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Kitchen Garden

Apple Time in Iowa

Jonafree apples at Wilson’s Orchard and Farm, Sept. 17, 2021.

Large commercial farms in Iowa don’t grow apples the way they did. Iowa is mostly a corn, soybeans, oats and hay state when it comes to field crops. People don’t often grow apple trees at home either. Apples remain the most significant Iowa fruit crop and there are plenty around if you know where to look.

My backyard apple orchard has five trees. This year two varieties produced, Red Delicious and Earliblaze. Besides eating them fresh, I made apple cider vinegar and applesauce from Earliblaze, which were ready first and are done. I just started the Red Delicious harvest and made apple butter, and apple sauce from them so far. Preserving apples will get us through next year when the harvest is expected to be light. This year we have all the apple nutrition we can use with our own apples. Food in a kitchen garden is about more than nutrition.

To get more variety I went to a local orchard where trees are loaded with fall crop apples. Many varieties are ripe and ready to pick now. It was easy picking as the crowds had not hit them the way they will once autumn arrives Sept. 22.

“The full docket for apples this week includes Crimson Crisp, Jonathon, McIntosh, Cortland, Jonafree, Golden Supreme, Honey Gold, Honeycrisp, Song of September, Blondee, Burgundy, Bonner, Sansa, Cortland, Gala, and Ginger Gold,” according to the weekly marketing email from Wilson’s Orchard and Farm. In addition to apples, the farm began growing pumpkins and flowers which add to the scenic experience. In addition to picking apples I got in my daily exercise walking up and down the hills.

My goal was to come home with six or eight Crimson Crisp apples plus a few other varieties. (I planted a Crimson Crisp apple tree in the back yard and it hasn’t begun to fruit). I came home with a bag full of half a dozen varieties, plus some Honeycrisp for home storage. The flavors are distinctive in each, worth savoring.

People do it all the time yet I don’t know how they eat apples produced in other states and trucked into local grocery stores. Nutritionally they may meet requirements, but OMG! With all the locally grown apples and their diverse, often marvelous qualities why would you? As we eat through the ones I brought home we share and discuss each one. It is an experience of Iowa’s apple season and part of our local culture. At least it can be.

Apple time signals the beginning of autumn and the end of the growing season. It will be a rush to get everything done before snow flies. The main work of food production moves from the vegetable garden to the kitchen as bushels of apples become available. Apple time in Iowa connects us to the cycles of the season. Although the seasons have changed due to planetary warming and the greenhouse effect, we enjoy what persists during apple time.

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Kitchen Garden

Apple Cider Vinegar Time

Setup for juicing apples for apple cider vinegar.

Turning two five-gallon buckets of EarliBlaze apples into juice for apple cider vinegar took about three hours including set up and clean up. Three half gallon mason jars are fermenting in the pantry, and a quart and a half of juice is in the ice box. I drank some of the juice with tacos for supper. It was a good day.

There was already plenty of cider vinegar in the pantry: seven liter bottles, two half gallon mason jars and a couple of smaller bottles in the cupboard near the stove. The goal is to make some vinegar with every apple crop because some years there is no crop. It has not been a problem because vinegar keeps and apples are abundant.

Apple Cider Vinegar

I’ve been making apple cider vinegar since a neighbor gave me some of the mother passed down through his family since at least the 19th Century. I call it “ultra local” because the apples were grown a few steps from the kitchen.

I spent a couple of hours on Wednesday delivering a “Drinking Water Health Advisory” to every home on our public water system. My shirt soaked through with sweat as I walked the two miles of roads. It was good exercise even though I didn’t enjoy some of the steeper hills.

About a dozen people were out in their yards, providing an opportunity to connect. While the news I delivered wasn’t the best, all but one of them had heard of the problem I posted via Facebook and email. Most were in good spirits and appreciated knowing what was going on regarding the water system. I met via conference call with our engineer and water system operator in the morning and laid out a simple plan to address the problem. Here’s hoping for a speedy resolution.

With Tuesday’s announcement that Christina Bohannan is running for congress in Iowa’s second congressional district, I’ve been reflecting on the congressional campaigns in which I’ve been involved. I began to get active when we lived in Indiana, helping Pete Visclosky get re-elected to a third term. He retired in January this year.

