Accidentally Cooking

Documenting my mistakes in the garden, kitchen and pantry


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Late May Garden Update

Early spring is a difficult time for blogging for me, because the garden isn’t moving at an appreciable pace, I’m not cooking anything interesting (in anticipation of the growing season) and generally because I’m a lazy sack. Knowing that I wasn’t doing anything worth writing about, I put together a fluff piece about the status of my garden in early April. I didn’t post it, because I had to upload some pictures (pictures which I already took, no less) and that was just too much work.

Now it’s the end of May, and I don’t have any better ideas, so I’m going to just post the same thing.

And if you’re expecting me to write a big long blog post to make up for all the weeks of nothingness, I have only one word to say….Nope! I’m putting together a few small stupid blog posts and scheduling them ahead of time so I can not worry about writing again for another couple weeks. You could say I’m a genius.

Late May Garden Status

Garlic is growing extremely well. So well, in fact, that I’m going to talk about it in a separate blog post. Next week or something. Don’t quote me.

Onions seem a little bit small but they are growing at a consistent rate. Two of them are already putting out little scapes, which I think is weird but the weather has been weird. Hopefully this doesn’t eat up too much of my yield, but we won’t know till harvest.

I planted two varieties each of Carrots, Green Beans and Lettuce, since I either haven’t tried or have tried without success all of these and I wanted to start making some comparisons. All of these were bought from Seed Savers Exchange, an heirloom seed outfit. I picked varieties that would be visually distinct from each other so that I would be able to tell which varieties were doing well and which weren’t more easily.

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I planted two varieties of Carrots, both heirlooms. I picked “Dragon“, a beautiful purple variety that I’ve wanted for a while and “St. Valery“, which is a variety that looks different from Dragon. I knew I didn’t want a Nantes or Danvers relative, so both of these should produce some interesting results come harvest. Rabbits have already started attacking the leaves, so I had to cover them up with chicken wire to keep them safe. In addition to planting three rows in my garden, I planted several in a large bucket (one of my potato buckets from last year). If the ones in the bucket work out, next year I may do that exclusively and save the garden space for something else.

I picked two varieties of Pole Beans, and have them running up some of my unused tomato trellises. The first variety is “Kentucky Wonder Pole“, which would definitely be my stage name if I lived in Kentucky and was considering a career in porn. Kentucky Wonder Pole is supposed to be a popular variety with high yields. The second variety was one I picked mostly because it was visually distinct: “Rattlesnake Snap“. This is a green bean with purple stripes and good reviews.

The two varieties of lettuce I picked were: “Crisp Mint” (a mint-shaped, but not mint-flavored Romaine) and “Red Iceberg“. The two varieties promise great flavor and were interesting-looking. So far they are growing well (the Crisp Mint better than the Red Iceberg).

I planted tomatoes late, because I had to completely redo that garden bed and we were saving money in the early spring. They are in the ground now though, so hopefully they can make up for the lost time. I received as gift two “Orange Wellington” plants, which were doing well but looked a little starved for nitrogen. At the store I picked up one each of “Roma”, “Big Mama”, “Homestead” and “Big Beef”. Homestead is the first Determinate variety of tomatoes I’ve ever planted, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that works out. I’ve thought about doing tomatoes in pots, and if I have success with Homestead this year I may try it next.

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My Blueberries are growing well and are putting on quite a large crop of berries compared to last year. I’d say the berries are about a third of the way to maturation, so we are looking forward to harvest with licked lips.

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The Cherries are putting out a very small harvest this year. This is fine considering I got nothing from them last year, and they are still getting established. Some of the pollinated flowers made cherries which were (for lack of a better word) stillborn, in that they seemed to have gotten fertilized but the little cherry never grew. Instead, many of them just shriveled up and fell off. Some other cherries grew about half-way and then shriveled up. If all the cherries that had been pollinated had grown, we might have ended up with a pint or two. Now, I expect to only get a handful (and I will cherish every last one). The ones we do have are looking a little smallish, but they are already starting to blush. I expect to be tasting them as early as mid-June.

