Enjoying Eggplant And Tomatoes

A Marriage Made In Garden Heaven

Plump and lovely, eggplants are kissing cousins to tomatoes and peppers, which may be why they taste so terrific together. From French ratatouille to Italian caponata to Indian curries and Asian-inspired stir fries, these nightshade kin are combined in toothsome ways all over the world. Eggplant is probably the most under-used, which is sad, since chewy slabs of eggplant can even replace meat in vegetarian and vegan recipes, from Greek moussaka to eggplant parmesan.

That natural affinity of flavor is paired with a similar desire for warmth and sunlight. These tropical beauties thrive when summer stays reliably hot and night temperatures remain in the 60s or even higher. In my cool maritime garden, a more typical pattern is for foggy grey mornings to keep chilly night air captive until the marine layer burns off around mid day.

Grafting Is Horticultural Magic

In maritime and cool climate gardens, eggplants and tomatoes and peppers may struggle when temperatures swing or simply fail to climb. For the past few years, I’ve finally had outstanding success with these temperamental tropicals, thanks not to wondrous weather but to the horticultural magic of grafting. When flavorful but cold-sensitive varieties of these veggies are grafted onto sturdy, disease-resistant root stock, good things happen even in my windy, often chilly garden.

I’ve been using slender, tender Ping Tung eggplants in all kinds of dishes this summer. The grafted plants are strong enough to bear the weight of the 10-12 inch eggplants, which turn a lustrous purple as they ripen. Thanks to grafting, I’ve been enjoying tomatoes since June (amazing for my garden). It’s hard to pick a favorite, but for salads, everybody loves the INDIGO Cherry Drops, rosy, black-tinged cherry toms with a sparkling sweet-tart balance. For a gorgeous garnish, I often use INDIGO Pear Drops, with dusky purple shoulders above a glowing golden base. When company’s coming, I decorate the table with trusses of super sweet INDIGO Gold Berries to nibble with a glass of whatever. Plump little INDIGO Blue Chocolate tomatoes are almost dessert like, their rich, juicy sweetness layered with just enough tang to make them mildly addictive.

And Basil Makes Three

Blue Chocolates make an incredible Caprese salad, sliced with tiny balls of fresh mozzarella and pretty little leaves of variegated Pesto Perpetual basil, which brings a citrusy sparkle to the classic combination. This is a gorgeous plant, building into a statuesque bush that’s almost shrubby. Since it doesn’t bloom, fresh foliage never stops forming and the more you pinch, the bushier it gets. With its dainty, silver-tipped, soft jade green foliage, it looks delicate, yet a single plant can fill a half-barrel, towering 3-4 feet high, and will remain productive until frost cuts it down.

My other favorite basil has always been Genovese, with large, smooth leaves that smell and taste like heaven. but this year, I’m trying Bolloso Napoletano, with great, rumpled leaves that are big enough to use as wraps for bite-sized appetizers. They’re awesome with slices of nectarine and ripe brie, or crisp mini peppers and goat cheese, or tiny baby carrots and a dab of hummus….

Menage A Trois

If eggplants and tomatoes make delicious culinary partners, things get even juicier when we toss in some hot or spicy peppers. I especially love them in classic French ratatouille, but to avoid firing up the oven in the heat of summer, I make this stovetop version and serve it hot with fresh local goat cheese and ripe peaches.

Quick Ratatouille

1/4 cup fruity olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup chopped onion
2 cups peeled, diced eggplant
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup thinly sliced red peppers, spicy or hot
2 cups thinly sliced green bell peppers
2 cups chopped zucchini
3 cups diced tomatoes, with juice
1 tablespoon capers, drained
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons shredded fresh basil

In a heavy soup pot, combine 1 tablespoon oil, garlic and onion over medium high heat and cook for 3 minutes. Add eggplant, sprinkle with salt, cover pan, reduce heat to medium low and cook until soft ( 10-15 minutes). If pan gets dry, add oil as needed, 1 tablespoon at a time. Uncover pan, add 1 teaspoon oil and the peppers. Cook, covered, for 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and oil as needed. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, for 15-20 minutes or until vegetables are tender but not mushy (all shapes should still be distinct). Gently stir in the tomatoes, capers and pepper, heat through for 3-4 minutes and serve hot or at room temperature for fullest flavor, garnished with basil. Serves 4-6.