Rep. Jim Leach represented the area where I grew up from 1977 to 2003. He moved to Iowa City after redistricting for the 2002 election and was elected there twice. While he was Republican, the district wasn’t as partisan as it is now. When we lived in Indiana I saw Leach hold hearings on Whitewater in the House Banking Committee, which he chaired. After that I realized it was time for him to go. When he became my congressman in 2003, I began working toward that end. In 2006 we elected Dave Loebsack to the Congress where he served until this year.

The 2020 election was a disappointment because the congressional vote was evenly split. Democrat Rita Hart contested the results, but nothing came of it. Mariannette Miller-Meeks was sworn in to the 117th Congress. We are at the beginning of another campaign.

It is time to pass the baton to the next generation in congressional politics. With the isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, I did very little volunteer work in politics during the last cycle. Rita Hart made it to our precinct only during the last days before the election, with little enthusiasm for her candidacy. With the resurgence of the pandemic, I see that approach continuing. Besides, it is time to let younger, more engaged people manage campaigns. In the end I’d rather spend time politicking with my neighbors than get involved in the massive energy and expense of a district campaign.

Maybe it was the scent of the apples that evoked this political remembrance. That tasty sweetness which over time will be converted to vinegar. As I age, astringent flavor is more interesting than sweet. I crave it. I make it. I look forward to using the new batch of apple cider vinegar. I both know where it came from and the chef who makes it.

Making apple cider vinegar is part of a life worth living.

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Kitchen Garden

2021 Garden Experiments

Rouge vif D’Etampes pumpkin from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Radicchio

I successfully grew radicchio this season, yet haven’t figured out how it fits into the kitchen garden. I pickled some of the leaves, added it to soup and stir fries, and besides saying I have it, there’s not much value in the crop. I have seeds leftover and may plant half a dozen head next season. Unless something happens in the kitchen to encourage the use, I won’t be buying more.

Rouge vif D’Etampes

These seeds produced four decent and visually appealing pumpkins. I haven’t roasted one of them yet although if the flavor is good, I’ll grow the remaining seeds next year. The trouble is pumpkins want to take over the space in which they are planted. They need their own plot. Regular Jack-O-Lantern and cooking pumpkins are ubiquitous in this area, so buying one is an easy solution to our pumpkin needs if the garden runs out of space. I still have two cups of frozen pumpkin flesh left from last season.

Cantaloupe

The seeds started but the vines didn’t do anything. Not sure of the reason but they were next to pumpkins, which may have dominated the smaller plant. Organic cantaloupe are available inexpensively at the grocery store, so this is another one that may be better to buy and use the garden space for something else.

Mustard Greens

Mustard grew well but it doesn’t fit in our kitchen. Because I want to have a variety of greens available, I’ll likely plant it for the third time next year. The main use has been to make pesto from the spicy greens. I also give it away.

Onions

The onion crop was what I wanted: plenty of onions in six varieties. I successfully started onions indoors, although next season the seeds should be started in December for a longer growing period before transplant. The starts I bought from the seed company performed well and I’ll get more in 2022.

Beets

Once again the beet crop mostly failed. I started them indoors and transferred them outside where a late frost killed most of them. I tried starting a second batch but it didn’t take. My goal is to produce enough to pickle a couple of quarts for the pantry. They taste so good, I’ll try again next year after reading up on cultivation practices.

Lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and the rest

The 2021 garden was my most successful yet. The variety of produce was good, as was the quality. I made planned improvements, including a patch of kitchen greens with kale, chard, mustard, turnips and kohlrabi. The container potatoes produced well. Garlic is still curing and the heads are large and appear to be disease free. I’ll use my own to plant next year’s crop. There were plenty of cucumbers, eggplant, and other crops to make the effort worth while.

Moving lettuce under row cover made all the difference. We had plenty of lettuce until a week or so ago. There is a fall crop growing now. I grew four or five crops of lettuce in succession.

I grew the most tomato plants ever both in quantity and variety. The quality was excellent. I figured out how to vine cherry tomatoes so they produce a lot and are accessible and separate from the main tomato crop. The trick is planting them in a straight row. I used cages but one could use stakes and welded wire fence with the indeterminate vines. If I were buying new, I’d get six-foot fencing. There will be enough Roma-type tomatoes to can whole and plenty of slicers to give away. One thing I know is how to grow tomatoes.

