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Hit Me With Your Best Shallot

Also known as the ‘better’ onion in my house: we grow, eat and LOVE shallots. Originally thought to be a different species entirely than onions it is now known that they are both in the same Aggregatum group. Their origins stem all the way from Southwest China and traveled across the silk road to the Mediterranean, changing food forever on the way.

Shallots are characterized as small and bulb-like with reddish, gray or coppery outer skin. Most are lobed and when peeled separate just like garlic. They usually have a milder taste than onions and are often eaten raw or lightly cooked but are sweeter and considered more desired. (I’m weird and like raw onions.)

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The shallots you get in a supermarket are usually a small to medium size of the French Red variety. According to Cornell University there are 27 different varieties of shallot that are cultivated. (This does not include the possible hundreds of micro-climate varieties that exist in the world since shallots can grow in almost any region.)

I planted two types (the only two I could get my hands on) which were French Red and Saffron. You have two options for planting, seed or bulb. (I have an awful track record for starting them from seed) I chose bulbs, because I find they do much better in the short term 90 day harvest.

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French Red Shallots

If you go the seed route, it is recommended you start them indoors around September since they will need to be a good size when put in the ground to overwinter for mid-summer harvest. Seeds while definitely more work, have the advantage of variety; you can buy just about every kind of shallot seed but only a select few varieties in bulb form.

Growing your own shallots is a great idea to save some money (can you say sticker shock?) and also a smart health decision. Yes, shallots are healthy for you. They actually have a lot of benefits, (just like onions and garlic). Shallots are high in antioxidants which studies have shown to have possible anticarcinogenic properties. (I acknowledge the science and large evidence behind these claims but continue to view it with speculation until more research is done)  

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Saffron Shallot

What they are definitely good for is circulation, which helps with high blood pressure, heart health and cholesterol. They are considered a great food for diabetic sugar regulation in the body, due to the phytochemical compounds found in shallots. (The study done on rats, and the study done on a small controlled group of patients.) Besides being jam packed with beneficial minerals like vitamin C, potassium, folate, vitamin A, vitamin B6, and manganese they have lots of dietary fiber! Happy gut, happy life as I always say!

Shallots are an easy and wonderful addition to any garden! And your wallet will thank you in the long run since these babies can be stored in a cool dry place for up to 6 months! (Years if you pickle them)

Thanks shallot for reading! Hope you enjoyed the punion title!

…I’ll show myself out.

 

-Rach

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General Squash Love

For the purpose of this short post we are going to be talking generally about both winter and summer squash.

Cucurbita, a member of the Cucurbitaceae family is a New World crop pre dating human arrival. (Though there are 5 species in the Cucurbitaceae family grown around the world) This post will not do each of the 5 species justice and thus we will revisit this topic in individual posts. But for now, let’s look at what makes a squash a squash!

We should also take a moment to appreciate the wide variety of colours, shapes and sizes squash come in. From just a few ounces to 600+lbs and just about every colour, squash are as tasty as they are decorative. In the fall we pile squash up as high as they can go! The National Heirloom Expo has an impressive squash mountain every year to showcase their immense variety and beauty. Impressive is the only word to describe it.

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The leaves of a squash are typically 5 lobed, which can be more separated or conjoined depending on the type. The plants produce both female and male flowers in which the female flowers must be pollinated in order for the squash to start to fruit.

Squash flowers are big pollinator attractors! (Everyone seems to find them delicious)  while honey bees love them, native pollinators will flock to your garden for a taste of the good stuff. Did you know you can eat squash blossoms? I kid you not, they are outrageous fried. Don’t believe me? Try this spectacular recipe of

SQUASH BLOSSOMS STUFFED WITH RICOTTA

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I LOVE to eat squash, it is possibly one of the most diverse and delicious vegetables ever to hit the pan. Sugar pie pumpkins, tromboncino, acorns, spaghetti, buttercup, butternut (both warty and non), red kuri, and mystery are just some of the vines crawling through our property. The mystery ones are leftovers from years gone by and are just starting to fruit, we are taking bets on what they could be.

