Posts filed under ‘Gardening’

Bebop-a-rebop rhubarb… jam

Though the calendar says June 10, most people in Minnesota would tell you that it feels like early April. Personally, having spent my college years in the state of Washington, I’ve been describing this month as “late February in the Pacific Northwest.” Cold and wet. A drizzle to be exact. Generally miserable for gardeners and lovers of the sun alike.

That said, there is one staple of the early spring that is excelling in this cool weather. The ever popular rhubarb. Though technically a vegetable (we’re using the stalk, not the “fruit” of the plant), most eaters think of rhubarb more as a fruit, as it is often found in sweet desserts like pies. I grew up with a mom who regularly made rhubarb crisp, sprinkled with oatmeal and sugar crumbles and of course, a packet of strawberry or raspberry Jell-O, so I would generally be in agreement with the “fruit” designation (though the biologist side of me balks at this misclassification).IMG_0141

The simplest way to eat rhubarb, yet the most difficult for some, is straight out of the garden. I have vivid memories of my brother and I eating stalks of rhubarb, dipped in a small plastic cup of sugar, the stringy skin always a challenge, but the tart and sour treat worth the effort. This method is not for everyone, particularly those who don’t love the “pucker in the far back of your jaw” feeling.

That said, a bit more sugar and maybe a few other ingredients and you’ve got yourself  a much more palatable sweet and sour combo. As previously mentioned, this often manifests itself as dessert, but another incredibly easy option is jam.

Having gotten what I consider incredibly lucky, I discovered this spring that the house we bought this winter had a garden already planted with not one, not two, not three, but FOUR rhubarb plants, all of which, given the cold weather previously mentioned, have done very well so far this year. Not wanting to waste this early season bounty, last night I set to the task of preparing a bunch for freezer jam. For those of you leery of canning, I highly recommend freezer jam as an easy, and more or less “fail safe,” way to get into home preserving. With rhubarb, you don’t even need pectin, just a knife, a pot and a bunch of sugar. The recipe I followed was one my mom found online and you can find it here.

MY NOTES: The recipe calls for six pounds of rhubarb. If you’re like me, I don’t have a scale to measure that small of an amount, so I used the rough conversation suggested by the original blog author of one pound equaling about four cups of rhubarb. Knowing I didn’t have enough for 24 cups (six pounds x four cups), I opted to cut the recipe in half. After I measured my 12 cups, I started adding sugar. Five cups of sugar seemed like it would be an awful lot, being someone who prefers the sour to the sweet in a rhubarb jam, so after three cups, I stopped, seeing the chunks were thoroughly coated and a nice juice was forming. If you have a bigger sweet tooth, you may prefer more. If you use less as I did, you might have to cook it a bit longer to help with gelling, but really, since it is freezer jam, it doesn’t matter as much as canned jam.

Once you have cooked the jam, you have a couple options. Some people will recommend you let it completely cool in the pot before you fill your jars. Personally, I put it in jars and let it cool on the counter for a while, then put it in the fridge overnight to cool completely. Either way, there are two things you should NOT do and they are: do not put hot jam in the fridge (this warms other items in the fridge and isn’t good for food safety or fridge efficiency) and do not put hot or warm jam in the freezer (mainly because this big change in temp can cause your jars to break, and like the fridge, it isn’t good to warm up the freezer).

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Another nice thing about freezer jam is you don’t need official canning jars, you can really use anything you want, though I personally recommend limiting the use of plastic and only freezing in glass, such as old jam or condiment jars. I also recommend going with smaller jars (half pint or less), unless your household goes through a lot of jam quickly. Mine does not, so the smaller jars are better for making sure they don’t go bad in the fridge once thawed.

As expected, this jam was right the right balance of sweet and tart for me. It was perfect on a slice of toast and I can only imagine it will be divine on chocolate or vanilla ice cream.

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June 10, 2013 at 10:13 pm Leave a comment

Taste the rainbow

Homegrown Rainbow – just add water

After harvesting veggies from our gardening earlier this week, I peeked in my bag and thought, wow, it’s like a picture perfect rainbow – bet it tastes just as good. 

