Monday, August 31, 2009

Beans star in weekend dining

A bowl of just-picked 'Jade' green beans. I nibbled a few as I harvested. Just to keep my energy up.

It's all about the beans. And the herbs. And the potatoes. Is it any wonder why this is one of the best eating times of the year.

Let's start with the beans. Few vegetables give you so much bang for the buck, even in a semi-crummy growing season like this one. The green bush beans (variety is 'Jade') were ready for harvest last week. The bean harvest means one thing: Stir-fried Green Beans with Pork and Chilies from Madhur Jaffrey's "Far Eastern Cookery." This recipe has become a summer ritual for us; of course, we eat it other times of the year, too, but the first harvest of beans seems like an especially good time to enjoy it. You can adjust the amount of heat with the number of chilies you use. Here's the drill:

1 1/4 pound green beans
12-16 garlic cloves
6-9 fresh hot green or red chilies
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
10 ounces lean pork, ground
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce or salt to taste

Cut the beans into quarter-inch pieces. Peel and chop the garlic. Cut the chilies crosswise into very thin slices.

Put the oil in a wok and set it over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, put in the garlic and chilies. Stir and fry until the garlic turns golden and then add the pork. Stir and fry, breaking up any lumps, until the pork has lost its raw look. Put in the beans, paprika, sugar, fish sauce and 1 1/4 cups water. Stir and cook on a medium-high heat for about 8-10 minutes or until the beans are tender and most of the water has been absorbed.

We also used our own homegrown chilies (superchilies, well-suited for northern climates) and garlic in the Saturday night dinner. The psychic taste buds get a boost from using ingredients that came out of the garden only hours earlier.

We have never tried a Madhur Jaffrey recipe we didn't like. She's that good.

The beans and pork are just about done stir-frying in the wok. Serve them over jasmine rice.

And then there was Sunday dinner. Beans again, but this time it was the French filet beans (variety is 'Nickel', thinner and more delicate than other bush beans). They were steamed and sprinkled with summer savory, an easy-to-grow annual herb that will self-sow. It doesn't get much better than this. Except when you add freshly dug Norkotah mashed potatoes with fresh rosemary and chives and chicken baked with a poultice of rosemary, thyme, sage and olive oil tucked under the skin.

It's an herb extravaganza. Those are bits of summer savory on the filet beans. I love the garnish -- sage leaves with rosemary and chives. Sort of evokes a bird.

Birds, birds, birds

I came across this blog the other day, and wanted to share it because, hey, if you like gardening, you probably like birds, too. It's written by Laura Erickson of Duluth, Minn., who works for the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. It's full of great bird photos. Enjoy!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Tiny, mighty hummingbirds

Brian managed to get the best shot of a hummingbird so far this summer. This one is feeding on the bee balm.

Hummingbirds have to be among the coolest birds ever. So tiny, but so fearless! They hover and divebomb and buzz our heads seemingly without care. We've had ruby-throated hummingbirds all summer, but activity seems to have ramped up the past few weeks. One sunny day this week, there were five at one time trolling for nectar on the bee balm. I suppose they're loading up on food in anticipation of the fall migration. I don't plant specifically to attract them; it just seems that we favor many of the same plants -- such as bee balm and catmint. But they're really not picky -- I've seen them at almost anything in bloom.

Hummingbirds migrate alone. describes them as commuters on a freeway, all going the same way on the same road but doing it alone. Sounds kind of sad and inefficient, but there really are good reasons for going it alone, not the least of which is it makes them a less visible target for predators.

If you feel like traveling this weekend, there's a hummingbird festival in Henderson, Minn.

Favorite plant of the day: Bee balm

Every summer the bee balm (right) makes an impression.

We've had several visitors to sillydoggarden the past few weeks and the bee balm invariably has been among the plants to generate the most comments. I grow one kind of bee balm, Monarda didyma 'Raspberry Wine'.

A bee sips nectar from a blossom. The plant is a favorite of bees and hummingbirds. The plant apparently gets its moniker because the buds (lower right) resemble raspberries.

