Archives for posts with tag: flavor

[Obviously, I’m a bit behind on my garden blogging this year. Okay, much more so than usual. If I have any readers left, however, they will be relieved to know that I am not behind on my garden planting; there is plenty going on there. Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to catch up. Please note, though, that many of the posts will contain very little text, if any.]

Well, so much for 2014.

It was a long one, trying in many ways, but in the end a good year. That was true for life in general and for the garden in specific.

What worked and what didn’t? Let’s start with the negatives.

Growing herbs from seed: It’s a wonderful concept and something that promises the heat of summer in the dead of winter. I started thyme, rosemary, basil, oregano, spearmint, and sage at the end of January last year with high hopes. The only seeds to germinate were the rosemary (perhaps two) and the basil.

I sowed a second batch of thyme, oregano, spearmint, and sage in early March, this time with fresh seeds. The germination rate was much better but the growth of the seedlings was slow. They did not need potting up until the end of April and we didn’t set them out until late June (everything was late last year due to the harsh winter). My conclusion is that herbs are best purchased as seedlings.

Eggplant and peppers: These are not exactly negatives—we had a decent harvest—but they needed extensive feedings (weekly) and did not produce ripe fruit until the early fall. It is possible that I planted them too close to each other (again!) and this year, we will give them even more space. I’m determined to make them work because their flavor is so much better than what you can get at the market, even the farmers’ market.

Photo by Rachel

Radishes and carrots: It pains me that neither the radishes nor the carrots performed well last year—or the two prior years, for that matter. Radishes in particular are supposed to be one of the easiest vegetables to grow. They are also supposed to be quick to mature. In our experience, they are quick to sprout but then their growth slows to a crawl. Carrots are slow in all respects.

With most of the root vegetables, we have also had the problem of too many greens and not enough roots. It’s not a huge problem—I enjoy radish, beet, and turnip greens as much as I enjoy radishes, beets, and turnips—which is a good thing because there does not seem to be anything to be done about it. We will continue to try different varieties to see what works best in our garden.

Cucumbers and summer squash: Like radishes, summer squash is supposed to be easy. It is also supposed to be prolific. Not for us. We had enough but leaving sacks of zucchini and cucumbers on the neighbors’ doorsteps was never an option. This is another case where finding the right variety—a trial and error approach—is really the only solution.

Photo by Rachel

And now, the positives.

Lettuce from seed, indoors: Sure, the germination rate of lettuce seeds is abysmally low but there’s no reason not to sow a hundred seeds at a time. If too many sprout, they can be culled and used as micro-greens (in salads arranged with tweezers!). More likely, only just enough will grow to fill out the planter.

We use window boxes that fit nicely on the bottom shelf of our seed-starting apparatus. We keep one fluorescent light fixture on them continuously (controlled by a timer) and so I only need to remember to water them every other day or so to maintain a steady harvest. If I can figure out a safe way to automatically irrigate the boxes (without fear of flooding the basement!), then the process will be perfect.

Photo by Rachel

Sugar Snap peas: Peas with edible pods are tied with turnips as my favorite home garden vegetable. They are the first to start outdoors (theoretically, as early as March 17) and quickly add a touch of spring green to the garden. The sprouts are useful whether raw, as a topping for crostini, say, or cooked in a stir-fry. The blossoms are beautiful and once the vines start producing, they continue for weeks.

Turnips and beets: Turnips are my co-favorite home garden vegetable both because they are easy to grow and are versatile. Unlike the other root vegetables, we’ve never had a problem with too many greens, which are delicious raw (in a salad, usually) or sautéed (e.g., with onions and garlic). Likewise, the roots can be eaten raw—thinly sliced, with bitter greens and a honey-based dressing—or cooked. I don’t know why more chefs haven’t included them in their farm-to-table menus.

Beets are slightly more problematic and sometimes the roots suffer due to over-abundant greens growth. On the other hand, they are very resilient and last until early fall. (And for all I know, they could over-winter in the ground without damage.) Despite the additional effort needed to spur their root growth, home-grown beets are worth it. Nothing beats the earthy flavor of beets, pulled from the ground and roasted in a hot oven. That’s terroir defined.

