Friday, September 28, 2012

Goodness Grows in the Fall Garden.

I don't know why, but I'm always pleasantly surprised—amazed, even—when I plant seeds directly in the garden...

...and they actually grow.

Does this make me sound cynical? Perhaps a little. Instead, I like to think that I'm cautiously optimistic. With all of the wildlife surrounding our gardens, often I plant seeds knowing that I'm simply feeding some non-human creatures. So, I usually plant a little extra.

Two for the birds, one for the humans. Two for the mice, one for the humans.


Today, as I escaped the sickbay of our house and walked down to the large kitchen garden, the progress of the seedlings made my achy head feel a little better. Kristen, who has been home from school since Tuesday at noon with a tummy virus, kindly shared her germs with me.

Walking to the garden used all of my energy for the day. Plus some.

Three beds in the back garden contain fall crops, which are making decent progress. The other three beds are still producing cucumbers, peppers, and herbs, so those haven't been cleared yet. As soon as the garlic and onion sets arrive, though, the rest of the produce will be harvested, plants pulled and composted, soiled amended, and bulbs planted.

I also haven't touched the potager. It's still producing summer crops, but that, too, needs to be tackled.

But not today. I turned on the water, said hello to the chickens, and headed back inside to blearily tend my little couch potato.

Instead, I thought I'd share with you the fall varieties I'm growing in the first three beds. I've also set up a Pinterest Board if you'd like to see photos of each variety. All of the varieties are heirloom.

Bed 1
Brussels Sprouts ~ 'Long Island'
Cauliflower ~ 'Early Snowball'
Pac Choy ~ 'Prize Choy'
Leek ~ 'Prizetaker,' 'Blue Solaise'

Bed 2
Swiss Chard ~ 'Silver Beet'
Cabbage ~ 'Mammoth Red,' 'Cour di Bue,' 'Early Jersey Wakefield'
Radish ~ 'Early Scarlet Globe,' 'Plum Purple,' 'French Breakfast'
Lettuce ~ 'Forellenschluss,' 'Flame,' 'Lolla Rossa,' 'Grandpa Admire's,' 'Red Romaine,'  'Rouge d'Hiver,' 'Tennis Ball,' 'Amish Deer Tongue'

Bed 3
Peas ~ 'Amish Snap,' 'Tom Thumb,' 'Golden Sweet'
Kale ~ 'Red Russian'
Carrots ~ 'Parisienne,' 'Dragon,' 'Scarlet Nantes'
Spinach ~ 'America,' 'Bloomsdale'
Lettuce ~ 'Forellenschluss (Yep, I planted this in both beds. It's my favorite.)
'Merveille des Quartre Saisons,' 'Yugoslavian Red Butter,' 'Crisp Mint'

Still to plant:
Purple Sprouting Broccoli
Romanesco Broccoli

Garlic ~ 'Purple Glazer,' 'Music,' 'Inchelium Red,' 'Lorz Italian'
French Shallots
Saffron Crocus

I also need to add the companion herbs around the perimeters of the beds to help repel cabbage worm, but that's a task for when my head recovers.

IF it recovers.

Hmmm...what am I missing? What is your favorite fall crop—and variety—to grow?
Are there any of your favorites that I should add to our gardens?

Whew. It's time to head back to the couch. Honestly, the viral visitors are welcome to leave anytime.

I think we need an exorcism. Or an extra large bottle of Lysol.

Hope you have a happy, healthy weekend!


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fungi Fear.

More than a year ago, I inoculated logs with shiitake plugs.

And nothing happened.

Well, something happened. But it didn't look like a shiitake.

I was too afraid to feed it to my family. (Which really means, I feared poisoning Peter and me. Our kids would never let a mushroom pass their lips.)

I tried doing a spore print, but then was too freaked out that I wasn't reading the print correctly. So, I tossed the volunteer mushroom.

Two hours later, I learned from a mushroom expert that it was an oyster.

Oysters are perfectly safe. And delicious.

I'm such a coward.

I must admit, I pretty much gave up on the logs.

But then yesterday, I saw this:

It looks like a shiitake.

It's growing where the shiitakes should emerge.

It looks delicious.

Now, though—can I overcome my fears? Do I harvest it and serve it to Peter? Is his life insurance policy up to date? Will our children become orphans if this isn't a shiitake?

It's ridiculous, really.

I've participated in two workshops about growing mushrooms. I own several guides to identify mushrooms, including the National Audubon Society's Field Guide to Mushrooms. People often forage for mushrooms. In fact, there's a group in our area that regularly meets to mushroom-hunt.

