Sunday, June 28, 2009

Peas, Pesto, and Preparation

Well the time of the Strawberry is just about over, but the time of the pea is just about full swing in the garden. For the past two days I have collected sugar snap peas from our garden. These tasty treats are a delight on a walk or just right in the garden. I love the fact that they are ready to eat as soon as you pick them off the vine.

In other news our basil is doing much better. It is done with its bout of fungal infection and is now a healthy crop. This past Thursday Naomi and I made garlic scape pesto once again. After being in the garden I can see that we will be able to harvest some more basil early next week and start making pesto and freezing it for the long winter months. I know they are still a long way off and look much further away during those 90 degree days, but I hate running out in mid January or February so we are going to put more away this year.

So I have decided to be like the ant and not the cricket. Preparation for the winter months needs to start early if you want to try to be a locavore.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

We be Jammin', Strawberry Jammin' Part II

Well here is about 20 quarts of strawberries just waiting to be jammed.

This past Wednesday Naomi and Five Crows got together at 9:00 in the morning to begin what was to be an all day affair of canning strawberry jam. Between the two of them they made approximately 480 ounces of strawberry jam or about 60 jars. They have made plans to can more fruits and who knows start a whole business.

Watching these two work took me back to my grandparents house in Arkansas. Where my grandmother would spend many of hot summer days canning preserves. Just the sight of a Mason jar can bring back many happy memories. I wonder how many people in the United States still can food?

First step is washing and then cutting off the caps off of two quarts of strawberries

Next put the 2 quarts of strawberries into the pot and then mash them right in the pot. This will help to save on dishes that you will need to wash later.

Then add six cups of sugar and stir the concoction thoroughly.

Put the Mason jars into a dishwasher and wash them to heat up the jars.

Next heat up the concoction until it gets to 220 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then using a ladel and a jar funnel pour the jam into the Mason jars. Next put the lids on and then screw on the rings, but make sure that they are not to tight.

Place the jars into a water bath canner and lower them until they are submerged.

Boil them for fifteen minutes and then remove them using the tongs.

You may hear a slight popping noise as you remove them. Let them sit for a bit until all the lids have sealed-The popping noise. The jars take up to 24 hours to cool.

We be Jammin', Strawberry Jammin' Part I

Well in my last post I asked what do you do with 20 quarts of Strawberries?

Well after you have made a strawberry pie or two and you have snacked on a handful or so, there is only one thing left to do. Preserve them before they spoil. I am sure that this is a conundrum that has confronted farmers for quite some time. In fact I am sure this problem has been front and center for our species as long as we have been gathering more food than we could eat in one setting.
We have had many different ways to meet this crisis. With meats we would simply salt the meat or drown it in layers of fat. However in the early 19th century Napoleon Bonaparte was concerned about the food for his armies staying fresh enough to keep them feed. He offered a prize of 12000 francs to the person who came up with the best way to preserve food over a long period of time. The person to do this was Nicholas Appert, the father of canning, who devised a way of preserving food in bottles similar to wine. This process was adapted and improved on through out the years by many different individuals.

However in 1858 a man by the name of John L. Mason conceived the idea of the Mason jar or a glass jar and lids that had threads. This allowed for reusable jars and screw on lids. The ease of use and the affordability of this system made canning more popular and the idea spread across the United States to all women be them farmers and homesteaders but also women living in the urban areas. Families began traditions of canning sauces, pickling, relishes, jams, and tomatoes. The name Mason became so synonymous with canning that piratically all glass jars to this day are called Mason jars even if they are made by another company and the fact that the Mason company has been out of business for over a century.

Canning grew in popularity during WW I and WW II. Canning was seen as a way to help the troops from home. As one can probably expect it is not as popular as it once was.

Many other companies made glass jars some with similar systems to the Mason jar, such as the Atlas E-Z jar, the Kerr jar, and the Ball jar. However others were made with completely different systems such as the Lightning jar.

An early Ball Mason jar

The Atlas "Strong Shoulder" Mason jar-The Strong Shoulder is the raised lip just below the lid.

A Ball jar using the Lightning clamp system.

The Ball Mason jar using the "Strong Shoulder" or the raised lip.

