Archive for the ‘Food News’ Category

Garlic cloves shoved into a grid in the prepped bed

Garlic cloves shoved into a grid in the prepped bed

Two days ago, I planted half of the hardneck garlic I intend to put in this year. I had chosen a bed that hadn’t held any last season and yanked out the desiccated tomato plants (we picked our last green ones, which are turning red on the porch as I write, about five days ago) and the defunct peppers. Loosened the soil with a fork, weeded what needed to be weeded and planted the cloves that I’d chosen from among the largest bulbs I’d grown this past year.

Since I first learned about hardneck garlic from Colchester CSA manager and grower, Theresa Mycek, probably ten years ago, and started planting it in my own garden, I’ve come to depend on it. Hardneck garlic is terrific because it’s delicious, beautiful (those tall green tops with the curlicue scapes are such a nice visual counterpoint to the clumpy greens and beans), and like a culinary Double-mint gum: it’s two, two, two garlics in one.

The first one is the scape.

Scapes before clipping off arrowhead tip

Scapes before clipping off arrowhead tip

Wait; let me back up a little. First, sometime in late-October through November, you sit outside on a nice autumn day, separate garlic bulbs into cloves and plant the cloves about 8 inches apart – I plant in a grid, others do it in rows – in a prepared bed. Tuck them in gently beneath straw or some other light but effective mulch. In spring when the earth wakes up, the green shoots start coming through the mulch. In about May, you notice that the shoots have grown rather tall – knee high at least. In maybe mid-June, when the tall stiff shoots have continued to grow and are now curled around themselves a bit (i.e. turned into true scapes), you clip or break them off – it’s kinda like asparagus; you snap them where they are happy to be snapped – bring them in and cook them any one of a number of ways. We sometimes tempura them, or grill them for a great snack/ hors d’oeuvre/side dish, chop them into omelets, sauté them with other veggies, quick-pickle them in the fridge in a vinegar-and-herb-and-peppercorn bath or hang them by the kitchen door to ward off vampires. Whatever.

Hardneck bulbs - notice the central hard neck

Hardneck bulbs – notice the central hard neck


Siberian, Russian Giant, Music and Keith's Garlic cloves

Siberian, Russian Giant, Music and Keith’s Garlic cloves

In July-ish, when the green tops have browned and died back sufficiently, you dig – or pull, depending on how soft the bed is – the now cloved-up bulbs, wipe off the earth, and hang them up to dry. (I clump them in bunches of about 6-8 bulbs and hang them on the back porch). Then you use them. They go into the spaghetti sauce I can during tomato-and-pepper harvest, into chicken cacciatore (which is ONLY truly delicious when made in season with fresh garlic, fresh basil and fresh parsley plucked only a few minutes before chopping into the red-wine-soaked braising liquid), into the oven to spread on homemade bread with good olive oil, into salad dressings, well, you get the idea. But if you’ve planned right and the fates have shined on you and your little bed of hardneck garlic, you will also have enough to save, separate into cloves and plant to continue the whole cycle. The miracle of gardening and life perpetuating itself.

This year, I prepped one bed, but the second bed I wanted to plant was a knotted thicket of wire grass, wild aster, which has determined root systems, and the bind weed just to put a topping on it all. My husband volunteered to dig it all for me, bless him, so this afternoon I’m going to sit outside with the dog, separate six more garlic bulbs into cloves and plant that bed.


Scapes beginning in late April-May

When I’m in prayer position on my knees stuffing the cloves – or anything for that matter – into the ground, I think about a little garden plaque a friend gave me years ago that said: Who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits to see believes in God. It’s an acknowledgement that while we can become really good gardeners, we are all at the mercy of so many other elements in life beyond our own control. But I have faith. And I keep on planting.


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Unknown     When I first heard of grafted tomato plants, I thought: Grafting? Of annuals? Really? Grafting woody perennials, yes. The time, attention and effort required to produce a successful graft rewards us with years of fruit (trees) and/or beauty (think: roses). But all that work for the tender stems of tomato plants that only last a season? Yet grafted tomatoes, watermelon, cucumber, eggplant, and peppers are catching on worldwide — and for good reason.

