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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Onion Harvest and French Onion Soup

All the onions have been pulled up. Normal wisdom says that when you harvest the onions you should let them “cure” for a few days, to dry out the outer layer and help keep them stable through the winter months. For at least some of them I have a different plan in mind. Thanks to the wonderful pressure canner I got for Father’s Day, I’m going to put up a batch of French Onion Soup.

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I also have pulled up most of my garlic already, 2 small cloves and 4 larger ones. One garlic is still in the ground, stubbornly refusing to be ready. The garlic bulbs will be properly cured so they can keep for a little while. I don’t have any immediate plans for them.

Some of the onions are sitting outside to cure, in a shaded area with good ventilation. I cut their roots short, and then cut off the stems about an inch or more from the bulb. They’re going to sit like that, turned occasionally, for a few days. Hopefully, when this process is completed, the outer layers will be dry and papery, and the onions will be stable enough to keep for a few months (as if we will let them sit that long!).

Going into the soup are any onions which I don’t think are suitable for long-term storage:

  • Any onions which put up flowers
  • Any onions with damaged outer layers
  • Any onions which were too small to be worth saving
  • Any onions whose stems were damaged during harvest too close to the bulb

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Once rinsed and peeled, I’ve got a little over 4 quarts of chopped onions to make soup with. I’ve posted this recipe before so I won’t go into as much depth here. I’m only giving my specific measurements.

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French Onion Soup

  • 4.5 Quarts chopped onions
  • 4.5 Quarts low-sodium beef broth
  • 3 Medium cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Bay Leaves
  • 2 Cups Apple Cider
  • Olive Oil
  • Fresh cracked black pepper
  • 1tsp each dried thyme and rosemary

Add the onions to a large stock pot with enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan and black pepper to taste. Caramelize, stirring frequently, over medium heat. Once reduced and a deep golden brown color (NOT BLACK AND BURNED) add garlic, bay leaves, thyme and rosemary. Reduce apple cider by half. Add beef broth. Bring soup to a boil. Add bullion until the soup has a rich enough flavor. Add salt and additional black pepper, if needed.

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Ladle soup into prepared quart mason jars. Process in a pressure canner at 11 lbs for 20 minutes.

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See my earlier posts about the recipe in more detail, and about how to serve the soup once it’s been prepared.


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Garden Planting Complete

This post is a little bit delayed, but I have finally finished planting things in my garden. The last few seedlings were transplanted outdoors for the wonderful weather on Mother’s Day (minus a few last-minute changes). The weather was warm and absolutely perfect, so I figured it was as good a time as any to transplant out the last of my seedlings.

…And then there was a bunch of wind and the temperatures got down almost into the 30’s, so I had to rush out there and cover all the delicate little plants up for the night to keep them from frosting and getting killed. Maybe I should have waited? A coworker of mine lost all his pepper plants in the turbulent weather. Mine didn’t die, but some of them look like they’re hanging on for dear life. If they do die, I’ll run down to the garden store and pick up some replacements. For right now, however, it seems like disaster was narrowly averted.

The final garden breakdown looks something like this:

  • 14 Tomatoes. 4 Beefsteak (“Big Boy” and “Better Boy”), 10 of assorted plums or cherries (I’m not sure which are which)
  • 12 Peppers. 1 Tabasco, 1 Cherry Hot, 1 Cayanne, 1 orange bell, 8 assorted (pepperoncini, “California Wonder” bells and thai hots)
  • Onions.
  • Garlic.
  • 1 Butternut Squash
  • 2 Pumpkin
  • 2 Spaghetti Squash

Here’s the first bed, showing the tomato plants I started from seed. They’re growing like crazy, and I just finished putting down a mulch of cardboard and straw:

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Here’s the middle bed, showing my pepper plants (still caged in chicken wire to keep the varmints out), onions and garlic (and one little tomato plant, in the back-right):

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All my peppers are still alive but several of them are looking awfully scrawny and sickly. I’m hoping the warm weather and plenty of rain we’ve been getting will help to jostle them back. If not, if they’re going to do as bad as my from-seed attempts from last year, I’ll rip them out and replace them with already grown versions from the garden store.