Grilled Teriyaki Eggplant

Slathered with teriyaki sauce, grilled eggplant is a delightful summer entree and leftovers make amazing sandwiches. This recipe is also great with thickly sliced sweet potatoes or roasted beet rounds. Add as much garlic and ginger as you like, and toss in some fresh herbs such as lemon thyme, fennel greens, or cilantro.

Teriyaki Eggplant

1/4 cup plain rice vinegar
1/4 cup shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)
1 tablespoon honey
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 inch fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped
1 large eggplant, sliced in inch-thick slabs
1/2 cup stemmed cilantro

In a shallow bowl, combine vinegar, shoyu, and honey, stirring to blend. Add garlic and ginger, mix well, and add eggplant slices, turning to coat well. Let eggplant marinate for at least 30 minutes before you start the coals or preheat grill. Set grill high above the coals or in oven, then grill eggplant until soft (6-7 minutes per side), basting with marinade and turning twice. Serve at once, garnished with cilantro. Serves 4-6.

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Keeping Bees Safer

 

Just Say No To Neonics

Bee-apisI love bees. I feel comforted when I hear that gentle buzz as I putter in my garden. I feel grateful when I eat any of the many foods that need bees’ help to be productive. Zucchini, for instance, need about 40 pollinator visits to mature properly. This year, many gardeners noticed that this was a more silent spring than usual. There were plenty of birds about, but bees were in short supply in many parts of the country. I was happy to finally see a few bumble bees making the rounds in May, but disturbed to hear so many others asking “Where are the bees?”.

The bad news is, the bees are going, going…not quite gone. Honeybees are finally making the headlines when they die off in droves, but nobody is counting the death toll for wild colonies or native solitary bees, all of which are awesome pollinators, even more efficient than honeybees. Many possible culprits have been suggested, but a study released in April by the Harvard School of Public Health has finally pinpointed the main element.

NeoNics Can Kill

The study confirms that exposure to several neonicotinoids (imidacloprid and clothianidin) significantly contribute to colony collapse disorder (CCD). Bees exposed to low doses of these common pesticides often abandon their hives in winter and die. Although some studies seemed to indicate that mite infestations could be a contributing factor in hive collapse, this new study shows that hives not exposed to neonicotinoids survived even with the same levels of mites and other pathogens.

For bees, neonicotinoids appear to be the most deadly of the many garden and agricultural toxins used today. As the name suggests, neonicotinoids are synthetic version of nicotine, itself a deadly poison used by gardeners for hundreds of years (smokers take note). The death of a violent husband or inconvenient wife by gardener’s nicotine was a popular theme in early detective fiction, sparked by many a real-life example.

NeoNics Are Everywhere

First synthesized in the 1980s, these neonics are now the most heavily used insecticides on the planet. That’s bad news for bees and also bad news for people who like to eat, since bees pollinate at least a third of our food crops. Neonics are extremely popular because they are effective against a huge range of insects. However, an Italian study released last year revealed that neonics disrupt bees’ immune systems, so viruses that don’t normally kill bees become deadly.

Direct neonic exposure also kills bees, as we all learned last June, when the most massive bee kill in history occurred in a Target store’s parking lot in Oregon. In that case, workers had sprayed blooming ornamental trees with Safari, a common insecticide, to kill off aphids that were dripping sap on customers’ cars. An estimated 50,000 dead bees soon littered the parking lot, wiping out about 300 wild colonies.

Hidden Death

Safari (Dinotefuran) is in the neonicotinoid family, as are a surprising number of other common pesticides. Some are fairly easy to spot, since they are labeled as insecticides. Others are less evident, such as the Bayer Advanced series of treatments for lawns and shrubs, including fertilizer-plus spikes, All-in-one care products, and Protect-and-feed products.

