Saturday, September 28, 2013

Diagon Alley

Whenever DB hears Daikon he only hears Diagon Alley, as in the wizard's shopping avenue from the Harry Potter series. But the alley and the radish are two different things. And for the latter, it can be grown in your garden instead of just envisioned in your imagination.

Radish Spirit from Spirited Away
Originating from the Mediterranean, this particular radish became a star of Japan. From the spread 1,300 years ago, more than 100 local varieties cropped up highlighting different textures, tastes, and shapes independent to a specific region. Today, more than 90% of daikon is produced and consumed in Japan.[1] And this obsession is even reflected in the country's anime through the Radish Spirit character in Spirited Away. In the United States, California and Texas are the primary growers of daikon for specialty Oriental markets.

Similar to other monocultures, the number of varieties has been replaced by a hybrid meant to standardize growth and consistency with produce yields. That doesn’t mean that all is lost as local farmers and culinary institutes strive to maintain their country’s gastronomical history.

What does this mean for you the urban homesteader?

Different radishes: (L) my daikon & (R) farmer's market
That growing daikon radish is a rewarding endeavor, especially when considering heirloom varieties. Some grow just several inches others grow over a foot long with two foot wide foliage. Unlike other radish, these require a longer growing period of 60-70 days, best for a late summer sowing in warm climates (two months before first frost).[2] If you live in the north like me, then feel free to start these in the spring with successive planting every two weeks for a continuous crop.

That’s great, but how do you eat it?

I prefer my daikon pickled, matchstick sliced with carrots. They’re great this way on Vietnamese dishes like Banh Mi or Būn and even rolled up in sushi. Whichever way you slice it, with the mild flavor, daikon can be treated like any other radish. Sliced or shredded over fresh salads. Created into little daikon cakes or chips. Or just added to stir-fry. It’s not that hard to come up with something useful for these delicious white tubers.

Final Thoughts

The leaves are already starting to fall and if you’re not doing a second planting this year then think about adding a cover crop to protect against soil degradation before spring. Another option is mix in compost and manure then top with mulch. This gives the soil a breather to build up much needed nutrients to grow next year’s bounty.

[1] Motoko Fukuda, “Japanese Radish,” The Tokyo Foundation: November 3, 2009, (accessed September 28, 2013).
[2] Grow This! “How to Grow Daikon Radishes,” June 26, 2013, (accessed September 28, 2013).

Monday, September 16, 2013

Do the Can-Can!

Fall is already announcing its presence here with chilly nights and rainy days. It's like you wake up one day and you have to find the sweaters and slippers. And unfortunately, it means a close to the hot weather crops since as peppers, tomatoes and all those other delicious delights. But don't despair! There's ways to extend these items via greenhouses, hoops, or just dragging any containers into the house...

Getting ready to make salsa!
But talking about tomatoes...we've been having fun on coming up with what to do with the plethora that our plants are producing. So far we have six pints of salsa and six pints of tomato basil sauce. We're probably going to end up with another six pints of just regular canned tomatoes at the end of the week.

And if you've never canned before don't be discouraged! It's an easy enough concept once you get the hang of it. Additionally the price difference of home canned versus store bought can be minimal after the initial purchase of the canning supplies are figured into the equation. The only thing that needs to be replaced are the lids, since they're one time use. Most important, you know what is going into your recipe! Lemon juice/citric acid to help balance the acidity of tomatoes for water bath canning or to prevent apples from browning. Just the right amount of sugar and spice for applesauce or salsa.

The list of ingredients for your canning adventure doesn't have to be taken from a chemistry text book! I know I get a fright whenever I'm perusing the grocery store shelves...yellow 5, cellulose, BHT/BHA, etc, etc. What happened to using turmeric for that yellow color? Getting whole foods/minimally processed for fiber? Don't get me started on BHT/BHA...But I digress....

Tools of the trade
Canning. It began during the Napoleonic Wars when the need to feed troops extended logistical supply lines from France to Russia. And if you have any concept of supply lines then you understand they can be delayed, broken, or obliterated leaving the troops wont for food stuffs. Flash forward from the 1790's to present day and you'll still find people canning their own food. There's a deal more science and technique behind it to prevent spoilage but you get the picture. Average people can do it, it's not abnormal to have a vested interest in your food.