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Mid-March Garden Prep

I am just bursting at the seams with anticipation for the coming growing season. Progress is happening, slowly but surely, on a number of fronts. Also some of my plans are starting to crystallize as I purchase and prepare to purchase seeds and plants.

Cherries

The cherry trees are looking great, with plenty of buds on each. The Black Tartarian tree is looking healthier than the Stella, with more growth through last season and more buds. The Stella looked like some of its buds last year had been stripped off at some point, which meant less growth through the season and fewer buds over the winter. I didn’t fertilize last year, on recommendation from several sources, but I’m looking into some kind of fertilization this year. Fertilization may be indicated this year because the trees are more established and because there was relatively little growth of twigs and shoots last year. A few sources online have suggested I put down something to feed the trees before the buds open, I am still trying to figure out what and how much.

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We’ve had a few warm days here and there in March, and I’m really hoping that my Cherry buds don’t start trying to open prematurely.

Blueberries

I took a pH test of the soil in the blueberry pots, and the result was far too high. The soil was nearly neutral (7.0) when Blueberries seem to prefer soil which is acidic (5.5 or thereabouts). Blueberries need Iron for health and production of large crops of berries, but the roots can’t absorb and transport the iron unless there’s some acidity around to help. Some sources suggest using Iron Sulfate as a fertilizer, to both add extra iron to the soil AND produce sulfer-related acids to decrease the pH. I couldn’t find that, so I just picked up a bag of elemental sulfur soil acidifer. I added something like a cup and a half per pot, mixed in with the top level of soil (being careful not to disturb the shallow roots). The sulfur requires some water and some time to turn into acids and permeate the soil, so I’ll test the pH again later and see how things are progressing.

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Garlic

The garlic survived the winter with ease, and now is starting to grow a little bit when the days are warmish. Even the Leningrad garlic, which probably the slowest to sprout in November and had me worried that it was dead on arrival, is poking up with some deep green leaves. The German White garlic, which had the largest cloves but also the fewest, has the biggest leaves and is looking like it’s ready to explode when the weather gets warm.

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Miscellanea

Some Daffodils and Tulips are starting to sprout in one of the flower beds. Some leaves had blown into the bed during a recent storm, so when I raked the leaves out I saw the wonderful little green shoots. It doesn’t look like all the bulbs we planted survived the winter, but that just means we have some space to put more flowers this year. We can’t (or, shouldn’t) eat these flowers, but I mention them here anyway because I’m super-excited about anything that appears to be alive.

I have some Rosemary and Mint in pots that I kept over the winter. I was hoping both of them would come back but I’m not seeing any signs of life  yet. I’m making sure the pots are getting as much light as we can get on these short, dreary winter days. I’m also giving them a little water when the days warm up. If they do come through, I may try to find a permanent in-ground home for them this year.

I tried to identify the large maple tree in my front yard, and I think it’s a Black Maple. At least, I think so. Black Maple is one of the two species that can be tapped for maple syrup, although the time to do so has just barely passed. When some leaves come out I’m going to try to confirm my identification of the tree and maybe next winter I’ll try to tap it for some syrup.


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Blueberry Lemon Jam

Our grocery store was having a sale on blueberries: buy one pint, get a second one free. Doing the math, unit price came down to about 2.50$ per pint. For that price, we got 6. We still have a quart of blueberry pie filling in our pantry, so instead of making more of that I decided to make something I didn’t make last year: Blueberry jam.

But…we also have a pile of lemons, and I have a great recipe in my book for a Blueberry Lemon Jam. That’s what I made. I’m very easily distracted.

