Potimarron Squash–Kitchen Garden Victory with a French Heirloom

I love my little kitchen garden. Admittedly very small at only about 400 square feet, my garden produces a vast array of produce year round—tomatoes, figs, cucumbers, squash, beans, micro greens, and lettuce during the summer months and kale, cabbages, broccoli, garlic and shallots through the winter and into the spring.

Last June, I purchased a vintage book called Vegetable Gardening in Wartime. Published at the height of World War II and meant to be a reference for newbie patriotic gardeners who wanted to transform their yards into productive kitchen gardens, the book features an array of charts and illustrations designed to educate the reader on how to extend the season, maximize the harvest, and plant in succession. I studied these charts and although I didn’t follow them to a T, they inspired me to rethink how I garden and use my precious kitchen garden real estate each summer.  One of my gardening goals this year was to utilize the space throughout the bright and sunny months of summer. This involved planting a little earlier, harvesting conscientiously each day, and pulling the plants once they were spent in order to vacate the space and get going on another fruit or vegetable.

Victory Garden

Found at an estate sale, this vintage book is a treasure trove of information and advice for those who want to maximize their kitchen garden yields.

My best example of this ruthless approach occurred with my Costata Romanesco zucchini and Potimarron Squash. I planted the Italian heirloom zucchini in early May and by late June/early July the plants were five feet tall and producing far more zucchini than I ever imagined could come from a few plants. At that time, I also purchased a packet of Potimarron Squash seeds at PCC.  Produced by Uprising Seeds, the packets were on sale and the description of the winter squash was alluring—a small French heirloom that tasted like a cross between a pumpkin and a chestnut. I also liked the fact that the squash were small and grew on compact vines. I decided to push the envelope so to speak and plant a few seeds. Admittedly, I was doubtful that my French heirlooms would REALLY produce. After all, they were getting a very late start and I wasn’t sure they could possibly grow to maturity before fall set in.

Well, much to my delight, my Potimarron squash did great in the sunny corner of the yard where I had grown those Italian zucchini. The vines grew vigorously, the squash fruit set and last week we pulled the vines. Although the squash weren’t the exact telltale red, they continue to turn that gorgeous deep red color as they sit outside on my little sunny deck. I probably only got about six or seven squash of varying sizes but from a culinary perspective, I’m thrilled to discover that these little French heirlooms don’t need to be peeled because the skin doesn’t get that tough. (A true time saver in the kitchen and a score for thrifty cooks!) I’m also tickled that the squash store well, which means I can keep them handy for the colder rainy days ahead. And, because they are relatively small in size compared to some other monster winter squashes on the market, the Potimarron are great for individual serving sizes and small families.

So, if you want to savor a little victory in the garden, seriously consider planting in succession throughout the season and be brave, exploring new varieties of fruits and vegetables.

Potimarron Squash

After harvest, the squash continue to turn that telltale rich color…

Jumbleberry Jam Bars-A Simple and Thrifty Baked Good!

Jumbleberry Jam Bars

A simple bar made from a jumble of jam! A thrifty family favorite!

Note: This blog post and recipe originally appeared on my old website on September 1, 2010. Indeed, this simple concoction has withstood the test of time and remains a family favorite. My daughter is now in college and loves sharing these sweet bars with her college buddies! One boy said he’d buy a whole tray JUST so he could eat them ALL by himself!

What do you make with a couple of half empty jars of jam?   Jumbleberry Jam Bars, of course!

Earlier this week, I was clearing the pantry and the fridge. Many items were being evicted simply because they were past their prime.  When I surveyed the “jam department” on the top shelf of my fridge, I realized I had quite a collection of jam at hand– Bonne Maman blueberry preserves, Bonne Maman strawberry preserves, Huckleberry Haven Wild Huckleberry Jam, and Maury Island Boysenberry Jam!  I decided that I needed to deal with this motley collection of rather expensive jam.  Jumbleberry Jam Bars were the simple sensible  solution for my no nonsense housekeeping task.

When I make jam bars, I like to use my 8-inch-square Pyrex Storables pan with lid. The pan bakes the bars beautifully. The lid makes it easy to store the bars right in the pan.

Missy’s Jumbleberry Jam Bars

2 ½  cups flour

1 cup sugar

1 cup butter, at room temperature

1 egg

½ cup miscellaneous jam, such as blueberry, boysenberry, huckleberry, and strawberry

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

½ cup pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter an 8-inch-square baking pan.

In the bowl of the food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulse together the flour, sugar, and butter until it resembles coarse meal. Add the egg and pulse a couple more times.

Pour half the mixture into the baking pan and press the mixture into the pan.   Spread the jam over the crumb crust, being careful not to reach all the way to the sides or the jam will burn during baking.

