Archive for November, 2009

Color Your Table Green

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Brighten your holiday table with the ‘other’ green vegetable – greens of all colors. The greens I’ve enjoyed the most recently are the seared collard greens at the Eldorado Grill in Madison, Wisconsin. Admittedly I haven’t eaten collards too many times, they just weren’t on the menu when growing up in Minnesota. If you want to try the exact recipe check it out in the ‘Eldorado Grill Southwestern Cuisine Cookbook’ by Kevin Tubb, owner of this superb restaurant.

For a simplified way to get your seared greens to the table get out your favorite vinaigrette dressing, whether bottled or homemade. Try one made with seasoned rice vinegar or oil and tamari. Heat up your heavy duty cast iron frying pan or wok, chop your favorite greens or combination thereof and toss them with the dressing as if you were going to serve a big salad. Include a hot pepper if you like a little extra bite – a whole one, dried or not, with holes poked in it works well. When the pan is hot add the dressed greens and sear the flavor right into them. Stir frequently and cook for 5-10 minutes or until softened the way you like them. Try not to overcook or the pleasing bright green will turn to olive drab and so goes the fresh flavor.

Red Russian Kale

We happen to frequently use Red Russian kale since Noel has it growing like a weed in the garden. (Note in the pictures that the garden beds have already been blanketed with leaves for the winter.)

Lacinato Kale

This year we planted lacinato kale (received from a friend) for the first time though with its bumpy leaves we at first thought it was savoy cabbage. (Thanks, Geoff, for helping us figure it out before it was too late!) Sometimes it pays to label your plants but then we like nice surprises in the garden.

I Got Them Crying Over My Horseradish Blues

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Two years ago I threw the remains of a horseradish thinning into the compost pile. It rooted, as horseradish likes to do, and I let most of it grow. I’ve always grown horseradish in my regular garden beds, keeping it at one end of the herbs. After this weekend’s harvest, I’m pretty sure the horseradish will stay in the compost area.

Digging horseradish out of my clayey beds is always a back breaker and I leave so much behind that I have horseradish sprouting for the next several years. Digging it out of the compost and the soft compost-rich soil in that area is a lot easier. The roots are cleaner, fatter, smoother, and straighter than they would be coming out of my beds.

In northern climates horseradish is amazingly easy to grow. The most difficult problem is keeping it under control. It will spread vigorously and almost any piece of it will root and sprout. It is not pest and disease free, however. Insect damage from wire worms and rotten spots that form in the folds of the convoluted roots are two of the major problems that I’ve had.

Roots Ready for Peeling and Processing

The harvest of yesterday was mostly very clean. This picture shows the roots just after they had their tops cut off and were trimmed and washed before being peeled.

I explained the process for turning roots into prepared horseradish, here:

We also mentioned horseradish in another blog. It was Anneliese’s Guess the Flower post.

Preparing horseradish always brings back memories of the gas mask drill we had when I was at basic training in the army. Back then, they put a bunch of us in a room and started blowing in some tear gas. We were not allowed to put on our masks until we got a good whiff. Even the mild dosage came close to causing panic among the trainees. It brought up lots of mucus from your lungs, filled your eyes with tears, and the gas irritated your skin.

Horseradish vapors are a lot like tear gas. A good whiff of freshly ground root can actually hurt. It makes your nose run, you cry, and it tightens up your scalp. We have fun with a new batch by punishing ourselves. We put a dab of horseradish on a little piece of cheese and try to be brave as the horseradish high kicks in. It only hurts for a couple seconds.

The strain we have is not super hot and has outstanding horseradish flavor. Of all the foods connected to meat, horseradish tempts me the most to break my reasonably sincere vegetarian vows and go out and buy a ring of kielbasa to enjoy horseradish to the max. But we settle for hard boiled eggs and cheese to go with this wonderful, home grown condiment. And honestly, I don’t miss the meat that much.

Five Pints Plus of Finished Product

Fall Gardening in Austin

Monday, November 16th, 2009

After a record hot summer with virtually no rain, this has been a most perfect fall for gardening. Right now I am enjoying sugar snap peas, cilantro, Japanese mustard greens, pole beans and radishes. Broccoli, broccoli raab and tatsoi will be in full production soon.

