Saturday, August 16, 2014

Heirloom Tomatoes

We always try to grow at least one or two heirloom tomato varieties.  The definition of what it means to be an "heirloom" plant is open to debate. But, generally the term, as it relates to plants, means  the variety was being grown before World War II.  Heirloom varieties are also "open-pollinated" which means that, unlike hybrids, the seeds you collect from a plant one year and replant in subsequent years will produce plants with most of the characteristics of the parent plant.  Most heirloom plants have been passed down from generation to generation by saving seeds and replanting them the next year, thus insuring their survival.

In the past, we have grown Mortgage Lifter, Brandywine, Yellow Pear, Box Car Willie and Rutgers tomatoes.  Heirloom tomatoes can be very sensitive to environmental conditions, needing just the right conditions to produce well.  Tom is pretty much the judge as to which ones we keep and replant from year to year.  He has come to like Rutgers quite a bit because they seem to consistently produce well here in Oklahoma.  The others have fallen by the wayside for whatever reason.

This year, in addition to Rutgers, we decided to try Virginia Sweet, Arkansas Traveler and Cherokee Purple.  This picture shows them in order listed above.


We have found the Virginia Sweets to be somewhat temperamental.  They were late to produce, but when they finally did, we got some nice, large tomatoes.  The one pictured above does not do them justice.   In keeping with their name, they were very sweet ..... sweeter than any tomato I have ever eaten.

Arkansas Travelers were bred in Arkansas (our neighboring state) to produce in the hot, humid southern summer and are also crack and disease resistant.  They have consistently produced medium-sized fruit all summer and have the wonderful flavor one expects from an heirloom tomato.  I expect we will add these to our list of "keepers", along with Rutgers.

The Cherokee Purple tomatoes have also produced well for us this year.  Once you get past their odd greenish/purple coloring, you find them to have wonderful tomato flavor,  just like any other heirloom.  To my eyes, they don't look "purple", but ripen to where they are deep red on the bottom and a dark green around the stem.

Finally, when sliced they look like this.


Virginia Sweets (lower left) are yellow with red stripes.  Arkansas Traveler (top) look like any other tomato variety.  And, Cherokee Purple (lower right), have a deep red meat with seed pockets that are greenish black.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Cherry Tomatoes

We are being overwhelmed with cherry tomatoes.  We have so many that Tom has had to take up some room under our carport to house them.  Here's what he has rigged up.



(Note, we are in the process of expanding the pavement in order to have a place for a picnic table.  Thus, the bare dirt that you see.)

We have four different varieties of cherry tomatoes, as you can see below.  The lower left are Large Red Cherry tomatoes.  To their right are Coyote.  Above those are Sweet 100 and in the upper right corner are Black Cherry tomatoes. 



Here is a close-up picture to show a better comparison.


From left to right, the varieties are Black Cherry, Large Red Cherry, Sweet 100 and Coyote.  
This is the first year we have grown the Black Cherry and Coyote tomatoes.  Our original intent was to have several cherry tomatoes of about the same size, but different colors, that we could mix together in boxes to offer our customers at the farmers' market.

Unfortunately, the Coyote tomatoes turned out to be much too small for that.  They are, however, wonderfully sweet and delicious!  

In regard to the difference in size, there are three different types of "cherry" tomatoes.....regular cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and currant tomatoes.  The seed catalogs disagree on which varieties fall in to which category.  Generally, grape tomatoes are smaller than cherry tomatoes and currant tomatoes are smaller than grape tomatoes.  

I would categorize the Black Cherry and Large Red Cherry as true cherry tomatoes, while the Sweet 100 is a grape tomato, and the Coyote is a currant tomato.  However, the seed catalog that we ordered from called the Coyote a cherry tomato!  Go figure!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Homemade Spaghetti Sauce

For weeks we have been eyeing all the green tomatoes out in the garden and wondering when they were going to ripen.  Our customers at our farmers' market have been asking the same question.  It appears we are all starved for locally grown, vine-ripened tomatoes to replace the bland-tasting ones from the grocery store.  

Well, I'm happy to announce that the time has come and they are getting ripe faster than we can eat or sell them.  So, my thoughts have already turned to how I can use/preserve the abundance.   Last year, I wrote a blog entry about how I froze the excess tomatoes we had.