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Photo courtesy of www.the-farmersdaughter.com/

Vine on!

 

-Rach

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The Wonders of Watermelon

Watermelon, my favorite fruit on this carbon based planet. Citrullus Lanatus, belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family. It looks and grows more like a squash than a fruit. Its origins begin in Southern Africa and from there found its way all the world, as seeds were traded and cultivated from the 7th-17th century many varieties emerged. We must not forget that it was the slave trade that brought watermelon to the new world, where it has etched itself into the history and popular culture of the nation. There is nay a 4th of July or Labor Day holiday celebration that does not include the sweet treat.

With more than 1200 different distinct varieties watermelon is one of the most diversely eaten fruit on the planet. Ranging from teeth chatteringaly sweet to downright bitter and even sour. 250+ varieties of watermelon are cultivated in 44 states, producing approximately 1,770,630 metric tonnes a year in the US alone. According to the FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS.

The health benefits of watermelon vary depending on who you ask. The fruit is some 92% water and while low in calories it only supplies minimal nutrients. Vitamin C being the most predominant at 10% per 100gram serving. I highly doubt it is a ‘superfood’ or even a concentrated nutritious boost. But it’s darn tasty and I can eat a whole one by myself!

I am experimenting with two different kinds of watermelon this year. A heirloom variety I have longed to try called Moon and Stars, and the more common Sugar Baby.

The Moon and Stars variety are described as: “This legendary Amish heirloom has dark green skin with a yellow “moon and stars” pattern on the rind and leaves. The bright red flesh is exceptionally sweet tasting. These tasty melons weigh between 30 to 40 pounds each.” –http://heirloomseeds.com/

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While the much smaller Sugar Babies are described as “The dwarf vines on this variety grow only 3-3½ feet long, taking up less growing space in the garden. The sweet, scarlet flesh is juicy and firm. Most plants will produce 2, round/oval 9″ fruits, each weighing between 8-12 pounds.” –http://heirloomseeds.com/

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The entire watermelon is edible. You read that right, you can eat every piece on the watermelon. While most people don’t enjoy the bitter sections of the watermelon, they make an excellent treat for our turkeys! (and chickens) But at least once I suggest eating it pickled, you just might be surprised.

There are also lots of ways to eat watermelon other than just straight. (But there is nothing wrong with digging into a piece of sweet goodness) It can be grilled like a steak, pickled, juiced (with or without alcohol), and even dare I say it… fried! Watermelon is a versatile, refreshing and downright tasty ingredient. Try my favorite, turkish watermelon salad! Recipe below!

Turkish Watermelon Salad:
1 7-8 lb. seedless watermelon, chilled
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp black pepper
1 Chopped red onion
1 1/2 cups crumbled feta cheese (goat or sheep milk feta is best)
Mint optional

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Saunter on people!

 

-Rach

peppers

Planting the Heat

Hot peppers carved out their spicy niche in nature to protect themselves from being eaten. Unfortunately for the hot pepper, birds lack the receptors that react to capsaicin; and evolution allows them to eat and distribute seeds. While most mammals avoid hot peppers due to the unpleasant burning, humans break this rule and actively seek them out.

While up for debate why humans started to eat peppers, many cultures add the spicy delicacy into food as a way to keep cool. Yes you read that right, eating hot peppers keeps you cool by causing you to sweat and thus lowering your body temperature. This is why many cultures in hot and humid regions have adapted spicy food in general into their diets.

Hot pepper culture has expanded all over the world. They bring a depth of flavor and heat to dishes that just cannot be replicated. But all peppers are not born the same.

Chili peppers find their birth in the Americas, more varieties being found in the hotter climates of South America.  After the Columbian Exchange, many cultivars of chili pepper spread across the world, used in both food and medicine in the 15th century. India is now the largest grower and exporter of the spicy delectable.

