Saturday, October 1, 2016

Heirloom Shantung jade squash

I won't wax poetically about heirloom seeds - mostly because some people can do it so much more passionately and expertly than I can, but in short, heirloom seeds - and the gardeners that preserve them - are quite amazing.  

This is a gigantic Chinese jade squash, sitting on top of a trellis in my father's garden. It has a while to go before it lightens in color and develops lovely green speckles/streaks. He's grown this squash for the past few years and loves the tender, mild taste. Later, he'll grate the pale yellow flesh and make fried squash patties or may finely chop the squash and combine it with minced shrimp and ground pork to make his famous dumplings.

Prior to these past few years though, my father had not tasted this squash since probably the early 1960's. Shortly after that time, my father made his way from rural China to bustling Hong Kong, then finally to the suburbs of the United States where he cultivated several different gardens in the backyards of several different homes.  He tried for the first time, and then subsequently grew many vegetables that a typical American gardener would grow such as tomatoes, cucumbers and summer squash.

While my father was gardening in the United States, gardeners in Shandong, China, remained guardians of this very local heirloom squash, growing them season after season, saving seeds season after season so that one day, decades later, my father would meet an old friend with a handful of seeds to share. These seeds were saved from my father's favorite squash grown back home during his childhood decades ago.  While my father may now be accustomed to tasting Chinese jade squash every fall since he's been saving seeds for a few years now, I am amazed every time I see this gorgeous thing up on the trellis from a very far off place and time. 

(cross-posted at The Chinese Kitchen Garden blog - please visit this blog to learn more about growing and cooking Asian vegetables!)

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Mexican Bean Beetle Infestation

So the thing that happens when you neglect your much-loved garden for weeks, is when the weather cools, it stops thunderstorming, and you have a block of time to really do some work in there, you find a total, complete infestation of insect pests - in this case, the Mexican bean beetle. Most of the leaves on my sugar snaps have taken on that characteristic lacy look, created by the larvae and beetles chomping away - mostly on the undersides of the leaves. We're near the end of the bean season anyway, so after picking the last pocketful of sugar snaps, I figured the best way to take care of this problem would be to tear it all out. Almost every leaf was home to either pupating beetles, feeding larvae, clusters of eggs, or adult beetles moving around! I made a special effort to watch for the faster moving beetles that easily drop to the ground because they can burrow into the soil and overwinter.  I do NOT want this kind of problem again next year. It all - in every stage - had to go!

Clusters of 30-40 eggs, laid by adult beetles as frequently as every 2 days. Will hatch in 1-3 weeks.
Can be squished, but not by me!

Fuzzy-wuzzy was a pupa

Feeding larva with it's black-tipped spines does the most damage to leaves

Adult bean beetle. To be thrown in a bucket of soapy water till drowned. 
Now, on to remove all bean plant debris where the beetles or eggs could be hiding so my garden has the best chance of being pest-free next summer.

Then later, to research early bean plants to try next year. Most of the damage done to crops happens mid-late summer, and I can try to get most of my harvests before that time.

And mental note from here on out: be in the garden more to prevent a few beetles from taking complete control! Not only could my sugar snaps have continued to produce for a few weeks, but oh, the heebie-jeebies when cleaning up.  I don't want to go through that again.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Homemade fruit leather

When my daughter goes to her ballet classes, I generally go for a long run/walk if it’s nice out, or I’ll read in my car if it’s not. However, before I developed these healthy habits, I used to while away the time at the shopping strip just through the trees from the side of the studio.  This is when I discovered the treasure trove of stuff at Bed Bath and Beyond.  Piled high from floor to ceiling is glorious household stuff – and it’s all stuff YOU REALLY NEED.  There was a point when I bought a new appliance every week – waffle iron, ice cream maker, portable heater, juicer…

Of all the appliances stored in my closet, the food dehydrator has come upon the most use.  As a gardener and frequent farmer’s market purveyor of ripe summer fruits, July/August/September means a lot of delicious drying food is working its way through those dehydrator trays.  A favorite?  Homemade fruit leather. 

