Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Mistletoe Moon

The Yuletide is almost here, and we've had a few hard freezes now. I define "hard freeze" as a freeze enough to kill my tomatoes, rather than a "light frost" that just damages them but doesn't completely kill the plants. It got down into the mid-20's for a couple of nights last week, so that was enough to do them in, along with all my other frost-tender plants.

Here's what remains of the Christmas Lima beans. I ended up harvesting about 35-40 beans off them, which is not very good, but at least enough to grow them again next year. I think they need bean inoculant, since all my beans have done poorly in this garden so far. Next year I'll try to remember to inoculate all my beans.

The brassicas are finally free of bugs, so I hope they now have time to give me a crop over the winter, before it gets too hot in the summer. They're off to a late start because of those darn bugs.

The peas are doing great, and the Red Romaine lettuce I planted next to them is about big enough to start picking.

I still have a lot of plants in pots I haven't gotten a chance to plant out yet. These are mostly replacements for all the plants that got eaten up by caterpillars, like broccoli raabe, kale, and arugula.

The potatoes I planted in one of the new raised beds are just starting to poke up sprouts. I'd better cover them over with compost soon before the next freeze.

The garlic is still doing well, despite the chickens trying to dig them up. They seem to like the raised bed and the grass clippings for mulch. The freezes haven't bothered them one bit.

During the freezes, I covered the peppers with frost blanket to protect them. These peppers survived last winter without protection, so I decided they have earned it this time. As you can see, a lot of the leaves were damaged by the frost, but the plants themselves are all still alive and will probably recover next spring.

I went ahead and let the eggplants and tomatoes go. There was no chance they'd survive the winter anyway.

Meanwhile, the mini-potato tubers I planted in that container this past fall had grown plants and then died back, so I decided it was time for harvest. I was disappointed to find only these few mini-tubers, not much bigger than the ones I planted. I wonder when I'll get full sized potato plants with full sized tubers from these. I guess I'll plant them again, and this time give them more room. I still don't feel like planting them in the ground until I get full sized plants, but I'll give them bigger containers this time.

I'm on winter break from work now, so now it's time for me to get caught up with a bunch of stuff I had been putting off, like finishing those raised beds, planting out the rest of my winter vegetables, and starting nightshade seedlings for next year.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sweet Potato Harvest 2013

In 2010 I had a nice sweet potato harvest, but then in 2011 the drought killed them all, and in 2012 I was busy moving.

Now I have just harvested Sweet Potato Class of 2013! It's not nearly as good as 2010, but hey at least I got sweet potatoes.

I got the slips from Duck Creek Farms this time, and they arrived in excellent condition. I don't think I've ever had mail-order plants look this good before. I only ordered 5 plants of each variety just to test them out.

To be fair to the sweet potatoes, I didn't plant them in the best spot. They were in the back garden, on the very back row, near the trees which probably shaded them a bit. They were also neglected a bit back there. I didn't get much of a harvest, but frankly I'm glad I got anything at all this time.

I probably won't eat many of these if I eat any at all. I'm going to save most of them for growing slips to replant next year. Next time I'm planting them in my new raised beds with lots of nice soil that won't be so hard on either me (to dig them up!) or the sweet potatoes.

Carolina Nugget

This variety had a bushy growth habit, rather than long vines. It has what I think are called "ivy leaves" in sweet potato terminology. The leaves had deep lobes and were very pretty. I didn't get very many roots from them, but the ones I did get were nice looking. The skin ranges from orange to red, and the interior is "normal" orange sweet potato color.


This variety is also listed as Dianne by Duck Creek Farms, but I think Garnet is a more descriptive name, because most of the roots had a nice red color. The inside is also orange. It was basically like a more vigorous version of Carolina Nugget. The leaves were not as deeply lobed, and the vines were much longer. This was actually the most vigorous plant above ground, with lots of vines trailing all over the place, and it ended up flowering with pretty purple morning glory flowers (sweet potatoes being a species of morning glory, after all). When I dug them up, I angered several honeybees that were working on the flowers, but didn't get stung. Too bad they didn't have time to make seeds, since growing true sweet potato seeds would be an interesting project.

Below ground matched above ground. This variety gave me the biggest yield of the biggest roots.

Molokai Purple

This is a variety from Hawaii, and was the second most vigorous variety, with the second biggest yield. The vines had "normal" leaves, which means they weren't deeply lobed like the orange varieties I grew. They were also very pretty, with a purple tint to the newer leaves.

