Garden and Greenhouse

Grow

I’m a homebody. I love my home, love these three acres of pine and oak woods, and I definitely love my garden. Every spring, summer, and fall, I’m dragged away from my garden for camping trips which might last from five days to two weeks. It’s a lot of work to get ready to go, especially when it’s planting season, and I have seedlings in both the greenhouse and the garden, or when it’s harvest time. People ask me, “What are you going to do about your garden? How can you leave it for so long?” In harvest time, if I can’t be there to pick, I have friends who will harvest for me. More problematic is leaving during the spring planting season. As in now. As in I’m going to be away all next week. Oh, dear.

Obviously, I have to find somebody to take care of the seedlings—tomatoes, peppers, eggplants.  Despite being dumped upside down on the greenhouse gravel last week (I bawled over that one on Facebook), the tomato seedlings that survived my hasty replanting are doing well.  I have no idea now what’s what, for the most part, because the tags got scrambled in the upset, but the main thing is, they are alive.

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This year, it’s a young friend of the family, Emily, who’ll come over and open up the greenhouse in the morning and water the seedlings, and my daughter-in-law, Tori, who’ll close it up at night. It’s already getting up to 100 degrees inside by 10 a.m., and my greenhouse is only semi-automated. That is, I have the drip for the planting beds on a timer, and the fans are also on timers, but the doors and vents have to be opened manually.

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And at nighttime, we’re still getting temps in the 30s. Not freezing, but cold enough to make it advisable to close up the greenhouse at night. So I am definitely depending on these girls to take good care of my babies while I am gone.

By the time I get home, if all goes well, I’ll be able to transplant my tomato seedlings into larger containers, and they won’t need the grow light any more. Also, the peppers and eggplants should be ready to set into the planter box in the greenhouse, so I can shut off the heat to the sandbox that keeps them warm at night while they are small and the nights chilly. They pout when it gets cold. A pouting pepper is a sad, droopy thing.

As for the garden itself, we use battery-powered timers with lots of Y-gates to turn on the hoses, sprinklers, drip and soaker hoses, and if I have set it up right, all the areas of the garden that have been planted—beets, carrots, turnips, lettuces, kale, spinach, garlic, cabbage, potatoes—as well as those more permanent plantings–blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, boysenberries, loganberries, and blackberries, rhubarb, horseradish, asparagus–and all the herbs (lavender, hyssop, oregano, lemon balm, sage, clary sage, tarragon, lady’s mantle, chives, dill, parsley, and winter onions) will be watered while I’m away.

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I know I’ll come home to miraculously-large weeds and some yard-high asparagus. I hope I also come home to see carrots and beets, which seem to be taking their own sweet time this year to emerge. And maybe the tops of the red potatoes the grandkids and I planted will be sticking out of the straw they are blanketed in. And surely some apple blossoms will have unfurled—I saw buds blushing today.  Oh, I hate missing that first burst of pink!

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Will I worry about the garden while I’m gone? Of course, I will. I’m the worrying sort about things I love. But the garden actually gets on pretty well without me; I miss it more than it misses me when I go away. The plants just go on doing what they do. Grow.

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Garden and Greenhouse

Back in the Garden

When I first started this blog at the urging of my good friend, Jordan Clary, and others, I thought I’d be primarily writing a garden blog.  But then I said, “What will I write about during the winter, when the garden goes to sleep?”  I got a lot of answers, but the one that worked itself out over the winter was cooking.  I’d write about cooking what I’d grown and harvested, what I’d managed to gather during the summer and fall, what I regularly make from scratch, and what the Mighty Hunter and our son had harvested during hunting season.  And that’s what I’ve done, with a few detours here and there, since the garden went to bed for the winter.  But now the garden is awake again, and for the past week or so, I’ve been out there preparing and planting and watching what’s happening in both the garden and the greenhouse.  In a sense, this post is a progress report.

This past fall, we had an acorn crop like nothing I’ve ever seen before in more than 27 years on this piece of land.