Yet, I can't get past my fear of fungi. Perhaps it's the skull and crossbones I keep finding in my guides. 

If I found a sudden flush of uniform looking mushrooms on the logs, I'd be more likely to harvest and eat them. But instead of a flush of shiitakes produced from plugs, nature invades and produces a variety:


I'm fairly certain that these are Turkey Tail, a mushroom used medicinally.

And what's this? It doesn't look like the other mushroom that I think is a shiitake.

So, it's daunting. I really, really want to grow mushrooms—but I also want to EAT them.

And live.

I've realized it's time.

I need to suck it up and enroll in a full-blown class.

The brilliant Tradd Cotter at Mushroom Mountain offers classes and workshops onsite. I've realized that I can't do this on my own. I need an expert. I need to fork over the cash and learn how to safely produce and identify mushrooms.

Peter is safe. No mushrooms for dinner tonight.

What's your experience with mushrooms? Have you ever foraged for wild mushrooms, or do you only dare to eat packaged mushrooms from the supermarket?

Stay tuned...I'll let you know what I learn from my hands-on class!


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lovely Lemongrass.

Saturday, I braved the back garden. The big kitchen garden. The overrun, weed-infested kitchen garden. The garden spitting out hot peppers faster than I can preserve them. The garden with spotty cucumber vines creeping from their beds and escaping their trellises to trip me in the paths. The garden with its initially pristine, perfectly planned herb beds, lovely little angel wings designs, now smothered with crab grass. 

Obviously, I've avoided the big kitchen garden for awhile.

Now that I've written those words, I suppose they're not absolutely true. I did clear out three beds recently for fall crops, adding transplants and seeds. But whenever I thought about tackling the front three beds, where the peppers and cucumbers continue to produce, I walked away. The beds might be ugly, but they're productive. And that's what matters.


But the herb beds needed attention. Desperately. Not only were the beds an eyesore, but I lost several plants under the carpet of weeds.

Literally lost.

I couldn't find them. Unsure whether they died or were hiding in shame because of their surroundings, I strengthened my resolve and set to work.

Today, my knees are not happy.

But, as I pruned and pulled, uncovering the design and freeing the plants and paths, I marveled at the surprises I found.

Holy lemongrass!

Now, I've grown lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) before—but it's never been this prolific. Obviously, it enjoyed my neglect, and I love it for its lack of neediness. I especially adore that it's embracing autumn, with the foliage changing from green to burgundy.

Next year, lemongrass may take center stage in the front yard, interplanted with ornamentals. The texture and autumn color provide a pretty backdrop for shorter perennials and annuals.

Plus, it's edible—and you know how I feel about incorporating edibles into the front yard! The sharp, citrus flavor of lemongrass is often used in Asian cooking. In fact, I feasted on delicious P.F. Chang lemongrass chicken dumplings last week, while waiting for the Toyota service department to finish the Prius' 5,000 mile check-up.

(A free service visit AND a lunch date with my hubby? Now, that's a good day!)

Besides its culinary appeal, lemongrass is used in the perfume industry. Cut a stalk, and you'll understand why. Lemony fragrance infuses the air around you. A relative of citronella, it's a natural mosquito repellent. Lemongrass is also heralded as a calming medicinal herb. Lemongrass tea is traditionally consumed to relieve stomachaches. It's also used to help alleviate cough, fevers, high blood pressure, and exhaustion.

Of course, if you plan to use lemongrass or any herbs medicinally, consult a healthcare practitioner.

I'm not a healthcare practitioner. I just want to gorge on lemongrass chicken dumplings.

How to Grow.
Lemongrass is very easy to grow. My lemongrass started as seed, germinating in the greenhouse last spring. Plant seeds in soilless seed starting mix, either in trays or pots, and keep the mix evenly moist. Do not allow the mix to dry out, but also be careful not to drown the seedling. Additionally, you'll want the soil temperature to be at least 60 degrees when propagating seeds. Transplant the seedling outside when all danger of frost is past. Because lemongrass is considered a tropical perennial, you'll need to overwinter it inside for zones less than 9; otherwise, consider it an annual in cooler climates. 

Can you see the tiny lemongrass seedling I planted in front of the middle bed this spring? 

Look at how tall and lush it grew--even with serious neglect. Now, that's my kind of plant!

