Sunday, November 30, 2008

Putting the Asparagus to Bed

The middle of winter typically isn't the time to think about asparagus.  At least we shouldn't think about eating it right now, since spring is the time to get delicious, fresh, local asparagus.   And since you really can't get any more local than your own garden, why not start your own bed of asparagus this spring?   The reason I'm thinking about it now is because there's one last thing I need to do in the garden this season, and that's to put the asparagus to bed.

Asparagus is different from most of the vegetable crops that we grow:  it's a perennial, meaning that it comes back every year, unlike tomatoes or zucchini that are annual crops and have to be planted each year.  In the late fall the above-ground plant dies off, but the root crowns under-ground stay alive through the winter cold. Once the soil warms up sufficiently in the spring the asparagus sends up the familiar shoots that we eat.  Once you have an established asparagus bed (three years from planting) you can harvest those shoots for about 6 weeks.  Why stop at 6 weeks?  Well, the shoots will eventually become the leafy part of the asparagus that uses photosynthesis to make the food that ultimately winds up in the root crown underground so that the asparagus can live through the winter and send up more spears in the spring.  So, sadly, there's a point where you have to stop picking the asparagus shoots, and let them grow into the tall, ferny plants that they become.  This is actually a pretty nice cycle, since just at the point where you're tired of having asparagus every day, it's time to stop picking it!  (This is just another example of the joy and magic of seasonal eating!)

So, how do you get started on your very own asparagus bed?  The first (and most essential step) is to prepare the ground where you plan to grow your asparagus.  The key thing is NO WEEDS!! (No kidding!!)  Well, if you want to make your asparagus happy and your gardening life easier, no weeds would be best, or at least no perennial weeds (which include grasses, or the ever-present mugwort!)  Believe it or not, it IS possible to have a pretty weed-free bed if you listen to these two words: RAISED BED!  When we prepared our raised beds we spent A LOT of time digging out roots of perennial weeds like mugwort.  I'm not talking rototilling here, which simply cuts the weed roots into smaller pieces that will all come back with a vengeance as vigorous new plants.  I mean, dig out the roots completely and get rid of them.  Once you do that, and you have the barrier a raised be can provide, your life will be much easier from here on in.  (I'll post again later with more about how to establish raised beds.)  The next key thing is to make sure your soil is in prime shape:  get rid of any heavy clay which is ever-present in this part of the country, dig in some nice compost, add a bit of organic fertilizer for good measure, and some lime since our soils tend to be a bit acid.  This is pretty much how you should prepare garden beds for anything you plant, but since your asparagus will be occupying that bed for hopefully several years to come, you want to start with the best soil you can possibly provide, and this will be your one and only chance to dig in soil amendments without disturbing those valuable root crowns.

So, now that you've prepared a wonderful bed of nice fluffy soil with lots of organic matter (compost), and fertilizer, and gotten rid of those pesky weed roots--what's next?  I'd suggest you order yourself some nice, disease-free asparagus crowns.  I got mine from Johnny's Selected Seeds, and I followed their directions for planting them.  In the early spring plant the crowns in a trench 6-8" deep, 8-14" apart.  Set aside the soil you dig out for your trench:  you'll need it over the next few weeks.  Lay the roots flat and cover with 1-2" of soil.  As the plants grow keep adding more soil, a couple inches at a time, until you have a slight mound.  Make sure you keep the patch weed-free and well-watered.  The first year avoid the temptation to pick ANY of the asparagus shoots.  Your new plants need to get established, so let them grow into nice tall ferns.  In the fall, when the ferns have turned brown, cut them down to the ground.  This will make it much easier to see and harvest the new shoots come spring.  Add some more compost and/or fertilizer in the fall and again in the spring.  The first year after you've planted your asparagus you can harvest a few spears, for perhaps two weeks.  The third year you can harvest for the full six weeks.  When you harvest you should cut all the spears (once they are 6-8" tall.)  If you let some of them fern out before your harvest is finished this will attract asparagus beetles, and they'll start munching on the new spears too. Asparagus grows pretty quickly, so this means pretty much a daily harvest of a few nice spears for your dinner. Asparagus loses much of its wonderful flavor within hours after picking, so having your own bed is really the only way to truly taste what asparagus is meant to taste like.  Those spears in the grocery store are likely to be a few days to a few weeks old by the time you buy them!  So, enjoy your fresh harvest each spring!  And don't leave it to mid-winter to cut back your asparagus plants, or you'll have cold hands like me!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Preserving Your Harvest #2: What the heck do I do with all this Fairy Squash??

