Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hot Pepper Jelly

Reading a New Yorker article written by Ian Frazier about the Dutch artist Theo Jansen, creator of StrandBeests – or wind animals this morning, and loved this description which reminds me of many gardeners I know. "He is the unusual kind of adult who can do something he used to do when he was nine and not have it seem at all out of place.”

These words guide me as I stack the first of my six cords of firewood and divide my time between the kitchen, the garden and the computer – all things I love to do. Savoring the tail end of summer is essential, and every morning I make the rounds to admire the powerful long stems and dainty white flowers of the Cimicifugia which has reached a staggering height despite the howling wind and rain of the past week. Fall asters are beginning to show color, a surprisingly bright shade of pink in contrast to the billowy hydrangea pompoms that still attract a bevy of bees and butterflies.

While harvesting leeks and onions, I discovered a cache of ripe Cayenne peppers which are now simmering on the stove top, filling the kitchen with a hot, spicy aroma. Hot pepper jelly is not for the timid, nor for toast. Try it as a spicy sweet condiment over a mild cheese or add a spoonful to stir fry for a powerful punch of heat.

Hot and Sweet Pepper jelly

Makes 6 pint jars

12 mixed hot peppers (about 1 cup chopped) a mixture of cayenne, habernero, serrano, and jalepenos

4 sweet bell peppers, (about 1 cup chopped) yellow, green or red

2 cups cider vinegar

6 cups sugar

1 six- ounce package of Certo pectin

1. Trim the tops off the hot and sweet peppers, remove the seed and coarsely chop into small pieces. Place in the container of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse gently, leaving small chunks. Transfer back into a measuring cup along with any juice to measure out 3 cups.

2. In a deep kettle, combine the vinegar and sugar and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the peppers and bring to a full rolling boil. Stir in the liquid pectin, and bring back to a rolling boil, and stir for one full minute.

3. Remove from the heat. Pour into sterilized jars, leaving about ¼ inch room at the top. Wipe the tops clean and seal the jars. Flip upside down to seal and allow to cool. Label and store in a cool, dark place until ready to use.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Nature and Nurture

The morning glory arbor blew over again last night, sunflowers uprooted and the wheelbarrow is filled with rain water. Hearing the rain pummel the roof was once a welcome sound, but too much of a good thing is devastating. People are helping people across Vermont, dig, rebuild, feed their farm animals, and bring emotional comfort. To lose a house, land and everything familiar that has been built with love is unfathomable. It is hard not to feel betrayed when a violent storms hit.

I’ve been reading Coming to Land in a troubled world, essays by Peter Forbes and others. There is a chapter titled Lifting the Veil, in which he quotes Aldo Leopold, Scott Nearing, Rachel Carson and others to make the point that our connection to the land is vital to our human spirit. “ If there is ever to be a change in culture that might save our species, it will need to come out of the pull, joy, and restoration of healthy human life rather than the push of fear. No change will come out of any force that is not fundamentally grounded in ethos of restoration. Restoration, or the reconnection of our lives to the health of the land, is parable for healthy human future."

Reading this, I see my role as a gardener, one who is deeply connected to the landscape, recognize ways to step out of the comfort of my own garden to help rebuild. I’ve donated my books with garden design consultations to several charity auctions, yet it seems frivolous in the midst of such a catastrophe. Once the debris is cleared, it will be easier to see how I can help restore and replant with the hopes of creating a nurturing environment that will help to heal and restore faith that nature is here to help.

In the meantime, I think preparing a good meal for my neighbors is in order.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Fall Flowers for the birds

The calendar has moved into August and the pressure is off. Racing to get out to the garden with the wheelbarrow and weed bucket has turned into a leisurely pace of drifting with my camera to capture photos of the showy casa Blanca lilies wrapped up in a cascade of morning glory vines, the bee balm laden with honeybees and nictotiana beckoning the hummingbird moths. The remains of the garden party from the night before set in the middle of the summer garden captures a moment in time that will never come again.

Nature knows that the turn of summer has taken place and from where I sit with the French doors open wide, the light has shifted and heat of summer has slowly slipped away. Birds swoop in flocks rather than pairs, descending on seedpods left behind by the hollyhocks and sunflowers, lightly bending the tall stems. At night the frogs give way to the subtle harp of the cricket.

August is a bittersweet month, a turning point from the heady, fast paced momentum that started in April when the first lettuce and pea seeds were sown with an eager hunger for the first taste that would follow in late spring. This morning, a gentle rain moistened the soil and I planted the last seeds of the season: lettuce, spinach, kale and meslcun in a final attempt to hold back summer a little longer. Decorating the bird bath with flowers creates a dance of colors to honor the season and beckons the birds dip their wings as they pass through.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ornamental Edible: Mache

If you crave a tidy bed of greens for an endless supply of the spicy, savory, bitter and crisp leaves that make a truly great salad, try growing a salad garden. It can be as small as a perfect square foot plot or a matrix of geometric designs. For new gardeners, lettuce and salad greens are the easiest and quickest garden crops to grow and are ideal to plant in a kitchen garden. Consider a full range of European and American heirloom greens blended with gorgeous lettuces that weave together into a colorful tapestry almost too beautiful to harvest.