This variety got the most damage from the frost we had a few days ago, which is what prompted me to go ahead and harvest them before the next frost hits.

The coolest thing about this variety is it's purple through and through. I accidentally broke one potato, and the color inside doesn't look real.

White Triumph

This variety was not particularly triumphant. I got it because some sources say that this is the same variety as White Yam and Southern Queen. White Yam was one of my best varieties from 2010, so I was eager to grow it again.

Now I'm pretty sure this is not the same thing. The vines were always yellow and sickly looking, and by August most of them had died. When I dug up what was left of them today, what you see in the picture is literally all I got.

Next year I'd like to get the "real" White Yam again, which R.H. Shumway still carries. Or maybe I'll get Southern Queen which is carried by Sand Hill Preservation Center, because I've heard good things about that variety too. White Triumph went in the compost pile.

To sum things up, in order from best to worst this year were: Garnet, Molokai Purple, Carolina Nugget, and White Triumph.

I'm not growing White Triumph again and will need to seek out a better white variety. I think the other three all deserve a second chance. I will probably eliminate one of the orange ones eventually, since they seem kind of redundant, but I don't have the heart to eliminate Carolina Nugget just yet.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Topaz Moon

Sunday was the full moon of November, and last week we had a close call with a light frost. My most sensitive plants - the sweet potatoes and basil - were slightly damaged, but everything else pulled through.

Then a couple of days later it was back in the high-80's! In fact, we broke some heat records.

Then this weekend it's supposed to freeze again.

Something strange is going on with my Molokai Purple sweet potatoes (in the bottom left here). Right after the frost, they looked only slightly damaged, but since then they've been looking worse and worse. The Diane potatoes (in the top right) are still looking pretty good. White Triumph (in the middle) never did well anyway.

Time to harvest the sweet potatoes! I have to get it done before that cold front comes through this weekend.

The good thing about the cold front is it should kill the bugs that are eating my plants. I've been spraying my plants with neem oil, which probably slows them down, but they're still getting eaten a lot. The fava beans are doing well despite the fuzzy caterpillars munching them

The broccoli, cauliflower, and other brassicas are looking much worse. This is one of the better looking ones, but some of them have been completely eaten down to the ground.

The okra is still making a few pods, but it won't be much longer before the cold kills it. I got my varieties mixed up, but I'm pretty sure this is Beck's Gardenville. It's doing well, and has these neat short fat pods with ribs.

The Tatume squash has some sort of fungus or mildew, but I'm not too concerned because it's reaching the end of its life anyway. It probably doesn't like the cold, damp weather.

The Bishop's Crown peppers are finally ripening! They need to hurry up, because I want to harvest some seeds before it freezes. They are in the same species as the Lemon Drops, and I'm interested in seeing how they taste.

The peas are doing well, but the mustard greens in front of them are also getting eaten up a lot by bugs. I'm surprised the bugs like mustard greens, since they're spicy. I've been spraying them with neem oil too.

The garlic has all sprouted in the raised bed in front, and I put grass clippings over them as mulch. Even though I put wire around them, the neighbor's chickens dig in every little nook or cranny they can reach.

We're almost done installing raised beds in another row. We just have to work a little more at getting them level, and then two rows down, two more to go!

The eggplants have lots of little fruits on them. I wonder if I should pick them all before it freezes, even though most of them are still pretty small.

The peppers in the front are still making lots of fruit. I've now got two large jars of Lemon Drop hot sauce fermenting, and I'm not sure what to do with all the additional peppers I'm still harvesting.

An additional thing on my to-do list is deal with this tray of greens I planted to replace the ones that are getting eaten so much by bugs out there. I had hardly any arugula, broccoli raabe, or kale survive that. I also planted some cilantro and parsley from new seeds I just bought, because the seeds I had were old and not germinating.

I also need to harvest all my basil before it freezes and make another batch of pesto. They were also slightly damaged by the frost, but bounced back well. I need to get this done before they really freeze and turn into black mush, and then no pesto for me!

I actually love this time of year. It's exciting!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Tatume Squash and Calabacitas con Pollo

This year was the first year I grew Tatume Squash, and they've already earned a permanent place in my garden! The most impressive thing about them is that even though they are a member of the Cucurbita pepo species, the Squash Vine Borers didn't kill them! Oh, there was a little bit of damage to the vines, but overall the plants were still able to thrive and make a nice harvest.

This is exciting, because ever since I moved to San Marcos, the only squashes I've been able to grow are cushaws.

