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Archive for October, 2010

Sweet bells, garden salsa, jalapenos, habaneros — nothing brightens the fall garden more than those lustrous peppers dangling from sturdy branches of the once-tiny pepper plants we planted in the spring.

And what a bounty this year, hey. Roxie has been hauling in bags full of chiles these last few weeks, which is great on the one hand. It  marks another victory over the food comglomos and the questionable produce they sell to the supermarkets.

But what to do with all of that fruit, other than shove the  lot in freezer bags, perhaps never to be seen again?  Or at least not until you defrost the icebox and wonder why in the heck you bothered growing all those peppers in the first place.

Two things we suggest. With bell peppers,  first remove the seeds, stems and membranes. Wash and let dry.

Then chop them into chunks or slice them into narrow, finger-like pieces, both of which can be incorporated into many a cold-weather meal: creoles, gumbo, stews, chicken Cacciatore, etc. Whole frozen peppers will do, too. It’s just a pain to thaw and chop, or try to chop rock-hard ice peppers when you’re fixing dinner.

Do the chopping ahead of time and you’re more likely to put frozen sweet  peppers to use.

Same routine for jalapenos, though in addition to slicing them up (I usually leave the seeds in hot peppers),  I’ve also been known to chop fresh jalapenos in a food processor. Freeze the mush in bags or ice cube trays.

Habaneros — I froze them whole the one and only time I grew them. This was a couple, three years ago.  One plant provided us enough habaneros to last us a decade, I’d imagine.

More problematic, though, are the slender salsa peppers that come in bunches this time of year. After all, how much salsa can a person make?

Something we’re focusing on this year are hot sauces. We experimented with one type last year, but in 2010 we are  up to three, thanks to a book we’ve had on our shelves since probably the year it was published, 1986. Fancy Pantry by Helen Witty is loaded with great recipes.

The two recipes we’re using for peppers this year  are Green-Fire Pepper Sauce and Dr. Kitchener’s Hot Stuff.

How did I get three sauces out of only two recipes? Simple. I improvised.

Green-Fire Pepper Sauces (bottle on the left in photo) calls for chopping 9 to 12 hot peppers of any shape (minus the stems). Scoop up the pile (with rubber gloves, preferably) and toss the chopped chiles in a jar and fill it with 3 cups of white vinegar. Close the jar with an enamel-lined canning lid (or another lid lined with plastic wrap) and let sit for two weeks or as long as 3 months.

When you’re tired of looking at the mixture, strain the liquid “through a finely meshed sieve, pressing lightly on the debris of the peppers to extract all possible flavor.”

Well, I did exactly what the recipe said, and it produces a nice, thin hot sauce that you can squirt on whatever tickles your taste buds.

But we still had more peppers, so I made another batch. Except  instead of straining the liquid, I dumped vinegar and peppers both into a blender. That produced a thicker, hotter sauce. It was enough to fill that one liter gin  bottle in the center of the photo.

But guess what. I had  more peppers taking up space in the fridge. So I made some Dr. Kitchener’s Hot Stuff. This was a little more expensive proposition, as it required a trip to the liquor store. (Lucky us, more bottles that will eventually be empty and available to store even more hot sauce!)

The recipe: roughly chop one fourth to one third of a pound of chopped hot peppers, throw in blender or food procesor at slow speed and gradually add a half cup of sherry, a half cup of brandy and a half cup of lime juice. Sprinkle in a half teaspoon of salt and a quarter teaspoon of ground cayenne pepper, if you’d like. Though I don’t see why you’d need it, unless you were processing mild peppers.

Then pour the pureed mixture into a jar, cover the top with cheesecloth (I used a rubber band to keep it in place)  and wait two to three weeks. Slosh it around every so often while you’re waiting so as to let the flavors mingle.

Of the three, this one is the one most likely to scald your tonsils.

As you can see,  we still have plenty of peppers left, but we’re pretty sure we have enough hot sauce to last us awhile.

So much, in fact, that if you’re on our Christmas list, don’t be surprised if you find cute little bottles of hot pepper sauce in the CARE  package we send you this December.

And know that every blasted one of them was made with care and  love, dammit.

Posted by: Mike

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Let us get us some lettuce

Sometimes gardening is like being  Elmer Fudd in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. He goes out and inevitably gets  beaten by Bugs (or occasionally Daffy Duck). But never mind. He’s always back again later to be humiliated in all kinds of fresh ways.

I’m gonna get that screwy wabbit.

So it is with me and my personal Holy Grail–the fall garden.

