Friday, 1 August 2014

Light & Tart Summer Borscht

We planted some beets this spring, in a spot that promptly got overtaken by weeds because we neglected it. Meanwhile, they are popping up all over near the spot where we grew some beets out to collect the seed last year. So now, as I wander around the garden weeding or doing other chores, I keep finding beets in odd spots. Once I had collected enough of them, I made this soup.

It's inspired by eastern European versions of borscht in which the beets are fermented for several weeks, in the same way as dill pickles or sauerkraut are fermented. I didn't want to get into fermenting my beets, so I just used the dill pickles I already have. Sauerkraut would be a little different, but should also work well. The goal is to have a thin, tart, refreshing soup. We ate some of it hot, and the rest of it cold the next day. It was good hot, but we agreed it really shone as a cold soup. I suspect that having it rest in the fridge overnight helped bring all the flavours together.

My beets are the offspring of 5 or 6 different varieties that we let cross, and I'm a bit surprised at  how many are paler than expected. There were a good number of Chioggia and yellow beets in there, I suppose. 

6 to 8 servings
30 minutes prep time - 24 hour chill time

500 grams (1 pound) beets
2 stalks of celery
1 medium onion
1 tablespoon mild vegetable oil
3 cups water
a fresh sprig of lovage or dill
1 cup pickle juice, or to taste
AND 1/2 cup finely chopped dill pickles
OR the same proportions in sauerkraut juice and sauerkraut
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Trim the beets, leaving an inch or so of the leaf end to hold onto. Peel the beets, then grate them fairly finely (while holding on to the end, which then gets discarded!) Wash, trim, and finely chop the celery. Peel and finely chop the onion.

Heat the oil in a large soup pot, and add the beets, celery, and onion, and cook gently for about 10 minutes, stirring regularly. Add the water, and a sprig of lovage or dill, and simmer gently for another 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the lovage or dill.

Add the pickle juice and chopped pickle (or sauerkraut). Taste the soup, and adjust the amount of brine or salt as needed, and seasonwith some pepper. Allow the soup to cool, and chill, covered, until the next day. Serve it with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream if you like.

Last year at this time I made Swiss Chard with Garlic, Chiles, & Cranberries

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Tatume Climbing Zucchini; Calabacita

April 23rd arrived this spring, as it does. That is the date we normally plant squash, zucchini, melons, watermelons, and cucumbers inside in little peat pots to go outside in late May. Unfortunately, this year April 22nd arrived first. As it does, too. That was the date I had my gall-bladder surgery. No problem, we thought. We'll just put off planting for a week. But then family disasters rained down upon us non-stop and are still ongoing. No cucurbits got planted indoors. Eventually, around June 7th, we were organized enough to plant all those seeds outside, in the hope that we would get something, maybe.

It looks like melons, watermelons, and cucumbers will be pretty much a bust. They are there, but struggling. The weather has been all over the map. Hot, cold, wet, dry; but never enough of any one thing. The squash are the only thing that look at all hopeful, but we are still waiting for 8 kinds of summer squash to produce something, anything. And then there is lucky number 9.

We got Tatume squash from Hawthorn Farm as our new summer squash to try this year. It's a climbing squash, a trait that has been bred out of most summer squashes grown in North America. Most home gardeners prefer bush zucchini, which produce a lot of squash in a very compact space. The appeal is understandable. Market gardeners like bush squash too; as they are also easier to find and pick. We were interested in Tatume because we have already built a sturdy trellis system, and we were hoping that by growing them upward we could avoid some of the problems we have had with cucumber beetles and squash bugs. 

Well, it turns out that Tatume is very attractive to both squash bugs and cucumber beetles. The good news is, it doesn't care. It is so large and rampant a plant that quantities of bugs that would kill a lesser zucchini have no noticeable effect on it. My research suggests that it is also reasonably impervious to vine borers, a pest we have not yet (*knock wood!*) encountered, but which ravages cucurbits by, well, boring the vine and cutting off the flow of nutrients from the roots. Partly this is because the stem is tough and dense.

