Friday, April 1, 2016

Soil Health – The Three Interrelated Components

Three components of soil must be in balance for soil to be healthy:
  1. Inorganic
  2. Organic
  3. Microbiological
A conventional soil test tells us what we need to do with respect to levels of the inorganic elements nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (N/P/K), and trace elements such as boron, zinc, iron, and manganese. These tests will also measure the pH of the soil and what needs to be done to bring it to an appropriate level (i.e., more basic or acidic). These readily controlled parameters are critical to healthy soil. Fertilizers, whether organic or not, will list the N/P/K ratio (e.g., 2-5-3). For example, I use a very high quality 10-10-10 fertilizer containing trace elements, supplemented by phosphate (0-18-0) or potash (0-0-60) for more precise control of phosphorous and potassium. I also use an organic 18-0-0 fertilizer to manage nitrogen levels.

The pH of soil is typically controlled by the addition of lime (to increase pH) or sulphur (to decrease pH). Most often, soil pH needs to be increased or the soil needs to be made more basic. Most vegetable plants like a pH around 6.5. Lime is made up of calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg) carbonates, with other minor components. Carbonate neutralizes acid, making the soil less acidic (or more basic). What is also important is the Ca/Mg ratio, and this can be managed by the type of lime used.

Testing for organic matter tells simply what percentage of the soil is organic. This is more complicated than measuring inorganics, because different forms of carbon are more or less available, and are available on different time frames. Charcoal is poorly available and takes a long time to break down to an available form. Humic acids are readily available and can be used quickly. Building organic matter in soil is a long term process. Compost and manure are excellent sources of readily available carbon, whereas chipped wood and shredded straw break down slowly.

The microbiological elements of soil require organic matter and minerals. What is critical, however, is that plants need to be growing in the soil for microbiological organisms to thrive. Plants feed microorganisms by putting glucose directly into the soil via their roots. Microorganisms, in turn, make minerals available to plants. This is where cover crops are so important to maintain growth of microorganisms. Even weeds are better than bare soil. Typical soil microorganisms include bacteria, fungi, algae, and protozoa.

I get my soil tests performed at West Virginia University by the Extension Service. I sent them Ziploc bags of dried soil taken from various areas of the garden, and they send me back a soil report, like the one below.

This test contains a great deal of information. First, the soil pH is way too low (too acidic). It was measured at 5.6, and should be 6.3-6.5. Therefore, I need to lime the soil, and the report indicates that I should add 87.4 lbs/1,000 sq. ft. The garden is a little over 2,000 sq. ft., so I used about 200 lbs. of lime. When considering what sort of lime to use, note that the Mg levels are high. Crushed, pelleted limestone contains low levels of Mg relative to Ca, and costs about $3 for a 40 lb. bag.

The report also indicates that I need to add 2 lbs. of N, 4 lbs. of P, and 3 lbs. of K per 1,000 sq. ft. So I spread about 40 lbs. of 10-10-10 fertilizer and supplemented that with super phosphate, potash, and organic nitrogen to give the correct ratio and amounts of N/P/K. Amounts of these various fertilizers have to be calculated based on the weight percentage of each component. The 10-10-10 fertilizer contains 10 lbs. each of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium per 100 lbs. of fertilizer. So the 40 lbs. I added contained 4 lbs. of N, P, and K, spread out over 2,000 sq. ft., equals 2 lbs. of each per 1,000 sq. ft.

For organic matter, I use three different supplements: compost, chipped wood, and shredded straw. I chip old logs that have been sitting on the forest floor for many years. They still contain a lot of organic matter, but they also contain lots of good microorganisms. Crude organic matter such as shredded straw serves as a long-term source of carbon and it also helps to physically break up the heavy clay in our soil.

For the first time this year, I am going to supplement the garden soil with beneficial microorganisms that I purchased. The product contains 16 species of mycorrhizal fungi and 14 species of beneficial bacteria to supplement the microbes already in the soil. I'm hoping this will make a significant difference in soil health and hence, yields.

Soil health is a three part symbiosis:
  1. correct levels of inorganic chemicals and correct pH
  2. organic matter in various forms
  3. roots of growing plants to feed microorganisms
A balance of the three equals healthy soil. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Turkey Leftovers – Turkey Cuban Sandwich Recipe

I made this sandwich this week using leftovers from our Thanksgiving turkey.

