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 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.

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…

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.

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.