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Carolina Reaper’s even LOOKS scary

As the need for heat spreads we see hotter and hotter varieties of peppers being born. I’m sure someone has in passing mentioned Scotch Bonnets, Ghost Chilis or Carolina Reapers as they hear about the latest Scoville scale breaker. (The scale in which max heat or spiciness is measured) But the more potent the capsaicin, the less flavor. While challenging your friends to a ghost pepper chili eating contest is fun and stupid at the same time, it’s nothing but heat.

To bring this into perspective, there are five domesticated species of chili peppers: Capsicum annuum, Capsicum frutescens, Capsicum chinense, Capsicum pubescens, Capsicum baccatum. Each of these species produces a unique flavor and set of characteristics unique to the region where they are grown. Due to popularity, there are an estimated 50,000 pepper varieties!

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Some of my favorites that we are growing this year are:

  • Anaheim (Mild heat and flavor, good for stuffing and roasting)
  • Cayenne (Spicy and great for vinegar based sauces and Korean dishes)
  • Serrano (Medium heat but spicier than Jalapeños, great for salsa!)
  • Aleppo (Mild-Medium heat with a fruity-cumin flavor, great to grind into chili-flakes)
  • Aji Norteno (Mild heat with a tart green apple flavor! Great for frying)
  • Jalapeño (Medium heat, great for smoking to make chipotle peppers and salsas)
  • Padrón (Mild heat, great for roasting and eating whole)
  • Aji Colorado (Medium heat, sweet and spicy undertones make them the best smoked chili powder I have ever tasted. I put it on everything.)

If you have a favorite and some seeds you are willing to spare let me know!!

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Why so many peppers? Because we dry and grind them into homemade chili powder! We smoke some of the chilis to help bring out their unique flavors and add our own twist. They are going to be this year’s holiday presents. 

Also, for the record we grew Scotch Bonnets last year and our plant produced 24 of the little suckers. 3 turned into competition eating peppers, where my friends and I cried after for HOURS. 1 was dropped into a 4 gallon pot of gumbo and made it spicy enough I couldn’t eat it without at least a quart of water and my eyes tearing. 1 made 3 gallons of persimmon hot sauce that was amazing. The rest I handed out to friends because misery loves company…   and I had no idea what else to do with that much heat.

 

Grow on spicy people!

 

-Rach

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Marmalade Isn’t Always So Sweet

When I think of marmalade, I think of sickeningly sweet canned fruit. While that is definitely some people’s cup of tea — I personally can’t deal with its teeth-shatteringly sweetness — marmalade, like other canned fruits, is renowned for its long shelf life.

Modern-day marmalade’s origins trace back to 18th century Scotland. While there is a romantic story of discovery and innovation, it was most likely born out of necessity and accident. History has shown styles of jams dating all the back to the 1500s, but these were pastes and made with fresh fruit so they did not last that long. With American marmalade, the secret to its longevity is powdered pectin; whereas with European marmalades, it’s the use of fruit rinds that serve as a coagulant.

Seville oranges are largely considered to be the first fruit made into a  marmalade. (But who REALLY knows.) Sevilles are bitter oranges bred from pomelos and mandarins, and they continue to grow all over the Mediterranean. Their thick rinds are used in everything from herbal medicine to cooking. They contain an alkaloid called synephrine, which has long lasting adrenal effects. (It’s a  similar effect to caffeine, but more dangerous in high doses.)

Seville orange marmalade is the easiest marmalade recipe you could make.. It is also one of the most beautiful looking preserves I personally have ever seen. But there is a finesse that comes with time, practice and making marmalade with a master.

Sevilles produce a bitter-sweet preserve with a tender and sweet peel. To make a batch of seville marmalade all you need is:

1 3/4 pounds oranges, 4 to 5 medium
1 lemon, zest finely grated and juiced
6 cups water
3 pounds plus 12 ounces sugar

If you make jam, you know that the simplest recipes are the best tasting. Recipe courtesy of the wonderful Alton Brown with the Food Network. Read the whole recipe here!8510645052_6506a87e90

Now is the time that I start to gather all of the preservative recipes that I want to try come harvest season. But you never know who will show up at your door with a bunch of citrus you’ve never seen before and set you down the path of food discovery.

