The Milkweed Diaries

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Ornamental "Love Lies Bleeding" Amaranth and edible "Golden Giant" Amaranth in the garden.

Amaranth is one of those crops that starry-eyed and sunlight-deprived gardeners perusing seed catalogs in the dead of winter eagerly tack on to their seed orders, enticed by beautiful photos, alluring descriptions of edible leaves and seeds, references to ancient food traditions, and the novelty of growing grains in the garden. At least that's my experience as one of those starry-eyed gardeners.

I admit I am susceptible to seed catalog propaganda. I can't help it. I get caught up in the excitement: the possibility of growing artichokes, saffron from crocuses, and garbanzos -- I just have to try it and see if it's possible! The benefit of this eternal gardening optimism is that sometimes the long shot, novelty crop pans out. With these experimental, impulse-buy crops, I've found that cautious optimism is the way to go: investing a little attention and energy, and experimenting with small batches before going whole hog. This year, one of those experiments exceeded expectations: amaranth.

A jar of dried amaranth after threshing.

I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that amaranth grows well here - its wild cousin, pigweed, is a common weed in these parts. Still, it was amazing to me how productive amaranth was in our Western North Carolina garden. We grew a couple of small patches this year and tried several different edible varieties. The ones that did best were Golden Giant and Burgundy, both from Seed Savers Exchange. Golden Giant was particularly productive, a towering presence in the garden, true to its name.

I've grown amaranth before, but lacked the commitment and follow-through to use it for anything other than a gorgeous and dramatic ornamental in the garden. This year, though, we harvested some of the huge and seed-laden flower heads to dry and thresh for grain. We didn't harvest it all (too much else going on), but we cut enough heads to experiment with drying and threshing.

I'm excited about the possibilities of amaranth as a grain crop on a larger scale on our farm -- it's a nutritious, gluten-free "supergrain" that is high in protein and contains essential amino acids, calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins A and C. Amaranth is high in fiber -- its fiber content is three times higher than wheat. More on the health benefits of amaranth here. Like all grains, it's well suited to storage, which makes it a great crop for year-round homegrown food.

Amaranth is an ancient, traditional crop from South America, and I've eaten it in the past in breads, cereals, and as a cooked whole grain - it's nutty and hearty and slightly sweet. It's great as a breakfast cereal with butter and honey or as a grain for pilafs or serving with legumes, fish, or veggies at dinner time. You can pop it, sprout it, or grind it. In other words, its a great all-purpose grain.

Amaranth is easy to grow -- just give it good soil and water and plenty of sun.

Harvesting is easy too. Just lop off the heads when they start to go to seed (and before the birds start feasting on them) and put them in a warm, dry place with good air circulation.

We laid the seed heads out under our porch roof on an old window screen on sawhorses with a sheet underneath and let it dry for about a month.

Seed heads drying

As they dried, seeds fell through the screen and collected in the sheet below. When the seed heads were totally dry, we scuffed them around on top of the screen to knock more seeds out, and then stripped the chaff and remaining seeds from the stems. It was a breezy day, so we rubbed the chaffy fronds of seeds between our hands and let them fall from a few feet above the screen, letting the wind carry off some of the chaff.

Then we just sifted the seeds a few times through a fine-mesh strainer into jars and viola! Grain on the shelf for the winter! Very exciting.


I put the seeds through this strainer three times, each time removing a bit more stem and chaff. I'm sure there is a more efficient way to do this on a large scale, but this fine-mesh kitchen strainer and a canning funnel work fine on a small scale.

Amaranth ready for storage!

Hurrah for experimentation -- next year, we'll bump up amaranth production and sock away more grain for the winter! And maybe I'll finally harvest an artichoke or some garbanzos from my garden after repeated failed attempts. But I'm not holding my breath.

Further Adventures in Green Tomatoes: Pickling

Determined to plow through the surfeit of green tomatoes piled on every surface in my house, I have continued my tomato-preserving marathon.

Today's installment: Pickled whole green cherry tomatoes and pickled green tomatoes.

Both of these recipes are adapted from Putting Food By by Janet Green, Ruth Hertzberg, and Beatrice Vaughan, a very fine food-preserving reference book.

I made big batches of each of these last week, and I can report that the whole pickled cherries were a satisfying and relatively quick project, while the sweet and sour tomatoes were much more time consuming (lots of steps), with a relatively small yield for all of the work (because the tomatoes cook down so much). The final Sweet and Sour Pickled Greens did taste and smell divine, though, so maybe it's worth all the effort. When we crack open a jar in the dead of winter and the memory of standing over a hot stove for all those hours has faded a bit, I imagine it will seem worth it.

