The Milkweed Diaries

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Snow Melts, Revealing Food

There is still snow on the ground here in the valley, leftover from The Big Snowstorm (12+ inches fell on December 18). Last evening Christopher harvested some hardy greens from unprotected garden beds, our first harvest since the snow.

These collards (pictured above and below, photographed today) were covered with a foot of snow for more than a week, and they are definitely not as lush-looking as collards in the height of summer, but they taste so sweet from the cold! Apparently, plants convert starches to sugars with cold temperatures, so winter greens in the brassica family are often far sweeter than those harvested in summer.

A heavy straw mulch helps with the cold hardiness. We grow two heirloom collard varieties, Morris Heading and Georgia Southern, both of which have overwintered in our garden in years past with only heavy mulch for protection. With one layer of row cover in addition to the mulch, collards easily overwinter in our climate. We're taking the lazy approach with the remaining summer greens this winter, foregoing the row cover and just letting them go as long as they will with mulch.

Brassicas and chard leftover from summer are about the extent of our winter harvest these days. But in related news: the hoophouse is almost ready for our first Eliot Coleman-style attempt at starting cold-hardy greens in winter for an ultra-early spring harvest. Eventually, the goal is 4-season harvest of a wide variety of salad and cooking greens, root crops, and some of the other more cold-hardy vegetables.

In the meantime, we have collards in late December, thanks to the power of mulch, the natural fortitude of the collard plant, and farmers and gardeners long ago who selected these varieties over time for cold-hardiness.

Winter greens are such a welcome treat. My old friend Andrew was in town last night and we shared a hearty winter meal of fresh sauteed collards, black beans that we grew and last summer, and Flying Cloud Farm sweet potatoes, all seasoned with a healthy amount of Creole garlic cured last July. Yum.

Morris Heading collards, above, form a loose cabbage-like head which falls apart when harvested, offering up pale, tender, blanched inner leaves.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve Gratitude

"When you boil it down, I am a sap." - My sister Mary, 12/24/09

This evening, I pulled some of our homegrown winter squash out of storage to cook for Christmas Eve dinner. I was cutting into a butternut when I started to tear up. Scooping seeds and pulp out of beautiful orange butternuts and creamy yellow Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash, I just felt overwhelmed by gratitude.

The moment of opening up a winter squash--this hard, dry object--and discovering luscious, nutritious, soft, smooth food inside is incredible enough. Even though I have cut into thousands of winter squash in my lifetime, it just never stops amazing me. And knowing that we midwifed this food into the world in our very own garden and carefully kept it in storage for a midwinter feast just feels like a profound gift.

As I stood there at the chopping block scooping seeds with my eyes teary, Vienna Teng's "City Hall," which gets me every time anyway, came up on Pandora, and it was all over. I just cried and scooped, scooped and cried.

While it is probably not winter squash and gay marriage ballads that do it for most people, 'tis the season for gushy emotion, gratitude, and loving sweetness. For me this time of year is about rituals of connection with the family I've chosen, with the family I was born into, and with the family that extends out to all living things on the planet. It was great to let the emotion flow and know that there's a big pool of this sort of gushy love and gratitude out there right now.

CF and I are headed over to my sister's house in a bit for Christmas Eve dinner with my family, and we'll be bringing that emotion-infused winter squash and other concoctions featuring cabbage from Flying Cloud Farm, onions, garlic, and celery from our garden, carrots from Gladheart Farm, and Spinning Spider goat cheese. I'm so grateful for the family I was born into and the family I've found and formed in my life so far. Though I don't celebrate Christmas in any sort of Christian way, I am deeply grateful for the gift of nourishing food grown with care, passed down from food-growing ancestors, and for rituals that celebrate our connection to each other.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Welcome Sun!

Left: Newgrange passage on Winter Solstice

In honor of the Winter Solstice today, here's a video that gives us the opportunity, albiet in 2x3 inch form, to witness a Winter Solstice event created by neolithic farmers:

The video shows the sunrise on Winter Solstice at Newgrange, a beautiful neolithic structure in Ireland engineered to observe and honor the Solstice.

More about Newgrange here:

I have been lucky enough to spend time at Newgrange several times in my travels in Ireland over the years. It is awe-inspiring -- the structure is 5,000 years old and its design is brilliant both technically and artistically.

Sidenote for you natural building aficianados out there: its a south-facing bermed structure with a living roof that hasn't leaked in all those thousands of years.

Newgrange is a beautiful symbol of the winter solstice, and resonates deep, deep down for me -- maybe it's molecular, maybe it's the collective unconscious.

Winter Solstice has always been a significant time for my family -- sometimes full of joy and other times marked by profound grief and loss.

