Tomato Season 2017: Digging Those Eastern European Heirlooms

Well, I admit it. I start thinking about the upcoming tomato season in December. Seattle is ridiculously dark and rainy during the last month of the year, but without fail that’s when my tomato and garden catalogs trickle in and that’s when I leave the holiday hubbub at the door and start to plan for the spring.

This year, we are having a ridiculously cold and rainy spring and everyone is wondering when the dreary weather will hit the road. No one has any answers and the media even salts the communal wound by publishing articles saying this is the rainiest season EVER for the Emerald City.

That being said, I am still marching forth on my tomato planning but I am also preparing for what will most likely be a late and truncated tomato season. When I moved to Seattle from New York over twenty years ago, I got turned on to the Eastern European heirloom tomatoes. I was told that these varieties are naturally conducive to Seattle’s maritime climate and that they produced flavorful unique tomatoes that defy the odds. Indeed, varieties such as Black Krim, Moskvich, Gregori’s Altai, Cosmonaut Volkov, Stupice and Siberia have been the backbone of my tomato beds for year.  These varieties sit alongside the classic heirlooms such as Carmello, San Marzano, Mortgage Lifter and Brandywine.

I often push the envelope and plant my tomatoes around April 15th but NOT this year because nighttime temperatures are still dipping to 40, which is way too cold. Hence, I’m coddling my plants at the kitchen table and at locations throughout my little house until the days get warmer and brighter.

If you haven’t gotten your tomato game plan in order yet, fear not because there’s still lots of time to reach for some of the Eastern Europeans. I grow some by seed but I also rely on the plants grown by Langley Fine Gardens on Vashon Island. You can find them at  Sky Nursery in Shoreline, at Swanson’s Nursery in NW Seattle and at select farmer’s markets during spring.  Or, you can simply order live plants directly from Territorial Seed in Oregon.

 

 

The Year in Review: My P-Patch Garden

Well, it’s official. I am wrapping up a full year as a Seattle P-Patch gardener. The P-Patches here in Seattle are a network of 88 organic community gardens dotted throughout the city. Operated by the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, the gardens have a legacy that dates back to about 1973 when the first one was started at Picardo Farm.

My little one-hundred square foot garden is located at the Haller Lake P-Patch, which is in North Seattle and only  stone’s throw from I-5. Located in a quiet corner of a church parking lots, it’s been a delightful oasis and experiment for me this last year.

I’ve messed around with inter planting, growing small garden varieties, companion planting, succession planting and a whole lot more.  Inspired by some vintage  U.S. Government Victory Garden booklets that I found at an estate sale, I inter planted aggressively, pulled plants once they were totally spent, and replanted something new shortly thereafter in order to keep the produce coming. The rewards and yields were  massive considering the tight quarters.

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Some of the items, such as beets, peas, kales, chards and carrots were planted directly in the beds. Other things like Savoy cabbages, yellow pear tomatoes, and Red Iceberg lettuce were put in as starter plants purchased at the nursery.  In mid June some items like winter kale and Brussels sprouts were started by seed at home and when transplanted to my P-Patch, simply tucked under the tomato plants. I figured the loftier tomato plants would protect the little starts from harsh summer sun and heat.

The garden organizers at my P-Patch keep telling us that we have til October 31 to plant our beds for the winter or simply clean them up, mulch them and let them take a snooze til spring. This year, I’ve opted to plant mine with cold weather varieties such as elephant garlic, kales, chards, rutabagas, purple kale, Nordic Brussel sprouts, and winter carrots.  I wasn’t able to have a winter garden in  my plot last year simply because I got my plot too late in the season. I’ve had a winter garden at home every year for about two decades now but I am really excited to push the proverbial limit and see what I can get in a SMALL space winter garden! Now, that’s a victory!

Stay tuned…and stay warm!

Wnter Garden October 2016.JPG

The Pike Place Market Urban Garden

Don’t we all love little secret destinations? Spots that aren’t well known but have an abundance of charm? Little places that speak volumes but haven’t been discovered by the masses?

Well, that’s how I felt when I visited the Pike Place Market Urban Garden this morning. Admittedly, this 2,000 square foot garden sits in one of the city’s busiest tourist attractions–the Pike Place Market–but it is deliciously removed from the hub bub.

In 2013, the Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority and Seattle Urban Farm Company  teamed up in order to revitalize and essentially energize an underutilized patio in the market. Indeed, their efforts have created a wonderful haven amidst the hub bub of urban life.

Tucked away near Maximilien Restaurant and Market Spice, this community garden is completely run by volunteers and all of the produce is donated to the local food bank and the market senior center. Peppered with raised beds, benches, pole bean teepees, trellised gourds, cucumbers and tomatoes, this garden simultaneously oozes charm and local food! Plus the spectacular views make it a great place to sit and take a breather from the crowds at hand.

