Saturday, February 27, 2010

Spaghetti with breadcrumbs and mushrooms

This is as good as it gets.  I like this a lot as just spaghetti with breadcrumbs, but it pairs nicely with mushrooms, asparagus, cauliflower - you name it.

I first saw this on a Lidia Bastianich episode, without any vegetable.  It's a wonderful side dish, but I also like it for a light meal or snack - essentially the equivalent of a slice of toast with butter.  The critical element is good breadcrumbs, so use some decent bread to make fresh crumbs - or use panko (Japanese bread crumbs, now available everywhere) if you don't have bread on hand.


Cook spaghetti according to directions

For each serving, use 1/2 - 1 slice of bread, turned into crumbs in the processor or blender.

Melt butter in your saute pan - about a half Tablespoon per slice of bread.  Add a little olive or canola oil if you feel you need more oil - but butter adds essential flavor.

Add some minced garlic - (or a little garlic powder).  You'll need to experiment to see what you like.  I use 1/2 clove garlic for a slice of bread.

Add your crumbs to the garlicky oil and saute until the crumbs are lightly browned, and crisp.
Add a Tablespoon or so of grated parmesan cheese just as you're removing from heat, if you'd like
Salt and black pepper to taste.
Stir in the well drained spaghetti.

To add the optional mushrooms, saute slices in butter until golden brown. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Simple Pilaf

This is a very simple rice dish I can throw together with ingredients I almost always have on hand; in fact, it's basically as quick as using a boxed rice pilaf, but with more control of the ingredients, and it costs less.

I use a vegetarian chicken-flavored broth powder from the bulk section of City Market in Burlington, but you could use chicken bouilion or broth, or some combination.  The addition of a little curry powder heightens the flavor without giving it a noticeable curry flavor. I use dried minced onion just for convenience and speed, but you could certainly saute minced onions, and I do that when I want more onion than I put in this dish. Add garlic, fresh ginger, red pepper flakes if you want.  Or herbs - especially parsley and thyme. But it's not necessary for a basic pilaf.

I always have frozen petite green peas on hand to add to salads or rice dishes.  They only need to be thawed in the dish itself at the end of cooking.  For more onion and a little green I've used minced onion tops that I always have in the winter.

I usually add golden raisins to my curries or pilafs, but used craisins instead and liked them a lot.  I use short grain rice lately, but use the rice you want and adjust the water accordingly (long-grain converted generally takes 2 1/2 times as much water as rice, instead of 2 to 1)

I think sour cream is a separate food group, and so of course I look to use it where I can.


2 cups water
1/4 cup vegetable broth powder, or can of chicken broth instead of equivalent water
2 Tablespoons dried minced onion
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
salt and pepper to taste (the broth powder does not have salt)

Bring to a boil and add
1 cup short grain rice

Stir a couple of times, adjust the heat to very low, and barely simmer until all the water is absorbed (generally 20-25 minutes or so).  Stir in frozen green peas.  Add minced onion tops or scallions.  Top with raisins or craisins, and optional sour cream, yogurt, or cottage cheese.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

When to start seeds

I got my seed orders Thursday and Friday, and my plan is to start onions in the next few days.  This web site is a great resource for knowing when to start seeds.  I don't follow it exactly, but it's a pretty good approximation of what I do, and you won't go far wrong if you do follow it.

Tell the calculator that you're starting your spring garden, then choose whatever planning date you want (like today's date), and set your last spring frost date.  I set my last frost date for May 18.  It tells me I don't need to start anything until Feb 23, which is 12 weeks before my last frost date.  It suggests that I should then start some of my cabbage family, head lettuce, onions, and parsley.

