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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Dried Tomatoes In Oil

My camera was on the fritz (it ran out of battery, and I was too lazy to find the charger), so this post and a few others have been on hold waiting for pictures.

I really want to call them “sundried”, because that word just rolls off the tongue a little bit easier than calling them “dehydrated tomatoes”. Then again, I’ve seen plenty of products at the grocery store with the phrase “sundried tomatoes!” painted across the front, but with an ingredient list that includes tomatoes dehydrated or freeze-dried using a variety of non-solar means. I wonder if it’s technically a lie to call a tomato “sundried” if you put them in a big industrial dehydrator which is connected to a big solar panel somewhere?

Regardless.

I made a big batch of dried tomatoes in my parent’s dehydrator. Last year when I made dried tomatoes, I put them in an air-tight container but they ended up growing mold anyway. This year, I decided I wanted to try a little harder and create something that would actually keep for a while. I created a recipe in the usual way: by finding a few popular recipes on the interwebz and using my complete lack of talent, expertise and imagination to cobble them together in the worst way possible.

Dehydrator Dried Tomatoes

  • Tomatoes
  • Salt and Pepper, to taste

Cut the tomatoes into chunks suitable for drying [1]. Squeeze out the excess liquid and arrange the pieces in a dehydrator. Sprinkle with salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste. Sprinkle with other herbs or flavoring ingredients as desired. Follow the instructions that came with your dehydrator to dry the tomatoes.

Most recipes I’ve seen call for a variety of herbs and other seasonings to be used. If you want, cool. I didn’t think it was necessary and the resulting tomatoes were perfect without anything else.

Dried Tomatoes In Oil

  • Dried Tomatoes
  • Olive Oil
  • Red Wine Vinegar

I didn’t put measurements because you don’t really need them.

In a medium-sized pot, put a sufficient quantity of oil. Bring the oil up to boiling temperature [2]. Remove from heat.

Start with about a cup of red wine vinegar in a separate small pot and bring to a boil. Once the vinegar has boiled, remove from heat. Using a handful at a time, dunk the tomatoes into the vinegar, shake off the excess vinegar, and put the tomatoes into a prepared, sterilized jar. Be careful not to pack them too tightly.

Fill each jar to within 1/2 inch with the heated oil. Put on a sterilized lid and process the jars in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes (for half-pints) [3].

Results

I was a little apprehensive about these, just because nobody on the internet can give me a definitive answer about whether this recipe is safe or not. When I opened up the first jar, a few weeks after they were canned, I was pleasantly surprised. There was nothing visibly amiss, and the contents smelled exactly like they did when they went in: olive oil and tomatoes. The flavor was fantastic: sweet with a little tang and a great tomato flavor. I didn’t use any herbs, garlic or other seasoning, so it’s hard to compare my version with the store-bought varieties, but they were very tasty.

They were a little softer coming out than they were going in. Not a lot, but definitely softer. If your dehydrated tomatoes are a little bit too hard and you think they won’t work, you may be surprised.

Most other recipes I’ve seen call for a variety of dried herbs and garlic to further season the result. I didn’t think it was necessary and when I eat these bad boys I don’t think anything is missing. One day I may try some garlic and dried basil, but this is not that day.

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We (my wife) decided to chop a few of them up and use them over some cheese tortellini. I chopped a few of these tomatoes, and we added them to the tortellini with a cube of frozen basil, some butter, some grated Parmesan cheese and some fresh ground black pepper. The resulting pasta was very good indeed.

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Notes

  1. With cherry tomatoes, I cut them in half. With average-sized plum tomatoes I’ve cut them into quarters. Larger tomatoes are going to need more cuts. I’ve had trouble with the skin of plum tomatoes preventing the backside from drying out evenly. Some sources recommend you skin the tomatoes before you dehydrate them. I think that’s too much effort. In the future I may try scoring or puncturing the tomato skins to help the liquid escape more easily.
  2. Oil doesn’t boil at the same temperature that water does, so you can get oil very very very hot before you see any visible changes (and it will probably be smoke, instead of bubbles). Heat the oil over medium heat until small drops of water dripped into the pan cause a “pop”, not a violent explosion. If it explodes violently, you’ve gone too far. Also, keep your face away from the pan while you do this.
  3. In theory, this recipe should be mostly safe. The oil and boiling water processing should keep most bacteria and other pathogens out, and the vinegar should be sufficient to keep botulism at bay. However, I have not yet seen any actual scientific proof that this is a safe and reliable method. Use at your own risk, and given the choice make sure to err on the side of caution. If you attempt this and it goes south for you, you never met me I don’t know you.


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July 11 Garden Update

The garden is just humming along right now, and we’re getting tantalizingly close to harvest time for some of the goodies. It’s amazing how much better things are going this year than last year. I heard a report on the news yesterday that late blight has been confirmed across the river in New Jersey, but I’m hoping that a few days of westerly winds and dry heat will help keep my little plants safe.

