Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Zucchini Axis of Evil

When you grow food in a home garden, a big part of what you're doing is trying to create and manage order from the chaos of the natural world. We arrange raised beds in tidy rows, carefully select vegetable breeds that have the characteristics we desire, and water regularly when Mother Nature doesn't provide enough rain (especially this year!). But some unpleasant discoveries this week reminded us that in the end, we're not really in charge.

First, we've got these reddish colored perfect spheres on the underside of the zucchini leaves. These we are able to identify as squash bug eggs. You know how we can tell that's what they are? Because some of them had already started to hatch by time we found them, and they looked like this:

As adults, squash bugs are kind of shield-shaped insects with pointed snouts and an unfortunate appetite for squash leaves. An otherwise healthy zucchini plant can usually withstand an attack from these bugs, but you'll still want to get rid of them if you spot them. We don't like to use chemical pesticides, so we've been simply removing and squishing any eggs we find.

This is the next culprit we've seen around our zucchini, which are probably a bigger problem. These are cucumber beetles, but they're apparently open to eating zucchini and other squashes as well. Their larvae tunnel through the roots and stems, then the adults munch on leaves and flowers. That's not good, but the real trouble is that they spread bacterial wilt, a disease that can kill entire plants. Thankfully we haven't yet seen any signs of this disease but with so many beetles around, it's a concern.

The last scourge of the squash family is the squash vine borer, possibly the most terminal, and one that we worry we might have. As their name implies, these insects also tunnel through the stems of the plants, disrupting the flow of nutrients. Once these are inside the stems, there's no real way to see them, but you'll see the damage they cause. Stems will start to get wilty, and eventually the base of the plant will turn orange and porous in a material called frass.

This is almost certainly vine borer frass, which we can confirm by splitting and looking inside the stems. If the plants die, we'll try to do that. But if the borers are already in there, we're pretty much out of luck. We should have been on the lookout for adult borers (which are moths) in the early summer, and could have used traps to try to preemptively kill them off.

For now, though, it's a race against time, to harvest all the zucchini the plants can produce while they can. We also plan to pull and destroy any plants that do die off from apparent borer attacks. This might slow or stop their spread.

On the plus side, we have already harvested more than 10 pounds of zucchini, and are finding many delicious ways to use it. We've sliced and grilled it, we've made a chocolate-zucchini cake, and just today we baked a loaf of zucchini bread. We might not be able to completely control the insects that are attacking our plants, but we can take charge of enjoying its bounty while it lasts.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Our Long-Awaited Garlic Harvest

If you do much cooking at home, one thing you're sure to use a lot of is garlic. So many recipes call for a clove or two of minced garlic, and even those that don't could often use a little. Fortunately, growing garlic in the home garden is incredibly easy! You may recall that last October we planted a few dozen garlic cloves that we'd ordered online. We covered them up over the winter, then pretty much ignored them until a few weeks ago.

At that point, the garlic stalks had lost most of their green color and began to look very droopy and dried out. That's your sign that they're ready for harvest. You don't need the whole stalk to be brown and dry; just most of the lower stalks. When we decided to pull ours out, they looked like this.

To harvest garlic, just grab a firm hold of the stalk, close to ground level, and pull the whole thing out. Hopefully they've been growing for the last 9 months, and you'll get something that looks like this.

We had a bit of variation in bulb size in our harvest. Some bulbs were large with lots of nicely formed cloves, but some of the others were a little disappointing. This likely had to do with the soil in our garden box. We planted the garlic first (last fall), before we'd done much to amend the soil. As a result the soil was somewhat dense and clayey, which is not ideal for garlic. It much prefers a loose, fluffy soil with plenty of composted manure. This is something we plan to improve for next year's harvest.

With that much garlic - a whopping 25 bulbs - it's really important to be able to store it for a long time. We chose to grow a hardneck variety which doesn't typically keep as well as the softneck types, but we preferred its flavor and size of cloves. Even so, the proper curing technique can make any type of garlic last for several months. First, they need to be hung in a in a cool, dry place with good ventilation. We bundled a few stalks together and draped them over a conduit running through our basement, then repeated until we'd hung it all.

We let things stay in this state for about three weeks to ensure the garlic had fully cured. We had to watch our heads when walking through the basement, and it smelled pretty pungent for a while. After three weeks we took them down and trimmed the bulbs. The stalks were cut off an inch or two above the bulb, and the roots snipped off almost entirely. Then we used a soft brush to clean off any remaining dirt. Some of the very loose papery outer layers also came off, but as long as it was just a little bit, that was fine too. When we were done, we had a beautiful looking pile of garlic!

As much as we'd like to use every last clove, we do plan to set aside a few of the best looking bulbs to plant this fall. It's tempting to plant the smaller ones so you can use the big ones in your cooking, but it's really wise to plant something that has the characteristics you want to propagate. We want big garlic bulbs in the future, so we'll save a few of the biggest and best to plant.

We're storing our garlic in brown paper bags in the basement. The basement will keep them cool and dry, and the bag will ensure that they also stay in the dark. If garlic bulbs see too much light, they will want to sprout, which we certainly don't want to happen right now. With previous years crops of Georgian Crystal given to us by Greg's Dad, we've been able to keep them this way until Christmas or beyond.

Garlic was one of the easiest and most rewarding crops we've grown yet. We're already starting to think about where we'll be planting the next crop this fall. And probably munching on some homemade garlic bread while we do!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Enchilada Sauce - a Tasty Labor of Love

Some people advocate for cooking at home because it saves you money versus dining out or buying prepared food. Other times it may cost more but the ability to control ingredients and preparation lets you know that you're making something that's tastier or better for you. And every once in a while, neither one of these is necessarily the case, but you cook it yourself because it's just so crazy fun. The homemade enchilada sauce we made tonight comes pretty close to falling into that third category.

