Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Little Bit of Home Cookin' (from a restaurant!)

In the late 80's and early 90's I lived in Houston, Texas.  There is a restaurant there called the Black-Eyed Pea that is known for its 'home-cookin.'  Admittedly, it is odd to go out to a restaurant to get home cooking, but I was fresh out of college and I wasn't married at the time and I was 3 hours away from my Momma. Now, I like home cooking. Scratch that.  I love home cooking.  I enjoyed going to the Black-Eyed Pea to eat their meatloaf or pot roast or chicken and dumplings with some cornbread on the side.  They also served a casserole that was out of this world good.  In fact, if you closed your eyes while you ate it, you could almost imagine that it was baked with love from the dear, sweet lady that sits on the pew in front of you at church that made her specialty for the pot-luck in the fellowship hall.

I'm talking about Baked Squash Casserole.  Our family loves it.  I think even folks who don't like vegetables would eat it.  Well, back about 24 years ago, the recipe for this casserole ran in the Food Section of the Houston Chronicle and I was excited and cut it out and taped it to an index card.  Each year when we're picking yellow crookneck squash from the garden, we'll pull this winner of a recipe out of the recipe box and make it.

Here it is:

Mmmm - mmmmm!
Here is our cornucopia of freshly produced ingredients for the recipe.  (Except for the butter.  While we had homemade butter in the fridge, we wanted to save it.)  Note that we substituted some local honey for the sugar that was called for in the recipe.

We chopped up the yellow squash in the vegetable chopper and dropped it all in a pot of water and brought it to a boil, cooking until soft.
Boiling the chopped squash
The remaining ingredients were prepped, measured and arranged.  This really is a fast, almost effortless dish.

Eggs, melted butter, honey, bread crumbs, and green onions
After draining all the water out using a colander, take a potato masher and mash up all the cooked squash. There's no scientific method to this, just squish it all up.

Mashed up squash
Dump the remaining ingredients to the pot and stir it up.

Adding the remaining ingredients
Instead of using black pepper, we shake some homemade pepper that we made by drying and grinding up Criolla Sella peppers.  The flavor is remarkable, sort of smoky with a hint of spicy heat, but not overly hot.

Criolla Sella Pepper
Then we spoon the contents into a 3 quart casserole that we've buttered and we sprinkle some of the bread crumbs we reserved on top.  We place it in the oven at 350 Fahrenheit and bake it until the top of the casserole is golden brown. 

Into the Oven

Another way to tell if it is nearing completion is if the kitchen begins filling with hungry people who can smell the deliciousness wafting out of the oven and beckoning them to come eat.  The appointed time has come.  It is ready.  Prepare thyself.

Lovin' from the oven
We say grace, thanking the Good LORD for his provision and we serve up our plates. In order to properly enjoy a home cooked casserole, the other ingredients must be thoughtfully coordinated.  Tonight we accompanied the Baked Squash Casserole with some fried chicken livers from our homegrown meat birds that were rolled in seasoned flour and pan-fried in butter in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet.

That's nice right there.  Real nice
A zoomed in look:

Moist, steaming, buttery, tempting...
And finally a fork-view before it goes "down the hatch":

Time to Eat!
If you were here, why I'd direct you to the drawer where we keep the silverware and the cupboard where the plates are served.  We'd pour you a cup of milk and pass the chicken livers and baked squash casserole over your way.  Eat well, friends!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Planting Okra for the Fall

Okay, I've got to admit that I've got the fever to start planting the Fall vegetable crop. The summer doldrums have hit and the tomatoes are dying back.  It is time!  So I started browsing some different publications that I peruse to learn about which seeds I need to be planting now.  Click on the link below  It has a month by month directory.  I've cut and pasted it below along with the link:

Monthly Guide for planting vegetables in Louisiana
Vegetables to Plant in July
broccoli*, Brussels sprouts*, cabbage*, cantaloupe, cauliflower*, Chinese cabbage*, collards, cucumbers, luffa, okra, peppers*, pumpkins, Southern peas, shallots, squashes, tomatoes*, watermelons
* plant seeds for transplants 
Tonight I'll be taking inventory of my purchased and saved seeds to prepare, but I think I'm covered for the Fall crop. One of the interesting things to me on the list to plant in July is okra.  I've never planted a Fall crop of okra and my Summer crop this year is sparse, so I'm going to plant some.  My okra in the past that was planted in Spring yielded pods through December, so I'll still have time prior to a freeze to get a good crop. Okra matures in 50 - 65 days, so that will be just in time for gumbo season!