My own bias is that onions should be started a little earlier than that, and I start the cabbage family a little later.  Here in the north we can only grow what are called "long-day onions" successfully.  This means that these varieties are triggered to start making a bulb when the days get long at the end of June.  So it's important to have as much growth as possible before the days get their longest.  It's a wonder we ever got any onions at all when we planted on memorial day weekend. (There are also day-neutral varieties, which may or may not perform as well as long-day onions.)  Local stores will have selected the right day length for your area, so no need to worry about that when choosing seeds - but pay attention to the descriptions if you're ordering froma catalog.

Onions are actually easy to grow from seed if you're starting other plants anyway.  They spend a long time looking like grass, so don't be discouraged.  When they first germinate the seed itself will stay attached to the end of the onion. The first time I saw that I thought perhaps I hadn't buried the seeds deep enough, but that's just what onions do.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Teriyaki Fajitas

Not trying to do any fusion cooking,  this just makes the most sense for what to call it - though it wouldn't pass for either teriyaki or fajitas.

You could have this without the teriyaki sauce or the sour cream.  You could substitute sausage for the beef, and have sausage with green peppers and onions.  In fact, a lot of things taste good in a pan-toasted tortilla.  Nice change from a bread sandwich.

Teriyaki Fajitas

In a large skillet, pan toast a flour tortilla, either dry or with a little oil in the pan.

After removing the tortilla, saute (with a little oil)
Sliced green peppers
Sliced onions

When nearly done add
Thinly sliced beef of your choice

Saute briefly and add
A little brandy (I use apricot), or port, maybe 1 Tablespoon
Soy sauce (maybe 1-2 Tablespoons)
Sugar (maybe 1-2 Tablespoons)
Grated fresh ginger (maybe 1/2 teaspoon)
Minced fresh garlic (1/2 clove, or 1/8 teaspoon dry)
A little hot pepper, or dried hot pepper flakes

Cook til the sauce reduces and coats the meat and veggies with a sweet, salty, syrup
Place in the toasted flour tortilla, and top with sour cream
Fold and enjoy.

optional:  Serve the beef and vegetables on a green salad, with homemade croutons.

After you make this once you'll know how you want to adjust the sauce.  You could use orange juice concentrate instead of the brandy, or perhaps apricot jam for the brandy and some of the sugar.

You could marinate the beef in the sauce, which is ordinarily how teriyaki is made.

I used bottom round roast, which is a tough cut of meat if not sliced thinly, and this is also why I'm careful not to overcook it.  Skirt steak would work well here, as it does for fajitas. I've used london broil.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What I'm growing this year

Now that the gardening season is upon us I'll post every day (really). You might want to check out Where to get seeds, and How long can I keep seeds, the two posts preceding this one.  Here I'm going to let you know what vegetables I've got seeds for (will do flowers and herbs in another post). It took me forever to organize all this, which argues for just going down to the store and picking some seeds off the rack. I might not grow all of these varieties. Some are seeds I have that are still viable, but for some reason I've decided to try another variety, or I don't have as many as I need of what I've got left.  But for the most part this is what I'll grow. I'm going to mark seeds I'm buying this year with a colored asterisk, but I'm not going to bother to let you know where I got the old seeds.  If you want to know a source ask in comments and I'll be happy to oblige. 

For some vegetables I'm also going to mark the one or two varieties I'd grow from these if I was only going to grow one, and this doesn't mean they're the best variety.  But I want to emphasize that the time, energy, and money invested in preparing the soil (or in the case of our very sandy soil, feeding the plants as well as the soil) matters a whole lot more than the varieties of seeds.  The varieties you can get from the seed racks are all you need, and there are many of them here. 