Another method for growing lemongrass is root division. Propagate by digging the entire plant, dividing the roots into two or three pieces. Replant at the same depth as originally planted, trimming the leaves to three or four inches tall to reduce the amount of water lost through leaves.

Lemongrass requires full sun and rich, well-drained soil. Because lemongrass can grow up to five feet tall and four feet wide, space plants accordingly in the garden. Lemongrass can also be grown in containers, which makes it easier to move inside during winter. However, add a good organic, nitrogen-rich fertilizer, like diluted fish emulsion, to the container monthly. It will stink for a day, but lemongrass needs nitrogen.

While lemongrass is rarely bothered by pests, cats do like to snack on the leaves—and sometimes dig up the plants. However, Oreo and Sammy haven't bothered our lemongrass.


How to Harvest.

Honestly, the first time I grew lemongrass—I had no idea how to harvest it. The stalk of the plant is used in cooking, while the leaves are used for tea. Cut the older outside stalks at the soil line. Wait to harvest until the plant is at least a foot tall and the stalks are approximately half an inch thick.  

When preparing lemongrass for culinary use, use the lower white portion of the stem. Finely slice the stem crosswise to avoid a tough, fibrous texture in the meal. You can also bruise the stem to release the flavor, adding the entire stalk to the dish, then removing it prior to serving. Stir fry, soup, Thai and Vietnamese dishes, pasta, fish, and veggies...all benefit from the addition of lemongrass. 

Lemongrass can be dried or frozen, but honestly—the scent and flavor of fresh lemongrass can't be beat. 

My hands smelled amazing after harvesting lemongrass.

Be warned, though—the leaves are sharp! I'm now sporting an inch-long paper-cut-like wound from a lemongrass leaf.

A lovely lemongrass recipe.
A million years ago, when Peter and I were honeymooners, we ate at a spectacular restaurant: Roy's Poipu Bar and Grill. Later, when I tried to learn to cook, I bought Roy's cookbook, Feasts from Hawaii. 

Roy's Feasts from Hawaii 

OK, maybe I bought it more for sentimental reasons than a practical get-a-dinner-on-the-table-during-the-school-week reference. Still, it's a gorgeous cookbook...with a delicious recipe incorporating lemongrass.

From Roy Yamaguchi's Feasts from Hawaii
Seared Lemongrass-Crusted Salmon with Watercress-Ginger Sauce

Lemongrass Crust:
2 tablespoons finely minced lemongrass
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon shichimi

4 salmon steaks, about 7 ounces each
¼ cup canola oil

Combine all the crust ingredients in a mixing bowl. Coat one side of the salmon with the crust mixture approximately 5 minutes before cooking.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Coat the crusted side of the salmon with the canola oil and sear, crusted side first, for about 1-1/2 minutes. Turn over and sear the other side for about 1 minute longer.

Watercress-Ginger Sauce
3 tablespoons chopped ginger
1 bunch watercress, leaves only
1 cup Beurre Blanc (see below)

To prepare the watercress-ginger sauce, squeeze the ginger in a garlic press and place the extracted juice (about 1 tablespoon) in a mixing bowl. Discard the ginger pulp. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil, remove from the heat, and blanch the watercress for about 15 seconds. Drain. Mince the watercress leaves and mix them with the ginger juice. Stir the watercress into the Beurre Blanc and keep warm.

Beurre Blanc:
½ cup white wine
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon minced shallots
2 tablespoons heavy cream
½ cup unsalted butter, chopped
¼ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground white pepper to taste

To prepare the Beurre Blanc:
Combine the wine, wine vinegar, lemon juice, and shallots in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the liquid until it becomes syrupy. Add the cream, and reduce by half. Turn the heat to low and slowly add the butter, mixing carefully (do not whisk), until the butter is thoroughly mixed into liquid. Do not let the mixture boil—the ingredients will separate. Season with salt and pepper and strain through a fine sieve. Transfer to a double boiler and keep warm.

4 sprigs watercress
4 teaspoons red pickled ginger

To serve place a salmon steak, crusted side up, in the center of each plate and ladle the Watercress-Ginger Sauce around the salmon. Garnish with watercress sprigs and pickled ginger.

And there you have it...just your typical Monday night meal, infused with the delicious taste and aroma of your homegrown lemongrass.



Wednesday, September 19, 2012

4-H Fun with Chickens.

Ah, Friday...such a happy, longed-for day! Some people celebrate Friday's arrival by going out for dinner. Others might bar-hop, catch a movie, play Scrabble with the kids.