It is the longest night, a time to notice and know darkness, a time to honor the dark, a time to honor the dead. It is a time to sit with the painful and the difficult things, with loss, with despair. It's the dead of winter.

And: it is the birthday of the sun--the birthday of light in the midst of the darkest time of year. A turning point, the return of the light, a time of transformation, a time of hope, and a time of rebirth.

In many ancient traditions, Winter Solstice is a time to honor the way that life emerges from death, light emerges from dark in the cycles of the natural world. A time to look forward to Spring and Summer and the bright, hot months when everything will be in fruit and flower, imagining what will come to be.

Solstice morning on the farm

For gardeners, this time of year is a time of planning the garden, deciding what seeds you will plant, what food you will grow. On a metaphorical level, the Winter Solstice is a time for the same sort of setting of intentions, dreaming, imagining good things to come.

The seed is a beautiful symbol of the Winter Solstice to me -- a tiny dormant thing, seemingly lifeless but full of potential, full of life that will sprout, grow, bloom, and fruit as the cycle continues. Today, I will excavate some vegetable seeds from the jars where they live in the back of my fridge, and lay them on my altar, imagining all of the growing things to come!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Seed Shopping, Seed Saving, and Seed Sovereignty

"In Hindi, seed is bija or 'containment of life.' . . . Seed is created [by plants] to renew, to multiply, to be shared and to spread. Seed is life itself."
-Vandana Shiva, February 2009

"We now believe that Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of (seed genetics). This level of control is almost unbelievable."
-Neil Harl, agricultural economist, Iowa State University

Above: processing and sharing seeds at a seed swap last winter

'Tis the season of seeds. Seed catalogs arrive daily in my mailbox with their titillating images of flower and fruit. The seed catalog season kicks off just when serious withdrawal is beginning to hit and we are desperate for a fix -- grey overcast skies and icy temperatures sharpening the craving for the summer garden's sensual pleasures.

With seeds, as with most things that we value, the profit motive corrupts and predatory capitalism corrupts utterly. The most egregious example of this corruption is the Monsanto corporation. It is mindboggling to imagine what Monsanto has done: they have taken the wholesome, life-giving, generous nature of the seed and hoarded it, pressed it into ownership, and manipulated it for profit.

The idea that the genetic material in seeds could be "intellectual property" belonging to a corporation violates everything I hold sacred. But it is not only plant-loving dirt worshippers who should be concerned about what Monsanto is doing. A recent AP article explains: "Declining competition in the seed business could lead to price hikes that ripple out to every family's dinner table. That's because the corn flakes you had for breakfast, soda you drank at lunch and beef stew you ate for dinner likely were produced from crops grown with Monsanto's patented genes." Read the full article here.

In terms of food justice, the issue of who owns the means to produce food is critical. For gardeners and farmers who care about seed sovereignty, food justice, the future of food, and the sanctity of seed, the question quickly becomes how to avoid Monsanto. Far easier said than done. Monsanto is everywhere. Especially in the world of seeds. Let me repeat one of the quotes with which I began: "Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of (seed genetics)." Shopping for seeds and trying to avoid Monsanto is like shopping for anything else and trying to avoid "Made in China."

Seed may be organic, heirloom, and sold by a hippified little seed company, and still be ultimately sourced from or owned by Monsanto. I discovered a while back that Monsanto seeds were being sold in a number of my standby seed catalogs, including Territoral Seeds, Cook's Garden, Burpee, and Johnny's. I wrote a post [which you can read here: "Are Monsanto Seeds in YOUR favorite Seed Catalog?"] including a link to a thread on Freedom Gardens with information about all of the seed companies that carry Monsanto seeds--this discussion on the forum is very informative and contains a ton of factual information about which companies and which varieties are coming from Monsanto, and what we can do to avoid buying them.

My number one recommendation for seed shoppers looking to avoid Monsanto is this:

Fedco, a consumer- and worker- owned cooperative company that carries a staggering variety of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds as well as plenty of modern hybrids, made a decision three years ago to drop all Monsanto varieties from their catalog. This was a major risk, given that their largest supplier at that point was Seminis, which had just been acquired by Monsanto.

Fedco has a great overview of how and why the company's owners (workers and consumers) made the decision to eliminate Monsanto seeds, and how they've implemented it here. Their explanation of their seed sourcing policy is really worth a read -- they assert that "too many of us have allowed seed to become just another industrial input rather than a life force" and offer a thorough, studied view of the seed industry as a whole and how to make ethical seed choices.

I highly recommend Fedco as a seed source -- not only do they guarantee no Monsanto varieties and no GMOs, but their prices are significantly lower than most other sources. Sometimes they will sell a variety for a third of the price of some of the big corporate-owned companies like Seeds of Change (now owned by M & M Mars).

Seeds changing hands at the Heritage Harvest Festival.

