Baby Watermelon

Baby Watermelon

Baby Watermelon

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June 26 Garden

Just a shot for comparison.  The heirloom tomatoes and pole beans in back are almost 8 feet tall now!June 26 garden

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How to make pickles

Pickling is an art, and as with any art, one has to take liberties, especially when they can’t find-or don’t feel like running out to the store and buying-all of the items listed in the canning process and pickling recipe. I imagine that’s my foreshadowing excuse if anything goes wrong with the process we used, but honestly, I tried some of the pickles after they marinated for a couple days and they were delicious! A little salty, but I blame that on Kevin’s strong Virginia roots and predelection for salt-cured country ham.

To start, we picked about four pounds worth of cucumbers from the garden, as well as about a pound of carrots and a pound of green beans. We also included many of the little onions and a few of the large ones, which were chopped and included in the pickling process.

Carrots, green beans and little red onions from the garden on their way to being pickled.

Carrots, green beans and little red onions from the garden on their way to being pickled.

All of the cucumbers and the three larger onions went through the mandolin – not too thick, but not paper-thin, either – and the carrots were simply chopped into sticks so they fit with the green beans. The smaller onions were cleaned and thrown in whole.

Here’s an option: in order to preserve the crispiness of the final pickle, toss the cucumber slices with crushed ice and a liberal handful of pickling salt (pickling salt is important because it’s salt and nothing else – regular salt tends to leave a residue in the jars). Keeping the pickles in a bowl, place a plate over them and weight it down; the purpose being to force the cucumber slices into the salt and ice, thereby drawing as much water from the cucumbers as possible. Let these sit for up to four hours and drain the cucumbers thoroughly before canning.

Four pounds of sliced cucumbers.

Four pounds of sliced cucumbers.

While all this is going on, go ahead and boil your mason jars in order to sterilize them. This is where we got “creative”. The canning recipes call for a boiling-water canner, which we not only didn’t have and didn’t feel like buying, we also didn’t really have room for such a specific peice of culinary equipment in our little kitchen. So, since the whole purpose is to keep the glass jars from direct contact with the bottom of the pot, we just tossed a clean aluminum pie pan into the bottom of the pot and put the jars on top of that. It worked like a charm. The mason jars should be placed in the pot upright and filled to about two inches above the top of the jars. Set on high and let the jars boil for about ten minutes. When done, set the whole pot to the side, but keep the jars submerged until you want to use them. Don’t toss out the water, as you’ll need to run the jars through again when they’re full in order to seal them. The lids and screw bands should be washed in soapy water and rinsed, then placed in a waterfilled saucepan and heated to 180 degrees F, making sure not to let it boil.

Next, prepare the pickling liquid. This is a simple vinegar recipe and you can honestly use whatever vinegar you like, as long as the acidity is between 5 and 6 percent. We used a half and half mixture of regular distilled vinegar (which we keep around the house in large quantities since we use it for cleaning) and organic unfiltered apple cider vinegar. For four pounds of cucumbers, the ingredients and amounts are basically:

A few of the essential pickling ingredients: canning salt, vinegar and pickling spices.

A few of the essential pickling ingredients: canning salt, vinegar and pickling spices.

2 1/2 cups vinegar

1 cup sugar or maple syrup (grade A dark amber, if you use the maple syrup)

3/4 cup water

1 tablespoon pickling spices

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon tumeric

Combine all of these, as well as 1 1/2 teaspoons of canning salt in a 3-quart saucepan and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and allow to simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes.

While the pickling juice is simmering, go ahead and get your jars ready. Drain them for a minute or so, then pack the jars with cucumbers and sliced onions.

Kevin packs cucumber slices into sterilized jars.

Kevin packs cucumber slices into sterilized jars.

We also packed four jars with the carrot, green bean and little onion mixture. Fill the jars with the pickling juice to about 1/4 an inch below the lip, then seal with the lids and screw bands.

Finally, put the sealed jars back in the pot you used to sterilize the jars, making sure the pie tin is still in place so the jars don’t come in contact with the bottom of the pot, and boil for around 20 minutes for the pickles and 10 minutes for the veggie mix. When done, remove the jars from the boiling water and allow them to sit out until the lid seals permanently with a “pop”. You might/might not hear it, and the pop could take as little as a few minutes after they’ve been removed from the heat, or a few hours. After they’ve sat out for 12 – 24 hours, take off the screw band and pry at the lid a little with your fingers. If it doesn’t budge, then you’re pickling process did what it was supposed to do: made pickles. These jars can keep indefinitely – some, in fact, have been known to last centuries – but if you label it with a date, then a year is usually the best time to enjoy your pickles at their peak.

No matter what, before eating your pickles, check that the lid is still concave, ensuring that nothing malignant has snuck past your pickle borders. When in doubt, throw it out, but hopefully all went well and you have something to brag about the next time you have company.

Finished jars of pickles.

Finished jars of pickles.

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Prequel to pickling

Okay, so this guy is a little small. But seeing a 16 foot long row full of them makes my mouth water for sweet and sour, hot and sweet and bread and butter pickles. Check in soon to see if we manage to pull off our own canning operation!

Our very first cucumber. A little small, but still very tasty - especially with a sprinkle of salt, pepper and olive oil.

Our very first cucumber. A little small, but still very tasty - especially with a sprinkle of salt, pepper and olive oil.