 

Happy Canning!

 

-Rach

Harvesting Thanksgiving Turkeys

This post is late, very late. Half because Eli who was supposed to write it forgot and we were in the middle of uncertainty of our home. But now that everything has worked out, I am happy to start posting again! There are going to be a few back posts on things that happened but after I catch up we will be getting into some of the really cool new things we are doing this season!

Our turkeys were destined to be butchered before Thanksgiving for our friends and family; we picked the Sunday before. We saved the largest and most impressive male which we are keeping for breeding purposes. I have affectionately named him Thelonious.

Butchering your own animals can be hard for a lot of people, but I leave this thought with you before you continue on. My turkeys lived wonderful lives where I knew what they ate, I got to watch them everyday explore the yard for bugs and happily perch themselves on our gazebo to sun themselves. They lived stress free with room to roam and be turkeys while being spoiled on overripe melon, and then they had 30 bad seconds.

If you have ever butchered a chicken, it’s virtually the same thing. We use a ‘kill cone’ or a ‘restraining cone’ as the stores like to call them. Unfortunately our turkeys were too large for the one our local feed store carried so I improvised with a traffic cone! You just have to cut the narrow part of the cone to widen the top so the head can fit comfortably through. We ended up with weights from 14-27lbs.

Turkey harvesting day was a joint effort with some friends, we processed 4 birds in about an hour and a half. I bled each bird upside down in the cone by cutting both the jugular vein and carotid artery, then dunked them in a steel tub of hot water for about 45 seconds to help with plucking. The feathers pretty much slid off at this point and my friends were plucking masters and real troopers. (I may have bribed them with beer and food) Once plucked, the heads and feet were removed and the organs were GINGERLY removed.

When removing the organs of poultry you have to be seriously aware of two very important things. Never rupture the intestines (they are full of poop) because you can contaminate the meat and possibly give yourself e coli. The second is the gallbladder; it looks like a little florescent green pea on the underside of the liver. If you are keeping the livers you have to remove this carefully, bile will 100% ruin the meat of your bird.

If you’re still with me here, I am going to post some photos of the process a friend of mine took while I was working!

 

 

The results? “The best tasting turkey we have ever had.” It was worth it just for the fact that I filled some bellies with locally raised, sustainably harvested and damn delicious food. Also, Hello Kitty apron is optional, but it does make you more badass.

Butcher on people! Changing the system starts with you!

 

-Rach

Garlic Goodness

It’s that time of year again! Garlic planting time! Unless you are not in Zone 10a, then you should have planted garlic back in October before your ground froze over!

Garlic is my favorite item to add to just about anything, I love it in all forms. (And if you live in Gilroy you actually DO add it to everything. Garlic ice cream is strangely delicious.) Take the top off and roast it whole to spread on bread, chop and add into any sauté, smash it and stuff it under the skin of chicken, mince and infuse into oil or butter for a nice kick, you can pickle it, turn it in paste, and on and on.

Although there is garlic that you can plant after the ground thaws, the best time to plant it is actually now. That is six months, yes SIX months in the ground! In California we can pretty much grow it year round, and that gives you room to play with all of the amazing varieties. But planting over winter produces the best garlic, the bulbs are larger and more defined and there is a more concentrated and flavorful taste. When planting garlic for the first time I would suggest planting it before the first frost. (With all of your shallots and other kinds of onions)

There are two specific types that these breeds can fall into, which are hardneck and softneck garlic. According to The Ultimate Garlic Guide:Garlic-Types

Hardneck garlic (Allium sativum ophioscorodon) tend to have more flavor than their soft-necked cousins. They’re characterized by hard woody central stalks and a long flower stalk (scape) that loops and curls, usually twice. They tend to have four to twelve cloves in each bulb. Hardneck garlic also tends to grow best in areas with very cold winters, since they require a longer time of vernalization (i.e., they need a long, cold winter to be dormant so they can flower in the spring).

