Archive for June, 2011

I am a person who likes to live above her station in food. I admit it. Whenever I read of some good-but-expensive new thing from a fancy-pants place like New York or, worse, France, my pulse quickens a little. I want to try that! How could I go to my grave never having tasted sea urchin, or lardo, or that expensive Spanish ham made from pigs who graze all day in acorn groves?

So it is that I have embarked on a quest to make nocino–that Italian sweet brown liqueur made from green walnuts. Yes. Those pesky round things that stain up your driveway, if you have a black walnut tree. Michael Pollen made a teasing reference to it in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’ve been entranced by the idea ever since I first heard of it a couple of years ago.

I just want to try it, is all. Maybe I won’t like it. But alas, a 750 ml bottle of nocino at one of the few places that sell it, goes for $60-$70.  And I think financial experts would agree that we are not in the correct income group to buy one “just to try.” Not even if Mike were to wear yachting clothes and start calling me “Lovey.”

So I let the idea go. Until Tuesday, when I noticed how many baby walnuts the wind had blown down from the tree that’s on the back edge of our yard.

As it turns out, right now is prime time for making nocino (or if you prefer the French version, vin de noix) because the young walnuts have not yet formed shells and can still be cut in quarters.

I looked online for recipes and found several vastly conflicting ones, (including this one and this one) so I did as I always do–combined the most sensible and delicious sounding elements of all.

Inside an immature walnut

First, I would need 30-40 young walnuts. I only had about 17. So off I went to find the other black walnut trees in the neighborhood and easily collected some prime undamaged ones from the curbside and public spaces. (Want to score big points with your teenage daughter? Put on your worst clothes and walk around her friends’ houses with a plastic bag. Congratulations! You have become the “walnut lady.”)

Next step: Soak them overnight to get rid of any worms.

Next day: Cut them into quarters and put in a clean glass jar. Unless you want to be mistaken for a 40-pack-a-day smoker, latex gloves are a must. And old clothes. I think it was Medieval people who worked with walnuts who invented the word “stain.” I even flipped my cutting board upside down.

Then I added 3 cloves, 1 stick cinnamon, peel of 1 orange, 1 vanilla bean and

Nocino in progress

about 1.25 liters vodka. The whole thing will soak for about 2 months, then will be strained and added to 3 cups sugar and a quarter liter cheap sparkling wine. Then, the online people say, it will have to sit for several more months until it stops tasting like lighter fluid.

I’ll check back in when that happens.With any kind of luck,  we’ll have some sweet nocino to sip in our basement as the world is economy is collapsing around us.

Garden updates: Right now is a great time in the garden. We’re getting zucchini, green beans, potatoes, chard and peas, which are about done. Cucumbers are less than a week away and tomatoes are still green balls of promise for mid-July. That broccoli is–finally!–showing signs of flower buds.

This week’s chores included tieing up some of the cauliflower that is beginning to form heads, putting a little pyrethrin dust on the eggplant and cucumbers, which have a little bug damage. Mike has also done some preventative milk spraying on the plants that seem prone to powdery mildew.

And of course we’re always mulching. No end to that in sight.

Posted by: Roxie


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The calendar says it’s officially summer, the early season garden is drawing to a close. It’s time for  a little assessment and maybe ta prediction or two about garden 2011.

The spring has been filled with freakish ups and downs in the weather. Long sodden cold at planting time, followed by unusual heat and dryness followed by, as I’m writing, a cool snap and a run of rain. Is this weather typical? No. But it is normal. In that it’s normal for Kansas City weather to be atypical.

Looking back on the early spring crops, I have the general feeling of disappointment, even though if you count them up, we had more successes than failures. We had the best peas ever, we rocked the Swiss chard once again, lettuce did okay, spinach was the best in years and we’re now getting the first potatoes and beets.

Most of the failure came from the non-annual part of the garden. Unfortunately, it is some of these foods that we care most deeply about. The strawberries, cherries, currants. Most of the asparagus still looks good, but that one stalk that died makes me nervous . I see no runners on the strawberries–even the new plants I just put in. Maybe it’s time to move them to a new location after all.