You can get complicated with this, and many recipes do. You can add lemon juice to prevent the fruit leather from darkening, there are instructions for straining your mixture, you can add sugar (no!). But the recipe below is all you need to know if you’ve never made fruit leather and want to try:

Fruit Leather Recipe

1) Puree a few soft fruits like the peaches we used here.

2) Pour into the fruit leather tray – right up to the top of the fruit leather tray is fine.

3) Dry until totally leathery. You’ll know when that is (about 6-8 hours?  Food dehydrators are very forgiving and you can’t mess it up!). It won't be wet and you'll be able to lift and peel it off of the tray in one piece. 

4) Peel off the tray.  One side will be stickier than the other.  Stick that side to wax or parchment paper.  That’s it!

This flexible fruit leather tray sits on top of the slatted dehydrator below.
To make life even easier, place fruit leather tray on the rigid dehydrator tray before filling.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

How to save garlic that's been in the ground too long

I should cross title this post “How to make garlic powder” because that’s the solution.

As you see in the photo above, I had a great garlic harvest.  It just happened to be harvested a few weeks too late!  A combination of heavy rain, intense heat, mosquitoes, and a summer vacation was what did this garlic in.  By the time I was able to dig up the bulbs, the leaves had completely dried up and you can see that most of the papers surrounding the cloves and the whole bulbs, had nearly disintegrated.  I did not think this garlic would store like garlic harvested at the right time would. 

In my freezer is a container of peeled cloves ready to go, and I did not need any more to be added to the already large amount. Fortunately, a Facebook friend happened to complete a project at the exact time I needed a solution for saving this garlic. 

To make Linda’s garlic powder, I sliced the garlic*, dehydrated the slices in the oven on the lowest setting with the door cracked (my food dehydrator was being used at the time), and when fully dry, flaked some and powdered some in the food processor.  Using my oven gave the garlic a more toasted color and flavor than Linda got in a dehydrator, but with garlic, a toasted flavor is ok with me.  As you can see from the jar of Linda’s garlic chips below, her garlic retained a lighter color.  Because she wanted to avoid clumping, she will store the fully dried chips in a jar and flake or powder them in smaller batches as she needs more.

I’m so excited that all this garlic could be saved and am looking forward to using my homemade garlic powder and garlic flakes in dishes throughout the year!

*I have cut garlic many thousands times of times without an issue.  When I did this project, I learned something important – garlic burns! If you look at the amount of garlic I cut, and realize that raw garlic juice was on my hand for a very long time, it makes sense that a mild irritant could really affect the skin.  Shortly after I finished and washed my hands, my left hand started burning pretty intensely.  Intense enough to do some research on garlic burns and get to the aloe plant to use.  The whole-hand burning lasted a good 20 minutes or so, but my left pointer finger and thumb continued to feel swollen and hurt for about 2 days as if I burned them on a hot pan.  Crazy.  Next time I will definitely wear gloves!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Here's why I've been quiet - I'VE WRITTEN A BOOK!

Poor, poor neglected blog... Here's the thing, when gardening and writing are 2 of your favorite pastimes (my blog friends know what I'm talking about), the urge to blog doesn't easily disappear, but often it takes the place of something else - usually a life change - in my case, the writing of a book!  If you've been following this blog, you know that I love writing about the less mainstream vegetables my family and I grow, including all the Chinese vegetables I grew up picking from the garden.  You also know I love cooking and food.

I have been so lucky and thrilled to be able to put together these things to create a beautiful book I am so incredibly proud of! Though I got to include about 20 of my own photos, most of the photography is done by Sarah Culver, a magnificent artist whose eye is close to my own. Where I had the aesthetic but not the creativity or technical skill to produce the photos I wanted, Sarah was able to translate what was in my head to real life.  If you love beautiful photos of the garden, you will not be disappointed when you flip through this gorgeous book!

I've also created a website and a blog there that will focus strictly on growing and cooking Asian vegetables.  If you're interested, please check it out and "like" The Chinese Kitchen Garden's page on Facebook to get notifications when there are new posts (or add to your blogroll if that's easier!).