Grafting joins two plants of the same species but different varieties to create one plant. It’s designed to be a marriage of strengths – usually disease resistant roots (stock) wedded to a top cutting (scion) of a less disease-resistant but more appealing variety, for example vigorous Maxifort tomato root stock joined to the scion of luscious heirloom Tangerine tomatoes.

The process of grafting annual vegetable plants is theoretically simple. Take a plant with a strong rootstock, slice off its green top at an angle then slice through the stem of the desired top-growth plant (scion) cutting off its roots. Mate the sliced ends of the two plants and clip them together until the slice heals.

Grafting Tomato plants

Grafting Tomato plants

“The plant can begin to draw nutrients within 10 seconds,” says Peter Zuck, vegetable product manager at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, ME, which sells grafted plants, “but the after care of the newly joined seedling is critical.”

As soon as the graft is made, plants must be kept at just the right temperature (70-74F) and humidity (80%-90%) and remain in low light to prevent top growth while the graft heals completely.

“Some people incorrectly think of it as similar to genetic engineering,” says John Bagnasco, managing partner at SuperNaturals Grafted Vegetables in Vista, CA, “but it’s not at all.”

Unknown-2Grafting has been a horticultural practice for centuries. The Bible mentions grafting olive trees in the book of Romans. The Chinese grafted the strong roots of wild tree peonies to their favorite cultivated stems in the 9th century.* But grafted annual vegetables and fruits are a relatively recent addition to the horticultural pantheon.

“The Japanese began grafting them about thirty years ago,” says Bagnasco, who notes that Japan struggles with depleted, disease-prone, and challenging soils. “They have to graft to get

them to grow.”

Additionally, the 1997 Kyoto Protocols, which outlawed methol bromide used to control soil-borne fungal, bacterial and viral diseases, prompted an upsurge in the use of grafted annuals among its 197 signers, who needed an effective alternative to the pesticide.

Cut the stems of root stock and graft at exactly the same angle

Cut the stems of root stock and graft at exactly the same angle

“Almost 100% of the watermelons grown in Mexico are grafted now,” says Zuck.

In 2011, it was estimated that 1 billion grafted fruiting annuals were sold worldwide. In 2015, the number was 1.5 billion.

“Most were watermelon plants and most were sold in China,” says Bragnasco.

In addition to disease-resistance, the grafted plants tend to stand up to the kinds of climatic and regional stressors — soil salinity, temperature extremes, short seasons, and lower light — that can doom a vegetable garden, especially that succulent emblem of summer: tomatoes.

“Tomatoes don’t care for the broiling hot weather we have in summers around here,” says John Campbell of Annapolis, MD. Campbell has been growing grafted tomatoes in his home garden for ten years. “If the weather stays above 90 degrees for more than five days, they slow up on production. What I have found is that the grafted tomatoes suffer through this rotten summer weather with no problems, and I have not had any problems with disease.”

Tomato graft held in place with a graft clip

Tomato graft held in place with a graft clip

In addition to withstanding stressors, grafted vegetable plants can produce well despite less than optimal light. Most vegetables require six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day to fruit well.

“I had a small lot in Belfast [ME] with mature trees,” says Zuck. The tomatoes got about five hours of direct sun coupled with dappled sunlight and shade the rest of the day. “I found that the grafted plants helped me overcome that. They were much bigger and more productive than the non-grafted plants.”

“The plants produce anywhere from twice to three times the fruit, and they are exceedingly hardy,” says Campbell.

Another advantage for the home gardener with limited space is that grafting bypasses the need to rotate crops, a common practice used to avoid recurring soil-borne problems. Although grafted vegetable plants are obviously more expensive than non-grafted, for many home gardeners it’s worth it.


* An Illustrated History of Gardening, by Anthony Huxley, Lyons Press, 1978.



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Early peas and cabbage

Early peas and cabbage

It’s slightly more complicated than your fourth grade biology project, but a whole lot more rewarding: starting your own garden plants from seed indoors.

“It’s a lot of fun,” says veteran gardener Tina Beneman. “There’s nothing more exciting than seeing the seeds sprout, especially when everything outside is dormant and gray.”

For years Beneman has been starting seeds for everything from vegetables to annuals and perennials. One reason is cost. “I love abundance but the cost a packet of seeds versus what you’d pay to buy the plants is incredible.”