Although I have some Clemson spineless okra seeds and some Burgundy okra seeds that I've saved from prior years, this Fall I'm going to try a new variety that has a neat story.  In the past I've blogged about how I have St. Augustine grass, Confederate Jasmine, and azaleas planted in my yard that came from my deceased grandmother's yards.  I took cuttings or moved actual plants and now when I walk out in my yard, I have fond memories of them.  It is a nice remembrance of them to enjoy something that was theirs that lives on.

My mom came over with the sad news that a dear family friend's husband had passed away after an illness. Mrs. Anita (the friend who lost her husband, Mr. Hugh) gave mom a ziploc bag with a number of dried okra pods that were full of seeds. She told mom that the variety was appropriately called "Louisiana Okra" and was the only variety that Mr. Hugh would plant due to the fact that when you cut it for cooking, it was all okra - with no air pockets.

Mrs. Anita told mom that her Dad, Rex Squyres taught her husband, Mr. Hugh to always soak the okra and plant 3 seeds to a hill.  Now, I can remember Bro. Squyre's yard in Kinder.  He was blessed with the ability to make anything grow.  Mr. Hugh had that same gift.  They could probably plant Jelly Beans, Skittles, or M&M's and get them to grow!

Mom and I popped out all the okra seeds from the pods and divided them between the two of us.  We'll plant them and they'll remind us of a good family friend and neighbor down the road in Green Oak, keeping his memory alive.  Thank the LORD for good friends and neighbors!  Seeds that have a story like this are exactly why they are called heirloom seeds - they are nurtured, saved, cherished and passed down from generation to generation and to friends and neighbors.  We'll try to keep it going...

     There are loved ones in the glory
Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by?
Is a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?

So taking the advice from those master gardeners, I'm going to soak these seeds. Okra seeds have a very hard protective coating.  They are like little bb's that you could probably shoot out of your Red Ryder BB gun if you wanted to. Soaking them will hasten germination by softening the hard seed coat.

Louisiana Okra (Heirloom Seeds compliments of Mrs Anita in memory of Mr. Hugh & Bro. Squyers
I simply put them soaking in warm water for 18 -24 hours.  Last night I started them soaking.

Soaking the okra seeds
And this evening (about 24 hours later), they are swollen and ready, dimpled with a tiny white sprout peering through.

Swollen okra seed
I used some seed starting mix to fill some seed pots and planted the okra seeds one inch deep and watered.

Okra seeds in starting mix
Finally, I labeled them with the date I planted them.  Okra should sprout in 2 to 12 days and once I have true leaves, I'll transplant into the two rows where the sweet corn was growing.

Louisiana Okra planted on July 30th
I think this will make a nice crop of Fall okra and we'll use the harvest for hearty gumbos and soups throughout the winter.  Good friends passed along good seeds with good memories.  We will also make sure to save some seed from this crop to do our part in keeping things going.  Heirloom seeds with a nice story to pass along to future generations!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

IQF Tomatoes - A Simple Way to Store Them

Well, this will be my last post showing different ways that we preserve the tomato harvest.  I thought about one other method that we use.  We like to diversify the way we store things so that we have plenty of choices.  We can stewed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and salsa and stockpile it in the pantry.  We dry tomatoes in the oven and dehydrator.  Finally, we blanch and freeze whole tomatoes and bag them in the freezer so we can use them one at a time as we need them.  This is probably the easiest method of storing tomatoes and we'll show you how we do it.

It first involves picking them when they are at their ripest and we bring them in and get to work.

Nice red fruit
We have a number of different varieties of tomatoes that we grow.

Ready to be blanched
We place a big pot of water on the stove and bring it to a boil.  Once the water is boiling, we gently drop them in, leaving them in the boiling water for a minute or less.  Then we remove them and dunk them in ice water to stop the cooking process. Once cool, we use a sharp knife to core the tomatoes, removing the stem and hard center and any defects and we also pull the skins off.  They come off easy if blanched for the appropriate amount of time.

