December 11, 2018

Sneak Peek - My first gardening book is published - Pre-orders are welcome!

My first book - Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening launches on Jan. 1 with pre-orders started already on Amazon looking good. Thanks to all of you who placed orders early. I know the delivery date was originally Dec. 18 but Amazon tells us that it is now the first week of January. Hey, maybe that's a good sign?

You know, for someone who may seem as perpetually busy as a woodchuck I am known to be as lazy as one too. Here it is - three weeks before my book Mastering The Art of Vegetable Gardening ships from Amazon, and I get a call from my publisher (who is thrilled with the presales already - thank God), but who reminded me that I haven't posted any social media about ordering my book on this blog.  You can preorder it here: Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening. Thanks, bunches in advance!

You all deserve a sneak peek of this impressive, hardcover book. Im pretty proud of it (I mean - you never really know how a book is going to end up looking, right?). I wanted a mix of a cookbook that was written by a top chef - that style visually and a nice layout. No, before you ask there are no recipes in this book. I've been surprised with how many people have been asking for that. The cookbook version will need to wait.  I wanted this book to be pulled out to read on a winters evening while planing as a garden or referred to throughout the gardening season as needed. It had to be useful and with correct information. Of course, not everyone will agree with everything in it, but there was a need for a useful book as most, in my opinion, were lacking information that I needed.  I hope that you feel that I achieved that.

I share some family photos of the garden, home and lifestyle in the introduction section. I think this part is important to set a tone and to show what goes on around the garden behind the scenes. Besides, people like these sort of behind the curtain looks.

The book is still packed with step-by-step photos though. I've been growing mesclun since the late 1970's when my parents would buy something called 'Saladisi' - a micro green mix from Europe. I never knew that Mesclun itself is a rather new thing, even though it was common for Italians in the south of Italy to forage for herbs and bitter greens to create a mixed salad with a similar name. Today's commercial version in a poly bag doesn't even come close, but you can mix your own seed - find out how in the book!

You expected lots of varieties and lots of photos, right? I hope that I delivered to your expectations. I mean - how many okra varieties grown in containers is enough for one family? I found out over the past 2 years. So beautiful though, right?

Joe hates eggplant (which is crazy because he is Armenian) but I had to grow as many as I could, and honestly - that was alot. The plants consumed my container gravel garden, the deck and 4 rows in our back 40. No regerts, as the tattoo's say.

Apparently, pre-sale numbers are important in the publishing world - and hey, I 'get it'. But the last type of blogger I want to be is one of those who endlessly push their book on readers telling them how "awesome" it is, followed up by line after line of exclamation marks!!!! PRe-order, or buy after it goes on-sale after Jan. 1, I will appreciate it either way.

My friend (and barber) Juistin Pitts posed as an onion model for me. His tat's are better than mine as he has two sleeves.

Instead, I will do this, as you deserve at the very least to know the facts, and what this book is, and isn't. First of all, if you haven't noticed already, I'm rather fussy about aesthetics, so I tried every trick in the book to get my grimy fingers around the visual design of this book. Surprisingly, my publisher Cool Springs Press was completely open to collaborating (something I have heard horror stories about with some other publishers - though as a past creative director, I understand, as the last thing I would have wanted was some shmuck demanding that I use a certain photo, color or typeface which I didn't like.

I wish my step-by-step photos for how to grow Belgian endive and how to force it made it into the book but at least this one did - a new red variety from Italy. In my talks during my book tour, I will show everything though, as well as on a website.

I first assumed that any publisher would be resistant to working with me as I come with 29 years of graphic design and layout experience - that could drove anyone crazy. But then I felt that I also bring some good skills to, great photos that were all my own, and a good design sense. I sent a pdf of about ten pages that I designed to my publisher, and they ran with it. Sure, there are some things I might have changed, but mostly it's all me, 99.9 perfect.

Some of the step-by-step photos that did make it into the book show you how to grow parsnips, as there are at least four ways to grow them. I practiced even the British method of drilling holes and starting seedlings in root trainers.

Of course, about a third of the 1000 photos I sent in with the manuscript was never used, but the page count was pre-set early on, and while there are less step-by-step photo breakouts than I had hoped for, at least some still made it in. Don't get me wrong, I am thrilled with what the book designers were able to keep in the book, and while I wanted and was willing to have some copy cut, my editor said that it was too good to cut (maybe he was flattering me, but hey - maybe not?). We did end up cutting a few chapters instead, so no chapter on corn and a few other veggies. Maybe in a second edition?