There are others -- red, purple and pink, tall and short -- but for me none can compare to 'Raspberry Wine'. The plant grew respectably in a semi-shaded location but really came into its own when I moved it to the east side of the house where it gets a half-day or more of sun and decent soil. Unlike some other bee balms, this one is labeled as being resistant to powdery mildew and I can vouch for its vigor. I don't think I've ever had a mildew infestation in more than a decade of growing this plant.

The Monarda genus is named after Nicolas Monardes (1493-1588), a Spanish physician who wrote "Joyfull Newes out of the New Found Worlde'' (translated by John Frampton, 1580). Monardes never went to America but studied the effects of medicinal plants from the New World in a botanical garden in Seville, according to the digital library of Vanderbilt Medical Center. Sounds like a fun way to make a living to me.

The plant also is known as Oswego tea; American Indians used its leaves to brew a tea for pleasure and to treat digestive ailments. It became popular among the colonists and was drunk instead of black tea during the period of the Boston Tea Party. I've never tried making tea from my plants; I suspect there would be differences in flavor among the species.

I tend to grow things tight. Here, an Oriental lily is tucked in among the bee balm stems.

Bad-hair day? No way. Bee balm revels in its shaggy heads.

Gardens are way more than visual. In the spirit of engaging senses other than sight, here is "Why Do You Think They Call It Bee Balm?" (Yes, those are bees that you're hearing.)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Rainy morning reading

Washington Post garden Adrian Higgins has an interesting profile of garden designers Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd of North Hill garden in Vermont. I've been a fan of these guys for a while and it was fun to check out the photo gallery of North Hill.

Two really good takeaways from the online chat:

1. Use a votive candle softened in the sun to plug the drainage hole in large clay pots that you want to use for water gardens. Add some mud at the bottom and plant. I've always used the clay/ceramic pots as cachepots for my water plants that are planted in ugly plastic pots. It's still a good system because it makes it easy to bring in the plants for the winter. But I'm intrigued by the candle idea and may have to give it a try next year.

2. Winterrowd and Eck say Seneca Hills Rare Plant Nursery owned by Ellen Hornig is the new Heronswood. High praise, and the online catalog is definitely worth a look.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Gardening isn't for sissies

The sweet corn had a rough night.
Sometimes Mother Nature slaps you around a bit. Last night, she cranked up the wind machine along with the rain. Getting 3 inches of rain wasn't a problem, but that soft earth combined with a steady wind left many of the taller perennials -- bee balm, rudbeckia and allium -- and annuals -- purple millet, black-tipped wheat and snapdragons -- bent over. But the worst was the sweet corn. I'll try to get the plants back on their feet once the rain ends.

Any wagers on whether we'll harvest any ears this year?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fa-va-va-va-voom: Fava beans!

A pile of de-podded fava beans ready for blanching after which their outer skins or husks will be removed. Is your mouth watering yet?

Summer Fest at A Way to Garden is focusing on beans and greens this week. We're a few days away from harvesting green beans, but the fava beans, well, that's another story.

Fava beans (Vicia faba) are among the first vegetables we sow here. They've also evolved into one of our must-grows. Not that we grow a lot of them -- just enough for a meal or two -- but it's always fun to anticipate a plate of the plump, pillowy beans.

Favas go in the ground in late April, six weeks or more before the bush beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) or the pole beans or the Chinese long beans and about the same time as the peas. We use a bacteria inoculant when we sow (You can buy the stuff at many seed/garden suppliers). Spritz the seeds with water, roll them in the inoculant and sow. The bacteria form nodules on the roots and help to fix the nitrogen from the air into a form more readily useful to a growing plant. (You can use it for other beans and peas, too.)

Favas here grow several feet tall and have very cool black and white blossoms. We grow a variety called 'Aquadulce' that we get from Stokes Seeds.These broad beans need a long, cool growing season and judging by our harvest, the cool temperatures I was complaining about earlier this summer were a boon to this year's crop. Harvest when the pods are thick and bumpy with the beans.

Once harvested, there's the matter of prepping the fava beans for cooking. Remove them from the pod and blanch them for several minutes in boiling water. Now it's time to remove their secondary husk. One by one, take each bean and squeeze one end to push the bean out of the husk. Yes, it's tedious, but not so bad if done while watching the news and having a cocktail. After this husking, all you need to do is warm them in a pan with some butter and salt. A vegetable like this doesn't need any fancy extras. If you do have leftovers (unlikely, but it can happen) try them in an omelet the next day.