  • roasted turkey breast, sliced thinly
  • dill pickles, sliced thinly on the bias
  • Swiss cheese, sliced
  • bacon, cooked until crisp
  • French country bread, sliced ¾" thick
  • mayonnaise
  • chipotle in adobo
  • smoked Spanish paprika
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • butter

Finely dice a chipotle and add it to 1/2 cup of mayonnaise. Season with black pepper and smoked paprika. Set aside.

On one piece of bread, layer turkey, pickles, cheese, and bacon, carefully to minimize excess ingredients from sticking over the edge of the bread. Place the other slice of bread on top and press firmly to hold ingredients in the sandwich.

In a large fry pan over medium heat, melt butter until it just starts to brown, then carefully place sandwich(es) in the pan. Cover with a lid slightly smaller than the pan, so as to press down gently on the sandwich. When The bottom side of the sandwich has browned nicely, carefully flip the sandwich and add more butter to the pan. Cover and turn the heat to low. When the second side has browned and the ingredients are warmed, remove the sandwich and cut it in half. Plate with a generous dollop of the mayonnaise, and serve with cranberry relish, if there's any leftover from Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

100 Essential Kitchen Hacks, Recipes, Techniques, Insights, and Opinions

Mise en place. It is the key to classic French cooking. Learn what it is and use it every time you cook.
To peel garlic cloves, lightly crush the clove with your hand, just until the skin cracks, then rapidly rub the clove between the palms of your hands. The skin will come right off.
To perfectly hard-boil an egg, steam it for 20 minutes, plunge it into an ice bath until cold, then crack the hollow end of the egg and peel under cold running water.
Parchment paper. Use it for everything from lining baking sheets for roasting vegeta­bles and potatoes to lining the bottom of a tart pan to allow the tart to slide off the removable bottom.
Buy a cherry pitter and use it for pitting olives.
Add a tablespoon of vinegar to a cup of milk as a substitute for buttermilk.
Knives are the most important tools in the kitchen. Get good knives and keep them sharp. Never, ever put your knives through the dishwasher or lay them in the sink. Always have them professionally sharpened. If you can only afford one knife, buy a chef’s knife. Skip the trendy Japanese knives. Wüsthof is a good brand.
Pots are the second most important tool in the kitchen. Invest in the highest quality that you can afford. In fact, buy pans you cannot afford. Pans are expensive; good pans are very expensive. All-Clad Copper Core is a very good place to start. Start with a decent sized sauté pan and a fry pan. They will last forever.
Buy butter in bulk from Costco and freeze it.
Buy a vacuum sealer. You can keep all sorts of foods sealed and frozen a long time, everything from fish to berries to leftover chicken. Things like cheese will keep a long time refrigerated, so buy Parmesan cheese when it is on sale and vacuum seal part of it.
Label and date stuff you put in the freezer, lest it become an archeological expedition trying to establish the identity and age of something.
When you are sautéing meat or fish in a pan, heat the oil (canola or peanut) so hot you see white smoke rising from the pan. Carefully add the meat or fish, and leave it alone. It will come away from the pan when it browns sufficiently. You can help it along by gently shaking the pan. Cook the presentation side first. You do not need a non-stick pan.
The same goes for meat on a grill.
Always salt the water in which you are going to boil vegetables. Use a lot of salt, particularly with potatoes (about 1 tbsp/quart)
When boiling potatoes, put the potatoes in cold, salted water and then turn on the heat.
Make your own butter. It is easy. Get some really good cream like Snowville (whatever you use, make sure it is NOT ultra pasteurized), fill a food processor 2-3 inches full, and whiz it until it turns to butter. This will take five minutes or so. Collect the butter, wash it well with cold water, and dry it between paper towels. Add salt if you want. You can do a half-gallon of cream in 3-4 batches in 30-45 minutes.
Buy a ricer and make the creamiest, lump-free mashed potatoes every time.
Mise en place. No exceptions.
Buy your spices from Penzey’s.
Never use sea salt when cooking. Use kosher salt when cooking. You cannot taste the difference in a prepared dish.
Buy some really nice sea salt and use it to garnish dishes. Try Maldon.
Garbage in, garbage out. Spend the extra time and money to obtain high quality ingredi­ents.
Learn how to properly dice an onion: (1) cut off stem end;  (2) halve the onion length­wise through the root end and peel the halves; (3) lay the cut face of one half on a cut­ting board and make a series of horizontal lengthwise cuts, starting from the stem end and from the bottom closest to the cutting board, almost to the root, being careful not to cut too far; (4) make a series of lengthwise vertical cuts the same direction as the horizontal cuts; (5) now cut the onion cross-ways, perpendicular to the previous cuts and parallel to the original cut to remove the stem end. You can control the size of the dice by how closely you space your cuts.
When mincing garlic, smash the cloves and add a pinch of salt before you start chop­ping. Mash the garlic with the side of your knife to keep it organized. It will turn into a paste. Garlic presses are fine, but no substitute for mincing by hand.