The second year of the new pepper process produced good results. Ace is the main producer. I tried seeds sent free from a supplier for the rest, but it didn’t produce as expected. Watering peppers adequately is important. If I ever use drip tape for a crop, it would be for peppers first.

A gardener’s life is one of constant learning and experimentation. To be effective one has to spend time in the garden observing. We planted our first tomatoes at home in 1983 and grew a garden every year since then, except one. As I approach 40 years in the garden, I hope to continue for many more.

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Kitchen Garden

Gemelli Summer Pasta

Summer pasta made with yellow and orange tomatoes.

I could eat fresh from the garden pasta dishes all summer and hopefully will. At the same time, summer is turning toward fall so we’d best enjoy them while we can.

There have been crates and crates of garden tomatoes this season. I sorted a crate of yellow and orange, cut ripe ones into a dutch oven, and turned on the heat. My process for making tomato sauce is easy.

Cook the cut tomato pieces on the stove top until the skins begin to loosen. Depending on the variety I add a little liquid to the pan so they don’t burn. Carefully put the tomatoes into a perforated funnel to drain. Mine is an old-style farm funnel with a wooden masher. Once they drain, save the liquid if there is an immediate use for it, otherwise discard. (A kitchen can only use so much of it). Finally, process the drained tomatoes with the wooden masher, pushing the pulp through the funnel. This thickens the sauce without cooking it to death on the stove, making a fresher-tasting pasta sauce.

When the day began all I knew was to use some tomatoes for a meal. I found a bag of Gemelli dried pasta in the storage rack and decided that would be dinner.

There are countless variations to making pasta. In addition to pasta noodles prepared according to instructions on the bag, I used orange and yellow tomatoes, onion, garlic, basil and eggplant. Garnishes were cherry tomatoes and fresh parsley. Parmesan cheese is optional, which if left out makes this a vegan dish.

Here is my current process.

In a large skillet sautee onions and diced eggplant in extra virgin olive oil. When the onions begin to turn translucent, add two cloves of minced garlic. Salt and pepper to taste. Stir constantly until everything is cooked.

Add the fresh tomato sauce and incorporate. Add a generous amount of fresh or dried basil and re-season. There is variation in the moisture level of tomato sauce made this way. Cook it to the desired thickness.

When the pasta is done, reserve a third cup of pasta water and drain it. Add the noodles to the sauce along with the pasta water. Mix gently until the pasta is thoroughly coated. Add halved cherry tomatoes and freshly chopped parsley and toss until the tomatoes warm.

Serve with a vegetable side dish like steamed green beans, broccoli or cauliflower.

This was my dinner. I hope readers are also enjoying fresh from the garden pasta this summer!

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Kitchen Garden

Iowa Sweet Corn

Young men bagging freshly-picked sweet corn at Rebal’s Sweet Corn farm stand.

The decision to buy sweetcorn and not grow it was easy. It takes a lot of garden space and my results haven’t been as consistent as one can buy at a farm stand. The farm stand where we’ve been buying sweet corn is closing after this season.

This will be our last year of selling sweet corn. Yes, the rumors are correct. After 35 years of business, we’re decided to bring it to an end. We’ve loved meeting all of you, and hopefully have provided the best sweet we possibly could. But it’s time for us to make a few changes in life. We’ve appreciated your business over the years, and all the wonderful comments you’ve given us. Wow! This is a hard post to write! Thank you all so much for your business, and we hope to see you one last time before the season ends and Rebal’s Sweet Corn comes to a final close.

Rebal’s Sweet Corn Facebook page.

They had corn on Friday so I bought ten dozen ears to freeze and eat fresh on the cob, on pizzas, and in leek and potato soup. Next year I’ll have to find a new grower but I don’t see re-visiting my decision to outsource this crop.

Leveraging the work of others is an important part of managing a kitchen garden. Rebal’s Sweet Corn fits into my local food paradigm of knowing the face of the farmer. We will miss them when they move on.

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Kitchen Garden

Trouble with Tomatillos

Tomatillo harvest on Aug. 4, 2021

This year four tomatillo plants are producing an abundance of the fruit. Due to a paucity of recipes so many are not a good fit for our kitchen garden.