Also, Tatume, like many vining squash, will root itself at nodes along the stem as it grows along the ground, bringing more water and nutrients into the plant and insuring itself against having one part of the plant severed from another - once rooted, the stems can continue on on their own. This also makes it drought resistant and tolerant of poorish soils. Obviously, we have lost this advantage by trellising it. Still, our garden has decent soil and plenty of water, so trellising is working out fine so far. In spite of the large size of the plants, we have already picked about half a dozen little squash (calabacitas, in Spanish). They are about the general size and shape of a hand-grenade. We have found them dense and nicely textured, with a mild but very pleasant flavour. They are not quite the calabacitas I remember as a child in Mexico, but close.

I thought such a large plant would be later to produce, but it has beaten any other summer squash in the garden by at least a week; from seed to fruit in about 6 weeks!

My impression is that this sort of calabacita is extremely widespread in Mexico, Central America, and the southern U.S.A; South America too for that matter. There are no doubt a number of different strains of it, with slightly varying qualities and flavours. Tatume has been circulating under that name for a good few years - I remember seeing it listed in one of the first seed catalogues we got when we first started our allotment garden. I did not try it then as the advertising copy described it as "not as annoyingly productive as most zucchini". I'm afraid I did not regard that as a selling feature! I wanted annoyingly productive, as I had very little space. Too bad! I believe that properly trellised, Tatume will produce quite as much summer squash as any other zucchini in a similar space.

Tatume is also known for its' generous production of male blossoms. At first, I would not have believed that. I kept checking the plants, and seeing female blossoms forming, but no male blossoms. I was afraid all the female blossoms would abort; but no problem, they all swell up nicely. Eventually I realized that all the female blossoms were on the south side of the trellis, where by chance it is easy for me to check, and all the male blossoms were on the north side! That tidy division seems to be breaking down as the season progresses, but for a while it was remarkably consistent. Still, if you want to cook with squash blossoms, this is a good variety.

I have not yet had a chance to try it, but these are also used as winter squash. If you miss picking them as summer squash, leave them to mature completely. Or so goes the advice. My impression is that the mature squash will be somewhere between bland and dull, but maybe I am wrong. It looks like in some strains the flesh may be a bit spaghetti squash like, which would actually be nice because I have a very hard time getting spaghetti squash to survive the swarms of cucumber beetles and squash bugs. At any rate, I will certainly leave one or two to mature and try them out. I may be pleasantly surprised!

Monday, 28 July 2014

Raspberry Eton Mess

Traditionally, Eton Mess is made with strawberries, but it can be made with raspberries or blackberries equally well. How about blueberries? I would, perhaps with a bit of very fine lemon zest instead of the vanilla.

I have given proportions and there is nothing wrong with these proportions, but this is the kind of dish that consists of however much of each ingredient seems good to you. Do not hesitate to meddle.

And in case you were wondering, this is where some of the whipping cream from Miller's Dairy ended up. Do not let your meddling lead you into using anything but real whipping cream, consisting of whipping cream and whipping cream alone, without added gums, stabilizers, etc, etc. 

4 to 6 servings
20 minutes prep time, 30 minutes rest time

Raspberry Eton Mess

2 cups raspberries
1 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 pre-made crisp meringue nests (about 60 grams)
OR 1/2 recipe homemade meringue nests
another 1/4 cup or so of raspberries to garnish

Pick over the berries, and rinse them briefly. Drain them very well.

Put the cream in a medium sized mixing bowl with the vanilla and beat it with an electric mixer until you can form soft peaks. Crumble in the meringue nests, then mash the 2 cups of raspberries quite lightly, and fold them in.

Set the mess in a cool spot for about half an hour for everything to come together as an ensemble. Don't leave it too long though, or those meringues will completely melt, and you will just have sweetened whipped cream with raspberries.

Garnish with the remaining raspberries just before serving.

Last year at this time I made a Peach Coffee Smoothie. Just saw peaches available today!

Friday, 25 July 2014

Black Cap Raspberries

I had never heard the term "Black Cap" until someone mentioned them on this blog, and I then realized that in fact, we have quite a few of them growing in our yard! These are wild black raspberries - not blackberries* - and their presence almost makes up for the fact that our woods are not full of wild leeks, as we had once hoped for.

According to Wikipedia, they are rubus occidentalis, closely related to rubus leucodermis, a western North American variety. It is somewhat amazing to me that I have never run across them before; our cottage was surrounded by red raspberries and blackberries, and I have rambled through a lot of Ontario countryside, but somehow I had never run across these. Yet they have a range that runs from Quebec through North Dakota, and south to Arkansas and Georgia. In the past they were extremely popular and there were numerous cultivated varieties. There still are some, and apparently out west they are still grown commercially. 