Tomatoes: As in previous years, we planted twelve vines last year but only six in a raised bed. The other six we planted in the ground, in alternation with the summer squashes. Also unlike ever before, we only placed one tomato vine per cage. More experienced gardeners might be saying, “Duh!”, but we’ve finally arrived at the conclusion that the tomatoes are easier to manage (by which I mean, easier to keep pruned) when they have more space between them.

Photo by Rachel

We also benefited from an unusual late-season growth spurt last year; our vines were still producing fruit in mid-November. It was odd, but in a delightful sort of way. Having fresh tomatoes in the fall—which were still green, for the most part—made us think about them in a different way. Whereas the soft, ripe, red tomatoes of summer were best eaten raw, the firmer, tart, green fall tomatoes tasted better in cooked dishes.

String beans: Pole and bush beans are another vegetable on the too-short list of reliable producers. Their preferred schedule (mid-summer to early fall) makes them the perfect candidate to follow the Sugar Snap peas when they start to peter out. Like the peas, beans sprout quickly, climb their trellis rapidly (one can almost see them creeping upwards), and supply an abundant crop of crisp, brightly-flavored beans that last for an extended period. They are a good choice to end the growing season.

One of my favorite ways to eat tomatoes (works best with cherry tomatoes): halve or roughly chop tomatoes; add a few cloves of chopped garlic; douse with olive oil; shower generously with salt and pepper; and, finally, sprinkle with a teaspoon or so of sugar. Roast in a hot oven (400 degrees F) until the tomatoes start to brown and the oil and tomato juices are bubbling (about 15 minutes).

The high heat and small amount of sugar will cause the liquid to thicken into a syrup as the tomatoes cool. Spoon them onto toasted slices of baguette, with or without a schmear of ricotta, for a version of crostini that is hearty enough as a main course.

The deadly night shades (tomatoes, bell peppers, and eggplant), the cucurbits (squash and cucumbers), and the legumes (string beans) continue to toil away in the mid-summer sun, slowly extending their stems, unfurling new leaves, presenting blossoms to eager pollinators, and fattening their fruits. Their harvest times remain weeks away.

Meanwhile, the members of three families of root vegetables—the crucifer (turnips and radishes), the goosefoot (beets), and the umbel (carrots)—bide their time until we decide to pluck them from the soil. They have matured for the most part and only slowly enlarge with each day’s dose of sunshine and water. We could harvest them all but they are safer in the ground than in the refrigerator, at least in the short-term.

In fact, in the ground is where these root vegetables like to be. Their purpose is to store energy over the winter so that the plants can flower and go to seed in their second spring. The roots will keep a long time and that is why many people store them for winter consumption. Doing so requires that they be kept dry and out of the sunlight, which, somewhat ironically, can harm them as well. Being buried in boxes of sand or soil and placed in the basement protects them until they are needed in the kitchen.

We don’t grow enough of them to feed us over the winter—hence, we do not put them in the cellar—but we do grow more than we can eat at one time or even at the rate that they mature. The icebox is one alternative but it is too cold and too humid, conditions that would foster mold or rot. Therefore, we keep the root vegetables on figurative ice.

We have to be careful, though. If kept too long in the soil, they can become woody or tough and will lose flavor. And if forgotten or neglected, they might decay or provide a feast for insects.

We won’t let that happen. When we are ready to eat them, we’ll them pull up, wash them off, and separate their greens. The roots we will roast and the greens we’ll sauté. And if we don’t eat them all, we will share them with others, which is perhaps the best approach to the abundance.

Wrapping up my assessment of last year’s plantings in preparation for this year’s (see February 6, 2014 for the previous installment), the eggplant and bell peppers are two other vegetables (three, if you count the different colors of pepper separately) which were delicious and did well in our garden but which could use more space.

I had read that bell peppers like to be close to each other—to “hold hands,” so to speak—and set them out accordingly.  I treated the eggplant, the peppers’ near relatives in the deadly nightshade family, similarly.  However, I think that my efficiency in filling the available space actually worked against me.