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That was great, except that I forgot about the acorns when I asked Dennis to put the fall raking of pine needles and oak leaves on the garden, as usual.  My intention was to use the pine needles and leaves as mulch, which I have done before, for many years.  That is the reason my soil is so rich and soft for 6 inches down.  I’ve been building soil with leaves, pine needles, and straw, for more than 25 years.  For the last two years, I haven’t put any straw on my garden except what came from the old bales of straw Dennis was using for his bow target backstop out back.  I haven’t been able to find clean, organic oat straw here where I live.  It’s either sprayed or full of thistles and oats.  I don’t mind the oats; I just pull them up when they sprout and add them to the mulch, but I don’t want thistles, and I’m still coping with the fallout from the last batch two years ago.  But I do have an unending supply of oak leaves and pine needles.  I was stoked at having a big pile of them in the garden, until I remembered the acorns.

Sure enough, that pile of leaves and pine needles was riddled with acorns.  And after the spring rain we had, they were splitting and getting ready to root; some had already sent out radicles to pierce the ground.  These are black oaks, and believe me, they are lovely trees, and I love them, but you do not want to let them root where you don’t want a tree.  They’re very hard to get rid of.  The grandkids and I planted some acorns in pots to transplant later at their house, and the rest I dumped out beyond the fire pit, so that the deer and squirrels could help themselves, and so that maybe some of them would sprout in a place that wouldn’t endanger my garden.  That whole pile of leaves and needles had to be burned because there was no way I could sift all the acorns out of it, and the ashes were then spread.  After that was done, it was time to turn my attention to the greenhouse.

I have a small greenhouse that Dennis built for me so that I could start all my tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, and other tender garden plants that I used to have to buy or struggle to raise in the house.  I love it.  I can play in the dirt long before the garden is ready.  But there was a lot going on in the French household this spring, so I didn’t get out to the greenhouse as early as I wanted to this year.  I’d planned to start my peppers and eggplant by the first of March, but I didn’t start them germinating until the second week of March.

I germinate my early seeds before I put them in soil for a couple of reasons.  First, I can control the temperature a little better if I germinate first.  Second, I can tell how many plants I’ll have, and it helps me plan a little better.  Any seed that doesn’t germinate isn’t planted, so I don’t have to plant more seeds than I need plants to guarantee that I’ll have enough of the plants I want.  Once in a while, a seed that germinates and is then planted fails to emerge, but very seldom.

Hot pepper and bell pepper seeds, eggplant seeds, and tomato seeds are all germinated between damp paper towels rolled up in plastic wrap, stuffed in a plastic Ziploc bag, and stashed by the heating stove for a couple of days.

As soon as they send out a radicle, or embryonic root, I pick the seeds off the paper towel and put them into the soil-filled containers I’ve prepared.  (If I let them go a little too long, and the roots have grown into the paper towel, I just tear off that little piece of paper towel and stuff it in the planting medium, where it will rot down.)  For seeds that like a lot of warmth, like peppers and eggplant, I make sure I fill the containers (usually reused plastic 3-, 4-, 6- or 9-cell containers from the nursery) with wet starting medium and put them the day before in my heated sandbox.  This is just a plastic tub with a hole drilled for the plug of a string of rope lights.  The tub is half filled with clean builder’s sand, and the rope lights go on top of the sand.  When the rope lights are plugged in, they warm both the sand and the shallower tub I place on top.  The containers of soil and seeds go in the top tub, and the bottom tub keeps the temperature at around 80 degrees, even on a sub-freezing night.  A lid goes on top to trap both heat and moisture:  a perfect seed starting environment.

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Last week, I put the germinated jalapeno, Serrano, habanero, and bell pepper seeds, and the eggplant, in the sand/heat box.  Two days later, one of the jalapeno seeds had already put out two seed leaves and was ready to go into the light box.  The light box is just a shallow, clear plastic tub that sits under the grow light I found at a thrift store for $3.

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Last week, I also started cabbage and kale seeds.  Because they don’t need much heat, I put them under the light with the lid off to germinate, and most of those seeds have sent out seed leaves.  As soon as they have four true leaves, I’ll transplant them into the garden. They are hardy and can take some cold temperatures once they’ve sprouted.

Also last week, I planted some garlic seed/bulblets from plants I let flower and go to seed last summer.  I’ve done this before.  The smaller seeds take two years to get big enough to harvest, and I have some in the greenhouse and out in the garden I’ll harvest this summer.