So let’s look ahead. There are baby tomatoes and zucchini, the onions look great and it appears we are just a few days away from some fresh green beans. Cucumbers are trellised up and starting to bloom. (Fun fact: The first blooms are mostly male. No cucumbers will start to grow until the female blooms come out later.)

But what’s this? Why are there no budding heads yet on my otherwise-healthy looking broccoli?

Usually by this time, there are plenty of buds and the broccoli is ready to start cutting in a week or so. In fact, a guy at Powell Gardens told us recently that their broccoli is all finished!

But when I look deep into the center of my plants I see…nothing. Not a hint of a flower.

Nothing so far


Let’s see…Full sun? Check. Good spacing? Yes, the same as always. Adequate water? Hey, it’s rained every night for a week.

I don’t know quite what to make of this, but for now I’m going to blame it on the new variety I decided to try: Coronado Crown Hybrid. I have not been able to find a broccoli that consistently performs that I can find in the catalogs each year. Last year I was frustrated by the fact that the broccoli seemed to turn yellow the second it was picked, leaving me no “float” time from picking to freezing.

The description of Coronado appealed to me. It is supposed to have great sideshoot crowns and keep going all summer. And it is supposed to hold well after picking.

That will be perfect. If we ever get any heads in the first place. The description also says 59 days from the time you put out the plants. Well, it’s been about that. But maybe the weird weather caused it to slow down. Let’s hope.

Posted by: Roxie

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Now that summer is here and the weather has been fairly reasonable, gardens are really beginning to produce. Whether you have your own patch or subscribe to a CSA service that gives you a bag of whatever’s fresh each week, it’s time to figure out what to do with some of that stuff.

From here through the end of the season, we’ll try to post a few ideas about meals that come mostly from things growing in our garden right now. First up is a creation I made last night. It’s a take on my grandmother’s favorite early garden dish–peas and new potatoes. She usually made it plain with a little butter and maybe some dill. I decided to add some purslane we let grow in the patch where the snow peas had finished. I also added a little pancetta, which is Italian bacon, but it would be fine without it too.


Newer Peas and Potatoes

3 small to medium garden potatoes, scrubbed–a little less than 1 lb.

5 thin slices pancetta

1 1/2 cups fresh peas, shelled

a good handful of fresh dill, cut up a bit

about 1 cup purslane leaves (this is a weed that pops up in our garden. I used only the leaves for this dish)


1 tablespoon butter and some white wine for deglazing

crumbled feta cheese to taste

Cover the potatoes with water and boil until a fork slides in easily. Remove, let cool and then cut into bite-sized pieces. In the same water, dump the peas and simmer until tender but not mushy, less than 15 minutes.

Pan-fry the pancetta (a non-stick skillet works well) until crispy. Drain on paper towels and set aside, but keep the pan out.

Reheat the pancetta pan, if needed, then drop in the butter. When it’s melted, pour in a medium glug of wine–about a 1/4 cup or so–and bring to a boil, stirring up the bits from the bottom just until it is very slightly reduced from its full amount. Remove from heat and stir in the dill. (Confession: After I cooked the pancetta, I ran my finger around the cooled pan to taste the salty grease. Yours will be better if you don’t do this.)

Now put the cooked and cut potatoes, peas, purslane and crumbled pancetta into the serving bowl and add as feta to taste. Scrape the pan juices and reduced wine with dill over and toss to coat.

3 large servings or 4 small ones.

We finished out this meal with some leftover salad which included the last of my red leaf lettuce (which had miraculously survived the heat wave) and some spinach I had forgotten in a green bag but which was still good.

Posted by: Roxie

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Tonight’s entree at Mike and Roxie’s  dinner table —  pasta with chicken, Swiss chard and cherry tomatoes. And since the tomatoes aren’t ready yet, we’ll let the chard be the star without them

Cooks who depend on their garden make those sort of  adaptation. After all, why wait for the tomatoes when the chard is now luscious green, red and ready. Off we go.