Many Scott’s Green Light products also contain neonics, as do Marathon, Merit, Knockout, Lesco Bandit, Ortho, Safari, Syngenta, and Xytect products. The list of neonic-based pesticides is much longer than this, and you can find a downloadable, updated version at the  website for the Center For Food Safety (see below).

Good News?

Oh, and the good news? Hmmm. Well, the good news is, we can help the bees by NOT using pesticides and planting more flowers. A LOT more flowers. Plant some today!

You’ll find lists and information about common pesticides that contain neonicotinoids here:  http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/304/pollinators-and-pesticides/join-the-bee-protective-campaign#

Learn more about gardening and landscaping without toxins, and find ways to nurture and support bees and other native pollinators here: http://www.beyondpesticides.org/pollinators/LandscapesforPollinators.php

Read the Harvard School of Public Health study at this link: http://www.bulletinofinsectology.org/pdfarticles/vol67-2014-125-130lu.pdf

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Bottling The Essence Of Summer

Herb & Fruit Infused Vinegars

Summer’s fruit fest makes me a little crazy. Even though my modest back-deck garden supplies my daily salads and fills my daily breakfast bowl with berries, I find myself bringing home gorgeous flats of local fruit just because it’s so dang beautiful. Once I’ve worked through the jam-and-ice-cream stage, I fill the freezer, but  that doesn’t mean I stop collecting fruit. Happily, I can move into the oil-and-vinegar stage of summer, making savory flavorings to use when summer’s just a memory.

Among my favorites are fruit-, herb-, and vegetable-based vinegars. Depending on how you construct them, vinegars flavors can range from delicate and evocative to in your face bold. I usually make small batches when experimenting, because it’s a drag to waste lovely ingredients if things go south. However, I always write down what I’m doing as I do it, since it’s also a drag to make something fabulous and not be able to reproduce it.

Choosing Your Base Vinegar

Obviously, your base vinegar has a lot to do with the quality of your final product. It’s most effective to use a vinegar with mild character, since you want to showcase the fruit and/or herbs. Those bulk gallon jugs of white vinegar are best used for cleaning windows, since the brash, harsh vinegar can overwhelm delicate herbs. Though I’ve made some very pleasing flavored vinegars using red or white wine vinegars or plain rice vinegar, I often choose organic apple cider vinegar, which has body and snap as well as a hint of natural sweetness that balances that tart sourness.

As a rule, flavored vinegars are made by heating vinegar with fruit, herbs, or vegetables such as chili peppers or garlic. These are allowed to infuse for several days (or even weeks), and must be strained and rebottled before using. Keep flavored vinegars in a cool, dim place, not a sunny window, since the heat and light can cloud the vinegar and may promote bacterial growth. Always heat vinegar in a non-reactive saucepan (made of stainless steel or enamel).

A Pleasingly Playful Approach

Though I always make a batch or two of raspberry and blueberry vinegar (see below), I also like to branch out a bit. Recent experiments involved cucumber/lemon verbena vinegar, black tomato/shallot vinegar, and nectarine/basil vinegar. All were lovely, but my current favorite is peppery tart cherry vinegar (though the sweet cherry version is also wonderful, especially in fruity or green salads).

As always, the recipes below can be varied freely depending on your own taste preferences. Making the vinegars is a lot of fun, but some patience is required before you really know what you’ve got. Most will need some time to mellow, and all must be strained through cheesecloth and decanted into sterile bottles when they reach the stage you like best. Here are a few recipes to get you started:

Dusky, Delicious Tomato Vinegar

This rich, marvelously complex vinegar relies on ripe, black-skinned tomatoes. Thanks to those dusky skins, these luscious nuggets offer generous amounts of anthocyanins, the phytonutrients that make blueberries a superfood. Though I used juicy little INDIGO Cherry Drops (my first tomatoes to ripen), you can use Indigo Rose or any black-skinned tomato.