Seed exchanges by their nature refuse the paradigm of corporate seed ownership. Even better than buying from Fedco is exchanging seeds outside the money economy all together, or buying from individual seed savers.

From local seed swaps to the grandmother of them all, Seed Savers Exchange, seed trading networks are an excellent alternative to Monsanto. Seed Savers Exchange publishes the incredible "Yearbook" -- a listing of seeds available for sale and trade from thousands of members all over the world, and also has a nice, glossy catalog that can compete with any seed catalog garden porn, if you're into that sort of thing (I am). Another small company that I recommend is Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which is particularly great for gardeners in the American South wanting to grow heirloom varieties from our region.

If you are going to buy from companies other than these (I still buy a few things from Baker Creek, for instance, a militantly anti-GMO heirloom seed purveyor) make sure at the very least that the company you're buying from has signed the "Safe Seed Pledge" assuring that your seeds will not contain GMOs. The pledge was created ten yeas ago by a group of seed companies led by High Mowing Seeds and states:

"Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms poses great biological risks, as well as economic, political and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately healthy people and communities."

One final thought:

In the face of growing corporate ownership of seed genetics, saving and sharing seed is a radical act of resistance, and an embodiment of the world we want to create. My mantra is: buy seed now if you must (I must), and save and share seeds as much as humanly possible!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

All Hail the Mighty Fava!

Q. The fava bean is:

A) a cover crop
B) a delicacy
C) a soil aeration tool
D) an ornamental plant
E) a fertilizer factory
F) all of the above.

If you guessed "all of the above," congratulations. Yes, the fava is all that. And more.

Like many McDonalds-eating teenagers, I had never heard of fava beans until I saw "Silence of the Lambs" in high school and heard Dr. Hannibal Lecter's now-famous "with a nice chianti" remark. I didn't taste favas until sometime in my twenties, and ever since I have eaten them every chance I get. Fresh favas are juicy, buttery, and silky; dry favas are fat, nutty, and meaty, sticking to your ribs in a deeply satisfying way.

Technically, favas are not really beans, at least botanically speaking. Favas, vicia faba, are a legume in the vetch family, and one of the most ancient cultivated plants. But from a cooking and eating point of view, they look, feel, taste, and are cooked like beans -- savored fresh in the shell stage or as "gigantes" -- giant dry beans for winter eating.

From a gardening point of view, the non-bean status is clear, though. While beans can only be planted when the soil is warm and grow fast and furious in the heat of summer, favas like a long, cool growing season. We plant them in December, and harvest them in the Spring. They fill a great niche in the garden, growing when nothing else does, in the coldest months of the year.

And all that time they're growing, favas are making nitrogen and storing it around their roots in the soil. As nitrogen fixers, they literally produce fertilizer out of thin air. And their fiberous root systems grow and spread all through the winter and early spring, breaking up hard soil and aerating the garden beds. By the time you chop up the plants (in late May or early June here), the place where the favas were planted is full of the nitrogen-rich, loose and deeply aerated soil that gardeners dream of. Perfect for planting warm-season crops as soon as the favas are done!

Favas are such a good cover crop that some large-scale farmers use them solely for that purpose, tilling them under as green manure without even harvesting the beans. That would be a tragic waste to my mind.

We're planting five pounds of fava beans this month as a winter cover crop. They'll provide one of the earliest spring harvests from our garden and we'll eat them, dry them, and sell them fresh at the tailgate market.

Favas are one of the crops that we're experimenting with in our no-till system -- we've never tilled the rich and loose soil you can see in the photo above. We have been able to put worms and plants to work for us --starting out with cardboard/straw sheetmulch and allowing worms to breaking up the soil, then aerating with a broadfork, and then planting crops that loosen and aerate the soil with their root systems.

As if the food value and soil-building value of favas were not enough, the icing on the cake is their ornamental value. To my eye, their black and white pea-like flowers are elegant and lovely. Favas are one of the earliest plants to bloom in our garden, their flowers little bright spots against the vigorous, bushy green leaves of the fava plant. All of that green is a welcome sight in early spring, too, when most of the rest of the garden still looks fairly drab.

So here's to the fava, gourmet delicacy, garden workhorse, spring garden jewel, and sustenence-provider since ancient times. Viva la fava!

Favas planted last December, growing in early March of this year.

Favas in the garden in May

Big old juicy pods on the fava plants in May

Favas ready for shelling, May 2009.

More on favas at Foodista:
Fava Beans on Foodista

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Seed Sources: Let the Seed Hunting Season Begin!

As is typical for me on a drizzly day when I am looking for ways to procrastinate, I have been thinking about next year's garden. There is no better time than a cold, rainy day to sit inside by the fire thumbing through seed catalogs, either of the paper variety or in the vast seed catalog of the internet.

