Tuesday, November 30, 2010

First Freeze

Just as predicted, November 26 was our first freeze, and we're supposed to get another one tonight. Winter is officially here.

Here's what my poor squashes looked like the morning after. They were all squishy from ice crystals bursting all their cells. Well, they had a good run.

I was surprised that my okra and jalapeno peppers survived, though. They had some damage to certain branches, but the main plants look like they're still alive. A few more frosts should finish them off. I did once get some Habaneros to survive the whole winter by protecting them with lots of mulch and a blanket, but I think I'm too lazy to do that this year with the jalapenos.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

They're forecasting a low of 34 tonight, and a low of 22 tomorrow, so this morning before Thanksgiving dinner I harvested the rest of my cushaw squash, which Daniel insisted I pose triumphantly with, holding the biggest one.

I haven't counted them yet, but my wheelbarrow was overflowing by the time I was done. The nozzle from the hose is included in this picture for scale.
Here they all are, not counting the one we've already eaten. That squash ended up being made into three pies and two dozen muffins. That was just ONE squash. We're going to be eating squash all winter and perhaps into spring.

We also picked all the rest of the jalapenos and needed a cloth grocery bag to carry them. They look like they're ready for Christmas, all red and green. First I was thinking I had enough to make another batch of jalapeno jelly, but now I realize I have enough to make a few batches of jelly and/or a lot of pickled jalapenos.

I hope that the rest of you are enjoying bountiful harvests this Thanksgiving, whether literally or not!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

2010 Sweet Potato Harvest

The weather forecast for this week convinced me that it was time to harvest my sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes should be dug right before the first frost, because frost messes them up, and preferably while the soil is a bit on the dry side, because it's a mess to dig up roots in wet soil.

The forecast is predicting rain for the next couple of days, followed by a freeze this weekend. And it's not one of those close calls like we had a few days ago, where it was 35 here and froze further out in the country. No, they're predicting a low of 25 for Friday night, which is pretty well safely down in the freezing area, with no margin for error.

So yesterday seemed like the right day to say goodbye to my sweet potatoes, since today and tomorrow will be taken up with holiday activities, and digging up 96 square feet of sweet potatoes is a bit of a chore. I'm quite sore today.

As I said before I planted five varieties I got from R. H. Shumway's. Sweet potato slips can be a little difficult to come by. The only company I know of that has an extensive selection is Sand Hill Preservation Center, and they are located in Iowa and grow all their own plants, so they're vulnerable to crop failures for a heat loving plant like sweet potatoes. This year was one of those bad years, when they had to offer only assortments of their choosing, and didn't start shipping until June, which is a bit late for me. I ended up ordering from Shumway, then, even though they don't have as many interesting varieties. Might as well try what they have first, and then later try some of the more exotic varieties from Sand Hill. I got their "heirloom sampler", which included five varieties: Beuregard, Nancy Hall, Porto Rico, Vardaman, and White Yam.

I read up on what to do with sweet potatoes after you dig them, and they're supposed to be "cured", with different websites saying anything from 10 days to eight weeks! They're edible right away, but become much tastier after some cure time, because that is when starches in the roots turn to sugar. Ok then, no sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving, but maybe for Yule. Maybe then I can comment on their eating qualities. Right now I can only talk about their appearance and yields.


Shumway's Description: An early variety producing large yields of high quality potatoes that exhibit excellent resistance to cracking. Smooth, light red skin with deep orange, fine grained flesh.

Sand Hill's Description: Mid-season. Normal leaves, red orange skin, orange flesh. Roots get huge, but the flavor and texture are not as good as some of the heirlooms.

I included the foliage in my pictures since it does vary from variety to variety. Beuregard had mostly "normal" leaves, but with a little bit of purple on the growing tips. This was my worst performing variety. The roots most certainly did not get "huge", and there weren't many of them either. Though the red color is pretty. However, this was also the variety that was planted last, and it wasn't in a very good spot, so it may not be the variety's fault.