I planted the eggplant and bell peppers in a staggered row which allowed me to fit eight plants into only about a sixth of the planter.  The plants were certainly cozy.  It was great until the plants grew up and out, at which point the back row was almost completely shaded by the front row.  In a Catch-22 situation, the plants in the back were never able to get the sun they needed to grow above the plants in front.

We’ll grow them again this year but keep them in a single row.  There will be fewer plants and they will take up more space but they should fill out more and produce a greater number of fruit (last year, each plant only yielded two or three).  Also, I have read that eggplant is a heavy feeder and I assume that the bell peppers are, too.  Therefore, I will fertilize them more often.

What’s left?  Lettuce, for one thing.  The seeds we planted outdoors in early spring thrived.  We were lucky with the weather—not too much heat or rain—and the first seedlings quickly grew into diminutive heads of red leaf and romaine.  Contrary to expectation, they were hardy enough to transplant and remained productive well into the summer.  They did not turn bitter until the very end of their season.

We were not as lucky, however, with the second and third sowings.  Most of the seeds germinated but by the time the seedlings pushed through the soil surface, the weather was either very hot or very wet or, on some days, both.  The extremes were more than the tender seedlings could manage and they simply disintegrated.

It seems that there is a critical period during which the seedlings are quite sensitive and after which they are much sturdier.  Therefore, this year we will start the lettuce indoors.  With the enclosed seed trays, heating pads and fluorescent lights, we can better control their environment during the sensitive stage.  After they develop into heads, we will transplant them into larger pots and move them around, inside or out, based on the weather.

That only leaves the sugar snap peas and the string beans.  All of these performed phenomenally well, especially the peas which came pretty close to my ideal vision of the vegetable.  (If I am a bit hyperbolic, it is because they are some of my favorites.)  We will plant them again this year and see whether we can make them even more successful.

I’m still going through the process of evaluating last year’s plantings to determine what will go into the garden this year.  Last time (see January 15, 2014), I used three criteria:  how much we liked the vegetable; how well it grew; and, if not well, what could be done about it.  So far, I have concluded that all of the cucurbits—summer and winter squashes; cucumbers—are loved, grew reasonably well (with exceptions) and can be encouraged to grow better.

What else did we grow?  Well, lots of root vegetables.  And, I should point out, lots of root vegetable greens.  The radishes, carrots, beets and turnips all sprouted quickly and then produced a full crop of verdant leaves.  This was not at all a bad thing because I have come to enjoy the greens almost more than the roots that generate them.  Whether plucked from the garden early (as part of the thinning process) and thrown into a salad or clipped from the mature roots and sautéed, they are a delicious addition to the table.

Sadly, the roots took a lot longer to develop, if they did at all, and their eventual success was varied.  The radishes did particularly poorly with the first and second plantings yielding a root only about half of the time while the third planting never really reached maturity.  The carrots and beets performed moderately better but were painfully slow (especially the carrots) to ripen.  I don’t think any of them got as big as they could have.  The turnips were the top performers and provided both sizeable roots and plentiful greens through most of the summer.

I think we’ll give them all another chance this year (we still have plenty of seeds) but will make sure to limit their Nitrogen, by which I mean that I will not add any to the soil.  That means using fertilizers that do not contain it (i.e., those with zero as the first number in their N-P-K rating).  I will have to do some research into what might work best but that’s a topic for a future post.

I would prefer to limit the colors of the radishes and the carrots because we found that the purple varieties were the tastiest (I guess I like the flavor of anthocyanins; see October 20, 2013), followed by the red.  However, that would be difficult without buying new seed.  Our current radish and carrot seeds are “rainbow” mixtures and there is no way to determine the root color from the seed’s appearance.  I suppose this is one good reason not to buy seed mixes.

Five of the six tomato varieties we planted last year passed the taste test and for the most part, all of them performed well.  We’ll replant the Country Taste Beefsteak, the Brandywine (although, perhaps, only the yellow), the Black Cherry, and the ever-popular Sungold but we’ll skip the Aunt Ruby’s German Green.  Therefore, we’ll have room for some new varieties.

