Garden, Plant, Cook!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Asparagus - Patience Pays Off!

Dear Folks,

I call Asparagus the Patience Plant because you plant them and don't get to even first taste them for about 2 years, but then down the road, you get to harvest bonanzas like those pictured here.

Let me discuss some planting basics and then talk about eating them - right from the garden - raw!

Here in the valley, we plant asparagus "crowns" during the winter - usually December/January, but you can still get them in February.

Figure our where you want the bed.  Plan on 6 or so plants per person in your home.  They will be planted in 1, 2 or more rows depending on your available space.  I recommend running the rows east to west to ensure sun ALL year long.

Prepare the soil by digging at least 18 inches down and amend with compost if you have not already.

For each row dig out 12 inches of and reserve half of it in a place where you can easily get to it.  You will be adding it back in little by little as the plants grow.  Take half of the soil and mound to create a pyramid down the center of the row.

Asparagus plants/crowns are sold as bare root and it is mostly bare root with a small crown which is the growing part.  Spread the roots over the soil row,  Get all the plants positioned and add some of the reserved soil back in to completely cover the roots and just barely cover the crown.  Water in well and maintain a watering schedule that does not allow the beds to completely dry out.

In late January to early February you will see the first growth.  Pictured is one that is about 3 days old. Once they break the soil surface they can grow several inches in a day.. You want to cut them when they are no more than 8 inches or so tall and use a sharp knife to cut down at soil level.

The first year you will NOT CUT any - however hard that is.  You need to let the plants grow and create the ferny growth I call "feathers".  This growth needs to continue for a full year and you will cut it all back, to the ground, in December.

[Pictured:  The "feathers" begin to turn umber in color going into December which signals it is time to cut them down.  If you have grown the houseplant asparagus fern you will recognize the form these take - wild and woolly looking but that it what is feeding the plant roots.]

When the new growth starts in the SECOND year, you can harvest for 1 week, then repeat allowing the plants to grow all year, cut back in December.

In the THIRD year you can harvest for 2 weeks.

Beginning in the FOURTH year you can harvest for 6 weeks and there after each year 6 weeks (maybe cheat a bit and harvest or an additional week).  BUT you must let the plants grow through out each year to feed energy back into the roots.

These beds can last for many, many years giving you a bounty harvest, rewarding you for your patience the first several years.

Our beds are over 10 years old.  The cut spears shown above are from our oldest plants.  The gardens got a little overwhelmed by our strawberries a couple of years ago (more on that below*) and we had to add some new plants and they are just getting going.

*Strawberries are the perfect companion plants for an asparagus bed.  With the rows of asparagus planted east to west, the strawberries grow lush and thick to the south.  BUT they can begin taking over the asparagus so you need to diligent in keeping the strawberries from smothering the asparagus.

Never in his life, did Deane EVER think he would eat an asparagus raw, but when I asked him to try one cut straight from the garden some years ago he was amazed at the sweet and wonderful taste.  He grew up with all vegetables cooked to death, and while he still likes them they way I cook them in a bit of fat or roasted on the grill, he does truly enjoy them raw in salads.

So... raw in salads, sauteed, steamed or roasted - check.  How about a vegetable Lasagna? Check!  [Pictured:  I did a huge vegetable lasagna several years ago with asparagus (showing the asparagus layer before adding more layers) and squash from the garden along with a bunch of herbs - oh yum!]

I have enough we are BBQ'ing this weekend so I will make some asparagus bundles on the grill.  Take 3-5 spears, some fresh basil leaves and wrap all in one piece of bacon, anchor with toothpicks (don't forget to remove them before serving) and grill on direct heat, turning to completely cook the bacon - about 5 minutes total - and you have a outstanding side dish.

In the mean time I had extra so I decided to ferment some.  Lacto fermenting is a preserving technique I have been using for some years since I figured out how to do it simply.  Just brine (2 teaspoons of either sea salt or kosher salt - not iodized salt - to each cup of water, dissolved thoroughly.  Put whatever veggie you want to ferment in clean jars, cover with brine (cool if you heated to dissolve the salt), weight down with a pickle weight or a small mason jar with a bit of water, lightly cover with cloth or plastic wrap and put aside on the counter - our of breezes and temperature changes - and the fermented/pickled veggies will be done in 5 to 15 days depending.  You can sample along the way.  Once to your taste, remove weight, cap and store in the refrigerator.  [Pictured:  I am using a Krautsource fermenting cap.  I find this useful with large veggies, not so good with small cut pieces like cabbage for sauerkraut where I like my jar in a jar method -- see next pictures which show my sauerkraut.]