Nancy Hall

Shumway's Description: The "Yellow Yam" of the 30's and 40's. Old-time favorite. Light skin, yellow flesh. Juicy, waxy and sweet when baked. If taste is more important than beauty, try this one. 120 days.

Sand Hill's Description: Late. Creamy yellow skin and flesh, excellent flavor, but roots never get very large.

Nancy did ok. Can't really comment on how large the roots are since NONE of my roots got very large, but I did get a few nice-looking ones. The vines got very long and were completely green.
Porto Rico

Shumway's Description: Best of the red varieties. Excellent for small gardens. The short runners on this bush-type take little garden space. Heavy yielder. 110 days.

Sand Hill's Description: Mid-season. Regular leaf, yellow-orange skin and flesh. Needs long season to do well.

Not sure what red Shumway is referring to here, because the roots aren't red, but pinkish-orange, especially compared to Beuregard, which really is red. Maybe it's the red stems. I got some nice fat roots from Porto Rico, even though there weren't as many as I had hoped. This one was planted right next to Nancy Hall. It's supposed to be a shorter vined variety, while Nancy has long vines, but the whole bed just ended up a big tangle. Once I started pulling things up, it did appear that the PR vines (which I assume were all red-stemmed) were shorter than NH, but they still didn't seem as short as our next variety.


Shumway's Description: Bushy type that takes less space. Ideal for small gardens. Excellent yields of deep orange tubers. One of the best for rich flavor. Produces well in many parts of the country and in various soil types. 110 days.

Sand Hill's Description: Mid-season. Bush, purple colored normal leaves, light orange skin, orange flesh, long skinny roots, average yield.

This was the prettiest sweet potato I grew, above ground and below. It had purple-green leaves that were broader and less pointed than the other varieties, and when I dug up the roots, most of them were fat, smooth, and a beautiful bright orange. It's interesting how the same variety can do so differently for different people, since Sand Hill describes this variety as having skinny roots and Beuregard as being "huge". It also gave me my second-highest yields, though right now I'm just eyeballing that. I haven't actually weighed them yet. I'm thinking of waiting until after they cure.
White Yam

Shumway's Description: An unusual variety sometimes called Triumph, Southern Queen, Poplar Root or "Choker." White as cotton inside and out, and sweet as sugar. Our driest variety. 100 days

Sand Hill's Description: Mid-season. Average vines, white skin, creamy-white flesh, above average yields.

Note that Sand Hill lists Southern Queen, Poplar Root, White Triumph, and White Yam all as separate varieties. Curious. Anyway, I think I got the largest yield from this variety, but it was a whole bunch of small, skinny roots. Maybe I can pretend they're parsnips or something. I shouldn't ever plant this near Nancy Hall or I wouldn't be able to tell them apart.

In summary, White Yam and Vardaman did the best. Next came Porto Rico and Nancy Hall, and finally Beuregard did the worst. Except I noticed that this corresponds to where in the garden they were planted more than anything else (like what date they were planted, days to maturity listed in the catalog, etc.). White Yam and Vardaman were planted in the same bed, PR and NH in another, and Beuregard by itself in another. My planting beds are not equal. Some have been worked on a lot more than others, so it's probably not fair or scientific to weed out any just yet. I've decided I'll go ahead and plant them all again next year.

After reading a lot on sweet potato propagation, I decided to go with cuttings rather than trying to sprout the roots. Since I pulled them before frost, while the vines were still healthy, it seemed to make more sense to do it this way instead of risking the possibility of the roots not making it in storage. I snipped up the vines and did three cuttings of each variety. I'll grow these plants out and snip up more cuttings later once I decide how many of each plant I'm going to grow, but this should do for now. Isn't cloning fun?

