Monday, October 16, 2006

catfish stew

I'd been waiting all summer for those eggplants to grow. We gave them the utmost attention this year, starting them by seed in early March, and keeping them under fabric cover when transplanted outside so that they were not riddled with flea beetle bites and ultimately destroyed as in previous years. Steve built a wooden frame so the plants could grow big and still be covered up, but not be weighed down by the fabric. Once a week or so I would lift up the side and pull out the weeds and admire the large green leaves with the deep purple hue and eventually they were loaded with little lavender flowers with yellow centers. I wasn't looking at them regularly enough though. After a while it struck me that I hadn't seen any fruits forming from those flowers, just more and more flowers all over the now massive plants. In a moment when talking with Margaret and she mentioned something about pollination. Ah-ha! Probably the bees need to get into pollinate those flowers! My knowledge of botany is kind of vague. Off came the fabric. The plants were big and strong now to withstand insect predation, and soon little black orbs tinged purple to white at the base formed dripping down from the flowers.

That was in mid-September about a month ago. Once the eggplants started forming, I removed many of the flowers and some of the smaller eggplants, so as to give the few a chance to get larger. Each week as frost became a more and more serious threat, I'd pull off all the flowers whenever I'd notice them and also some more of the wee eggplants. Now the little eggplants were big enough to save. A bunch of them could contribute to a meal! In recent days, Steve started to cover up the eggplants, peppers and tomatoes with mattress covers and sheets at night when frost threatened. I'd picked most all the tomatoes and peppers but it would be nice to get some bigger eggplants. Especially since this was a bumper year for zucchinis and I wanted so much to make ratatatouille!.

Had picked enormous numbers of zucchinis until the killing frost a couple days ago. We had not bothered to cover the massive zucchini plants. Now that the giant leaves have turned black and flattened to the ground, a huge green zucchini bat appears lying in contrast across them. It had grown there for a while undetected under the many over-arching leaves despite my daily efforts to seek out such out and prevent such monstrosities. This was only the third or so zucchini that got away from me in the course of the summer. We have enjoyed probably close to a hundred at the perfect size - around six to eight inches long.

As the zucchinis kept piling up and I used them in different ways - zucchini stir-fry with tomato and garlic, curried zucchini, zucchini quiche, zucchini en tuna noodle casserole, and froze some… I longed for the eggplants to be ready as they are the perfect partner for zucchini in ratatatouille - one of those quintessential end-of-summer dishes that absorb lots of tomatoes and peppers as well. A few carrots and green beans can also blend well if they are handy. To make a meal out of it - give it a little protein boost - nothing could beat catfish to my taste.

Catfish nuggets are a great bargain available at my local supermarket. Priced around $3 a pound, they're extraordinarily flavorful, easy to cook, and presumably quite nutritious. I think they're fish-farmed now so hopefully the environment is clean since they're the bottom suckers.

So faced with a pile of small eggplants, each about 3 inches long and not even 1/2 inch wide, I decided it was time for this end-of-summer treat. Though I've been disappointed that they were not bigger, these little gems could probably achieve gourmet status with the right spin! The trend of using baby vegetables seemed rather faddish to me, but that does not prevent me from making the best use of those wee ones when that's all you have.. Chopping up the little eggplants, I started to get concerned how they would taste, so I put in fewer than planned, so I've still got a bunch. Plus we have some more trying to grow in the garden under that mattress cover!

As with most of the things I cook, started with some oil in the cast-iron dutch oven and fried up a couple onions; added carrots, garlic and peppers, salt and eggplant. Didn't bother salting the eggplant first. It was going to be a stew after all so there would be plenty of juices to soften up the eggplant and vice versa. Turned up the heat and threw in the chunks of catfish too. Stirred them around and around. Added a few scarlet runner beans, and some minced thai peppers that were sitting in a small wooden bowl on the table, waiting for just such an opportunity.

Once the pinkness was off the catfish, I cut up some tomatoes and added those to the mix. With my wooden spoon, jabbed the chunks of catfish to break them up a bit, but not too much. Turned the heat down and covered it up and let it simmer. I forgot to put in any herbs or spices! But the flavors that had seeped earlier into the cast iron came out slowly and delicately into the stew. Tortillas on the side with perhaps a touch of sour cream or yogurt, and maybe some cheese.

Friday, August 4, 2006

There is still time...

The garden is in high gear. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and beans are now coming on seriously. Vacations beckon but home garden demands. Weeding, watering, and most important of all at this time of year: harvesting begins in earnest. And if you like flowers, a few minutes of deadheading each week makes the difference to keep the flowers blooming and the dead at bay: fall is soon enough for dried brown flowerheads. No time to take a vacation, but going out into the garden, if regularly enough, is escape enough. But I went anyway. The family draws even harder on your heart than the plants. And it is good to get away from home to another place once in a while and shed the usual and simplify; but who will take care of the garden?

