organic

Homemade Sun-dried Tomatoes, Peppers and More!

Ever wondered how to sun dry a tomato? I mean, the flavor of sun-dried tomatoes is exquisitely intense, wonderfully versatile–and I learned–the perfect addition to any raw diet.  It makes an awesome base for tomato sauce.

tomato sauce

But I digress. Personally I never wondered about sun-dried tomatoes and how they were created. I figured the name said it all, right?  I imagined them splayed out across specialty terra-cotta baking stones in Italy or California, sunning until they reached crispy, crunchy chewy perfection (depending on how you like them!).

It wasn’t until I witnessed Mother Nature’s first sun-dried tomatoes in my garden last spring that it dawned on me.  Actually, it was the scorch of summer and my lack of attention that did it, not to mention the horrid red paper experiment, but who’s keeping tabs?  These gorgeous Romas dried on the vine last spring and did so again this spring, all by themselves.  Don’t you love an independent vegetable?

tomatoes sun-dried on vine

Nothing I like better than a vegetable that will grow itself or a child that will do his or her own laundry. It’s heaven!  But seriously, are these not feats to be coveted? At least respected, admired?  In my house they are and when my tomatoes began to sun dry themselves well, I celebrated.  Hip-hip-hooray!  We have sun-dried tomatoes!

For all of you cringing right now thinking, please no, tell me you didn’t actually eat those rotten things.  Rest assured, I didn’t. Who knows what may have tainted those shriveled beauties? Not me and I don’t eat anything from my garden without full certainty of its “wholesome goodness” prior to ingestion.  I have kids watching my every move.  Never know which “moves” they may wish to emulate and trust me–rushing them to the ER is not on my list of things to do!

So how does one sun-dry tomatoes?

Easy. Same way you dry those herbs in your garden–set the oven to low (150-200) and bake them for about 4-5 hours, depending on the size of your tomatoes and the heat strength of your oven.  Cut them into quarters and push the seeds out (or not).

fresh tomatoes

These are a mix of Roma style and regular.  (Is there such a thing as regular tomatoes?)  Next, spread them across a baking sheet.  I used this vented one for more even “drying.”

dry tomatoes in oven

At this point, your best course of action is to monitor them throughout the process, turning when necessary. If this seems like too much work, you can always lay them out in the sunshine for a hot couple of days.  Mother Nature does know what she’s doing!

After about 4 hours, my small batch was ready; crispy-crunchy-ready.

sun-dried tomatoes in oven

I imagine if I immerse these in olive oil they’ll return to a more palatable texture (I like mine chewy), but these would still be great as a salad sprinkle.  The raw diet recipes we used during our challenge called for soaking the sun-dried tomatoes in water prior to use.  Good idea.  Tasty, toasty and easy, you won’t want to stop here.  Why not “sun-dry” green peppers?  Would make for a nice intense flavor addition to any salad.

arrange chili peppers on baking sheet

And you can use this same process for making red pepper flakes, the kind you love to sprinkle over pizza.  Oh yes, simply lay them out whole (I used parchment paper so as not to lose any of the spicy seeds) and then slide them into the oven.

chili peppers

Once dry and crispy, pull them out, break off the stems, then gently crush until you have a pile of…

sun-dried peppers

Your very own flakes of red pepper!  Drying herbs works much the same way so get moving and put those babies to work in the kitchen!  (In my house, that means the kids. :))

Save Those Seeds!

Saving seeds is one of the keys to organic gardening. Not only do you know where they came from, you know what went into producing them—important in this day and age of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides.

Seed saving is all about purity; a concept you must keep front and center in your mind, because if you’re not careful, you can create some hybrids of your own! For example, I’m not sure how it happened, but I have some Pantano variety tomatoes growing in my San Marzano tomato row.  Did I mix up my seedlings or did they cross-pollinate last season?

Hmph.  Not sure. What I do know is that one must be conscious of which seeds go where. To help keep things straight, I’ve created some seed packets to store my seeds, complete with section to keep notes. You can find easy how-to instructions on my website in the Kid Buzz section.

So what is the first step to seed saving? Keep your seeds separate, organized by harvest and variety and learn the recommended “shelf life” for each. Trust me—planting old seeds doesn’t work. Not only will the not germinate, but they take up valuable planting space before you discover the error!