Simpler is sometimes the best way to cook. Boiled fresh green beans with butter, salt, and pepper are fabulous. A nice piece of salmon sautéed in oil and garnished with salt and pepper is too. A bit of lemon juice is helpful.
Always undercook salmon and tuna. They should be at most medium and preferably medium rare. Only do with this good quality fresh fish. Do not bother cooking fish unless it is fresh and good quality.
Learn how to make simple pan sauces. Start with a beurre blanc, it is the easiest. Fry something like sea bass or salmon, remove the fish and pour out the oil, add some white wine and/or white wine vinegar, some minced shallots if you happen to have one lying around, and deglaze the pan (remove the little brown bits that have stuck to the pan. Reduce the liquids by at least half while stirring, and then add butter in small portions while whisking steadily. Season with salt and pepper and serve the sauce over whatever you have sautéed.
Make your own chicken stock. It makes all the difference in the world. Take a coarsely chopped carrot, celery stalk, and an onion and put them in a large stockpot. Add a bay leaf, a couple of sprigs of thyme, several peppercorns, and a few parsley stems. Do NOT add salt. Put a whole chicken plus a few leg quarters into the pot and cover everything with six quarts of water. Bring to a simmer (NOT a boil) and cook for three hours. Do not stir it. Remove the chicken with a pair of tongs and shred the meat for another use like soup or enchiladas or chicken salad. Vacuum seal and freeze it. Pour the liquid through a fine sieve into a bowl. Portion the stock out in to quarts or pints and freeze them. You should get about five quarts. Buy cheap deli containers at a kitchen supply store for storage. If you are a vegetarian, learn to make vegetable stock.
Freshly ground pepper. There is no substitute.
When something you are cooking tastes bland or is not particularly vibrant, add a little vinegar or lemon juice. It will sharpen the flavors.
Never salt soups, stews, and the like until the very end. You can always add more salt at the table, but there is no way to redeem an over-salted dish. This is particularly important when you are adding cheese to a dish. Cheese contains a lot of salt.
Pay attention when you are cooking. Leave Facebook until later.
Always set the timer to the shorter time in a recipe. You can always cook an under­cooked dish more, but you cannot uncook an overcooked dish.
People with warm hands make lousy pastry chefs.
Tongs are indispensable. Also, have lots of wooden spoons and spatulas.
Taste as you go. Repeatedly, at each stage of the dish.
Mise en place. It simplifies your cooking.
Dijon mustard acts as an excellent emulsifying agent in vinaigrettes. The easiest vinaigrette is made from high quality balsamic vinegar in the ratio of 3-4:1 oil/vinegar. Measure ¼ cup of balsamic vinegar into a small food processor. Add a tsp of minced garlic, a heaping tbsp of Dijon mustard, black pepper, and little salt (you can add more later). Whiz this until smooth then add ¾ to 1 cup of good quality olive oil in a slow drizzle with the processor running. It will be creamy and perfectly emul­sified.
Do not use fancy extra virgin olive for sautéing. Just use regular olive oil.
There is no excuse for: dull knives, iodized salt, glass cutting boards, Cool Whip, industrial food, or dull knives.
Wooden cutting boards are best, but do not put things like chicken or fish on them. Have plastic cutting boards for such foods, and run them through the dishwasher after they have been used.
Only cook with a wine you would drink. If you only drink Château Mouton Rothschild, don’t cook.
Mason jars make excellent containers for pantry items such as breadcrumbs.
Make your own breadcrumbs. Buy a good loaf of rustic bread, make some sandwiches or eat it with soup or whatever, and leave the leftover bread sitting on the counter for a week. Break it up and whiz it in a food processor. Store the crumbs in a plastic bag or Mason jar. They are much better than commercial stuff.
One of the easiest dishes in the world is roasted chicken thighs. Keep a pack in the freezer. When you need them, thaw them out, put them on a parchment-lined sheet pan, brush with olive oil, place a couple of thyme sprigs on each thigh, and top with salt, pepper, and a thin slice of lemon. Bake until done. Eat the caramelized lemon with the chicken. Caramelized lemons are delicious.
It is a good idea to always keep a lemon on hand. Same for garlic and shallots.
Potatoes are the most versatile vegetable. They can be boiled, fried, roasted, baked, and steamed. They are also a vegetable where it is important to buy organic, as regu­larly farmed potatoes get a lot of pesticide exposure.
Make hash browns the morning after you have baked Russet potatoes. Cook one or two extra potatoes and leave them in the fridge overnight. Peel the cold potato, grate it coarsely, and fry it in a little olive oil or butter. Once the first side is browned and the potatoes are heated through, serve them browned side up with salt and pepper.
Use a non-stick pan to cook eggs.