Perhaps the subtitle for this post should be "What the heck is a fairy squash, anyway?"  Well, I discovered Fairy Squash a couple of years ago, perusing one of my favorite seed catalogs from the Territorial Seed Company.  Here's their description:  "Fairy's got it all.  It's early, prolific, disease resistant, storable, and delicious.  The rambling plants set fruit early and continue to bloom over the long season, providing ample blossoms for stuffing.  Manageably proportioned, oval fruit weighing 2-2 1/2 pounds have thick, honeyed flesh and smooth, green and goldenstreaked skin.  Use for soups, pies, baked goods, or whole, baked and stuffed as a show-stopping dinner presentation."  I was hooked!  (Not to mention the fact that the name conjured up images of little winged beings cavorting through the garden patch--what fun!)  And I must say, prolific is an understatement!  Last year I planted two butternut squash plants and one fairy squash plant on my squash trellis, and got 3 times more fairy squash from the one plant than I got butternuts from the other two!  And whereas the butternut squash plants were attacked by the ever-present squash bugs, the fairy squash didn't seem to be bothered.  So this year I planted just the fairy squash, and wound up with quite the harvest!

Cucurbita moschata is the Latin name for several varieties of winter sqsuashes that include the Fairy Squash, which is a hybrid variety.  The hybrid designation means that if you plant the seeds from your Fairy Squash, what you'll get the next year is anyone's guess--it's not an heirloom for that reason.  So, roast and eat the seeds--they're tasty nonetheless!  Winter squashes include the more familiar pumpkins, butternut, acorn and other varieties that store well throughout the winter, and hence the name "winter squash".  (Summer squashes are those tender varieties like zucchini and yellow squash that have to be eaten right away.)  You can put your fairy squash in a cool, dark place, and they'll keep for several months.  Just make sure they are clean and not bruised in any way.  (Bruised squash won't keep well, but you can certainly eat them right away.)

So, what do we do with all these lovely Fairy Squash we've grown?  Roast them!  Roasting makes the wonderful, sweet, silky flavor of winter squash really shine.  Wash the outside of the squash well to make sure they're clean.  Put the squash on a sturdy cutting board, and with a 
heavy-duty knife cut off the stem end, and then cut the squash down through the middle.  Scoop out the seeds just like you do with your Halloween pumpkin, and then place the squash halves cut-side down on a baking tray and roast in a 400 °F oven for about 30 minutes or so, until they are soft.  At this point you can turn them right side up, add butter, and a drizzle of maple syrup or honey, or a sprinkle of brown sugar, and roast for a few more minutes, and eat.  Or, you can puree the roasted squash to use in any recipe that you'd use canned pumpkin.  Let the squash halves cool and scoop the flesh into a food processor (discard the skin), and puree.  You can use the puree to make pumpkin butter:  there's a really nice recipe for making pumpkin butter here. Or, use the puree to make pumpkin pie, pumpkin breads, or muffins, according to your favorite recipes.  I think you'll find that your homemade puree tastes better by leaps and bounds than the canned stuff.  And you can freeze the puree in zip lock bags:  just measure out however much you'd use in your favorite recipe and you have your very own home-grown, homemade convenience food!  And you can share all of these wonderful treats with your diminutive winged friends--they really don't eat much!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Preserving Your Harvest #1: Make Your Own Sauerkraut!

Making your own sauerkraut is EASY! All you need is a nice head of cabbage (from your garden, or from the farmers’ markets right now), salt (either kosher or pickling salt, NOT iodized table salt), a large non-metal container like a plastic food-grade tub, or a ceramic crock roughly large enough to hold about twice the amount of cabbage you want to ferment, a clean, never-used plastic garbage bag, a sharp knife, a cutting board, water, and 2-weeks' worth of patience. Optional but useful stuff: a digital scale, canning jars and lids, and a large pot for hot-water canning.

To make sauerkraut you need 3 tablespoons of salt for every 5 pounds of shredded cabbage--this is why the scale comes in handy, but this “formula” is just an approximation. If you don’t have a kitchen scale you can figure out how much your cabbage weighs by getting on your bathroom scale with and without your cabbage! Anyway, here’s what you do:

First, make sure that your container is clean and sterilized. Clean with dish soap and water, then sterilize with a roughly 10% solution of bleach (Clorox) in water (1 part bleach to 9 parts water). Fill your container with this and let it sit for a half hour or so, then rinse thoroughly with cold water.  