Every year something does well, and something fails. The humiliation of high August with its assault of insects, weeds, heat, and drought; and the seductive call of the lake and the pool. There are never enough cucumbers that follow the promise of the early plants, for all the pickles that we would like to give as gifts at Christmas. Watering by hand never matches the gift of water from the sky.

The sound of cicadas stops time when it rises up in the afternoon, swelling into the evening into the chorus of the crickets: the music that evokes deep silence--a percussion ensemble totally absorbed in mono-tony, yet it rises and falls and suddenly stops. Are new ones joining in?

Just get out there when you can. Be outside however you can. Enjoy the sweat. Soon enough the walls and the heating system will close in. The pink sky through the haze above West Hill draws me out onto the porch. Cars have died down in the west end, thankfully. The insects almost drown them out when you're outside the house.

It's not too easy to think of fall crops now, but you'll be happy later if you did. It's probably too late now to start broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, collards, and brussel's sprouts. They probably needed to be started by mid-June to get fall crops, though you can never tell what the weather will be like, especially with global warming. We go by experiences in the past--averages and extremes. Carrots should've been sown by mid-July, but no regrets! There is still time to direct seed lettuce, spinach, arugula, cilantro!, mustard greens, chinese cabbage, tat soi, pac choi, and probably a host of others. The rewards will be ample. Diligent watering keeps them going during the hot spells. If you're good and the winter is mild like last year, you can pick the biggest leaves of spinach and lettuce in the fall and then cover the little plants with dry leaves for the winter. In spring, brush off the leaves, and find precious early salads for weeks that predate those sown in March or April.

Salsa time. Peppers are coming on slow, but one little hot purple pepper, ripening to red, is ready and hot enough to carry the salsas. I managed to overwinter Pretty in Purple in a pot over the winter in a south-facing window. A find from Johnny's Selected Seeds, a wonderful seed company from Albion, Maine. It used to be my favorite seed company before discovering the less glossy, more economical, but just as devoted Pinetree Garden Seeds from New Gloucester, Maine. Their seed packets are smaller, but plenty for the home gardener.

The tomatoes are lush. Hybrid Early Girls ripened first, and then the Sweet Million cherry tomatoes. But now the heirloom tomatoes are kicking in with incomparable flavor--Pruden's Purple (I'd sure like to know who Pruden was--is all I know is that this is delicious, a dusky pink and considered to be an early Brandywine) and Golden Queen (this one is from the Amish introduced in 1882). Brandywine, another Amish tomato, has not yet totally ripened. Hardly a meal goes by without some manifestation of tomatoes.

Oh, the kids are hungry or thirsty! They are running downstairs. What will they find in the kitchen? The kids are old enough to poke around and find something good. Rachel is well-rehearsed in what is available, and since she entered her teens, she has shown more interest in good nutrition.

I was just enjoying some sun tea;--very refreshing-made with a little English Breakfast tea for a little kick, and for flavor, herbs from the garden, dried--bee balm, peppermint, catnip, maybe some thyme flowers? Each time I make it it is a little different--I follow my nose and throw in what smells harmonious.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Succession planting. Here it is July, and I still don't have all the plants in the garden. Not only are the plants for the fall garden waiting in the wings, but also some of the summer ones. There's still basil in pots, as well as dwarf marigolds and a second round of calendulas. They're still rather small so I didn't want to rush to get them into the garden, and then have to struggle to keep them watered. When they are so little, they might need to be watered at least twice a day in a dry spell. To keep them growing I transplanted them into slightly bigger pots, as I do with most plants before finally settling them into the garden. After initially sowing seeds in small plastic six-pack units, I transfer most plants into 15-ounce ricotta cheese or sour cream containers, or sometimes the little 8-ounce yogurt containers.. (Some fast-growing plants like tomatoes go directly into 32-ounce yogurt containers.) To make holes in the bottom for drainage, I turn them upside down on a flat surface, and jab through with a two-pronged carving fork in several places.

A few plants, like lobelia, begonias, and small-leafed basil, are transplanted into a nicer pot to display on a window sill or on the patio. But most of the containers are in the coldframes or in flats on the floor of the porch. There's not really a rush as some or all can stay in pots if need be.

All the plants for the fall garden have also been transplanted into the bigger containers and are waiting in the coldframes for when there is room in the garden. Kale, collards, cabbage, cauliflower, cabbage, and radicchio were all started by seed May 21, even before the tomatoes got into the garden! They can grow into the containers until they reach a decent size for transplanting, and equally important, when there is room in the garden!