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Along with the garlic, I planted several different kinds of lettuce in one of my raised bed boxes made of old redwood fenceposts.  This is the box bed I usually plant cherry tomatoes in, which works well because by the time the tomatoes are needing more space, the lettuce is done.  The picture on the right, below, is the same bed early last June, just after planting the cherry tomatoes.  I got a lot of good lettuce out of that bed before the tomatoes needed more room to sprawl.

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The same goes for spinach in the heirloom tomato box bed. I allow the spinach to go to seed in the summer and self-sow.  This way, I have spinach much earlier in the spring than I would have it if I waited to sow seed myself. My spinach seedlings are several weeks old now, so I’ll have spinach to pick that much sooner than if I’d sown it this past week.  Below is a picture of the heirloom tomato box bed last spring, after I’d planted the tomatoes but before I’d picked all the spinach.  You can also see that baby garlic that I planted from seed early last spring.  I love interplanting this way.

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March is the optimum time to plant potatoes and carrots here, but we can seldom plant anything at this time of year because the garden is still usually at least a foot deep in snow.  This year, with the severe drought conditions California is experiencing, we have had no snow.  The garden soil is moist because we’ve had some spring rain, so this week, the grandkids and I planted both potatoes and carrots.

Even an experienced gardener sometimes makes mistakes.  We’ve had some family worries this winter and spring, and I’ll admit that my mind has often not been on my garden.  And yet, the garden is solace for me.  It’s the place where I find peace.  And so, when I can, I’m out there.  Where I made my mistake this year was in relying on my memory and not looking over all of my leftover seeds to see what I need to buy.  I seal up my leftover seed packets with masking tape and store them in the cool laundry room in large plastic containers.  I save silica packets from shoe boxes, medicine bottles, and other products, and I tuck them into the containers to absorb moisture and help keep the seeds fresh.  I have different storage containers for seeds that are planted at different times, and I didn’t check all of my containers.  I thought I had more carrot seed than I did.  As the grandkids made their furrows for planting the carrots (crooked, of course, but I don’t care because I don’t till after planting), I realized I only had a nearly-empty packet of carrot seed.  I remembered then that I’d given the rest of it to my son last spring, and I never bought any more.

Kaedynce and Bryce were only able to plant one row of carrots, and heaven knows if any of the seed will come up, because Bryce, the 7-year-old, covered it, but I can replant with fresh seed, and they will never know the difference.  Both Bryce and Kaedynce promised to come back and help me plant the rest of the rows when I get more seed.  Their favorite things about Nana’s house are the cookie jar that’s never empty, the roasted pumpkin and squash seeds on the coffee table all winter, and the carrots in the garden in the summer time.

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Dennis dug two potato trenches for us (again crooked, but since I don’t till between them, it doesn’t matter a bit) and Bryce and Kaedynce and I planted the potatoes left from last fall’s harvest that had shriveled and sprouted in their box in the pump house.

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We plant the potatoes six inches deep over a sprinkling of Dr. Earth Organic Garden Fertilizer, and then I mulch with 6-12 inches of leaves, pine needles, and straw, if I have any clean straw.  This mulch holds moisture in the soil, keeps down weeds, protects the potato plants from late frosts after they emerge, protects the potatoes from sunburn after they form, and makes it easier to dig them in the fall.

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The next spring, the mulch can be raked back and reused after planting, or tilled into the soil.  I never plant potatoes in the same spot in the garden they grew in the year before, but we always miss a few when we dig, so there are usually volunteers in the previous year’s bed.  I don’t care.  I just plant around them.  The volunteers are usually ready earlier than the ones we plant, so we have new potatoes around the 4th of July.

Kaedynce and Bryce have helped me plant potatoes each spring, and harvest them each fall, since they could walk.  Kaedynce reminds Bryce, “Don’t pick them up by the sprouts,” and Bryce reminds Kaedynce, “Don’t put them too close together, and make sure the sprouts are pointing up.”  They are expert potato planters by now, and I regret not getting pictures of them doing it again this year.  By that time the photographer in the family, Grandpa, was getting out the hot dogs and marshmallows for our reward for a job well done, a wienie roast at the fire pit.