Starting your own offers a much broader choice of varieties too. Though garden centers are rapidly expanding their plant and seed varieties, few will offer things like fluted Costoluto Genovese Tomato, Bolivian Rainbow Pepper, or Ragged Robin ‘Jenny’ (Lychniss flos-cuculi), a retrieved Elizabethan favorite whose blossoms are a scrim of tattered pink pompoms.

“When you get the seed and start plants yourself, you can get exactly the varieties that you want,” says Mark Willis, vegetable seed production manager at Harris Seeds in Rochester, NY.

Catalogues, whose jewel-like photos beckon with promises of gorgeous summer gardens and marvelous meals, offer a fantastic range of choices. In addition, many also offer recipes, generations-old garden wisdom, and mini-portraits of vegies, flowers, and herbs, including plant history, seed provenance, taste and hints on cultivation. Yet the wealth of choices can be overwhelming. To winnow, consider what you really want in your garden and on your table.

Heirloom tomatoes just waiting for meals

Heirloom tomatoes just waiting for meals

“We can get a lot more variety through local farmers’ markets now,” notes Ellen Ogden, former owner of The Cook’s Garden in Warminster, PA. “So I chose what to plant [at home] based on what I like to cook and can’t get at the local farmer’s market [or supermarket].”

In addition to salad greens and annual herbs for daily harvest, Ogden always plants Sungold Tomatoes, which can be hard to find in garden centers, and Bright Lights Swiss Chard, which is beautiful, delicious, and produces for months.

Rainbow Swiss Chard, courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

Rainbow Swiss Chard, courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

“You can also choose what to plant based on your garden size, location, and soil type,” says Erica Renaud, home gardener and research farmer at Seeds of Change. A north-facing garden will do better with spinach and salad greens than with sun-worshipers like eggplant, basil, tomatoes and squash. Soil type matters too. “Carrots grown in the clay soil I had when I lived in Ohio just didn’t taste good,” says Renaud.

“It’s a good idea to check with your extension service to find out what varieties do best here and what ones not to plant,” suggests Cindy King, horticulturist at Kingstown Farm Home and Garden Center in Chestertown, MD.

“We’re so lucky in Maryland. All the tomatoes grow well,” says Jon Traunfeld of the MD Cooperative Extension Service. Even so, Traunfeld has some favorites: Amish Paste and San Remo paste for sauce. Celebrity, a good all-round tomato whose plants grow a manageable 4-5 feet tall, Rutgers, Jetstar and Big Beef are good slicers. In heirlooms, he recommends the early-fruiting Russians — Black Krim and Black Tula.

“Prudence Purple is like Brandywine but seems to produce better than Brandywine,” he says. “And we’ve had really good luck with Golden Queen, a yellow tomato from Landis Valley Farm Museum in Lancaster Co. It’s smooth, doesn’t crack and has really good flavor.”

Traunfeld says all eggplant varieties do equally well here in Maryland, but recommends the Italian frying peppers over the bells, which take longer to ripen and don’t produce as prolifically as the Italians. The Italian frying peppers are also beautiful.

Pingtung-long eggplant courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

Pingtung-long eggplant courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

“They come in different colors when ripe,” he says. “And they have very

thin skin not like the thicker skin of the bells.” Marconi and Corno di toro (bull‘s horn) peppers are trusted favorites.

In choosing what to try starting from seed, consider production factors, too. If you have limited indoor growing space as well as limited garden space, you may want to forego the Brassicas [broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts], which take lots of room and produce lots less food per plant than tomatoes and peppers, which keep coming and coming. And remember: something old; something new works for the garden too.

“I always try a little something new to keep experimenting both in the garden and in the kitchen,” says Renaud.

Start peppers, which are slow to germinate and grow indoors, 10-12 weeks from when you plan to set them out about mid-May.

“Start eggplant maybe 10 weeks before you put them out,” advises Traunfeld. “And tomatoes only need about 6 weeks.”

“I’ve learned a lot about plants just by starting seed indoors and watching them grow,” says Beneman. “You get an intuitive understanding about what they need. And you don’t have to contend with rabbits and deer and other attackers – at least until you put them in the ground!”