Sorry if that makes some of you envious because you didn’t start a garden this year. But fear not. it’s not too late.

Indeed, that was one of the questions Rox and I got last weekend during our book-signing/garden tour at Powell Gardens: “Is it too late to start a veggie garden?”

It is mid June. Some of  us put our first crops in around St. Patrick’s Day. Yet there are still opportunities. It’s simply a matter of  recognizing that you’ll have to forgo early season crops like  peas and potatoes. Likewise,  we’re past the optimal time to start cucumbers and melons — though I planted watermelons almost this late last year and got a decent harvest, though some of the late fruit had an unsatisfactory wang to it.

Beans are  kind of iffy. Chard? Sorry to say, but we’ll b e thinking about you tonight at dinner.

But no, it’s not too late to take a stab at planting peppers, tomatoes, eggplant  and squash. Some quick maturity varieties of sweet corn will still work, though don’t get your hopes.

Better to start late this year than wait until next spring and make the same mistake you made this year. Get your feet wet now, and maybe you’ll be prepared to get after a full garden season next year.

In addition to getting a few things in the ground now, you can start preparing for that elusive fall garden. It’s elusive to the of us in the vegetable paradise anyway. We’ve never been good at producing that second, fall  crop of the veggies we planted in the spring: lettuce, spinach, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, endive, kale, lettuce, potatoes, radishes, spinach, turnips, beans and…get the idea?

Here in Kansas/Missouri, we have three garden seasons: Spring, summer and the Son of Spring, aka fall.

According to the planting calendar on page 51 of our book, all those crops and a few more can be planted in July and August for the fall garden.

It’s like spring all over again, except it’s not. High and late summer  tends to bed   hot and dry in the Kansas City area. Some years it’s like the Sahara.

Yet that’s when one plants the fall garden, which makes it a challenge.  Young plants need lots of water and protection from the scalding sun.

That means a lot or work for the fall gardener, but it can be done.

So as  an experiment, I’ll give some of those fall crops a try this year.

Or so I tell myself right now. Come August and the garden is burning up, I just might change my mind.

Posted by: Mike

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Since the bad news about salad sprout contamination last week, I haven’t been able to get my mind off them. Thousands sickened with kidney problems, more than 30 killed. A virulent new strain of E coli blamed.

It’s been a tragic turn of events for everyone concerned. Yet at the back of my mind, I find myself thinking:  “I haven’t had sprouts in a long time. They were so good. Wish I had some now.”

Alas, we probably won’t be picking up any of the tiny, tender radish or alfalfa sprouts any time soon. Many stores are discontinuing them, because of the ongoing concern over E coli.

One of the really nice things about growing your own food is you can avoid a lot of contamination issues that happen in factory farms, where runoff from one field can get into another. Unfortunately the sprout issue problem can’t be solved as easily as popping your own seeds into a jar on the windowsill.

That’s because in a lot of cases, the seeds already carry the contamination before you do a thing to them. If your seeds have bacteria already, all the rinsing in the world is not going to help you.

So what to do? I still like sprouts on my summer salads and sandwiches. Do I really have to cook them into a wilted mess as the FDA recommends?

I did some checking around about this and it turns out that if you still want to grow your own sprouts, you can take steps to protect yourself. This publication from the University of California lays out a depressingly long series of precautions. I’ll try to summarize a bit.

1.Buy only certified pathogen-free seed. This sounds like very wise advice. I’ve seen all kinds of certified organic seeds, but “pathogen free” seems new. However I was able to find one site online that advertises them. There may be more.

2.Fill a pan with water and enough hydrogen peroxide to make a 3 percent solution. (I’d do this with the metric side of my measuring cup.) Heat to 140 degrees F. Put your seeds in a small mesh strainer and immerse, keeping track of the temperature with a thermometer and swirling every minute or so. Do this for 5 minutes.

3.Take your strainer over to the faucet and rinse under running cold water for 1 minute. Then put the rinsed seeds into another container and cover with water by one inch. Skim off and dispose of any floating debris.