The Chinese Kitchen Garden will be published by Timber Press in February 2017, but is available for pre-order now at your favorite bookseller like Amazon.  I'm so pleased to say that it's not even out but is already doing well!  Of course for me, the main goal is not to sell books (you probably know I have a day job that pays the bills), but to share some of my family and cultural experiences with the world, to highlight some amazing vegetables you may not have tried yet, and to show off some of my mom's best authentic Chinese recipes I grew up with. I've worked really hard to make this a really rich book. Please visit my website here and learn more about this book.  I know you'll love it!

Friday, July 15, 2016

How to keep animals from digging up newly sown seeds (bloodmeal!)

This squirrel sure seems to be enjoying the few raspberries I'm growing!

I'm pretty sure this gorgeous, sleek, fat squirrel is partially responsible for my garden failures early this season.  While my friends are posting photos of baskets full of green beans, tonight, I sauteed up a pan containing exactly 12 beans.  My family gathered around the dinner table where a plate of the 12 long beans lay straight as the tines on a fine-toothed comb.  Or maybe more like a wide-toothed hairpick. Each member of my family ate his/her 3 beans - not too fast! - lest he/she be accused of taking more than his/her fair share.  

What's the problem? Birds, squirrels, maybe a chipmunk...I'm not sure.  When I sow a row of beans, inevitably 70% of the seeds don't come up.  Sometimes it's because I'm a seed hoarder and put my faith in seeds that should have been tossed years ago.  But most of the time, I go into the garden and find a frustrating little hole where I planted a seed the day before.  Just a few plants make it and thus we end up with 12 beans for dinner.  

However, recently, my husband went to the hardware store and came back with a bag of bloodmeal as a "surprise" for me.  Whyever would you buy that, I asked??? For no other reason than, "Because it sounded like something you'd like".  

I have never used bloodmeal but turns out it supplies a good deal of nitrogen and has a side benefit of repelling small animal pests.  When half of my cucumbers did not come up (with the typical holes the next day where the seeds were just carefully placed), I started again with more seed and sprinkled some of the bloodmeal over the area.  No digging and seeds promptly germinated! 

So while we guardedly eyed each other tonight over the plate of 12 green beans, there is a bumper crop of cucumbers coming up. There will be peace once again in the Spray household and it's due to bloodmeal, a fertilizer with a name that people think gardeners would like.  Well, peace again until my addictive sweet/hot pickles are made - then they'll be eye-balling each other again!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Master Gardener Demonstration Gardens

Tucked behind the big red barn in Derwood, Maryland is the Montgomery County Master Gardener Demonstration Garden.  I like to choose a quiet afternoon to visit this favorite spot of mine and I leave with lots of great ideas.  The Master Gardeners who maintain all the well-loved bits and pieces of this demo garden are always trying new things and planting different kinds of vegetables. It's an excellent place for gardeners of all levels of experience to visit.  My last visit was on the day of their bustling open house when I gave a talk on growing and cooking Asian vegetables.  Good thing the speaker before me was running late because I got to take a quick tour led by my friend Erica who blogs at Rogue Eggplant and also on the Grow It Eat It blog.  Check out all there is to learn:

In this African Keyhole Garden, made with the free compost bins our county provides, a central tower is continuously fed with kitchen scraps.  The compost that is created provides nutrients for the plants growing around it.  

Below: a lush headstart on spring vegetables using hoops and row covers.

The cute Children's Garden below is filled with plants with animal names.  

Straw bales, pallets, and plants growing inside!

Above: a lovely little pond.  Below: a theme I somehow missed, but it sure is well-marked, isn't it?!

A beautiful, colorful salad table!

Below: one of several beds maintained by special groups.

The annual spring open house is a wonderful event with plant sales, casual tours of the demo garden, experts on call to help with plant issues, workshops, crafts and activities for kids and tons of giveaways like seeds and this adorable popsicle stick pre-labeled and stuck with seeds below - ready to just push into the ground and grow!

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