This thought then led me to think, it’s like you can “Taste the rainbow”… mmmm. 

Sure, maybe I borrowed the tagline from a famous candy, but similar to the original Skittles® pack, the only color missing from my bag was blue, which is pretty impressive considering we’re talking Mother Nature’s coloring au naturel versus something made in a chem lab by the folks at Wrigley.

I think one of the most rewarding things about growing your own food is the immense variety you quickly discover exists out there compared with the minimal choices we actually have in the grocery store. I suppose if you walk down the processed food aisles at your average big box grocer, the appearance of variety and choice is impressive (never mind there are just a few huge companies that make all that “food” and most list high fructose corn syrup among the top three ingredients – that’s a discussion for another day). But when you really examine the options for fresh fruits and veggies, what we get in the store is pretty pathetic.

If you want to talk variety, just open a seed catalog from the great growers at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (I’ve mentioned them before when discussing heirloom beet seeds). Their catalog boasts over 1,300 varieties of  heirloom veggies, fruits and flowers. That’s right, THIRTEEN HUNDRED.

In my own garden this year I’m proud to boast green eggplant, as well as several orange and yellow tomato varieties. One cherry tomato (Helsing Junction Blues) starts out green and blue and ripens to red and an almost blackish purple. In the past, I grew Gretel eggplant, which are a dazzling white. And have you ever seen Purple Dragon Carrots? It almost sounds like a fairytale.

This time of year especially, as the harvest peeks, it’s an unbelievable treat each time I enter the garden and know I am part of something bigger. An effort to remember and actualize the diversity of flavor, hardiness and beauty in our food system. A way of life that recognizes the importance of saving seed and making it available to all, not just those who reach the patent office first. And something that reminds us you don’t have to be perfectly round and red to be called a tomato.

September 1, 2012 at 11:46 pm Leave a comment

Blue tomatoes!

That’s right, blue. And beautiful as ever.

Helsing Junction Blues

We’re growing a cherry tomato in our garden this year called Helsing Junction Blues. It’s a newer tomato variety, bred by Tom Wagner, a professional tomato breeder who owns New World Seeds & Tubers. The name is in honor of Helsing Junction Farm, a certified organic farm in Washington. I purchased the seedling from Norsejenta’s Seedlings in Duluth, Minnesota.

The leaves of the plant have a slightly bluish tint and tend to curl up on the edges a bit. So far we’ve harvested about a dozen and a half of these two-tone tomatoes. They start off part purple and part green, ripening to red and indigo blue. Roughly the size of a ping-pong ball, they aren’t sweet to speak of, but have a well-rounded full flavor. The plant is incredibly prolific and the tomatoes grow in bunches, as can be seen in the picture.

I will continue to highlight a number of things we are growing in our garden throughout the remainder of the summer. It’s been great growing so far!

July 30, 2012 at 12:08 am 1 comment

The beauty

I was recently asked to give a brief talk about the community garden where I volunteer, which I’ve written about in the past. The talk was for an event focused on community development work and my task was to highlight the achievements and importance of places like the garden in building sustainable community. My talk started with the reasons I first came to the garden – partly a matter of faith, caring for creation and the children and families in the community, and partly a matter of professional interest, advocating for access to healthy, local and affordable food for all.

And while these two reasons are definitely valid and important enough on their own as motivation to volunteer at the garden, I realized that the thing which keeps me coming back to the garden is simply…

The beauty.
(The following is the remainder of my speech.)

This beauty may not always be apparent, we have our tough days – but the beauty is always there.

The beauty in our garden is not found in everyone showing up on time and diligently working for hours. It’s not found in straightly planted rows of carrots or evenly spaced tomato seedlings, with no weeds growing between them.

The beauty in our garden is found in places you might not see if you stopped by on your own, but I promise you that it exists in a way that can, and will, grow over the years.