All of these jars were a gift from Five Crows who is a good friend and a gold mine of knowledge in a variety of areas.

*Interesting side note Ball jars used to be manufactured in Mundelien, Illinois up until the plant closed in 1981.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

PYO Farms

Pick your own is a very interesting idea and I feel that it can only exist in cultures who no longer have a large base of agriculture. It is a way for many people to give themselves or their children of a sense of what it might be like to be on a farm. If farming was only picking and eating. However, I cann't begrudge this idea at all. For one it is a great way for family farms to keep going and to capitalize on a type of industry that Americans do so well; Tourism. I have been to farms that are more amusement park than actual farm. A second reason is that honestly this could be the closest some of these families ever get to the source where their food comes from. If nothing else they will know what a strawberry plant looks like and how to tell when they are ripe enough to pick. Lastly I participate in this phenomenon as well. Buying strawberries by the quart can become expensive from the farmers market($5 a quart), but PYO is less than half the price of the farmers market strawberries.

So it was with this last idea in mind that Naomi, myself, and two of our good friends went to McCann Berry Farm in Woodstock, IL to purchase some strawberries at a discounted price and to help support a local family farm. The McCann Berry Farm was well run and they even had people in the field to help direct you to a row that had not yet been picked. So one doesn't waste their time going up and down rows or sections that have already been picked over. I also found a bit of camaraderie with the other people who were picking. Some helped direct others to where the berries were bigger or more plentiful. By the end of the hour we had 5 buckets of strawberries or 20 quarts. Our Friends Kelly and Kathy collected some peas and also helped us to fill one of our buckets. And we did all of this for just a little over $40 and some time in the car driving through the beautiful back roads of McHenry County.

As for what did we need 20 quarts of strawberries for. Stay tuned to find out.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Stormy Weather

Wow! Yesterday was simply unbelievable weather-wise. Throughout all of Friday the Chicago area was hit with storms that could only be rivaled by a tropical storm. Winds came at us that reached gusts of nearly 60 mph and the skies dumped approximately 4" of rain throughout the course of the day. Two inches were dropped in just one hour during the evening. Some of the plants took quite the beating and the garden was just a bit flooded for awhile. My potato plants took the worst of the storm's attack. A few stalks broke off due to the sheer force of the wind and rain, but most of the damaged plants were blown straight down. They laid there unwilling to stand up too tired I guess from the effort yesterday. I have tied them up in hopes of aiding them during this time.

I am sure that they will survive. Plants are resilient. They are survivors able to withstand all that nature can give them and keep on growing.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What's a bloom in the garden?


In the haste of growing food I think that we all forget the flowers these plants produce. Flowers are an interesting adaptation that occurred approximately 150 million years ago. It thought by most evolutionary biologists that bees co-evolved with flowers, hence their codependent nature. However bees were not the only animals to be affected by the presence of flowers. Many other insects and birds would also take on the role as pollinators. Many other animals came to enjoy eating the fruit that was produced by these plants. Of course without the flowering plant, human civilization or humans at all would not exist.

Vegetable garden flowers come in many distinct and different forms, but they typically share four basic parts; petals, pistil, stamen, and sepals. It is the variation in these four basic parts that give flowers their true appeal and help scientist to classify these plants. The flowers of vegetables should not be overlooked, they are neither dull nor lack luster. They are emboldened in their own way and present us with a bit of early summer beauty.

Look at the two pictures below:



As you can tell the nightshade and the potato flowers have very similar shapes. These two plants are very closely related and would make one think that they have other characteristics that are similar and they do. They have similar leaf structures as well. However one important difference is that potatoes lack all the poisonous aspects that nightshade carries. The same holds true for tomatoes which are also in the nightshade family. Yet both of these plants' flowers are quite attractive and lovely. The potato flower was used for many decades in France as an adornment in the hair of rich ladies.

However with potato plants the flower is only a signal to the gardener that the plant is going to start producing under the soil. Yet with other plants the signal is quite different. Sometimes the flower signals the end of the harvest for certain plants such as with greens (lettuce, spinach, etc.). In this instance we say that the plant has bolted or gone to seed. When these types of plants flower the plant begins to produce a chemical that turns the plant almost inedible or at least bad tasting. This is an evolutionary trait that allows this plant to ensure that its flowers will be producing seeds and that no animal will interrupt this process by eating it.

