The Milkweed Diaries

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Beautiful, flavorful, fabulous. . .Okra!?!

First let me say that even if okra were not edible, I would grow it for its sheer beauty.

Look at these okra flowers in bloom. Please! Okra flowers are the most beautiful blooms in my garden right now, and despite all kinds of weather (including seemingly unending rain for the past ten days) and all manner of insects multiplying like crazy in the garden, the okra flowers are still gorgeous.

We grew two varieties of okra this year, Burgundy (left) and Fife Creek (below).

I can't resist posting a few more photos:

I can't get enough of the okra flowers.

Now, on to the eating of okra. As a garden crop, okra is virtually pest-free here in western North Carolina, and incredibly sturdy and prolific. Despite these virtues, okra is not universally popular as a food. And that is putting it mildly.

My mom says that from an informal survey that she conducted at her church, she has concluded that people have very strong feelings about okra. You might even say that okra is a polarizing force. "People either love it or hate it," she says, "and a lot of people really hate it."

I know I have the zeal of a cult member about this, being one of the people in the "love" camp, but I really feel that much of the hate is, like a lot of hating in general, just a matter of misunderstanding. In the specific case of okra, I just don't think people have had it "cooked right."

Now you can batter and fry almost anything and make it taste good. But there is a very simple way of preparing okra that brings out its excellent flavor and makes this fabulous summer vegetable hard to resist, in my highly biased opinion. At a recent dinner party, I dared even those who thought they were okra-haters to try the okra I was serving and still hate okra. All but one of the previous haters said they actually liked the okra I served, and the lone holdout said that he would not say he had hated this okra, but rather had "just sort of not liked it." So at least if we cannot de-polarize the health care debate, we are making progress on the okra debate.

So here is the secret:

Don't slice it and saute it, or make the typical tomato-based gumboish dish (although for okra lovers, those are other fine ways to enjoy it). Just wash it, leave it whole, drizzle it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sprinkle on some salt and grind on some pepper, and bake the okra.

I like to bake it for about 30 minutes with quartered onions, whole heads of garlic, whole Italian frying peppers, and sliced summer squash, all fresh from the garden and drizzled/sprinkled with the aforementioned seasonings.

I first had okra prepared this way earlier this summer at my friend Shane's house. She had roasted a big batch of whole okra after marinating it in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and kept it cold in the fridge for a snack. I know, cold, whole okra sounds disgusting. But it was so good I couldn't stop eating it. This was the first way I had ever experienced the delight of eating whole okra seeds -- baked or roasted, the seeds are plump, soft, little morsels that pop in your mouth -- mmm!

I've been making okra this way several times a week since that okra-licious experience at Shane's. Okra is still busting out in our garden like mad, so we just keep eating it, and I can't bring myself to cook it any other way anymore. Fresh from the oven it's mouth-watering, and as a snack the next day from the fridge, it's almost as good.

Haters: I dare you to try it and not change your minds. OK, I know, diversity is our strength, but maybe give it a whirl just once?

More on okra at Foodista:
Okra on Foodista

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Win, Lose, or Get Creative

Sometimes gardening, like politics, is the art of compromise.

Our cabbages have been under constant attack from every pest known to woman throughout the spring and summer growing season. Cabbage worms, harlequin bugs, and slugs have been the most destructive, with rolypoly bugs sometimes joining the fray.

Now that the bugs and slugs have had all summer to multiply and establish themselves, its been getting downright dangerous to be a brassica in our cabbage patch.

We have harvested some nice big heavy cabbages (as you can see in my last post) but the nail-biting question of whether the pests or the gardeners would triumph finally got to be too anxiety-provoking for me and I looked for a "third way." After managing for months to fend off armies of small creatures who like cabbage as much as I do, I finally gave up and decided not to wait until all of the cabbages are "normal" cabbage-sized. I've never been too interested in normalcy anyhow.

So I harvested a bunch of tiny cabbages yesterday. One of the smallest is pictured at the top of this post.

Baby cabbages make perfectly fine cole slaw and kraut, I've discovered. They are nice and tender, and just darn cute.

Here's an approximation of the slaw recipe that I use:

Classic Cole Slaw

  • A bunch of cabbage of any size (about 4 cups chopped)
  • 4 or 5 good-sized carrots
  • 2-4 Tbs. of raw apple cider vinegar
  • 1 Tbs. of honey
  • Mayonnaise to taste (I use about a cup per four cups of chopped cabbage)
  • 1 tsp. high-quality salt
  • Lots of freshly ground black pepper
  1. Finely chop cabbage and carrots. I use a food processor for this, but you can do it by hand.
  2. Mix everything together in a big bowl.
  3. Chill in the fridge, allowing the flavors to meld for at least 30 minutes before serving.
  4. Enjoy!