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There’s lots more to do in the garden and greenhouse in the coming weeks.  I have volunteer spinach and romaine seedlings in the greenhouse that need to be thinned and tomato seedlings, winter squash, and cantaloupes to start.  There’s some more tilling for Dennis to do in the garden, and some transplanting of blueberries, and more potatoes to be planted, and of course, those carrots.  It’s something to look forward to, and I need that now.  I need the promise of spring that only a garden, and grandchildren, bring.

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Garden and Greenhouse

January Daze

The holidays have come and gone.  I’ve used up all the leftovers, and I’m sick and tired of cooking.  It’s the time of year when I’m glad I have a well-stocked pantry.  I can open a jar of abalone chowder base (just add half & half and sherry), or a jar of venison chili or venison stew, mix up a batch of cornbread, open a jar of pickles or dilly beans, and there’s dinner.

I tend to get a little blue in January.  After the holiday rush and bustle, the delight of having the whole family together, and the fun of watching the little ones enjoy the season, I always feel a little let down.  I remind myself that this is the time for rest.  Like my garden, I need this time to regenerate.  I need some quiet time to rest and think.  I need time for reflection.

When I was teaching, reflection was an important part of the way I taught writing as a process.  If we don’t take time to reflect on what we’ve done, we’re missing an opportunity for learning.  Rushing from one assignment to the next (whatever kinds of assignments these are, whether self-imposed or part of a standardized course) doesn’t give us time to understand what we’ve done well, where we need to improve, and what we need not do again.  Reflection allows us to make a solid plan for the future, based on what we know worked, or didn’t, in the past.

So this is the time when I pull out my garden log and go over the notes I made about the garden and the harvest during the spring, summer, and fall.  It’s the time when I decide what changes need to be made in what I plant and where I plant it.  It’s the time when I sort through my seed packets to see what I need to buy fresh and how much.  It’s a planning time, and it heartens me.

Seed catalogs have been arriving for a couple of months.  I put them aside until January, when their bright, colorful photographs cheer me and remind me that another growing season will fill me with energy, purpose, and hope.

I don’t buy a lot of seeds.  I sow very frugally because I hate to thin.  A packet of carrot seeds will usually last me two years because I don’t use them all the first year I open them.  The same with most small seeds:  beets, lettuce, spinach, etc.  I seal up the opened seed packets with masking tape, and I put all my unused seeds into an old plastic mayonnaise jar with a tight-fitting lid.  Into the jar along with the seeds, I place several silica packets, the kind that are shipped inside large bottles of medications, to absorb moisture.  I put this container in my laundry room, which stays cool summer and winter, and my seeds stay fresh for years.  I have some large packets of lettuce seeds that I’ve been planting from for ten years.

Seeds grown and processed for storage organically may be viable for a very long time.  There are reports of seeds left in Egyptian tombs for thousands of years that grew when planted.  Unfortunately, many large commercial seed companies began some years ago to treat seeds with substances that are supposed to increase germination rates and/or provide protection against pests and pathogens during and right after germination.  I believe these treatments affect seeds’ viability if they are not used within the first growing season after harvest.  For this reason, and the fact that I don’t like the idea of chemically-treated seed, I’ve begun to look for organic seeds and to grow more and more heirloom varieties and save the seeds myself.  Tomato seeds are very easy to harvest and save, and I’ve had very good luck with them.  I always germinate seeds like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant between moist paper towels stuffed inside plastic zipper bags.  It only takes a couple of days, and that way, I know exactly how many plants I will get from those seeds.  When the sprouts have just broken the seed coat, I can use tweezers to gently move them from the paper towels into warm, damp seed-starting medium and put them under a grow light in the greenhouse.

For other plants like lettuce and spinach, I allow self-sowing.  I let these plants flower (which has an added benefit of giving the bees more blossoms to milk). This means the garden gets pretty raggedy-looking in July and August, when the plants bolt and send up tall spikes of unremarkable flowers, then turn brown and, well, seedy-looking, but it saves me time and work and energy, and I get lettuce and spinach earlier the following spring.  There’s no guesswork on my part about when to plant:  the self-sown seeds sprout when conditions are favorable.  The plants and seeds do all the work.  Sometimes the seeds sprout where I didn’t expect them to, but I just work around them.  I like the spontaneity of allowing self-sowing.  I don’t mind a head of romaine in the middle of the row of carrots.