Learn the 15/15/15 method to make perfect roasted potatoes. Cut some potatoes into 1-1½ inch pieces. Red-skinned and small Yukon gold potatoes work best. Make all pieces about the same size and shape. Take a glass roasting pan, add olive oil, and put the potatoes in the oil. Mix them around with your hands until they are completely covered with oil. Position the potatoes so a cut side is down. Wash your hands. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and roast at 375 °F for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and roast for another 15 minutes. Take the pan from the oven, let cool for a few minutes, and carefully flip the potatoes so the down side is now up. Try not to tear the browned skin away from the potato pieces. Roast for a final 15 minutes. Season with sea salt and pepper and serve.
Salt and pepper are really the only seasoning that 95% of foods need.
Buy lots of nice parsley at the farmers market when it is in season. Chop the leaves, partition into 2 tbsp portions, and wrap each portion tightly in aluminum foil. Put the individual packages in a Tupperware container and freeze them. When you need fresh parsley for a sauce, pull one out and toss it directly into the pot or pan.
Both scrambled eggs and omelets should be slightly underdone. Buy your eggs from a small local producer.
It is ethically indefensible to buy factory farmed meat and eggs.
While I am on my soapbox, do not buy bottled water. The bottles largely end up in landfills or the ocean. Instead, get a water filtration system and put the filtered water in old plastic water bottles. Reused is better than recycled.
In case of a kitchen disaster, order a pizza.
Buy King Arthur flour. It is what professional bakers use.
Make your own Pesto alla Genovese when basil is in season and freeze it. Wash and dry basil leaves to give four cups of packed leaves. Put the leaves in a food processor along with a couple of coarsely chopped garlic cloves and a small handful of nuts. Pine nuts and walnuts work best. Carefully puree the mix. You will have to frequently stop the blade and manually push the leaves down and around with a wooden spoon. Once the basil is chopped up pretty good, slowly drizzle in one cup of good quality olive oil. DO NOT add cheese, unless you are going to use the pesto immediately. Place the un-cheesed pesto into small mason jars, top with a bit of olive oil, put the top on tightly, and freeze the jars. The frozen pesto will keep for well over a year. When you want to use it, thaw it partially and cut pieces of the pesto from the rest with a warmed spoon. Now you can add the cheese.
Make your own cheese sauce for macaroni and cheese. This involves making a béchamel sauce, one of the easiest sauces to make and also one of the “mother” sauces. Melt some butter, add flour and cook until the mixture is bubbly and no longer smells like flour. It will smell slightly nutty. This is a white roux. Slowly add milk the roux whisking constantly until the mixture is smooth. Heat until the mixture comes to a boil then take it off the heat. This is a béchamel sauce. If you add some grated cheddar cheese, a bit of mustard, some cayenne pepper, you have got a sauce for maca­roni and cheese. Just mix in cooked pasta and bake it until bubbly.
There is a video of how to do everything on YouTube, from sautéing sole to making an atomic bomb.
Never leave a dirty kitchen until the morning. It is worse than a hangover.
Bacon keeps forever if it is vacuum-sealed and frozen. Partition it into 4 oz portions before sealing and freezing.
Never, ever buy bacon made by Hormel, Smithfield, or any other producer that uses CAFOs (confined/concentrated animal feeding operations). The same goes for chicken and beef. The animals are treated inhumanely.
The simplest pasta dish to make is cacío e pepe. Boil spaghetti noodles, put them in a bowl, coat with a good amount of extra virgin olive oil, add lots and lots of freshly ground pepper, and finish with lots of grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese. You can also use butter instead of olive oil.
Salmon is the perfect fish to vacuum seal and freeze. Buy a whole side of salmon, inexpensive farmed is best, put it in a glass roasting pan in which it just fits, brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast in a 325 °F oven until just done, about 20 minutes. Let it cool, divide it in into portions, vacuum seal them, and freeze. When you want to eat it, thaw it out by placing the bag in warm water and serve at or slightly above room temperature. It goes wonderfully with cacío e pepe.
Buy an instant read thermometer. It will help you cook meat and poultry.
If you are an analytical person, buy an inexpensive kitchen scale. It will help you get por­tions of ingredients correct.
Learn to integrate multiple recipes into one. With the exception of baking, cooking is extremely flexible. Take the best parts of several recipes and formulate them into one. Do not be afraid to substitute or omit, however, proportions are important.
When you are baking, measure ingredients accurately. It matters.
As Julia Child once remarked: “if you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”
Salads should be served after the entrée as a digestif (French) or digestivo (Italian).
It is always more fun to have lots of smaller courses rather than a bunch of food piled on a plate. Except if you are serving grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup with potato chips.
The BLT is the world’s best sandwich, but only if made with in-season, ripe tomatoes and good quality bacon. White bread and iceberg lettuce are the essential. It is the tomatoes and bacon that matter.
