Friday, August 29, 2014

How to Cut Basil

We are in the hottest part of the summer and most of the garden looks pretty tired.   However, one plant that excels at this time of year is the herb, basil.   It seems to love hot weather and, as long as one keeps it watered, it grows non-stop.....which can be a problem if we miss a Saturday at the market and it does not get its weekly hair cut.  When it is not cut frequently, basil produces flowers, like this:



When basil flowers, its energy goes into making seed, instead of leaves.  And, because it is the leaves that you want, this is a bad thing.

A couple of years ago, we were gone for a while and my basil patch looked like this:



The flowers are not large or showy, but the bees loved them and we love the bees because they help pollinate our crops.  

At any rate, we were gone for a few days last week and missed the Saturday market.  When we got back, I had to give the basil a severe trimming.  Here is a picture of a plant "before" it was trimmed:


And here is what it looked like after I finished:



Don't worry.  It will regrow quickly.  The  point is that you have to practice "tough love" to keep it producing those wonderful aromatic leaves.

So, here is what you should know when trimming your basil plants.  When you look closely at a basil stem, you'll see that it has smaller branches coming off the main stem.



It is important to cut the main stem just above where the smaller stems are growing.  So, if I were going to cut the stem above, I would make my cut about 2 inches to the right of my thumb.  See below.



If you follow this method, then the two smaller stems will grow  large and produce more leaves.  Thus, you get twice the number of leaves as you have on the original stem.  Not a bad deal.  It is like doubling your money!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Black Tomatoes

My previous two posts have been about tomatoes we are growing this year.  I hope you can bear with me for one more tomato post!  In particular, this post deals with a couple of tomato varieties we are growing that are classified as "black" tomatoes.  

I've always been vaguely aware that there were other colors of tomatoes besides red ones.  Most of the seed catalogs offer yellow ones, stripped ones, even green ones.  However, I usually fast-forwarded through these to the red ones and never give these other varieties much thought.  But, last winter while pouring over one of the seed catalogs, I noticed a cherry tomato called "Black Cherry".  This one gave me reason to pause because it looked just like the Cherokee Purple tomatoes that we grew last year.  

As I read the description of this odd little cherry tomato, I noticed it was in a section of the catalog titled "Black Tomatoes".  And, not only was Cherokee Purple listed there, but there were several varieties of similar coloring with exotic names like Black Krim, Carbon and Japanese Trifele Black. 

After doing a little online research I found that the black tomatoes appear to have originated in Russia and slowly spread to other parts of the world, having originally existed in only a small region on the Crimean Peninsula.  As they spread, they soon began showing up as new varieties in all shapes and sizes.  After some lobbying from me for the Black Cherry tomatoes, we order a couple of these black tomatoes, Cherokee Purple and Black Cherry.  



Although these are referred to as black tomatoes, most of these varieties are more of a maroon or purple-brown color.  In fact, the Cherokee Purples retain their green shoulders while turning a deep, dark red on the bottom.  Because the green never really disappeared, we had a learning curve to determine when they were actually ripe.

Black tomatoes tend to have an earthy sweetness to them and seem less acidic than red tomatoes.  But, you probably won't find them in the supermarket because they are more fragile than the supermarket varieties grown for shipping. So, head down to your local farmers' market to get them.  Or, try growing them yourself.  A packet of seed is cheap compared to the great taste you will enjoy from tomatoes fresh off your own vines.

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!