* Seeds from Johnny's in 2010
* Seeds from Territorial in 2010
* Seeds from Southern Exposure in 2010
* Burpee seed rack half price 2010 or earlier

The one variety I'd grow if I grew only one

*Fresh pick (bush green)
*Early bush Italian
Royal burgundy (purple)
*Sequoia (purple)
*Brittle Wax (yellow)
* Kentucky Wonder (pole) (the pole bean of my childhood.  Very "beany")

Sugar Ann (early snap pea)
Sugar Snap (very tall)
*Super Sugar Snap
*Snow Sweet (snow pea)
*Caseload (shelling)
*Dwarf Grey Sugar (for the shoots)

Detroit Dark Red
*Forono (cylindrical beet - nice even slices)
*Touchstone (orange beet)

*Bright lights
Magenta Sunset
Fordhook Giant (sweeter flavor than the others, which are prettier)

*Green Goliath (ripens over extended period)
Blue Wind

*Snow Crown
Veronica (romanesco, spiraled and green)

*Gonzales (early green)
Alcosa (savoy)
*Super Red 80
*Kaitlin (for sauerkraut or keeping)
Minuet (chinese or napa)
*Soloist (small napa)
(the plants of the first 3 can be grown close together for small heads)

Mei Qing Choi (pac choi)
Bonsai (pac choi)
Red Choi (pac choi)

*Danvers Half Long
*Nantes Half Long
*Red Cored Chantenay
*Deep Purple (yes, purple carrot)

*Trinity (early bicolor SE)
*Mantauk (mid-season bicolor, synergistic)
*Whiteout (late white SE)

It's important not to grow supersweet corns (also called SH or SHrunken gene) in a community garden, or where you want to grow other corn as well.  All of the corn will end up with very tough kernels.  SE corn (sugar enhanced) are very sweet and more tender than super sweets.

*Burpee Hybrid II (very reliable slicer)
*Sweet Burpless Hybrid
*Tasty Green Hybrid
Marketmore 76
*Bush Champion
County Fair Hybrid
*Burpee Pickler
Pickalot Hybrid
*Diamant (parthenocarpic - seedless if not fertilized)

Sweet Zuke Zucchini
Anton Zuchhini
*Burpee's Hybrid Zucchini (very reliable)
*Early Prolific Straightneck (yellow summer squash)
Sunray (yellow)
Geode (round zucchini)
*Early White Bush Scallop

Puritan Butternut
Baby Bear Pumpkin

*Beetberry (a spinach relative with red berries)

Green ice (green leaf)
Black-Seeded Simpson (green leaf)
Ermosa (green butterhead)
Antago (red lollo rossa)
Fireball (red butterhead)
Mottistone (mottled crisp)
*Crispino (iceberg)
*Wild Lettuce Mix
All star lettuce mix

Deep Purple bunching
*Nabechan bunching
*Alisa Craig (large sweet white)
*Red Bull 
*Copra (yellow keeper)

Long Slim Red Cayenne
Jalapeno M
Hungarian Wax} (these 5 were in a Burpee Mix)
Golden Baby Belle
Sweet Banana
Red Delicious
Big Dipper
*Ace (reliable Northern variety)

Rosa Biana
Millionaire Hybrid
Snowy Hybrid} (these 4 were in a Burpee Mix)
*Fairy Tale (striped lavender and white, tiny)

(I have other seeds. I'm going to try to restrict myself to these this year)
I have opinions about tomatoes, and will do a separate post with detailed descriptions of these varieties and others.

*Burpee Big Boy (Wonderful aroma and flavor)
*Delicious (very large)
Rutgers (standard - great flavor)
New Girl (very early and exceptional flavor for an early tomato)
*Glacier (early. a new variety to me this year)
*Beaverlodge plum (hanging basket size)
*Brandy Boy (I love these, but they don't ripen as reliably as I'd like)
Jubilee (I make marmalade with these)
Lemon Boy
*Yellow Bell (my long lost favorite)

Big Mama(red)
*Roma (red)

Sun Gold (Orange.  I eat more of these by volume than any other tomato)
Super Sweet 100 (red)
*Yellow Pear (maybe. I have a mix)


I've bought Jersey Knight Asparagus seeds from Johnny's and Victoria Rhubarb seeds from Territorial.  For the Asparagus I'm not really sure it's worth it to grow from seed because you lose a year, and maybe two years if you start them in the spring instead of late winter.  But I know I'm not going to have a bed ready for them in time to buy roots to plant.   I had a beautiful bed of red rhubarb that has died out from neglect, and apparently I can grow rhubarb from seed for some picking this year, and then let the plants die out.  I could also plan to put them in a permanent location and not pick any this year.  I'll see how they do and decide.  I'd love to be able to just grow them as an annual.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

How long can I keep seeds?