Here is a picture of the vines. Yes, they do have long vines, unlike most other summer squash cultivars. That does mean they take up more room in the garden, but it's also why the borers don't kill them. They have enough stems that if some get killed by borers, the plant has plenty of other ones.

Another interesting thing about this variety is the leaves. The leaves are much more deeply lobed than most other squash leaves. I wonder if that helps them be more heat and drought tolerant than other squashes, because they have that advantage also.

It makes sense since they're a Mexican variety. Unfortunately, It's a bit hard to find the seeds. The only place I've seen them for sale is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I saved some of my own seeds this year to make sure I always have a supply.

The fruits themselves are like an egg-shaped zucchini. They're best harvested when they're not full size yet, though this one in the picture is a bit too small!

Even though I'm sure you could use them for any recipe you use any other summer squash in, I decided for my first taste of Tatume, I should try a recipe from their native land of Mexico: Calabacitas con Pollo, which means "squash with chicken."

There are several recipes for this dish out there, so I looked at a lot of them to see what the common denominators were. It's basically chicken braised in a tomato sauce flavored with Mexican spices, with cubed squash and sweet corn kernels mixed in.

After figuring that out, I didn't end up using a real recipe, so I'm just going to describe how I did it.

Calabacitas con Pollo

You will need:
  • 4 pieces of bone-in, skin-on chicken (drumsticks, legs, or breasts)
  • 2 Tatume squash
  • 1 onion
  • 2 or 3 hot peppers, depending on how spicy you want it (I used 2 red Serranos from the garden)
  • vegetable oil for browning the chicken
  • 2 or 3 cans of diced or crushed tomatoes, or plain tomato sauce, or some chopped up fresh tomatoes (I used tomatoes I had frozen from my tomato harvest that I thawed, peeled, and smashed up)
  • about 2 tablespoons tomato paste (optional, but a good flavor booster)
  • a couple of handfuls of frozen corn kernels
  • cumin seeds - maybe about half a tablespoon
  • salt to taste
  • cilantro (optional, I didn't have any, but I bet it would be good)
First I browned the chicken in some oil in a Dutch oven on the stove. I used four drumsticks, but I think thighs would be even better. You could use breasts, but I think they dry out in braised dishes.

I set the chicken aside and added the chopped up onion to the oil and chicken fat left in the pan. Then I sprinkled whole cumin seeds over it. I didn't measure, so I'm just guessing it was about half a tablespoon. Cumin has a really nice savory flavor that really went well in the dish. You could use powdered cumin, but I would add that after you put the liquid in. I also added the finely diced hot peppers.

I cooked the onions on medium low heat until they were starting to turn golden. Then I put the chicken back in the pot, and dumped in enough crushed tomatoes and any juice that came out of them until the chicken was just barely covered. If you're using canned tomatoes, I guess it would take 2 cans, but maybe 3. If you don't have enough tomato to cover the chicken, I bet adding some chicken broth would work. You want the chicken to be just submerged in liquid. Then I added about a tablespoon or two of tomato paste, which gives it another level of flavor, and a sprinkle of salt.

Then I put the lid on and let the chicken simmer. This could probably also be done in an oven or slow cooker, but you'd have to figure out how long that would take yourself.

While the chicken was simmering, I diced up the squash. I didn't want my squash to turn completely to mush, so I let the chicken cook a bit first before I added it. After the chicken had cooked for about half an hour, I added the squash, and let that cook until the squash was tender, which took about 20 minutes.

Then I added two or three handfuls of frozen sweet corn straight out of the bag. The sweet corn only needed a few minutes to cook. Once all the vegetables were cooked, the chicken was starting to fall off the bone. Yum!

I served it over white rice (brown rice would work too) with warm flour tortillas on the side (corn would work too). I like things spicier than my husband, so I went easy with the hot peppers in the actual dish, but added Mexican-style hot sauce to my own portion.

A sprinkle of fresh cilantro on top would be nice, but we didn't have any.

If the people you're serving this to are offended by bones in their food, you can pull the chicken pieces out, pull the meat off them, add the meat back to the pot, and discard the bones before serving it. Except I highly recommend that you use bone-in chicken for this. The bones (and skin!) add a lot of flavor to the broth as the chicken cooks. If you absolutely must use boneless chicken, be sure to reduce the cooking time, because meat with bones in it always takes longer to cook than boneless.

If you don't have Tatume squash, the flavor of it is most similar to a really good zucchini. It has a nice nuttiness to it, and the flesh is firm so it stands up to this kind of cooking method without getting mushy too fast. Yellow squash would probably be good in this too, but it has a much different, sweeter flavor.