And speaking of room, I think we will give each tomato plant a bit more this year.  Pruning remains a critical factor for tomato plants and the lack of space (due to the vines’ exuberant growth) compounds the issue.  The first year we gardened, we pruned too little; the next year, we pruned too much.  We’d hoped that last year would be just right and, in the beginning of the season, it was.  But then, at the peak of the summer, the tomatoes’ rapid growth overwhelmed us.

This year, we’ll plant one tomato seedling per cage and keep a closer eye on them.  Each plant will have more space to spread into and will have less impact on its neighbors.  With luck and careful pruning, each vine will remain within the confines of its own cage and will wrap around it rather than spill over the top.

Keeping the tomato plants separate will be also important to prevent the spread of blight which, having made an unwelcome appearance last year, is likely to return this year.  Once it arrived (on the Brandywine or Black Cherry vines), the blight quickly spread to the other plants.

The only vines that did not contract the disease were the Country Taste Beefsteak, which is another reason to replant them.  Even though the beefsteaks were infected by some other disorder (Septoria leaf spot?), it did not really affect their output.  Spraying everything with a bicarbonate of soda solution should also help.

At breakfast last Saturday morning (pancakes and eggs at our favorite local joint), we started in on early planning for this year’s garden.  The first thing we concluded is that we are not really early.  By some reckonings, we should have sowed seeds for thyme last month and could be starting other herbs right now.  The second thing we concluded is that, once again, we are behind schedule.

Luckily, the choices of what to plant this year were relatively easy decisions even though a fair amount of thought went into each one.  We started with the list of plants we grew last year and then applied a few different criteria to assess their success.

The most important criterion for each vegetable is our answer to the question, did we like it?  It doesn’t matter how well it grew or how much it produced if, at the end of the day, we won’t eat it.  Of last year’s crops—those that actually yielded fruit—the only one that did not absolutely thrill us was the Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes.  They were not bad, per se, but they didn’t leave us wanting for more.  Consequently, we will not grow them again this year.

There was one plant whose fruit we could not taste.  The Delicata winter squash did set fruit—several of them—but was not able to develop any of them to maturity.  And that leads to the next criterion, performance.  Plants that did not thrive last year may not be suited to our particular microclimate.  Then again, we may not have given them what they needed, either.

So, what besides the Delicata did not perform?  Well, the Kabocha winter squash produced only one specimen by the end of the year and it was a small one at that.  That’s two strikes against the winter squashes and based on this meager showing, I was tempted to say that we should try other varieties this year or skip them altogether.

However, roasted with a little olive oil and salt, the Kabocha squash was absolutely delicious.  It passed the first criteria with flying colors even though it showed weakly on the second.  Similarly, although we were not able to sample the produce of our Delicata, it is one of my favorite varieties (we often buy it at the farmers’ market).  Therefore, we will try the Delicata and Kabocha squashes again.

The next criterion then is, why did these vegetables underperform?  My best guess is that we underfed them.  I haven’t reported on last year’s testing yet (look for a future posting) but soil properties are a definite suspect.  The areas we planted with the squash were newly formed last year and have not had much chance to stabilize.  This spring, we will probably need to enrich their soil and fertilize them more frequently.

The same could be true of the summer squashes—both the yellow crookneck and pale green zucchini—and the cucumbers—one a pickling variant and the other a slicing type—all of which we planted in more or less the same area (the ground surrounding the planters) and with roughly the same soil (equal parts of compost and peat moss).

Despite these similarities, however, their performance was quite different.  Three of the four summer squash vines were hugely productive (especially the alpha crookneck; see August 6, 2013) whereas the cucumbers produced only a modest quantity of fruit before fading away in mid-summer.  Two other factors could account for the differences.

First, the amount of soil we introduced for the cucumbers was much, much less than for the squashes.  This is partly because of their location between the pool fence and planters but mostly because the cucumbers were the last seedlings we planted.  By that time, we were tired!  Our native soil is rocky and very difficult to dig but we will have to face up to doing more of it this year.  Adding to and amending the soil will be an early spring chore.