Add the cinnamon and the pecans to the other half of the mixture, which is still in the food processor work bowl. Pulse four or five times to chop the pecans. Sprinkle the remaining crumb mixture over the jam.

Bake the jumbleberry jam bars in the middle of the oven for about 35 to 40 minutes, or until the crumb topping is brown.  Let the jam bars cool completely before cutting into 24 bar.

Note: I think ½ cup jam is about right, but some other members of my family think I could increase the jam quantity even further. It’s your choice.

Tomato Season 2015-A Whopper!

Heirloom tomato harvest

My late September harvest of heirloom tomatoes.

Well, I’ve been growing tomatoes here in the Pacific Northwest for at least twenty years now. And, without a doubt, I have to say that the Tomato Season 2015 was a blockbuster. Given that we had a warmer than usual spring, I trusted my instincts and planted my tomato plants one month earlier than usual. This was indeed a risk on my part because I normally don’t plant until May. That being said, I sensed that the tomatoes would do okay and much to my delight they flourished…yielding an abundance of big fat tomatoes in large quantities.

I always lean towards the heirloom tomato varieties and this year I opted for Black Krim, Mortgage Lifter, German Striped, Matt’s Wild Cherry, Stupice and a multitude of others.  I’ve been growing Stupice, an heirloom variety from Czechoslovakia for many years now. It yields a moderately sized tomato and does well even in those years when the Seattle weather doesn’t exactly cooperate with an abundance of sunshine. My Stupice tomatoes were some of the first to ripen this year and the plant is still producing.

Matt's Wild Cherry heirloom tomato

One of my biggest surprises this year was Matt’s Wild Cherry. I had never grown this heirloom before and I opted to buy it this year because I wanted to experiment with cherries. I purchased one plant and nestled it into a far corner of the yard, planting other varieties nearby.

During the course of the summer, I tried to keep that tomato bed under control by clipping and pruning the plants but somehow I never got around to tending Matt’s Wild Cherry…it was just too far back in the garden. Well during my fall cleanup yesterday, I uncovered Matt’s Wild. Over the summer,  this plant clearly had its own agenda and went wild in the back corner…rambling over the wood pile and up the fence. I was thrilled to find a jackpot of mini tomatoes back there. Growing in little clusters, the very small tomatoes have a wonderful sweet flavor and a great snappy skin. I think they are quite elegant and can easily see them being used as a brilliant little garnish on a salad or an hors d’oeuvre tray. This variety is going on my tomato list for next year.

How did the tomatoes grow in your neck of the woods this year? Did you grown any new and unusual heirlooms or varieties?

Easiest (and Best!) Fig Jam

Fig Harvest 2015

Sometimes the simplest things in life are the best.

I was reminded of this last night when I was staring at a basket of some big beautiful ripe figs that I had picked in my little garden.  I had about 20 figs on hand and  knew that if I didn’t do something with them right away I’d risk losing them.

Seeking inspiration, I hunted through some of my favorite cookbooks. I pulled Patricia Wells, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, and many others off the shelf. I considered fig clafouti, fig tartlets, grilled figs, figs stewed with rhubarb and even a fig and arugula salad. That being said, I also considered my energy level and realized I was too dang exhausted to tackle any of those recipes. As great as they looked, I decided to really keep it simple and just go with my instincts.

So, rather than gather a ton of ingredients, I simply sliced the stems off of about 15 figs, quartered them and placed them in my favorite Le Creuset Dutch oven. I grabbed a measuring cup and sprinkled 2/3 cup sugar over the quartered figs and simmered over moderate heat.

The whole process probably took about 15 to  20 minutes at the most and resulted in  a dark and luscious fig jam that surpasses any I’ve bought in the store. When the jam cooled to lukewarm, I grabbed a multigrain cracker and some Cambozola. I then dolloped the warm oozy jam over the cheese and cracker. It was superb and, most likely, very bad for my waistline! (And, yes, it was my dinner!)

Best and Easiest Fig Jam

My 15 figs yielded a large jar of jam that is now stashed in the fridge. I don’t think it will last very long…

So, if you find yourself with some gorgeous figs, try this super simple fig jam!

Easiest (and Best!) Fig Jam

15 very ripe large figs

2/3 cup sugar

Slice the top stem off the figs and quarter. Put the quartered figs in a large Dutch oven. Sprinkle the sugar over the figs and turn on the stove to moderately high.

Watch the figs, stirring, as they heat up. They will start to soften and release a lot of juice. Stir again and lower the heat to moderate.

Get the mixture bubbling and stir intermittently. Stay close to the range at this point to avoid burning.