My interest though, is in the wild ones to be found around here. They are a plainly wild plant; extremely prickly all over with small and rather seedy fruit. The flavour is marvellous, as it so often is in "unimproved" fruits which tend to get selected for size, ease of picking, disease resistance, and in fact anything but flavour. Rubus occidentalis is said to be prone to disease, but ours have been very healthy. It is recommended to keep them away from any commercial cultivars you plant, as they may pass on diseases.

Unfortunately, they do not seem to transplant all that well, but then we always seem to do it at the wrong time of year (midsummer!) and manage to have some success. Do it in the spring or fall, and keep them well watered, and you are likely to have more success. Here is some interesting advice on how to grow them in a cultivated manner that takes into account their natural growth habits.

We have a patch that comes up by our deck in full sun, and they do very well, but most of our berries come up under the north side of a long line of spruce trees planted many years ago to mark the property line, so they tolerate quite a lot of shade. These ones produce a week or more later, and not quite so heavily as the ones in the sun, but I'm always amazed by how much they do produce. We have picked about 8 cups so far in two pickings, and I expect we have another 2 picking to go before they are over. This is, admittedly, in quite a few plants. Still, I have probably pulled off 3 cups of berries from the 3' square patch by the deck alone so even a small patch is worthwhile.

Black caps are delicious plain, right off the plant, but there are many things to do with thm. They are the basis of Chambord liqueur. Put them in pie, eat them with cream, ice cream, or custard, make jam or jelly with them, or check out my berry recipes for other ideas.

To make a liqueur of them, mash them gently and place them in a clean, sterilized jar, so as to fill it about 2/3 to 3/4 full. Cover with vodka, and close it up. Set in a cool, dark spot for a month. Strain out and discard the berries, pressing them to extract as much juice as possible. Add sugar to the resulting liqueur, tasting it until you have added just enough sugar to counteract the rough flavour of the vodka. Seal it up again in attractive, sterilized bottles, and you have a lovely gift, or treat for yourself. It should keep for at least a year.

*Blackberries are related, but they are juicier, hairless berries, and the receptacle (interior support) comes off with the berry when picked, whereas black caps are hollow when picked, and have fine hairs between the drupelets.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Cucumbers in Crème Fraîche with Mint

Cucumbers with yogurt or sour cream and dill are a popular and well known dish. This is basically that, although with crème fraîche for the sour cream and mint and parsley for the dill. It makes a nice change although there is nothing wrong with the original; not at all.

Everybody I served this to liked it very much, possibly because of the crème fraîche. I didn't tell them about that part, though.

4 to 6 servings
15 minutes prep time

Cucumbers in Crème Fraîche with Mint

1 tablespoon finely minced fresh mint leaves (or perhaps a little more)
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh parsley

1/2 teaspoon cumin seed
6 to 8 coriander seeds
1/8 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup crème fraîche
1 teaspoon lemon juice OR vinegar
2/3 of an English cucumber
OR 3 small slicing cucumbers

Finely mince the mint and parsley and place them in a small mixing bowl. Grind the cumin and coriander seeds, and add them to the herbs with the salt and pepper. Mix in the crème fraîche, and the lemon juice or vinegar.

Trim the cucumber; peel it if you like, and cut it into slices. I tend to partially peel them, myself - leaving alternating stripes of light and dark green. Fold them gently into the crème fraîche mixture.

Last year at this time I made Bean & Zucchini Curry.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Curried Devilled Eggs with Peas

These are probably the most angelic of devilled eggs, or at least the ones I made were. Because I was serving them to someone who does not like spicy food, I used Jamaican curry powder, and didn't add any heat. Of course, my Mom promptly said that devilled eggs have to have horseradish! You can put some in if you like, or add some heat with a little cayenne, or simply use a hotter curry powder. Or, make them the way I did! In spite of Mom's call for horseradish, these were eaten with great enthusiasm by everyone. 

And I have to remark on how much these remind me of this dish. My friend who does not like spicy food also makes a lovely potato salad with lots of hard boiled eggs and peas; they are a great combination.