Larger seeds like pumpkins and squash are also viable for years when left untreated.  I have a pumpkin seed story that makes me smile every time I think of it.  When my children were small, I always grew jack-o’- pumpkins for them.  I usually grew a medium-sized variety, and we’d cook the pumpkins down the day after Halloween for pumpkin pies.  But one year when they were a little older, they wanted big pumpkins, so I planted a variety called Big Max.  They were big, all right.  We don’t have a very long growing season here, but we got a few Big Maxes, and I grew them for the kids for several years before I stopped growing a garden under the pressures of completing my M.A.

When my grandchildren were old enough to enjoy the idea of growing their own jack-o’-lanterns, I dug out the few leftover Big Max seeds and planted them.  Those seeds were twenty years old, at least, maybe older, and I got about a 50% germination rate from them.  Kaedynce and Bryce grew four big carving pumpkins from two plants.  I had stored the seeds using the method above, with silica packets in my leftover seed jar.  That was several years ago, but the kids still talk about Big Max and Maxine.  Yes, they named their jack- o’-lantern pumpkins!

Despite (or perhaps because of) this experience with the pumpkin seeds, I know that as my seeds get older, their viability will begin to decrease.  This is natural.  So I always plant a few extra seeds, more than I would if the seed was fresh.  This spring, because of my garden log, I know that while I still have a few Minnesota Midget cantaloupe seeds left (the only melons that do well in my garden), they will be five years old this spring, and I only got about 50% germination out of them last year.  I need fresh seed.  They are a hybrid, so I can’t save the seed myself.  But I’ll still soak the old ones and sprout them between paper towels, so I can use up every last seed that’s viable.  I don’t like to waste a thing if I can help it.

Just thinking about spring planting cheers me up.  On this gray day, when we’re in the middle of another drought cycle, and yet another moisture-bearing storm is pushing north of us, leaving only dry clouds to veil the winter sun, it’s good to rest, reflect, and plan.  That’s what January is for, in my book.

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Garden and Greenhouse, Main dishes, Recipes, Side dishes

Pumpkin/Winter Squash Soup

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It’s nearly Halloween, and that means pumpkins are on the market and in the garden.  It also means winter squashes are ripe and readily available.  I grow my own.  You would expect nothing less, would you?   I always have a lot of them, so I’ve had to learn how to store them long-term.  I’ve also learned how to use them in various ways, so we don’t get tired of them before winter is over.  Read on for tips to make sure your squashes get through the winter without spoiling, and for some recipes using winter squash and pie pumpkins.

If you are growing your own, or even if you’re buying pumpkins and winter squashes cheap or on sale, and want to store them, there’s a very simple step you can take to keep them fresh for months.  First, if you’re harvesting out of your own garden, it helps them last longer if you’ll let a light frost kiss them before you harvest.  This hardens the skins, and a hard skin protects the golden goodness inside.  Then lay the squashes out on a deck or patio and hose all the dirt off them.  Let them dry.  At this point, the method for ensuring long storage is the same for home-grown or store-bought.

To a gallon bucket or bowl of warm water, add a cup of white vinegar.  Get a clean rag and an old towel, and line the boxes you’re going to store your squashes in with newspaper.  Wash each squash or pumpkin with the vinegar water, dry thoroughly, and store in boxes, loosely stacked.  You can also store squashes on open shelves if you have a place with the right temperature range where mice or rats or squirrels won’t get to them.  Even though the skins are hard, in the winter, a hungry rodent can do a lot of damage.  It’s a good idea to line your shelves with newspaper, to absorb any oozing from spoilage if it occurs.  But the vinegar bath helps kill off bacteria and mold spores and minimizes spoiling.

The other crucial factor to prevent spoilage in long term storage is the right temperature range.  Colder is not better when it comes to preserving winter squashes.  I learned this the hard way when I tried to store them one year in our pump house, which is kept just above freezing all winter.  The squash and pumpkins developed little black mold spots in January, and within a week or two, I was roasting and freezing like mad to keep from losing them all.  I did a little research and learned that the optimal storage temperature is much warmer, from about 45-55 degrees.  Keeping the squash dry is also important, so a damp, cold basement (or pump house) is not a good storage option.