Good to know: A small percentage of people have favism, an acute anemia caused by a reaction to eating fava beans or being exposed to its pollen.

The fava bean bed in May. Good things come to those who wait. We harvested in August.

A bowl of just-picked favas. We'll take them out of the pod and then shell them again before eating.

The beans cozy up to each other in the pod.

Fava beans prepared simply with butter and salt are the main attraction; peppered flatiron steak and puff pastry/blue cheese pinwheels play supporting roles.

OK, I can't resist, you've read this far -- here's the famous line.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

All hail high summer

This is rudbeckia by the garage. The original stand of these summer favorites was in a bed by the vegetable garden, but that bed was demolished as we re-thought the landscaping after the kitchen addition. Still, every year we get seedlings in various places.

Finally. It's almost been the summer that wasn't weather-wise. One of the coolest we've had in many years. Good for some of the flowers, but not so good for others. But this week, ahhhh, this week we got summer smack-dab between the eyes. Hot (in the 80s). And humid. No, I wouldn't like it like this all summer, but for a week in August ---ohhhh, that's nice!

Here, then, are a few scenes from high summer at sillydoggarden.

A mixed planting that includes phlox, variegated willow, snapdragons, salvia, ligularia and lobelia. In the back and off to the right is sweet corn.

The bee balm (variety is 'Raspberry Wine') is going great guns. That pinkish-white flower is an allium, but I've forgotten which variety.

In back, blue arctic willow; in front lamb's ears (left) and pussy-toes before they were (finally!) cut back.

The silly dog has had enough of pretty plants. It's time to cool off in the river.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pen and trowel

Janna Goerdt built two plastic-covered houses for growing vegetables for selling at farmers markets. The houses aren't fancy, but they have everything she needs for growing. She amended the soil under cover with horse manure.

Food writer Tom Wilkowske reports on that Janna Goerdt, market gardener and former DNT reporter, has agreed to do some writing for the Northern Minnesota foodie web site.

Janna left the newspaper business recently to devote her energy toward Fat Chicken Farm near Embarrass. She's growing edibles such as heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, sweet potatoes, basil and squash in the two hoop houses she built last spring. When I visited in mid-June the tomato seedlings were just starting to rev up and the basil was tiny. The plants apparently liked their new digs because as of last week, Janna says, "the hoop houses are like jungles, the tomatoes and cucumbers are taking over and I have to LEAP over and around foliage to get from one end to the other."

Sounds divine!

I'm all for supporting farmers like Janna (you can find her at farmers markets in Ely and Virginia) or growing your own if possible. I like being able to pluck lettuce for tonight's salad from my back yard or buying a few tomatoes from the farmer who actually grew and harvested them or purchasing eggs from the folks up the road who have a henhouse of Black Star chickens.

But I hadn't really thought much about the connections between my home garden, Janna's venture and other agricultural pursuits. In the New York Times, Dan Barber, a chef and co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, shares some thoughts on the food web in light of the late blight that has decimated the tomato crop in the Northeast. Here's a taste of what he says:

"There’s another lesson here for the home gardener. When you start a garden, no matter how small, you become part of an agricultural network that binds you to other farmers and gardeners. Airborne late blight spores are a perfect illustration of agriculture’s web-like connections. The tomato plant on the windowsill, the backyard garden and the industrial tomato farm are, to be a bit reductive about it, one very large farm. As we begin to grow more of our own food, we need to reacquaint ourselves with plant pathology and understand that what we grow, and how we grow it, affects everyone else. (Potato farmers in the Andes, for example, plant disease-prone varieties at high altitudes where the cold keeps pathogens in check — to protect themselves and their neighbors. They don’t get as big a harvest, but they decrease the risk of an epidemic.)"

If you want to know more about late blight (Phytophthora, the same fungus responsible for the Irish potato famine), read this post from Leslie Land's blog. Wow!

Janna gives some individual attention to a few plants on a warm day in June; she's also installed a drip/weeping irrigation system.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Ripe peaches ready for a jam session. (The plants are lemon gem marigolds; they have nothing to do with peaches, I just like them.)

