Homegrown Potatoes: A Worthy Vegetable

A few years ago, as my husband and I prepared to plant our first large garden, we poured over the colorful photos in seed catalogues and discussed what we wanted to plant. The gist of it: everything!

But we narrowed it down to a reasonable selection, based on the pursuit of superior flavor and nutritional value than what we could buy. (We did, however, fail to plant a reasonable quantity of each: notably three 30-foot rows of spinach for the two of us and something like 100 tomato plants.) We placed our order. In addition, I heaped several paper sacks with various potatoes at the local feed store.

He didn’t protest the potatoes until he had fulfilled his job of mounding the rows a few times. While we now layer in straw mulch, at the time he was heaving shovelful after shovelful of dry valley clay soil– backbreaking work. And he began to wonder aloud, why waste the time and effort with potatoes when they’re so cheap from the grocery store? They’re just a bland starch.

Then we harvested our first Yukon Golds. They were like butter– totally unlike supermarket spuds. They hardly needed anything but a pot of boiling water. Divine in every preparation.

Now we grow lots of potatoes: fingerlings, purples and blues, waxy and white. We’ve grown them in buckets, in trenches, and in circles of wire. We layer mulch and soil for easy mounding and digging. And they’re my very favorite harvest– have been since childhood. It’s like digging for treasure.

We planted purple potatoes in bins before the move with the intention of simply moving them with us. I didn’t want to miss potato season and the purples were sprouting. We also threw in some golds and reds. The plants shot up in the early warm California weather. Then before one of our weeklong trips with a load to the new place, I forgot to tell the student caring for our animals to water the plants. Many survived. The potatoes did not.

Disappointed, I shrugged them off with the intention to plant more in the new garden, which I did in March. Then as we prepared for the final move and I dumped the demised spud bins, out poured dozens of colorful marbles: young potatoes from pea-sized to ping pong balls. Delighted, I tossed them in a bag and brought them along.

Now at the new place, I prepared them to our toddler’s delight, simply boiled and tossed in a bit of butter and fresh parsley, served over a bed of peas. It was a hit that highlighted the finest of spring vegetables, even the ones some might not deem worthy of growing at home.

This weekend we’ll be digging fingerlings, and we’re as eager as we will be when harvesting the first tomatoes or berries.

Shared on the Homestead Blog Hop.

Advertisements

Pickled Cat’s Ear Buds

The population of edible plants growing from our driveway down to the creek and up the hillside is astounding and exciting– beyond the salad greens we eat almost daily to include vegetables for roasting and stir-frying, fermenting and pickling.

I have been topping our daily wild salads with dandelion buds for months, split in half to reveal their bright petal heart. Munched just atop the green leafy halo, they are sweet and palatable straight from the plant.

But as dandelion season wanes and now with an overabundance of cat’s ear shooting skyward, I knew I wanted to utilize them in a way that would aptly tame their bitterness. So I pickled a jarful. Among them I added the last of the dandelion buds as well as clusters of sow thistle and spiny sow thistle buds, all significantly less bitter than cat’s ear.

When gathering, keep in mind that all secrete a staining white sap, but cat’s ear is worst of all and will leave skin and clothing marked brown indefinitely.

Cat’s ear is widely mistaken for dandelion because their leaf rosettes are rather similarly shaped and their bright-yellow blossoms are indistinguishable from a distance (to the unfamiliar). Dandelion flowers tend not to stand as tall, nor are its leaves markedly furry as are cat’s ear. Both, however, vary greatly in their leaf-shape and size. Cat’s ear buds lack dandelion’s ring of small leaves just above the top of the stem.

Cat’s ear leaves on the left; dandelion leaves on the right for comparison.

   

The good news is that both are edible and highly nutritious. Cat’s ear buds along with the top several inches of stem are fantastically delicious cooked as asparagus– we roast them briefly with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Sow thistle and spiny sow thistle plants, for their due mention, are edible but unappetizing by appearance: one is armored with long spikes; the other is limp and milky. Their tiny drum-shaped buds, though, show the signs of palatability. They may be picked individually or in clusters.