I like to grow lots of varieties of many vegetables, but certainly wouldn't want to buy that many new packages each year.  So I store them carefully in a cool dry place to optimize their life, and then pay attention to the "usual seed life" for different vegetables.  I mostly pay attention to experience, but also to what Territorial Seed company says is the usual seed life, in their catalog.  This is especially true for plants I invest a lot of time in, like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, and for plants that take too long to replace if the seed isn't really viable, like onions. So I'm likely to push the limit only on seeds that I plant in the ground and that I can replace quickly if I get poor germination, like carrots, lettuce, beets, peas and beans - especially if I'll be happy with varieties I can get locally.  I'll also push the limit with a few varieties I might want one or two plants of, when I don't want them enough to buy a whole new package. And, since this is "usual" seed life, you can count on some well-stored seeds exceeding this.

Being able to count on some seeds germinating for 3 years means that I can buy in larger quantities.  In 2006, I bought a one ounce package of Mammoth basil from Johnny's for not much more than a package with 100 seeds, and I've grown 50 feet of basil from those seeds for the last 4 years.  They germinated so well I think I'm going to count on them again this year, but I've also bought a new package (Italian Large Leaf) to see if there's a difference. So not only did I pay a lot less than if I'd bought a new package every year, I had so many seeds I could grow a lot more than I would have from a package. 100 seeds for 2.95.  17,700 seeds for 4.00. Hmm, what to do.  (My community gardeners should let me know if you want basil - I always have extra seedlings)

Germination is not the only game though.  Sometimes seeds will germinate but not have the vigor a fresher seed would.  I try to balance the cost of the seed with the time invested, the fertilizer, etc, and my experience

I started out thinking I'd replace all my 2007 seeds, but that was going to be too expensive, and I know that some can be relied on to grow, even though they're 4 years old.  So I'll grow 2007 lettuce, maybe some beans and squash and beets - but those aren't the only seeds I'll be relying on.  I'm confident that 2006 basil is going to do just fine, at 5 years old.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.   If you don't mind the expense of replacing seeds every year, then of course that's fine.

Territorial considers parsley, spinach, onion and corn to be seeds that need to be replaced every year, but I find I can usually depend on 30 - 50% of them germinating in the second year. A lot is going to depend on how carefully they were stored  I grew year old corn last year and wasn't happy with the germination.  Because you're counting on pollinating with the wind all your corn in a stand really needs to be about the same age, so you can't fill in.  I won't do this again with corn.

Another advantage to keeping seeds for 2-3 years is being able to grow several varieties without having to buy that many packages every year.  I usually grow about a dozen varieties of tomatoes, but buy only 3-4 packages of seed each year.

Usual seed life as listed in Territorial's catalog:

1 year - should be new seeds for 2010

2 years - can use 2009 seeds in 2010

2-3 can try using 2008 seeds in 2010

3 years - can use 2008 seeds in 2010

3-4 years - can try using 2007 seeds in 2010
brussels sprouts

4 years - can use 2007 seeds in 2010

Monday, February 8, 2010

Ordered my seeds today

Ordered my seeds from both Johnny's and Territorial.  A few backorders, but nothing that will hinder my planting schedule. Tomorrow I'll post my total seed list.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Where to get seeds for the garden

I buy some seeds locally at garden stores, mostly Burpee's at half price (just got 19 seed packets for $20), and Agway seeds.  I try to stay away from the grocery store seeds.  Not all seeds are created equal.  Even when the variety is good the viability and germination may be lower, or the seeds may not have been tested for seed-borne disease.  I like to order from catalogs, but there's no need to.  The seed racks carry the most reliable varieties for our area, and the prices are good.  So if this weren't a pleasure of mine I'd be content to just buy what the seed racks offer.  Sometimes when I buy the hot new variety I regret it, because it might not prove as productive or strong as the old favorites.  On the other hand, there are some outstanding varieties that never make it onto the seed racks.