Blanched tomatoes ready to by frozen
IQF is an acronym for Individually Quick Frozen.  While we don't have the necessary equipment to technically do this, an ordinary freezer will do the job.  Simply lay your tomatoes out on a tray and close the door.  The next day they are frozen solid and you can use a spatula to pry them up off of the tray.

Cold Whole Tomatoes
Once you pry them up, freeze them in a gallon sized Zip Loc bag, seal, and put back in the freezer.  This enables you to select one at a time or however many you need for cooking.

It's in the bag!
IQF Tomatoes - one more way to preserve the harvest!

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Gnawing Locust has Eaten!

This year's vegetable, fruit and berry crop has been superb.  We have canned more, frozen more, dried more than most prior years.  We've been blessed by rains when we need them and apart from a few exceptions, no real crop failures.  We're at the very tail end of the season and I'm getting ready to plant my seeds for the fall garden within the next week or so.  Although the harvest is slacking off, I'm still harvesting something every day.  At least I was... until yesterday.

I walked out to the garden and picked some cucumbers the other day and noticed a green worm or two munching on a few of the leaves.  They were small worms.  Not a big deal, I thought, as I squeezed them between my thumb and index finger, feeling a pop and watching green goo splatter on the leaves.  I made a mental note to mix up some more lye soap spray to spray on them in the event that I missed some.

The next afternoon when I returned home...  Wow!  There was basically nothing left. All I could think about was the verse from the Book of Joel where the prophet said:

That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten; and that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpillar eaten.  Joel 1:4 KJV

Israel had been blessed with prosperity and bumper crops, but Joel prophesied a day coming that would bring desolation and ruin.  In fact, he said in verse 10:

The field is ruined, 
The land mourns, 
For the grain is ruined, 
The new wine dries up, 
Fresh oil fails.  
Be ashamed, O Farmers, 
Wail, O vinedressers!

The palmerworm's handiwork
Be ashamed, O Farmers indeed!

It doesn't take long at all for the worms and the locusts and the caterpillar or any other pest to do their work. As if to add insult to injury, they'll eat the top leaves and then poop all over the leaves beneath it.  These little worms must eat their body weight overnight.  I did actually make it out there to the garden and I sprayed all the plants, but the old adage, "Closing the barn door after the horse is gone" came to mind as the damage was done.  I'm doubtful that they'll recover although there are still blooms and small leaves.  We'll just have to wait and see.

"Locust" poop
Growing crops in the deep south is a blessing in some ways because you really can grow something all 12 months in the year.  People in the north certainly don't have that luxury.  They are sitting indoors on grey, snowy, frigid days looking at seed catalogues in front of the fireplace while we're planting crops.  On the other hand, we fight with pests.  If you are trying to grow without using pesticides, well, it's tough. Real tough.  The worms are relentless and they don't sleep.  While you're sleeping, they are eating, and pooping, and eating some more.

The 'cankerworm' must be full after they've made a lace doily with this cucumber leaf. 
You know what is odd?  I never see any damage from worms on the weeds in my garden.  Hmmmm.  After they finished my cucumbers, they moved to the zucchini, stripping it bare.

Only a little bit for the caterpillar to finish up
This last booger feeding on one of the final holdovers from the tomato crop reminds me of the plagues of locusts from Biblical times.  You can see two of them feeding on the tomato below.  I call them stink bugs because they do really stink if you squash them, but their official name is coreids, or leaf footed bugs.  They make an odd noise when they fly and are kind of scary in their own way.

Huge stinkbugs feasting on one of the last tomatoes
As with everything, perspective is important.  We had a great harvest this year.  It is crucial to plant as early as you can in the Spring and harvest as much as you can before July and the onslaught of the intense heat and bug pressure.  Fall is on its way and we'll have an opportunity to harvest more this fall, if we can keep the bugs at bay.