The garden is constantly in sequence from one crop to another in the summertime. When the spring crops finish up, there's room for whatever is ready to go in next. I have maps of the garden from the last two years, and all the beds are numbered. I refer to these to try to avoid planting anything in the same spot where it has been before in those two years, so as to make it harder on the pest insects and diseases to get a foothold. So far I have not been able to work up a complete plan prior to planting time, as there are so many variables. It's a rather fluid time -- constantly evaluating what needs to get into the ground and where there is room, and what grew there before. I try not to get in a rush and make snap decisions, because that's when I make mistakes.

There's also the over-wintered crops to consider and it differs from year to year what survives the winter and flourishes in spring. Last year I had let a small bed of garden cress flower in summer. By fall, it had re-seeded itself over two beds where the garlic was harvested in mid-summer. Early this spring it came back again, and so I let them stay, and we enjoyed plenty of fresh cress before any other spring greens were ready. They flowered in late spring, and I hope they had a chance to spread more seed, but come June I just had to pull them out to make room for tomatoes and zucchinis. Tomatoes just get too big to stay in pots unless they're hugh pots. Zucchinis I start from seed out in the ground.

Wild arugula is another crop that is abundant from last year. No need to re-sow that this year! It threatens to take over, so I have to pull out more than we can actually eat. Nevertheless we've been eating plenty of this pungent green, as well as freezing some for later use, as I do with all the greens when they are abundant.

The last of the lettuce is showing early signs of going to seed and the pea and snap pea vines are putting out fewer flowers, and when it's all over there will be two more beds there. Once we get a dry spell, it won't be long after that for the garlic to be ready to pull.

Rain. We've had plenty of rain this summer so far, unlike the drought of last year. Others around us - near the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers - suffered torrential floods, which we were spared here in Ithaca. Everything is lush from the rain.

Mulch. Maybe it was last year's drought, or just getting tired of the endless weeding, but this year Steve and I decided to go much heavier on the mulch than we have in the past 12 or so years gardening together. Going back to my roots, in a way. The first garden I ever had back in my parents' yard in Columbus, Ohio, was inspired by intensive reading of Organic Gardening publications. Ruth Stout was among the most inspiring and entertaining. A beginning gardener, already I was attracted to her no-work mulch method, realizing that I too would be old someday. At that time I had access to all the grass clippings I could desire, as my father mowed the large lawn and all the clippings collected in a bag hooked to the mower. Here in Ithaca we buy straw bales from Agway, and leave our grass clippings on the grass to keep the lawn nourished. We've done some mulching in the past, but not enough to really cut down on the weeding. This year we've bought more bales than ever before, so we can lay them down thickly, at least around the tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and peppers. It keeps the moisture in, cuts down on weeding, and breaks down some, adding more organic matter to the soil.

Ruth Stout says leaves can be used too, and I will have to try that too, but we're running low on leaves now. In the fall, we run around and drive around taking other people's bags of leaves off the curb, where they're waiting to be picked up by the city. We stockpile them and use them for layering in the compost bin to cover the kitchen waste in the wintertime when we are short of weeds. We have used them for mulching plants in the fall, and covering some, like spinach, in the hopes of over-wintering. But why not use them in the summertime, if we have enough? Will have to gather even more this fall to have next summer!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Another garlic mustard pull

Another garlic mustard pull at the Biodiversity Preserve today, and another beautiful day despite (or maybe because of) the dramatic clouds building up and erupting into rolling thunder as we were leaving. We had two smaller groups today, but our group made considerable progress clearing out a lovely wooded area full of wildflowers -- white foam flower, bishops cap, dark-pink flowered geraniums, jack-in-the-pulpit, and blue cohosh -- right near a beaver dam in the Cayuga Inlet. Betsy called it the "Sugar Cup" and said they have been working on that area at least every second year for the past eight years, and the efforts are obviously paying off as the clumps were much fewer than in the past. So that was particularly satisfying to wander around and pick every garlic mustard in sight until after a while we could no longer find any.This time I brought along a garlic mustard appetizer to introduce everyone to its flavor. I modified Jane Brody's "Spinach and cheese squares" recipe from The Good Food Book. Instead of the 10 oz frozen spinach spinach, I used almost that much garlic mustard which I had previously cooked as above (2nd delicious idea). The addition of garlic chives is excellent too, if you have it available.