Blueberry Lemon Jam

  • 4 Pints Blueberries [1]
  • 1 Cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • Zest of 1 and a half lemons
  • 3 cups sugar [2], plus 1/4 cup
  • Half bag of Sure Jel Low-Sugar Pectin

Rinse the blueberries and pick over [3]. Combine blueberries, lemon juice, sugar and zest in a large pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. Remove from heat, put in a glass or ceramic bowl, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, return the mixture to the pot and boil. Mix the 1/4 cup sugar and pectin in a bowl, to prevent clumping, and add to the fruit mixture. Boil hard, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Ladle into prepared jars. Process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.

Results

The Jam seems maybe a little bit loose. A little thicker than a syrup, a little runnier than an average jam. It’s pretty good as-is, but I also wouldn’t be upset if it set up a bit more. Next time I’ll probably use the whole bag of pectin.

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I got about 8 pints of jam from the recipe, though the picture only shows 3. One didn’t seal so we put it in the fridge and started enjoying immediately. The flavor of the jam is very punchy. It has a rich blueberry flavor with a hint of tartness and brightness from the lemon. I suggested that it could maybe use more lemon zest, but Dana says it’s fine. I feel like the flavor is missing something (mint or cinnamon, maybe?), but overall it’s still a very tasty jam. It’s good on toast, but I think the real beauty of it will come on a bagel with a little cream cheese.

Notes

  1. The original recipe calls for 2 1/4 lbs of blueberries, 7 ounces of lemon juice, and two whole lemons, sliced thin and poached in sugar syrup. I weighed each pint to be about 10 ounces. Rounding up, the result is 40 ounces (2.5lbs). Rounding the 7 ounces of lemon juice up to an even cup also keeps the ratio very similar. Instead of using two whole lemons sliced, which I don’t like doing, I zested a lemon and a half. I figure the potency of grated zest would be similar in overall flavor to the two whole lemons. If the recipe doesn’t turn out, it’s not my fault because I was sort of following somebody else’s recipe.
  2. The original recipe calls for 4.5 cups of sugar, which might have needed to be rounded up because I increased all the other ingredients. But, since we have miracles like “powered pectin” here in the modern world outside Alsace France, I cut down the amount of sugar and let the pectin do the work of thickening the jam.
  3. I ended up having to discard several overripe or otherwise creepy berries along the way, so I tossed in an extra half pint of berries (which also needed a good picking-over). I think, in the end, the final quantity was still around 4 pints or just a little over.


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Tart Cherry and Blueberry Jam

I still can’t find good, domestic sweet cherries for sale anywhere, and the imported ones are costing anywhere from 3.99$ to 5.99$ per pound, depending on where I shop, the day of the week, the phase of the moon and a few other less obvious factors. Since I can’t find any of those, and since I’ve still got a few tart cherries left over to play with, I decided to make a batch of tart cherry and blueberry jam. The fun, bright colors are wonderfully relevant to the holiday.

Most of my jam recipes are based on recipes from my book or from various websites that I frequent. I wasn’t really able to find a good recipe for a jam like what I’m making here (at least not one that I liked), so I decided to wing it by combining a few other recipes and general techniques that I’ve picked up over the past few months [1].

Tart Cherry and Blueberry Jam

  • 2 cups tart cherries, stemmed, pitted and roughly chopped [2]
  • 1 pint fresh blueberries, rinsed, sorted, stemmed and roughly chopped
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup sugar (reserved)
  • Juice of 1 Lemon
  • 1 Box, Sure Jel Low-Sugar Pectin

Combine the cherries blueberries, lemon juice, cinnamon and 2 cups of sugar in a large non-reactive bowl. Allow to macerate for 1 hour. Put in a pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Let cool, return to bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight.

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The next day, strain the syrup into a pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Mix the pectin and remaining sugar together and stir into syrup. Add the berries, stir, and increase heat to high. Bring to a hard rolling boil. Boil for 1 minute. Ladle into prepared jars and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes [3].

Results

Yeah, I didn’t get the ratios quite right, and the end result was pretty thick. The jam was a gorgeous deep purple color and the bits of blue and red fruit were absolutely gorgeous in it. However, it’s noticable that there are fewer cherries than blueberries, something I’ll have to correct for next year.