Next time you are at Seattle’s iconic and world renowned tourist attraction, visit the garden and take a few minutes to smell the herbs and savor the scenery.

February in the Garden: Organizing a Big Hot Mess of Seeds

Things are getting brighter here in Seattle. We are scheduled for a full week of sun this week and by next Monday, which is President’s Day, we should be gearing up to plant our first round of spring peas.

Compost 2016This weekend we had a “family work party” in the garden. This involved wrangling teenage boys out of the house and into the garden. One of those teenagers picked up and hauled home two cubic yards of steamy Cedar Grove compost which was spread on my raised beds. We also had a family lesson in mechanics because my youngest son learned how to fix the wheel on the secondhand wheelbarrow. Family dynamics took a turn for the worse when it came time to deal with the big messy compost heap in the corner of the yard. I feed that heap with leaves, clippings, and coffee grounds through the winter.  No one likes that arduous and sloppy task but the worms, those quiet garden workhorses, needed a little attention.

Purple Sprouting Broccoli February 2016Last night, I finally got around to seriously perusing the seed catalogs. I have been poking through them intermittently but last night I sat down with pen and paper to craft my list. I must say I was surprised to see how much seeds prices have skyrocketed this year. One of my favorite purveyors wants $5 for ten tomato seeds. This reality check sent me on a housecleaning mission this morning….it was time to inventory my unruly collection of seed packets. I have packets stashed in Ziploc bags in a box. Not the best system admittedly but it has worked pretty well…until now.

This morning I spent a few minutes sorting those packets by variety. I then took note of the date on each packet and how much was left in each packet. Even after that I realized my sorting wouldn’t be very useful while placing mail orders or buying off the seed rack at the garden store. I really wanted to have a quick way to survey my stock and decide if I need to risk using older seeds or if it would be better to buy new.

So, I decided to take an inventory and create an Excel spreadsheet, categorizing each type of vegetable and then noting the variety, date on the packet and how much is left in each pack. Now, some of you might be masters of the Excel spreadsheet…I must admit, however, that I’ve never done one for this type of project but it came out great and I can now easily sort and peruse exactly what I have and what I need. (I just Googled an inventory spreadsheet template, downloaded it and it worked great.)  I’ve even stored the list in my Dropbox so I can access it from my phone while shopping.

I suspect I will still buy a few more packets than I technically need but I think my little seed inventory sheet will be very helpful when buying, planning, and planting for 2016.

Curry Cilantro Vinaigrette for a Winter Salad

Yesterday, I wrote about winter salads and in that post I mentioned using a robust dressing…one that can stand up to the bulky textures and flavors of cabbages and kale.

To follow up on that note, I decided to write about making a basic food processor vinaigrette in today’s post. Admittedly, I use bottled dressings in my kitchen. They add incredible convenience and if I choose carefully, they add flavor without a ton of fat. (I prefer the nonfat balsamic dressing from Trader Joe’s.)

However, there are many days when I make my own vinaigrette and without a doubt my trusty Cuisinart food processor or mini chopper is the tool for the task. Whisking the mixture in a bowl can do the trick but I find that my food processor lightens my dicing load and blends everything together beautifully.  I also like making my own vinaigrette because it saves me money and lets me tweak to my preference.

The basic approach is to use one part vinegar (or acid) to three parts oil. It’s then important to add an emulsifier, or blending agent, like mustard or garlic to hold the mixture together. I vary my vinaigrettes seasonally. In the summer when I make a rice and black bean salad, I make a garlic, cilantro and cumin-laced dressing. For those days when I am craving classic French salads, I make a tarragon shallot vinaigrette. Right now, because my garden is producing winter cabbages and kale, I am making hearty salads and reaching for robust vinaigrettes.

This morning, I made one of my favorites–a Curry Cilantro Vinaigrette. Using fresh ginger, lime, cilantro and curry powder, this concoction brings the warm flavors of curry and ginger to big bowls of crunchy seasonal produce. Here’s the recipe. Feel free to tweak it to your taste:

Curry Cilantro Vinaigrette

one 1 inch piece of fresh ginger root, peel and chopped into chunks

2 teaspoons curry powder

juice of 1 lime

1 Tablespoon honey

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 vegetable oil

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 bunch fresh cilantro, leaves and stems included

In a mini chopper fitted with the metal blade, put the ginger root, curry powder, lime juice, and  honey. Blend for 30 seconds to chop the ginger root and combine the ingredients. Add the oils and the salt and process for 30 seconds to combine. Add the cilantro and process for another 15 t0 20 seconds to chop the cilantro. Transfer to a small jar and keep refrigerated. Makes about 3/4 cup.

