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.

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.

Kitchen Garden

Spring Breakfast with Arugula

Farfalle with arugula, sugar snap peas and Parmesan cheese.

I searched this website for arugula and found I’ve written about farfalle with arugula several times. It is my go-to spring dish, and now that one of us is vegan, I moved it to the breakfast rotation instead of supper. Properly made it is a taste sensation.

I haven’t written about the dish the same way over the years. That is, the “recipe” keeps changing. This iteration was pretty good, so at the risk of being repetitive, here goes:

Put water on the stove to boil. Measure one and a half cups dried farfalle and put it in the water once it is at a rolling boil. Set the timer for 12 minutes.

On the cutting board, tear up a good handful of arugula and remove the thick stems. De-vein 10-12 sugar snap peas and cut them in half across the length. Measure half a cup of grated Parmesan cheese.

Put a generous tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in a mixing bowl. Add a teaspoon of ground, black pepper and a couple of grinds of sea salt.

When the timer goes off, add the sugar snap peas to the boiling pasta and let it go for another 60 seconds or so. Collect a quarter cup of pasta water and drain the pasta and peas.

Pour the pasta and peas into the mixing bowl and begin gently mixing. Add the pasta water and continue to mix. Finally, add the arugula and mix until incorporated. While I used the word “mix” a couple of times in a row, don’t mix it to death. You want the arugula leaves to look like what they are.

Serve immediately. If a person is going to garden, they have to have recipes to use up the produce. This is one of my ever-changing favorites and a Spring classic.

Kitchen Garden

Waiting for Pollination

View of tomatoes from the oak tree stump, June 15, 2021.

Three separate times I sat on the oak tree stump in the garden to watch insect life. I walked around each of the plots observing activity. I spent a decent amount of time doing this. It is not natural to see insects, one has to train to look for them, bring them into focus. The biome of my garden is more diverse that the row crops I saw driving the Lincoln Highway last week, although it’s something to which I had paid little attention.

Tomato plants look healthy, many of them are in bloom, and a few fruit have formed. There wasn’t an abundance of pollinators, maybe enough to get the job done. I spotted one regular honeybee, although maybe that one will bring their buddies today. This is planned to be a big tomato year to get caught up on canned tomatoes. So far, so good.

The humidity was lower making outdoors pleasant even with ambient temperatures in the mid-80s. What we need is rain. According to the state climatology website, our part of the state received about four inches of accumulated precipitation less than average this spring. I don’t believe rain will come in quantities to get us back to average. I irrigate the garden and two new apple trees daily.

Otherwise, Tuesday was a day of preparing for and being in meetings. I was part of a group of Iowans in a conference call with our U.S. Senator Joni Ernst about addressing climate change, and I conducted the annual meeting of our home owners association.

I finished reading Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself by Chloe Angyal. I met the author at an event in Iowa City while she was writing it. Dance was not available when I was a grader, and I’ve attended a ballet performance only once or twice, notably the Alvin Ailey company when they were in residence in Iowa City. Like many, I watched Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov dance The Nutcracker on television. I also read Kirkland’s memoir Dancing on My Grave.

After reading Angyal’s book, I wouldn’t encourage preteens participate in ballet, and if they did, to avoid going on pointe until their bodies finish growing. To understand the physical stress, I tried doing turnout in the kitchen. My left hip was sore the rest of the day.

While we wait for pollination, we also wait for rain. There is none in the forecast.

Kitchen Garden

Late Spring in a Kitchen Garden

Radicchio Leaves, June 11, 2021.

These late spring days of gardening are among the best of the year. Produce is coming in with variety and quantity, the ice box is filling faster than we can eat and preserve everything. It’s why we garden.

There was a time when I didn’t consider leafy green vegetables important in a garden-based meal. I hoped to grow spinach and lettuce, and maybe that’s it. That changed and now I have an entire plot devoted to different kinds of greens. Greens I used to compost now go into vegetable broth or main courses.

This year I successfully grew mustard, chard, kale, collards, turnips, kohlrabi, beets, arugula, lettuce and spinach for leafy greens. I am also experimenting with radicchio.

Radicchio is a bitter green. Based on my research it can be eaten at any stage of the plant. Ideally one gets good sized heads, and I may yet do so. I didn’t understand how big the plant grows, and thinned some to make room for a couple with heads. That produced an opportunity to try some things.