Most of the garlic is growing huge, but a few little stragglers are not doing as well. See if you can tell the difference:

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Finally, my new bed has the four tomato plants we bought in gallon pots (so they were already pretty large) and my 5 squash plants. This one has also been generously mulched with cardboard and straw, and a few of the smaller-looking squashes have some cages around them as well for protection:

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One of my little squash seedlings died yesterday, but luckily I found a young squash plant of unknown variety growing in the compost pile (I suspect it’s a spaghetti squash, but time will tell!). After a quick switcheroo, nobody will ever know what happened.

 

To top it off, we finally bought a hose that’s long enough to reach all the garden beds, so I no longer have to stand several feet away and spray the hose on it’s highest setting to try and reach the really far away parts. I also don’t have to fill buckets with water, and carry them around to my cherry trees. Why didn’t I think of this sooner?

 


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First Onions Transplanted

I bought a 50 pack of onions (not including the few that sprouted in my pantry), but only brought the 16 biggest in to put under my grow light. About a dozen of the next largest ones were put into a pot outside. Most of the rest of them looked too small and pathetic to plant, so with my limited space in mind I carefully dumped them in the compost. It’s not something I wanted to do, but the logistics of the situation forced my hand. Why couldn’t the store sell something smaller than a 50 pack?

Last weekend I transplanted the first few onions, the dozen or so that had been in a pot outside, into my garden. I also transplanted the few onions which had sprouted in my pantry to the garden as well. Normally many gardeners like to “harden off” their plants (gradually expose them to the weather, to avoid shock) before transplanting, but I don’t really have enough space indoors for all these little sprouts and had to put them somewhere. The rest of my onions from inside were hardened off over a few days and were just transplanted outside.


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All told, I currently have about 24 onions planted in the garden, next to about 9 or 10 garlic plants of varying sizes which have been out there all winter long (and about a dozen potatoes, nearby in buckets).

The few garlic plants that survived the winter seem to be doing alright now:

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I plan to start hardening off some of my tomatoes and pepper plants in the coming weeks as well, with the goal being to have them in the ground around mid-April (weather permitting).


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Sprouted Potatoes and Onions

The popular wisdom in regards to potatoes and onions, when they’ve sprouted in your pantry, is that they are effectively spoiled or not worth eating. Both become sort of shrunken-looking. Sometimes they start feeling a little soft. In some cases (potatoes and garlic especially) the green parts can lead to a different flavor or less flavor overall. You may be tempted to just throw them away at this point and move onto something with fewer ambitions.

Potatoes and onions (and other taproots, tubers and alliums) represent stockpiles of chemical energy and nutrients for the plants. These plants store significant portions of their sugars, starches and nutrients in these vegetables underground to hedge against winter and drought. Later when conditions are better, these are powder kegs that can quickly explode into new plant life. I planted tomatoes and peppers a few weeks ago and the tallest of them is about 5 inches on it’s tip-toes. Over the course of maybe a week, one of my onions in the pantry sprouted and sent up shoots 5 inches or more, and sent out a whole clump of them. The mass of new green growth coming out of a single onion in 1 week was significantly more than the mass of a tomato growing for several weeks.

Because potatoes, onions and other root vegetables represent storehouses of chemical energy, you can often put those right in the ground and have new plants grow from them (and grow quickly!) The plant will grow, pulling it’s initial burst of energy from the sugars and starches stored in the root. As the plant gets bigger and the leaves start photosynthesizing, excess sugars and starches will be stored in a new generation of tubers and roots for the next season. Thus continues the circle of life.