Note: When using this vinaigrette, use a big bowl, toss well, add toasted seeds or nuts to the mix and toss in fresh seasonal fruit or  a little cheese if that suits your taste.

 

 

 

 

January in the Garden: Community Gardening

P-Patch Community Garden Seattle
New Year’s Day 2016 at my P-Patch Community Garden. Wonders await under burlap!

2016 marks a new year and a gardening adventure revisited for me.

Twenty years ago, shortly after I moved to Seattle, I wrote an article for The New York Times on Seattle’s wonderful P-Patch Community Gardening Program.

Back then I was enchanted with the program and eventually landed a plot of my own. Located only a stone’s throw from our rental house in View Ridge, this garden, which was once an orchard, was a beautiful oasis.

Nestled on a hill overlooking Lake Washington and surrounded by heirloom fruit trees, my P-Patch plot was a blank slate for me. Gardening in the Pacific Northwest was new to me back then and I loved getting my boots wet by working in that lovely garden. I met fellow gardeners, surveyed their plots, gained inspiration and learned many tips and tricks for growing in Seattle’s temperate maritime climate. I was shocked at how easily plants grew here and I was delighted when I was told that I could grow a winter kitchen garden!

My  P-Patch participation was short lived because we eventually bought our first home, which had an enormous sunny garden suitable for growing all sorts of fruits, vegetables and berries. Sadly, that P-Patch garden itself was eventually mowed over and the land is now occupied by offices for Seattle’s Children’s Hospital.

I’ve been an active gardener since and still maintain an organic 400-square foot kitchen garden. Last spring, I spontaneously decided to visit a few community gardens around town and without a doubt the P-Patch bug bit me again…hard. I loved the diversity displayed between each of the individual plots and was fascinated with how the program has grown and expanded over the years.

With little delay, I decided to sign up for a plot. I was put on a waiting list for various gardens in my area and last fall I received an exciting email informing me that I was being offered one. Did I still want it? Yes, of course.  I replied within minutes.

With little delay, I went through P-Patch orientation on one ridiculously cold and rainy morning, paid my annual fee of about $40, and loaded up my 100-square foot plot with additional compost, numerous bags of foraged leaves, and lots of manure. Now, nestled under a cozy layer of recycled burlap, my P-Patch awaits. I’m planning, researching, gathering and plotting.

Not sure what my community garden plot will yield, but it sure feels great to come full circle.

 

 

 

 

 

Kitchen Garden Tips: Washing and Spinning Salad Greens

Seattle's mild maritime climate allows me to have a wonderful winter garden each year. This Arctic Butterhead always survives the winter and springs to life in the spring. The slugs love to hide in the crevices so it's important to wash it WELL!
Seattle’s mild maritime climate allows me to have a wonderful winter garden each year. This Arctic Butterhead always survives the winter and springs to life in the spring. The slugs love to hide in the crevices so it’s important to wash it WELL!
Without a doubt, a bountiful garden is indeed an awesome way to control the family food budget. But, I know from my own kitchen garden experience, that a garden glut can easily overwhelm the cook. It’s a pleasure to have lots of fresh homegrown vegetables to work with, but if you don’t know how to prepare them quickly and efficiently, all of your green thumb effort will be pitched right back into the compost heap when the items deteriorate in the fridge.

With that in mind, I am going to discuss how to wash and dry homegrown lettuces, greens, and spinach. Although organic mesclun mixes are widely available in produce departments, lettuces are some of the easiest and more rewarding things to grow. The supermarket lettuce mixes can’t compare to a diverse selection of homegrown greens destined for the salad bowl. And, of course, freshness is unsurpassed.

It’s well known that slugs and grit take refuge in the leaves’ crevices, so the greens need to be washed properly. Cleaning is generally done by plunging the greens into a bowl of cold water, swishing them gently, removing them and pouring off the dirty water. It can take a few rounds to completely remove the grit and slugs, and once the lettuce is clean it needs to be dried properly so you don’t have a soggy salad once dressed.

Kitchen towels can work, but the best tool for the task is a salad spinner. Both the rinsing and drying can be done in the spinner, so the task is simplified. I like the Oxo Good Grips Salad Spinner. The three piece dishwasher safe device has a bowl, a perforated basket, and a lid with a non slip knob. It’s easy create the drying centrifugal force by pumping the large knob on the lid. The patented pump mechanism features a brake button that quickly stops the spinning process.

The large spinner has a bowl capacity of 6.22 quarts. The mini spinner is suitable for small families and for drying fresh herbs.

So, getting to the root of things, it’s obvious that having the right tool can put a whole new spin on dinner!

This blog post originally appeared on Amazon’s Al Dente blog in May 2009.