Now that I've finally found a C. pepo variety that can survive in my garden despite the borers, I'm already wondering if I can do some breeding experiments with it. Maybe I could transfer it's borer-resistance to other squash varieties. I've never actually tried something like that before, but that's what I get for reading Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. I wonder what a cross between Tatume and a yellow crookneck would be like, or maybe a patty-pan..

Oh well, Tatume is a very good squash variety in its own right. I'll probably be growing it year after year, since all other summer squash I grow get completely eaten up by borers.

This is a great example of the advantage of heirloom varieties. If you have trouble growing the standard varieties of a crop, maybe you just need to track down a local heirloom that's adapted to your area. This is also why it's so important to preserve heirlooms, because you want to make sure that local heirloom still exists.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Starting Fermented Hot Sauce

Last year I tried to make Lemon Drop Hot Sauce by simply pureeing together Lemon Drop peppers, vinegar, and some spices. Now I wish that post wasn't getting as many hits as it is, because the sauce really didn't turn out well. The vinegar was totally overwhelming, so it only tasted like vinegar with a capsaicin burn. I actually ended up throwing it out.

This year I decided to try something different. I'm actually fermenting my Lemon Drop peppers, which is how the pros make hot sauce. When you ferment vegetables, Lactobacillus bacteria release lactic acid, which is milder in taste than vinegar (acetic acid). Hopefully this will allow me to make a hot sauce that is sour and hot, but the fruity and sweet notes of the peppers will also be able to come through.

I've got a few books on fermentation on my Amazon Wish List, but I didn't want to wait to get started, so I did a bit of Googling to find instructions. One of the first hits I got was this Joy of Cooking site, so I started with these instructions.

I got so many Lemon Drops last year that I still had a bag of them in the freezer. I decided to use some of those in addition to some that I'm harvesting now from those same plants which survived last winter (I guess peppers are perennial in my climate now). I doubt the freezing would hurt things. If anything, it might make the process easier since the cell walls are damaged, and that might make it easier for the bacteria to munch on them.

I let the frozen peppers thaw, and then whizzed them up in the food processor, since that was easier than chopping them by hand. If you do this, just be sure not to stick your face over the top when you open the lid! I mixed in 2% sea salt by weight of the peppers like the instructions said. The only sea salt I have is pretty coarse, but that shouldn't matter if you do it by weight.

The instructions say to pour in Riesling wine until the peppers are submerged. I only had Chardonnay, so I used that. Chardonnay is oaked and Riesling isn't, but maybe that will make my sauce taste like it was aged in oak barrels like some commercial hot sauces are. (But it probably just won't make a difference).

The instructions don't specifically say why they use wine. Most other instructions say to use water, but wine probably adds sugars which help feed the bacteria. I thought it might taste nice with the fruity flavor of the Lemon Drop peppers. Once it was all mixed up, it did smell really sweet and fruity. I started this batch on October 16, covered it with some folded up cheesecloth held down with a canning ring, and let it sit on the counter.

Then I started doing some more searching online. I soon found out there are tons of instructions out there for fermented hot sauce, and they're all different! Argh! Most use water and not wine, but some add sugar to the water. Salt amounts range from 2-10%. Some folks use airlocks like you do to homebrew wine. Others use crocks like you use for sauerkraut. There appears to be no right way to do it.

That's a lot different than canning foods, where you're supposed to follow exact formulas tested by the USDA. Then again, with canning you're trying to keep all bacteria out. With fermenting, you're trying to colonize your food with good bacteria, and they protect your food from bad bacteria. Once you get the good bacteria going, they do most of the work for you.

A couple of weeks went by and I started getting worried. Some sites said I should see bubbles in only a few days, but there was nothing. I had to scrape off a tiny bit of white mold once, but that was it. Mostly it seemed like absolutely nothing was happening.

I started to wonder if the alcohol in the wine was preserving it. Maybe things would pick up once the alcohol evaporated.

On November 2, I had a big bowl of freshly harvested peppers again. Things seemed to have settled in the jar a lot, so I thinly sliced those peppers and added them to the jar. I topped it off with more wine, and added another teaspoon of salt. I didn't weigh the salt this time, because I was lazy and realized this wasn't exact anyway.

I kind of forgot about the jar for a few days.

Then about three days ago I noticed this...

Bubbles! I thought maybe it was air that was caught in the peppers from the last time I stirred it, so I banged the jar a bit to release the bubbles, but the next day there were more bubbles. That confirmed that these were bacteria farts bubbles being made by the bacteria fermenting my peppers!