5 servings (12 egg halves)
20 minutes prep time; plus allow 30 minutes to cool the eggs

Curried Devilled Eggs with Peas

6 large eggs
1/2 cup shelled peas
2 tablespoons mayonnaise, light is fine
1 teaspoon mild curry powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 garlic scape OR 2 tablespoons minced chives
1/2 teaspoon horseradish OR 1/16th teaspoon cayenne pepper (OPTIONAL)
1/2 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika to dust

Put the eggs in a pot with water to cover them. Bring them to a boil and boil them for 1 minute. Turn off the heat and leave them, covered, in the hot water for another 10 minutes. Move them to cold water and cool them completely, for about 1/2 hour. Peel them and slice each egg in  half.

While the eggs cool, shell the peas and cook them in boiling water for 3 minutes. Cool them completely and mash them in a small mixing bowl. As you slice the boiled eggs, add the egg yolks to the peas and put the egg halves on a serving plate. Mash the egg yolks into the peas.

Add the mayonnaise, curry powder, salt, and finely minced trimmed garlic scape or chives, along with any spicy condiment you wish to add. Mix well. Put about 1/12th of the mixture into each half egg, and dust with a little paprika. 

Last year at this time I made Zucchini Hummus

Friday, 18 July 2014

Herbed Cream Cheese Dip with Lemon

I'm not too sure if this is a dip; perhaps it is a spread. It depends on how thick you make it. Either way, it's very easy, and very good! Make it later in the summer once the garlic scapes are gone with a clove of fresh garlic to replace each garlic scape.

8 servings
20 minutes prep time, plus 30 minutes resting time

Herbed Cream Cheese Dip

250 grams (1/2 pound) cream cheese
1/4 to 1/2 cup crème fraîche, sour cream, OR yogurt
3 tablespoons finely minced parsley
3 tablespoons finely minced chives
3 garlic scapes, trimmed and finely minced
the finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
the juice of 1/2 lemon

Put the cream cheese in a small mixing bowl, and add 1/4 cup of the crème fraîche, sour cream, or yogurt. Mix it in well, and add more if you would like a thinner consistency.

Wash and drain the herbs thoroughly, then mince them finely. Mix them into the cream cheese with the lemon zest, salt, and pepper. Mix in the lemon juice. Let the dip sit in a cool spot for about half an hour to allow the flavours to blend. Serve with bread, chips, crackers, and/or crudités.

Last year at this time I made Saft, and Green Pea Pancakes.  Actually, Green Pea Pancakes would be lovely served with just a little dab of this dip, instead of the bacon.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Miller's Dairy Open House

Last Saturday we headed out for a day of relaxation and to investigate a place I've been curious about for a while. Miller's Dairy, a farm just east of Creemore, was having an open house.

Miller's Dairy is housed right on the farm where the milk is produced.

The milk comes from Jersey cows - a breed known for its very rich, creamy and flavourful milk. In the last decades, most milk comes from Holstein cows; Jerseys have become somewhat unusual. They can produce up to 30 litres of milk a day, compared to Holsteins which produce up to 45 litres. In addition, Jersey milk has a considerably higher percentage of fat (cream) than Holstein milk.

We entered the first barn, which was plainly the original barn of the farm. Jersey cows strike me as noticeably calmer and friendlier than most cows (or maybe I just mean Holsteins). They certainly seemed to take the mobs of visitors passing through very much in their stride.

They do have their funny ways, though. We noticed that the heifers (young cows, not quite yet of an age to calf and be milked) had rings with little spikes on them through their noses. Apparently they still have the inclination to nurse, but as they are away from their mothers, they try it on each other - an unsuccessful and possibly damaging activity, and the nose rings prevent it.

Visitors check out some calfs before they continue on to the next area.

Here's Richard Millsap, one of the 7 employees at Miller's Dairy. He was on hand to answer questions about the cows and the dairy. He told me that there are about 250 cows on the farm, of which about 110 to 120 are being milked at any one time. The dairy produces about 15,000 litres of milk per week, of which a little more than half is bottled on the farm. The rest goes into the standard commercial milk stream.

Next, we went out the back of the first barn and found the bottling plant.

It forms a little square with another building, which we will go into later...

 ... meanwhile, let's have a sample of chocolate milk. Huh. Tastes like chocolate milk. (I have to say, chocolate milk is not my thing, particularly. Give me... well, give me their 10% coffee cream, and their whipping cream. Yes, I'm all about the dairy fat, which is one reason I am a fan of Jersey cows.)