Mainly I used tomatillos in salsa to provide texture and their green color. I also slice or dice them to add to stir fry. Because there are so many, I will freeze what I can’t use fresh and see how that works in the coming months. In years past, the plants did not produce so many fruits. Next year I’ll reduce the number of plants.

I asked for recipe ideas on social media and the responses were honest yet not viable.

A common pairing is with the meat of hogs or chickens. As a vegetarian household, that’s not an option.

Another idea is to mix them with avocados and other ingredients for guacamole. This one winds me up because I’m in the camp of people who believe the rise in popularity of avocados also drives deforestation. How bad is the rapidly expanded avocado business?

The short answer is that avocado farming is causing deforestation, destroying ecosystems, funding drug cartels, and contributing to climate change. In Michoacán, Mexico, the biggest avocado producing region in the world, farmers are illegally razing pine forests in order to plant lucrative avocado trees. The native pine trees make up an irreplaceable habitat to indigenous species, including the iconic monarch butterfly.

Ethical Unicorn, Sept. 23, 2018.

Young people look at me askance when I say I won’t eat avocados because of deforestation resulting from their popularity. Nonetheless, I’m pretty firm in that view and have been weathered by askance looks over the course of many years. No guacamole or avocado toast for me.

The reality is there is already too much to do in the kitchen with hundreds of tomatoes lined up for processing. I put the tomatillos from the photo on a baking sheet and stuck them in the chest freezer to get them out of the way. When frozen, I’ll put them in a zip top bag until I’m ready to use some. There are many dozens of them remaining on the vines to be used fresh or given away.

We have two Mexican restaurants in the area and they have taken excess jalapeno peppers before. We’ll see what I harvest and maybe stop by one of them to present tomatillos as a gift. At least they won’t go to waste.

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Kitchen Garden

August is for Onions

Four main onion varieties in 2021.

The onion harvest is in, sorted, cured and stored. There will be plenty of onions through winter and beyond.

The main lessons this year were to plant multiple varieties, keep them weeded and watered, and allow enough garden space to produce an abundance. The best results were from the starts purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I started my own from seed on Jan. 20, yet that wasn’t early enough. The fruit produced was smaller than the ones from the seed supplier, which are pictured above.

Onions started from seed, Rossa di Milano and Calibri Yellow, were small yet usable. I peeled, sliced and froze the yellow ones. They will be used mostly for winter soup. The small red onions are first to use for fresh eating in tacos and salsa, and sliced on sandwiches. Even though they are small, the flavor is outstanding. Every onion grown will find a home.

For the second year I produced a row of shallots, started from seed. They came out great. Shallots are long keepers and popular as gifts. If anything, I’ll plan to grow more shallots in 2022 and already bought the seeds.

I selected varieties mostly for storage qualities. I have had good luck storing Patterson, Ailsa Craig and Redwing, so they are repeats this year. Sierra Blanca is an experiment in white onions. All four varieties met growing expectations.

A bowl of onions is the heart of a kitchen. Growing one’s own onions is even better. There are four crates of onions in storage so our household is ready for cooking in the coming months.

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Kitchen Garden

August is for Apples

EarliBlaze apples ripening on Aug. 3, 2021.

It took about an hour to harvest tomatoes. While working in the vines I heard an apple drop from one of the EarliBlaze trees every couple of minutes. Each time I picked an apple and tasted it they weren’t quite ripe. When I cut them open to view the seeds, they were not the characteristic dark brown yet.

It won’t be long. The ground is littered with what will be a meal for deer that roam our subdivision.

EarliBlaze apple seeds on Aug. 3, 2021.

Tomatoes and apples are big crops, which along with celery, garlic and onions, are money crops that will last until next year’s harvest. It is important to get these crops right. With apples, it is about waiting until they are ripe, picking them all at once, then processing them as quickly as possible.

August is for apples. The early varieties like EarliBlaze are used mostly for apple cider vinegar, fresh eating, an apple dessert or two, and if we need it, apple butter or apple sauce. They have plenty of sugar to ferment into home made apple cider vinegar. In August the Red Delicious variety continues to grow and won’t get full-sized and ripe until early October. It is important to know when to pick them and to provide the best possible growing conditions. I have never sprayed them and the Japanese Beetles have found other leaves to eat this year.