Up until this year, I was in the workforce and rarely cooked anything that took much effort.  I was always tired when I got home and used jarred sauces when making spaghetti or pizza.  Today, however, when looking at all the ripe tomatoes laying on my kitchen counter, I decided I could surely make my own sauces!  How hard could it be?

Spaghetti sauce was my first candidate to try.  A friend had given me a good recipe a couple of months ago and I searched the internet for others.  As is my usual habit, I took what I liked from each.  The recipe I'm going to share here is a amalgamation of several recipes. 

Ingredients:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (I used Aleppo)
3 cups fresh tomatoes that have been run through the food processor
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
Salt and Pepper to taste.

Directions:
Heat the oil in a dutch oven or other heavy pan.  Saute the onion in the oil until opaque.  Add the garlic and cook about 30 seconds.   Add the oregano, basil, pepper flakes and tomatoes.  Turn heat to medium and cook until some of the juice has evaporated.  Turn heat to low and continue cooking until desired consistency.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Add sugar, if desired, and cook a couple more minutes.

Here's a picture of my homemade spaghetti sauce.



It was so easy and turned out so tasty.  I am surprised at how much better I like it than the jarred kinds I have always used in the past!  Also, all the ingredients in this recipe were grown in our garden (except olive oil, sugar, salt and pepper, of course).

I will be using this sauce tomorrow for dinner.   However, my plan is to use a lot of our fresh tomatoes in this recipe, then freeze the sauce in pint-sized units so we can enjoy it all winter.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Preserving Garden Goodness - Cream Corn

Corn season is in full swing and we harvested our first bunch of corn last week.  Last year I froze all the corn we did not eat as corn-on-the-cob and we were able to enjoy it all winter and into the spring.  I wrote about how I froze the corn last year in this blog entry:



It was so good that I surely wanted to freeze some more corn-on-the-cob this year as well.  However, I ran across a tool in the basement that I remember my mother using when I was a kid to make "cream" corn.  Here's a picture of it.



You place this over a large bowl with the corn cob on the right side and slide it over the metal plate in the middle which cuts off the tops of the kernels and scrapes the "cream" from the cob.  Here's a close-up of the metal plate.



I placed a bowl on the seat of a chair, set the device over the bowl and sat on another chair facing it.  This allowed me to use the weight of my upper body to help put pressure on the corn cob.



You have to apply a lot of downward pressure to get all the kernels and cream scraped off.  So, my arm got a good workout!  It also makes quite a mess.



At this point, it was ready to freeze.  Most vegetables should be "blanched" before freezing to stop enzyme action that causes them to deteriorate while frozen.   All the web sites I read said to blanch the corn while it was still on the cob and then scrape it.  But, I remember my mother scraping the corn first and then heating it on the top of the stove in a large pot before freezing it.  So, I assume she was blanching at that point.

Anyway, I put it in a large pot and set it on the stove to heat.



As it heated, it began to thicken and I had to stir it almost constantly to keep it from sticking.  I decided to add some water which helped somewhat.  I wish I could have called my mom to get some advice, but she passed away many years ago and so I was on my own.  

I planned to boil it for 10 minutes before putting it into freezer bags, but it never really boiled because it was too thick!   I ended up heating it until it was steaming and kept it at that temperature for about 10 minutes.  I finally tasted it and it tasted done, so I pronounced it ready to freeze.  And, here is the result.


If I do this again next year, I will try blanching it on the cob before I cut it off and see if that works better.  In either case, the corn cutter/creamer tool is very helpful and can still be found online.  Here is one link I found for it:  Corn Cutter/Creamer




Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mullein

Last fall, I noticed a couple of odd-looking plants that were a pretty shade of green against the dead grass.  Here's a picture of one of them.


I decided to leave them be and see what they grew into in the spring.  They pretty much stayed the same all winter, but as spring arrived, they began to change.  The following picture was taken in May.  Notice the "rosette" of leaves in the middle.


This rosette gradually grew into a flower stalk, like this.


The other plant was inside our dog pen.  Here it is.


The flowers were yellow and grew out of this interesting cone-like structure.


If you looked closely at the flowers, you could see lots of ants inside them.  


