Excited about our garden plans, looking forward to the melons

We’re several weeks into our farm-to-market internship and about to finalize our crop plans. I think we’re all especially excited about the heirloom tomatoes that Kirsten and Liz are planning and the flowers Kathryn has in mind. I am particularly looking forward to some of the herbs, as fresh herbs are always better to cook with. One of the other crops I am excited about is the okra, whether it’s pickled, grilled, sauteed, thrown into a spicey cajun gumbo, or breaded and fried, okra is one vegetable I have a difficult time getting enough of.

My team is working on the cucurbit plan, which includes melons, cucumbers, summer/winter squash and pumpkins. We stuck with the same watermelon varieties that the interns grew in 2010 as they did really well at market.  I’ve never tried a Moon & Stars watermelon before. As always I am looking forward to trying something new.

As for the Crimson Sweet variety, growing these will bring back wonderful memories of eating watermelon and fresh cucumber in my grandparents’ south side San Antonio backyard, where we enjoyed our cucurbits (watermelon and cucumbers) sprinkled with chili powder, salt and lime, spitting the watermelon seeds out as we went along.

We’re also growing cantaloupe again, although last year it did not perform so well. I personally enjoy fresh, sweet and juicy cantaloupe on a hot day, with a scoop of cottage cheese for breakfast, or as an agua fresca – a beverage that brings back memories of my time in Mexico and Bolivia, as well as San Antonio where you can find street vendors selling this wonderful beverage during the annual Fiesta. We chose a new variety this year, the Edisto, it is supposed to be more heat/humid tolerant.

Recipe for Agua fresco de melón cantalupo:

1 cantaloupe (about 4 cups)
¼ cup of sugar
water

For an optional burst of tangy citrus add 3-4 limes to taste

Directions:

  1. Peel, seed and chop melon
  2. Place 2 cups of melon in blender, add enough water to cover melon and blend well
  3. Strain and reserve liquid.
  4. Place liquid in a 2-qt pitcher (discard or eat the solids)
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 with remaining cantaloupe
  6. Add sugar (and lime juice if you choose), stir well and serve over ice

Something I have come to admire about East Tennessee is the rich culture in food preservation, most notably the canning of tomatoes and pickling of cucumbers. Ann and I chose several cucumber varieties, including one northern variety particularly good for pickling. Before relocating back to my native Texas I hope to improve my canning and pickling techniques, which have yet to produce an edible product!

Flower or Food?

Nasturtium canapes

You might have heard of dandelion gourmet salad mix or stuffed squash blossoms, but what about calendula paella, orange-marigold iced tea, or nasturtium pesto?  Here are some commonly eaten flowers:

  • Calendula- Can be used as a saffron substitute (it’s even called “Poor Man’s Saffron”).  Petals are a little bitter, so are often used for coloring rather than flavor.
  • Dandelion- Young blossoms (bitter sepals removed) have a sweet or honey-like flavor that turns bitter as the flower matures.  Young leaves are tasty in salads or cooked as greens.
  • Daylily- Mature buds taste like green beans or eggplant.  The open flower is milder.  The darker the flower color, the more bitter.  Buds can be stored in the freezer and then blanched later to open them up.  Try stuffing with goat cheese spread or chicken salad.
  • Signet Marigolds (Tangerine gem, lemon gem, and starfire are signet marigold varieties, other marigolds can be “repugnant” according to edible flower expert Cathy Wilkinson Barash) White parts at bases of petals are really bitter and should be cut off, but the rest of the petal tastes like spicy tarragon.
  • Nasturtium- Flowers have a spicy, peppery taste.  Leaves are also edible and reminiscent of watercress.  Pickled flower buds, a.k.a. “Poor Man’s Capers,” are used in place of capers.  Try adding petals and leaves to a caprese salad.
  • Pansy- Petals have a sweet green or grassy flavor.  The whole flower can taste like wintergreen.
  • Redbud- Buds and open flowers add a nice crunch to salads.  They taste like a mix of tart apples and green beans.
Elderberry flower fritters

You can also eat bachelor’s buttons, chrysanthemum, dianthus, elderberry, hollyhock, impatiens, lilac, roses and lots more.  Check for recipes and tips on picking/cooking flowers safely from Edible Flowers from Garden to Palate and Edible Flowers: Desserts and Drinks by Cathy Wilkinson Barash and Edible Flowers by Claire Clifton.  These books are available at the Knox County and UT AgVet libraries.

Marigold butter

‘maters galore!

Since the first time I sunk my teeth into an heirloom tomato from the East Nashville farmers market two summers ago, I knew I’d never go back. If you’ve never had an heirloom tomato, you’re in for a treat this summer. This season we are growing a variety of tomatoes and we are EXTREMELY excited to share them with y’all.

 

Commercially developed tomato varieties, as you’ll find in grocery stores, are bred for traits such as uniformity (for easy mechanized picking) and long storage life (to withstand long cross-country trips to your plate). This means that taste falls by the wayside and you are left with a bland phantom of a tomato. In contrast, heirloom varieties have been passed down throughout generations with loving attention to traits such as taste and beauty. And oh, are they beautifully tasty.

Some of our tomatoes we chose because we oohed and aahed over their seed catalog pictures, like the lovely Ananas Noire (pictured below), a vivid pink streaked with green. Some we chose for their fabulous Southern names, like the Royal Hillbilly and the Dolly Parton varieties. Both of the former varieties will be grown with seeds sourced from a grower in Mid-Tennessee.

Mmm. Ananas noire.

Different tomato varieties are best for different recipes. We are growing an Italian-derived variety called Principe Borghese, which the variety most prized for sun drying. We are growing two kinds of “paste” tomatoes that are best used for sauce-making. One of our varieties is yellow, because how neat would yellow spaghetti sauce be? Oxheart varieties are fleshy with hardly any seeds, making them an incredible choice for anything from sandwiches to bruschetta.

Tomato harvests are months away, but until then you can be sure I’ll be dreaming of bruschetta and caprese salads.

Bruschetta: aka breakfast, lunch and dinner during tomato season.