Step two: dry them before storing.  No worse disappointment (other than your Italian red sauce won’t cling to the noodles) than to have saved moldy seeds. Yep.  It happened to my beans one year. I thought you could go straight from pod to packet but oh no, not unless that pod dried on the vine can you do so.  They must be dry, dry, dry.

If you harvest your beans—shell or bush—when they’re perfect and gorgeous, allow them to dry out for a day or so before packing them away for next season. They’ll keep longer.

Easier yet, allow them to dry on the vine. However, be aware that if you don’t harvest them in time, you may find some have already “popped” open and settled into the surrounding soil which means they’ll germinate in place next season.

Peppers are similar in that you remove the seeds and set them out to dry before storing. With the squash family (and okra) you’ll want to remove the “film” coating before storing.  Simply wipe clean and set out to dry.

But all seeds are not treated the same when it comes to storing. Tomatoes require a bit more effort. Once you remove them, you need to put them in a glass (or bowl as shown above) and fill with water (at least an inch or two above the seeds).  Allow to sit undisturbed for a few days. When a white mold begins to form over the seeds, scoop it out and any seeds that go with it.  The seeds left on the bottom of your glass are the ones you want—floating seeds are duds.

Drain water from glass through a fine sieve so you don’t lose any of your precious gems and then rinse with cold water.  Place seeds on a paper plate (paper towel over regular plate will work) and allow to dry completely; a process that may take a few days.  Then slip them into your seed saving packet and you’re good to go!

If you leave your lettuce and broccoli in the ground long enough, seed pods will begin to form and then collection becomes a simple matter of split and save! Find details here.

Carrots and onions are a tad more complicated. Okay, that’s a lie. They’re tough and out of my competency range. But if you’re the adventurous type I’d give it a whirl. (I did!)  And why not? All you have to do is allow the plant to go to flower whereby it will produce seeds. Tiny seeds, yes, but seeds nonetheless. If you can collect them from the flower before they blow away, you’re golden! If not, you’ll be back at your local garden shop.

So this year as harvest approaches think “seed saving” as well as “seed harvesting.” And next season make a point to buy heirloom seeds.  Hybrids won’t reproduce for you—at least not the same gorgeous fruit they produced on the first go-round!—but heirlooms will.  And as always, choose organic!  Happy gardening!

Solarizing My Garden

After a rather distressing spring, I’ve been solarizing my garden, row by row, bed by bed.  The last straw was my beautiful sunflowers.  Strong and sturdy, yet they were no match for the underground beasts.  So as I harvested each row, I laid down heavy black paper, secured with anchor pins–not the best choice for Florida summer storms, but we’ll discuss that later.  The important point here is to rid my soil of varmints.

And I do mean varmints.  Lost my squash, my zucchini (to both above ground pests and below), then my peppers and sunflowers.  Even my garlic weren’t stellar, though I can’t imagine how they suffered underground.  🙁  Sad any way you look at it.

But I shan’t despair!  (Been listening to Gone with The Wind–yes, still–so my verbage may shift between past and present.)  I shall rid my garden of every last beast if it’s the last thing I do.  I’ve got a fall garden to think about and I WON’T put it off until tomorrow.  I need to think about it today! 🙂

So I have a plan.  I’m covering every last row with heavy black paper and using the power of the Florida sun to cook the beasts out of hiding.  If they want to survive, anyway, they’ll have to “abandon garden.”  Solarize is the technical term for what I’m doing.  Basically this means to cover your beds with plastic paper–I’m going with hot black–and leave it in place for six weeks.  The heat gathering beneath the paper will cook the soil and whatever is underground will cease and desist.  Simple, eh?

I do love simple.  What I don’t love is doing things over and over which is what I had to do because my anchor pins were not sturdy enough to keep my paper in place.  Every afternoon round about 4:00pm, the clouds would gather, the temps would dip, the winds would blow and there went my paper–across the yard, twirled and tangled…

You name it.  Everywhere but where it was supposed to be.  So I decided to go heavy-duty and dumped bricks and old tiles, rolls of 9 gauge wire and even piles of sand onto my paper to keep it in place.  It’s not pretty but it is effective.  And I’d rather have effective than pretty.

Additionally, my darling husband has offered to re-till my rows for me next month by adding a handy contraption to his tractor that will do the trick.  Wunderbar!  Imagine what would take me days to complete with a broken back to show for my trouble, he’ll be able to manage in a matter of hours, if that.  Gotta love technology!