From there, sprout as normal, in containers that have been sanitized with non-scented bleach (follow the directions on the bleach container.)

Gone through all that and need to know how to sprout? Here’s a video by a perky Australian-sounding couple.

People with weakened immune systems, the elderly and children are still advised not to eat raw sprouts.

There’s been a lot of spinning about the fact that food most emblematic of the health movement has itself been blamed for these outbreaks. Oh, the irony! But it’s worth noting that E coli itself is known as a bacteria of the gut and is a major component of feces. It didn’t originate with the plants. For an informed look at how modern farming and food distribution practices relate to this type of contamination, check in here.

In the meantime, if you want sprouts, be prepared to do some extra work.

Posted by: Roxie

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First of all, thanks to those who came out to Powell Gardens June 11 for our booksigning/garden tour. We always enjoy meeting fellow gardeners and followers of the blog/readers of the book.

Now onto today’s topic: death by food.

Perhaps you’ve been reading about the latest E coli scourge in Europe, where an outbreak of the food borne pathogen since early May has killed 31 people. Some 3,000 got sick, of which 700 are suffering severe kidney complications that could plague them the rest of their lives.

The culprit this time was not hamburger but one of the supposedly healthiest foods on the menu, bean sprouts. The New York Times had a great rundown on why sprouts are so prone to contamination in its June 11 edition. Read it here.

Much of it has to do with how seeds are propagated, which Roxie thought would be a good topic for a blog post. Because I don’t feel qualified to address it, look for her post on that topic soon.

However, the general topic interests me, as I am very much in favor of avoiding  things that might kill me or members of my family while gardening. Which brings us to something I know just enough about to be dangerous.


Fecal contamination of meat is the main way that one of the most deadlier pathogens out there, E coli 0157.   is transmitted. E coli is a lesser known  danger for the home gardener who goes the organic route. After all, what’s more organic than using natural fertilizer like manure.

That’s what Roxie and I use. Horse manure, as well as the contents of our compost pile: garden waste, egg shells, kitchen scraps of the non-meat variety, leaves and grass clippings.

Busy making fertilizer

Our compost poses no risk, cooking as it does for a year or more behind the barn. Also because we avoid throwing in meat, which can attract varmints, and dog poop, which can spread disease.

Lots of gardeners prefer manure over chemical fertilizer. But it can pose a safety hazard if you fail to  follow some important safety tips.

No. 1, never apply anything but composted manure on your garden.

According to the Colorado State Extension Service (sorry, Kansas and Missouri, but Colorado’s site popped up first on the google):

Even aged manure can have E. coli present. Composting manure properly will kill most E. coli. In order for a manure pile to be composted properly, the following requirements must be met:

  • Mix the compost regularly. This is important not only for aeration but also to ensure that the entire pile has reached the required temperature.
  • Monitor the temperature. Long-handled thermometers are available for this purpose. The temperature must reach 130 to 140 degrees F for at least two five-day heating cycles. Mix the compost between cycles.
  • After composting, allow the compost to cure for two to four months before applying it to your Garden soil. This allows the beneficial bacteria to kill disease-causing bacteria.

Problem is, most of us don’t have livestock grazing and depositing what-have-you outside the kitchen window. We get our manure one of three ways: from the store (probably the safest way to go), from a friend who raises livestock or cares for horses,  or we buy it from someone who has an ad on Craig’s List or in the paper.

We’ve gone all three routes at one time or another.

A good rule of thumb is this: if the composted manure you buy or get for free looks like dirt, it’s probably ok. However, if it looks like, well, you know, then it’s probably best to find another source until its cooked properly.

No matter what kind of natural fertilizer you put on the garden, and natural is what manure is, apply it in the fall, after all your crops are harvested. And then incorporate it into the soil, rather than leave it lying on top.

Never apply manure during the growing season because of the risk of contamination.