I came across this amazing list of heirloom seed sources while searching for heirloom pea varieties that we could grow for dry split peas. It's a detailed and dense listing of seed sources, including quite a few I had never heard of. One exciting example: The Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center -- a nonprofit organization that preserves Southern Appalachian heirloom varieties. Don't let their very low-tech-looking website deter you from exploring their bean catalog and checking out their articles on Southern Appalachian heirloom seeds. They apparently steward more than 300 bean varieties, including quite a few "Greasy Bean" varieties!

This is the sort of thing I get fired up about. If you can't relate to excitement over greasy beans, consider this: some experts say there is no commercial source for genuine heirloom greasy beans. Greasy beans are a distinct type of bean with a long Cherokee heritage. They have been a staple of the Southern Appalachian diet for countless generations and still maintain cult status in the mountains of western North Carolina. There are varieties specific to certain hollers, families, and communities that have never been grown outside those small circles. Bean seed experts and mountain old timers will tell you that true greasy bean seed is only available through seed swaps, passed from hand-to-hand by gardeners and farmers, and from people and organizations dedicated to preserving family and community heirloom seeds from this region.

I love growing Southern Appalachian heirlooms, particularly varieties that can be traced back to the indigenous agriculture of what is now western North Carolina. These are plants cultivated by pre-colonization Cherokee people and their ancestors in these mountains for thousands of years.

On a practical level, these varieties have an advantage in my North Carolina mountain garden because they are cultivars that evolved over generations to thrive in this particular spot on the planet, with its specific climate and conditions. On a more abstract level, it feels like a restoration or a homecoming of some sort to grow these seeds in this place. These are plants that came from here, and that were treasured, cherished, valued as part of the living wealth of communities in these mountains for thousands of years. Planting them in the soil of the Swannanoa Valley, where people have grown food for thousands of years, just feels right.

If you are growing in the Southeast, I recommend Southern Exposure Seed Exchange as another a great source of heirlooms from our region. If you're growing elsewhere, find the old timers and seed stewards that are saving seeds that came from the place you live. Wherever you find your seeds, if you've never saved seeds before, consider saving seed from at least one plant in next year's garden.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On food you can't buy at the grocery store

Baby butternut squash

Lately I've been thinking about the things I get to eat that I would never experience if I didn't garden.

Here's an example:

The afternoon before our first fall frost was expected, I went out and harvested the rest of the butternut squash, ripe and unripe.

I had read somewhere that winter squash could be eaten unripe, prepared as you would summer squash, so I sliced up the green butternuts and drizzled them with a little olive oil, sprinkled on salt and pepper and a little shredded parmesan cheese on top, and baked them. Worth giving it a whirl, I figured.

HOLY SHIITAKE* that squash was good. Better than summer squash. Possibly better than mature butternut. Green, salty, firm, and creamy. Really, really tasty. CF and my friend Pooma and I ate them with eyelid-fluttering, moan-uttering food ecstacy.

And if the taste weren't enough: they're so darn cute. I don't think you can tell from the photo how adorable these little squashitos were -- the smallest were about the length of my pinky finger and the largest about the size of my fist.

Tiny, unripe butternut squash are not something that you ever even see at farmers markets, much less at the grocery store. (Though I have vowed to change that: expect them around October 2010 at the Red Wing Farm booth at the West Asheville Tailgate Market.)

Baby butternuts are--like squash blossoms, green tomatoes, garlic scapes, beet thinnings, and other leftovers, by-products, and side notes of the garden--delightful foods mostly enjoyed by people who are growing vegetables for themselves.

There is a "waste not want not" spirit to eating things like beet thinnings, garlic scapes, and unripe winter squash -- but eating each of these garden extra-credit items is a delicacy in its own right. It's nice to savor little rewards like baby butternuts at the end of a long, hard-working season of growing your own food.

*With gratitude to Jonathan Safran Foer, genius author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, source of one of my favorite insults: "Succotash my Balzac, dip shiitake!" If that were the only sentence Foer had ever written, I would love him. But he is the author not only of searingly original and heartbreakingly beautiful fiction but of the new nonfiction book Eating Animals, about . . .FOOD, food traditions, and the ethics of food! More specifically: about meat, eating meat, and the meat industry. I can't wait to read it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Garlic, How I Love Thee

Garlic on our kitchen table, sometime in August after harvesting, curing, and processing.

Over a ten day period last month, we planted somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,300 cloves of seed garlic. The seed came from garlic we had saved from this year's harvests.

Garlic hanging up to cure, July

Garlic was the first thing we planted here on our land -- even before we had a place to live, we planted garlic. Ever since then, the garlic-growing space in the garden has been expanding every year. If I could only grow one thing, it would be a close competition between garlic and greens. I would guess that our household consumes somewhere between 300 and 500 heads of garlic per year, and the rest we sell, trade, and give to friends and family.