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Now, I store my pumpkins and winter squash in my laundry room, in wooden boxes, lined with newspaper, that slide under the shelves my husband put up for my canned goods.  The laundry room is unheated except for the freezer that puts off heat when it runs, but the room is well-insulated, so it stays around 50-60 degrees all winter.  That seems to be just about the perfect environment for squash storage.  I harvest my squash after the first light frost burns the leaves of the plants, give them a vinegar water bath, store them in my boxes in the laundry room, and we’re still eating fresh roasted winter squash and pumpkins the following spring.  Which is just fine by me, because I really love the stuff.

The photo below was taken on May 8, 2013 of the box of pumpkins I had left from the 2012 growing season.  (I didn’t weigh them, but I must have grown about a hundred pounds of pumpkins and squash in 2012.)  These were still sound!  (Yes, I think that fact deserves an exclamation point, maybe two.)   In March, I had taken out those that were left and had given them another wipe down with a vinegar wash–just being proactive with possible mold.  In May, I decided it was time to roast and puree what was left and freeze my puree in bags, so now I have pumpkin puree all ready for this fall’s pies, which is fortunate because I didn’t get many pumpkins this year.  Just another lesson from the garden:  this year’s bounty may turn to next year’s dearth, so preserve while you can.

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I like to grow acorn, butternut, and pie pumpkins.  I have tried other squashes, but these are my favorites, and in a garden the size of mine, space is a factor.  I try to use up my butternuts first because they have the thinnest skins and will usually spoil before pumpkins or acorn squash.

My favorite way to eat butternut squash is roasted, of course.  I love roasting butternuts because you can eat the skins.  Just cube up the gutted squash, sprinkle and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, any crushed or ground herbs you like (I like sage and thyme, but rosemary is also delicious), add a few unpeeled garlic cloves if you like, a sprinkle of apple scrap vinegar or another fruit vinegar (the acid brightens up all the flavors), and roast on a cookie sheet at 400-425 degrees until tender and browned, usually 20-30 minutes.  The roasting time depends on how large your squash cubes or chunks are.  The skin of the squash gets tender and then goes slightly chewy, so you get great texture.  This is a wonderful side dish to any roasted meat.  I like to serve it with oven-fried chicken because both dishes cook at the same temperature.

Acorns squashes store very well because they have such hard skins.  I like acorn squash because of its size and its seeds.  Acorns are just the right size for a meal for two people.  Each person gets a half.  My husband likes them with butter and brown sugar, so I can dress his half with gooey sweetness, and my half gets a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sage and thyme, salt and pepper.  We each get what we like with no fuss. Roast them at 400-425 degrees until the flesh is tender.  And if you like roasted pumpkin seeds, you’ll like roasted acorn squash seeds.  Actually, even if you don’t like pumpkin seeds, you should try roasted acorn seeds because they are even better than pumpkin seeds.  They are smaller and roast to a crisper, crunchier texture.

The process is the same for pumpkin seeds and all squash seeds, so don’t throw any of them away.  Simply spread the seeds (and a little bit of the flesh or juice will give the seeds more flavor, so don’t rinse them!) on a cookie sheet, drizzle a teaspoon or so of olive oil over them, stir to coat, sprinkle lightly with salt (I like freshly ground sea salt), and roast at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, stirring after 10 minutes.  Roast until golden brown.  These are a nutritious and delicious snack that my grandchildren, daughter-in-law, and husband love.  I keep a bowl of roasted squash and pumpkin seeds on the coffee table all winter long.

I love pie pumpkins, and they also store very well.  I use them for pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin spice muffins, pumpkin pancakes, and pumpkin soup.  There are many ways to handle a fresh pumpkin for cooking.  Some people roast them whole and then peel and scoop out the seeds.  Because I like to roast the seeds and get them crunchy, this is not the method I use.  I used to cut them open, clean out the seeds, quarter and steam them, and then run through the chinois to remove the skins.  This works if you’re processing a lot of pumpkin for freezing (pumpkin puree has been deemed unsafe for home canning), but you don’t get that wonderful roasted flavor.  Roasting is what makes your homemade-from-scratch pumpkin pie or soup so superior to what you can make with what comes out of a steel can from the store.  So, now I quarter my pumpkins, clean out and set aside the seeds for roasting later, and put the quarters on a cookie sheet and into a 425 degree oven until they are soft.  I take them out, let them cool, then scoop the flesh away from the skins and put it in the food processor to puree.  (The skins go into the compost bucket.)  At this point, the puree can be used in a recipe in the same proportion as the canned pumpkin you buy.  Or, you can make soup with it, which is a winter staple in our home.