One of my favorite salad greens is mache. This once wild green has unique rounded cup-shaped leaves, that form sweet rosettes that call for little more than a simple dressing of walnut oil and sherry vinegar or a twist of lemon to balance their mild, nutty flavor. Cold tolerant and compact, this delicate green is best served on it's own or in the classic Swiss recipe with chopped beets and croutons.
Direct sow in the garden in rows, allowing 5 inches in-between rows in order to cultivate. Keep plants watered and harvest with scissors when small rosettes are formed, about 3 inches tall.

Try this recipe from my new book The Complete Kitchen Garden

Mache and Chicken Salad with Lemon Tahini Dressing
The delicate spoon shaped leaves deserve a light fruity dressing to complement its natural qualities. The flavors of spring are showcased with new red-skinned potatoes, lemon tahini dressing and sauteed chicken.
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound new or baby red potatoes
1 pound chicken tenders
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 clove garlic
4 cups mache
1/2 cup Honey Tahini Dressing
1 cup shelled English peas (about 1 1/2 pounds unshelled)
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
1. Place a steamer basket in a large saucepan, add 1 inch of water, and bring to a boil. Put the potatoes in the basket and steam until barely tender when pierced with a sharp knife, about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on size. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, slice or quarter them.
2. Toss the chicken with 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the chicken and cook until golden brown and cooked through, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer to a clean cutting board to cool. Shred into bite-size pieces.
3. Season a wooden salad bowl by rubbing with the garlic and pinch of salt. Chop the garlic and add to the bowl along with the potatoes and mache. Pour the dressing over the potatoes and greens; gently toss to coat. Add the peas, shallot, and shredded chicken; toss gently and serve.
Honey Tahini Dressing
Makes 1 1/4 cups
Extra virgin olive oil and lemon are the backbone of this dressing, but it gets a unique boost from tahini, a thick paste of ground sesame seeds. Look for it in large supermarkets in the Middle Eastern section or near other nut butters. This healthy, light dressing is a perfect pairing for a wide range of tender spring greens.
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup tahini
2 tablespoons honey
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Combine the lemon juice, oil, tahini, honey, and garlic in a blender, a jar with a tight-fitting lid, or a medium bowl. Blend, shake, or whisk until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kitchen Garden Designs

Town meeting day in Vermont coincides nicely with when I work on my spring garden design. In between votes and the long-winded discussion of police salaries and library funding, I am doodling in the margins, plotting out my garden. Sure I am listening, but thinking about my garden not only keeps me awake, and at the end of the day I can go home with plan that keeps me focused on good things to come.

I planted my first garden with four sticks and a ball of twine, measuring out a large square, and removing a thick layer of rugged turf. I turned the stony Vermont soil with compost before planting long straight rows for basil, lettuce and beans. I would be lying if I said the garden thrived, but the thrill of harvesting my own food gave way to a larger garden the following year. As the garden grew, the harder it was to decide in the spring where to plant until I realized I could start the design on paper first.

As any good cook will tell you, the key to success is following a recipe exactly before you let the imagination go wild. For gardeners, this means starting with a garden plan before even cracking open the seeds catalogs. When faced with the blank canvas of freshly tilled soil it's much harder to limit the choices down to just a few essential items. Fitting a long list of seeds onto a piece of graph paper require the gardener to be more selective. Taking a bird's eye view of the paths and the beds can bring out the artistic side, drawing inspiration from a paisley fabric or floral wallpaper design, rather than a straight ridge of corduroy. Adding a bench or a fanciful arbor is easy to draw in, regardless of whether they will actually take form.

I recently taught a vegetable garden design class with some of the techniques I share in my new book, The Complete Kitchen Garden. I had expected the class to be full of new gardeners ready to learn basic skills such as sowing seed and turning compost. Instead, there were fifteen experienced gardeners who were seeking fresh ideas for how to reinvigorate their tired plots. We started with a visualization exercise to envision the kitchen garden of their dreams. This simple exercise allowed these gardeners to step out of their comfort zone of straight rows to picture kitchen gardens filled with waves of color that engaged all of their senses. The results were magical.

Since my own garden follows a 4 four square organic rotation, it's fairly easy to know where to grow each crop and how to group to make the most of the soil fertility. I am never tempted to plant space hogs such as zucchini or corn, and the bush beans from last year were a total disaster since I never picked them - so those are out, too. This year, I am focused on lettuce and salad greens from Wild Garden Seeds, and heirlooms from Seed Savers Exchange. Simplicity is the key, as well as a few quirky additions such as artichokes and Italian Treviso radicchio. I have my tried and true favorites, but it is always good to try something new.