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A rocky May

“Global cooling”, my foot. If you ask me, the earth is simply balancing itself back out. We’ve had a rough few summers and some wretched winters over the past few years, so it only makes sense that we experience some distemperate weather this year to balance it all back out. That being said, that sharp chill around the middle of May did not help with our vegetable growth. From the looks of it, we’re about a month behind on everything: squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupe, watermelon, blueberries and even the strawberries are being a bit sluggish.

The potatoes had a rough spot, I think because of the excessive amount of rainfall we’ve had over the past month, and we’ve had to harvest a little earlier than expected. I was worried that the yellowed leaves and brown spotting on the potato plants might be a blight, it but looks like it was just rusting from the rain.

Rusting on the potato leaves from excessive rainfall.

Rusting on the potato leaves from excessive rainfall.

The garden peas didn’t like all the water, either, and died off before we were able to get a really good harvest. We did get a good handful of fresh peas and the sweet, crunchy taste of those little pods right off the vine were more than worth it. What potatoes we were able to harvest also turned out well, even though the skins are a little thin (if you wait 10 days after the potato plants die off to harvest, you’ll get a much more developed skin on the tubers). Each plant seemed to produce between 5 and 8 new potatoes, including some little seed potatoes which we’ll use for next year. The squash blossoms have also been quite abundant. In fact, we found out that several of the restaurants downtown pay upwards of $3 per blossom. If we can keep harvesting them like we did this year, I think we have a great potential source for some extra income!

New potatoes and squash blossoms from the garden.

New potatoes and squash blossoms from the garden.

Because of all the rain, however, next year we’re going to try and build more boxes for raised gardening. Our neighborhood is built on an old riverbed, which provides wonderful soil, but it’s not so great for drainage. The raised beds not only provide great drainage, they also discourage many types of ground insects and are perfect for rotating above ground crops, as well as root crops. The carrots love the raised beds, as the soil is much more loose and allows for more rapid growth. Even better is the fact that we can harvest the carrots while they’re small and eat them as baby carrots, leaving the extra room around the others so they can grow.

Rinsing off some of the baby carrots.

Rinsing off some of the baby carrots.

Lastly, we’ve been using a few different products to discourage insects, though nothing fights aphids like a good swarm of ladybugs. For most of the harmful garden pests, we’ve used Organicide, which works relatively well in that it’s kept away worms and whiteflies. For the slugs, we used Sluggo, an organic product composed mainly of iron phosphate. In all, we probably have to spend more time in the garden picking out the more resilient little buggers and spraying soapy water on the squash, which is the aphids’ favorite hang out, but it’s worth it to know that we’ve done everything in our power to have a completely organic garden.

Kevin sprays the garden with Organicide - a combination of sesame oil and fish oil.

Kevin sprays the garden with Organicide - a combination of sesame oil and fish oil.

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Blossoms!

With the sudden onslaught of warm weather, the garden is starting to burst with blossoms. The peas, beans, cucumbers, squash, and tomatoes are all showing off their beautiful yellow and white flowers. Coming soon: squash blossoms! Once they get large enough to stuff full of goat cheese and saute with olive oil, salt and pepper, we’ll see how many actually make it to adulthood.

The peas are blossoming and some pods are already starting to grow.

The peas are blossoming and some pods are already starting to grow.

The blossom at the end of that little squash should get to be about four or five inches long. Filled with goat cheese, it is a delicious snack.

The blossom at the end of that little squash should get to be about four or five inches long. Filled with goat cheese, it is a delicious snack.

Cucumber blossoms

Cucumber blossoms

Lima bean blossoms

Lima bean blossoms

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Intriguing salad items

Back in the “olden days”, the freshest fruits, meats and vegetables were restricted so that only royalty and the upper class could eat them. Because of this, the lower class and peasants had to make do with what was left.  This forced diet of barely edible dregs resulted in some of the finest and most creative dishes available in the world. Who would have thought pig’s cheeks could ever be tasty or collard greens so flavorful if someone hadn’t been forced to mess with them, plying their flavors out with all of the culinary skills in their armory.

Garden pea shoots - those twisty little do-dads at the top. Pinch them off just below a couple of the youngest leaves.

Garden pea shoots - those twisty little do-dads at the top. Pinch them off just below a couple of the youngest leaves.

It wasn’t until we were strolling past the Charleston Grill downtown and dropped in for a bite that we learned how many things are growing in our garden right now that we can eat. It started with the English garden pea shoots, an idea we had heard about from the Glass Onion, but hadn’t tried until it showed up, springing happily from our shrimp and scallop entree. They are deliciously flavorful and slightly sweet; and snapping the shoots off the top actually help the pea plants by encouraging more growth.

Arugula blossoms in the salad box.

Arugula blossoms were another new salad item. They were featured in one of the Grill’s locally grown salads and neither of us had ever thought to throw the weed-like blooms into our mixed greens. Kevin had just picked a bunch of them out of the salad bed the day before because he assumed you do the same with them as you do with basil – snap off the flowers so the leaves don’t become too tough. With the arugula, the leaves do

become tough and extra spicy, but allowing the blossoms to grow is worth it.  Kevin never had to worry about the blossoms; the next day, twenty more shoots were unfolding their small white flowers and we quickly snapped off a handful and tossed them in our dinner salad.

What a taste! The arugula blossoms were surprisingly citrus-y and spicy at the same time; adding a bright, zesty quality to the dark leafed melange.

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