Whether you use manure or not, always thoroughly wash the veggies you pick or dig up. It minimizes the risk of  contamination from the fertilizer  you’ve applied. But also, you know those varmints that get in your garden, such as rabbits and squirrels? They have poor bathroom habits and tend to go whenever and wherever they want to go.

Like on your lettuce, tomatoes and beans.

Another source of contamination is you. After applying manure in the fall, be careful about tracking it back into the house on your shoes. This is something I have not been careful about in the past, but plan to clean up my act in the future.

Likewise, don’t harvest food using the same containers and tools you use to spread manure — that wheel barrow, for instance — without washing them thoroughly.

For more on the topic from some experts,  look here and here.

Posted by: Mike

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It seems there have been more than the usual number of failures and disappointments for this early in the garden season. Sweet potato slips that did not survive transplanting. A cherry tree that was so fertile last year with barely anything to show this year. Cherry wine? Pfft. We’ll be lucky to get enough for one pie this year. Strawberries doing nothing at all. Is it the heat?

And now my cherished red currant bush looking sicklier all the time.

This is just about the first thing we planted when we moved into this house in 1998. Year after year, it’s been faithfully producing bags of tiny red berries that become jelly or go into the freezer for other uses.

But now look:

That’s Mike, removing some of the many dead branches. The shrub is down to about a third of its size.

It started looking unwell late last season, maybe August or September. Leaves would turn yellow, then the branch would just die. The best I’ve been able to come up with in my on-line searches is anthracnose, but it’s not such a good match. There are no little brown spots, and anthracnose is a disease I associate more with the eastern US. Still, the yellow does seem like a fungus of some kind.

My sources say anthracnose is set off by wet weather during flowering and poorly drained soil, as well as infected leaves that are not cleared away. We don’t have the leaf fall at the base of the plant, but the last couple of springs have been awfully wet. And the drainage has been worse ever since the city came through and put curbs and gutters in a couple of years ago. (They would have liked us to cut down all the mature shade trees on the west side of the house. Don’t get me started!)

So we’re going to start regular lime sulphur sprays to combat fungus. If it gets worse, I guess we’ll graduate to copper sulphate, which we used on the cherry last year for leaf spot with some success.

Despite the heat, lack of water and random plant disease, there are some bright spots. The asparagus we replanted seems to be doing well. Wait…I see one dead frond. Is it the crown rot returning?

The best garden news, though, looks to be the peas. This year I couldn’t find my usual Maestro variety (or maybe I could, but just didn’t want to pay $3 or $4 shipping for one order from the one place I found it.) In any case, I ordered my first new variety in years–Mr. Big–and wow! Right now we have three lovely rows of very robust looking plants just about ready to pick. The pods are straight and LONG, which is very good news when it comes to shelling.

We weren’t sure how tall they would grow, so we put up a little trellis. They’re not as tall as Sugar Snap (and they’re not edible podded, either) but the trellis always helps keep the pods from getting all moldy and slippery when the plant falls over in the rain.

Strawberries–I planted a bunch of new ones and last year, Mike put in a lot of fresh soil. But they just don’t seem to be taking off. They’re right next to the asparagus, which also seems to have a mysterious ailment. So maybe there’s something going on in the soil there.

Mike and I were both jealous of the everbearing strawberries we saw at Powell Gardens. (Ours are June-bearing).

And speaking of Powell Gardens, we’ll be out there on Saturday at 10 am to meet people and do a little turn around their spacious new vegetable garden. The forecast calls for a break in the heat, so come on out and see us.

Oh, and one more thing…This week we got a comment about a fun food event.  The Urban Farms & Gardens Tour has a cook-off and a local food dinner coming up. The dinner is cooked from locally-grown foods by Chef Celine Tio. It will be June 19 at the Julian Restaurant in Brookside, with seatings at 5:30, 7 and 8:30. Cost is $40, excluding wine.

The cook-off and picnic will be Friday, June 24, 6-7:30 pm at the Loose Park Pavilion, 51st & Wornall. That one’s free for all picnickers, but $10 if you enter the contest. You can read the entire release under “comments” on our Eat Like Kings page.

Posted by: Roxie

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