Garlic is easy to grow: we plant ours in October and mulch heavily with straw, and then there is nothing to do until harvest time in June or early July. It is one of the easiest crops for seed-saving, too: there is no cross-pollination to worry about, and saving and re-planting year after year will help fine-tune the variety to your particular growing conditions.

For the past four years we've been growing garlic in large quantities, and we've had a chance to see what varieties do well across a broad range of conditions, from long, hot droughts to humid, rain-soaked years like this one. The garlic varieties we're growing now are ones that have excelled in both drought years and wet years, and consistently produced tasty, beautiful heads of garlic.

Here are the ten tried-and-true varieties we're growing, in no particular order:

Killarney Red: Consistently the biggest, fattest, prettiest heads of garlic coming from our garden. Great, strong, classic garlic flavor. This variety is a hardneck rocambole, producing lovely scapes for spring eating.

Inchelium Red: My favorite garlic in the kitchen, bursting with huge, spicy cloves. Inchelium Red rivals "elephant garlic" in clove and head size, but the with the fabulous taste of true garlic. This variety apparently originated on the Colville Indian Reservation in Inchelium, Washington.

Chesnok Red This is an heirloom "Purple Stripe" variety from the Republic of Georgia that produces fat bulbs that are great for baking. It has been a great producer for us year after year, and also makes gorgeous and tasty curly scapes in springtime.

Georgian Crystal: A relatively long-storing porcelain variety with a mild taste and pretty, fat cloves.

Polish Hardneck: Another excellent porcelain strain. Filaree Farm, where we bought the seed garlic that beget our seed garlic, says that porcelains are "still relatively rare in North America, but are becoming much sought after as gardeners and garlic connoisseurs learn of their unique properties." What I like about the porcelains is that they have the fat cloves of the rocamboles but a longer storage life. Porcelain heads sometimes only have three or four cloves, but the cloves will be large and juicy, even months after harvest.

Silverwhite Silverskin: A svelte, spotless white, long-keeping garlic. Silverwhite's taste is less robust than some, but still sharp and garlicky. And the best thing about this variety: heads will last well into the winter months when stored in a cool, dry place. Silverwhite is an impressive keeper that helps spread garlic flavor throughout the year in our kitchen.

Nootka Rose: Another long-keeping silverskin variety. Nootka Rose is an heirloom from the Pacific Northwest with gorgeous red-streaked clove skins and great flavor. This variety and Silverwhite outlast all other garlics in terms of storage life, keeping for many months.

Idaho Silver: A lovely to look upon silverskin with creamy white bulb skin and pinkish red cloves. Keeps well and has a strong, hot flavor.

Spanish Roja: A pre-1900 heirloom rocambole garlic with great taste and fat cloves that seems to do well in our climate.

Siberian Marbled Purple Stripe: A flamboyant garlic with a giant head, thick purple stripes, and marbled and mottled purpley bulb wrappers. If that's not enough, Siberian Marbled Purple Stripe boasts a rich, deep garlicky taste and smooth texture.

As we planted, we set aside the cloves too small for planting, and I made pot after pot of garlic broth, a perfect base for miso soup at this time of year. You can just throw handfuls of whole cloves, skin and all, in a big soup pot with lots of water and simmer for a few hours until you have a super-garlicky broth, and then strain off the cloves. Or you can peel the garlic first, which allows you to incorporate the soft, mild, whole garlic cloves into the soup. Add some fresh grated ginger and finely chopped multiplier onions from the garden, and you have a fabulous warming, fortifying, immune-boosting fall tonic soup. I credit garlic miso with our avoidance of H1N1 infection so far. . .knock on wood.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Monster Mash*

Earlier this week, my dear friend Pooma brought me a basket of gorgeous hot peppers -- a beautiful mix of several varieties of habañeros and jalapeños.

Above: some of the aforementioned habañeros plus the last Italian sweet frying pepper from my garden.

Locally-grown peppers are a rare commodity at the end of the dripping-wet summer we had in these parts, and an especially precious treasure now after the first frosts have hit.

I have for some time had a hankering to make homemade hot sauce, and these peppers presented the perfect opportunity.

When I started searching for recipes for hot sauce, I was delighted to discover that traditional sauces involve fermentation, of which (regular readers know) I am enamored. Fermentation is an old-timey way to preserve food, a creative craft that has been practiced in cultures throughout the world for thousands of years. I love fermentation, and have tried fermenting just about every vegetable you can imagine, and lots of other things too. I've added hot peppers to various ferments over the years, sometimes with extremely intense, mouth-scorching results, but I've never tried fermenting them alone.