Cole Slaw on Foodista:
Cole Slaw on Foodista

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Back to Basics

The thing about experimentation is that it is experimental. Experimentation by definition has unpredictable results.

I have experimented widely with sauerkraut over the past seven or eight years, adding various vegetables and spices and trying different methods, fending off mold and throwing in a wild card ingredient every once in a while. Let me tell you, some of those experiments have been disastrous. And some have been divine. Such is the nature of experimentation.

We grew Early Flat Dutch cabbage (pictured above) this year and I harvested some this week to make a bunch of kraut. Having nurtured this cabbage from seed through all manner of pestilence over the past six months, I was not willing to experiment with it. Instead of letting my creative juices flow, I decided to go back to basics and make some plain, old, traditional sauerkraut.

Inside the Early Flat Dutch

Here's the recipe, very simple, tried and true:


  • Five pounds or so of cabbage
  • 3 Tbs. high-quality salt
  • A scant or hearty handful of each: dill seed, caraway seed, and celery seed (adjust amounts depending on your flavor preferences)

  1. Shred cabbage. I do this with a knife, slicing very thinly to make long, crimped strips.
  2. Layer into a ceramic crock, adding a couple of teaspoons of salt and a couple of pinches of seeds after each layer of cabbage.
  3. After each layer goes into the crock, smash it. I use a potato masher for this. Some people use their fists or a heavy wooden pestle-like tool.
  4. Keep layering salt, spices, and cabbage and smashing until the crock is full or you are out of cabbage, whichever comes first.
  5. If there is not enough water released from the smashing, add water to cover and a little more salt. Weigh down to submerge (I use a plate and a mason jar full of water as pictured below). I also use leftover whole cabbage leaves under the plate to keep the shredded cabbage from floating and thus being exposed to air.
  6. Cover with a clean, breathable cloth, and allow to ferment! I like to taste it along the way, and the amount of fermentation time depends on conditions in the room and personal taste, but I like to let it go at least a month. Keep pressing down the weight whenever you think of it, and scrape off any scum that forms on top. Once it's nice and sour, enjoy!

Top layer of kraut weighed down before topping off with water.

Simple is good. Here's to plain, simple sauerkraut, a staple of old-timey food preservation and of my fall and winter diet. Sour, crunchy, salty. Yum.

See more on sauerkraut on Foodista, but don't follow their recipe and heat process/kill the kraut!
Sauerkraut on Foodista

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Meditation on Gratitude: Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash

I love it when heirloom varieties are named after one of the people in the line of seed-saving gardeners who passed down the seed. It always feels like an opportunity to give thanks for all of the growers of food that came before us.

Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash (a couple of which are pictured in my grateful hands above) is such a variety. We grew this lovely winter squash this year, described by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange as a "family heirloom from Thelma Sanders in Adair County, Missouri." Southern Exposure introduced the Thelma Sanders squash in 1988, and now its available from a number of sources, including Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Seed Savers Exchange.

Thelma Sanders has been our favorite squash this summer. With its lovely teardrop shape and caramel-cream colored skin that develops faint freckles as it ripens, its luscious and smooth pale orange flesh, its creamy texture and subtly sweet flavor, Thelma Sanders has stolen our hearts.

As we've savored the taste of this beautiful and delicious heirloom, I've been filled with gratitude for Thelma and all of her seed-saving predecessors who gave us this particular squash variety. With each mouthful, I imagine my circle of gratitude widening to include all of our seed-saving, plant-growing, earth-tending ancestors.

So here's to cultivating gratitude, appreciation, and thanks-giving as we cultivate our gardens: Thelma Sanders, Presente!


"Presente," which literally means "here" or "present" in Spanish is used in some parts of Latin America as an expression to invoke, honor, or celebrate the presence of someone who is not physically present. Being involved with Latin American solidarity and peace and justice movements over the years, I learned the expression "Presente!" as a way to give thanks for and honor an ancestor, a martyr, or a person whose spirit or memory is being evoked with respect and appreciation. It often seems an appropriate expression when holding a fruit or vegetable whose very existence can be traced to specific people's stewardship of living things.

Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash on Foodista

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Moon and Stars in Virgo

We grew the beautiful heirloom watermelon "Moon and Stars" this year (pictured above getting ripe in our garden). The speckles on the rind really are like stars in the sky, and coming across a melon in the garden somewhere that the rambling vines have ended up is like stumbling on a little galaxy.

We sliced one of the Moon and Stars melons open this week with some friends and feasted on the luscious and juicy pink melon flesh.

After we had eaten our fill of watermelon, we made watermelon mead with the leftovers, saved the seeds for next year, and cut up the rinds for pickling in brine.

For the pickling, I used a teaspoon of salt per cup of water and pressed the rind slices gently to squeeze out their juices, and submerged the rinds in a big glass cookie jar. The brine is starting to cloud up and get bubbly, so fermentation is definitely happening.

Looking for brine-pickled watermelon rind recipes online, I discovered that this Southern/Asian fermented delicacy is known as an aphrodisiac. I'll report back what I learn about the love-inducing properties of fermented watermelon rinds once the pickling is done!

Watermelon mead

Next year's Moon and Stars watermelons

All in all, it's a lovely watermelon that I heartily endorse. We got our seed from Fedco, but Seed Savers Exchange and other companies offer it as well.

Hurrah for "Moon & Stars!"

Moon & Stars Watermelon on Foodista

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Seed-Saver's Heaven

Bean seeds changing hands at the Seed Swap.

Last week, CF and I were up in Charlottesville, VA for the annual Heritage Harvest Festival sponsored by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Monticello.

Friday we spent time at the Tufton Farm, where the Center for Historic Plants does its amazing work. Then we took a seed-saving tour through the vegetable, herb, and flower gardens at Monticello, where we had a chance to harvest and take home seeds from heirloom varieties growing there.

Saturday we went to workshops with some of my seed saving heroes (a talk on saving seeds from heirloom plants by William Woys Weaver being the highlight for me) and communed with gardeners, seed savers, plant-lovers, garden nerds, and others of our ilk.

The big seed swap on Saturday was amazing, and worth the trip in itself. Like most seed swaps I've participated in, it was more of a gift economy than a swapping or bartering economy. There were some extraordinarily generous big-time seed savers there, like Rodger Winn (at left in the photo above), who grows dozens of heirloom beans for seed and had a whole table filled with beans for sharing. I brought Hibiscus sabdariffa (the red zinger hibiscus) and Calendula seeds to offer, and we came home with a big pile of little envelopes full of future vegetables, herbs, and flowers.

It was a really wonderful event--I'm posting a few more photos here to give more of a sense of it, and I have a slideshow up on Picasa with lots more photos as well. The festival happens every year...maybe I'll see you there in 2010!

View of the vegetable garden at Monticello

Pat Brodowski, the vegegable gardener at Monticello scooping out tomato seeds . . .

. . .and discussing saving bean seeds.

Cleome and Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate at Monticello

Hyacinth bean arbor at Monticello

Debbie Donley, the Monticello flower gardener, talking flowers and seeds.

Cherry tomatoes for sale at the festival

The gift economy in action.

Some of the seeds we brought home. . .

. . .and some more!

More of my photos from the festivities are on Picasa.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Blight-resistant tomato varieties

Orange Banana tomato ripening in our garden, despite advanced late blight.

This growing season has provided a fabulous opportunity to find out which tomatoes can produce under awful conditions. In other words, it's been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year for tomatoes, so we got a chance to see what varieties can survive the perfect tomato storm.

We planted 19 open-pollinated tomato varieties (almost all heirlooms) and one hybrid variety, and almost 100% of the plants have been decimated by disease. We had the wettest May in recorded history, followed by heat, early blight, more rain, and late blight. Fortunately for us, we got our plants in late, so we missed a lot of the wettest weather. Even so, the late blight has taken a crippling toll.

Now the good news: some of the heirlooms do seem to be able to produce, albiet significantly smaller yeilds, despite the blight.

Here are the survivors:

Flamme tomatoes from our garden

Flamme (also called Jaune

A French heirloom that produces small (egg-sized), round, orange tomatoes. We purchased Flamme seeds from Tomatofest.

The plant is very productive, and the fruit is sweetish with good tomato flavor. It is not as juicy as the big, fat heirloom slicers, but is still good for sandwiches and fresh eating, and great for sauce, salad, and salsa.

It could be that its just the sheer productivity of this variety that helps it outrun the blight, but it does seem to also have a bit thicker skin and lower moisture content, which I think helps keep the tomatoes from rotting.

