantastic option. Canning tomatoes takes more time and energy up front; freezing is simple but of course requires energy to store them. I've had them store well in the freezer for a year. No matter which preservation method -- freezing or canning -- these tomatoes are ideal for use in soups or sauces.