Garlic - Take Two

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Last fall was the official start to our gardening adventures. We planted our first garlic, and nervously waited until spring to see the first sprouts push through. They did, and we sure love our garlic.

It was the star of the garden so we knew we had to plant again. Our lives seem to be quite a bit busier this fall, and there was a bout of chicken pox at the farm that was keeping us from going with the kids, so we finally got our garlic in last week. We're so lucky with the weather this fall. Everything could be snow-covered by now, but we got everything in like it was a warm October day.

This year we decided to make a bit of a raised bed for the garlic. A bed that we'll be able to access from both sides and not compact down into the soil. This will hopefully help with getting larger bulbs that don't have to grow against hard packed soil.

We did run into a bit of a problem last year. The music variety we planted seemed to lose bulbs throughout the growing season. And when we harvested what was left, some of the bulbs had yellow around them. Just after we posted about our "success" and showed off some pictures, we got an email from a garlic farmer who said he thinks we have a nematode problem.

Nematodes are becoming a big issue for garlic growers in Ontario. It's a microscopic worm-like bug that splashes onto the leaves of the plant while it's raining, and then makes its way down to the bulb, where it feasts. The other problem with nematodes is that if they don't eat too much of the bulb, at the end of the season they go dormant, and come alive the next spring. So even healthy-looking garlic can hold them.

The quick spread of nematodes is a product of propagating plants asexually. When you're not starting fresh with seed, and just using a piece of a parent plant, you're bringing all of its issues along with it, especially with farmers who share bulbs. True seed on the other hand produces a new generation, hopefully with improved traits and leaves behind all of the baggage like nematodes.

In recent years, the sharing and, in essence, globalization of garlic has suddenly globalized its issues. True seed projects seem to be the best hope for finding new resistance and building stock of nematode-seed.

Whether or not we have nematodes, we're not going to worry too much right now. The garlic is still fine to eat, and as that same farmer pointed out, we're not using mechanical planting machines and other industrial means to plant it, so our problems are compounded less. Maybe we'll start growing for seed using the varieties of garlic we now have and not bring any more outside bulbs in.

Hot Sauce Part One

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A few weeks ago we picked the last of our jalapeños. You might remember our last Garden Status Report where I just chopped down all the jalapeño plants and Melanie stripped off the peppers. Well, we ended up with two bushels and had no idea what to do with them. We thought about stuffing them with ricotta, herbs, and bacon to freeze and save for winter. But we didn't do that. In fact, we did a lot this year, most likely a little too much, so I decided to keep it simple.

I've been slowly learning more and more about crock pots and what real pickling is. Honestly, I didn't know what sauerkraut really was until this year. I found out my parents used to make it in crocks, but that was way before I was born. In my mind Sauerkraut was simply something that surprised me as a kid and was spit out when I picked up the wrong pierogy at baba's house.

Real pickling, and any type of fermentation is blowing my mind right now. When we have freezers and fridges running 24/7, burning coal to keep our food fresh, my hot pepper mash is simply bubbling in the basement. There's no hot water bath, no simmering for hours. It's by far the most energy efficient way to preserve.

I took a close look at our crock and discovered a long crack from the top halfway down the side. I decided to pass on it and look for another one. Doing some research online I discovered that some old crocks were made with lead, so I actually bought a new one. My dad teased me and asked if it's made in China (which it isn't), but I wanted to be safe. If you know anything about lead in crocks, please let me know.

I thought how Tabasco sauce is made was a secret, but their site is quite open about the process. Their secret ingredients, in my opinion, must simply be quality and time. The peppers are picked when they're at the perfect ripeness as measured by the petit bâton rouge or little red stick that each worker carries in the field. The ripe peppers are then mashed and mixed with a local salt. I followed this recipe and used their 30:1 mash to salt ratio.

Tabasco sauce is simply named after the pepper variety they use. We only grew jalapeños, so they had to do. For my mash, I used up all the ripe ones first and then filled the rest of the crock with greens. You could immediately see the salt pulling liquid out of the ripe peppers, but the green ones were less juicy, so I added a salty brine on top (10:1 water to salt).