* 2 eggs
* 6 T whole wheat pastry flour
* 8 oz cooked garlic mustard
* 2 T chopped garlic chives
* 16 oz (2 cups) cottage cheese
* 2 cups grated cheddar cheese
* 1/2 tsp black pepper to taste
* 1/8 tsp cayenne to taste
* pinch nutmeg
* 3 T wheat germ

Pre-heat the oven to 350. Whip up the eggs and stir in the flour til well-mixed. Add the rest of the ingredients (except wheat germ) and mix well. Turn on to greased 13" by 9" pan. Sprinkle with wheat germ. Bake 45 minutes or so. Let cool in pan 10 minutes before cutting into squares.

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Garlic Mustard - its time has come!

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) has an image problem! Here is a wonderful useful plant that was introduced to the United States by European settlers who appreciated its flavor as well as well as its nutritional value (high in vitamins A and C). Plus they found it helpful controlling erosion, and even treating ulcers and gangrene! Eventually it escaped from cultivation on Long Island and became a pest from Maine to Oregon and into Canada. It's mostly a concern in forests where it exudes chemicals which disrupt the mychorrizal fungi that so many trees depend on. (Back in Europe there are plenty of insects who devour it, but not here. Even the deer don't like it, so they actually hasten its spread by eating its native competitors instead.) The paradox is that if garlic mustard were more popular then it would be less of a problem. Hence the campaign to use it while we try to eradicate from our forests. If leagues of people were heading out to the woods and fields every spring to pick crops of garlic mustard, then the problem of it taking over our woodlands would soon be over.

On Sunday I participated in a "Garlic Mustard Pull" at the Lindsay-Parson Biodiversity Preserve in West Danby, New York. This 450-acre preserve full of glacial hills and a mix of forest and meadow, ponds and stream, is not immune to the onslaught of garlic mustard, but fortunately its presence is so far limited to spots here and there. But that could change if no control measures are taken. It seems like a Herculean task when you look at the enormous numbers of plants in some patches. So the strategy, as Betsy Darlington, a delightful doyenne of nature activism in Ithaca, explained, is to first pick your area, where it is not so impossible and overwhelming. Our group went deep into the woods to a a spot filled with the enchantments of rolling terrain scattered with ferns in the underbrush, and a patch of mayapples, studded with white trilliums and other native plants. Betsy showed us a jack-in-the-pulpit (first time I recall seeing one), and it wasn't soon after that I discovered one for myself while pulling garlic mustard. Once the area is chosen, then we fanned out and went after the outliers - the upstarts that were on the march spreading outward from the patch.

The past few weeks have been the ideal time for pulling out the plants, as they start to get big, and up to the time that they begin to flower, but before they set seed. I only had a few plants in my yard, as I try to pull all of them every year, but I don't have to go far to find vast fields of them. Recently I filled several bags at the Fuertes bird sanctuary here in Ithaca, New York, and another day on the path along the water north of the Farmer's Market. Some delicious ideas:

* Young tender leaves can be torn up a bit and added to salads.
* Sautee garlic in olive oil or sesame oil or bacon grease; add chopped garlic mustard and other greens if available (garlic chives, spinach, arugula, lambsquarters, mustard greens, what-have-you); a little salt or soy sauce; add a bit of water or stock and cook gently. A dash of vinegar, balsamic or otherwise, may be in order. Taste and decide. This could be spread on toast, added to casseroles, eggs, quiche, stir-fries, etc.
* Garlic mustard pesto: crush garlic, slice up garlic mustard and also garlic chives if available, puree both in food processor with olive oil and walnuts (or pine nuts); add parmesan cheese. Start the water for pasta!
* Cream sauce: heat 1/4 cup oil and add 1/4 cup flour and cook; add hot milk. Separately cook finely chopped garlic mustard in a little sesame oil; and tamari or soy sauce. Add some of the sauce; puree in food processor and add back to the sauce. Add cheese as desired. Good on stuffed grape leaves for one.
* With leftover garlic mustard sauce, add a little yogurt, balsamic vinegar, and tamari and serve as a sauce for steamed asparagus.
* Make a sauce for roast beef. First the roast beef: make a slurry with crushed garlic and Worcestershire sauce, and make little inch slashes on the roast. Take a teaspoon to inject the slurry into the slashes, and slather the rest of the slurry all over the roast. Add some water to the bottom of the roast pan. Cover with aluminum for part of the cooking time so the outside doesn't burn. Bake at 325 til it reaches the desired internal temperature according to your meat thermometer. Make a cream sauce with the garlic mustard: Chop finely the garlic mustard and garlic chives, which are also in great abundance. Sautee in olive oil; add chicken stock or other liquid and cook gently. Make a cream sauce (as above) and add it all together along with drippings from the roast beef pan. This is so flavorful - cheese is unnecessary.