Here are both of the recipes:

Pickled Sweet a
nd Sour Green Tomatoes
  • 7 1/2 pounds green tomatoes (about 30 medium tomatoes)
  • 2 large red onions or 2 cups pearl onions
  • 3/4 cup high-quality fine-ground salt
  • 1 Tbs celery seed
  • 1 Tbs mustard seed
  • 1 Tbs dry mustard
  • 1 Tbs whole cloves
  • 1 Tbs peppercorns
  • 3 lemons, thinly sliced plus 1 lemon, juiced
  • 2 sweet red peppers
  • 2 1/2 cups honey
  • 3 cups apple cider vinegar
  1. Wash tomatoes well and cut off blossom ends, blemishes and stems.
  2. Slice tomatoes and peel and slice onions.
  3. Sprinkle salt over alternate layers of tomatoes and let stand in a cool place overnight
  4. Drain off the brine, rinse the vegetables thoroughly in cold water, and drain well.
  5. Slice the lemons and remove the seeds; wash the peppers well, remove seeds and stems, and slice thinly crossways.
  6. Put the spices in a muslin bag or large tea ball, submerge in vinegar, and bring to a boil.
  7. Add tomatoes, onions, lemons, and peppers. Cook for 30 minutes after the mixture returns to a boil, stirring gently to prevent scorching.
  8. Remove spice bag and add honey.
  9. Pack the pickles in sterilized jars, and cover with boiling liquid, leaving 1/2 inch of headroom.
  10. Scorch lids, cap the jars and process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Pickled Cherry Tomatoes
  • 24 cups hard, entirely unripe green cherry tomatoes
  • Bay leaves, mustard seeds, dry or fresh hot peppers, black pepper corns, celery seed, dill (fresh or dried), and garlic to taste
  • 1 sliced red onion'
  • 3 lemons, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 4 cups water
  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup high quality, fine-ground salt
  1. Sterilize 12 pint jars and in the bottom of each jar put a bay leaf or two, a clove or two of garlic, a dried or fresh hot pepper, 1/2 tsp of mustard seed, a couple of heads of dill or a Tbs of dried dill, and other seasonings to taste.
  2. Pack the jars with tomatoes, layering in onion slices here and there. Leave about 1/4 inch head space, and pack the tomatoes tightly.
  3. Make the brine by combining the water, vinegar, and salt. Bring to a boil.
  4. Pour the boiling brine into the jars to just cover the tomatoes. Wait a couple of minutes for the brine to settle and add more brine if necessary to make sure the tomatoes are covered, still leaving head room. I found that the tomatoes have a tendency to float, so I added a slice of lemon on the top of each jar to weigh them down.
  5. Scald the jar lids and cap the jars. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.
I'm imagining using these pickled cherries as an elegant little antipasto-type dish. I can't report yet on how they will taste, but rumor has it they are a bit like olives. I predict they will be salty, tart, and sour, with a satisfying cherry tomato pop when you bite them. We'll see. I am also anticipating bringing them out for farm-style cocktails -- since they can also be used in martinis!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Green Tomato Catsup

This week the Milkweed Diaries is brought to you by green tomatoes.

I emerged from three months of intense off-farm work and found myself facing an onslaught of green tomatoes. They are everywhere I look. I realize that a normal person would chuck them, but I have an obsessive drive to use as much of the food that comes out of our gardens as possible.

So here's one of the things I did with them:

Green Tomato Catsup

This recipe is adapted from the classic Rodale publication, Stocking Up, the 1977 edition of which I have a beloved, battered, hardcover copy.
  • 6 pounds green tomatoes
  • 3 pounds onions
  • 1 Tbs black pepper
  • 1 Tbs dry mustard powder
  • 1 1/2 Tbs high-quality salt
  • 1 quart apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup honey
  1. Slice tomatoes and onions and combine in a pot with everything except the honey.
  2. Pour vinegar over the vegetables and cook for 4 hours over low heat, stirring occasionally.
  3. Put mixture through a sieve or food mill.
  4. Return to the pot and bring to a boil again, allow to boil until catsup has achieved desired thickness.
  5. Add honey.
  6. Pour into hot, sterilized jars and seal at once.
  7. Process in a hot water bath for 5 minutes.
Before cooking....

...the amazing food mill that my friend LJ found at Goodwill, and all that was left of the cooked tomatoes and onions after milling....

...and the final product: catsup!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Green Tomato Ginger Marmalade

In my ongoing quest to not waste food from the garden, I have been processing my way through pounds and pounds of green tomatoes picked before the first hard frost. I've been chopping and cooking and canning up a storm over the past week, and suffice to say that if you receive a holiday gift from me this year, it will probably involve green tomatoes.