Another important note for gathering edible wild buds: All of the above flowers open and then close into a bud form.  Only the pre-flowering stage is worth eating as the latter is turning to seed. Pick only tightly closed, blunt buds with no tip of yellow or browned petal clusters emerging at the end.

Pickled Wild Buds

This pickle yields a rainbow of flavors, from tangy to sweet to bitter at the end. The bitterness wanes over time, so if they are too bitter for your taste, let them brine for longer in the fridge. They are a nutritious snack and zippy addition to salads and sandwiches.

1-1/2 cups wild buds

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1/3 cup water

2 T sugar or honey

1 T salt

10 whole black peppercorns

10 coriander seeds

1 dried hot chili, such as Thai chili — or — 1 t red chili flakes

3 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled

1 bay leaf

Rinse the buds in a colander to remove brown sap stain and any bugs. Drain. Then place in a clean canning jar.

Combine all other ingredients in a small saucepan and heat to a low simmer. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. Turn off immediately and cool to just-warm. Pour the contents over the buds and cool to room temperature. Seal with a lid (canning is not necessary). Place in the refrigerator for at least one week.

More wild food recipes for the weeds in your yard:

Superpowers of Stinging Nettles

Wild Greens with Polenta and Chutney Vinaigrette (And a Note on Foraging)

Sauteed Wild Mustard Greens with Dock, Garlic and Onions

Roasted Wild Mustard Buds

Eating Mustard Flowers

Meadow and Brown Field Mushrooms

Firsts Among Fungi

Shaggy Mane Mushrooms

The May Garden

As May concludes, here finally is an update on the garden. We’ve been here two weeks, and it’s finally starting to feel real. The garden project is one of my most gratifying, although much of it seems to be two steps forward; one step back.

I’m continuing to plant, in the interest of a passing season, yet the fence has yet to be completed. (I won’t mention the oversight of the deer or roaming cows, lest I jinx myself, but…) The chickens have been persistently destructive, just as they were at our last place, so I will be attempting to wrangle and coop them. Meanwhile, for as long as the hose and grass occupy my toddler, I’ve been hanging wire one post at a time.

What have been spared so far by the villainous poultry are a row of peas; a pell-mell patch of radishes and leaf lettuce; a dozen heirloom tomatoes; and small plots of beets, kale, basil, cilantro, squash, cucumbers, and melons. Until the fence is up and the chicken issue is resolved, I’m trying not to get too attached as I continue planting.

Two rows of fingerling, gold, and purple potatoes are thriving. The first row we planted in a trench months ago has been mounded with layers of mulch and soil to about a foot over ground-level; the other has spud leaves just emerging from the trench.

Beside the potatoes surrounded by nasturtium is the compost heap, onto which I layer kitchen waste, manure, and grass clippings with immense satisfaction.

Our wonderful next-door neighbors shared runners from their bountiful raspberry patch, most of which have taken to their new plot perfectly. The raspberries neighbor the two blueberry plants, which are too straggly to be called bushes. Evidently I should have pinched off this year’s berries to encourage plant growth, but now they are so close to ripeness, I can’t bear to do so, nor am I sure it would help at this point.

Two of the four apple trees we planted last month have apples; the other two do not. I’m not terribly surprised given the time of their planting, and I have plenty of hope for future years. Also, the old apple tree I cut from a tomb of blackberry brambles and ivy earlier in the year is thriving. Someone said it was a crabapple, but I was pretty sure its fruit were previously hindered by the tree’s neglect. That appears to be true, and I look forward to finding out what type of apples it yields.

The concord grape arbor I pruned for its first time in what must have been decades has likewise come to glorious life. Soon we’ll have the Adirondack chairs or a new bench beneath to enjoy on these warm, breezy spring afternoons. The beauty here is boundless and, thankfully, energizing.