Celtuce is somewhat new, or at least it is experiencing a re-discovery. I really wanted to show how to grow it by showing step-by-step pictures of my crops as this is the best way to learn the many things that could go wrong. The last thing I wanted to do was to buy some at a store, or show some grown poorly. This principle applies to everything in this book. If I never grew the vegetables before, I would not show it or talk about it. I was fortunate to have access to farmland and materials from a farm in central Mass for artichokes and other crops where I visited most every week, for things that I didn't have room to set out here in properly long rows. This celtuce was grown in the garden next to my greenhouse.

OK, I am rambling here more than Mrs. Maisel, so here is what you will find different about my book.

As I reread the manuscript I can see why they left so much of the copy in the book. Every sentence seems to have some sort-of nugget of information.

Asian melons an gourds are the next hot thing. You heard it here first. My friend Chou's parents who are from Viet Nam live near me and after a delicious meal of shrimp and noodles waiting for the sun to dip behind Worcester Airport I was able to get the perfect fuzzy sillouette on the fuzzy gourd. Our kitchen was full for weeks with bitter melon even this year when we built out own gourd tunnel. Luffa is so delicious when immature, I have no idea why we all are not growing it.

My goal with this book was to actually write a book that would be useful, over and over again. Need to know the best germination temperature for eggplant or lettuce? It's here. Ever wonder what the exact fertility ratio is proper for giant onions? It's here, even if you dare never use 30% urea, it's still helpful to know what an onion wants if you are looking for an organic alternative.

I didn't have enough room to grow all of the squashes I wanted, so I begged friends to loan me their gardens or farms where I could plant seedlings, or could camp out for the perfect shot when the sun was setting.  Thanks, Mike, Darrell, Chou, and Steve for dealing with runaway vines, muddy photoshoots or me leaving random squashes on your front steps, or letting me raid your parents bitter melon extravaganza with photo equipment. The last thing I wanted to do was to just go buy photo props at a farm stand in the fall.

What isn't in this book are novelty growing methods. Nothing against lasagna gardenings, hay bale methods, compost tea recipes or folk remedies, myths or even upside down tomato plants.  You would have a problem trying to find posts or books about those. What you will find in here is why that flat of Brussel's sprouts that you bought at the garden center never seemed to head-up, or why your radishes have tiny wormholes in them, and what you can do organically about eliminating them.

I outline the many benefits of proper fertility, not shying away from chemical fertilizer (the blue kind) for some crops as the truth is, some fast-growing crops require quick access to nutrients. For all, however, I offer both organic and inorganic solutions. Gardening is a science, remember. I leave it to you to decide what you are comfortable using. I promote no use of insecticides, however. Those nasty bugs need to be outsmarted, so there are ways to do that.

You will also learn about some newer veggies perhaps. I grew 36 varieties of eggplant and 14 varieties of Okra for this book. I forced endives, grew exhibition sized parsnips three ways and far more fava beans than any human would ever need, not to mention row after row of various peas, beans and limas. Of course, not everything is in here, but it does share the newest research, and I did the hard work of proof-checking through loads of misinformation out on the internet. Talk about fake news! Naturally, there is more than one way to do anything, as it is with cooking, but as with baking, there is usually the best way, and then one customizes down from that. Celery, for example, is extremely difficult to grow for many people, but with a few tweaks, one can do it.

Interested in growing French melons or watermelons? You can, because I did. Sure, they have exact requirements and not everyone can have success, but it will be helpful to know what they require.

I also shared vegetables that I think you really should try growing, especially as an autumn crop such as these Tokyo Cross white turnips.

All sorts of bits of information are in my book, along with fun stories, fascinating historical perspective for each veg featured and guidelines for how to start from seed, when to sow for each season and even what varieties are better in the kitchen for flavor or yields.

Once again, here is the link to my Amazon page where you can order the book now for less than $19.99 before it ships in early January. I thank you all in advance for staying with me on this blog journey since 2006, and for supporting my passion. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah and Happy Holidays. If you do order the book and love (or even hate it)

Lastly, I was so honored to have Roger Swain from PBS's The Victory Garden tell me that he was a huge blog follower and that he was very supportive of my work. My hero, as I grew up watchin him every Saturday.

December 10, 2018

Forcing Winter Vegetables

Forced winter vegetables like this Belgian Endive in my garden may be the next hot food trend home gardeners and chefs haven't  rediscovered yet.