Lacto Fermenting aka brining/pickling is an Old, Old method of preservation.  The good old fashioned pickle barrel pickles were made this way, just soaked in a brine solution, which helped to preserve them.

You could leave your capped finished fermented veggies in a cool pantry, but most folks now a-days are not comfortable with un-canned foods.

Why use the brine to preserve rather than vinegar?

Because lacto fermentation creates healthy gut bacteria, similar to yogurt culturing.

With sauerkraut, for instance, the brining brings a tangy, but not tart almost sweet taste to the cabbage, which my family and I love over the overly-vinegary store bought versions.

These brined veggies can last for months or longer (if they last that long) in the refrigerator.

This brining gets good bacteria - naturally present on garden vegetables - to culture.  You will see bubbles forming in the jar - this is gas created by the fermentation and means the fermenting is going on.  When there are no more or few bubbles it means the process is finished or just about finished and you can cap, refrigerate and enjoy.

Fermenting also tames the sulfur taste and action in the cabbage family.

If you are not growing asparagus, consider planting a bed next December and add this great edible to your garden bounty.

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-- Catherine, The Herb Lady

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sugar Peas - How Do I Love Thee - Let Me Count The Ways!

Dear Folks,

I harvested some sugar peas for dinner yesterday and decided I needed to tell you how wonderful and versatile this great vegetable is.

Sugar Peas, Snap Peas, Snow Peas - are varieties of edible pod peas which differ from the English or Spring Pea (Pisum sativum).  The pod is tender even at the advanced stage of the peas shown in the picture.  [Pictured:  More mature pods with one open, a purple variety with blush splashes and the same plant's purple flower.]

Pisum sativum var. saccharatum is commonly known as the snow pea.
Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon ser. cv. is known as the sugar or snap pea
– Wikipedia

[Pictured below:  From the garden sugar pea pods, cherry tomatoes, I'itoi onions and basil along with DeCio Sweet Potato Pasta and some meat.]

The nutrient density of this veggie is just about perfect.  Low calorie, high protein and fiber.  (Note: the protein is incomplete, but easily remedied by eating with other foods such as grains, meat or dairy.)

1 cup of chopped pods has 41 calories, 2.74 gms of protein and 2.5 of fiber and vitamins and minerals including potassium, calcium and Vitamins A and C.

1 cup of matured peas (shucked from still green pods) has approx 117 calories, 7.86 protein and 7.4 fiber, but higher sugars than English (Garden) peas.

Source:   Agricultural Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 27.

From the growing tip all the way through the dried pea, this incredible edible is just too wonderful to not grow and use completely.

The tender growing tip (about 6 inches) can be used in stir frys or chopped into salads.  Likewise the flowers can be added to salads and more (of course you loose the pod down the road) but the plants just "want" to grow more anytime you harvest on a regular basis.

The flat younger pods are the mostly widely known and used.  They frequently do not even make into our house.

As the pods mature, the peas start to plump up and grow bigger.  In my pasta dish I chopped them up and added them to the pan for a few minutes to just soften, but I can eat these whole and raw.

If you want to shuck them as you would English Peas, by all means do so, but don't discard the pod.  I think it is still really tasty even raw, but if you prefer, chop and added to soups, stews and stir frys.

Next allow some of the pods to completely mature to dry brown, papery stage and harvest for:

1)  Storing and use as you would any dry pea, and
2)  Store for sowing next fall.

Allow the plant to go completely dry and brown before removing from the garden so the nitrogen fixing abilities of the plant, add some nitrogen back into the soil.

Sow sugar peas starting in last summer all the way through mid-March or so every 2-4 weeks.  Each plant can produce for months and will produce constantly if you keep the pods harvested.

If you did not grow sugar peas this year, considering adding to your fall sowing plans.  You will enjoy them, your family (particularly children grazing through garden) and you garden soil - will all love you!

Have a great day in the garden and kitchen with your bounty!

-- Catherine, The Herb Lady

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