Monday, February 14, 2011

March Flower Shows

If you are a plant person, be ready to break dormancy. March is the month for flower shows all across the northeast. Flower shows offer so much more than just beautiful flowers and colorful exhibits. Every day there are horticulture professionals who share their expertise that will inspire you to reach new heights with your garden.

This year, I'll be a speaker at the Vermont Flower Show, the Boston Flower Show and thePhiladelphia Flower show and will share the colorful photos from my new book, The Complete Kitchen Garden. Come to my lectures and you will learn how to transform your ordinary vegetable garden into an extra ordinary kitchen garden with six easy steps. Learn how to site your garden, build the soil and enclose your garden with the right fence. Be sure to bring a notebook to jot down ideas for the best varieties to plant, too.

The shows can get busy and crowded, and pushing a stroller with small children is no way to truly enjoy the magic and the enormous effort that landscapers put into their displays. Leave the kids at home, and arrive on a weekday when the crowds are less. Take time to circle the show several times and plan time to listen to the speakers. You'll be amazed at how much you can learn and how the fragrance will linger in your memory, bridging the gap from late winter into spring.

Each show offers a different theme, so check out the links below to find out more. Mark your calendars and meet me at the flower shows:

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Complete Kitchen Garden

Soil before Seeds

Seed catalogs may be the focus for most gardeners this time of year, because who can resist the charms of colorful vegetables, fruit and flowers when the white snow provides the perfect canvas for fresh ideas. Yet underneath all that snow is a garden waiting to be planted, and soil that is yearning to be fed.

Soil is one of the most important components to a successful garden. It is a living, breathing organism and provides the nourishment that allows roots, shoots, and fruits to mature. Most soils contain the basic elements that plants need to grow, but not always in the right proportions. A lot happens in the soil that we can’t even see. Understanding how all the elements work together in the soil will help you build a natural blend of nutrients that will reward your plants—and you—with good health.

The first garden design in my new book, The Complete Kitchen Garden, embodies the fundamental principles of organic gardening through the four square organic rotation method. It is the oldest and most practical design ideal for first time gardeners, and a method I teach in my upcoming garden class. When plants are grown in the same location year after year, soil-borne diseases can weaken them and may tempt the gardener to find a short-term chemical solution to keep the plants alive.

When you combine this classic design with the principles of organic gardening, you can appreciate how the basics of organic rotation work, making it easy to follow a successful planting routine each year. The end result will be healthy soil, healthy plants, and a harvest that is vitamin-rich and packed with flavor.

Take a short course on the chemistry of plants to learn what they require in order to grow. Design your garden into four beds, and keep the plants grouped by what nutrients they need, then rotate the beds each year to keep the soil healthy. Here's how it works:

Bed One: High Nitrogen (N)—Leafy Greens: Lettuce, Kale, Mesclun, Arugula, Mustard, Cress, and Spinach
Bed Two: High Phosphorus (P)—Fruiting and Flowering Crops: Tomatoes, Summer and Winter Squash, Eggplant, Peppers, and Melons
Bed Three: High Potassium (K)—Root Crops: Onions, Garlic, Shallots, Radish, and Carrots
Bed Four: Cleansers and Builders (B)—Peas, Beans, Potatoes, and Corn
And always include flowers that attract beneficial pollinators to your garden, too.

By following the Organic Rotation Garden method, you are creating a garden that will be self-sustaining as well as self-improving every year. You are working with nature to constantly upgrade the natural balance in your vegetable garden. And it makes it easier to figure out what to order from the seed catalogs and how to plan your garden for the most successful harvest.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Chicken and Garden Sheds

Everything you need to know about how to survive winter can be learned from a chicken. They know how to fluff up their feathers and huddle next to each other for extra heat, how to linger in the warm nesting boxes before breakfast and murmur deep comforting sounds like the chants of Mongolian throat singers. Nothing beats the comfort of a warm chicken house on a cold winter morning, except perhaps the garden shed.

This morning, I trudged through the snow to my garden shed to gather gear for the first of my winter garden workshops at the Rowe Conference Center. As I stood quietly looking at my the garden tools hanging from pegs: bamboo hoops and trellises against the wall, my rugged canvas garden bag overflowing with fiskars, dibbles, and a pair olive green gloves soiled from the fall clean up, I felt like was waking up the dormant plant inside of me. Inhaling the crusty soil that clung to the garden fork and the empty clay pots under the potting table, my heart fluttered with excitement. Chickens and garden sheds are essential to the gardener, and are a true source of contentment when the winter ceases to satisfy.