Peppers and salt: all you need for a killer mash

It turns out that the most flavorful hot sauces are made from an aged pepper mash, which is just salted peppers fermented for a period of time from a few weeks to three or more YEARS. Then the mash can be used in small quantities for flavoring, or combined with vinegar to make hot sauce. Fermenting hot peppers seems like a good way to spread hot peppery joy throughout the year as well as a step on the path to superlative hot sauce, so I decided to give it a whirl.

It was surprisingly hard to find a recipe online that takes the hot-sauce maker all the way through the process from fresh peppers to fermented mash to the final sauce product. I did find a couple of posts from experienced mash makers here and here and some interesting variations on the basic mash (for instance, here's someone who uses kefir starter culture to innoculate his pepper mash with good results).

Since I have a good understanding of brine-pickling in general, and since making pepper mash seems to be a fairly straightforward brining process. Brine pickling is an ancient, low-tech preservation technique that uses no electricity and very minimal equipment and ingredients. You can read more about brining in earlier posts here and here and also at Sandor Katz's most excellent website, Grist also has a good summary article on brining, including pepper mash making.

Mash-making in progress

In any case, here is the recipe I culled from reading lots of summaries of the process. My mash is atypical because it is adds garlic to the ferment. We have lots of extra garlic from the garden right now, since we're planting our garlic for next year now and there are lots of leftover small cloves, and adding garlic is almost never a bad thing in my opinion.

Garlickey Hot Pepper Mash


For the mash:
  • 2 cups mixed hot peppers (I used green jalapeños; red, yellow, and chocolate habañeros; and one sweet red frying pepper)
  • 1/2 cup peeled whole garlic cloves
  • 1 Tbs fine- to medium- ground high-quality salt
  • 1 Tbs coarse-ground high-quality salt
For the sauce (6 weeks to 6 months later)
  • Raw apple cider vinegar to cut the mash to taste

  1. De-stem and de-seed the peppers. Be careful: this is serious business, because the seeds of hot peppers are really hot! You might want to wear gloves, and if you don't, scrub the heck out of your hands (I use dish soap, rubbing alcohol, and aloe vera to get the pepper sting out-I really should wear gloves) and do not touch your lips, nose, or any other sensitive parts after touching the insides of hot peppers.
  2. Throw the peppers and garlic in a food processor or chop by hand. I chopped mine, because I was making a small batch. Some people ferment the peppers whole, but I decided to ferment them without the seeds because I am not one of those people who seeks out crazy over-the-top hotness in my hot sauce.
  3. Mix in the regular-grind salt and stir or shake (easy to shake if you do it in a jar).
  4. Gently pour in filtered, room temperature water to cover. Make sure that all of the peppers and garlic are completely submerged in the brine.
  5. Cover with the coarse-grind salt.
  6. Wait and watch!
  7. Harvest the mash and make sauce by cutting with vinegar -- I haven't done this step yet, but will post when I do!
The mash in brine on day two.

*I must have heard the song Monster Mash hundreds of times throughout my childhood, always at this time of year, on record players of my elementary school classrooms, so I hope you'll forgive the gratuitious seasonal shoutout, dear reader.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Local Food and Climate Change: Every Day is Blog Action Day

To celebrate today's blog action day, I'm posting photos of our recent stint selling at the West Asheville farmers market (see below).

Decreasing your foodprint is a great small step that individual people and families can take to help slow climate change. But individual actions--low-impact eating and living, conserving energy and resources, consuming less, reducing your carbon footprint --are a drop in the bucket. These actions are inherently political, but they are not enough on their own.

In addition to individual action, the world needs our collective political action for immediate and large-scale change. I'm grateful for and impressed with's organizing work building power, raising awareness, and advocating for such change.

In nine days, on October 24, is holding an International Day of Climate Action. The organizers of Blog Action Day are also putting forward a petition urging President Obama to make the US a leader in solving the problem that we have led the world in creating. Add your signature here.

Individual choices like eating local food and large-scale political action like participating in 350's Day of Action are essential, but there's more: we must build new systems to replace the dysfunctional one that's caused the climate crisis in the first place. We need to build the lifeboats, create the world we want to live in, and set up alternate structures to replace the crumbling ones that have caused so much damage to the planet. Building local food systems is part of that creative work.

So here's to actions small and large. May the systems of life on planet be healed by all of our creative individual and collective acts. Including these very small ones:

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Stalking the Red Stalk, or: How I Learned to Love Celery

Some years back, I was stocking up on local produce at the downtown tailgate market when a strange thing happened. I bought some celery.

Although I am not a picky eater, there are a few things I have just never liked. Celery was always near the top of that short list. There were a few situations in which I found celery tolerable, maybe even necessary (making dressing at Thanksgiving time comes to mind), but for the most part, I shunned this humble vegetable.