Inside the bottling plant, Dwight Bryan, the plant manager, was on hand to describe the bottling process. As ever, the process of moving, storing and processing milk involves large swaths of shiny stainless steel. The milk even comes into the plant directly from the milking barn in underground steel pipes.

The first place it goes is into this large storage tank. From there, the milk is separated into skim milk and cream. Then they go through the plate pasteuriser (heated to 168°F for 20 seconds) and the milk is also put through the homogeniser, which breaks down the fat globules so they are too small to coalesces and rise.

Some of the skim milk goes through the process first, then measured amounts of the cream are put back into the milk to create 1%, 2%, and "whole" (3.25%) milk, and finally the 10% cream that has made my morning coffee such a delight for the last few months since I discovered it. Dwight didn't say, but this must happen before the homogenisation (surely?) or the milk would separate, I would think. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong. Lastly they bottle the whipping cream.

Any cream left at this point goes to the Alliston Creamery, where it is made into my favourite local butter! Any extra milk also goes to other bottlers.

Most of their equipment is shiny-new, but there are few pieces of older equipment. It makes me smile to see them still in use!

Here's another older piece of equipment.This is the bottle steriliser, which then sends the bottles into the bottling room to be filled.

After we left the bottling plant, we went into the final building, the new grey building shown above. I was a little surprised to realise this is the milking barn, and the home of the cows currently being milked. Gage Hill, another employee, was on hand to describe the milking process.

There is space to milk up to 16 cows at a time, 8 on each side. The system is highly mechanised. As each cow steps onto the metal plate in the milking area, she is identified via an ankle bracelet. The amount of milk produced is measured - if it is lower than expected, a health check is done - and the temperature is taken, which can determine whether a cow is in heat or not.

In spite of the sophistication of the milking equipment, it is not robotic. The milkers are placed by hand, after the teats are dipped in an iodine solution to clean them. The milk is then tested before it makes it into the bottling plant.

A milk-producing cow is milked for about 1 year before she runs dry. At that point, she goes back into the dry-cow herd, and remains dry for about 9 months. A typical Jersey can expect a career of about 12 years. The milking cows live in a large, airy and very open barn, but don't go outside. At one point they had that option, but so very few of them ever went out that now they just keep the gates closed. I guess it's a lot of work hauling around 30 litres (kilos!) of milk!

More cows! I was interested to see the variation in them. Some had black mask like markings on their faces, some had an overall dark cast to the colour of their hides, and one even had a large white patch on her back. My mother, who went with us, thought they looked rather different than the Jersey cows she remembers from her childhood - she used to help collect the neighbours Jersey cows at the end of the day when she was on summer vacation at her Aunt's farm, and even had a cow named after her. I suspect though, that this is just a more genetically diverse group than the cows she knew.

Can't see it in the picture, but the bar in the lower left is moving, dragging manure towards a trench, from which it will presumably be moved out of the barn. The whole farm had obviously been scrubbed to shine for the tour, but we were certainly left with the impression that even on ordinary days it is impressively clean.

As we exited the barn, we had a chance to talk to Marie Miller, one of the owners of the farm. She told us that while Miller's Dairy products are not (yet?) sold in Toronto, they are available in about 95 stores at this point. They have been interested in keeping their market local. I know the milk is carried by Foodland stores in my area (and my local Valu-mart has it, but I suspect they are a bit of an anomaly.) Richard Millsap had earlier told us that that Miller's Dairy milk is available in Kincardine, Hanover, Meaford, Thornbury, and Owen Sound, and presumably a number of other places in that general range.

I was wondering how having your own dairy fits in with the Milk Marketing Board. Marie told us that the milk is transferred, on paper, to the DFO, and then they buy it back and bottle it. In spite of this extra layer of bureaucracy, Marie is a big fan of the quota system, which she thinks has provided stability to keep a lot of Ontario dairy farmers in business during hard times. Both Marie and her husband John, come from long line of dairy farmers. John Miller is 5th generation of his family to be dairy farmers, and they were also bottlers and makers of ice-cream in Goderich.

Alas, the farm was not set up to sell to their visitors, so after the tour we made a dash into Creemore to the 100 Mile Store there. I was able to score some whipping cream, with which I intend to make clotted cream. Because Miller's whipping cream is not homogenised - I confirmed that with Dwight Bryan - it should work perfectly.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Cream of Lettuce Soup

We love cooked lettuce! Well, no. No, we don't. Still, I thought I would give this soup a whirl (in the food processor) with the last of the lettuce and it was really quite good in spite of the fact that the lettuce has gone just a tiny bit bitter. But bacon makes everything better; what can I say? Cream doesn't hurt either.