And there are several publications out there to help you out. Doing any search on 'books on canning' and you're bound to get an extensive list. My all time go to is the Ball's Blue Book Guide to Preserving but Better Homes and Gardens does release a nice magazine style guide each fall (found near the checkout aisles of local grocery stores). Never mind the fact that more people are getting on the bandwagon for home canning and preserving with publishers taking a notice.

What are you waiting for? Go to your local you-pick raspberry farm and whip up raspberry jam! Swing by a local orchard and nab a bushel of apples perfect for applesauce, apple butter or pie filling! The options are only limited by your imagination.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Harden the Flesh

Everything in the garden is slowly finishing the harvest. The giant, Big Boy tomatoes are all starting to give their last hurrah as well as the okra. However, the ones we looked forward to the most this year had to be, without a doubt, the butternut squash and pumpkin.

We’ve grown squash before but not on this level and the drought last year killed the pumpkins, so we were tickled to see so many forming on the vines. And if you’ve been following the blog then you know the small problem with had with the lack of bees early on in the season that had us worried. The boy freaked out for a short period saying that there wouldn’t be enough of either at the end of harvest. But I think this week proved him wrong.

Butternut Squash and Sugar Pie Pumpkin
The tally so far is four squash with four more on the vine and five pumpkin. The squash range in size from 3.19lbs to 4.38lbs, while the pumpkins are a little bit smaller at 2.47lbs to 3.53lbs. I think we made a killing. Typically, the squash can go for .99/lb or up to 1.99/lb depending on when it’s in season. The pumpkin, normally in the grocery stores starting in mid- to late-September can run .99/each to .99/lb. When you’re talking 3 to 4lbs it starts to add up. Never mind the fact that I knew what went into growing these particular fruits and didn’t have to worry about pesticides, insecticides, GMO, and other unsavory growing conditions associated with larger scale farming operations.

Now after harvest, you have to ask yourself “how can I store this bounty aside from freezing since pumpkins and squash are not recommended for home canning?” Great question. Harden the flesh. Sounds stoic and something you’d hear in a Schwarzenegger film, but the heart of it is similar to potatoes and onions that you’d prepare for root cellars.

Once you cut the fruit, give it a gentle wiping with a solution of bleach and water that helps to prevent mold and premature rot (1:10 ratio). Place the cleaned squash and pumpkins in a nice warm area for one to two weeks (80-85F); this allows the outer flesh to cure. This curing process gives the pumpkin a chance to firm up before long-term storage and unripe fruit the chance to mature.

From there, the fruit can be stored in a frost-free area that is not too damp, such as an enclosed porch or shed optimally with temperatures between 50-55F with humidity 50-70%. Set the fruit in a single layer on top of porous material to allow for proper airflow such as straw, crumpled newspaper or cardboard. Done correctly, the pumpkin and squash can remain in storage all winter – roughly two to three months. Important though keep away from apples since they emit ethylene gas that speeds up the ripening process.

Final Thoughts

Don’t forget to start thinking about next year’s garden this fall. Order catalogs, visit the local library, browse Pintrest and other image based boards to gather ideas. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Beet Juice! Beet Juice! Beet Juice!

Now I want to watch Beetlejuice...but never mind that. Today, I spent my late morning canning. It's something that I've been doing for the better part of two weeks. See it's one thing to grow or harvest vegetables and fruits, quite another to store said items. Needless to say, the pantry is beaming with canned goods to the point that DB called me a "prepper." Um...not even close. But getting there. The shelves are stocked with strawberry margarita jam, peach jam, peaches, applesauce (reg. & spiced), apple butter, dill relish, daikon, salsa verde, and my newest adventure, beets.

I've never played with beets before. Sure, my grandmother would try to get me to eat store bought commercially canned beets and I would have none of it. But after asking a friend about beets and pickling them, I decided to give it a go. Picking up a bunch from the farmer's market on Saturday, I got started on my adventure...this morning. What? It's Labor Day weekend. I spent most of my time away from home with family...swimming....and going to RenFairs....