In the pantry last weekend I found that several of our “Sweet Yellow” onions and several russet potatoes had sprouted and were well past the point where we would be trying to salvage and eat them. I already had some onions planted, but a few more in the garden can’t hurt anything. I had been planning to buy some seed potatoes, but now I don’t need to. If you know how to prepare them, you can plant both these things right in your garden (now is about the time to put them outdoors, if you’re brave enough).

Preparing and Planting Onions

Every onion layer grows up into a single stalk. New layers grow in the middle, pushing up new stalks through the center of the plant. When Onions are harvested and allowed to dry, the outer layers dehydrate and turn into the papery covering we’re all used to, in order to protect the tender inner layers.

To plant a sprouted onion, here are some steps to follow:

  1. Carefully remove the papery outer layers, careful not to damage any roots that are forming (notice that some roots may have started growing under the paper or even between other layers!)
  2. Carefully make incisions and remove remove any layer of the onion which is not currently sending up a viable shoot. Again, do your best not to damage the roots.
  3. As you remove the non-growing outer layers, eventually you’ll reach the live heart of the onion, small bulbs which are each sending up shoots. You may have one in the center, you may have several clustered inside like a bulb of garlic. If many, you may carefully separate them.
  4. Carefully plant these onion cores, sprouts up and roots down, in a pot or directly in your garden, no higher than the very top of the bulb (but make sure at least a teensy little bit of bulb is still sticking up above the dirt line).
  5. Water and care for them like normal.

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In this picture, the three closest pots contain my sprouted onions (I’ll bury them a little deeper when I get them into the garden in the next few days). The non-growing layers which you remove are probably perfectly edible. If they look plump and juicy to you, consider using them in food. Waste not, want not.

Preparing and Planting Potatoes

Like onions, the chemicals making up the mass of sprouts come out of the heart of the potato. The more sprouts the potato puts out, the more shrunken, shriveled, and deflated the potato will look. This has lead to a reputation, often undeserved, that potatoes which have sprouted are mushy and effectively inedible or unpalatable. This is probably not the case, but your mileage may vary. If you’re intent on eating them, snap off the sprouts, skin them, remove anything that feels mushy, and cook like normal.

If, on the other hand, you want to plant them, the process is extremely easy:

  1. Fingerling or little potatoes can be planted as-is without any kind of action taken on your part.
  2. Larger potatoes can be cut, to increase the number of plants you start with. Carefully and cleanly cut the potatoes so that each cut piece has at least 2 sprouting (or ready to sprout) eyes on it
  3. Some people suggest leaving the cut potatoes to dry out overnight or longer, to form a dry scab on the cut parts to keep diseases out. Other people say this is not necessary and the potato chunks can be planted as soon as you cut them. I left them out overnight because I didn’t have any place ready to plant them just yet.
  4. Plant the potatoes under an inch of good, fertile soil. There are many many strategies for growing potatoes in buckets, barrels, boxes, bags and other novel containers. Some of these strategies can produce significantly higher yields (in exchange for more materials needed and more effort on your part) than just planting them in the ground. I’ll leave you to do the research on those methods yourself.

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All told I ended up with 4 additional plantable onions and around a dozen chunks of potato ready to be planted. I’m not quite sure where I’m going to put these things because almost all of my garden space is already spoken for with the other plants I’m preparing to grow.


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Seedlings Rollcall

Dana was all like “What did you buy?” and I was all like “IDK LOL”.

I Dunno LOL

I Dunno LOL

Of course, I really did know, and I knew it was awesome.

Xander and I went down to Home Depot to buy some stuff for the last stages of our never-ending bathroom repair and remodel project. When we were at the store he wanted to go to the Lawn and Garden “Outside Part”. There I saw some of the first new plant seedlings for sale and quickly picked up a small Rosemary plant and a packet of 50 baby onion transplants.