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Here’s my recipe for pumpkin soup, and keep in mind that you can substitute any orange-fleshed winter squash, such as acorn or butternut, for the pumpkin.  You’ll get a slightly different flavor, but it will be delicious with whatever kind of squash you use.  Don’t use huge, grocery store jack o’lantern pumpkins for this soup—they are too stringy.  You can sometimes use smaller grocery store jack o’lantern pumpkins, but pie pumpkins, acorn squash, butternut, or any other yellow or orange-fleshed winter squash are better.  You can mix varieties as you like.

After your pumpkin or squash is roasted and pureed as above, follow directions below for making the soup.  (You can also use canned pumpkin, and the soup will taste good, but it won’t taste quite as fresh or rich as when you roast your own.)

Roasted Pumpkin/Winter Squash Soup

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1 quart pureed pumpkin or squash

2 cups chicken stock/broth

1 tablespoon olive oil, or butter, or canola oil

¼ cup finely chopped onion

1 fresh jalapeno, finely chopped (deseeded, if you don’t like the heat)

1 stalk celery, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, grated (if not available, substitute 1 teaspoon powdered, dry ginger)

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon ground coriander

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

1 tablespoon dried or fresh chopped parsley (fresh is always better)

1 teaspoon poultry seasoning

¼ teaspoon red pepper flake (optional for those who like more heat)

½ cup half & half

For serving:  ½ cup plain low-fat yogurt or sour cream; ¼ cup roasted, salted sunflower seeds.  Makes about 4 servings (cereal bowl size).

To the pureed pumpkin or squash, mix in chicken stock (I use homemade or low sodium canned) and start heating on low in a large pot with a tight lid.  Stir frequently to keep the natural sugars in the pumpkin/squash from causing the soup to stick.  As the soup heats, it starts to bubble like a volcanic mud pot, so keep it covered and be careful when you remove the lid to stir.

In a sauté pan, heat oil or butter.  Add onion, jalapeno pepper, celery and minced garlic.  Saute on medium heat until vegetables are soft.  Add fresh grated ginger root, if available.

At this point, you’ll have to decide how smooth you want your soup to be.  I like it silky smooth, so I put my sauteed vegetables into the pumpkin mixture and use my immersion blender on it until the vegetables are just tiny specks in the soup.  If you don’t have an immersion blender, and you want your soup smooth rather than slightly chunky, put a small amount of the pumpkin mixture into a blender or food processor along with the sauteed vegetables and whiz until smooth, then add back into the soup.  If you want more texture in your soup, add the vegetables without blending and proceed to seasoning.

If not using fresh ginger, you can add 1 tsp. dry ginger at this point.  Add about ½ tsp. of salt (taste as you go so you can get the seasoning right for you), ½ tsp. black pepper, ½ tsp. ground coriander, ¼ tsp. ground allspice, 1 T. dried or fresh chopped parsley, and 1 tsp. rubbed poultry seasoning.  (I grow and dry my own herbs, so instead of poultry seasoning, I use about a teaspoon of dried, crumbled sage, and a half-teaspoon of dried thyme.  If there’s no snow in the garden, I substitute fresh herbs, but I’m careful with fresh sage. It’s a strong flavor.)  Taste and add more salt and pepper or other seasonings as necessary.  If you like more heat, you can add a little crushed red pepper flake.  I like the different layers of heat in this soup from the fresh jalapeno, ginger, and black and red pepper.

As soon as soup is hot and bubbling like lava, add about ½ cup half & half.  Reheat almost to boiling and serve. (Do not boil after adding the half & half because the cream will separate. It still tastes fine, but it doesn’t look as pretty.)