Think about it - there was a time, and really not that very long ago  - like a hundred and fifty years or so ago, when there weren't any supermarkets. There was no refrigeration aside from ice and no air travel so summer vegetables were just that - summer vegetables. Everything else was preserved, pickled, fermented or was considered storage vegetables, kept in a cold frost-free root cellar.

OK. We know that, right? But it's not the truth.

Instagram is a good place to see where trends might be taking off. This Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) long valued by foodies in the UK seems to be becoming more popular, at least with chefs. Anyone looking for a luxury crop to try in North America still has plenty of opportunities to specialize if only they look to the past.

The fact is there were plenty of fresh veggies grown in the winter, especially if one lived near a large city like London or Paris in Europe, or in the Northeast in the US, for Boston was a leader in forced vegetables. Vegetables that were either sown in fall and raised under glass that was heated once the fuel furnace came onto the scene, or even more common, forced in hotbeds - cold frames specially designed to hold fresh, hot stable manure in a layer, and then covered over on cold nights with straw-filled quilts to hold the heat in.

My own roots of Belgian endive which are potted up in October and sprout in winter once brought into a warm, dark closet bring us the highest quality endives at the lowest cost.

Some crops like forced rhubarb were dug in the autumn and forced into growth in complete darkness in caves or root cellars producing a very tender and pale pink product which is still valued today in the UK for its quality which is said to be far better than that of conventional rhubarb.

Homegrown Belgian endive like these from 2 years ago are very easy. I dare say that it is the easiest vegetable to grow given the fact that it demands poor soil and drought in summer and little more than moisture and darkness in winter.

As we enter the Holiday season, I often think of forced winter vegetables because they still feel special in a world where most everything travels by air over great distances to get to our markets. We live in a time where we have the great luxury (albeit at a great environmental cost( of having fresh strawberries every day of the year. Few younger people even think about this, but fresh produce year round is a relatively new idea.

Or is it?

In 1900 many old books and magazines show rhubarb being forced in North America in cold frames and hotbeds as early as January. Remember, there was little fresh produce or fruit then aside from canned or home preserves. A Holiday meal with fresh forced rhubarb was a luxury item.

My mind was blown recently when I discovered that the asparagus I just saw at our local Wegmans for Thanksgiving (what? Asparagus at Thanksgiving?) was actually not an unusual thing in 1880. Really. Especially in the Boston area, where I live. Suburban Boston towns like Belmont grew what is known as 'forced asparagus' in hotbed and greenhouse throughout much of the 19th century along with tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons which were made available to posh Boston and New York markets via train. Delivery beyond 200 miles in the cold winter wasn't practical, and this all ended by the end of the 19th century when transcontinental trains brought produce from the Westcoast, and when refrigeration by ice became more sophisticated.

A quicl search on Instagram shows that some UK farmers are revisiting the almost lost art of forcing rhubarb, which has a long tradition in Yorkshire where fresh winter forced rhubarb is preferred by chefs over sumer rhubarb. 

But even after 1888 when fuel-fired furnaces brought more practical heat to greenhouses and ranges could be built with steel and glass, the idea of forcing winter veggies continued to grow in the Boston area. Fuel meant that furnaces could create steam, and steam pipes could be set into pits, tunnels and in rows directly in the fields where asparagus was growing, to force it even earlier - often for Thanksgiving.

In the very early 20th century lettuce like any of the Great Lakes varieties were bred for growing in pots and sold in markets this way, before refrigeration - not unlike hydroponic lettuce sold today.

A book from 1917 by Ralph L Watts called 'Vegetable Forcing' presents all sorts of cropping methods, both old using stable manure to heat cold frames and hotbeds in which one can grow lettuce (Boston Lettuce actually came from Boston, and was an early forcing lettuce). I found it interesting that all early lettuce sent to market was grown in small pots, the root balls wrapped in waxed paper with a ribbon. Not unlike fancy hydroponic lettuce sold in markets today. Of course, before refrigeration - (and a time when those automatic misting devices at the market came along - with recorded thunder and tree frogs chirping!).

Lily of the Valley pips in this storage house is kept dark, then gradually grow quicker as warm temperatures are introduced.  I predict that the four-season market for Convallaria may experience a come back at least for flower farmers looking to extend their crops into the dark months.