Summer stir fry.

We had stir fry for dinner last night and summer stir fry, based on what’s available from the garden, is one of the best tasting meals we eat all year. We have it once or twice a week.

Even though my work at the orchard was delayed until the end of the month, I can fill any apple gaps with what ripens there. In the next couple of years the new trees I planted will fill those gaps. Going forward, my work days are filled with canning, freezing and drying produce. It will be non-stop work from now until frost. The payoff is a freezer and pantry full of food to use until the process begins again next year.

It is the best definition of sustainability. Besides, what else is there to do in a kitchen garden?

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Kitchen Garden

August is for Tomatoes

Tomatoes on Aug. 1, 2021.

When a gardener plants more than a hundred tomato seedlings they expect to harvest tomatoes in August. Expectations met!

“I made weak coffee Sunday morning,” I posted on Twitter. “I hate weak coffee. I got distracted while measuring grounds into the French press. Distracted by the tomatoes taking over the kitchen. TOMATOES ARE TAKING OVER THE KITCHEN!”

No freak out here. I drank my coffee, cleaned and sorted the tomatoes, and have a home for yesterday’s surplus. I inspected the garden and there should be another crop today. An abundance of tomatoes is a good thing.

Growing enough Roma-style tomatoes to start canning whole ones is the challenge. I planted three varieties, Speckled Roman, Granadero and Amish Paste. Each has good flavor, and if there are enough, I’ll put one variety per jar. Canned whole Roma tomatoes are the mainstay of our pantry.

I used to can tomato sauce, tomato juice, and diced tomatoes. After the current stock is depleted, it will be whole tomatoes only. Canned whole tomatoes provide the best flexibility. It is an example of less being more. I open a jar of canned wholes and can make almost any tomato dish with it. I don’t think I’m going back to the old way.

A couple of 4-6 ounce tomato varieties are in this year’s mix. Their main contribution is flavor. Seeding and chopping them for salsa produces a very nice texture. I made a quart jar of salsa with the abundance. I used to freeze or can salsa and am moving away from that practice. Fresh is better. I’m growing Guajillo chilies to make a winter-time salsa to use on tacos, enchiladas and the like. I’ll add a bit of home made apple cider vinegar to preserve it in the refrigerator.

August is a busy month in the kitchen for a gardener. Not only are there tomatoes, but crates of onions, garlic curing in racks, and potatoes nicked during harvest needing to be used. Pears will be ripe soon. I check the EarliBlaze apple trees daily to see if they are ripe–they are getting close. Once they come in, the first bushels will go to apple cider vinegar making. Harvesting, storage and processing takes up most of August. It’s part of a commitment to growing one’s own food.

This morning I made strong coffee, the way I like it. I’m already fortified for another day in the kitchen garden. It’s life, as good as it gets.

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Kitchen Garden

Reasons to Source Food Locally

Garden produce on Saturday, July 24, 2021.

Despite near drought conditions most of this growing season, our garden is producing the best crop I can remember. Our ability to irrigate is most of that. I’m also becoming a better gardener. We don’t have it as bad as California does.

Because of dry conditions over an extended period of time, California farmers are letting fields go fallow. Without rain or irrigation there is no point in putting seeds in the ground. California Governor Gavin Newsom issued three drought emergency proclamations this year, in April, May and July. The state called for residents to reduce water use by 15 percent to stretch supplies and protect water reserves. While this drought is not the worst on a 1,000 year time line, it is bad and if it continues it will affect what shoppers see in grocery stores. It goes without saying prices will trend upward.

Because of drought in western states, what we do in our Midwestern back yards increases in value.

When Michael Pollan released this video in 2010, the landscape for local food was different. His focus was on the amount of fossil fuel it took to produce vegetables in California and distribute them across the United States. He also discusses the energy required to make processed foods, like Hostess Twinkies. While avoiding global warming remains a reason to eat locally, with drought made worse by climate change, supply becomes an issue. If California farmers are not planting crops, if almond trees are not sustainable there, how will we get nutritious food? There are few better solutions than growing one’s own and sourcing locally.