What's a girl to do on a gloomy August morning? Why, find some sunshine in a pot of almond-peach jam, of course.

The recipe makes enough to fill three 8-ounce jars.

We can't gro
w peaches here, but we buy a case or two each summer when they arrive fresh and fragrant at stores. And I like to make this almond-peach jam from "Preserving for All Seasons'' by Anne Gardon. The recipe is a small batch -- it makes about 3 cups -- and this is the first year I've actually canned it. Years past, I just kept it in the fridge because it always got eaten so quickly, but this year I'm canning some of it thanks to a confidence-building session with my jam buddies on a cold January day. Here's how I make almond-peach jam:

You'll need 6 peaches
, cut into chunks, about 4 cups. Make the chunks tiny, as this jam is really more of a sweet spread than a smooth jam. I'm starting to call it "peach gravy" like my brother-in-law does. You'll also need 1 cup sugar and 1 generous tablespoon almond extract. Put the three ingredients in a saucepan and bring slowly to a boil, while stirring. Reduce heat and simmer until thick. The original recipe says about 10 minutes; I let it simmer for 20 minutes or so. Ladle into sterilized jars and process. Or keep it in a container in the refrigerator. That's it. Couldn't be simpler. Couldn't be tastier on a slice of toast made with homemade bread.

For more ideas on cooking with peaches, check out Summer Fest, Week 2: Fruits from Trees at A Way to Garden. Also take a peek at

Breakfast the next day is toast made with homemade bread and almond-peach jam.

Chilling out

It may have been the best 15 minutes of the day:

Early evening, warming up after a cool, gray day. Sitting on a bench that Brian built. The bench resting on the brick-paver terrace (probably too grand a term for this landing spot, but I like the sound of it) that we laid some years back. Surrounded by some of my favorite plants -- rosemary, heliotrope, scented geraniums, chocolate cosmos, night phlox and 'Painted Lady' sweet peas on a trellis I made from bamboo and willow prunings on a Sunday afternoon in May. A cold mojito in hand, made with mint plucked minutes earlier from the garden. Watching the hummingbirds work over the bee balm (just outside the view in this photo). Listening to their wings whirring in harmony with some bees buzzing around the allium.

Any nagging doubts, fears and frustrations held at bay.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Join the party, celebrate tarragon

Margaret Roach at is hosting Summer Fest, a four-week celebration of garden-fresh foods and flavors. This week it's all about herbs, one of my favorite topics. And one of my favorite herbs is tarragon with its licorice-anise flavor. Growing tarragon in this neck of the woods is a no-brainer: Buy a pot of french tarragon, plant it in a sunny spot, divide every couple of years, enjoy the bounty. My best clumps get lots of southwest sun by the garage. It's one of the first perennials to show signs of life in the spring and I've been known to pinch off sprigs to chew while doing my garden rounds.

Tarragon chicken supper a few weeks ago.

A couple of weeks ago, the resident chef here improvised a divine chicken supper using tarragon. Here's how he did it:

You'll need chicken cut into pieces, tarragon vinegar, shallots, chicken stock, heavy cream and seasoned flour (1-1 1/2 cups flour, salt and pepper and 1-1 1/2 tablespoons dried tarragon).

Dip the chicken in tarragon vinegar (reserve excess) and coat with seasoned flour. Saute in olive oil until nicely browned on one side, turn. Brown other side. Pour reserved tarragon vinegar over chicken pieces and continue to cook until vinegar has evaporated and chicken is cooked through, turning as needed.

Remove chicken from frying pan, drain on paper towels. Add a little more oil to pan if needed and saute some shallots until translucent. Add stock and reduce vigorously, scraping up browned bits until almost evaporated. Add heavy cream and reduce until desired thickness. Correct seasoning with salt and pepper and add chopped fresh tarragon.

Plate with starch of choice (we used vermicelli seasoned with butter, salt and pepper and chopped fresh parsley). Sauce chicken judiciously as this is a rich sauce. Garnish with a fresh sprig of tarragon. A nice acidic white wine with herbal or mineral notes, such as Riesling or Sauvignon blanc, goes well with this dish.

A robust stand of French tarragon in a raised bed by the garage. It seems to thrive on neglect. All I do is divide it every couple of years. I don't even mulch it over the winter.