So, beets. When I read that beets would stain whatever it could leak it's juices onto pink, I didn't think it would be that bad...I think I should just cut my nails now before I go to work instead of having my boss ask why my fingers are bright pink. Best to avoid that situation if possible. And when I removed the jars from the water bath, one decided he didn't like being upright and for a second there I thought all hope was lost as juice dribbled out. But the seal took, I just made sure to label that one as the "tipper" so it gets eaten first. As far as I know all the juice is cleaned up and the sink doesn't even look that bad. The interesting part is going to be trying these home canned beets.

Final Thoughts

Don't forget that it's not too late to start sowing for the fall harvest. Great ones to think about are carrots, Swiss Chard, Spinach and other short term, cool crop varietals. Right about now the pumpkin vines should start to die back and the fruit themselves begin to finish off their color. Our 'Sugar Pies' are almost ready for harvest!! Lastly, I leave you with the double headed sunflower. Yes, double. The individual heads grew together to form this:

A double headed sunflower.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Is that a Cucumber?

Oh, the pickle. I love pickles. Dill pickles, sweet pickles, bread and butter pickles, I love pickles. Especially on a warm summer day. We tried planting pickling cucumbers this year but the newly discovered neighborhood chipmunk loves them just as much so we’re only left with two burpless cucumbers. That’s fine, they’re more than making up for what they lack in numbers.
Part of the Cucurbitaceae family, the cucumber (Cucumis sativus L.) has a long and luxurious history with mankind. You can find them in arid climates or the tropics, in Africa, Asia, or the Americas. In terms of cucumbers, most historians believe they arrived via India being cultivated in that area for at least 3,000 years.[1] However, no wild cousins have been found in the region between the northern part of the Bay of Bengal and the Himalayas.[2] The trade roads introduced these spiny fruit to Greece and Rome. Colonialism helped to spur the movement of cucumbers to new heights through the expansion to North America in 1494.[3]
The fruit can be eaten fresh, pickled, cooked, or any other way you can think of it. My grandmother loves to take fresh cut cucumber and soak it in apple cider vinegar for a half hour. Kind of like the poor man's pickle. Think it’s the same thing as a gherkin? It’s not. In fact, most West Indian gherkins (C. anguria) are a different species rarely grown in the United States. If you’re looking for one try to find those with a “prickly” oval fruit about an inch long.[4]
Most cucumbers are frost sensitive that love warm seasons. The vines can grow rapidly so it’s best to have a trellis ready for the seedlings once they start to emerge; however, there are newer varieties that do well in containers. At this stage, it’s best to provide cover from leaf munchers (i.e. bunnies, chipmunks, etc) otherwise you’ll be like me and walk out to a cucumber plant nibbled to the ground. Most varietals take 55-75 days to reach maturity, but to speed things along feel free to start seedlings indoor and transplant when all danger of frost is gone.[5]
Now, you’re probably asking, “what are you doing with all your cucumbers?” Great question. Pickle relish. I know, I know, I don’t have “pickling” cucumbers. But does that matter? It really doesn’t have to and can be up to personal preference. Most would argue against it due to the size of the seeds in the average cucumber. So scrounging the web for a recipe (my favorite thing to do), I set out on a quest to find a recipe that didn’t “require” pickling cucumbers.
Prepping for the relish making ^_^
I found one on Eating Richly’s blog. There’s a nice dill flavor and the turmeric really makes the color pop – but not as insane as some of that neon green relish, you know which one I’m talking about…laced with petroleum derived food coloring…Most of the time spent on the relish went into the brine bath. Otherwise, it was a cinch to whip up several half pints of this lovely condiment.
Is there anything in the grocery store that you’ve decided to make yourself? If yes, post a comment and tell us the what and why!

[1] Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Coneé Ornelas, ed. The Cambridge World History of Food, Cambridge University, 2000. (accessed August 19, 2013).
[2] Aggie Horticulture, “Pickles and Salads Owe a Debt to India,” Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, (accessed August 19, 2013)
[3] Kiple & Ornelas, 2010.
[4] Aggie.
[5] “Watch Your Garden Grow – Cucumber,” University of Illinois Extension, (accessed August 19, 2013).