My first experiment was a couple of huge pots of green tomato apple chutney yielding 38 half pint jars of sweet-sour chutney deliciousness. Next up: marmalade. Marmalade?! Yes, marmalade. In the search for creative green tomato uses, I came across this one and had to try it. And it turns out it's amazing.

This recipe is modified from one I found in Marilyn Kluger's classic food-preservation reference and recipe book, "Preserving Summer's Bounty", which is an indispensable resource in my kitchen. I added the ginger and some notes about how to process the lemons.

Green Tomato Ginger Marmalade
  • 6 pounds unpeeled green tomatoes
  • 6 lemons
  • 1 cup water
  • 6 cups honey
  • A generous handful of coarsely chopped crystalized (candied) ginger
  • 1 tsp powdered ginger
  1. Wash and chop the tomatoes. I used a food processor.
  2. Slice 6 lemons into thin slices, removing seeds and retaining as much of the peel as you want, depending on how bitter you like your marmalade
  3. Boil the lemons in the 1 cup water. Strain off any unwanted peels and seeds that you may have missed and keep the water, lemon pulp, and as many ribbons of peel as you want to retain (they're beautiful floating in the finished product)
  4. Stir the lemony water, honey, tomatoes, and powdered ginger together. Cook slowly, stirring constantly until the mixture is thick and clear. This takes a long time. I kept the marmalade on a low simmer for several hours, stirring every so often, and it reduced considerably and became more and more marmalade-like as it cooked.
  5. Add the candied ginger and cook for a few more minutes.
  6. Pour hot marmalade into jars, leaving 1/4 inch head space, adjust lids, and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.
What an unexpected and fabulous coping strategy for green tomato overload. So good I could eat it with a spoon (and have). The perfectly melded flavors of honey, lemon peel, and tart green tomatoes are a delight, and the ginger gives it an extra snap.

I still have five bushel baskets full of green tomatoes to process, even with all of the marmalade jarred up and cooling on the counter and enough chutney for years to come. So, dear reader, expect more green tomato recipes coming up!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Green Tomato Chutney

The question of what to do with green tomatoes at the end of the season used to be so simple when my garden was smaller. Fried green tomatoes are a delicious fall treat that I've come to associate with the first frost, when all of the tomatoes have to be harvested and brought inside whether they're ripe or not. Tart and sweet, crispy and juicy, fried green tomatoes are delightful sign that cold weather is setting in. But no matter how many mouths you have to feed, you can only consume so many fried green tomatoes.

This year, we grew more than twenty varieties of tomatoes, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 tomato plants in a 40-foot hoophouse and scattered around the ever-growing garden. We sold hundreds of pounds of tomatoes at farmers markets and I canned gallons and gallons of whole tomatoes and tomato sauce, made and froze scads of salsa, preserved boatloads of cherry tomatoes in oil, and generally sacked away enough homemade tomato products to last for a long time to come.

Tomato fatigue set in a while ago, and with the chaotic schedule of my job running a political campaign this fall, the last thing I wanted to think about was processing more tomatoes. But there they were: dozens and dozens of them. Piles of them. Bushels of them.

Fortunately, my friend Penryn sent me her recipe for Green Tomato Chutney, which turned out to be extraordinary. I canned a batch this afternoon, and saved some for eating right away, since it is pretty much irresistible: sweet, tart, saucy, and divinely delicious.

Penryn's Green Tomato Chutney

  • 3 C currants or raisins (or cranberries or a mix)*
  • 2 lemons that you have peeled, seeded, quartered and sliced thinly**
  • 4 1/2 C finely chopped tart apples
  • 4 1/2 C finely chopped green tomatoes
  • 2 cloves garlic***
  • 1/2 C honey
  • 2 C finely chopped onions
  • 1 C vinegar****
  • 1 C filtered water
  • 2 T mustard seed
  • 2 tsp ground ginger (or slightly more fresh grated ginger)*****
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper or 1 chopped fresh, ripe red cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp cinnamon

Combine all ingredients except honey and simmer until they are soft (probably 30 min or so). Add honey. Pack into hot, sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Process for 10 minutes in boiling water bath. Makes about 6 pints.


*I used a scant 2 cups, which was certainly enough
**I substituted lemon juice
***I almost always at least double the garlic in recipes! I used 5 cloves put through a press
****I recommend organic apple cider vinegar

I used a food processor, which worked quite well for all the finely chopping.

The final product was super-delicious. Unfortunately, the chutney only made a small dent in my green tomato glut--I canned 38 half-pint jars, and would have to make another half-dozen batches to see the light at the end of the tomato processing tunnel. Tune in tomorrow for further adventures in green tomato usage.

PS: Apologies for the long absence from the Milkweed Diaries...I was caught up in the biennial whirlwind of running my friend Susan's campaign for North Carolina House. She won. And I am glad to be back in the kitchen, and writing again!