Catalogue Sources for Seeds

(Some also have seed starting supplies).

Seed Savers Exchange, 3094 North Winn Rd., Decorah, IA 52101, 563-382-5990



Harris Seeds, 355 Paul Rd., P.O. Box 24966, Rochester, NY 14624-0966, 800-544-7938



Seeds of Change, P.O. Box 4908, Rancho Dominguez, CA 90220, 888-762-7333



Select Seeds, 180 Stickney Hill Rd., Union CT 06076-4617, 800-684-0395



Burpee, Warminster, PA 18974, 800-888-1447


Early peas and cabbage

Early peas and cabbage


Seed Starting

The best way to grow the exact varieties you want is to start your own transplants from seed indoors. Equipment can range from the simple (small tabletop germination station at $20) to a major investment. Regardless of scale, there are four keys to success.

“Start with a good quality seed starting mix,” says Mark Willis, vegetable seed production manager at Harris Seeds in Rochester, NY. Some mixes are sterile to prevent inadvertent disease and bacteria infestations. Others include micro-nutrients provided by worm castings and mealworm guano. Also make sure containers are sterile.

Tomatoes seeded March 15 last year (2015)

Tomatoes seeded March 15 last year (2015)

To germinate well, seeds need bottom heat, which can be supplied by the top of the frig or a heat mat. Once seedlings have popped through, unplug the mat.<

Light is critical for sturdy transplants.

“You want at least 10-12 hours of direct natural light,” says Willis, “or supplement with full spectrum florescent lights.” Artificial light should stay within two inches of plant tops. If light is weak, or too far away, seedlings will ‘stretch’ (grow tall and weak-stemmed).

Seedlings need to be kept just-moist, never sodden. Too much moisture will cause tender plants to rot and die off.

Finally, plant early but not too early. “You have to calculate backwards from the outdoor planting date so you’re not trying to hold transplants in the house too long,” says Thierer. “We have handouts to tell when to plant which seeds, when to start hardening them off and when to plant out.”


Gardens Alive!

5100 Schenley Place, Lawrenceburg, IN 47025, 513-354-1482


This place has the best seed starting mix I’ve ever tried.


Maryland Local Garden Centers

seeds and seed starting supplies:

Behnke Nurseries, 11300 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville, MD 20705, 301-937-1100


They also have a month-by-month to-do list for gardeners


Valley View Farms, 11035 York Rd., Cockeysville, MD, 410-527-0700



Kingsdene Nurseries and Garden Center, 16435 York Rd., Monkton, MD 21111, 410-343-1150



Homestead Gardens, 743 W. Central Ave., Davidsonville, MD, 410-798-5000



Kingstown Farm, Home, and Garden Center, 7121 Church Hill Rd., Chestertown, MD 21620,

410-778-1551, kingstown farm home and garden

  • This article first appeared in The Baltimore Sun

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Bad photo of stocked pantry

Darkish photo of stocked pantry

One of the reasons I love to can is the bounty you end up with in the dead of winter. As long as there are jars of last year’s produce safely tucked away on the pantry shelves, I feel safe (smug even) when the weatherman starts talking about Snowmageddon and urges everyone to rush out to stores. I must admit, I made sure the wine and chocolate were sufficient to a few days’ cabin fever – but otherwise, we were pretty much good to go with what I had stockpiled from last year’s garden.

I know a lot of people don’t can tomatoes – they freeze them instead. But I do both – partly for space (only so much on the pantry shelves, only so much in the freezer) and partly for flavor and convenience of use. I like the flavor of canned tomatoes and you don’t have to thaw them. I can quart and pint jars of tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, salsa V-8 (or my equivalent) and Bloody Mary mix, which is just as delicious in soup as in vodka.

Pantry produce for the soup pot

Pantry produce for the soup pot

There are pickled dilly green beans, which are nice when someone stops in for cocktails – also one of the imperatives when someone slogs through snow or mud to come visit because they’re going nuts at home after several days of shoveling. There are also dried herbs – oregano is particularly easy as is thyme and they taste so much fresher and more flavorful if you do it yourself – and dried beans – calypso beans and tiger’s eye, which I particularly like. (My husband very sweetly shells them out in the evening in late fall).