Black Tomato/Shallot Vinegar

2 cups halved ripe black-skinned Cherry Drops tomatoes
2 cups red wine vinegar or cider vinegar
1/3 cup sugar or honey
2 tablespoons chopped shallots

Combine all ingredients with 1/3 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through a fine sieve, pressing gently to get all the liquid out. Pour into a clean bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

The Crispest Cukes

For this cucumber vinegar, I used a plump Japanese ‘burpless’ cucumber called Giga Bite. Each of these crisp, crunchy critters gets 6-8 inches long, and I eat them skin and all, scrubbing a bit to remove the fine little bristles first.

Cucumber/Lemon Verbena Vinegar

2 cups coarsely chopped cucumber
2 cups plain rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar or honey
2 tablespoons chopped lemon verbena

Combine all ingredients with 1/3 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through a fine sieve, pressing gently to get all the liquid out. Pour into a clean bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

Simply Sweet Or Tart & Peppery

Cherries have such interesting flavors that you can tilt them easily from sweet to savory. Try adding a little fresh tarragon or lavender, peppercorns or grains of paradise, curry paste or chilies….

Sweet Cherry/Lavender Vinegar

2 cups pitted sweet cherries, chopped
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup sugar or honey
2 tablespoons fresh lavender

Combine all ingredients with 1/3 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through a fine sieve, pressing gently to get all the liquid out (the cherries are awesome in salads, by the way. Pour into a clean bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

Peppery Tart Cherry Vinegar

1 cup pitted tart cherries
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup sugar or honey
2 tablespoons peppercorns

Combine all ingredients with 1/3 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through a fine sieve, pressing gently to get all the liquid out (again, save the cherries for something fun; they taste awesome). Pour into a clean bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

Nectarine Basil Vinegar

2 cups diced ripe nectarines
1-1/2 cups plain rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar or honey
1/3 cup chopped basil

Combine all ingredients with 1/3 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through a fine sieve, pressing gently to get all the liquid out. Pour into a clean bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

Raspberry Vinegar

2 cups fresh or frozen raspberries
1-1/2 cups red wine vinegar or rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar or honey (preferably raspberry honey)

Combine all ingredients with 1/3 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low , cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through a fine sieve, pressing gently to get all the liquid out. pour into a clean bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

Blueberry Vinegar

2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
2 cups cider vinegar
1 tablespoon grated lemon or orange zest
1/4 cup sugar or honey

Combine all ingredients with 1/4 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low , cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through a fine sieve, pressing gently to get all the liquid out. pour into a clean bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

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The Peas Of Spring, the Peas of Summer

Harvesting Spring Peas and Sowing Summer Peas

I’ve always enjoyed shelling peas, slitting the backs of the plump pods with my thumbnail and slipping a finger beneath the fat little peas to coax them out of their cocoon. I fondly imagine that when I’m old(er) and grey(er), I’ll spend spring in a rocking chair in the corner of my daughter-in-law’s kitchen, filling bowls with new peas. My favorite early peas (Blauschokker) boasted smoky purple pods that were the hit of my annual Fairy House program at the local library where I work. The kids turned the pods into wee boats, baskets, and cushions, while I had enjoyed the peas themselves in several ways.

Even when eaten raw, the first infant peas of spring melt in the mouth, with none of the mealy texture and chalky taste of later peas. That’s why I usually serve them in raw salads or the quickest of braises, so that delicacy is not lost to over-cooking. Though my spring peas are finally finished, the summer peas are coming on quickly, thanks to our (mostly) continuing cool weather. I plant my summer peas where they get full morning sun and some afternoon shade, which seems to help stretch their season a bit.

Early Does It

I like to harvest every few days to get small and tender peas, quite unlike the tough, mealy marbles they can become by later in the summer. Summer peas prefer more warmth than maritime Northwestern  can reliably offer, but the hot days do fill out those pods in a hurry. Indeed, sometimes we need to be quick to catch them before others do. My buddy Rick told me about finding his pea pods stubbornly flat, despite all the care and feeding he gave his plants. Finally he saw a young raccoon slitting the pods open with his razor-sharp claw and scooping out the forming peas.

So far, my local raccoons have not discovered my peas, which live on my high upper deck, safe from deer and other marauders. Now that the heat seems to be arriving for real, the snow peas and sugar snaps of spring are replaced by the meatier Oregon peas that do much better in warm weather and make delicious soup. I like to grow Bingo, a shelling pea with more tendrils than leaves, offering plenty of extra twisty bits to harvest for salads and stir fries. Chunky Dakota packs its pods with big peas that remain succulent even if you overlook the chubby pods for a few days.