Miracle Whip is garbage.
There is no excuse for imitation maple syrup. Use real maple syrup. You only live once and you are probably supporting a small farmer.
Do not put anything made of aluminum through the dishwasher. It will corrode.
Do not use a sponge or small brush to wash knives. You will eventually cut yourself. Going to the emergency room in the middle of cooking a big dinner is an inconven­ience. Use a long-handled brush.
You can buy fancy silicone brushes at Sur la Table, or you can go to Lowes and buy cheap natural bristle paintbrushes. They are equivalent in their utility, but necessary in the kitchen.
It is virtually impossible to leave Sur la Table having spent less than $100. On one occasion I only spent $12, but that was because I forgot a $12 item on the occasion when I had just spent more than $100. (I did actually leave the store and then go back, so this counts.)
If your recipe calls for a special cut of meat, say a bone-in pork shoulder roast or extra thick or thin chops or steaks, call your butcher the day before and order what you need. That is what butchers are for. It is their job.
The easiest and most delicious way to use fresh fruit when it is in season, besides just eating it, is to make a fruit crisp. Learn the ¾, ¾, ¾ technique. Three quarters of a cup of flour, ¾ of a cup of brown sugar, and ¾ of a cup of oats. Add a little cinnamon and salt. Add a melted stick of butter and mix well. Put the topping in the fridge while you prepare the fruit. You can use this topping with strawberries, blueberries, rhubarb, raspberries, blackberries, apples, peaches, cherries, plums, and many other fruits except things like melons. The only tricky part is knowing how much cornstarch or flour to add as a thickener. The juicier the fruit, the more thickener you need. For a 9 inch pan, use 2-3 tbsp of cornstarch for juicier fruit like raspberries or cherries, less for less juicy fruit like apples or rhubarb. Mix the fruit with the thickener and some sugar to taste. Add almond extract with blueberries and cherries, vanilla extract with rasp­berries, blackberries and peaches. Put the fruit in a glass baking dish, crumble the topping over the fruit, and bake at 375 °F for about 45-55 minutes. It is done when the fruit is vigorously bubbling and the topping has browned.
Try and eat fruit and vegetables in season. One does not expect to snow ski in August or want to water ski in January. Same principle.
Driscoll brand strawberries and raspberries suck.
Do not buy acorn squash in April or cherries in December. They have come from a long way away and will not be as good as acorn squash in October or cherries in July. Plus, it is environmentally irresponsible to transport apples from New Zealand. Obviously, if you live in Ohio, you have to import avocados, but that is different.
Bananas are a socially and environmentally irresponsible fruit to eat. So are pineap­ples. It does not matter if they are organic. It is the principle.
Buy Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. It is the best Italian cook­book.
Plate food in the center of the plate and stack garnishes as high as possible. A little sprinkled parsley or a bit of lettuce dressed in olive oil adds a nice touch to the plate.
You can put a sauce under or over a piece of fish or meat. Whatever floats your boat. Escoffier has an opinion on this issue, but he is dead. Actually, Escoffier has an opinion on every aspect of cooking, but he is still dead.
Any cookbook authored by Patricia Wells is worth owning, especially Simply French and Trattoria.
Grilled sandwiches are great. Make the sandwich, butter the top slice of bread, and carefully invert it into a medium hot sauté pan. Butter the other slice of bread then flip the sandwich when the bottom piece of bread is browned. Do not have the pan too hot, as you want the ingredients of the sandwich to heat through. Obviously, the Reuben is the second best sandwich in the world, but grilled ham or turkey and Swiss cheese on rye bread is delicious. Try Spanish ham with Mahón cheese (or just Manchego) and olive tapenade grilled with olive oil on rye bread. You will thank me.
Buy Salsa di Pomodoro by Julia della Croce. You need this book if you love pasta. It is out of print, but Amazon carries it used.
Anchovies are a highly underutilized ingredient. They add great umami flavor to sauces and other dishes. Buy good quality anchovies, as cheap ones can taste terrible.
Always have a jar of capers in your refrigerator. They are useful in a wide variety of dishes. Also have good quality red and white wine vinegar.
Did I mention mise en place and sharp knives?
It is essential to have a glass of white wine while cooking dinner. If you are an extremely nervous cook, try Valium in its place.
If you grow tomatoes or have access to lots of them in season, freeze them whole. When they are thawed, the skins burst and you can slip the tomato right out. It is won­derful to have fresh frozen tomatoes in February to make a pasta sauce.
You need lots of bowls in a variety of sizes. You cannot have too many.
Wash large bowls, pots, and pans as you go. You will be happier after dinner.
Learning to cook takes practice. Luckily, cooking is fun.
Read recipes all the way through BEFORE you start, to avoid surprises. Surprises are usually inconvenient in cooking, and sometimes disastrous.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