Sauteed leeks, onions and celery for tomato white wine soup

Sauteed leeks, onions and celery for tomato white wine soup

To complement these home-grown and home-canned things, I stock other dried peas, beans and lentils and tins of things like sardines and tuna, chipotle peppers, and anchovies.There are jars of bread and butter pickles (which is lovely on a tuna melt to say nothing of with chicken sausage or turkey sandwiches or just out of the jar for a sweet-sour snack), pickled lemon peppers for adding to virtually anything needing a little kick, and lemon peppers in sherry for black bean soup, curried red pepper jelly (a great hostess gift when you’re rushing out the door to a party your forgot you were invited to) and great on goat cheese and crackers or mixed into venison stew. There’s raspberry jam, raspberry shrub and raspberry vinegar.  Tomato bullion, a spicy mix of tomatoes, onions, black pepper, a little brown sugar and celery seed is called Ma Comp’s Soup Seasoning in Maryland’s Way Cookbook. A couple of tablespoons in a mug of hot water is a delicious and quick mid-morning pick-me-up.

Tomato white wine soup about to simmer

Tomato white wine soup about to simmer

I freeze a lot of things too, and not just the things that aren’t safe to can in a water bath. Last year I had plenty of tomatoes and peppers and so sautéed a kind of quick sofrito, a tomato-pepper-onion seasoning you can pull out and throw into a frying pan full of chicken or chorizo and rice with a little white wine and have supper in no time flat. I also did something I saw on TV years ago – put about four large tomatoes and one big onion into a Dutch oven with about 2-3 tablespoons of melted butter and let the whole thing simmer on the lowest possible heat until it’s all soft. Maybe 35 minutes. Puree it, cool it and stick it in the freezer in a quart bag or container. Pull it out to make a quick vodka sauce for pasta, or in my case, use it as the very quick base for red pepper soup. I happened to find three beautiful fresh red peppers (when I went back out to the grocery story AFTER everyone had picked the shelves pretty clean), chopped them up, threw them with three cloves of chopped garlic into a pot of that tomato-onion-butter base along with a chicken bullion cube and voila! Soup!

Tomato-and-onion soup base

Tomato-and-onion soup base

Why am I gloating? (AM I gloating?  I like to think of it as encouragement). Because NOW is the best time to start planning what you can plant to have a full pantry next winter, when Snowmageddon 2017 comes. The seed catalogues are here now, you can look with starry-eyed wonder at the perfect garden that you will plant (in your dreams), and you might be looking around your pantry – or whatever shelves or storage you have for what they could hold. (Marisa in Philly keeps hers in the closet along with her shoes).

Having a stocked pantry, or closet or whatever is like money in the bank.

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Gadzukes zucchini in garden

Gadzukes zucchini in garden

This is for Bonnie, who asked for the recipe after I mentioned it on Midday with Dan Rodricks a couple of days ago.  sorry I don’t have a picture of the finished product for you, (I’m currently thinking about ice latte for breakfast), but if I did, it would be little pancake-y things browned with the shredded green rinds of the zukes apparent throughout and dolloped with a bit of creamy adobo sauce.  Hope this helps, Bonnie!


Zucchini Latkes with Chipotle Sauce

2 medium zucchini, grated

¼ cup grated onion

2 serrano peppers, finely chopped (seeds removed if you like less heat)

¼ cup finely chopped sweet pepper

1 cup fresh chopped herbs, any you fancy- I usually use lots of lime basil, lemon basil, cilantro, oregano, parsley, a little dill and a single sage leaf

1 tblsp Adobo seasoning

freshly ground pepper

1-2 tsp chili powder

½ tsp cumin

1-2 tsp paprika (Spanish, sweet, or smoked paprika are all nice in this)

1/3 cup flour

3 tsp baking powder

1 large or 2 small eggs

For sauce:

Mix ½ cup mayonnaise with 2-3 finely chopped tinned chipotles in adobo sauce (along with some of the adobo sauce), a squeeze of tomato paste from the tube or a teaspoon of tomato paste from a tin, and the juice of half a lime.

3 tblsp canola or other frying oil.