Our family, however, drove an hour... a chicken show.

This was no ordinary chicken show. Friday's chicken show launched the career of Kiki, a.k.a. Chicken Mama--and her baby, Sugar.

The chicken showmanship event, part of the Greenville County 4-H program in which Kiki participated, caused major excitement at our house. Rehearsals, studying, and primping--all to ready the girls--feathered and not--for the show.

Did I ever think we'd participate in 4-H? Honestly, I always thought only farm kids participated in 4-H.

Instead, we introduced Kristen to ballet...

She tried to ride the mat like a horse.

We tried piano...but found practicing painful. 

We signed-up for gymnastics...she didn't give a flip.
 We tried horseback riding...

 Guess what stuck?

Of course, any extracurricular activity involving animals is exactly what our animal whisperer loves. Zoo Camp, Humane Society Camp, riding, chicken-wrangling...these things make her happy. (However, the kids start piano again next week. Some things, like music, are just important. Sorry, kids.)

So, when my friend, Cyd Brown, mentioned the 4-H Poultry Project, I knew our girl would love it.

The 4-H Poultry Project, managed by Clemson University's Extension Office, teaches kids how to raise and show chickens. The kids each receive newly hatched chicks, which they care for throughout the course of the program. Our girls, of course, will be with our family forever. Other families, though, embrace more practical aspects, raising the chicks as livestock. (Honestly, though, from what I saw at the show--most of the chickens become pets.) 

Not only do the students raise and care for the chicks, they also must keep records of how they care for their flock. Then, as part of the program, they learn the anatomy of the birds, as well as the specific habits of their breeds. Finally, the students learn how to "show" a selected bird.

Did you know that chickens need baths if they will be shown?

Sugar post-bath. She fell asleep in Chicken Mama's arms. 

Who knew showing a chicken could be so complicated?

Shortly after we arrived at the show, Dr. Mickey Hall, a professor at Clemson University and an amazing expert on poultry, arrived with several of her students. The first step of the show--blood testing the chickens to ensure they were disease free--caused the most stress for Kiki.

Poor Sugar!

(I really wish I had a photo of Kristen's reaction to Dr. Hall handling Sugar...if looks could kill--!)

 Whew...the worst is over.

Dr. Hall appointed one of her students--who also shows poultry--as the judge for the event. A few weeks prior to the show, Dr. Hall presented a showmanship workshop for the kids, organized by Cyd. She definitely knows her chickens!

During the first stage of the show, the students present their birds and perform an examination of the bird for the judge.

Kristen shows Sugar's wing...

...the undercolor of the feathers, the feet, the head and the vent. What's the vent, you ask? Well, it's the multipurpose opening in the hen's rear--and by multipurpose, I do mean multi-purpose...egg laying, breeding...and, yes, pooping. 

Aren't you glad you asked?

After the examination of the students' birds, it's show time!

First, pose the bird...

(Sugar! Your supposed to keep your head straight!)

Now, the bird takes a little stroll...

...while Kiki shows Sugar when to turn.

Honestly, I held my breath while Sugar walked. She's a flighty bird. I feared we'd be chasing her around the shelter. Whew.

Kristen thinks this guy has a crush on Sugar. He's handsome!

After all of the students finish showing their birds, the judge asks the student questions about his or her chicken and its breed. The kids need to demonstrate that they've learned what to feed the chicken, how to care for it, what color eggs it will lay (if a hen or pullet), and where the breed originated. 

Do you know that the color of a hen's earlobes usually indicate the color of its eggs? White earlobes = white eggs. Red earlobes = brown or green eggs. (There are some discrepancies, though, among breeds.) 

After all of the questions were answered, Sugar decided to cause a scene. When the chickens are blood tested, they receive a numbered tag pinned to their wing as proof of the blood test. Somehow, Sugar managed to remove the small metal tag--and Kiki panicked, fearing she might swallow it. 

Dr. Hall to the rescue! 

She reassured Kiki that Sugar's "bling" wouldn't bother her anymore.

And then...

Blue ribbon!

So proud of our girls!

Honestly, even though I never expected to become a 4-H mama, it's a wonderful program and terrific experience for animal-crazy kids. Cyd Brown, the Clemson Extension Agent in charge of the Greenville 4-H program, is fantastic--she's a terrific source of information. 

Of course, now Kristen thinks we need a goat.

I've threatened her to stop talking about a goat...

or she's going back to ballet!

Happy chicken-wrangling!

XO ~