I covered my mash with a towel and bungee (really classy, so no picture). It sat for a couple weeks and when I checked back I saw a nice blanket of mould on top. I immediately googled it and found out that it's ok, and just needs to be removed. It rolled up like a carpet and had great-smelling peppers underneath.

Then I made a mistake. Some of the recipes I had been looking at called for vinegar, so I added a bit to the top, but quickly realized I should have just added more brine to keep the liquid level higher than the mash. The lactic acid bacteria, which ferments the peppers don't like the acid [edit: some advice in the comments], so hopefully the quarter cup or so I added won't affect too much.

Tabasco ferments and ages their peppers in white oak barrels for up to three years, so I've been tossing around the idea of adding a piece of oak right into my mash. I lost track of a recipe online where someone baked the oak to get rid of the "freshness" and then added it to their mash.

I don't think we'll be waiting three years to try this mash. Probably three months. And we're still relatively lightweights when it comes to heat, so if you see someone with their head buried in the February snow, it's probably me.

A Change in Direction

Monday, November 14, 2011

We rarely do posts without photos, so if you read one, we hope it's at least this one. Well, maybe there's something to look at. If you make it to the end...

Over the past year and a half, every post on Crackers has been about food. It's not how we planned it, but it's how it turned out. The idea of making more things at home was supposed to be broader, however food was the first thing we needed to change.

It's been amazing, but with your blessing, we'd love to broaden it. We're not going to alienate food, in fact, we'd like to put it in the context of the rest of our life.

Not that we're doing AMAZING things, it's just that Melanie would love to share some of her sewing projects with you which help clothe our kids, and I might want to show off some of the stuff I'm working on, like the posters I'm designing and hoping to screen print around the holidays.

We tossed around the idea of starting another blog for these projects but it would divide our attention, and since it philosophically compliments the stuff already on Crackers, we're deciding to give it a go.

The supermarket is just a big box store that sells food. So it's no surprise we're also trying to get out of all forms of big box stores. We don't visit malls during the holidays and are hoping to get all of our Christmas shopping done at independent stores, or better yet, make it ourselves.

In fact, Melanie's family has a homemade-only rule for our holiday gift exchange. And you know what? If I get a crappy present, that's ok, because it's not what it's about anyways.

Do we have your blessing? I hope so.

I'll leave you with a piece I shot at my friend Nicholas' letterpress studio, where he prints at a human pace, and doesn't have a single piece of equipment that would make you think it's the 21st century. Right down to his smock. Nicholas, whether he knows it or not, has inspired me to shun cheap, modern, disposable tools. I bought my first table saw last week, and guess what, it wasn't made in China. It's local. Made in the same city I was born in. But that's a story for later…

2012 Foodland Ontario Calendar

Friday, November 11, 2011

If you live in Ontario, you might recognize or even look forward to the Foodland Ontario calendar that shows up in every grocery store across Ontario each fall. Every month in the calendar has a great recipe for what's in season or available from local Ontario sources.

Foodland Ontario is the government of Ontario's organization to support locally-grown, Ontario produce, so I was pretty excited when their ad agency, Leo Burnett, asked me to shoot the front and back covers, inside and out.

Photo courtesy of Lissy Elle

The inside front cover is a selection of photos that you might recognize if you've followed our blog for the past year. All these images are mine except for that holstein cow in the tiny picture. There are a couple shots I took in a greenhouse, which I, of course, had to do on the hottest day of the summer. I don't think I've sweat so much in my life.

The orchard shots were all taken at a great orchard in Waterdown which we've visited on a few occasions called Frootogo. Foodland is quite strict about only using real Ontario producers, so the Hekman family were our models for the day.

My main source of income is commercial photography. I've worked with some great clients and brands, and I've worked with others I wouldn't give a dollar to. In fact, this blog was started as a photography exercise to help balance myself out and give a bit of spotlight to small, local producers. It's very rare and special when you're hired to work with an organization that has a similar objective.

Our Pretty Little Dry Beans

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Fall Speckled

The past few weeks have felt like we've been hosting a tenant in our front room. The culprit has been the hundreds of bean pods laying all over the burlap-covered floor to dry. We planted pole beans that added architectural flair to the garden as they spiralled up the stick teepees we built, and they were delicious green, but we were most excited about the modest drying beans.