Chop herbs and peppers and grate the onion then grate the zucchini last to keep it from getting watery. Mix the vegetables, herbs, and seasonings together. Add the flour and baking powder with a fork to mix it well, but quickly so you don’t build up the gluten in the flour. Beat eggs a little (like for scrambled) then add and mix in so you have something like a thick, veg-filled batter. Heat oil until shimmering hot in a frying pan. (I use my grandmother’s old iron skillet). With a dessert spoon or tablespoon, carefully add a big mound of zucchini batter to the pan, and gently pat it down into a pancake. Repeat. Fry on medium-high heat until golden brown on one side and starting to puff, flip over and cook until puffed and golden brown on the second side. Remove and drain on paper towels.

Serve with a dollop of sauce on top.

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I’ve done it again. Or rather, I’ve not done it – AGAIN! Taken pictures of food. We grow, harvest, cook and eat, but always, in the midst of wine and men and women, and laughter and conversation, I forget to get the digital camera out and record it for posterity, or at least for Grow It Eat It. Sorry. HOWEVER, I do have a great recipe to share that I made from our compost-heap-produced heirloom French cheese pumpkins (blog post 10/2/13):

Unknown Pumpkin Brluee Pie. Ive got a link incorporated, so you can get a visual (which is actually very similar to what would have been our visual had I had the camera and just a little less chardonnay).


The recipe that the link links to is bruleed pumpkin bourbon maple pie, which is slightly different from what I made, but I’ve noted what I did below. In any case, it’s really all very easy, and such fun – candlelight, good company (audience) and a Bernz-o-matic blow torch – what more can you ask from Thanksgiving dinner?

Some of the Pumpkin Harvest

Some of the Pumpkin Harvest

The pie (as I do it) starts with an heirloom French cheese pumpkin (Curcurbita moschata). Cut one in half, which, depending on size, usually requires a hefty knife and some elbow grease  (be careful, you have to be patient and keep working it side to side to get all the way through without slipping and cutting off vital bits of yourself). Scoop out the seeds, which you can save and replant next year or put in the compost for a shot at next year’s serendipitous growth. Turn the halves cut-side down to on a high-sided baking sheet (there will be a fair amount of moisture sloshing around when it’s finished cooking and you don’t want it sloshing all over the bottom of the oven).  Roast at 350F for anywhere from 50 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on size. It should be soft to the touch. Cool enough to handle and scoop out all of the flesh into a sieve over a bowl to let it drain. (Have a cup of tea or read a magazine for about 15 minutes while it’s doing this). Once the roasted pulp has drained, put it into a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Or you can use elbow grease again and do it by hand with a masher followed by a whip as though you were whipping cream to get the pulp really smooth. Then use the pulp as you would canned pumpkin. This sounds like a lot of work, but it’s not nearly so labor intensive as all these words make it sound and the result is MUCH more flavorful than canned. Working time is about 15 minutes total.).

 Now for the recipe:

 You can easily use the recipe in the link. I only use it as a guide and make alterations. For example, I don’t do chocolate crust, which sounds revolting to me (but maybe that’s just me), and instead pre-bake a regular pie crust so it will be completely crispy and done all the way through instead of doughy-and-disgustingly uncooked on the bottom, which is what usually happens when you throw pumpkin filling into an uncooked shell.

 For The Filling: Mix 1 ½ cups of the roasted pureed pumpkin with 3 eggs,  ¾ cup brown sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp powdered ginger and about ¼ tsp nutmeg, ¼ cup bourbon, and about ¼ cup whipping cream. I throw it all into the food processor, which makes it easy and you don’t even have to clean the machine between pureeing the pumpkin and mixing the filling.  Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake at 325 for nearly an hour or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean (as you do with custard).

 Now for the fun part:

Spread about 1/3-1/2 cup demerara sugar evenly overtop the slightly cooled pie (give it about 30-45 minutes out of the oven).  Then take the pie and the Bernz-o-matic, which you entrust to a reliable (sober) person to the table. In my case, our sober reliable person was our grown son who promised not to brulee anything besides the pie (and didn’t).

