Saturday, April 1, 2017

Amaryllis in April






A bold shot of color inside against the remnants of dirty snow outside. Easy-to-care-for amaryllis: Cut off the flower stalk after blooming. Fertilize regularly and summer outside in semi-shade. Bring inside before first frost. Reduce watering and cut back before placing in cool, dark closet for a couple of months. Bring back into the light, water and wait for the show.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Valentine's Harvest




  For all the pitfalls that come with gardening in Northern Minnesota, and there are many, one positive is that snow cover is fairly reliable.  That may not sound like a big deal but it is.  The snow acts as blanket in much the same way a mulch would.  It tempers the winter weather extremes we encounter here frequently.  It is one of the reasons we can grow borderline hardy perennials with some degree of success.  One of the other benefits of snow cover is it allows you to harvest certain perennial herbs and some vegetables year round.  I can usually harvest herbs such as thyme and sage all year long and I do.  Fresh herbs can push an otherwise ordinary dish over the top.  The "fresh" herbs you get in the grocery store always seem flat to me.  They can't hold a candle to something you go out and harvest in your own yard, even in February.


   I dug under the snow to find this thyme since I needed it for our Valentine's day supper.  It has been my experience that thyme is probably the best of the herbs for winter harvest.  It  seems to hold up real well under the snow and it is often hard to distinguish from summer harvested thyme.  The aroma is quite strong even after months under the snow.  Much better than any store bought package of herbs.  It's versatile and wine friendly.  It is an essential ingredient for a bouquet garni which is what I needed it for and also makes a nice attractive garnish.  You just have to know where to dig so be certain to mark them or make a mental note as to the location.
  I decided to prepare the French classic, Coq Au Vin for Valentine's day.  It seemed to me to be the perfect dish for the occasion.  Warming and flavorful and full of good things from the garden.  It is served over mashed potatoes and the varieties I used were 'German Butterball' and 'Valisa'.  It was the last of the yellow fleshed potatoes I had in storage.  Although it is not necessary for a classic Coq Au Vin, I chose to steam some carrots as an accompaniment.  'Purple Dragon' was the variety.  It is one of the purple skinned carrots that doesn't lose it's color after cooking.  It is only the skin that is purple so peeling isn't required if you want the color.  Why wouldn't you?  It is, after all, the main attribute of the variety.
The preparation of the dish isn't too technically difficult but it does have several components so I wouldn't say it is easy.  It is however, totally worth the effort.  























  Tender stewed chicken with a rich sauce on top of homegrown mashed potatoes and some steamed carrots for added panache.  This dish exemplifies what good cooking is about:  taking an austere ingredient and transforming it into something extraordinary.  Add to that a good amount of garden cache items and there really isn't anything to not like about it.  Even the thyme garnish is a nice touch especially when you can harvest it in the middle of February,  It just pushes the whole thing over the top.  The garden lives on.
It was a nice Valentine's day.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Believe it, or not.....

  I wanted to try something new tonight.  Laotian food is probably not the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of something new to cook but that's the type of thing that pops into mine.  I wanted something to go with a Thai roasted cabbage recipe I happened upon in Fine Cooking magazine.  I did, after all, have a head of cabbage from last year's garden in storage that I knew I needed to use in the near future.  I wasn't even sure if the condition of the cabbage was acceptable or not.  Miraculously, it was in fine shape.  Miraculous because this was a savoy cabbage intended primarily for fresh eating, not for three months of storage. 

                                                                               


  Sometimes you get surprised and rewarded for doing things a little unorthodox.  I never really expected to keep this cabbage this long or for it to look this good after I did.  Keep in mind this is not a storage variety but it has held up better than I ever thought it would.  It was a pleasant surprise to discover a head that was not only usable but in great shape as well.  In fact, it looked so nice I decided to share the wealth and save half of it for coleslaw in a couple days so I had to supplement the dish with some store bought kale I had on hand.  The cabbage and kale are first roasted and then dressed with a simple Thai dressing.  Simple and tasty, ......and from the garden.  It doesn't get much better than that on a cold night in February.




  What does any of this have to do with Lao food, you ask?  Well, nothing really.  Lao and Thai cuisine are very similar. This cabbage dish is Thai.  It was an accompaniment to a Lao beef and pork mini patty flavored with lemongrass, onion, and fish sauce.  Served with two very different spicy Lao dipping sauces and wrapped in lettuce leaves, the patties, and in fact, the entire meal was quite satisfying.  Planning and executing a meal around a simple idea and an ingredient that probably shouldn't have been is also quite satisfying. 
Sometimes you just don't know what will work until you try it even if it is inadvertent.  If you didn't think you can store a savoy cabbage for three months you now know it can be done. 
Serendipity happens.  Believe it.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

This is why.....

  This is why I garden.  The frites for tonight's steak frites will be pink.
Why?  Because it's different.