The catalogs I currently order from the most are Johnny's Seeds (Albion Maine) and Territorial Seeds (a northwestern company).  Johnny's still develops new varieties, which I think matters.  Both Johnny's and Territorial are northern companies, and they've selected for varieties that grow well in the north.  Territorial has warm winters though, so that gives them options we don't have.   Gardener's Supply has a Johnny's seed rack.

The catalogs for both are really essential tools for me, as they both have outstanding cultural notes for every variety. These are the cultural notes for radishes in the Territorial catalog.  Notice they tell you the usual seed life (at the bottom).  This is a photograph, not a scan. Sorry for the eyestrain.

This is a picture of the cultural notes for eggplant in Johnny's catalog.

Burpee is good but expensive (it may be that everybody sells Burpee seeds half price in seed racks, so the "regular" price has to be high). I've also ordered from Pinetree Gardens, Park Seeds, Harris Seeds, Cook's Garden (no longer a Vermont company, though it once was.  Now owned by Burpee), Vermont Bean Seeds (now in Randolph Wisconsin. Sheesh) The main reason I don't order from lots of companies is the expense for shipping costs.  Pinetree has a lot of specialty Italian and Asian varieties.  Vermont Bean Seeds has in incredible number of seeds for dried beans.

It's hard for the relatively small seed companies that cater to the home gardener to survive (and so companies like Cook's Garden join larger companies like Burpee), and this is one of the reasons I like to support companies still breeding new varieties for home gardeners.  Johnny's Seeds have always catered to the market gardener as well, and that is more evident in this year's catalog.  Hope they don't totally opt for varieties that ship well.

A month ago I found online my favorite tomato ever, Yellow Bell, which I ordered.  I've checked other years and not found it.  Pinetree gardens used to sell it, then the last year they did (2002) the plants produced a yellow plum that wasn't at all like the yellow bell I'd gotten from them before.  That year I had traded a plant with Shep Ogden when he still had his trials for Cook's Garden in the Intervale beside Gardener's Supply.  I gave him a yellow bell, and he gave me a totally unmemorable plant to try (he didn't know it would be).  I had hoped he would think this was an outstanding tomato and I was really disappointed that the plants didn't come true to type.

But the tomatoes in the picture at the Southern exposure Seed Exchange look just about right - a true pear shape, with lobes, rather than a plum tomato shape. They say they introduced the variety, which is a Tennessee heirloom  Can't wait.  Sent them an email telling them how grateful I am they carry this heirloom.

The flavor of the yellow bell is wonderful, and there's a faint blush of pink on some of the fruit, which you can just see in the picture online.  The tomatoes taste good before they are fully ripe (a characteristic shared by sun gold cherry tomatoes) and the bells stay on the vine for a long time after they're ripe, and keep well on the shelf.  A perfect tomato.

Tomato seeds are almost always self-pollinting, so it's easy to save seed from them.  In fact, the anthers come up and form a little cage around the pistil, helping to ensure they are self-pollinated.  You will occasionally see bees on the blossoms though, so protecting the plants you're saving seed from is a good idea.  I'll be sure to save some yellow bell this year if the new seeds meet my expectation.

So another place to get seeds is from open-pollinated, nonhybrid plants.  The easiest, I think, is to save flower seeds - these are zinnias I saved from a neighbor's garden. An advantage of this is that over time - if you save seeds from the best, or earliest, or whatever other superlative appeals to you, you'll gradually improve the variety you plant.