I found the entire plant to be quite striking!  As summer arrived, the flower stalk grew taller.


And taller!


This plant is a wild herb called "Mullein".  It is apparently invasive in some areas, so I plan to cut it down before it produces seed.  However, the website http://www.eattheweeds.com/ has lots of information on uses for this plant.  If you search the site, you'll find references to its leaves being used for everything from an herbal tea to help one sleep or soothe a cough to them being smoked!  Of course, most of this information is found in the forums, so it is not medically proven nor guaranteed not to be harmful.  However, I believe that I will gather some of the leaves and give the tea idea a try.

If, by chance, you do not see any more posts from me, then this could be BAD news and a warning not to try it yourself!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Green Bean Season

It's green bean season and we are picking them daily.  As usual, most of them go to the farmers' market with our other produce.  But, I rescue a bunch of them every few days to cook for ourselves.

If you've ever cooked fresh green beans, you know that it is a time-consuming process to break off the ends and get them ready to cook.  So, I want to share the technique I use to speed up this process, plus a couple of simple recipes.

First, I pick out several beans and, using a chef's knife, cut the stem ends off.



Next, cut the beans into one-inch lengths.  You may want to discard the "pointy" ends, but as long as the beans are not too large, it is fine to cook these as well. 



Occasionally, there may be "curvy" beans that you have to cut individually.





Put the beans into a pot and add just enough water to cover.  At this point, you can use your imagination when adding seasonings.  In the picture below, I simply added some dill weed, cooked the beans until done, splashed in a dash of olive oil, and added salt and pepper to taste.  The olive oil adds flavor and robustness, while the dill adds a note of freshness.  Olive oil is one of the "good" fats.  So, while this recipe contains a bit of fat, it is "healthy" fat. 



If you wish to be a bit more naughty, try this.  Fry a couple of pieces of bacon until done.  Remove the bacon from the pan and drain on paper towels.  Add a half cup of chopped onion to the bacon drippings and cook until translucent.  Next, add the beans to the pan with the onion, along with enough water to cover.  Cook until the beans are tender.  Add the crumbled bacon and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Chicken Introductions

When I wrote the entry about the "chicken tractor" that Tom built for the new chicks after they outgrew their brooder, we fully intended to leave them in the tractor until the fall.



However, the chicks were using the nest boxes in the coop part (the enclosed little house on the end) as roosts.  If you know anything about chickens, you know that they "poop" while they roost, so the nest boxes were getting really nasty.  Even though the coop had roost bars, they insisted on using the nests as perches on which to roost.  This was not a good situation.  We did not want them to get used to soiling the nest boxes.  Otherwise, when they begin laying eggs, it would lead to unsanitary conditions for the eggs to be laid in.

As a result, we decided to move them in with the older chickens last week.  Our grandson was here last week, so he got to help with the move.  He and Tom pulled the tractor over to the chicken coop.



There was really no way to pull the tractor right up to the gate to the chicken pen, so we caught the young chickens and put them in a dog crate to transport them from the tractor to the pen.



Our outside chicken pen is divided into 2 sections, both covered with bird netting to keep the chickens in and things like hawks out.  Because we were concerned about how the older hens would react to the new-comers, we shut them out of the main pen.  



After being let out, the youngsters spent time exploring their new home.  But, they tended to stayed together in a tight group.





The first night went pretty well.  The old hens seemed to ignore the newcomers and went in to roost as usual.  As it got dark, the youngsters went in as well.  But, they seemed to be unsure where they should roost and would hop up on the raised door to the coop.  The door, being slanted, caused them to slip and slide and lose their balance, which in turn caused a lot of commotion.  I finally picked each one up individually and placed them on the roost bars.  This caused some commotion too, but they all eventually settled down to sleep.



The next day the "pecking order" started.  The older hens began establishing their dominance in the flock, while the youngsters were totally intimidated!



The younger ones ended up staying inside most of the time until I finally closed the door to the coop to keep them out.  If they had a battering ram, I'm sure they would have used it to get back inside and away from "Gertrude".



So far, nobody has been hurt and I've not noticed many direct confrontations because the youngsters stick together and try to avoid the older hens.  I suppose order will eventually be restored and everyone will settle down.  Sooner would be nice, rather than later.