The beauty in our garden is found in a child discovering how to read a seed packet or learning to use a shovel for the first time.

It’s found when a child you weren’t sure was paying attention correctly identifies most of the vegetables planted in the garden.

This beauty is found in beets, and a young girl, down on her knees discovering how to thin them and saying how sad it was to have to remove some of the plants so others could grow, then realizing that she could eat the greens and eagerly taking them home.

The beauty is found when you overhear supposedly “uninterested” kids later instructing their peers on how to properly plant a tomato with phrases like “no, she said to do it THIS way.”

The beauty occurs you hear Indian women telling Latino women how to use eggplant and Latino women informing me what you can do with a tomatillo.

The beauty is when you harvest the abundant basil and turn it in to pesto and then serve it on pasta, and some of the kids actually like it (even if they won’t admit it until weeks later).

The beauty is found when a child returns to the garden after picking lettuce the previous day and she tells you that her mom bought salad dressing especially for the occasion so they could enjoy the meal together, as a family.

The beauty is found in a six year old boy who looks up at you, after tasting his first bite ever of yellow summer squash, which HE helped you grill and serve to the other kids, and say “Mmmm…Squash is the bomb! Can I have another?”

The Cottageville Park Neighborhood Garden provides a unique space for our youth and families in the Blake Road Corridor to come together. In a neighborhood that has its challenges, there are just as many, if not more, opportunities. The garden is a place where adults and children from all cultures and walks of life can put their hands in the dirt, and grow not only food, but community.

June 29, 2012 at 11:34 pm 3 comments

First fruits

Perennial plants provide a type of spring joy that will likely never be achieved by annuals, at least not in northern climes. Sure, annuals offer some of the tastiest harvest, but perennials often get the first (asparagus, anyone?) and last (apple pie, yes please) say of the growing season. While annuals often require certain temperatures and warmer soils to be planted, perennials begin their new growth as soon as Mother Nature hits the “Go” button. Their emergence may depend on the particular spring and your location, but by April or May, around the country we are all generally treated to some sort of perennial beauty.

I love early spring flowers – while in college in Tacoma, Washington, my favorite were the daffodils that bloomed in February – but the real treat to me are the early fruits. This last weekend, we were gifted with our first: vibrant red strawberries. We have patiently watched for these berries, having planted the initial starter plants in 2010. The first summer was just to establish the patch, and last year, the few berries that were produced were stolen by ants, so this year has been awaited with much anticipation.

Unlike anything you could ever get shipped from California, a fresh, tender Minnesota Grown strawberry delivers a burst of tanginess and sweetness that will leave you craving more. They almost melt in your mouth like a fine chocolate.

If you don’t have space in your own garden to grow berries, or you can’t grow enough to meet your needs for pies, jams or just plain eating, there are many ways to get your hands on these delicious treats. Check out your grocery and ask them if they carry local produce; if they don’t, as them to consider it. Find your nearest farmers market and get to know the vendors. Or, you can do what I find most satisfying, and that is Pick Your Own or PYO. One of my favorite places to pick strawberries is Sam Kedem Nursery & Garden in Hasting, Minnesota. Sam and Rachel have been growing wonderful produce for over 15 years, and for the past several years have been certified Organic. In addition to strawberries, they also have PYO raspberries, blueberries, cherries and currants, not to mention many vegetables. If you’re looking for some quality produce and friendly farmers, head on down!

Not near Hastings, but want to PYO elsewhere in Minnesota, check out this handy guide, organized by county.  Other states also have listings. Happy picking!

May 31, 2012 at 12:06 am Leave a comment

Plant sale extravaganza!

Here in Minnesota, where Spring first peeked out two months ago, then retracted in to cold, rainy April, we are very ready to get our garden on. This past weekend, we were given the gift of two warms days on which to do our major plant shopping. Fortunately, it also happened to be a BIG weekend for plant sales.