Two heads of lettuce down; 47 left to go. Actually, I think we will just let them bolt. I'm too busy picking peas to worry about the lettuce.

4 servings
30 minutes prep time

200 grams (scant 1/2 pound) bacon
16 to 24 garlic scapes
2 heads Bibb or Boston lettuce
2 cups chicken stock
about 3/4 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup 10% cream

Chop the bacon fairly finely, and put it in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat to cook slowly until quite crisp. Stir regularly.

Meanwhile, trim the hard, thin ends from the garlic scapes, and cut them into inch-long pieces. Wash and trim the lettuce, and drain it well. Chop it coarsely.

When the bacon is done, lift out the pieces with a slotted spoon, and set them aside. If there is too much fat in the pan - there should be somewhere between 1 and 2 tablespoons - drain it off until the right amount remains. Return the pan  to the heat, and add the garlic scapes. Cook them until softened and browned in spots, stirring regularly; about 2 or 3 minutes. Add the well-drained lettuce, and mix it in until it is all evenly wilted.

Add the chicken stock, and simmer the soup for about 5 minutes. Add the salt and pepper. As usual, the amount of salt given assumes that you are using unsalted stock - be prepared to reduce that amount, possibly to zero, if you are using already salted stock.

Put the soup into a blender and blend until very smooth. Add the cream, and blend again. Return the soup to the pot and bring it back up to steaming hot, but do not let it simmer. Serve it with the bacon bits sprinkled over it.

Last year at this time I made Peas, Cheese & Egg Salad with Creamy Garlic Scape & Parsley Dressing.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Some Early Peas and Some Pests

Tom Thumb Peas

We continue to make little changes in the way we plant things every year. This year we decided that our season is usually long enough that we can in some cases plant two crops, one after the other, in the same space. The idea was to plant early, determinate peas, pick and freeze them in a few big batches, then rip them out around July 1st, and plant a mix of determinate and indeterminate, but fast producing beans.

We planted two different early peas; Tom Thumb and Strike, as early as we could possibly get them out, then covered them with hoop-houses for a while. That was on April 14th. Tom Thumb is shown in the picture above. Most of the pods have 6 to 8 peas in them, but about 1 in 30 has 9 peas; and by odd chance the one I split open to show the peas happened to be a 9er. The peas could have been a little larger for perfection. I find that both of these peas tend to get large, swollen pods before the peas are fully developed, and so the peas are not always as large as I expect. The pods are rather tough, too, which doesn't make it any easier to determine ripeness.

Tom Thumb is an heirloom pea, or rather, there are a number of different heirloom peas that tend to get called Tom Thumb. They share in common being very short, determinate, early peas. We have tried a strain of Tom Thumb from Prairie Garden, and another one from The Cottage Gardener. Last year we decided we like the strain from The Cottage Gardener better, and that it also fit the description of Tom Thumb peas much better - the ones from Prairie Garden reached a foot and a half in height. The plants from Cottage Gardener are really short, and don't get much above 8" in height. Originally, Tom Thumb was started in cold-frames for super early production, which made their low height a requirement. In spite of the low height, they have a respectable number of pea pods per plant; perhaps 8 to 12 over a 2 to 3 week period.

Overall, while we like Tom Thumb, it did not work as well for our purpose as the Strike. It was just a few days slower to get started producing peas, probably in about 65 days for us, and it is slower to wind up production. Because we need to rip them out and replant, the resulting overall difference of about 7 to 10 days in the ground matters - that's 7 to 10 days that have to be taken off the growing season for the beans.

Strike Peas

Our other pea used in this experiment was Strike. I chose it because it was the shortest season pea I could find. William Dam, our source, says they are ready in 55 days. Ours probably took a little closer to 60, but they are still definitely the earliest pea we have ever grown. Moreover, they produced for about 2 weeks then were done - We planted the first bed of them on April 12th, and we pulled them out on June 27th. - 3 days ahead of our goal of July 1st.