What It's Like Here

As I'm discovering, this "job" of growing food and maintaining a large piece of property is pretty hard on one's body. It's dangerous, too. Chainsaw cuts, bad scratches from thorned plants, and insect and snake bites are all issues. A week or two ago, I killed a 21" Copperhead on the driveway. I saw it slither away, I poked it with my walking pole, and it turned and reared at the stick. Fat little jaws and a flat little head. I should have seen that first. There are many other species of snakes on the property, all of them non-poisonous. It's not uncommon to be able to catch and hold one. I've done it a number of times.

Add to that the simple physicality of day-to-day duties, for instance, lifting 40 lb water pails into and out of the trailer or using a tiller or using the unwieldy Gravely mower. Plus a chain saw to keep our view across the valley and for firewood (we heat primarily with wood during the winter, when we're here), a 3/4 ton pickup truck to wrestle with (esp. putting on chains in winter), and 20 hp brush mower that I tow behind my ATV. Plus various tools such as weed eaters, double-bladed hedge clippers, a log splitter, circular and cross-cut saws, and I recently made extensive use of a router and a pneumatic staple-gun reconstructing our Martin house. There isn't a single one of these jobs that I'm complaining about, but there some that I strongly dislike, like hauling water to the garden. There simply isn't any choice; the jobs must be done, no questions asked.

The biggest benefit of doing these jobs and operating this equipment is that I am outside and active for a good part of the day. It is not seasonal, either. We spend part of late fall and early winter cutting down fairly large trees, some well over 100' tall, a very physical job. We also make it a point, perhaps not frequently enough, to take walks around the property. We have walked all three property lines (the fourth is the road), and marked trees and fence posts with red paint or red blazes. We make our own maple syrup, which can keep one busy hauling buckets of sap in late winter and early spring when the sugar maples start to run. I love being outdoors in all four seasons.

The result of all this? We have a garden that is spectacular. The soil pH is correct, the levels of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) are optimal, and the soil has lots of organic matter and healthy microorganisms. Weeds are under control for the first time, and all the transplanted starts are doing well. Nearly 100% of the seed potatoes sprouted and the plants are healthy and green, the rhubarb is fabulous, the beet crop looks better that ever because we used a biodegradable paper weed barrier for the transplants, the raspberry bushes are loaded with green berries after a beautiful flowering, and we finally have some fruit on our trees, particularly the two oldest cherry trees. I think we put them in six years ago after planting our eight-tree apple orchard in 2008. There will be a few apples off of two trees if we can keep the birds and insects off of them. Same for the cherries. We will have to put bird netting around all trees with fruit. Most of the remaining apple trees, the two pear trees, and the three plum trees have yet to produce fruit.

All the Brassica and related plants look really good, including Brussels sprouts, black and curly kales, four varieties of cabbage, and Swiss chard, which may not be a Brassica. The Roma tomatoes are coming along decently, and we had a good crop of asparagus this year, although we missed the majority of it. The bush beans and soybeans have just come up, the peas are flowering, we're growing fava beans this year, and we recently transplanted six varieties of peppers and two varieties of cucumbers. We now have two raised beds by the house, one planted with arugula, herbs, carrots, and baby juniper trees, and another newly planted with strawberries. We also have half a dozen blueberry bushes, which we unfortunately tend to neglect.

In addition, the property around the house and garden looks civilized. The 1.5 acre clearing in which our house sits is regularly mowed and is full of wild grasses. We have plenty of storage buildings to store things like ATVs or mowers, and even the 50 year old Gravely walk-behind mower started right up after the winter. The addition to our house was finished over the winter, but the outside still needs to be stained. It's steadily becoming a homestead.