The figs will start to break up and the mixture will change color and thicken as the fig pulp breaks down. Keep stirring because the fig skin will resist breaking down.

After a few more minutes of simmering, stirring and mashing, the fig skin will succumb and break down, making the whole mixture turn a darker color, closer to the color of the Fig Newton filling!

At this point, I only simmered and stirred for a minute or two longer. Remove from the heat, let cool slightly and transfer to a jam jar.

Store in fridge and serve with cheese and crackers or on savory paninis.

Growing Micro Greens at Home

Have any of you spotted that restaurant trend that features mini greens as a final garnish on a special dish? Have you noticed petite little sprigs of greens sprinkled into salads and tucked into sandwiches? If so, then you’ve noticed micro greens. A nifty specialty item that sits between sprouts and full grown greens, micro greens have been gaining traction lately.  Highly nutritious, they are easy to grow and delicious to eat.

I’ve been a fan of micro greens for some time. Many years ago when we vacationed on Vancouver Island, I’d always reach for the sunflower sprouts at the local grocery store. Locally grown and displayed in messy tangles, the sunflower sprouts were only few inches long but they packed a bright and succulent crunch when tucked into our hearty whole grain sandwiches.  Even though I hunted for sunflower sprouts here in the Seattle area for years, I’ve always been hard pressed to find them in grocery stores around here.

This spring, while perusing the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog. I noticed that they had a massive selection of micro green seeds—everything from basil and kale to a sorrel and shiso. Distracted by planting my regular garden at the time, I put “Grow Micro Greens” on my garden to do list and a couple weeks ago I finally circled back to the task. I surveyed the garden for a suitable spot and mail ordered an array of seeds from Johnny’s (arugula, basil, spicy and mild micro mix, cress, sunflowers and kales).  Simple to grow, I’ve been amazed at how lovely these little greens are. We’ve been tucking the powerhouses into sandwiches and sprinkling them on top of sliced tomatoes.

Right now my micro green adventure has been pretty easy because I have been growing them in seed trays in a little greenhouse that I purchased from Amazon in February. This method has been great because the trays are at eye level and I have positioned the greenhouse in a protected area where the greens won’t get fried by the sun. I check them each morning to make sure they are sufficiently moist and I spritz or water as need.  I’m still pondering how I will grow these during the cooler months but for now, I’m happy with the operation at hand.

Freshly snipped sunflower and red kale micro greens carried in a lettuce cup.

Freshly snipped sunflower and red kale micro greens carried in a lettuce cup.

So, here are some quick tips for growing microgreens.

  • Check out the selection at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine. They offer great tips in both the catalog and online. I asked an array of questions when I ordered and was pleased with the informative answers I received. If you are just getting started consider ordering their “5 Top Micro Greens Varieties for Beginners.”
  • Buy some seed starting trays and good top quality potting soil. I used those basic seed starting trays that you can get at Fred Meyer or Home Depot. I sprinkled in high quality potting soil and opted NOT to use the seed starting mixes because I thought they would be too light. The potting soil works great.
  • Sprinkle the seeds generously but not too densely and water. In my first tray I visualized three different sections and grew three different varieties. This worked pretty well but in my next trays I kept to one variety for each tray simply because the growing times and heights were different.
  • Keep the trays in an area where they get some sunlight but avoid full sunlight all day if possible. Seedlings are fragile and I find that partial sun/shade prevents them from getting fried by the midday sun. My greenhouse is on the southeast side of the house and gets shade by mid afternoon.
  • Keep the trays moist and check frequently or the seeds might not germinate. When watering, use a spray bottle or a light spritz from the hose but avoid watering too hard or heavily because the potting soil will splash all over the greens and make them more difficult to wash.
  • Once the micro greens get their first two seeds, watch them carefully, let them grow to a couple inches and snip them with culinary scissors for use in the kitchen. Rinse before using.

A Super Tip for Garlic

Note: This post was originally published on my old blog on March 9, 2011. I am reposting it because the tip is timeless. Try it the next time you tackle some garlic on the chopping block!

Don’t you just hate it when you are chopping garlic and then have to get that smell off your hands?

Well, many years ago, I discovered a quirky tip for removing the smell of garlic from my hands quickly and easily. I found the tip in some very little vintage booklet that has long since disappeared. Nonetheless, I often demonstrated this tip while teaching some basic cooking classes at Seattle’s natural foods coop, PCC. The students loved it. So, here’s the tip:

Turn on the faucet, grab a stainless steel spoon and rub you fingers over the spoon while holding them under running water. Wash your hands quickly with soap. And, voila, you are ready to answer the phone or sign that field trip permission slip! Try it and let me know if you like it.