The first leaves I picked went into a fresh salad. Next, I separated and sorted the culled leaves and pickled the larger ones in a brine made with malt vinegar mixed with my own apple cider vinegar. The pickled leaves will be ready in seven days. Like with any pickle in this household, a little goes a long way. What else?

We have not eaten much arborio rice yet have a couple of bags on hand. I thought to use some of it in a radicchio risotto. I searched my main cookbook library and found radicchio recipes in Molto Italiano by Mario Batali, Fields of Greens: New Vegetarian Recipes from the Celebrated Greens Restaurant by Annie Somerville, Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, Classic Italian Cooking for the Vegetarian Gourmet by Beverly Cox with Dale Whitesell, and Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmer’s Markets by Deborah Madison. There were a couple of recipes for risotto and other interesting options. What surprised me was how many cookbooks did not mention radicchio.

Next step is to read all these recipes, pick a risotto plus one other dish to try with the leaves depicted above. The next couple of days are already busy, yet I hope to work this in. Radicchio was comparatively easy to grow, although some refinement is needed in my future cultivation of the plant. I can likely start another crop for fall harvest.

With the garden in and weeded, I can work on other projects in the yard and house. Broccoli heads are beginning to form and cauliflower won’t be far behind. I monitor for predatory pests, as insect life in the garden is vibrant and hopeful. There are likely some cabbage eaters coming, maybe some squash beetles, Colorado potato beetles, and others. I’ll pick them off as I’ve always done without insecticides. My post-pandemic schedule enables me to keep watch over the garden.

I’m planning two main garden harvests per week. One Monday morning for the food bank, and another toward the end of the week for preservation and cooking. This year’s garden has been satisfying on many levels. So much so, I hung a sign on it.

Garden 2021
Kitchen Garden

A Spring Harvest

Garden produce displayed on my work bench on June 4, 2021.

The Dutch oven on the stove top is bubbling with today’s vegetable broth. This batch is different because I used kohlrabi greens, which I usually compost, along with turnip and beet greens. The color is rich. Air in the whole house is imbued with the aroma of mirepoix combined with fresh greens. It is elemental.

By tomorrow night, part of the broth will be used to make dinner.

On trash/recycling day I walk the receptacles to the road when I wake so I don’t forget them after sunrise. There was a cool breeze with low humidity as I did it this morning. It felt good after yesterday’s high temperature close to 90 degrees. According to a local meteorologist, the weekend will be exceedingly warm, without precipitation. It’s a time for humans to stay hydrated and to water the garden enough to keep plants growing in the heat. During yesterday afternoon’s walkabout it appeared pumpkins, cucumbers and squash planted have become established despite the heat. It was touch and go for a while.

When I write about the kitchen garden it blocks other topics. For the time being it’s okay. In 2022 I’m planning a course of renewal as a septuagenarian, there’s more I want to accomplish during my days. For now, the scent of vegetable broth and small successes in the garden will sustain me.

Kitchen Garden

Celery Day

Celery patch, June 2, 2021.

This celery patch was revealed from among the weeds yesterday afternoon. In the background of the photograph is a pile of grass clippings with which to mulch the plants until mature.

I tasted a stalk right there in the garden. The flavor of home grown celery is unlike any of your store-bought, shipped from California celery. Much of this will grow to maturity and be processed frozen. The culinary use is mostly for winter soups. Integration of the growing patches with the kitchen is what a kitchen garden is.

I harvested the largest kohlrabi and cleaned it in the kitchen. The flesh of the bulb tasted almost like butter: soft, mild, and delicious. Gardeners keep saying the leaves can be eaten. That’s a true statement, yet there are so many greens available kohlrabi leaves get neglected… and composted. There are six more plants in the first succession. When I harvest them, I might use the leaves as the base for more vegetable broth. I might not.

The forecast is for rain beginning at noon. Once the sun rises I’ll head back out to continue weeding and mulching. It’s much of what gardeners do in June.

Kitchen Garden

Garden is In – 2021

Garden on May 31, 2021

On Memorial Day I fenced in plot #7 and planted Guajillo chili peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, and a variety of yellow squash and zucchini. There is always something more to plant, yet with the fences up, I’m saying the garden is done. A gardener needs closure.

The next step is to go through the greenhouse and see what I might have missed and find a space for it. There are also extra seedlings which can now be composted. The pumpkins, cantaloupes, and winter squash are not ready to go into the ground yet. From here it is a clean-up operation… and weeding.