Cream Sausage tomatoes from our garden

Cream Sausage:

This is a favorite tomato of ours that we grew last year, with excellent flavor and texture and beautiful, creamy pale yellow skin.

Cream Sausage, also called Banana Cream, is fleshy and sweet, great for cooking and eating fresh. We used lots of these last fall in salsa-making.

We ordered the seeds for Cream Sausage from Baker Creek and Seed Savers Exchange offers it as well.

Orange Banana:

These are fat, juicy, flavorful orange paste tomatoes (pictured at the top of this post). They are great for drying, eating fresh, and using in salsa and tomato sauce. They have a really excellent sweet, tomato-ey flavor and a lovely texture.

We grew and loved these last year, and ordered Orange Banana seeds this year from Baker Creek.

Honarable Mention: Cherry Tomatoes

For sheer profusion of fruit and rampant growth, cherry tomato plants cannot be matched. Their fast and furious growth and abundant fruiting allow them to outrun blight. We use cherry tomatoes for drying, cooking, and salsas, and eat tons of them fresh straight from the plant.

Sungold ("the dessert tomato" as my friend Kathryn calls it), and Black Cherry, a very tasty variety which we are growing for the first time this year, have been kicking out the tomato jams in our garden. The cherry tomatoes started fruiting early and are still producing heavily. The plants are blighted, but they hardly seem to notice. At this point in the season, they are sprawling all over the place with that boisterous cherry tomato spirit, and you can pluck a Sungold from almost anywhere you stand in our garden.

~ ~ ~

Next year, we're going to try growing all but the cherries under cover in the hoophouse, but in the meantime I'm grateful for the tough tomatoes that can survive a rough season like this summer.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Making Herbal Meads

Fresh-picked feverfew, skullcap, and lemon balm for Migrane Medicine Mead.

I have been wanting to try fermenting herbal meads for a while now, and have been peppering my experienced mead-making friends with questions about making mead with herbs. This week I gave it a whirl.

A mead made with herbs is technically called by the very medieval-sounding name "metheglin" which derives from the two ancient Welch words--the word for medicine or healing (meddyg) and the word for mead or spirits (llyn). Metheglins can contain medicinal herbs, culinary herbs, and/or spices.

A lot of the metheglin recipes you will find online are for madrigal dinner or ren-fair types of spiced meads heavy on the cinnamon and spice. Those recipes don't generally appeal to me in terms of taste and also because they aren't made with herbs that grow easily here in the southern US. And although some of their components may be medicinal, the "Christmas spice" metheglins do not seem to be intended primarily for health and healing.

I love the idea of a tonic or healing cup of wine, and I relish the process of making medicine with simple ingredients picked fresh from the garden. So it was high time for me to make some medicinal mead.

I made two 1-gallon batches of herbal mead to start out with. With advice from some more experienced metheglin-making friends and herbs from our garden, it was a simple, quick, and easy process -- only a bit more complicated than brewing a cup of herbal tea.

My first batch was made with mostly lavender (stems, leaves, and flowers) and a small amount of rosemary (leaves and stems).

The second batch was an attempt at a migrane tonic mead for Christopher. I combined feverfew (leaves and flowers), two varieties of skullcap (leaves, flowers, and stems), and lemon balm (leaves and stems) for the Migrane Medicine Mead.

Here's a recipe for herbal mead as I made it:

1 gallon of herbal mead (metheglin)

  • 3 quarts water
  • 3 cups honey dissolved
  • Fresh herbs (amount will vary based on herbs used and desired strength)
  • A pinch of yeast (I used champagne yeast)
  • Gallon jug
  • Rubber stopper & airlock
  1. Make a tea from the herbs and 2 quarts of the water. Allow to steep, cool to room temperature and strain out the herbs.
  2. Dissolve the honey in the other quart of water, heating until warm and whisking until the honey is completely dissolved. Add yeast and allow to activate for a few minutes.
  3. Pour the tea and warm honey/yeast water into a 1-gallon jug (we use old apple cider bottles scavenged from the natural foods supermarket's dumpster).
  4. Cork with a rubber stopper topped with an airlock. Allow to ferment for a few weeks until bubbling stops.
  5. Rack after a few weeks. At this point you can either allow a second fermentation of a few more weeks in an airlocked jug and then bottle, or just bottle and age after the primary fermentation. We like to keep our mead-making moving, so we usually bottle after the first, most active fermentation period and allow the last bit of fermentation, aging and mellowing to happen in the bottle.
I'll post about how the meads turn out...they're bubbling away already!

Mead on Foodista:
Mead on Foodista