The idea of forced winter veggies may be the next trend, after foodies have revisited Kombucha, heirloom tomatoes, the magic of fermentation, bread making, SCOBY, Kimchi and I guess - artisanal everything for that matter. The great local food movement is helping us understand and appreciate exactly where our food comes from and why 'seasonal' is generally considered better. Forced winter veggies fit right in. Who's going to jump on this next? Surely there is a market for locally forced endive and winter, white Asparagus or pale pink rhubarb, sweet Sea Kale or forced celery.

In 1900, cucumbers and tomatoes were grown in winter greenhouses once steam furnaces became more practical, but before trains could bring produce from the south or west coast.

Even flowers can be forced, and I don't mean branches. Lily of the Valley and French or Parma violets were once the most common Holiday flowers as along the Hudson River in New York farms with ranges of cold frames grew thousands of plants for the nearby cities. Maybe there are other crops too which have interesting stories. In Japan, I've seen winter-blooming peonies grown this way, with large flower in full bloom out in the garden even though it was snowing outside.

In Ralph Watts' book from 1917, bees are shows being brought into a greenhouse in winter to pollinate cucumbers in Boston, or kept just behind a glasshouse with the advice to open a few panes of glass.

November 21, 2018

Pie Wars - Pumpkin or Squash?

Tomato tomahto? With squash and pumpkin, it's much worse than that timeless debate. Without even daring to step into the omnipresent 'Pumpkin Spice' arena (I wouldnt dare), this post does demonstrate how we humans sometime just get carryied away with perception and marketing.

My point here is this: There is no such thing as pumpkin pie.
It's all Squash.

Seems like even brand marketers can't make up their mind. Or they feel that this option is the safest route.

Sort of, because there is something called pumpkin pie actually made from orange pumpkins. I see it all the time on some food blogs and on Instagram. An eager and overly-ambitious food blogger will usually show us how. Well meaning, yes, but unless they are using a modern sugar pumpkin which can pass as a marginally suitable filling, you just can't use any old orange pumpkin left over from Halloween. If you do, you will end up with a watery mess with little taste.

This confusion does start with the history of the word 'Pumpkin'. While old, it is just an alteration of an even older name for many squashes from around the 1500's when many simply called these clunky, bulbous fruits 'pumpion', or 'pompone', depending on what country you lived and farmed in. The Middle French name for a squash with this shape was even 'Pompon'. It is beleived that American colonists brought these names over and some stuck. As for 'pumpkin pie' .while it too is nearly as old (1600's), what we thought then was 'pumpkin' (or even 'pie' for that matter) is quite different than what we associate both with today. Even as late as the 1800's, 'Pumkin Pie' wasnt a pastry-sort-of-thing, but a custard often cooked inside of an actual pumpkin (or actually, a squash - you'll see.).

The good news is that there are plenty of fine new and heirloom winter storage squashes available today to use, and many might still be in your autumn displays.

At the original Thanksgiving, winter squash looked something more like this, and it was probably baked in a Dutch oven or whole with the cavity filled with a custard-like mixture.

Much of this might already be familiar to you. Countless historical articles appear every autumn in cooking magazines hinting to parts of this lore. We've read that 'Punkin' is a vulgar slang for a 'person with their hair cut short all around, (as in 'punkin-head' - and yes, this does sound like a premise for a Hollywood movie) (I think it was.), but the while the story on how we arrived today with these very two, different  words for winter squashes (particularly 'pumpkin' for the large, round orange-shaped one) is still confusing. Especially since marketers have run off with not only 'Pumpkin Pie', used in Holiday Lyrics and now that the spices have even become trendy.

Have you ever tried to make a pumpkin pie from an orange Halloween pumpkin?

If you have, then you may have discovered that the result wasn't exactly what you might have expected. Often, it's a big mistake (or at least one that your great, great, great, great grandmother wouldn't approve of). A sugar pumpkin perhaps might work, but in no way should any of us use an orange pumpkin to cook with.

Chefs know (and you'll see the canned 'pumpkin' companies know too) that the best (and most authentic) pumpkin pie comes from any number of hard-shelled winter squashes and not a watery-ol Halloween-type pumpkin. How do I know this? First of all, thanks, mom. I grew up in one of those families who not only grew their own winter storage squashes, but who spent a couple of days preparing them (in the 1970's before we had a food processor) by smashing them on a rock outside, peeling them without losing a finger then roasting them in the oven (or was it steaming them?). My job was usually forcing the now soft flesh through a chinois or Chinese hat shaped sieve with a mallet. Fine for an 8-year-old, but it's not something I am going to do today.