Then, I’ll re-line my walking rows with this heavy-duty paper (the other eventually tears, rips and disintegrates) and we’ll be in business once again.  And I’m itchin’ to get back out there.  Not until it cools off, mind you, but itchin’ just the same.

Monster Okra

Now this is enough to scare you plum out of the garden–so don’t let it come to that.  Okra are one of the easiest and tastiest veggies to grow and when eaten fresh from the vine (stalk, stem…) are not slimy in the least.  They are divine.  My son prefers them fried–and they are good this way–but I like them fresh.  But if you let your okra grow to gargantuan proportions, they will be tough, stringy and icky.  Leave these mammoth pods for seed saving.

And the only way to prevent this from happening is to visit your garden every day during harvest time.  Like I said, okra are EASY to grow and grow they will–inches a day!  Or so it seems.  These are Tami’s okra (no, we haven’t forgotten her) and in need of plucking.  But in between home and the beach, work and vacation, it can be downright hard to visit your garden every day.  (Yet another reason I close most of my rows for the summer.  Summers are for vacation in my household!) 

For optimum taste, you want your  okra about two inches, maybe a tad more if you’re frying them. This little guy is perfect, isn’t he?  Gorgeous AND delicious. 

Speaking of gorgeous, her pepper plants are thriving.  Beautiful and green and only a couple of holes to speak of, these babies are blooming and producing.  Now remember, perfection is overrated.  I don’t mind one bit if the leaves have a couple of blemishes.  So long as they don’t kill the plant or prevent peppers from blossoming, I’m good.  How about you?

Now her tomatoes are wild and wooly and taking full advantage of her divided attention.  They need pinched and pruned, but Tami’s been too busy to do either.  Like I said, Florida during the summertime can be very distracting.  Sunny skies, warm waves and beautiful beaches…  Who can stay home?

It’s tough.  Forgive her.  She’ll get back into the swing of it soon.  Why, she has this cute little melon fella to take care of! 🙂 

Isn’t he adorable?  Precious.  Just precious.  So if you’re in the same predicament as Tami, don’t worry.  You’re not alone.  For all you lucky gardeners out west and up north, take heart–this is YOUR season to shine.  And do share!

Hair and Bumps?

This can’t be good.  I understand nature isn’t always pretty, the dark side always lurking just out of sight, hidden from the light of day…  But really.  This is too much.  Hair and bumps on my carrots?  Dare I say, warts?

It’s what they look like.  At least that was my first impression when my son hauled the harvest in.  They were a huge mess of warts and hair and reminded me of some gnarly old man in a horror movie (or book!).  It was not what I had in mind when preparing our salads for dinner.  I was envisioning gorgeous fat smooth orange beauties.  Sure, a little hair never hurt.  Can always strip it clean from the length of them (ouch).  But these fellas?

No siree bob was I touching them!  ICK.  And scrutinizing them further, wondered if a brave attempt would even be worth the trouble.  Once the bumps and hair were skinned from them, there would hardly be anything left to speak of.  Nah.  These are compost food.  The pile out back has been hunkering for a little beta carotene and here’s its chance to swallow them whole. And make fresh dirt.  Mother Nature is a beautiful creature, isn’t she? 

For those of you wondering what on earth happened to these golden babies, it’s probably due to a couple of things.  Water for one.  I’ve been having the hardest time with my sprinklers this season and more bound and determined than ever to install that soaker hose system I’ve been thinking about.  You see, if you water too much, your carrots can crack and split.  if you water too little, they can develop small feeder roots that shoot from the main root in search of water.  Helpful little buggers, aren’t they?  Bumps are probably hair that actually had a chance to grow a bit. 🙂

Too much fertilizer can cause the same hairy problem and I have a hunch that this may be part of our problem as well.  I say “our” because speaking of helpful, my kids tend to water and feed without restraint.  They don’t understand there’s a happy medium to be found.  They hear fertilize and they fertilize.  Vacation didn’t help, either.  We may have left our bounty in the soil longer than necessary.

Huh.  It’s a process.  Or learning curve–something which I tend to slide down the front side of more often than I care to admit!  So here we sit with no gorgeous carrots for my salad.  And it’s dinner time. *sigh*

What’s In YOUR Produce?