If things continue the way they’re going now, our tomato plants are primed to give us a monster crop. I took a quick count of tomatoes that are currently growing, and have these numbers:

  • About 55 Slicer Tomatoes (“Big Boy” and “Better Boy”) on 4 plants
  • Over 150 plum tomatoes on 6 plants
  • more cherry tomatoes than I can reasonably count

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Not all of them will become ripe at the same time, of course, so we will avoid a major flood, but there are still going to be enough for us to play with in the months ahead. I’m thinking about putting up a few quart jars of tomato sauce, and maybe dehydrate a few too. I’m not super interested in canning salsa or bruschetta again, but if volume gets high enough we’ll have to consider it.

I can already see 2 little cherry tomatoes turning orange and red. I’ll pull those in soon and we’ll just eat them raw while their siblings ripen up.

We have three large spaghetti squash forming already, which is awesome. However, I haven’t yet seen anything that looks like a butternut squash or a pumpkin. Considering that the plants are right next to each other, in the same soil, with the same watering schedule, I can’t figure out why the spaghetti squash are so far along and everything else isn’t. Maybe I just can’t see them under all the vines and dense foliage. Maybe I just have to be a little bit more patient.

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Peppers are doing well. I have two large bell peppers (one “California Wonder” and one “Orange Bell”). A few more teensy little ones are set on other plants. I have two large cayenne peppers, and a large cherry pepper just starting to change color. There are a handful of small, narrow “Thai Long Hot” peppers starting to grow, and one tiny yellow “Tabasco” pepper, sticking straight up off the top of the plant.

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The last garlic plant finally got ready. They say you’re supposed to wait for a dry spell to pull garlic, so it cures more quickly and is less prone to disease, but the string of rainy days seemed endless so I pulled it anyway. In total I have 6 garlic cloves just waiting to be used. They’re resting with my remaining onions (3 large and 8 medium, the small and weird ones went into soup). I’m already looking forward to buying some new garlic to plant this autumn.

Blueberries are almost completely done. The last few stragglers have been getting nabbed by the birds as soon as they turn blue, so we’re done with them for the season. The harvest this year was small but rewarding. I hope they’ll really do well. Maybe, if Dana hasn’t killed me by then, I’ll pick up a third plant.

Potatoes are limping along. A few of the plants are starting to take off, but several of them seem like they’re just giving up and rolling over to die. My hopes were never particularly high for them, and I really don’t expect to be getting anything out of them this year. Next year, maybe, I’ll do some better planning and try for a better crop.


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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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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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Gardens Planted

It’s April 15th, you know what that means! Oh wait, you’re probably thinking about tax day instead of the average last frost day in zone 7. If you haven’t thought about taxes yet HOLY CRAP GET STARTED ON THOSE BECAUSE THEY ARE DUE TOMORROW. But, if you’re like me and taxes are done already, you can start concentrating on the important stuff: transplanting my seedlings.

Yesterday I picked up a few bags of last-minute soil amendments: 2 bags of lobster compost (for the tomatoes), two bags of a compost and composted manure mix, and two bags of composted humus. Those got mixed in yesterday, and then I put my tomatoes out for a long day of hardening off.

Last night my tomatoes and peppers spent their first night outdoors. This morning they were all looking healthy and happy, so after checking the extended weather forecast I decided today was the day to transplant. First, I put all the peppers into the right bed with the garlic and onions. All told, there were 12 peppers: 5 “Sweet California Wonder” green  bells, 5 “Long Thai” hots, and 2 “Pepperoncini”. They’ve all gotten shuffled up in the last few weeks of moving in and out, so I don’t know which are which. Here’s the garden with the peppers on the left side, the onions towards the middle and the large garlic plants on the far right:

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In the far back left corner I had some extra space so I jammed in another tomato plant. When transplanting the peppers I pinched off all the “seed leaves” (cotyledons) and planted the peppers a little bit deeply. I don’t think pepper plants put off advantageous roots from buried parts of the stem like tomatoes do, but some of them had gotten a little leggy so the added support would be good in any case.

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Next I put in 9 of my biggest, healthiest-looking tomatoes in the left bed:

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At the far edges of the picture you can see some large tree branches I’ve stood up, as a start of a trellis system for the bed. Eventually I’ll run some lines between these to help support the growing tomatoes (either in lieu of, or in addition to, normal cages). For the tomatoes I pinched off some of the lower branches, especially some of the smaller or creepier ones (some early leaves seemed to have gotten “burned” by being too close to my lights). I planted these as deeply as I could manage, while still keeping the leaves up out of the soil.

I planted three varieties of tomatoes, though they had gotten mixed up almost immediately after sprouting (some of the little planter cells sprouted more than one plant, so I carefully transplanted duplicates to empty cells wherever they fit).

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The only ones I seem to know with any certainty are the Redcurrant cherry tomatoes, which have a distinct look from the other two varieties (Roma and “Super Sweet 100” cherries).

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In total, 10 tomato plants have gone into the ground already, and I’m hoping I got a good mix of the three varieties. I have 7 plants left, including some which look particularly sickly, but are still hanging on to life and may yet surprise. I’m not sure whether I want to try and find a place to plant these, or find them a good adoptive home instead.

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With the two garden beds full, the 2013 growing season has finally kicked into high gear. I can’t wait till we start seeing some results.