Second, the cucumbers were stricken hard by powdery mildew and once afflicted, perished rapidly.  It is not clear (and probably never will be) whether this was due to their undernourished state or simply because the varieties we planted are more susceptible than others to powdery mildew.  The squashes, on the other hand, seem better able to continue to produce after contracting the disease.  Each of the squash vines was still setting fruit into the fall.

Both of these are factors we can mitigate—or try to mitigate, anyway—and so we will plant both types of summer squash and both types of cucumbers again.  To help control the powdery mildew (which is endemic in the northeast), we will plant in new locations.  I will also arm myself with a spray bottle full of baking soda solution which I will apply early and often.  With diligence—and luck—we will have more squash and cucumbers than we can eat this year.

While we were visiting a friend in his home (lucky us, he had invited us for one of his fantastic brunches), he asked about the purple string beans:  Do they, he wondered, taste any different from the green ones?

It is a good question.  Purple is an unusual color in the vegetable garden, second only to blue in rarity (is there any blue comestible other than blueberries?).  And while color is not always an indicator of flavor—the taste of red and green apples is not that different, for instance—it can be, especially when the color difference is due to ripeness, or lack thereof.

The answer to our friend’s question, though, is:  No; the purple string beans taste more or less the same as do the green ones.  In fact, as the beans cook, the purple fades away, leaving only the familiar green tint.  This is because heat and loss of acidity (due to dilution in neutral water) break down the anthocyanins that produce the color purple.  Chlorophyll, the green pigment (and component of photosynthesis), is apparently more stable.  (If we grow the purple string beans again next year—which is likely—I might try cooking a batch in vinegar or lemon juice to see whether that preserves the purple color.)

That matter resolved, I’ll ask my own follow-up questions:  What about the other vegetables growing in our garden?  Does their color dictate the flavor?

Well, as an indicator of ripeness, sure.  An unripe green tomato has a vastly different taste compared to a ripe red one.  We don’t grow them here, but apples (and most other fruits) exhibit this property.  It should be noted, however, that not all vegetables change color as they ripen.  Eggplant, for instance, starts purple and stays purple throughout its growth (and even its blossoms are tinged with purple).

But what about different colors of ripe tomato?  Do the yellow and orange varieties have a different flavor from the traditional red ones?  How about tomatoes that are green when ripe?  Furthermore, are the differences in flavor, if any, due to the color or is the color just an indicator of the difference?

Answering the last question first, I think the color is merely an indicator of a difference in flavor and not the cause of it.  The various colors of tomato do have varying flavors but the variations are due to different levels of sugar and acidity.  And as noted above, pigments react very differently to acidity.  Typical red tomatoes are relatively high in acidity so acid-resistant pigments like carotenoids (of which lycopene is the most common in tomatoes) will dominate their color.

At the other end of the spectrum (in both flavor and color), orange, yellow, green and purple (sometimes referred to as black) tomatoes are sweeter in flavor, a result of their being lower in acid.  Another consequence of higher pH is that pigments less resistant to acid, such as the anthocyanins, can survive in their colored state and contribute to the tomatoes their distinctive hues.  In other words, the pigments act as a natural litmus test to visually signify flavor.

This is only a quasi-scientific analysis but it makes sense, at least for the tomatoes.  In addition to the tomatoes, we also planted different colors of carrots, radishes, beets and bell peppers this year.  To my taste buds, the red and white-striped Chioggia beets tasted the same as the Touchstone Gold and neither tasted any different from the typical all-red variety.

Similarly, there was only one significant difference between the taste of our Quadrato d’Asti Rosso (red) and Orange Sun (guess) bell peppers and the common green variety.  The peppers we grew tasted less grassy, a flavor component that I can only call “green”.  This is a good thing because that grassiness usually puts me off bell peppers.

Our radish crop was not sufficiently successful to make an assessment of their flavors but the carrots, which flourished a wide rainbow of colors, also yielded an array of flavors.  The orange were the most typical (no surprise there) while the yellow and white were woodier and the purple were sweeter.  The range in flavor was not quite as great as in color or as stark as with the tomatoes but there was definitely a correlation.