There is hope on the horizon - for the gardener and for the person that turns to the LORD.  In the Book of Joel, the prophet warned the Israelites of coming destruction, but he left them with a call to repentance.  He told them what would happen if they would return to the LORD.  They are timely words for us today as well. If we turn back to Him, he will bring restoration!:

Joel 2:25-26New American Standard Bible (NASB)

25 “Then I will make up to you for the years
That the swarming locust has eaten,
The creeping locust, the stripping locust and the gnawing locust,
My great army which I sent among you.
26 “You will have plenty to eat and be satisfied
And praise the name of the Lord your God,
Who has dealt wondrously with you;
Then My people will never be put to shame.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Making Basil Pesto

The basil we have in the garden is really healthy and putting on lots of new growth and that means it is time to make a batch of fresh basil pesto to put up in the freezer. Each year we make pounds of the stuff in the freezer.  We have found that freezing it in pound sized containers is perfect for quick meals and everyone in our family loves it.  We simply thaw it out, put some angel hair pasta on the stove and in just a few minutes we have a quick, delicious, healthy meal.

Our five basil plants all in a row
As I walked up to the row with my clippers in hand, the bees were out in full force, moving from flower to flower pollinating.  You can spot the big old bumble bee if you look directly in the center of the picture and look a little upward.  To the dismay of the bees, I'm sure, I first clipped all the flowers off of the plant as I want the plant's energy to go to growing leaves and not flowers.

Bumble bee on basil flowers
So here's what we're looking for, healthy, new leaf growth.  The leaves on the bottom of the plant tend to be yellow and I pull those off and throw them to the chickens. The variety of basil I planted this year was Genovese.  For making a double batch of pesto that will yield 3 pounds, it requires 8 cups of basil, so I selectively pick off leaves until I've filled an 8 cup container.  I mash them down because it should be 8 cups, packed.
Healthy basil leaves
I bring them inside and put them in the sink, washing them really good and letting them soak.  It is not uncommon to see bugs and worms floating in the water that I didn't see outside.  Although these would add some extra protein to our pesto, I remove them as I don't want to eat bugs or worms unless I have to.  I'll remove the pesto and put them into a salad spinner in small batches and spin to dry the leaves.

Washing basil leaves
We make basil pesto every year and I've posted on this before, but perhaps some of you weren't following us back then, so I'm going to show our process in how we make it.  Here's what you need:
  • 8 cups washed basil leaves
  • 2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 cups extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/3 cups pine nuts, walnuts, or pecans (we always use pecans)
  • 12 medium garlic cloves
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Basil pesto is so easy to make and only requires a food processor.  All the ingredients get chopped or mixed up in there so there's only one thing to clean.  I've laid out all the ingredients below:

Items you'll need to make basil pesto
Put your garlic and pecans in the food processor and chop them up, using your chopping blade.

Chopping pecans and garlic
Slowly add all of your basil leaves to the processor and then slowly add the olive oil while the processor is running.  It will transform from chunky to real nice and creamy.

Adding oil to the basil/pecan/garlic mixture
Then remove the top and add your grated Parmesan cheese into the mix.  Put the top back on and incorporate the cheese.

Adding grated Parmesan
Now we'll add some kosher salt and some of our homemade criolla sella pepper.  This adds a touch of extra flavor to an already flavorful dish.

Salt & Pepper
We generally put the basil pesto into 16 oz sized containers and then we put the lids on, label them, and will put them in the freezer.

Packing it up to freeze
This might not look very appetizing to you, but it is absolutely delicious.  We love it.

Our Maker's Acres Basil Pesto
While we'll eat it on pasta, I also learned of a new way to eat it that I can't wait to try: Basil Grill Cheese Sandwiches.  Doesn't that sound great?  All you do is make a grilled cheese sandwich like you would normally do, with bread, butter, and cheese, but before you put the top slice of bread on and put it in the skillet for grilling, spread a nice, thick layer of pesto in there.  I'll let you know how this turns out.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

As Green as a Gourd

I've heard the idiom, "As Green as a Gourd" many times growing up.  It is always used to describe something that is not ripe or not ready for use.  It just so happens in this case the saying is literal.  My gourds are green, unripe and not ready for use. Somehow I acquired a small packet of birdhouse gourd seeds. Now that I think about it, I think it was at a seed swap at a sustainable agriculture conference I attended.