The pepper mash had also been changing in smell. At first it smelled fresh and fruity, from the mixture of the fresh Lemon Drop peppers and wine, but pretty soon it started to smell more... well, fermented. Still sweet and fruity, but with a musty or yeasty undertone. By the time the bubbles started really going, it was smelling more sour and pickle-like.

By this time the plants in my garden were really cranking out more fruit, since we've been getting so much rain lately. So yesterday I decided to start another jar!

This time I added a tablespoon of sea salt to the chopped peppers, and let them soak overnight before adding the wine. Then I've been adding more peppers and more wine as I harvest more peppers from the garden. I'll keep doing that until the second jar is full, which won't be much longer at the rate I'm harvesting peppers. I also tried to speed up the fermentation this time by skimming off a few spoonfuls of brine from the first jar and adding it to the second jar. That should inoculate it with the bacteria that's working on the first jar, so the second jar doesn't have to wait as long to be colonized.

The next thing I'll need to figure out is how long to wait until the first jar is done fermenting. Again, instructions range from 6 weeks to a year! I have a food mill now, so I plan on blending it up in the blender first, then running it through the food mill to get it smooth. Most instructions say to add vinegar, but I'm going to be careful with that so the vinegar doesn't overwhelm the flavor of the sauce. Again, the whole point of doing all this is because I want a hot sauce that mostly tastes like peppers, not vinegar.

Maybe the first batch will be ready in time to give as holiday gifts. Too bad everyone else in my family are wimps who don't like spicy food.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Butterfly Moon

We've had a few cold fronts now that brought us a lot of rain and some nice autumn temperatures. Highs have been mostly in the 70's and lows in the 50's. The butterflies, bats, and birds are migrating, and in about a month we should have our first frost.

Here are the mini-tubers I grew from true potato seed. The ones that didn't rot the first time I tried to plant them had been waiting in the fridge all summer. I planted them in a window box, and they're sprouting very nicely. I'm going to keep piling soil on them until they get all the way to the top of the container. I hope this time they grow more tubers, maybe enough to plant some in the ground later on. I'll also take this container inside when we get a freeze so they can keep growing all winter.

The first thing I planted in my new raised beds is the garlic. I have Red Toch, Lorz Italian, S&H Silverskin, and Elephant planted. The silverskins are already started to poke out of the ground.

With all the rain, the peppers and eggplants are making a second crop. Here are the Fenguyan Purple eggplants making more very long skinny fruits.

The Lemon Drop peppers are also doing very well behind their protective cage, and so are the other second-year peppers in the front garden.

That one Waltham Butternut squash is still growing, so maybe I'll get ONE butternut squash this year.

Even the Rattlesnake pole beans are trying to make a fall crop, though the deer are still eating all their leaves off periodically. I'll protect them much better next year.

I'm also letting my Thai basil flower and produce seeds. They're very pretty with their purple flowers.

In the back, the Tall Telephone peas are starting to climb their trellis. Along the sides I planted other fall crops like kale, chard, and lettuce, but they keep getting eaten by caterpillars before they have a chance to grow much.

I've harvested one fall Tatume squash so far but haven't eaten it yet. The vines look good but still are mostly making male flowers.

The Bishop's Hat peppers are doing much better too. They didn't really do much over the summer. I still haven't harvested a single ripe pepper. But since the fall rains they suddenly started growing a lot of fruits, and they're doing especially well now that we found and removed that tomato hornworm that was eating them up. I might actually get a nice crop of them before it freezes.

The lima beans are also making some more pods, but I still think they must need bean inoculant. All summer they just grew lush vines but hardly any bean pods. That's not how lima beans are supposed to act, or so I'm told. Next year I'm inoculating all my beans.

The okra is also making a fall crop. I know this one is Texas Hill Country Red, but I'm not sure what the other ones are. I also planted Beck's Gardenville and Eagle Pass (all purchased from Native Seeds/SEARCH), but I lost track of which was which.

The fava beans are also doing well with all the rain. I put some bean inoculant on them, but forgot to on the peas.
The sweet potatoes are also looking great, or at least the Carolina Nugget, Dianne, and Molokai Purple ones are. White Triumph still looks awful. I guess that one is a dud.

Finally, I found this really cool Green Darner dragonfly under the leaves of a mulberry tree in my yard. It was cold out when I took these pictures, so I think he was still sleeping. This is probably where he roosted overnight, and he'll fly away once the sun hits him and warms him up.