Softneck garlic (Allium sativum sativum) is believed to have evolved from hardneck garlic and comprises most of the garlic you see in major supermarkets. Because it lacks the flowering scape of hardneck garlic, it produces many more cloves—sometimes as few as eight, and sometimes getting as high as thirty or more.

There are 10 distinct breeds of garlic: ‘Ajo Rojo’, ‘Chesnok’, ‘German White’, ‘Inchelium’, ‘Purple Glazer’, ‘Red Janice’, ‘Sakura’, ‘Siberian’, ‘Silverwhite’, and ‘Spanish Roja’. From here they then branch off into a myriad of different kinds of garlic which are usually cultivated regionally. Each are different colours, shapes and sizes. They have distinct flavor characteristics that set them apart and many are readily available through commercial channels.

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Our local feed store picks a few varieties every year for people to try, the trial and error to me is half the fun. In our spot we may be able to grow purple type, but it doesn’t produce large bulbs like the spanish roja did. Also environmental factors play a huge role, in California we have a drought, hardier less water dependant species will do better here. Garlic also likes well drained soil with heavy organic matter in it, not too sandy, not to clay packed.garlic_2010_stand

When planting garlic you should pick the biggest and most tightly wrapped cloves in the head. You want the cloves to be protected and to have a good start into the world since they are going to be most likely duking it out in the cold soil for months. Plant in trench rows about 4 inches apart and 2-3 inches down. Make sure they are in a nice and sunny spot too! 6-8 hours of sunshine would be ideal.

Plant on party people! Also, if you get REALLY adventurous, try black fermenting garlic! 😉  

 

-Rach

Don’t Waste Pumpkins on Carving!

It’s that time of year again, when pumpkin everything assaults our senses. From frappuccinos to muffins and candles, pumpkin reigns supreme during fall. But pumpkins are much more than a casual flavoring (which to be honest most of it does NOT taste like pumpkin at all people) they are so much more.

Pumpkins are true new world crops; they hail from the squash family, a group 100% native to North America. Incredibly nutritious, 1 cup of pumpkin packs over 150% of your daily dose of the amazing antioxidant, beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body. Also, besides being low in calories they are a rich source of minerals like copper, calcium, potassium and phosphorus. And if you like roasted pumpkins seeds you are in luck, they are chock full of dietary fiber and protein!

When I was kid the only pumpkin I ever ate was pumpkin pie; my mother made it from canned pumpkin. What I remember though was going to pick up pumpkins to carve, which was a fun activity for a child to reach their arm in and pull out slimy pumpkin guts. But pumpkins are so much more, and canned pumpkin if you read the back have a tendency to have other types of squash in it.

Buy a real pumpkin! I mean it! Most supermarkets have made it easy now; they carry a breed of eating pumpkin called a sugar baby. Cut that sucker in half, scoop out some guts  and put the halves face down on a baking sheet at 350 and let it roast for about an hour to an hour and a half. (you may need more time depending on the size of your pumpkin) You’ll know it’s ready when you poke each half with a fork and they are tender and soft. Slide the pumpkins out, allow time to cool and then just scoop all the deliciousness from the skin and you have real pumpkin pie filling!

Now like many varieties of produce, the ones that we find in store are the common ones. Mass grown you really don’t see much variety. But boy, there is some real variety out there with pumpkins and let me tell you they definitely aren’t all orange! Heirloom pumpkins come in an amazing array of sizes, colours and shapes. Check out some of my favorites below! Photos courtesy of 100 Layer Cake Blog.