Cascade pole beans

I use a raised bed gardening system similar to the one presented in the John Jeavons book How to Grow More Vegetables. I learned how to create raised beds through a two year apprenticeship that I did with Bruce Blevins at Nokomis Gardens, East Troy, Wisconsin. Bruce studied under Alan Chadwick shortly before Chadwick’s death. Chadwick brought the “French-intensive” method of gardening to UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960s. Bruce also passed on some of the other aspects of the Chadwick experience by making us learn garden related poetry. One of my favorite passages is from Romeo and Juliet: (Mickle means great):

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities:
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but, strain’d from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.
Within the infant rind of this small flower
Poison hath residence, and medicine power:

My garden beds would be better described as deeply dug rather than raised. The top of the bed only reaches a few inches above the surrounding ground and I don’t use any type of structure to contain them. Double digging involves removing a layer of topsoil, loosening the subsoil with a digging fork, and then replacing the topsoil.

Just Planted Bed September 6

Seedling emerging a few days later

Double digging has been criticized for overly working the soil and potentially damaging soil structure. Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis point out in their book Teaming with Microbes, that excessive tillage can destroy the large formations of soil fungi naturally present in some soils. I take these considerations to heart, but I also find that a one time initial double digging of the east Austin clay soil that I have in my backyard makes a tremendous difference in the productivity of the garden.

I make the beds no wider than I can reach from the pathway, so there is no need to ever step in the beds and re-compact the soil. With successive plantings I find that loosening the soil with a Bio-Fork and a digging fork to be sufficient. The Bio-Fork is a two-handed digging fork with ten inch tines used exclusively for loosening soil. In Noel’s gardening system both potatoes and sweet potatoes play an important role in the crop rotation and by harvesting these vegetables the beds are effectively dug rather deeply.


Since I don’t grow anything in the pathways I use a flat shovel to skim off the top two to three inches of topsoil and throw it onto the beds. I use CobraHead® Long Handle to shape the beds and since rainfall is an issue in central Texas, I make a slight lip around the edge. Bruce taught me to be precise about the width of the bed so I use string lines to keep the beds at exactly 50 inches wide. At 6’5″ I could probably make the beds a little wider, but I have stuck with this size. I keep the pathways just wide enough so that I can get in between the beds comfortably without my size 14 boots accidentally trampling my dinner.

Early October

I have recently taken to mulching the pathways between the beds with pine straw. I do this in part for weed control, but mostly to keep my feet from getting muddy when I go out to harvest some greens or herbs when I am cooking.

Raised beds offer many advantages, but one of the biggest is that I get a lot of produce from a compact area, therefore I don’t have to weed or water an extensive area. Given how much that I travel to promote CobraHead garden tools, this really helps me keep my garden from getting out of control.

Savory Sweet Potato Quesadillas

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

I love it when the larder is full of sweet potatoes! We harvested 76 pounds this year. Not bad for 20 home started plants in a Wisconsin garden.

There is nothing like a plain baked or roasted sweet potato slathered in butter. The other night I roasted small chunks of sweet potato mixed with Rose Finn Apple fingerling potatoes and cabbage wedges all tossed with olive oil mixed with crushed garlic, salt and pepper. After 45 minutes in a 400 degree oven the sweet potatoes were caramelized, the potatoes crispy on the outside & the cabbage starting to brown. It needed nothing else.

One of our favorite ways to fix these nutrition-packed gems is in a savory dish – Mexican style sweet potato quesadillas. We were served these by a friend about twelve or so years ago and they have been a family favorite ever since. There are lots of recipes for these but the one we like came from ‘Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home – Fast and Easy Recipes for any Day’ by Moosewood Collective.

Usually after making the same meal several times over the recipe evolves into your own with changes here and there. While we have changed the type of cheese (pepper jack comes to mind) and changed the type of tortillas (corn, whole wheat or ???) or baked instead of fried them, we have determined that the original version is the one we like best. We have found an excellent organic white flour tortilla with no hydrogenated fat at Whole Foods. When fried in the hot oil the baking powder in these tortillas causes them to puff up. The secret here is to make sure the oil is hot before you start, otherwise the tortillas just soak up the oil. If you’re intrigued give the following recipe a try. Don’t be afraid to experiment, you may come up with your own winner!

• 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onions

• 2 garlic cloves, minced

• 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

• 4 cups grated peeled sweet potatoes

• 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

• 1 teaspoon chili powder

• 2 teaspoons ground cumin

• 1-2 pinch cayenne

• salt and pepper

• 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

• 8 (8 inch) flour tortillas

• Salsa

• Sour cream


In a large skillet, heat vegetable oil. Sauté onions and garlic until the onions are transparent. Add in the sweet potatoes, oregano, chili powder, cumin, and cayenne. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking.