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On our way to the cash register Xander mentioned the blueberries again. OKAY FINE I’LL BUY THEM. Twist my leg, whydoncha? Actually, the leg didn’t need much twisting. I also picked up a packet of pepperoncini pepper seeds. My current list of seedlings packed tightly in the small space under my grow light looks like this:

  • 17 tomato plants (6 Roma, 3 “Super 100 Hybrid” cherries, 3 “Redcurrant” cherries, and 5 others which are a mix of these and volunteers)
  • 4 “Long Thai Hot” hot peppers
  • 4 “California Wonder” bell peppers
  • 24 “Walla Walla” sweet yellow onions

Those pepperoncinis haven’t sprouted yet, but I could get up to 4 of them as well.

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Last year with my cowhorn and serrano peppers I made a lot of hot pepper vinegar, which is always a favorite addition to soups. You only need a spoonful of that stuff for almost any meal, and the quantity I made last summer is more than enough to get me through 2013 and into 2014 (even considering I gave the bulk away as gifts). This year with the Thai hot peppers and the garlic I planted I want to make some sriracha, and with the pepperoncini I want to make some pickled peppers for sandwiches and salads.

The 6 roma tomato plants serve one primary purpose: to be cooked down into tomato sauce. Sure, they’ll also be the bomb diggity in salsa, bruschetta, and sliced thick on hamburgers. This year if I can get a decent crop, I’m hoping to put up several big jars of sauce for the winter months. The cherry tomatoes I got, which both promise to be prolific varieties, are going to be mostly for fresh eating. If I get too many, I may try my hand at drying them out again (if I can buy or borrow a real dehydrator).


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French Onion Soup Part 2

In my last post I talked about French Onion Soup and gave my recipe for the soup broth. Today I’m going to talk about what to do with that broth once you’ve made a boatload of it.

Eat It

Of course you want to eat it. It’s delicious. Grab a bowl and a spoon and go crazy.

…Unless you want to do it right. That’s going to take a little bit more prep work.

Prepare It

Here’s what you’re going to need:

  1. Something bread-like. I like a loaf of french bread or a french baguette. I’ve also seen it done up with garlicky croutons if you’ve got those laying around.
  2. 1 clove of fresh garlic
  3. Good cheese (I use a sharp Provolone).

I’ve seen Mozzarella cheese used instead of the Provolone. But for my money I would always go with the Provolone. If you can find some that’s sharp and aged a year or more, even better.

So here’s how you prepare a great bowl of soup:

  1. Slice your bread into inch-thick slices (more or less to your liking). Get them toasted. You can do it in a toaster oven, you can do it with a big torch. I like to do it under the broiler. Keep in mind that un-toasted bread will soak up a lot of the broth and you’ll be left with really tasty bread mush. Toast it up good.
  2. Peel your garlic and chop off the end. Rub the toasted side of every piece of bread with the garlic to coat it with a fresh garlic flavor.
  3. Pour soup into oven-safe bowls. Float a piece of the bread on each (more if they’re small pieces). Cover each with a big slice or two of cheese.
  4. Put the bowls of soup on the cookie sheet, back in the over under the broiler.
  5. Once the cheese melts and gets a little bubbly, you’re done. Take it out, let it cool, open face, insert soup.
  6. Since you did a lot of work, somebody else can do the dishes. That melted cheese can be a real pain to scratch off.

Preserve it

If you’ve got a pressure canner, you can can put the soup into jars, can them, and they will be shelf stable for quite a while. Since the soup base is, effectively, beef broth with some flavorings, you can follow canning instructions for other broths. I don’t currently have a pressure canner (xmas gift hint!), but I would love to be able to put up a few quarts of this soup for a rainy day. At least 10lbs of pressure for 25 minutes should be more than enough to heat the soup through.

Keep in mind that the onions have already been cooked to hell and back. You don’t need to worry about them getting soggy or overcooked, because they’re already soggy and overcooked. When in doubt, throw another few minutes on the timer. You really can’t cook it too much at this point.

If you don’t have a canner, this broth will keep very well in the freezer or the fridge. I’ve got a few big glass containers with air-tight lids I use for exactly this purpose, but most plastic storage containers should work just fine.