Strike is not an heirloom pea; it appears it was bred in Idaho by PureLine Seeds Inc, of Idaho, presumably some time in the second half of the 20th century. The plants are longer and rangier than Tom Thumb, reaching up to 2' in length. They would have benefited from a few short sticks stuck into the bed, but they did okay just sprawling, so far as growth was concerned. They are also still short enough that we had no trouble keeping them under a hoop-house for as long as we needed. Plants are a very rich, dark blueish-green, and the peas are a stronger green than the Tom Thumb, which tend a little to the yellow side. Again, there were generally 6 to 8 peas per pod, but I haven't seen any with 9 peas. Quantity of pea pods produced is probably a good bit more than Tom Thumb  - maybe 50% more.

I say probably, because we had a new problem with our peas this year - they got eaten! I mean, they always get eaten, but preferably by US. This time they got eaten, I think, by a raccoon, or raccoons. They didn't get them all - we were able to achieve our minimum expectation for packets of frozen peas, but only just. We should have gotten a lot more. Strangely, only the lowest peas got eaten - anything over a foot off the ground seemed to be safe. Much more of the Strike got eaten than the Tom Thumb, but I don't think that was through any particular preference for the Strike; I think it is because they were ripe first and so that's where they headed first. I have never had this problem with peas I have grown on a trellis. They completely ignored the Dual, for example, which were growing in the next bed with the lowest growing peas within their reach, I would have thought. It is possible that if we had put a few sticks for support in with the Strike peas that the raccoons would have been more deterred from eating them. Possible. Who knows; raccoons are determined little sugar fiends, which is why I have given up on growing corn and why they will cheerfully settle for peas.

Neither of these peas are the sweetest, best tasting peas. Later peas are both sweeter and richer in flavour, but they are also later, and require trellising or other support. Still, these two taste pretty good! By growing them as a first crop followed by beans, we can probably triple or quadruple the quantity of peas we put into the freezer. Since peas seem to be the favourite vegetable of just about everyone in the family, this is a very good thing. 

So, how did this experiment work? It's too early to tell, because we still have to get the beans in and perform the second half of the experiment. But so far, it's looking very feasible. This was a slow, cool spring, and some years we can expect to be able to plant before mid April. It seems pretty clear though, that it's plant those peas by mid April or bust. We will also drop the Tom Thumb, at least for this purpose, and stick to the Strike, because we will need those extra 7 to 10 days for the next crop that Strike provides. We also expect the Strike to produce quite a few more peas, especially if we can keep those rotten raccoons out.

We planted our peas 6" apart in every direction, and even as we were planting I was afraid that was too far apart. It was, and we got a lot of weeds and not as many peas as we would have liked. Next time, they will be planted about 4" apart in every direction, which will  hopefully also double our crop. Our theoretical crop, anyway.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Lamb with Peas & Garlic Scapes

We decided to plant some very early peas this year, so we are now picking lots of them! Garlic scapes also got picked this week. We still have lamb in the freezer from last fall since I didn't eat much of it when I was on my reduced fat diet. (It has been a fabulous tasting lamb, but there was no getting around it: it was a bit on the fatty side.) Put them all together, and this was the result. I enjoyed it very much.

3 to 4 servings
1 hour 30 minutes - 30  minutes prep time

Lamb with Peas & Garlic Scapes

450 grams (1 pound) lean boneless stewing lamb
2 tablespoons flour
3/4 teaspoon salt (if stock is unsalted)
1 tablespoon mild vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups lamb, beef, or chicken stock

2 cups shelled peas
24 garlic scapes (about 1 1/2 cups when chopped)
1 tablespoon mild vegetable oil, again
1 teaspoon coriander seed
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon cumin seed
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 cup sour cream

Pat the lamb dry, and toss it with the flour and salt. Heat the oil in a large skillet, and cook the lamb until lightly browned all over. Add the stock and stir well, making sure all the flour has been unstuck from the pan and mixed in well. Reduce the heat and simmer the meat for 30 to 45 minutes. This can be done in advance, and in fact should be, since allowing the meat to cool before continuing will make it more tender. Transfer the mixture to a medium-sized stewing pot and keep it in the fridge until you are ready to proceed.

Shell the peas. Wash the garlic scapes, and trim off the tough, narrow ends. Chop them into inch-long pieces.

Mix the peas into the pot with the lamb, and bring it up to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Heat the oil in a large skillet, and cook the garlic scapes until softened and slightly browned in spots; about 5 minutes. Grind the spices, and sprinkle them over the garlic scapes. Continue cooking for a couple of minutes more, stirring to make sure the spices are well blended in. Add the garlic scapes and spices to the stew and simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the peas are tender.