Moving 50 Animals 600 Miles

We made it! We are officially here permanently. I can’t say that it feels so final in my mind– rather, the days are rushing by as if again approaching the long return trip to California. Without a set routine and with such a seemingly insurmountable to-do list, the past week has been a blur.

The process of packing and loading, of corralling the animals and worrying about how in the world we’d be able to move them all at once, is still haunting my dreams.

The two sheep, two goats, three rabbits, four geese, and dozens of chickens all rode in one trailer, neatly packed into cages and a makeshift livestock area. As stressful and challenging as the experience was, the actual trip was successful and undoubtedly quite the amusing scene for passers-by. We did try to track down a professional livestock mover or at least rent a proper trailer, for the record, but in the end, this was it. And it worked!

The animals seemed to travel quite comfortably, and their release onto acres of lush mixed grass was a happy one. The goats have managed to clear most of the blackberry brambles from under the hay barn. As soon as it’s cleaned out we can fence the area off to contain the sheep for shearing next week.

Between the numerous projects and good hard work, I’ve been voraciously foraging and experimenting with preserving the wild harvests. Posts and recipes will follow this week, along with an update on the beautifully expanding garden.

Home sweet home!

Planting Fruit Trees

We’re back from a longer-than-planned trip to the new place– the last visit, perhaps, that is merely a visit. The anxiety for change is mounting, as is the excitement, as is the stress, as is the sense of accomplishment for all that we managed to do in the past two weeks.

While we finally had the Internet connected after Week One, I couldn’t find more than a single moment to devote to any writing whatsoever, which does leave a vacant place in my heart that I’ll be working to fill in the next few weeks and in the new routine I will be developing.

Albeit a tad late, we planted four apple trees: a Gravenstein (deeply endeared to me in my upbringing in Sonoma County), a Cox’s Orange Pippin, a semi-dwarf Yellow Delicious, and an heirloom English variety of which I cannot recall the name (but I have tagged). We also planted a hardy Chicago fig, two blueberry bushes, rhubarb, and a long row of Russian Fingerling potatoes.

Getting the fruit trees was critical if we were to have any in this year. The soil is wonderfully soft and fairly loose, so digging is a piece of cake compared to the arid, compacted clay of the Valley. We amended the holes with lots of compost and mulched around the slight trunks with plenty of dried field grass. Our toddler enjoyed helping– and “helping.”

Two major threats to our garden and orchard frequent the land: deer, of course, and a notorious neighbor’s herd of ever-roaming cattle. The only solution, it seems, is to fence our entire acreage. In the mean time, though, particularly while we are away, each plant needs its own stronghold. We planned simple circles of field wire around the trees, upheld with a few posts. The wire was too flimsy un-stretched, however, so the construction took far longer than planned. They didn’t come out perfect, but more than satisfactory to me.

Best of all, we have met several neighbors who are more than a wealth of information: they are avid homesteaders and gardeners, active in the community, and as welcoming and generous as I could imagine asking for in new neighbors. For all of this I am boundlessly grateful.

Making Plum Wine

 

After early blossoming, the plum trees already have surprisingly sizable fruit showing, and it has me thinking about last year’s wonderfully successful venture of country winemaking. Plum was my first attempt, and it’s been one of the best among apple, mint, nettle, pumpkin, mead, pomegranate mead, jujube, and rosehip.

Until last year, I was mostly unaware that wine can be made from pretty much any fruit or vegetable matter, from peaches to rhubarb, parsnips to zucchini, even nettles and flowers. And contrary to standard grape winemaking practices, the basics are, well, very basic.

Essentially: Prepare fruit or whatever you’re using; add sugar, yeast and (sometimes) water; ferment once; strain; ferment some more. There are other varying steps of straining or racking , boiling the fruit, and so on, depending on what your basis is, but for the most part, that’s the process.

The plum and other trees have faired poorly in the drought, and last year’s fruit failed to ever completely ripen.  The largest among them were tiny, greenish, and olive-like, many beginning to shrivel.