For serving:  I like to add a dollop of plain, low-fat, homemade yogurt (sour cream is also good) to the middle of my bowl and sprinkle it with about a tablespoon of roasted, salted sunflower seeds. Then when I eat it, I get a little yogurt and sunflower seeds in my spoon along with the soup.

This is a very filling (and nutritious) soup, and you can make it relatively low-fat by using low-fat chicken stock, coconut, olive or canola oil instead of butter, fat-free half & half instead of regular, and low-fat or non-fat yogurt or sour cream in the topping.

Because I grow my own pie pumpkins and winter squash, and have learned how to store them all winter, I have a plentiful and tasty supply of Vitamin A through the winter and into spring.  I hope I’ve inspired you to try it for yourself.

All original text, photographs, and the pumpkin/winter squash soup recipe are copyrighted and may not be copied or reproduced without the author’s permission. 

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Canning, Garden and Greenhouse

Green Tomatoes

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It happens every year.  I plant lots of tomatoes because I love them, and because I grew up on the northern coast of California, in the fog belt, where tomatoes are a nearly-impossible dream.  I’ve lived for the past 27 years in northeastern California, where the growing season is just long enough to grow wonderful tomatoes, if you set them out early under cover.  And every summer, I eagerly await the first ripe tomato, congratulating myself when it’s earlier than the year before, consulting other area gardeners and, of course, bragging just a little when my tomatoes ripen before theirs.  And then, it’s October, and guess what?  There are loads and loads of green tomatoes that won’t get a chance to ripen.  What to do?

“Let them go, Mom,” my son says.  He worries about me, how much I’m doing, how the work affects my back.  He thinks I’m doing too much.  But I can’t let them go.  I can’t deliberately waste food.  There are things I can do with those green tomatoes.  And I have a food processor.  Have food processor, will chop.

Everyone knows about fried green tomatoes.  They are delicious.  I really like them.  But when you have 30-50 lbs. of green tomatoes, there’s no way you can eat them all fried before they start to spoil.  So I’ve been investigating recipes for green tomatoes for some years, especially since I started growing heirloom tomatoes.

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First, it should be noted, some of the tomatoes will box-ripen.  I put mine in a cardboard box lined with newspaper and put it on a layer of towels (in case of leakage) in the coldest room in the house, which is pretty cool.  I can tell which ones will ripen; they are usually a pale orange or streaky orange and green when they’re picked.  Some of these will have enough flavor to eat fresh in salads and sliced on burgers and sandwiches.  I’ve learned that if I want the tomatoes to ripen faster, it helps to put a couple of apples and a banana in the box and cover it with newspaper.

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But I’ve found that after a few weeks, the tomatoes that started out looking green and developed some color before I got to work on them don’t really develop much flavor.  These I leave in the box as long as I can and then cook them down and run them through my chinois, add herbs, onions, garlic, wine, and sugar, and make sauce, which I freeze because by then I’m so tired of canning, I can’t stand to can one more thing.  And the reason I’m so tired of canning at that point is that I’ve been canning green tomatoes.  Lots and lots of green tomatoes.

I’ve canned dilled green cherry tomatoes, sliced sweet pickled green tomatoes, spicy dilled sliced green tomatoes, spicy piccalilli (a green tomato relish) and sweet green tomato relish.  I still have plenty of the above on my shelves from previous years.  I like them all, but this year, I wanted to try something different.

This year, I made green tomato salsa verde.  And I may never do anything else with all my future green tomatoes.  It is that good.  I made two kinds, a blended version from a recipe on a WordPress blog called bunkers down.  I plan to use this for enchilada sauce:  enchiladas made with chicken and Monterey jack cheese, smothered in this green tomato salsa verde.  Yum.  The other version, a Ball recipe, is chunkier, more like chip-dip salsa, and is delicious with tortilla chips, just like any other salsa.  It’ll be wonderful on tacos, enchiladas, and burritos, too.  (I like handheld food.)  Both salsas have just the right amount of heat.  I would reduce the amount of salt in the blended version, but I’m pretty salt sensitive.  If you like more heat, turn it up with hotter peppers.  (Never increase the amount of peppers to get more heat.  That will affect acidity levels and create spoilage concerns.)

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If you’ve got loads of green tomatoes and are looking for a way to use them, I recommend these two recipes.  But save a few for frying.  What’s October without fried green tomatoes?

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