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The flavors are all different, some are nutty when roasted while others are stringy and sweet. Pumpkin pie I feel holds back the pumpkin, there is so much more it can do than just be a pie! You can add pumpkin into cheesecake batter, brownies and more. Pumpkins are great vessels for food and you can stuff them with rice, quinoa or polenta. Not to mention soups, stews and stirfrys! Ever tried grilled pumpkin? You should! You are only limited by your imagination with cooking.

My grandfather is an artist, and when he used to carve marble he would sit in front of the block and ask the marble what it wanted to be. I am definitely his grandchild, because I amusingly, sometimes find myself staring at a pumpkin, asking it what it wants to become.

 

Happy cooking, baking or whatever!

 

-Rach

Pests

There are no shortage of pests that plague any farmer, though living in an urban area presents some new and…interesting challenges. Specifically in California with the drought we have noticed that the animals are moving in closer in search of food and especially water.  Some pests become a recurring nightmare, while the ones that you think would be the worst ignore everything in your yard and use it merely as a highway.

Feral cats are a big one for us. Luckily they don’t attack any animals, they mostly just peruse the yard and have kittens in the walled off compost bins. Our two cats came from a backyard litter we discovered last year. Merely a month off from the date we found those guys another litter appeared, and we are currently socializing them. I’m going to start trapping and working with Fix Our Ferals to do what I can do to keep the population down.

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Racoons. The bane of many an urban farmer, racoons can kill an entire flock of chickens if they can break into your coop. Strangely, racoons never bothered our chickens or any other of our animals. I am chalking that up to the large amounts of trash that people leave around the neighborhood. But I am still surprised, on one side of our fence there is an empty lot that is very overgrown, and on another just past the house there the start of the open hills which many a creature roams.

I had a humane trap that was sprung sitting in my yard with an empty can of cat food in it from when I watch catching the kittens. Yesterday I walked outside to find a very large racoon INSIDE the trap. I had no idea how long he had been in there, or how he even got in. But he was lethargic and incredibly injured. He had somehow partially eviscerated himself on the way in, and when I opened the trap to let him go he dragged some intestine behind him. Needless to say I couldn’t let him go on like that, and so I dispatched him in a manner I will not be publishing (Since there are some laws against it where I live).

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Dogs. The absolute bane of my existence. Fast, pack hunters that see fairly well in low light and have a section of their brain which is 40 times larger than a humans devoted to analyzing smell. They know we have chickens, ducks and turkeys. We lost our male turkey and male duck to a pack of wild urban dogs. They got away that night, but could not run forever. A few months later up on the hill we heard that one of the dogs has tested positive for rabies and the whole pack was captured and euthanized.

Stray dogs are common in our neighborhood, and even more common is the fact that people don’t fix their animals. Just a few weeks ago there was a dirty little white dog dumped outside our house. She had had puppies recently and was scared out of her mind. Animal Services couldn’t catch her, we couldn’t catch her and all of our neighbors couldn’t catch her. Then one day she just disappeared and when we asked around we got the same answer from everyone. No one knew anything, which is the mantra of our neighborhood.

 

Pests come in all forms, from the flea infestation we fought last summer to the white paper flies which coated an entire hibiscus bush in silky strands. Aphids, potato bugs, crows and pigeons find their way into our yard and cause havoc. Let me tell you, I’ve thought more than once about eating those pigeons which were raised on organic chicken feed.

But fighting crows is like fighting the windmill, you can shout and shake your fist but in the end you can never win. And crows, unlike the windmill, laugh at you as they fly away.

 

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-Rach

7 Feet

In 5 days I knitted 7 feet of hand dyed merino wool into a blanket for my future sister in law. I brought it to work, knitted it at home, in bed, at my desk, on the train, while walking. You name it I was frantically trying to finish the blanket before the bridal shower. And I made it, just hours before I was supposed to get on a plane to travel across the country.

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BAGS of hand dyed wool

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One skein down! Colour change!

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Silver and navy banding!

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The last skein! (At this point the blanket is rolled up into a huge bag I’m lugging around)

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Finished blanket as show off by my future sister in law

-Rach