In spite of my husband’s skepticism, I picked the tree clean: six quarts of unappealing marbles. Then, while he was out of town, during our baby’s naptimes, I made them into wine.

Since  I gave absolutely no consideration to peeling and pitting the plums, I rinsed them and removed the stems, then dumped them into our 20-quart stainless pot. I poured in 14 quarts of water, then boiled them until they had plumped up like about-to-burst cranberries. I scooped many against the side to squeeze out the flesh, but didn’t bother with most. To my surprise, the aroma was wonderfully sweet and plummy.

I then waited a few hours, enough time to pop (start) the packet of liquid yeast that happened to have been sitting in our fridge and also have my husband purchase an enormous bag of white sugar. By then the plum mixture had cooled to room temperature, and I measured in 11 cups of white sugar and stirred it well to dissolve and aerate. Then I dumped in the yeast, stirred some more, covered it loosely, and set the pot on a large baking tray in an out-of-the-way place (a good choice, since it overflowed in a sticky mess as it fermented wildly).

I’d been worried that the yeast was too old to work properly, but after a day, the concoction came to life with frothy, foaming activity. It smelled lovely, and when I stirred it twice daily, a white fizz erupted from beneath the leavened plums.

Five days after cooking, the fermentation had slowed down slightly and I was excited to move along when my daughter went down for her afternoon nap. I filled a six-gallon brewing tub with no-rinse sterilizer solution and dropped in my stirring implements, strainers and syphoning hose. Then I syphoned the solution into a 5-gallon carboy.

Next, I scooped my plum must through a medium mesh strainer into the tub, pressing out liquid and depositing the solids into the chicken bowl (meanwhile wondering if the chickens would be staggering around with a buzz). I let the liquid sit overnight, covered.

In the morning, the surface looked like a freshly baked cookie.

At morning naptime, I again scooped the concoction through a strainer, our finer mesh conical style, and agitated it as the liquid slowly drained through leaving a saucy deposit that again went to the chickens. Then I added 10 more cups of sugar, the remainder of the 10-pound bag. I stirred it up and let that settle until afternoon naptime.

Finally, that afternoon, I syphoned the mix, keeping the hose below the surface but above the level of sediment at the bottom, into the carboy.

I racked the wine once more, after a month or so, then bottled it. The clarity had improved and the flavor was surprisingly marvelous– sweet, plummy, with well balanced alcohol. While I didn’t measure the initial potential alcohol and therefore could not measure the final product, I would guess by its effects that it contained as much as a strong zin: certainly a percentage in the high teens. When we drank it, we always used small glasses.

Plum wine was a wonderful inspiration that set me off into the world of country winemaking, and a fantastic lesson in the value of otherwise useless fruit.

Shared on the Homestead Blog Hop.

Childhood in the Garden

Last weekend I helped my mom transplant several rose bushes, butterfly plants, and bulbs around her property. The soil on my palms, the sweat on my body, even the blister below my wedding ring felt wholesome and reviving. It was a joy to allow my daughter to toddle through the flowers and inspect the kale and herbs, and it boosted my confidence– and my excitement– for the coming year in which I’ll be nurturing a vegetable garden and a child together.

Something about gardening evokes the curiosity of youth. You have to look closely, know the wild plants, the bugs, the root systems beneath the soil. I joined my daughter as she sat contentedly among the bright yellow sour grass. Just as I had done when I was young, and I could not resist doing alongside her today, she munched the succulent stems, and puckered and grinned.

Without thinking, the tart flavor still on my tongue, I lifted a nearby tile to discover what wild critters night be hiding. Salamanders? Potato bugs? Earthworms?

Gardening, particularly youth in the garden, feeds the inquisitive wonder of childhood for a lifetime. As delicious and healthful as homegrown fruit and vegetables may be, and as gratifying the harvest, this is one of the garden’s most powerful values and why I want my child to grow among the vines and leaves, with dirt under her nails and fresh air in her lungs.