  Vegetable gardening affords you with the opportunity to cook with many unusual and interesting things.  Food is food but using things you've grown yourself is just plain cool especially when you can make pink steak fries.
  Why be run of the mill?  You don't have to be.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Bean Counter's Paradise

  Oh, the bean counters in my life!  They are seemingly everywhere.  This year there was plenty for them to count though.  2016 was one of, if not the best, bean year of all time for us.  Everything from favas to snap green beans to dried beans produced.  If it was a legume, it performed wonderfully.
  Beans of all types are staples for us here.  The plants require minimal care and fertilizer is not necessary.  In fact, they are actually good for the soil.  All you need to do after sowing is harvest them when they are ready.  There are myriad types and varieties to choose from but if you're like me, you find a few that you like and you stick with them.  We grow favas, Chinese long beans, Pole and bush beans, both French filet and standard, fresh shelling beans and dried beans.
  I've always grown green beans, ever since I was a little boy.  Who hasn't?  Even the most casual gardener who catches that springtime gardening bug has laid in a row or two of beans to savor later in the summer.  Nothing says summer like some steamed fresh green beans with butter and a touch of summer savory and salt.  However sooner or later, as your love for gardening grows, your horizon expands and you try new types.  Sometimes, just to see if you can grow them.  I discovered the magic of fava beans many years ago and wouldn't even consider not growing them now.  It was one of the most pleasant finds I think I've ever had in the garden.  In my opinion they are the king of the bean world.  If you have never tried them you owe it to yourself to expose yourself to this treat.  Like anything that is precious, there is a price to pay.  Prepping them is a bit of a chore but the effort is rewarded in one of the nicest
taste experiences of the summer garden.



   Chinese long beans were tried with a specific purpose in mind.  Thai Green Beans with Pork and Chiles.  To make it authentically, you should use long beans.  Long beans are best fried as opposed to steamed or boiled.  They are a long season crop that likes heat and long days.  Not something we are known for here in Northern Minnesota.  My first attempts at growing them produced mixed results.  A couple of years ago, I switched the location in the garden and I've had good crops every year since.


 

  2015 was the year I decided to try to conquer dried beans.  I had a hunch I could be successful even though they too benefit from a long season.  I chose an easy to grow variety called 'Good Mother Stallard'.  I got a crop and decided to try some other varieties this past year.  We do not live in a place that is ideal for dried beans.  Dried anything, for that matter but the experiment worked out well and I got a crop from each of the varieties I tried.  'Tiger's Eye', 'Peregion', 'Cannellini' and the aforementioned 'Good Mother Stallard' are the varieties I tried.  The 'Cannellini' beans were the big question mark as they are a 100 day bean.  Oddly enough, they performed the best and were the easiest to handle and process.  Our short season and cool, damp autumns are not conducive to finishing dried bans.  This year I had to harvest before they were completely ready but was able to finish drying them indoors.


'Tiger's Eye'
'Good Mother Stallard'














'Cannellini'




'Peregion'
















2016 dried bean harvest

It's always good to have success whenever you are trying something new.  It keeps you energized.  Having beans available of varying kinds throughout the year also keeps you energized.  They are all easy to grow and as you can see, there is a lot more to beans than just green beans.  If you want to broaden your horizon, try some of these more unusual types.  I will try these dried bean varieties again next year and I may even add one to the mix but for now, I'm thinking of the dishes I will use these guys in.  Bean soup?  Frijoles? Baked Beans?  I have never tried making Cassoulet........ Hmmmmm.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Vegetable Garden Sleeps.....

As we head into the depths of winter here in the Northland, my focus is shifting from the year that was to the year that will be.  After a brief respite of a few weeks I am ready to jump back in.  You see, gardening never really stops here.  It is a year round event.  One year gently bleeds into another as we frugally use up last years bounty, we simultaneously set our sights on next year's.  A blank slate is always a good thing as it affords us a chance at redemption for things that didn't work out so well as well as the promise of new challenges that await.
The spring renewal isn't months off.  It is now.  The planning for what I will be eating next year at this time is happening right now.  My basic template doesn't change much but all the intricate details do.  New varieties to try, new methods of production, and new layouts are all part of the fun of planning.  There is a certain element of fantasy to it.  As gardeners, we need that fantasy to sustain us through the dark days of winter.
The 2016 vegetable garden was a huge success and I wonder if I can duplicate it this year.  So many crops did wonderful.  The weather is very fickle here and it takes a certain amount of luck to have it all come together.  A few tweaks  here and there and the rest is out of our hands.  We play the hand we are dealt.

Sometimes when we try to look forward it is important to look back.  This is especially true in the landscape.  Winter is a wonderful time to assess things.  We can see the bones.  We can see what we like and what is working.  We can see what needs to change.  We get a vision for where we are going.  We look for elements to get us there.  Landscaping is much more of a long term project than growing food.
I often think about the history of this place at this time of year.  For about 23 years, I've been working on it.  There was nothing here when I started.  It too, was a blank slate.  The landscape has evolved slowly with no master plan to start, just a general sense of what I wanted to do.  The twenty year vision as I like to call it.  You start collecting the pieces of the puzzle and slowly you put them together.  Each of these trees has a story.  Where they were purchased, why they were purchased, and how they came to be where they are now are all parts of those stories. 
Pinus cembra 'Chalet'

Betula nigra 'Heritage'

Tsuga canadensis

Pinus cembra 'Nana'




















Parts of it have been built, ripped out, and rebuilt again.  Like a lava flow, every year it builds on itself and it is this time of year in which the course is plotted for the next season.  Deciding what you want to accomplish is always difficult and often changes.  Finding the right parts to achieve those goals can also be a challenge.  A certain type of plant for that one spot, or a new and unusual plant to be tucked in there, or that Zone 5 or 6 plant that begs to be given the opportunity to survive in Zone 3. The garden is dynamic, always changing.  This is why it is always fresh and I never get tired of it.
Soon, all those decisions will be made, the orders sent, and the plants and supplies will begin arriving in that mailbox out there.  Just like every year before.



The anticipation of renewal, redemption, and progress is what keeps us going, not only in the garden, but in life as well.  Now is the time to start putting those pieces in place and making the vision a reality.  Fantasy now, work later.  Before long, we will be sharing a glass or two of wine in the shade after a long day in the garden sun. The Sillydog will be at our feet.