When the sweet potatoes are tender, remove the filling from the heat and add salt and pepper; stirring to mix.

Evenly spread the sweet potato mixture onto the tortillas; sprinkle 2 tablespoons of cheese onto each tortilla. Fold tortilla in half over filling.

Using a clean skillet add a little oil; heat on medium high heat. Place the quesadillas in the hot oil and cook on each side for 2 minutes, until cheese is melted and the filling is hot. Add more oil to skillet as needed and cook in batches.

Serve with salsa and sour cream.

Satsuma Delights

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

In late October I harvested my first crop of Satsumas. I planted a “Dwarf Owari” Satsuma in the early spring of 2008 in the front yard of my east Austin home. That year it produced a few jasmine scented flowers, but no fruit. This year it flowered in late March and produced eight fruit. I eyed those fruit longingly all summer long waiting for them to ripen.

The weight of the fruit nearly bent the tiny tree over to the ground. By the time I picked the first fruit it had come within a centimeter of the earth. The tree is in front of the bouganville.

While researching Satsumas I came across several name variants: Satsuma Orange, Satsuma Tangerine, and Satsuma Mandarin as well as two different Latin names: Citrus reticulata and Citrus unshiu. I also found towns in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida named for this delicious crop. Of course, the fruit itself is named for Satsuma, Japan.

According to Texas A&M Extension, most Satsumas are hardy down to about 26 degrees Farenheit. Last year I covered the young tree when temperatures dipped into the low 30s. Two newer varieties, “Miho” and “Seto” can survive temperatures as low as 15 degrees.

The inside ripened fully while the outside peel remained mostly green. The green did take on a yellow-orange tinge and fruit felt soft when squeezed gently. The segments had almost no seeds and little of the typical citrus sourness. Commercial producers often use ethylene gas to get the outside to turn fully orange in order to give consumers a more familiar color.

The disjuncture between the color of the inner fruit and the outer peel reminds me of the best orange juice that I have ever tasted, in the Tehuantepec Isthmus region of Oaxaca, Mexico. Often sold on the side of the Pan-American Highway fresh squeezed into plastic baggies, this delicious juice also comes from oranges that stay green on the outside. (Unfortunately for the growers, highway juice sales are one of the few ways to sell the fruit. The wholesale prices that growers receive in the region have dropped so low that it often doesn’t even cover the cost of harvesting the oranges, so they are often left on the trees to rot.)

I have since expanded my citrus plantings to include kumquat, a potted Mexican lime, and a neglected “Miho” Satsuma waiting to be transplanted. As long as I provide some supplemental water, they seem to thrive in the scorching Austin summers. Not a bad trade off for the rhubarb that I miss from Wisconsin.

Fast Fruit Auflauf Breakfast

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

In the last year or so, ever since Anneliese came across an article in “” by Kurt Michael Friese called ‘Simple cooking can produce delicious results – like old-fashioned Austrian pancakes’ – see recipe here: Auflauf (like a crepe) has become a breakfast staple in our household. With one egg in each serving it makes a very satisfying meal and the sweetening can be individually controlled.

The filling changes with the gardening season. We’ve just enjoyed the last of our fall raspberries – the deep freeze is upon us. Now’s the time to soak some of your dried fruit, dig out the frozen apple slices/sauce, strawberries or slice up the old standby…bananas.

Top the roll-up with a little maple syrup & yogurt, chopped walnuts if you like, and mmmmm!

Working Worms

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

I’ve explained my composting process previously, but I wanted to show a picture of an army of red worms working the sludge mass in a 55 gallon drum that we use to collect kitchen scraps.

Boss Cat supervised as I tipped over and emptied the drum. The worms were thick throughout the mostly digested material.

I’m building a new compost pile. I do this once a year, as I clean out the garden and get the beds ready for winter. I’ll alternate layers of cornstalks and other harder materials, earth, compost from the barrel, and the softer weeds, grasses, and plants that I’ve been piling up here and there for the past season.

The stuff in the barrel was so well worked up by the worms that it had almost none of the normal compost barrel stink. I’ve got another full barrel that is not old as this one. It will have a lot less worms, and when I tip it over, raunchy, unpleasant orders will escape, but I’ll work that stuff into the pile and the stench will quickly dissipate.

Most of the worms won’t survive after having their world turned upside down and then being spread out over the new pile. Some will escape, but many will become part of the excellent compost that helps us grow our own food.