Zucchini: My Fiscal Buffer

Zucchini Medley from the blockbuster harvest this summer. Shown are yellow and green as well as Eight Ball and Costata Romanesco

Zucchini Medley from the blockbuster harvest this summer. Shown are yellow and green as well as Eight Ball and Costata Romanesco

So, how do you tackle your food budget? Do you notice that your food bill skyrockets during the summer months when the kids and their friends are home and hungry? I’ve noticed this for many years and this spring I decided to seek a little backup from my kitchen garden. Every year my small organic kitchen garden provides an array of homegrown veggies—green beans, cucumbers, potatoes, garlic, tomatoes, greens, beets and a lot more.

Last May, in anticipation of my teenagers (and their friends) being around quite a bit during the summer, I decided to dedicate a little more garden real estate to zucchini. While at the garden centers, I explored my options and purchased some unique varieties such as Costata Romanesco, a striated heirloom from Italy, and Eight Ball, a round compact green zucchini.  I also tossed a few seeds into the ground from some old packets and planted a couple yellow squash for good measure and bright color.

Well, by July 4th, thanks to this incredibly warm and sunny weather we’ve had in Seattle, my zucchini were blowing forth and producing daily. My Costata Romanesco plant stretched more than five feet into the air and the zucchini was gorgeous and decidedly more delicious than the run of the mill varieties.  All of the other zucchini plants were exploding and on July 4th I decided to start weighing the harvest and keeping track in a little spiral notebook.  I wondered just what my haul would be and estimated that my initial investment in plants and seeds didn’t surpass $10.  Well, much to my shock, between July 4th and July 20th, my harvest totaled 78 pounds! Yes, 78! I couldn’t believe it. When I tallied the farmers market value of that haul, a conservative estimate brought me to about $200, which I felt was a pretty solid return on my $10 investment.

Obviously, zucchini held central stage in all of my cooking those weeks and indeed it became my fiscal buffer. I turned to it as the vegetable mainstay during those weeks and I used it as a good substitute for high carb alternatives such as potatoes.  I sliced, shredded, baked, parboiled, steamed and sautéed it. I worked it into bread and Bundt cakes and sliced some lengthwise to mimic lasagna. I handed more than a few off to friendly neighbors and sent a few home with those teenagers who bounced in around dinner time! (I told them if they wanted the green light to go out for the evening, they had to take a zucchini home!) Most of the brood around here willingly engaged in my zucchini creations although I had one zucchini defector, William.

The most athletic of the lot, my zucchini defector would make his power breakfast each morning and while sitting at the kitchen table, Will would stare at that morning’s harvest sitting before him. He would shake his head in horror and mumble how it gave him shivers. I’ve yet to convert him but I haven’t given up hope. Zucchini Brownies are on my bucket list!

So, if you have a bumper crop of zukes and a house full of kids, friends, family and guests, consider yourself lucky, get creative and try some of these ideas:

Build a Gratin

Grease a baking dish, slice the zucchini and layer it in the dish. Add some chopped garlic, diced tomato, herbs such as thyme and basil, season with salt and pepper to taste, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with Parmesan, cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes at about 375 F. Remove foil and bake for another 15 minutes or until brown and bubbly. Leftovers are great the next day.

Rev up the Food Processor and Shred those Zukes! Use the shredding blade, or better yet the julienne blade if you have it. (The julienne blade, though less popular and somewhat harder to find, does produce a more elegant shred and in my opinion the julienned zucchini doesn’t get as wet and watery) Shred a bunch in advance, keep it in the fridge, and saute it, add it to quiches or gratins, or simmer it in boiling water for a few seconds, drain and toss with butter, olive oil or a sauce for gluten free pasta option.

Slice It Lengthwise and Create Lasagna Sheets: With a sharp knife, slice it into long sheets, steam it and use it like lasagna or create a savory pork or vegetarian filling and wrap the steamed “lasagna” sheets around scoops of the filling. Put it in a baking dish, top with jarred marinara and bake at 350 for 40 minutes or so. Low carb, high flavor, great price!

Tackle the Little Ones: If you can get them before they explode (the zucchini/not the kids), slice  lengthwise and saute in olive oil and a little garlic for a quick and easy accompaniment to chicken, beef or seafood. This one only takes about five minutes and the fresh flavor is a revelation.

Grill them: Slice into chunks or lengthwise, season with salt and pepper, toss in a little oil and grill over moderate heat until tender. Delicious served right away and great the next day at room temperature or reheated. This is a cool way to crank through some of the zucchini volume very quickly.

So, right now I am in a zucchini lull…my first round of plants expired and I pulled them out about a week ago. That being said…I have a second round of plants (Ronde de Nice, a French heirloom) coming up the bend…these should be producing right around September…just in time for the kids to go back to school!


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