I suspect my yields were lousy because of the soil. Next year should be better. Working up good soil takes time.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Full Hunter's Moon

November's full moon is the Hunter's Moon, and I have seen some amorous bucks around the neighborhood chasing does, and more sadly, a lot of dead deer along the roads. Though I'll probably never hunt myself, I certainly have no problem who do it to put meat on the table, with the side effect of keeping their numbers down a bit. (Of course, the reason there's too many deer to begin with is that we wiped out their natural predators, but I guess that damage is done.) Getting shot and killed instantly by a skilled hunter also seems  a much more humane way to go than starving or getting smashed by a car.

I'm still surprised that the neighborhood deer have yet to find my garden. It may only be a matter of time, but I do live right next door to some very loud dogs. I wonder if they keep the deer away, or if I've just been lucky.

We had a close call a few days ago with a freeze warning for the Hill Country, but it didn't quite freeze here. Those few degrees can make a big difference. Last year we got our first freeze on December 5, so I'm guessing it's likely that by the next full moon my squash, jalapenos, okra, and sweet potatoes will be gone.

I must admit I'm actually looking forward to a freeze to clear out some of these old summer crops. The okra is still chugging away, but is heavily infested with aphids. I wonder if the cool weather has weakened it. Aphids usually only attack weak plants, and okra prefers warm weather.

The squash vine borers are still attacking my squash. Those things just don't quit, do they? I've thrown away several fruits that borers tunneled into, but fortunately I still have a lot of fruits that still look good.

Here are three squashes I just harvested. Their sections of vine had died, and their stems were turning brown, so I figured they'd grown all they are going to be able to. I hope that was long enough, because they're quite a bit smaller than the first two I've harvested.

The sweet potatoes are still getting seriously chomped by grasshoppers, but they don't seem to mind that much. They're still growing vigorously. I'm getting anxious to find out if they've got some good roots under there, but I really should give them as long as possible, which means waiting until right before our first freeze to dig them up.

The fall planting of regular potatoes haven't done nearly as well. Maybe they did bake under there, because I've only got three plants. I may just give up and pull them and use this valuable garden real estate for cabbage or something.
The jalapenos are doing great. I've already made one batch of jalapeno jelly (yum!), and probably have enough for another batch or two. I've got some more starting to turn red, so I'd better hurry up with that.
Mainly I've got lots of fall planting going on. Here is my lettuce mix. Something's been chomping on them, and I'm not sure what. I suspect snails are the culprit. Whatever it is seems to prefer the red ones to the green ones too. Weird. I'm not too worried, though. I've got plenty more.

These are fava beans, something new for me. I've never even eaten fava beans (aka broad beans), but I got some seed in a trade. They're supposed to be very cold hardy and able to grow through the winter here, so that sounds good to me. So far they're germinating very well. They look kind of like big peas.

My actual peas planted along the fence are coming up nicely too. This winter I'm going to try growing enough peas to freeze a bunch to enjoy the rest of the year.

The I'itois onions, though I planted them kind of late, are doing fine too, coming up in little clumps of leaves.

A lot of my garlic varieties are growing well, though there's a lot of variation between varieties. The hardnecks really seem to take a longer time to sprout than the softnecks.
I planted another row of leeks, while the first row is doing great.

Broccoli and cauliflower have been put in the ground. Something's nibbled them a little, but I think they'll recover. I've never grown broccoli or cauliflower successfully, but I'll keep trying.

Still got a lot of plants waiting for their turn to go in the ground, including cabbage, chard, kale, collards, and celery. Fall is turning out to be just as busy a planting time as spring. I haven't even started on my root crops yet. I've got seed for carrots, radishes, beets, turnips, and rutabagas still waiting in my seed box.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

How to Make Gumbo

One of the best ways to use up the TONS of okra anyone who grows the stuff ends up getting is to make a big pot of gumbo! I think I heard somewhere that the word "gumbo" actually comes from the native word for okra, so there you go. True, you can make gumbo without okra, but I always use okra because I always have so much. That, and I like okra. It gives a wonderful flavor and texture to the dish.