Next, take off any loose outer leaves from your cabbage, and cut off any brown bits from the stem end. Cut the cabbage into quarters and cut out the core. You can add the core pieces to your kraut if you like. Shred the cabbage and layer it in your tub or crock, sprinkling in the salt as you go. Pack down the cabbage tightly as you add more layers. This is an optional step, but I find it helps: for 5 lbs of cabbage add about a quart of a weak brine made with 1 ½ tsp salt per cup of water (6 tsp salt per 4 cups water. Your cabbage should make it’s own brine when the salt pulls out its own juices, but I’ve found adding a bit more brine helps the process along.) Your container should be roughly half-full of cabbage at this point (see below for why.)

Now, get out the clean garbage bag and place it on top of your salted cabbage. Carefully fill the garbage bag with cold water almost up to the top of your container, twist and tie it shut. The water-filled bag does two things: 1. It weighs down the salted cabbage, and 2. It prevents air from getting in. See, what you’re doing is actually salt-fermenting the cabbage. What you want to happen is for the good bacteria (lactobacilli) in the cabbage to grow in the salty brine. You want to keep out the air and any harmful bacteria (hence the water-filled bag.) Set your container in a cool place (65-72 ° F or so, like your basement) for two weeks. I find that with my bad memory and short attention span it helps to actually put a piece of tape on the container with the date you started, and put a reminder for yourself 2 weeks from now in whatever daily calendar you use to “check the kraut”.

Two weeks later: Open the bag and carefully dump out enough of the water so that you can remove the bag. The sauerkraut should smell and look like cabbage, but with a slightly fermented hint, and should be fairly crisp still. Sometimes the top layer gets a bit soft. If so, you can scrape this off and discard it. There shouldn’t be any mold if you’ve kept out the air properly. The cabbage in the brine should be fairly crispy with a pleasingly tart, salty, almost nutty taste. (Go ahead and taste it—raw sauerkraut is very good for you—this is a wonderful live food that’s great for the digestion. If you’ve heard of “probiotics” this is one of the cheapest, and easiest ways to put them into your diet.) At this point you can use the sauerkraut in your favorite recipes. Because of the salt I usually rinse the sauerkraut well before using it to cook with. You can either store it in its brine for a couple more weeks in the fridge, or can it in a hot water bath in the brine. (It’s acid enough that hot-water canning is ok for sauerkraut.) To can it place the sauerkraut in its brine in a pot, and bring the temperature up to a simmer, but don’t boil it. Pack the sauerkraut while hot into proper canning jars that you’ve sterilized in boiling water, leaving ½ inch of head room. Add the hot brine (juice) from the sauerkraut to the jars to cover the sauerkraut up to the head room mark. If you don’t have enough brine from the fermented cabbage, just make more brine using 1½ tablespoons of salt per quart of water, heated to boiling. Make sure the tops and sides of the jars are clean and dry using a clean paper towel. Place the lids on the jars, hand-tighten the rings, and process in a simmering hot water bath for 15 minutes for pint jars, 25 minutes for quart jars. (This comes from the book Putting Food By, by Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg, and Beatrice Vaughan, which is an invaluable source for preserving everything from your garden!) Once the sauerkraut cools the lids should seal: remove the outer rings and test by pressing down on them. If they don’t give, they’re sealed. If any don’t seal all is not lost, just store in the fridge, and use within a week or so. The properly canned sauerkraut should be good on your pantry shelf for several months. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Gardening in November??

Why start a gardening blog in November when the leaves and the temperature are dropping? Looking around our community garden today it seems like most people think garden season ends with the last tomato.  Well, I suppose if all you're interested in growing are those warm-weather treats, there is no November gardening, at least not here in Pittsburgh, PA.  I love a delicious home-grown tomato as much as the next gardener, but there are many more home-grown treats that can still be coming from your garden, even in November!  Here are a few pictures of my "Brassica Bed" that I took today:
Romanesco Cauliflower
Savoy Cabbage
The Whole Crew:  Cabbage, Tuscan Kale, Sprouting Broccoli, Romanesco Cauliflower
These plants are all fairly cold hardy, and in fact get a bit sweeter after a few frosts.  I'll be picking the rest of the broccoli sprouts and the cauliflower over the next week or so, but hopefully the kale will keep producing leaves into the colder weather.  

I'm still picking beets, which should be safe in the ground after the first few frosts.  My salsify crop (all 10 plants or so!) will also be fine in the ground for some time to come until I figure out what the heck to do with them!  And hopefully I'll be harvesting leeks on December 25th for Christmas dinner as I have in past years.  

So why not start talking about gardening in November!