Sometimes immature flower heads are acutally the harvest, as in the case of broccoli and cauliflower. Other times flowers signal the coming of a food. These types of "vegetables" are almost always a fruit as in the case of tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, and raspberries. The first sign of their showy display is the beginning of the end. I find myself going out to the garden watching, waiting for the delicious fruits that are surely on their way. Currently the "fruit" that is in season are strawberries. Each morning I go out and gather all the strawberries that have rippened over night and mentally mark the ones that will soon be ripe enough to pick. Soon peas will visit our garden and then we will entire the time of the cucumbers. Who fruit so readily that we will pick 3-4 a day for quite some time. We will pass them out deal them to our friends.

However, please remember to not forget the importance of your vegetables flowers and to remember to stop every once and a while and admire the simple elegance of the flowers in your garden.





Basil + Scapes = Pesto

Scapes are the flower stems of garlic. They are removed in order to force the garlic plant to put all of its energy into creating bigger bulbs of garlic. Scapes have their own wonderful flavor and can be used in any meal as a substitute for chives or garlic. In the recipe below it was used as a substitute for garlic since we were down to our last clove.

Pesto is an ancient dish whose roots go all the way back to ancient Rome. It can be found in supermarkets, but these are usually made with cheaper ingredients. If you have never made pesto yourself I suggest that you try. It is a wonderful sauce on pasta or pizza. And as always freshly made at home is always better than store bought.


2 cups of Basil
3 garlic scapes or 3 garlic cloves
1/4 cup of toasted pine nuts
1/2 cup of Olive Oil
1/4 cup of Parmesan

(It is nice to have a food processor when making this dish)

Rinse the basil and the garlic scapes

Cut the flower part or the umbel from the scape

Put the washed garlic scapes in the food processor and chop them finely

Put the washed basil into the food processor and chop and mix it with the garlic scapes

Next add the Olive Oil through the top of the food processor as it is running.

Then add the toasted pine nuts into the food processor and chop and mix them in

Lastly add the Parmesan into the food processor and chop and mix it in.

Scrape the pesto out of the food processor into a bowl.

Then added it to whatever you desire and enjoy.

Remember that you can make more pesto than you will need and freeze it so you will have some in the long depths of winter.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Birds

I love birds even though I am not a birder. For the most part I can't identify birds that well, but I love to hear their early morning calls and their late evening songs. However I have identified the culprit to the recent attacks on my strawberries. The Cardinal! He has systematically killed several strawberries just before they fully ripen. On many of the attacks he did not fully eat the strawberry, but only pecked at it a few times. Well Naomi and I have begun to fight back.

Last week we put a net over our precious crop, in hopes of thawarting this evil doer. Since that time we have been able to harvest 9 plump and juicy strawberries. I ate one of them yesterday and it was my first strawberry in one year. Each saporific bite was filled with rich moutwatering flavor. It was true ambrosia.

Hopefully this enemy will soon give up on the strawberries and return to eating other items.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Strawberries, Spring, and Tennis

"One must ask children and birds how cherries and strawberries taste."

Strawberries happen to be the first "fruit" in our area to ripen. The strawberry doesn't technically count as a fruit since in reality it is just the enlarged end of the plant's stamen.  The strawberry in my opinion is the best of all the fruits.  It is juicy, plump, and oh so, so very sweet. The strawberry is of course non-fat, low in calories, high in vitamin C, potassium, folic acid, fiber, and vitamin B6.  The actual name for the strawberry is believed to be derived from the fact that the berries are strewn all about the plant.  Hence the Old English words is streowberie or streabbelige, which litteraly means "strewn berry". This name eventually became strawberry through the shortening and metamorphosis of the word.  

The strawberry is in the Rosaceae family and all the known kinds are in the genus Fragaria.  The genus name Fragaria refers to the odorous nature of the fruit.  It has been used as a perfume in times past.  It is said that Madame Tallien, great figure during Napoleon's reign used to bathe in the juice of strawberries.  She claimed that this ritual kept her skin radiant, smooth and free of blemishes.  However it did take approximately 22 pounds of strawberries in order to make enough juice to fill the basin.  