In the very last row of the garden, I planted a few seeds thinking that it might be neat to grow some birdhouse gourds, dry them and make birdhouses to hang from the trees.  I'm normally all about growing things that are edible, but I made an exception!  I built a crude trellis for the vines to grow on and looking back, I can now see that I highly underestimated the vigor with which birdhouse gourd vines grow. The vines promptly weighed down the trellis and collapsed it and now I'm doing everything I can do to keep it from using the okra plants as a trellis.  It has started to grow on the perimeter fence and the cows and goats don't even eat the vine.

It's like a jungle!
They do make beautiful flowers, though, that open in the morning sun and brighten the back side of the garden.  My yellow squash and zucchini squash have been attacked by some green worms that have really put a dent in our squash harvest, but the worms have left the gourd foliage alone.  Wow, the plant doesn't seem to have predators.

Yellow blooms of the birdhouse gourd
Now underneath the collapsed trellis, you can get a look at one of the actual 'birdhouses.'  There are several in that jungle along with one that has rotted on the ground.  I will try to get out there tomorrow after church and see what I can do to lift these off the ground so that they don't rot.  We have had a lot of rain, so they are in danger of rotting, if I delay doing anything about it.

One of the 'birdhouses'
According to what I've read, you are to leave them growing until the vine turns brown.  Then you hang them and allow them to dry.  Once you can shake the gourd and hear all the seeds shaking inside, you can drill a hole in it and make your birdhouse.  The vines are very far from turning brown and in fact are the healthiest thing in my garden right now.  

Next year, I'll be better prepared and will build a sturdier trellis, but for now I'll try to do something to salvage the green gourds I have.  If I'm successful, it will be a neat project to try my hand at making some birdhouses out of them.  As you can see they have some interesting shapes.  Right now I'll wait as my gourds are still green (as a gourd).

Friday, July 25, 2014

One More Thing we do with Homegrown Tomatoes

Usually on weekdays, the morning starts at 5:30 with milking the cows & goats along with other chores, then I shower, shave and I'm out the door at 6:30.  Since it is a whirlwind of activity, I really don't have the time to sit down and enjoy the most important meal of the day.  I end up drinking it in my car on my commute and it consists of a Goat Kefir Smoothie with figs, blueberries, peaches, strawberries or whatever fresh fruit we've harvested and frozen and have on hand.  Tricia will add some local honey and some cinnamon. Delicious!

On the weekends, though, we like to eat a good breakfast with some homemade biscuits and scrambled eggs.  Tricia is of Hispanic descent and she introduced me to something that I'll just call "Mexican scrambled eggs."  They're sort of like Huevos Rancheros, but not quite.  They are basically scrambled eggs with a bunch of other items cooked with the scrambled eggs - the main ingredient being homegrown tomatoes.

Since we don't always have homegrown tomatoes, we thought we would make and freeze some Mexican Scrambled Eggs "Flavor Packets" that we could simply thaw out and squeeze into the scrambled eggs in the skillet.  The term flavor packets might evoke thoughts of artificial ingredients, flavors or colors.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Lets make some with a batch of tomatoes.

First I add some butter to a pot and I throw a tiny bit of cut up celery and green onion and let that saute for a while.

Butter, celery, green onion
While the pot is warming I cut up all of our fresh ingredients including (from left to right): some red and yellow tomatoes that were getting on the over-ripe side, some cilantro, some onion, and some jalapeno peppers.

A colorful palette of flavor
Then I simply scrape this colorful medley into the pot and saute it.

Into the pot...
I stir occasionally and let everything 'get happy.'  It will make a good amount of liquid and I allow that to cook off until it has a somewhat thick consistency.

Stirrin' the pot
Once it gets to the right point, I turn off the heat and remove it from the stove and allow it to fully cool.  Then I use the snack size zip loc bags and spoon in enough to fill them.  The snack size bags are the perfect size "flavor packet" to liven up 8 - 12 scrambled eggs in a cast iron skillet yielding Tricia's family famous Mexican Scramble Eggs.   

Behold the Flavor Packets
We lay these flat in the freezer alongside the ones that we made up previously. On Friday nights we can simply let one thaw overnight and on Saturday morning when Tricia makes Mexican Scrambled eggs, all of the "heavy lifting" will already be done and she can simply add the contents of the bag to the scrambled eggs in the skillet and cook them together.
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