We had an issue with Starlings in our Martin house, and I managed to kill a couple of birds with a .22 rifle and eventually chase them off. However, in doing so I put more than a couple of holes in the Martin house. These have been repaired and the nest doors have been reconstructed to be Starling resistant. Luckily, we haven't been plagued with raccoons this year, and our bird feeders have remained unmolested. We have a pair of Tree Swallows nesting in a house by the barn, and who are a delight to watch, but our bluebird family disappeared suddenly, the result of some sort of predator. Unfortunately, the Oriole family that nested in one of our apple trees didn't come back this year, but we do have a large flock of turkeys down in the western hollows, and I've seen the gobbler in the clearing by the house several times. There is a cute little pair of red squirrels that often visit the bird feeder, but who are too small to eat much food. We also have a number of Pileated Woodpeckers in the area, making a racket defending each of their territories. Other woodpeckers are common at the feeders (Downy, Hairy, and Red bellied). We haven't seen a bear this year, so far, and the dogs seem to keep the deer away from the house, which is good as they eat things I don't want them to eat. I suppose if the deer start to become a problem, there is always the venison solution to population control.

At this point in the growing season, all appears well. After a brief drought in the middle and end of May, we've had 0.84" of rain over two days and everything is green. From this point on, it's weed management, pest control, and harvesting everything we have planted. I am going to pick rhubarb, Swiss chard, and broccoli raab tomorrow, and it won't be long before the peas will be ready.

The Necessity of Rain

I just looked at my calendar for the month of May, and either I have been at Dogs Run Farm or I have traveled to/from here for 18 of the 31 days in the month. Part of this increase in time spent in WV can be attributed to a moderate drought on the farm. When I arrived Friday (May 29th), we had had only 1.61" of rain for the month, with a good part of that in the early part of the month. I would estimate that our average May rainfall is significantly over 5" and is perhaps as high as 6". We try and rely on rainwater for watering the garden, and we have a 10' x 12' collection system (a tarp) and a 110 gal tank. If we had collected all of this 1.61" of rain, it would have barely filled the tank once, but we had long since used that up.

The unfortunate consequence of this small drought is that I have been forced to haul water up to the garden in order to water plants. I bring it up in 5 gal pails with lids, four to the load, in my ATV trailer. Forty gal is two trips up and down the hill (did I mention that our garden and home are on a steep hill? Our driveway is almost 0.3 miles long and climbs about 200-300' in elevation, and the garden is several hundred yards uphill from the house.), which is tough on the ATV. Thankfully, it has a fully locking differential, so in tough situations locking the transmission makes all the difference. Overall, the process is painful, both physically and mentally.

I am pretty convinced, however, that we can survive largely with rainwater. Last year we had several one-inch rains in a row, and the garden was threatened only with erosion. I managed to save most of the potato crop, putting tarps over the bed in which I'd recently planted seed potatoes, and we ended up with 140 lbs of seven varieties of potatoes. The rest of the growing season benefited from continual rains throughout the summer. I only hauled water one time. It would be nice to have a larger cistern (e.g., 500 gal) and a more permanent and sturdy collection system. Couple that with a solar powered pump, and I doubt we would ever have to haul water up to the garden again.

Around noon on Saturday, May 30th, we finally had some rain. It was somewhat of a downpour, but coupled with a lighter rain later in the day, we ended up with 0.67" of rain.  The garden soaked it all up, with no evidence of runoff, and the rain barrel collected around 50 gal of water (10' x 12' tarp = 120 sq ft = 17,280 sq in x 0.67" rain = 11,578 cu in water = 50 gal). It takes about 1.5" of rain to fill a completely empty tank.

So now, everyone is happy. The grasses in the clearing have greened up overnight, the garden has had a good soaking, the plants look healthy, and we are hopefully on our way to a bountiful 2015 crop.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Variety of Foods in the 2015 Gardens

This year, we are growing the following vegetables and fruits, some more seriously than others. The number in parentheses is the number of varieties of that particular plant we are growing.