Of course, our sauce didn't have a bunch of preservatives in it like the canned stuff does, so it probably was just a bit healthier. And in our humble opinion, the flavor did outdo storebought. But the main appeal, despite how laborious it was to make, was the fun of the process. So, if you want to make a delicious sauce that costs at least twice what they charge at the grocery store, clear a few hours from your schedule and follow along!

The first step is to collect some dried chile peppers. You can grow and dry these yourself; and with two dozen poblano and anahiem pepper plants in our garden, it's pretty possible that we'll try this after this year's harvest. But for now we needed to buy some. We got ours at Allspice in Des Moines, but another good option would be a Hispanic food store like you can find in many cities. We selected three good specimens of  ancho (dried poblano) and New Mexico. We put these on a sheet pan and roasted them in the oven at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. Once the peppers became fragrant, we knew it was time to pull them out.

Peppers keep most of their heat in the seeds and interior webs, so the next step is to cut them up and remove all the "guts." We want our sauce to have some kick, but these peppers have enough in the fruit that we don't need the seeds. The remaining pieces of pepper were chopped up and tossed in a bowl then covered with boiling water. We let this sit for about an hour to let the peppers really rehydrate.

After an hour the peppers had softened up, so we put them in the blender, along with some of the water they'd been steeping in. We didn't end up using all the water: just enough to get a good smooth, slightly runny consistency. Be careful at this stage not to touch your eyes since you will likely have plenty of capsacin on your fingers.

This still isn't sauce though, since it only has the one note of the peppers. To add a little bit more depth, we sauteed a chopped onion and three cloves of garlic in three tablespoons of butter. After it had all softened, we added a few tablespoons of flour to form a kind-of roux (a flour-butter mixture that thickens liquids). After the roux had cooked for a few minutes to remove the flour flavor, we poured in the blended peppers, a teaspoon each of cumin and Mexican oregano, plus a teaspoon and a half of salt. Again, we simmered the mixture for a while to blend all the flavors, then literally blended it to get it smooth!

In the end, we had about a quart of enchilada sauce. It only took an hour and a half to make it all, and it cost nearly $5 in peppers, but man oh man was it delicious.

We used it to make a huge platter of vegetarian enchiladas. We filled tortillas with a mixture of organic black beans, locally grown sweet corn, and sauteed green peppers, doused them in the sauce and baked them until everything had warmed up. They looked great!

And they tasted fantastic too. Greg could probably eat Mexican food every night, but this batch of enchiladas seemed superlatively satisfying. It's hard to say if it's because the sauce was so tasty or just so much fun to make, but by the end of dinner we sure were glad we'd done it. 


This post has been shared with Simple Lives Thursday.

Friday, July 6, 2012

June Harvest Update + a recipe!

Much as we love our garden, it doesn't seem that Mother Nature has been too interested in helping us out with it. It has been phenomenally hot and dry all through June and thus far into July without much relief in sight. According to the Iowa Environmental Mesonet, we received 2.08 inches of water in June, versus the average of 4.94. So we've been busy watering our plants, making sure to do so away from peak hours so it has some chance of soaking in.

We were concerned that the dry spring, coupled with the excessive heat, would limit our harvests of spring crops but thankfully that hasn't been the case. June was the month of broccoli, with nearly every plant we started producing a full-sized head plus several side shoots. Plus we continued to harvest our baby spinach and began picking snow peas and kale.

In June we harvested:

14.3 ounces of the lovely kale shown above
1 lb, 0.4 ounces of spinach, the end of the spring crop
2 lb 15.4 ounces of snow or sugar snap peas
a whopping 7 lb 3.0 ounces more broccoli!

We love broccoli, but that's a lot of steamed broccoli, even for us. So, on a day where you walk into the backyard and realize, we need to pick those three heads of broccoli right now or else they will bolt, what do you do?

You make broccoli-raisin salad, of course! Odds are you've had broccoli salad a time or two, at a picnic, a salad bar or a potluck get-together. Well, we just love the stuff, so it was a no-brainer way to use a bunch of broccoli fresh out of the garden. But we make ours just a touch differently from the standard recipe. Here's how we do it.

Naturally, we start with that broccoli, chopped up into florets. Since the size of the heads varies, we use 2-3, or until it nearly fills our big 8 cup measuring cup. Some people aren't fond of using the stalks, but if it's fresh they're not usually too woody. So, while Greg chopped them up, Stacia...

Whipped up a quick dressing made of 1 cup mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, and 2 teaspoons sugar. This is often done with regular white vinegar but using balsamic really adds a little more depth of flavor. 

And now, brace yourselves for the blasphemous part. We don't add any bacon. Don't worry - we, along with the rest of the country, do enjoy bacon, but in this dish it can be a bit overpowering. The upside is that means no frying, so this is truly a no-cook salad. All you have to do now is toss the rest of the ingredients with the dressing.

Those ingredients are: the chopped broccoli, 1/2 cup raisins, some chopped onion if you have it (we didn't so we left it out; no big deal), and 1/4 cup sunflower seeds. Sunflower seeds get you the protein part of the meal that's traditionally done with bacon, but this is a much less assertive flavor. Toss it all together, and let it marinade for about 4 hours, or at least as many as you can resist eating it!

So there you have it! Next time you're faced with the wonderful quandary of how to use seven pounds of homegrown broccoli, try making this salad. It can go with almost anything, but we usually end up just munching on it as a snack and it's gone before we know it.

Hopefully we get a little bit of rain to help our plants out in the next month. It should be an exciting time, as we may start to harvest tomatoes and peppers, among other things. Using up a glut of either of those is just as fun, so we'll keep our fingers crossed that we get one!