For some reason--maybe it was nearing Thanksgiving, or maybe I was intrigued by the unusual appearance of this particular celery--I purchased a bunch of celery from farmer Anne Gaines. This celery looked almost nothing like the ubiquitous pale, watery celery we all know so well -- the stalks were slender, red, and downright beautiful. Enticed by their loveliness, and bolstered by Anne's encouragement, I decided to try some.

You can probably tell where this story is headed. Anne's red celery tasted nothing like any other celery I had ever tasted. Not only did I come to love this particular celery, but I began to look forward to the time of year when Anne would have it for sale, and eventually I started growing it myself.

For the past two years, we have grown both Red Stalk and heirloom green varieties, and celery has become a staple of my garden and kitchen.

I attribute the transformation of my relationship with celery to several factors. I want to share them here, not because I think the world cares about my personal relationship with celery, but because this small transformation seems to me somehow a microcosm of a wider process of transforming individual and cultural relationships to food.

First: This was the first time I had ever eaten celery that had not been wrapped in plastic and driven or flown from god-knows-where, becoming less and less fresh with every mile of transport.

Second: Red Stalk Celery is an heirloom variety, and as is often the case with heirlooms, it just tastes better than the typical agribuisness grocery store variety.

Third: I would never have discovered this heirloom variety if I had not been shopping for vegetables at the farmers market, and I bought it based on the recommendation of a farmer I trusted. This is how heirlooms are passed on, from one person's hands to the next, treasures shared and multiplied through webs of relationship. This is how food has been shared forever, until recently, when marketing and merchandising began to mediate our relationship with food, and we began to choose provisions for our kitchens largely without the benefit of individual relationships. Through my relationship with a farmer from whom I bought vegetables week after week, I came to appreciate a food that I would never have tried otherwise.

And finally: When I bought my first bunch of Red Stalk celery from Anne, I saw that there was literally more to celery than I had previously known -- there were more edible parts in the bunch of celery that I bought from Anne than in the chopped and packaged celery log I was used to. Namely: leaves! Celery is a leafy green! Who knew? When I started to grow celery myself, I found that cooking with the leaves was my favorite everyday use of celery--I found the flavor of the leaves less bitter and more earthy than the stalks.

As a sidenote: I also discovered by growing celery myself that pretty much all celery you see in the grocery store has been blanched -- grown in trenches and mounded to prevent the stalks from being exposed to sunlight. That is why standard celery is paler, milder, and more tender than the celery Anne was selling. There is nothing inherently wrong with blanching, and it is a low-tech, ancient technique. However, in the case of celery, it prevents the dark leafy greens from proliferating, and that is the part of the plant that I find most delicious and most useful.

Red Stalk celery is an 18th Century English heirloom with a very strong celery flavor -- it is great for cooking and seasoning, but not really meant to be eaten the way celery is commonly eaten in the US these days (that being on a tray full of unappetizing, dry, and chemical-laden raw vegetable morsels with ranch dressing on the side, or in large raw chunks coated with peanut butter). It's not really a snacking celery.

What it is great for is hearty fall soups, especially with onions. Coarsely chopped leaves and finely chopped stalks make dressing at Thanksgiving a transcendent experience, and for the past few years I have made large pots of soup stock with the greens and stalks to use throughout the winter. It can be harvested at any time from its very young days onward, and it can be harvested a stalk at a time, rather than pulling the whole bunch, which is useful since its flavor is so strong. I use the leaves, finely chopped, in potato salad and to season refrigerator pickled cucumbers.

Red Stalk celery is a beautiful, hearty plant in the garden. The stalks are not just red, but many shades of red and green, with hot pink streaks appearing frequently at the base of the bunch. Vegetables sporting hot pink flourishes get extra points with me.

Celery flourishes in cool fall weather, and can last through winter solstice or so here with light protection. We covered our celery bed with Reemay last year, and were able to have fresh celery for cooking on Christmas Day.

Seeds of Change sells seeds for Red Stalk Celery, and probably some other seed companies do too.

So here's to my now-beloved celery, and to trying new things. And to micro- and macro- transformation of our relationships to food!

Celery on Foodista: Celery on Foodista

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Potatoes Galore. . .

This morning I dug the last of our late potatoes, the German Butterballs. For readers who are not in Western NC, let me set the scene: the sky is that pure, clear, crisp blue that I have never seen anywhere but in the mountains of North Carolina on a clear fall day. There is an occassional breeze, and the temperature is holding steady at seventy degrees. The dogwood leaves are dark, dark red, and the red maples are just starting to turn a brilliant scarlet. In other words: its an absurdly beautiful, perfect fall day in the mountains.