Sunday, August 11, 2013


There's a tangle of morning glory vines along the back retaining wall. For the last few days, we've been watching this tangle reach new heights. Normally this is achieved through a trellis, a backyard tiki lamp or in the case of one year, a shovel that got left out one night. Not this time. This time it's a flower. Just a single flower struggling for all it's might against the strangle hold of these pugnacious morning glories.

And of course, it's a sunflower.

Pushing through life

Of all the flowers in my garden, it would be this one. A part of the daisy family, this North American beauty follows the movement of the sun, tracking the light throughout the day. The sunflower in many religious contexts is seen as a sign of adoration, warmth, and the search for enlightenment. To top it off, I didn't plant this flower, nature did. And it's finding it's own way through life even with all the obstacles using it for their own benefit.

So take this flower and go about this new day with a revitalized belief in yourself.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Fruit or Vegetable?

The baby eggplant
I always like this time of year when you can see the fruits of your labor maturing. Take for example the eggplant. I’m probably like most adults that are a product of poor households in the fact that I never had a variety of fruits or vegetables as a child. A majority of Americans only partake in the potato, corn, or tomato aspect of these wondrous products. So it wasn’t until I was older that I tried to venture out with my tastes in food.

Since trying eggplant, I have used it in many forms from soups (ratatouille) to pasta dishes (eggplant parmesan) and anything in between (baba ghanoush, anyone?). But the best we’ve found so far is the Spicy Peanut Eggplant Stew as described in the Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. The little purple fruit growing on our plants have a future in the culinary arts.

Yes, I said fruit. Botanically speaking the eggplant is a fruit (see also tomato, cucumber, chili peppers, and some pod vegetables). In some European countries, it is known as aubergine and is part of the nightshade family.[1] While some species of the nightshade family are toxic due to the high levels of alkaloid, most edible varieties contain healthful benefits. Other members of the nightshade (night growing plants) family include potatoes, tomatoes, chili-, and bell peppers. Eggplants themselves contain small amounts of potassium, manganese, copper, vitamins B1, B3 and B6, folate, magnesium, and tryptophan while also being low in fat and cholesterol.[2]

Grown in a variety of sizes, colors, and textures, the eggplant is a warm season plant with sensitivity to frost. It’s best to transplant the tender plants after all danger of frost has passed in your area. And don’t think bigger eggplant are better. Instead, cut them when they are 6-8” long with a glossy, smooth flesh. Cutting them early results in a more palatable, less bitter flesh with smaller seeds to contend with compared to the larger ones. If you grow your own eggplant try to use it right away after harvesting since eggplant do not store well.

When you get ready to cook it there is the option to salt it. The salting only draws out extra moisture and doesn’t draw out any bitterness. Think of eggplant like a sponge. You want to remove the extra water and air trapped in the cells to ensure that whatever flavors you cook with are soaked up into the meaty flesh.[3] In addition, it reduces the amount of water bleed out and rate of oil absorption. Prior to using rinse off any salt then dry with a paper towel.

What are your thoughts on eggplant? Have you tried any other varieties aside from the classic black beauty?

Beautiful sunflower along the house
Aside from eggplant, there's a lot more going on in the gardens. The sunflowers are bursting with color and there's even one in the backyard - I don't know how it got there. But the morning glory are using it as a trellis. The 'Early Girl' tomato is almost ready for harvest while I still need to plant something in the empty void of the raised bed since we pulled out the spent sugar peas. The butternut squash is starting to change colors while the pumpkins are starting to gain weight. All in all a sight to behold.

The house sparrows are flocking to the feeders with their young in tow teaching them the ropes in foraging backyards for food and dirt baths. The mighty bird dog he thinks he is, Jake tries to constantly chase them from the yard to no avail. At the end of the day, I like to sit back at watch the zany antics conspiring in my backyard.

Final Thoughts

They're not much to look at but I leave you with my children as my closing remarks, enjoy!

Sputnik and Wicket pretending to be beached whales

[1] “Nutritious Eggplant is a Misunderstood Veggie…er…Fruit.” The Florida Times-Union. February 17, 2011. (accessed August 6, 2013).
[2] IBID.
[3] University of Illinois Extension, “Watch Your Garden Grow – Eggplant.” (accessed August 6, 2013).