Apples (4) Eggplant (3) Peas
Arugula Fava beans Peppers (6)
Asparagus Horseradish Plums (3)
Basil Kale (2) Potatoes (6)
Beets (2) Lavender Radishes
Blueberries Leeks Raspberries
Broccoli raab Lemons Rhubarb
Brussels sprouts Lettuces Rosemary
Bush beans (3) Limes Sage
Cabbage (4) Lovage Sorrel
Carrots Mint Soy beans
Cherries (3) Onions (3) Strawberries
Chives Oregano Swiss chard
Cucumbers (2) Parsley Thyme
Dill Pears (2) Tomatoes (7)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Wild West Virginia Ramps

Ramps or Wild Leeks
Allium tricoccum, commonly known as the ramp, is a species of wild onion native to the eastern United States and Canada. In West Virginia, it grows in hollows or other shaded, wet areas. The ramp plant resembles a broad-leaved lily and grows in clumps of multiple plants 5-10" high. It is one of the first plants up in the spring, generally in mid-April. It is widely foraged in Appalachia, and people often sell ramps along the sides of roads. All parts of the ramp are edible, both the bulb and the leaves. It is traditionally fried with potatoes in bacon fat or battered and deep-fried.

We knew we had large numbers of ramps growing on the western edge of our property, primarily along the side of the hollow that forms the west property border. In previous years, we had dug a few ramps, but never spent the time or energy to take advantage of this interesting food. They have a strong taste that requires some getting used to.

Fields of Ramps
This past Sunday, a windy rainy day not much useful for anything else, we put on our raincoats and tramped over to the western hollow with the dogs. There were a few clumps of ramps here and there, and we dug as we walked. We found an old logging road that had ramps growing in the road bed, and so we followed along, digging as we went, a few here, a few there, trying not to take too many from a given area. As we followed the road, it crested over a hill, giving a view of the western-facing downhill slope leading to the west property line. The hillside was completely covered with bright green ramps as far as we could see; they covered the forest floor all the way down into the hollow. There were perhaps five acres of ground like this. We were ramp tycoons!

Cleaned Ramps
By this point, we had filled up the plastic grocery bag as full as possible, so we headed back to the house excited about foraging part of our evening's dinner. The ramps were muddy and were covered by a brown skin, and after a bit of work we ended up with a pile of cleaned and de-rooted ramps. For dinner that night we had grilled pork rib chops, baked potatoes, and ramps sautéed in olive oil with salt and pepper (with a Zaca Mesa Syrah). The taste of the ramps was a cross between a green onion, leek, garlic, and something more earthy yet. They tasted like the dark black compost in which they grew.
Half Bushel of Ramps
The next morning, we headed back to the ramp fields and picked a half bushel more. We barely made a dent in a tiny corner of the ramp-covered hillside. We dug perhaps 8-10 lbs, which filled a half-bushel basked. They weren't for us, but for a friend who loves the treats we bring from the Farm. We spend about 30 min digging and another 20 min hauling the basket back up to the house. We washed them off with the hose, and packed them into a 13 gal plastic bag for the trip home. The car was pretty stinky.

That afternoon, I made a visit to The Seasoned Farmhouse with a 13 gal bag of ramps in tow. My cooking instructor Tricia Wheeler was absolutely delighted and a bit intimidated with the size of the present, but immediately started cleaning the ramps so she could include them in a salad for her Monday Étoile class. Very few people in the class had ever heard of a ramp, let alone tasted one so fresh. Tricia plans to serve the ramps in a risotto in her upcoming class on cooking leg of lamb.

Ramp Oil
That evening for dinner, we had ramp and pea risotto garnished with a ramp oil. The ramp oil was made by pureeing 2 cups of chopped ramp leaves with 1 cup of olive oil, heating this to a simmer for a few minutes, filtering through a fine sieve, and finally filtering through a paper towel. The oil was dark green and smelled earthy and strongly of onions.

Ramp and Pea Risotto w/Ramp Oil
The risotto started with sliced ramp bulbs sautéed in olive oil, carnaroli rice, chicken stock, peas, and grated parmesan cheese. It was plated and garnished with ramp oil and more parmesan cheese. The flavor of the ramps had softened to a very mellow onion/leek flavor and the ramp oil added a final touch of freshness.

I also made some ramp pickles using ramp bulbs and a pickling liquid made from cider vinegar, sugar, salt, pink and white peppercorns, and cumin, mustard, coriander, and caraway seeds. The pickles were refrigerated and will be ready in a few weeks.

Pickled Ramps
It is a satisfying feeling to eat foraged foods. Of course they are free, but it is also about the labor involved in foraging. What is nice is that the source of the food is certain and it is about as local as possible. It's the same feeling we get eating eggs from our backyard flock of chickens.

To forage these ramps we needed only a basket and a garden knife for digging. Hiking sticks helped  get us over the rough terrain. It not as if we saved a lot of money digging ramps, but the satisfaction of eating foraged food is similar to the feeling we get eating food we have grown. Food is such an important part of our lives, and the quality of the ingredients that goes into our food plays such a critical role.