I am reluctant to spend much time inside at all on a day like today, but I've been meaning to post about growing potatoes. Since I dug some this morning, and since we sold five varieties at the West Asheville market yesterday, it seems like a good time to talk taters.

Here are the potato varieties that we grew this year:


A very old heirloom grown by the people of the Makah Nation in the Pacific Northwest for at least 200 years. According to Makah lore, this potato was brought by Spanish explorers to the Neah Bay area of what is now Washington State.

This knobby, nutty variety was unknown outside the Makah culture until the 1980s, when it was introduced to the wider growing and eating public. It is still not widely cultivated, though Slow Food USA has partnered with the Makah nation to preserve and promote the variety (more here).

You can read more on Ozette at a very informative blog I recently discovered, Vegetables of Interest.

I am a sucker for a good heirloom story, and on top of its storied past, Ozette has a rich, distinctive taste and impressive productivity in the garden. We will be growing this variety again.


This just might be my favorite variety that we grew this year. I love everything about Huckleberry. It is productive, beautiful, tasty, and it has a great name. Huckleberry is pinky-red on the outside and stained with shades of light and dark pink inside.

Cutting open a Huckleberry potato is a delightful sensual experience--first there is the aesthetic pleasure of all of the pinks; then there is the buttery feeling of the knife slipping easily through Huckleberry's smooth, creamy flesh.

We had some incredible potatoes au gratin with Huckleberry potatoes, and they were heartily enjoyed roasted, baked, and in salads all summer long.

Purple Peruvian

Seed Savers Exchange describes this variety as "a treasured, traditional variety from the Andean Highlands."

Treasure is just the right word: harvesting Purple Peruvian potatoes is like discovering clusters of fat purple gemstones in your garden. At first hard to see when you're digging because of their dark color, these potatoes glow with an almost iridescent purple sheen once the dirt is polished off of them.

As if that's not enough: when you slice one open, the purple and white patterns almost look like a crystalline structure. They're so beautiful that it almost wouldn't matter to me what they taste like. But their flavor is excellent and they have a lovely creamy texture.

La Ratte

A French heirloom fingerling, La Ratte was extremely productive in our garden.

It looks, feels, and tastes buttery and smooth. The feeling of biting into one of these fingerlings baked is delightful.


Maris Piper

The jury is still out on Maris Piper in our household. We may try growing it again because less than perfect growing technique (we harvested too late) caused a fair amount of scab on this variety. It has a lovely flesh, though, and was fairly productive.

Rose Finn Apple

With a rosy exterior that is sometimes described as "blushed" and creamy yellow flesh, this is a very pretty potato, and has a distinct and delightful taste.

It's a rare and unusual variety, referred to by Abundant Life as a "precious heirloom." I love Rose Finns baked with a little butter or olive oil. We will grow them again.

Early Rose

An 1861 heirloom from Vermont, this potato is really only slightly rosy, with pinkish spots around the eyes. Early Rose is a good old fashioned standard potato. The Maine Potato Lady calls Early Rose "one of the founding potato varieties of this country." Apparently, Early Rose is the parent of many of the more common commercially available potato varieties. We found it to be a nice, basic, versatile potato. However, it is not keeping well compared to some other varieties, so I recommend growing Early Rose for eating within a month or so of harvest rather than using it as a storage potato.

All Red

This variety is the all-time favorite potato of one of my heroes, food historian, seed saver, and gardener extraordinaire William Woys Weaver (you can read Weaver's praise of and musings on All Red in his book, "100 Vegetables and Where They Came From" or online here). All Red, also known as Cranberry Red, is a fine variety--particularly enjoyable at the moment when you cut it open, the knife slicing through its buttery texture, and see the beautiful blushing pink color inside. We will grow All Red again.

Yukon Gold
We either ate or sold all of the Yukon Golds that we grew before I had time to take a picture. So I guess that tells you something.


Carola is a pretty white-skinned, yellow-fleshed potato that has made great soups and home fries this year. It was very popular at the tailgate market, perhaps because it has that familiar, standard potato look. It's a bit softer, creamier, and more thin-skinned than the typical baking potato, though. Carola's skin has a really nice crunch when eaten unpeeled in potato salad. The plants also produced a good quantity of nice new potatoes fairly early.

Digging Ozettes

We ordered all of our seed potatoes from Ronniger Potato Farm which carries a lot of heirloom varieties, and has decent prices for organic seed potatoes (especially compared to the outrageous prices that some outlets like Seeds of Change charge for organic seed potatoes). Eliot Coleman recommends Wood Prairie Farm out of Maine as his favorite source for organic seed potatoes, so we may order a few varieties from them this year.

So there you have the potato wrap-up...happy fall!

Potatoes on Foodista: Potato on Foodista