Gumbo is also one of those dishes, like chili, that I don't really use a recipe for. There are a few things I think are required to make good gumbo, and then the rest is all flexible.

Here are the basic steps:
1. Make a roux.
2. Add the Holy Trinity, okra, and meats to the roux and fry them in it a bit.
3. Add broth and Cajun spices.
4. Simmer until done.

OK, let's make this a little less vague.

Probably the most important step is making the roux. The flavor of gumbo relies on making a DARK roux. The roux does thicken the gumbo a bit, but in my opinion, it's even more important for flavor. The roux gives the dish a deep, nutty flavor that makes it taste like gumbo rather than any old soup.

Roux is made by mixing a paste of roughly equal parts of flour and fat (I usually prefer putting a little more flour than fat in mine to make a thicker paste) and cooking it over low heat until it is rich brown. Lighter rouxs are used in a variety of sauces to thicken them, but when you cook roux until it almost burns but not quite, it toasts the flour creating a delicious nutty flavor. To make dark roux, you have to stand over the pot and stir and stir over low heat until it gets the right color and aroma (you will notice when it starts smelling delicious). Stir constantly so the flour on the bottom doesn't burn. I actually rush my roux a little bit at the beginning and have the heat up on medium, but as soon as the flour starts to brown, you really have to do it over low heat so you don't cross the line from toasty brown to black. If you start getting black flakes in it, you've burned it and will have to start over.

I have heard that it's possible to make roux in the oven, though I haven't tried it yet. Maybe next time.

It's really not that hard. It just takes patience. It's probably the most tedious part of gumbo making. For a big pot of gumbo, I use about a quarter cup each of fat and flour. For a smaller pot, two tablespoons of each should work. The fat can be butter, olive oil, bacon grease, chicken fat or some combination of those. Pick something you think would go well with the rest of your ingredients.

Once the roux is done, everything else is just thrown in and mixed together.

The Holy Trinity is a bell pepper, an onion, and some celery (approximately, depending on how big they are). I add this to the roux and sort of fry it a bit just like if the roux was plain oil until the vegetables start to sweat. This is also the point where I add okra and some meats.

The meat you use in gumbo is the most flexible part. Sausage is good. I always put sausage in my gumbo along with whatever other meat I have chosen because it gives that great smoky flavor. I let it brown a bit in the roux with the vegetables. If you can find andouille sausage, that would be the most authentic, but I often have to settle for regular smoked summer sausage (if you can find a spicy kind, that's even better). I've heard of ham being used also, but haven't tried it myself.

Chicken is also good and a very common ingredient. I usually use chicken that's already been cooked, like leftovers from a roasted chicken (hmm, I wonder if leftover Thanksgiving turkey would work as well). You can use chunks of raw chicken, like cubed chicken breast or thighs. Raw chicken should be added with the raw vegetables so it can cook in the roux a bit, but it's a good idea to wait to add cooked chicken until after you add the broth, since you're just reheating it and don't want to overcook it.

And of course there's seafood. Shrimp is always a favorite, and I've also used catfish nuggets. Crab, scallops, oysters, and crawfish can also be put in, though I've never tried it before. Since seafood cooks so quickly, it should be added towards the end, at the same time you add cooked chicken, so it can cook only briefly.
Once the vegetables are starting to get tender, any raw chicken you added is mostly cooked, and ham or sausage has browned a bit, you add stock or broth. I usually use chicken stock, but ham or shrimp stock would also be good. Pick one that would go with your other ingredients. Then you add any seafood or cooked chicken that needs to only simmer briefly, and the spices.