Baby Peas & Butter Lettuce

The French partner baby peas with lettuce, a cooked combination that leaves some folks dubious. Overcooked, it’s a mushy mess, but when cooked with speed and full attention, it’s a dainty delicacy indeed. This version cooks very quickly, so don’t start it until you’re almost ready to eat.

French New Peas

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 teaspoons fruity olive oil
1/2 cup chopped sweet onion
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1-1/2 cups shelled peas
2 tablespoons dry white wine or vegetable broth
1 small head butter lettuce, trimmed, sliced in ribbons
4 green onions, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Melt butter with 1 teaspoon olive oil in a wide shallow pan over medium high heat. Add sweet onion and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt and cook until fragrant. Add peas and wine or broth, cover pan, reduce heat to medium low and cook until barely tender (2-3 minutes). Add lettuce, green onions, and pepper, cover pan and cook until lettuce is barely wilted (2-3 minutes). Toss with remaining oil, season to taste with remaining salt and serve warm. Serves 4-6.

Two Peas With Truly Tasty Tofu

This lively stir fry of fresh peas and tofu with mint and garlic is lovely spooned over rice or any cooked grain, from buckwheat groats to barley. Pressing and drying the tofu makes for a tastier dish with a better texture and stronger flavor. It takes a while, but it can be draining while the grain cooks and will be ready to use when you need it. Sanbai-su is a traditional Japanese seasoning sauce, but you can substitute tamari and vinegar if you prefer.

Two Peas With Spicy Tofu

12-16 ounces firm tofu, rinsed and drained
1 cup raw short grain brown rice
2 tablespoons safflower oil
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 inches fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped
1 cup shelled fresh peas
1 cup snow peas (in pods)
2 cups Napa cabbage, thinly sliced
4 green onions, thinly sliced
1 red pepper, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon sanbai-su
OR 2 teaspoons each rice vinegar and tamari or soy sauce

Place tofu on a plate, cover it with another plate and put a weight on top to press out excess moisture. After 30 minutes, drain tofu, pat dry and chop into 1-inch squares, then set aside. Cook rice or grain according to package directions. When rice is nearly done, begin stir fry: In a wok or large frying pan, combine oils over medium high heat. Add garlic and ginger and cook until pale golden (1-2 minutes). Add tofu and cook until crisp (2-3 minutes), then flip to crisp other side. Add peas, pea pods, and cabbage and cook, stirring often, until tender-crisp (2-3 minutes). Add green onions and pepper and cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes. Sprinkle with sanbai-su or vinegar and tamari or soy sauce. Serve at once, over rice or grain. Serves four.

Italian Peas and Pasta

This sturdy Italian spring dish partners new peas with fresh herbs and pasta for a lovely lunch or dinner entree. Rosemary, thyme, and parsley are traditional with peas, but lemon gives this dish a new twist. Flavorful brown rice pasta makes this dish gluten-free.

Italian Pasta and Peas with Fresh Herbs  

8 ounces shell or bowtie brown rice pasta (or any)
3 tablespoons fruity olive oil
1 organic lemon, juiced, rind grated
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups shelled fresh peas
1 teaspoon chopped rosemary OR lemon verbena
2 teaspoons stemmed thyme OR lemon thyme
2 tablespoons stemmed flat Italian parsley
1/2 cup shredded basil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3-4 ounces soft goat cheese

Cook pasta according to package directions. When pasta is nearly done, put oil in a large saucepan over medium heat with lemon rind and garlic and cook until garlic is pale golden (2 minutes). Add peas, cover pan and cook until peas are barely tender (2-3 minutes). Add herbs, sprinkle with salt and pepper, cover pan and remove from heat. Drain hot pasta and toss with the goat cheese, the peas and herbed oil, adding salt and lemon juice to taste (start with 1 teaspoon juice). Serve warm or at room temperature Serves 4.

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