 To Brulee:

Light the Bernz-o-matice, adjust to medium low, and pass the flame over the sugar. Don’t let it linger too long on one spot and continue until the entire top is a melted and has turned into a crusted golden-bronze glaze of sugar. Dramatic and delicious. Cut with a sharp knife and serve with whipped cream. Ooohs and aaahs ensue.

And it all started from the lowly compost.

Cheese Pumpkin beneath a pine tree

Cheese Pumpkin beneath a pine tree

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Pumpkin Vines in the Compost

Pumpkin Vines in the Compost

I love compost. I do. It’s rich, dark, earthy-smelling and gives me a sense of being part of the cycle of life. It’s a great addition to the garden beds, but it’s also, often, another inadvertent growing medium – as it was for us this summer.

Last fall, I bought two Long Island Cheese pumpkins (Curcurbita moschata) aka Cinderella pumpkins. They are good keepers, especially if you manage to keep them in a steadily cool place – not quite as good as those rock-hard Blue Hubbards, which I’ve had last nearly nine months and still going strong when I finally took a hatchet to them to cook. Even so, cheese pumpkins in a cool place are usually good keepers — they not only last, but retain a big percentage of their glorious nutrients for months.

I made pumpkin butter out of one of the two cheese pumpkins in December last year and gave some to Dave, who gave me his aunt’s recipe. The other pumpkin, which stayed on a shelf in the cool porch just outside the kitchen, I enjoyed just looking at each time I came in. It was beautiful, smooth-skinned, a lovely peachy orange, and shaped like Cinderella’s coach. Decorative.

Cheese Pumpkin beneath a pine tree

Cheese Pumpkin beneath a pine tree

The day I planned to cook it though, I went to pick it up and discovered it had been quietly decomposing from the bottom up.  Ick. I slid it onto a cookie sheet, walked it out to the compost heap on one side of the yard, laid it down gently and forgot about it. Until about June, when I noticed that a few squash plants had started themselves there. I was hoping the vines would turn out to be an Iranian squash and maybe a long-necked pumpkin, both of which I had grown the year before from seed I had saved from those varieties I had bought from a farmer the year before that. But whatever.

I let the plants go; the vines got mowed around – the mower having to take a wider and wider swathe as they spread out into our yard and into the corn field on the other side of the fence – and I watched as the blossoms started along who knows how many plants.

In August, we began to see the fruits. No Iranian squash, which are great, by the way, sweet, flavorful, long keepers, or long-necked pumpkins, which are like giant butternuts, but there were cute little cheese pumpkins dotted here and there among the leaves, some hidden, some proudly showing. Lovely. When we really began to look toward harvest, we discovered the largest one wrapped around a corn stalk in the field beyond our fence. I called Andy, the farmer whose corn it was, to find out when he was combining, (that’s COMbining) and that set the September 20 harvest date for that one.

Some of the Pumpkin Harvest

Some of the Pumpkin Harvest

So far, I’ve cut nine cheese pumpkins of various sizes, given two away, and have got a bunch of  little guys still growing. Fun. And delicious. Soup – curried, or spiced with tomatoes and poblanos, or pumpkin vegetable with garbanzos and smoked paprika and cilantro — pie, muffins, pumpkin spice cake, and of course, pumpkin butter.

Pumpkin Butter

1 cheese pumpkin (or any other dry-fleshed squash)

1 c. maple syrup

¼ cup apple juice

juice and zest of a lemon

1 tblsp ginger, or fresh-grated ginger

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp nutmeg

dahs of salt

Cut one cheese pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds (and save them to plant next year), and roast the halves on a cookie sheet  at 350F until you can easily scoop out the flesh (about 40 minutes, depending on the size of the squash). Let cool enough to handle, scoop out flesh and add with the other ingredients to an enameled iron pot (which distributes the heat evenly and is easier to keep the pumpkin butter from sticking, but a stainless pot will do just as well if you stand there and watch it).  Cook on medium-low heat, stirring frequently about 15-20 minutes until all ingredients are incorporated and the butter is smooth. (You may need to run a hand blender through it to get it smooth). Jar it and refrigerate.  If you put this in a sterilized jar with a sterilized lid and refrigerate it, the lid will probably draw and will keep the butter happily usable for months.  Otherwise, you’re probably looking at a week, maybe two.

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