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Notes

  1. Apparently my book learnin’ wasn’t good enough, because I got the ratios quite wrong.
  2. There’s noticeably more blueberries than cherries in the final result. This may be because the tender little cherries absorbed more color than the deep-blue blueberries lost. Next year, I’m thinking I’ll use 4 cups cherries, and a pint or a pint and a half of the blueberries. Maybe a little lemon zest too…
  3. I actually tried an experiment today. Instead of a normal boiling water bath canner, I used a tip from the internets and processed the jars in my new pressure canner. I’ve read two competing ideas. The first that I used was to boil in the pressure canner with the lid on (but the weighted pressure regulator off) with water filled up most of the height of the jars but not covering. In this configuration, I boiled for 15 minutes. The second suggestion, which I have not yet tried, is to pressure process like normal at 6 lbs of pressure for 10 minutes. I’ll try that next.


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Tomato Watch

The garden has been mostly uneventful for the past few weeks. We’re in a cycle waiting for the next thing to happen. Onions and garlic are getting close to harvest time, but those two crops are notoriously easy to care for and haven’t required any special effort and haven’t produced any surprises.

The real bit thing on our minds right now are the tomatoes. We’re waiting with bated breath (I am a master bater) for the first tomato to start forming. Our tomato plants are looking as healthy as can be and are covered with flowers, though temperatures have been a little low lately and we’ve been getting way too much rain. We have tons of flowers on the tomato plants, but no tomatoes, yet.

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In other news we have one tiny little pepper starting to form on one of our plants (I think it’s a green bell) and the various winter squash plants are starting to send out flowers. The first batch of flowers, of course, is all male. Our first blueberry has started turning blue and I’d expect several of them to start ripening within a week or two.

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Over the weekend the munchkin and I went out picking strawberries, but he lost interest after a fat minute and we came home with a disappointing haul. Sorry, no strawberry jam recipes for you!


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Blueberries Are Growing

Neither of my two cherry trees produced any flowers so far, and I don’t have high hopes that they will do so later (and you can’t have cherries without flowers first!). I don’t know if they were just so traumatized by the cross-country trip (by UPS, as god intended) or if they were so heavily pruned by the nursery that all the flowering buds had been removed. Both trees are leafing out well and are more or less healthy-looking, but they aren’t going to give us any fruit this year. Bummer.

The Blueberries, on the other hand, are kicking butt. Both of them flowered very well, and several small blueberries are starting to form:

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I was worried that the potting soil I used for these bushes wasn’t going to be acidic enough (blueberries LOVE acidic soil, it helps with absorbing iron and other nutrients into the roots, among other benefits). I have given both of them a hearty dose of a soluble fertilizer for acid-loving plants, and they seem to be growing, flowering and fruiting with no problems. I’ll give them another dose in a few weeks to boost them into the hot summer months.

My potato plants are looking healthy but aren’t growing very fast. I’m hoping that the warm weather will start having a beneficial impact on them as well. I’m making a few notes about things I would change for next year, but right now my only option is to watch and wait.


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Swollen Buds

Not a real post today, just posting some pictures of the various plants that are ready to burst with springy goodness. First, some of the largest buds on my blueberries are starting to burst:

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I was worried that my cherry trees were sick or dying, especially when they didn’t start budding out and blossoming with some of the other trees last week. However, the buds on my two little trees are swelling up and showing signs of life, even if it is a little later than expected:

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I know transplanting (and trans-continental shipping) are stressful on plants, and I know that the soil in my yard leaves something to be desired. I’m happy to see some signs of life, even if they are moving a little slowly. I don’t expect to get any cherries from these trees this year (or very very few), so as long as they stay alive and build up some good root growth this year I’ll be happy.

Finally, the potatoes in my buckets are starting to leaf out, which has me pretty excited:

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It’s a modest start, but it’s a portent of good things to come. With my tomatoes and peppers in the ground as well, we could be in for an awesome year of gardening shenanigans.