This year I am using up some Red Hubbard along with a few Warted Green Hubbard squashes. Peeling and cutting these beasts is a task best saved for those with protective gear and muscles. This one is small enough to cut inside, but usually I throw them off the deck onto the stone walk to split first.

Eventually, a meat grinder was employed as if we were making sausage, and then finally the first Cuisinart - thank God. Our Squash of choice was either Waltham Butternut (Cucurbita pepo) or Blue Hubbard. There are finer cooking squashes of course, and today, even more heirlooms are available, but when it comes to pumpkin, one learns quickly if making from scratch, that the results will only be watery and tasteless, not to mention colorless.

Sure, there are a few new sugar pumpkin varieties which by name alone tells us that they might be a bit better for pie, (they aren't), but regardless of what some hip cooking blogs might be telling you, peeling a pumpkin and making your own pie will be disappointing. You might as well steam and mash up an old, giant zucchini or an Acorn squash to get the same results.

OK, let's be honest. If you are like me, you've had to zip out to the supermarket one more time before Turkey Day only to find those who rarely cook - literally freaking out about having to make a pie from 'scratch' (meaning 1. buy a premade crust from Pillsbury. 2. Buy a can of pumpkin pie filling. 3. Dump, spice up, and cook.). Hey, I've done this too, and as my assistant at work pointed out one day - "your family didn't even know the difference, did they?".

The thing id - They didn't notice. Apparently only I seem to have the ability to distinguish the flavor and texture of a rare heirloom warted squash from that of a mush dumped from a can of 'Libby's'. Still, I guarantee that you can taste the difference, if not see it. Plant people have that gift.

But here's the thing...'Libby's' knows something much of us don't. That can of "pumpkin' is actually a winter squash - one that Libby's bred and continued to use today in all of its commercial pie filling. The squash they grow is called 'Dickinson's Pumpkin' (it's a beige or tan, a Butternut-colored winter squash that botanically is of a different genus than orange pumpkins that we are familiar with). Read more about it here The Great Pumpkin Pie Conspiracy in the Atlantic.

Have you ever noticed that there are not photos of real pumpkins or squash on the labels of pumpkin pie filling? There's a reason why producers turn to illustrations of pumpkins or just a slice of pie. It's because of the legal department.

What's interesting to me is that on the label of most every pumpkin pie filling is either a photo of a pie, or an illustration of a Halloween pumpkin, and never an image of a squash. Sure, squash itself has a bad name and many associate icky, pasty tasting gunk rather than sweet, orange, cinnamon-flavored desert - but why no photos of orange pumpkins then on the can? Every other canned vegetable has a beautiful photo of the appropriate vegetable on it?

The answer is legal. Packaging requirements established and controlled by the USDA  and FDA have very strict rules. While their description of what exactly can be considered 'pumpkin-pie filling'is vague, it does restrict it to being any hard-skinned winter squash, any golden-fleshed sweet squash such a

Libby's is considered by many to have the finest quality of all the canned pumpkin or squash pie fillings. After all, the kind of invented it!

We can buy seeds today of 'Dickenson's Squash or Pumpkin from many heirloom seed sources, but Butternut equals it for density, sugar, and flavor, not to mention color. It may be the easiest and will make a very fine pumpkin pie. It's my go-to most of the time, but I still try a few other winter squashes as each is so very different.

Around here in Massachusetts, we live in the land of winter squashes. The Blue Hubbard was developed here 250 years ago, and Waltham, of Waltham Butternut Fame, was a field station outside of Boston where the variety was developed. Not to mention that the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock happens to be an hour away.

To understand all of this a bit better, it helps to know that most of the fruits we call squash fall into three distinct species, botanically speaking. don't worry, this will make complete sense.  Our hard-skinned winter squashes come from two species. Most are grouped into Cucurbita moschata like the Hubbards, the Kabocha or Lakota squashes, the Turban types, Buttercups and many of the weird-yet-beautiful warted heirlooms. Most of these make a fine pie filling. Fewer come from Curcurbita moschata but many of the finest eating squashes including the beloved Butternut group, those Fairy Tale pumpkins often sold as Cinderella squashes, and surprisingly 'Dickenson Pumpkin', the tan commercial variety used in canned filling.

The last group - Cucurbita pepo includes not only Zucchini but also summer squash and other summer-types like patty pan, We know that when we leave a zucchini in the garden that the skin gets hard, but it is still thin. The orange Halloween and sugar pumpkins are also C. pepo, as are Acorn squashes. These usually need added sugar to make them more edible and are usually more watery when cooked.