I use a pre-made Cajun seasoning mix, but you can also make your own. Cajun seasoning usually has salt, black pepper, Cayenne pepper, garlic, thyme, and maybe some other things. They vary in how hot and how salty they are, and people vary in how hot or salty they like their food, so I'm going to have to tell you to just season to taste here. Fortunately, once any raw meats you added are cooked, you can taste your gumbo and add more seasoning if you think it needs it (but remember you can add but you can't take out). I usually make my gumbo a little milder than I prefer, and then pass some Louisiana hot sauce around at the table for people who like it hotter to add to their portions.

Simmer the gumbo until everything is cooked and the roux and spices are incorporated into the broth, but don't let the vegetables get too mushy. Oh, and you were cooking a pot of rice to go with it, weren't you?

Serve over rice (white or brown are both good), with some crusty French bread on the side, and a sweet white wine. Cajun food is influenced by French food, which is why I accompany it with French bread and a sweet wine that would go with spicy food. Maybe it's because I grew up watching Justin Wilson on PBS, and he always drank wine. But beer is good too, and I know some people who eat cornbread with gumbo (but I prefer beer and cornbread with chili).

Now that is some serious comfort food for when it's starting to get a little cold outside, but you still have lots of okra and bell peppers from the garden to use up.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cushaw Pie

After a very long growing season and threats from Squash Vine Borers that decimated all their fellow squash, the cushaw squash harvest is underway. I made a cushaw pie from the first squash I harvested for a Samhain gathering and it turned out great.

I was a little nervous cutting into the squash, afraid I would find an under ripe interior, but to my relief it was nice and yellow-orange inside with fat seeds.

I then proceeded to give myself a real workout hacking it to pieces and scraping out the seeds. The pieces were arranged in my big roasting pan with the rack removed.

Here is the squash after it was roasted at 350 degrees for an hour and a half. By this time it was nice and tender and easy to scrape from the rind. I much prefer roasting my pumpkin (or squash) to boiling it to make puree, because it lets some water evaporate and concentrates the flavor. I also mix any caramelized bits into the puree, which seems to give it more color.

Two cups of the finished puree went into the pie. The other EIGHT cups went in the freezer in 2 cup portions.

I made the pie using a combination of recipes I found online for pumpkin pie, taking the elements I liked best from each. Turned out great. I guess since I modified other's recipes to make my pie, I can give you the recipe without breaching copyright.

Cushaw Pie

1 recipe pie dough for a single crust 9 inch pie (it's really not that hard to make yourself)
2 eggs
2 cups cushaw squash puree (or any winter squash or pumpkin)
1/4 cup half and half cream
3/4 cups brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice

1. Make your pie crust, roll out, and line a 9 inch pie plate with it. Trim and crimp edges.

2. Dock your crust well and pre-bake it at 425 degrees for 10 minutes. Let it cool.

3. While your crust is cooling, beat eggs with a whisk. Then whisk in squash puree and half and half.

4. Whisk in sugar, flour, vanilla, and spices.

5. At this point you can leave your filling and pie crust overnight in the fridge like I did or bake it right away. I heard somewhere that custards (which pumpkin pie is) do better when left to sit overnight before cooking. It was convenient for me to do so this time, but I'm sure it would be fine without this rest period. I let my crust and filling come to room temperature before proceeding.

6. When you are ready to bake, pour the filling into your pie crust and smooth top with a spatula. Arrange pretty pie crust scrap decorations on top as desired.

7. Put pie on a cookie sheet for easier handling, and bake at 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes. Mine actually could have been pulled out at more like 35 minutes, but that's probably because I let the filling get to room temperature before baking (rapid temperature changes are not good for custards). Take your pie out of the oven before it looks done! This is very important, because it will continue to cook as it sits on the counter cooling. If it looks done in the oven, it will be overcooked once it is cool. This is the cause of cracked, rubbery, yucky pumpkin pies. Bake your pie gently and take it out before it looks done, and you will have a smooth, creamy, yummy pie.

8. Let your pie cool to room temperature on the counter, then stash in the fridge until chilled. Serve with a nice big blob of whipped cream.