A few weeks ago, I wrote–convincingly, I thought–about my big new plan to get  a fall crop of lettuce. I was going to sprout the seeds indoors. Mike was going to make some kind of low shade structure to keep the soil and the plants from overheating.

And how’s that working out for us?

Above you see the results. We have three of these spindly little plantings, saved only by the fact that the weather this fall has been incredibly mild.

When I first hatched the fall lettuce idea, we still had daily highs in the upper 80s and not much rain. If lettuce had a chance to grow before frost, I thought, it would have to be helped along and shielded from the extreme heat and wind.

I dutifully planted the seeds–a salad mix that had done well last spring–in soil-less mix indoors, and they came up. Then I took them outside to a protected area (I thought) to get used to the outdoors.

That’s when the weather changed. A big rainstorm roared in and the little seedlings got pounded. Apparently this area was not as protected as I’d thought.

It looked like they’d all bit the dust, so I walked away for a few days. But here’s where laziness can pay 0ff. Instead of dumping the pot and putting it away, as my grandmother would have liked, I just left it there. And behold, after about a week, more seedlings had sprouted. They looked sturdier, too.

The hot weather had passed, so there was no more reason to shade the ground and cool the soil. In fact, I worried the overnight temperatures were getting on the cool side. But still, they needed to be in the ground.

I broke them into little clumps and set my sawed-off milk jug covers over them, which we only recently removed.

And there they sit. Still not big enough for a salad. But then, there hasn’t been much chance for frost lately, either.

If only it can just hold off a little longer.

Posted by: Roxie

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It’s been a funny fall. Lots warmer this year than  last and the year before that one.

I shouldn’t complain, I suppose, but it’s put me and, I imagine, a lot of other  Kansas City gardeners off schedule.

Our average first frost date is Oct. 9, or thereabouts. Yet here it is Oct. 17, and the basil leaves remain a brilliant green, the peppers keep perking along, the Swiss chard is on its second life — and there’s nothing about a freeze in the seven-day forecast.

As a result, I have yet to clean up and till our plot of plenty here at the garden paradise.  Certainly, there’s been no talk here Mike and Roxie’s about ordering up a pickup load of manure. Which means  garlic planting was the furthest from my thoughts.

Roxie, however, didn’t forget. She reminded me the other day that I best head to the garden store soon, or there wouldn’t be any seed garlic available by the time I got around to putting  a crop in this fall for harvest next summer. (Many local gardeners wait until spring, of course, to plant. We used to, but smart gardeners plant in the fall to produce a sturdy  crop.)

Days passed after that reminder. Maybe more than a week. Two? Then came this  beautiful Sunday. Rox was out for the day and it occurred to me that it would be a perfect time for me to dig into that long-term writing project I’ve been avoiding almost as much as I’ve been avoiding writing posts for this blog.

Yes, I was heading for my basement office when it hit me.

Garlic! By gawd, I really should plant garlic today! What a shame, though. There’d be no time to work on the book project. Not after making a trip to the garden store to buy bulbs, clearing a space in the garden plot to plant those cloves (goodbye cherry tomatoes and a couple of broccoli plants). Plus, there would be  the hoeing, the planting, and then the writing of the blog post to commemorate the occasion and pass on valuable knowledge to our several readers.

Damn! Oh, well. sacrifices must be made for the good of the clan,  members of which depend on me to provide them with garlic for their sustenance, as well as the gardening public.

And so I shelved the book project for yet another week and planted garlic.

Go on line and you’ll find that there’s lots of disagreement on when and how to plant fall garlic. Before the frost or after the frost? One to two inches deep, or four to six inches?

Is it necessary to fertilize, or not? Mulch?

My answer to all that is “yes.”

We’ve planted before and after the frost —  as late as December, whereas this year might be earliest attempt ever. We’ve gone the plant-shallow route, and we’ve taken the deeper route less traveled. We’ve fertilized some years. Other years, no. I can’t say we’ve ever covered our green garlic shoots over with mulch, but this year’s crop might get a nice blanket of leaves on top.

Some of this is situational. Some years I don’t get around to planting until later than is ideal. Mid December was chancy. Some years we have fertilizer, some years we didn’t spend the fifty bucks for manure. Last year we had lots of compost to spread on the garden. Not this year.

The one thing that won’t change,  though,  is I plant deeper now than I did a few years ago. Four to six inches, rather than the one or two that Kansas State University Extension lets you get away with. A deep planting two years ago  produced some beautiful bulbs with lots of big cloves. Then again, this year’s crop had puny cloves, despite being planted 4 inches deep. I blame that on the copious amount of gravel in the northside location I chose to plant in.