There will be less weeding because of the landscaping cloth used in some of the plots. Our yard doesn’t produce enough grass clippings to mulch everything, so I had to do something. Last time I brought a load of mulch from the Iowa City landfill a whole new and different crop of weeds sprouted from it. It was free, but a bad option. I re-used the landscaping cloth from last year and with care it will make it through multiple seasons. It is a better choice than single-use plastic or contaminated mulch from the landfill.

The kitchen is transformed by spring produce. There have been a variety of salads, kale and other greens in everything, spring onions, spring garlic, and radishes. Most notable is the abundance of lettuce. Using row cover on lettuce made a big difference in the size and quality of heads. There is more than we will be able to eat fresh. That’s not to mention arugula and spinach, which together make a nice green salad dressed with a mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper. The first batch of spring soup should be stellar.

Garlic scapes have begun to emerge, signaling summer and its long season of food preservation. I’m ready for the busy days ahead as the garden comes into its own and we enjoy the harvest.

It’s nice to call planting done even though a gardener’s work is never finished.

Living in Society


Wildflowers on the Lake Macbride State Park trail, May 26, 2021.

Fourteen months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, it was time to get the newer car serviced. For the most part, the 2002 Subaru sat in the garage or driveway during the pandemic. Wednesday I drove it to town, dropped it at the shop, and walked home along the Lake Macbride State Park trail. It was a near perfect day for a long walk, with clear skies and ambient temperatures in the mid 70s.

Rain is today’s forecast, as it has been for the last two weeks. We haven’t gotten much rain, only enough to retard gardening progress. It looks like drought will be more Iowa’s problem this growing season, although there has been enough moisture here.

In an effort to stop taking a post-operative opioid pain killer, I skipped a dose yesterday afternoon. I’ll likely skip another dose at 11 a.m. today and if the pain is subsiding, switch back to Ibuprofen (or nothing) before bedtime. It was useful to have access to a strong pain killer.

I’ve been mostly out of the garden since I put the tomatoes in and need to finish up initial planting with Guajillo chilies, eggplant, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, cantaloupes, and acorn squash in plot seven. I also need to weed… a lot.

I’ve been reading Mark Bittman’s new book Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal. It presents a broad history of food in society, focusing on the detrimental aspects of agriculture. I’m reading the chapter on branding — the rise of Chiquita, Campbell’s, Heinz, Kraft and others. In my autobiography there is a section about the rise of grocery stores and branded prepared foods, so Bittman provides a great background for that work just when I need it. The current average rating on Goodreads is 3.88 which seems about right. I can’t say there is much new to me in the book yet he does part of my research for me.

At 9 a.m. this morning there is a 100% chance of rain, according to my weather application. As soon as the sun rises at 5:36 a.m., I plan to grab my spade and turn over as much of plot seven as I can before it starts. After being waylaid for a week, I’m ready to get back to the garden.

Kitchen Garden

Lettuce Progress

Magenta and Bibb lettuce, May 25, 2021.

This year’s spring lettuce crop beat expectations. I harvested a lot and the heads are healthy-looking. I set a wheel barrow with lettuce at the end of the driveway to share the abundance with neighbors. Only a couple found homes but I’m happy to place any of it. I’m not really marketing either.

I seem to have cracked the code for growing lettuce. Here’s what I am seeing.

It began with selecting variety. Magenta from Johnny’s Selected Seeds is a good summer crop lettuce and that’s most of what’s in the photo. I also procured five other varieties, which I’m trying in succession.

The germination heating pad made a big difference. Seeds germinated more quickly and that resulted in more viable starts. I recycled some nine-cell seed starter trays and that’s the right size per succession crop for our household. Before last frost I transplanted to larger containers and now I’m planting from the nine-cell trays directly into the soil.

Lettuce under row cover.

What appears to have made the biggest difference is planting lettuce under row cover. The heads grew quickly to maturity and the soil remains fertile with addition of composted chicken manure crumbles. The row cover also protects lettuce from excessive sunlight and from insects. I’ve grown lettuce from seedlings before, but never like this, with big heads and a high seedling success rate.

I did a financial analysis of gardening as a potential source of income and lettuce would be a key component. People will pay more for organically grown lettuce fresh from the garden. I haven’t thought much about taking it to the farmers’ market before, but after this spring, I can see a path to selling some of it next year.

A gardener is always observing the results of their work, trying new things, and staying up to date on tools and techniques available to improve cropping. When one hits on a success, like this lettuce crop, the work seems worth it.

Think I’ll have a celebratory salad for breakfast.