The ancient Greeks and Romans would harvest wild strawberries for medicinal purposes.  It is believed that the Romans were the first to start to cultivate the strawberry.  Native Americans harvested wild strawberries throughout the Northeast and the Midwest.  It is believed that strawberry shortcake came from a meal that Native Americans would make using mashed strawberries.  

In medieval Europe the strawberry was seen as a symbol of prosperity, richness, peace, and perfection as a society.  It was widely used at festivals and tournaments.  To this day the strawberry has an important role at Wimbledon.  Each year about 60,000 pounds of strawberries are consumed at the Wimbledon tennis matches, along with approximately 2,000 gallons of cream. It is believed that this tradition of serving strawberries with cream is as old as the event itself. 

In the 1900's cultivation of the strawberry began in California.  California now cultivates approximately 25,000 acres of strawberries throughout the state.  Making it the single largest supplier of strawberries.   They produce about 80% of the world's strawberry harvest.  Therefore making all of the strawberries that you buy at the grocery store are from California.  This means that for many of us these strawberries must travel a far way in order to reach us.  I suggest to everyone only eat strawberries in season (June for most strawberry plants) and buy them only from local farmers.

Non cultivar strawberry plants are June bearers or they produce their fruit in June.  The first cultivars were cultivated to produce bigger berries.  However as time went on it became the idea to try and cultivate a strawberry that would be "ever-bearing"  or ones that would have two or three cycles where they bear fruit.  This type of strawberry in my opinion has less taste, most probably due to the fact that in order to get the plant to do this other traits had to be lost.  This is the trade off in all cultivars or hybrids.  We breed a plant for a specific trait which we want but in the process we lose several other traits that are also highly important.  Taste is usually one that is lost, especially in genetically modified (GM) crops.  

The picture to the left is from May 26th and this same strawberry is already over half-way red.  I am ready to harvest it and savor its deliciousness later this week with Naomi.  Don't forget everyone to visit your local farmers market and to buy your vegetables and fruits from there.  Support your local farmers and keep your food close to home.


The Smart Pot has been my answer to the large amount of potatoes that I recieved from my sample pack.  Each pot allowed me to plant 5 seed potatoes in each pot and I should get around 25-30 pounds per pot.  Seeing as how I have 12 pots this means that I will have more potatoes than I know what to do with and they will become part of every meal.  Can anyone say potato pizza?

Well the smart pot works fairly simple.  It is a canvas bag so that means the storage is easy and it doesn't take up much room in the off season.  However when you are ready to plant just put it outside and open it up fill it up with a mixture of top soil and compost. I used a 2:1 ratio when filling the bags up.  Fill the bags about half-way or about 6 inches.  Then plant your seed potato about 4-5 inches down.  If you are unfamiliar with how to cut seed potatoes remember that each seed potatoe should be about the size of a golf ball and should have one to two eyes with sprouts froming from them.  

Once the plant shoots or the leaves reach about six inches fill the pot with more soil.  Fill up till just the top few leaves are still showing.  This will encourage the potato to create more tubers and therefore increase your garden's yield.  

You will need to continue covering the stem and leaves of the potato plants as they continue to grow.  Please remember that your potatoes will need water every week.  Pre-flowering stage they need less than one inch.  However during the flowering stage they will need somewhere between 1-2 inches of water each week.  After the flowers have been made the leaves will die back.  During this stage the plants should not recieve any water.  This will start the curing process for the potatoes to be stored for latter use in the winter.  

Potatoes are easily stored for long periods making them a wonderful choice for any garden.  But remember that there are hundreds of varieties.  Just not the three or four that you see in the supermarket.  So before growing your own check out all the different varieties to choose which ones will be the best for your household.


This past week Naomi and I have noticed that our basil is not doing so well.  It has black spots and the leaves are yellowish and wilty.  After some researching I think I have narrowed the culprit to black spot fungus.  I bought an organic fungicide which uses copper as its main ingredient.  Copper is quite the killer when it comes to fungui and can be harmful to people as well in sufficent doses.