When it comes to preserving, sure you can pickle and freeze green beans, but we always look for the simplest way to preserve, usually one that takes care of itself. Pickled beans are nice to nibble on in January, but we want to replace whole meals. I can already imagine adding these dry beans to some of our canned tomatoes and beef from Jesse's mom's cow to make an amazing chili.

Canadian Wonder

But it hasn't been the most successful year for the beans. It also hasn't been the most successful year for most things here in southern Ontario. We planted the beans in barely-dry land this spring, and had no idea the amount of rain that was coming, which destroyed all but a couple plants.

Then we tried again. Linda, from Tree & Twig Heirloom Vegetable Farm sent us a great selection of heirloom and rare beans. We planted, and this time it worked.

Dry beans are usually a bush variety, growing a foot or two tall, and are harvested once the plant has dried out and the beans rattle in the dry pods. But of course, after the too-wet spring, a too-dry summer slowed their growth, and then, wait for it, a too-wet fall kept them from drying out. Finally we just pulled all of the plants out, picked off the beans, and decided to take the drying into our own hands.

Jacob's Cattle

Now we spend time with our two oldest children shelling the pods. They love to discover the beautiful coloured beans inside, and we spark their imagination telling them they must be the same magic beans Jack used.

It's easy to compare these beans with a 99 cent can of beans at the supermarket. The time investment is not even close to the price. Imagining a field full of them and a thirty-foot combine devouring an acre every few seconds and spitting out shelled beans can be disheartening. But growing your own food is a totally different world than the world of monocultures. To know the soil that these beans grew in and avoiding the BPA-lined cans makes us feel a little better.

Black Calypso, or Orca

We've been studying up on ensuring that our beans are free from insects and eggs. We've read of treating them in the deep freeze (0 degrees Fahrenheit) for 48 hours, or in a 160 degree Fahrenheit oven for 30 minutes. We're not sure what to do. The freezer sounds best. Any advice is welcome.

We're humbled by the work that goes into small-scale bean growing and harvesting, and continually remind ourself that it's not about saving money or becoming competitive with the grocery store. It's about raising a healthy family. And maybe there's a little extra health involved when the whole family takes part in planting, picking, and shelling their dinner.

Home Grown Pumpkin Pie

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

We planted a big pumpkin patch this year. It was for the kids, but also for us. Pumpkins have slowly evolved from being a food staple to something you buy once a year, carve a face in, and discard. But this year, we wanted to bring them back onto our plates.

We decided to grow our own pumpkins and probably ended up with around fifty in our little patch. We grew a few varieties. By far the prettiest was the Rouge Vif D'Etampes, also known as the Cinderella Pumpkin. We grew lots of regular small pie pumpkins, giant pumpkins for the kids to sit on, and one called Connecticut Field, the classic jack-o-lantern pumpkin. All of the pumpkins are edible, however, we're just going to keep the giant pumpkins for show.

We carved a few for halloween but the rest we've been cooking with. We've made pumpkin soup, pumpkin loaf and the most delicious pumpkin pie we have ever eaten.

This year at Thanksgiving I was assigned the task of pie baking. I knew right away that I would feature one of the main attractions of our garden, the pumpkin.

Homemade pumpkin pie is actually pretty easy. I've made it before, but always relying on that little tin of pumpkin puree. This year it felt (and tasted) great to use a fresh pumpkin we grew ourselves.

Simply cut your pumpkin in half and clean out the guts and seeds like you do when you carve a jack-o-lantern. Place the two halves cut side down on a rimmed cookie sheet (not like shown above) and bake until the flesh is soft when you stick a knife in it. Once it's done, scoop the flesh out of the skin and blend it up. At this point you can either use the pumpkin puree for a pie or two, or better yet, freeze it for a future pie, loaf, or soup.

The recipe for the filling was found in one of Jane's (Jesse's mom's) old cookbooks. It also contained a recipe for "squirrel pot pie", which we didn't try. For our pie's pastry I made a delicious butter crust from a recipe we found here. The pie was delectable, and I can't wait for an excuse to make another one.

Just because Thanksgiving is over in Canada, don't let that put pumpkins out of your mind for another year. In fact, chances are you'll be able to find them quite cheap or as I noticed last night at our local grocery store, for free. Cook 'em, freeze the flesh and enjoy them all winter long.