I started my weekend with the annual Spring Plant Sale and Open House at Minnesota Food Association (MFA), which I have also volunteered at for the last three years. An organically certified farm, MFA’s plants are grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or GMO seeds. I spent the day helping others decide what to take home for their gardens, and then filled my own boxes full of tomatoes, peppers and our family favorite – Brussel sprouts! I’d like to take a moment to put in a plug for my favorite sweet pepper, the Gypsy pepper, which I discovered through the MFA sale last year. They start out light yellow and progress to bright red (see picture), and become the most magnificently sweet delights you could imagine.

The next day, my friend who runs Norsejenta’s Seedlings, had her annual batch of tomatoes and peppers ready for pickup. For tomatoes, I went home with wonders like Anna Banana Russian, Isis Candy and Mortgage Lifter! And of course, I couldn’t leave without a KBX, my favorite I discovered at this sale last year.

Next I headed across the river to the Friends School Plant Sale for their final day when everything is 30% off. I love going on this day because I am usually not looking for anything in particular, which is good because its pretty picked over, but I always find some fun (or funny) treasure. Last year it was “Gretel” eggplant (I didn’t get there in time to get the matching “Hansel” plants). This year I picked up a Thai Green eggplant and two varieties of kohlrabi.

If you missed out on any of these (or you’re in another part of the country), don’t fret, there are sure to be more in the coming weeks. Wherever you are, be sure to check them out and this year, consider getting something fun and new to try!

May 15, 2012 at 11:34 pm Leave a comment

Dirt Therapy – Part 2

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I find gardening to be very therapeutic. But, life isn’t perfect, and sometimes therapy isn’t very uplifting or enjoyable – though it often remains enlightening. What I didn’t write about then was the reality that sometimes gardening can make you want to pull your hair out. Tonight was one of those nights.

I arrived at the community garden around 7 o’clock and immediately noticed something was wrong. The gate was mangled and the four beautiful eggplants I had showed my mom on Sunday were gone. As I investigated further, I realized most of the tomatillos had been removed from their stems and the few pepper plants that had survived the last bit of vandalism had not escaped destruction this go ’round. Soon a few kids came over and offered names of culprits and suggestions of motives, and we learned a neighbor had seen the damage taking place and took photos of those responsible, but little was to be done tonight except to clean up the mess. Fortunately the beans had been ignored and a couple kids went home with enough to make for dinner.

Vandalism, especially of community things, has never been something I’ve understood. Maybe I’m naive, but this kind of destruction just never added up in the “making sense” category of life. So, when it happens in a place I feel directly connected to, it is hard to not take it personally. But I must also remind myself that this garden is about the community and not me as an individual, so I find I am only sad, not angry. I think one of many things influencing my disappointment is that there is a person, or persons, who doesn’t see the value of the garden and the opportunities it can provide. The chance to learn more about our food, how to cook it, how it grows and how to have patience while the fruits mature.

Unfortunately, I don’t think patience is something many people have these days. We have little patience in traffic – road rage anyone? We have little patience with slow internet or lines at the store. And we have very little patience for being told we cannot do what we want. Some times I think if we all learned how to garden as kids that we might have a little more patience. It is impossible to grow beets well without the patience to thin them, and leaving an almost ripe tomato on the vine requires the restraint of a saint.

So, how do we learn to be patient? How do we learn to leave anger and frustration at the garden gate and move at the pace of an earthworm? I believe it is really a community effort – requiring all – and until we realize that, it will be very difficult. We have a very me-centric society and it is hurting our ability to function. We may think we are “self made” and “independent,” but when was the last time you did anything that didn’t involve another human being?  If you wore clothing, ate food or used any sort of transportation today, you will realize that we cannot do it alone. And if we look in the garden, we know that the tomatoes know this too. They cannot fruit without healthy soil, abundant water and sun, motivated pollinators and a whole host of microfauna and flora doing their job underground. Similarly, the kids at our garden need guidance, nurturing and positive examples. And they especially need our patience and listening ears.

See, I told you therapy was at least enlightening.

August 9, 2011 at 11:29 pm 2 comments

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