Mix in the sour cream, and allow the stew to reheat for a minute or two, but do not allow it to come to a full simmer. Serve with polenta, rice, boiled potatoes, or pasta.

Last year at this time I made Strawberry-Poppyseed Salad Dressing, and Unbaked Ginger-Lime Cheese Pie (with Berry Sauce).

Monday, 23 June 2014

Haskap Berries

So! Those haskap berries that I put in the muffins in the previous post: what the heck are they? Believe it or not, they are a form of honeysuckle. They are originally from Japan and north-eastern Asia, and have been grown in Japan and Russia for their fruit for many years. Serious breeding efforts started in the 1950's.

Haskaps were brought to North America some time ago, but were varieties selected as landscape plants. Apparently, their fruit tasted terrible! So plant developers here knew they were edible, but did not think they were worth pursuing. It wasn't until the 1990's that Jim Gilbert of One Green World Nursery in Molalla, Oregon acquired several Russian varieties bred as fruit, and began promoting them, that anyone in North America considered them as a food crop. Since then they have become a bit of a fad, and you can readily find them available as plants at nurseries, even the ones set up by grocery or hardware stores in their parking lots for the season.

The University of Saskatchewan has been very active in breeding and promoting them. They are well-suited to our northern climate, and will grow in poor, soggy soil - indeed, they prefer that, being plants from the sides of rivers in their wild state.

Two years ago we bought three plants from T & T Seeds. They were  Borealis, Tundra, and one plant sold as a pollinator, which for some reason I suspect of being Berry Blue. Did it actually have a label when it arrived? Maybe. At any rate, it is typical for haskaps to be sold in sets of 2 or 3, as one plant will not produce fruit unless there is a suitable pollinator nearby. Just because you have 2 different varieties, does not mean that they are guaranteed to pollinate each other. They must not be too closely related, and that can be a problem given that many of these plants come from breeding programs with a fairly narrow range of genetic material to draw upon. The University of Saskatchewan page has a chart at the bottom which will help you choose if you are not buying them a preselected set.

Under ripe berries can taste a little bitter, and we thought the pollinator tasted a little bitter even when ripe. None of the varieties we have tried - and I'm pretty sure we now have 4 or 5 different ones in our garden - have been outstandingly sweet; not too surprising in a fruit that ripens this early. They are tart, verging as noted on the bitter, and the flavour is not particularly distinctive. Nevertheless, we are very happy we decided to give them a try and they will be a good addition to our garden.

What makes them so appealing to us, even though the flavour is a little on the ho-hum side? Well, the plants themselves are very attractive. The leaves are a standard oval, in a lovely light green, but with a slightly fuzzy - visually at least - texture. They are also attractively arranged, somehow. The flowers are not showy and are hidden by the leaves at any rate. This is not a showpiece of a plant, but it is a fine, fine shrub as a background for perennial flowers and other more flamboyant shrubs. They are also tough, tolerant of varying conditions, quick to get established without growing out of bounds, and amenable to trimming and pruning - a very good ornamental garden plant, in fact. The berries are a bonus, and given that they ripen extremely early, a very nice bonus indeed. They get picked with the very earliest of our earliest strawberries, when we are absolutely panting to get some fresh fruit from the garden.

The berries are bit soft and probably won't keep too well. I suspect they would freeze, but we won't be able to try that this year - we expect to eat them all! They should make good jam, I would think, but again, that will have to wait until our plants are more established. This is only their second year in our garden, after all.

If you decide to plant haskaps they are, as noted, pretty tolerant of varying conditions. They do like plenty of water, although I suspect they will tolerate some late-summer drought, especially once they are established. But give them a good moist spot if you can. The local birds did not discover them last year until fairly late in the season, but once they did they stripped the bushes. This year we are keeping them covered with bird netting. The birds seem to have forgotten them again, but I suspect once they are on their mental map of edible berries, they will be back at them with much enthusiasm.

Given the virtues of haskaps, I think they will continue to become more popular. I also suspect that as breeding efforts continue, the flavour of newer varieties will also continue to improve. I suspect it won't be long before we are seeing commercial plantings of haskaps, and fresh and processed haskap product available. Even once they are available commercially though, if you have a modest garden space or more they will continue to be well worth planting yourself for their early fruit and season-long beauty in the garden.