Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Full Blood Moon

I love October. It's when things finally cool off around here. The full moon of October is called the Blood Moon. If I remember correctly, that has to do with the slaughtering of livestock that occurred around this time of year to store meat and thin the herd before winter.

But that was in Europe. Here in Texas, things are a little different.

Fall is a time for planting here, but this time around I'm planting cold weather crops that will grow all winter. Here I've got my Brassicaceae, that is, bok choy, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower, started in pots. That family of plants is actually much better grown in winter. The cold weather gives them a sweeter flavor, and there aren't a lot of bugs.
Another plant family that's better in winter is the Alliaceae. Here are my onions. If you recall, my last batch of onions didn't do so well, but I'm giving them another try. Right now they look really puny.

I've also got leeks. These are from some bulbs I got from my CSA farmer. Leeks grow little bulbs off to the side, and at first I kept them to replant, but then decided not to bother and threw them in the compost pile. When they started growing out of the compost pile, I decided to give them a chance and transplanted them to the garden. I put them in a trench, and will pile dirt up around them as they grow to make the white part (which is the best part of a leek) longer.

My garlic has started coming up! This is one of my softneck varieties. They usually show up before the hardnecks. I also have some shallots and potato onions planted, but they haven't shown up above ground yet.
I just planted my little lettuce plants. This is a lettuce mix that has both red and green varieties. Lettuce gets very bitter in warm weather but does great in winter.

I still have some plants left over from the summer, like my okra. This stuff just won't stop until frost kills it.

A surprise underneath my okra are some watermelons! I thought they were dead, but they grew back and now have two softball-sized fruits growing. I wonder if they'll have time to ripen before frost.

These are my fall eggplants. My spring eggplants didn't make it partially because of a late cold snap, and partially because the seeds I got had very low germination. In summer I went ahead and planted all the rest of the eggplant seeds to see if any would grow, and got these plants. They might have time to grow some fruits before frost, but it's going to cut it close.
The jalapenos are going nuts! All my plants are covered with fruit. I might have enough to make a batch of jalapeno jelly, which I found is much better than concord grape jelly on a peanut butter sandwich.

Two varieties of sweet potatoes, Vardaman and Beauregarde, are flowering. I tried to find you a nice fresh flower, but the best I could do was an old one from yesterday and some buds. You can see why sweet potatoes are close relatives of Morning Glories. The flowers look exactly the same. I was a little surprised because sweet potatoes, like garlic, have mostly given up sex, but sometimes you get a variety that still likes to flower.

What really says autumn harvest to me is winter squash. I've got lots of cushaws growing now, but I'm having trouble telling when they're ripe. Not a lot of people grow cushaws, so Google isn't helping much. You harvest pumpkins when they turn from green to orange, but I think these stay white with green stripes. Pictured above is my biggest specimen. I plan on using them in "pumpkin" recipes, since pumpkins are just winter squashes with that certain look (round, ribbed, and orange). Botanically and culinarily there's no difference between a pumpkin and a winter squash, so they're interchangeable in recipes.

One of my vines is making fruits that have no necks. Not sure what the deal is with that. Genetic diversity, I guess. They'd make some interesting looking jack-o-lanterns, but none of them are very big yet.

Looking at all these fruits, and with Halloween coming up soon and me wanting to cook up some pumpkin (well, winter squash) containing goodies, I finally decided to "sacrifice" this guy here and see if it's ripe.

Here it is now with the jack-o-lantern pumpkin from the store and my Halloween cat for scale. Now that I cut it's umbilical cord, I'm afraid it might not be ripe enough, but I've got plenty more squashes to experiment on. The worst that will happen is this squash will be a bit paler and less flavorful than a fully ripened specimen. I'm going to let it "cure" for a few days before cutting it open. In the meantime, it is looking quite decorative if I do say so myself.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Still Harvesting Okra

October has been very dry so far. It hasn't rained since late September. We've had sunny, clear days with very low humidity, which means it gets chilly at night. Feels nice to me, but I think it's slowed down the growth of my plants. I think most plants prefer things warm and wet, not cool and dry (but cool and dry is still better than hot and dry).

But the okra keeps going! This past weekend I tried making some pickled okra, but I don't think it went too well. It's hard to pick okra at just the right stage. The pods grow very quickly, and in order to have good pickled okra, they have to be pretty small. At least they need to not be too long to fit in the jars.

I ended up with enough okra to loosely fill three jars (you can see they were loosely filled by how much they floated up when the liquid was added). I cheated a little with some of them, trimming off the pointy tips, though I think okra pods are supposed to be pickled whole. I'm afraid slicing into them will allow slime to escape into the pickle brine and cause weirdness somehow. I guess the only way to know for sure is to taste them after they've sat a bit.

Another weird thing is that I'm growing a red variety of okra (Bowling Red from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds), and the red seems to have "bled" out into the pickle brine, leaving the pods green. I didn't expect them to keep their vibrant, pretty color through the pickling process (most red and purple vegetables, like purple green beans for example, turn green or at least fade when cooked), but I wasn't expecting pink pickle juice.

However, most of my okra was much too long to fit in the jars at all. I guess I could have put them in quart jars instead of pints, but the other reason you want small pods is because they're the most tender. The only cooking these pods got was the ten minutes they spent getting sealed. I ended up with a lot more pods that were too big for pickling but still tender enough to cook, so I sliced and froze them.

I just spread the sliced okra out on parchment on a cookie sheet and put them in the freezer. I put them into containers after they were frozen. This is supposed to keep them from sticking together, but I bet some of them will stick together anyway. I didn't blanch them or anything like that since I thought that was just asking for slime. It's not that I don't like okra slime, but the slime still must be managed, especially if you're messing with your okra a lot (forcing them to go through traumas like slicing and freezing and pickling).

I did get some pods that were too far gone even for this. It's amazing how an okra pod can go from tiny to woody so fast. It also seems to vary with individual pods, so I can't really say, "they're good when under X inches" or something like that. I've sliced into some long ones that seemed fine, and others that were shorter and were hard when I tried to slice them (those go into the compost... I found out from personal experience that hardened okra doesn't get soft again with cooking). Basically, if the knife goes through with no resistance, it's good. If the pod goes "CRUNCH" when the knife comes down, and I have to use any effort to cut through, it's no good anymore. I'm not sure what makes some pods harden before others. It probably has to do with environmental conditions when the pod was growing. Since it's so dry out there, I wouldn't be surprised if the plants are stressed, and the pods are getting tough quicker than normal.

Another frustrating thing about okra is that it gets a few pods at a time. In order to save up enough for a full canning batch, I'd have to be out there picking small okra pods every day for a long time, maybe long enough that the first few I picked are moldy before I have enough (okra doesn't have a long fridge life after picking). One solution is to have more plants, so I have more pods at any one time, but that also means more okra overall. Maybe there's some other trick I can figure out.

My plants are still producing, but I think I'm done with pickling okra for this year. I'll see how my three experimental jars do first. Maybe next year I should try a different variety for canning, something that has shorter, green pods. As for the rest of this year's harvest, I might try drying some and see how those turn out. I wonder how well dehydrated okra will rehydrate for use in gumbo or curry.

UPDATE: These okra pickles didn't turn out good. Slicing the ends off made a lot of slime ooze out into the pickling liquid. It looks like it's completely necessary to use okra that's short enough to fit in the jars whole.