This year, I’m rotating back to the west side, where there are fewer rocks and the soil just looks richer. (One of these days I’ll get around to a soil test, but for now I’m eyeballing it and going with trial and error.)

In all, I planted 168 cloves — three rows in full sun of 28 feet each, the rows spaced 12 inches apart, with cloves planted pointy side up every six inches. The only variety available at Family Tree Nursery  was California softneck, which is described on the package as jumbo sized. As any cook knows, jumbo is the only size you want to fool with, because peeling lots of tiny cloves is a pain.

We could have bought garlic from the supermarket, where it’s cheaper.  The downside is that you never know whether the  variety they have is conducive to our climate, even if it is cheaper.

Still, had the garden store been out, it would have had to do. Seed garlic is  available from on-line garden supply houses, but Roxie reports that many of them are out of their supply by the time that people like me get around to thinking about needing garlic to plant.

Someday, I promise, I’ll be a better person.

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While we’ve had some ups and downs with other garden crops this year, I’m happy to say the pumpkins have been an unqualified success.

Every year, we plant some kind of pumpkin. In our former garden, which was huge, we’d get a dozen or so jack-o-lanterns for the front porch. That was years ago, though. Since moving to this house, we’ve been plagued by bugs.

We still get the pumpkins–and plenty of them. But we’ve found that if we leave them on the vine, something eats through the skin where they touch the ground.

It’s not squash bugs. We’ve only had one year that they were bad (and boy, were they ever bad that year!) It’s hard to pin down, but the only bugs I’ve noticed on the undersides have been those little harmless-seeming roly-polies.

This year, though–success!

Here is one of the Big Moon variety I planted this year. This is the type of pumpkin that will grow into a record-breaker, if you coddle it. As you see, the skin is a lot tougher than the usual jack-o-lantern pumpkin.

Here’s an immature one:


These pumpkins start off yellow and very soft looking, with skin almost like zucchinis. I watched helplessly as one after another was chewed up as soon as it set on. But somewhere around late July, the first one slipped through the varmints’ grasp and grew big. Then we had another, then another. Now the count stands at four fully-mature ones, which we’ll bring up to the porch in a couple of days. We also have a couple of younger ones that aren’t quite as orange yet. We’ll see how they look in a couple of weeks.

No sign of insect damage. The first one got slightly chewed during the possum invasion, but has healed its scar so no harm done.

Mike did plant a few of the normal grocery-store type of jack-o-lantern pumpkin at the school community garden plot, and gave away the biggest ones to the art teacher for decorations. We have a couple of the runts from that batch. What happened to them, anyway?

Oh, yeah.

Posted by: Roxie

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The “F” Word

I heard the “F” word on television news this morning, as I was fighting to sneak in a couple minutes’ dozing before the day began.
It woke me right up.
Yes. The “F” word.
Frost.
We’ve been watching the overnight lows, of course. But the lowest low I’ve seen predicted is still 39, coming up in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning.
Apparently, though, this 39 degrees is the Kansas City heat island temperature. Outlying areas might get “scattered frost,” especially those areas above Highway 36.
I had to look up where exactly Highway 36 is.
Oh, phew. It’s up there between St. Joseph and Hannibal.
So the frost possibility doesn’t really apply to us. Still, just hearing the word out of the mouth of a local weather forecaster is a game changer if you have a garden.
We’ve had such a long spell of warm fall weather, it hasn’t seemed much like fall at all. We’ve been lulled. Duped.
Here’s how much garden is still out there:

Looks just like summer, right? I can’t think of a year when we’ve had more greenery this late.

That adds up to a lot of chores to get done quickly once frost is actually in the forecast.  How many chores? Let’s make a list:

Sweet potatoes to dig.

Green peppers and tomatoes to pick. (The tomatoes will ripen on our basement table.)

Rosemary, lemon grass, thyme and marjoram to be potted and brought in for the winter.

Basil to be picked for drying or maybe stashed in bucket of water so I can furiously pick the leaves and make the pesto I never got to this summer.

Anything else we want to keep would need to be picked as well. Only the pumpkins and winter squash, and perhaps the broccoli could be left out in a light frost.

Obviously, we can’t get that all done in the few hours you typically have before a frost warning. So this weekend, we’re pacing ourselves.  The sweet potatoes–which are the biggest, most time-consuming job–will be dug. The herbs can get potted, then wait outside until time to come in. Everything else can wait until the last minute. I’ve seen some years we didn’t get frost until mid-November. Surely some of it will ripen by then.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll even get some of that pesto made, like I keep promising.

Posted by: Roxie

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