We’ve all heard of the Dirty Dozen.  No, I’m not referring to some cops & robbers show.  I’m talking produce–fruits and veggies, specifically the kind we buy at the grocery store.  You know, the stuff we buy with the intention of feeding our family healthy meals?  Unfortunately, some of this produce we buy isn’t as healthy as we think.  Apples top the list as the most pesticide-laden produce of them all (so much for an “apple a day”) while other notables include: celery, peaches, bell peppers–

Bell peppers?  No wonder mine are so small compare to those beauties I pick up at the grocery store!  Packed with chemically engineered fertilizers, those green goddesses are as synthetically enhanced as the puffed up muscles of a steroid-ingesting body builder.  I mean, we all want to look good–our garden veggies included–but at what cost?  Are we really okay with subjecting our bodies to poison?

Not me.  This is simply one more reason to grow my own produce (as if I needed another!).  To continue, the list includes other lovelies such as strawberries, blueberries, grapes, spinach and lettuce.  For the complete list, check the website for Environmental Working Group.  These folks will give you an updated run down on what’s bad for you, but also what’s good.  A few of the winners for sale at your local grocer include onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocados (love these!), cabbage, sweet peas and more. 

However, I’d like to include one caveat regarding corn.  With so many hybrids and scientifically altered varieties out there, I’m steering my family clear of corn purchased from the market.  For all its health benefits (vitamins, anti-oxidants, cancer-prevention, etc.), it’s also one of the most genetically modified veggies.  Not good.  While I understand the reasons for this process, I don’t care.  If I’m going to eat healthy, I want to ingest pure, wholesome fruits and veggies which is why in my garden you’ll only find heirloom varieties of corn.  And of course, it’s 100 % organic.

So next time you’re meandering the beautiful colors in your produce section, think twice before plucking that gorgeous pepper from your market shelf and consider growing it yourself.  It’s not as hard as you might think and the rewards for you and your family?  Priceless. 

But if you must buy your produce, choose organic when it comes to the list of worst offenders.  Your body will thank you.

Why French Gardeners Don’t Get Fat

Same reason other gardeners don’t get fat:  they eat a bunch of vegetables, right?  They eat nuts and berries, a few twigs, some tomatoes and lettuce, maybe and a handful of vitamins for good measure–and protein.  Am I close?

Well…sort of.  Loosely based on the bestselling book, French Women Don’t Get Fat, I think the concept is the same.  If you enjoy the process (good exercise) and enjoy the produce (healthy food) than you’re halfway there.  But there’s more to eating than mere consumption.  Concentrating on the depth of flavor in your earthly beets, the crisp sweetness of your corn, the buttery texture of your potatoes and oh-so-sweet onions, you begin to immerse yourself in the pleasure principle.

It’s like I tell my children.  “Everything in moderation.”  Now granted this is merely my way of letting them know it’s okay if Mom dips into the candy bowl.  It’s okay if she drinks a glass of wine (or two).  It’s okay.  Everything in moderation.  I find it’s a fabulous rule to live by because as an experienced dieter I can tell you:  denying yourself something you adore is not smart.  In fact, it goes against human nature—or feeds into it.  You know as well as I do that the minute you tell yourself you can’t have something—you want it.  You crave it.  All of a sudden, it becomes the most important thing you need to eat right now! 

Very bad as we approach bathing suit season.  Piling M&M’s into your mouth is not helpful to your figure, or your heart, your stomach…  So stop right now.  (No, not eating M&M’s.)  Stop denying yourself and give in to decadence!  Luxuriate in a glass of Cabernet, a handful of dark chocolate, a three-layer cake of dense delight, the sugary sweet frosting from a cupcake.  Enjoy it—leisurely.  Don’t rush.  Don’t get crazy.  Simply enjoy…….

You’ll find that once you remove the “desire triggers,” you’ll be able to eat what you desire AND remain slim.  I don’t know about you, but all veggies and no sweets make for a very dull girl.  And I don’t want to be dull!  I want to be delightful and happy.  Cause remember—when momma ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.

It’s true in my household.  How about yours? 🙂

p.s.  Pssst….  Don’t tell anyone, but this chocolate mousse is actually GOOD for you.  Swear.  It’s made from avocados though you’d never know it from tasting it!  Follow this link for this and other delicious and healthy recipes.

Tragedy in Wormville

It’s a sad day when I must report to you that my worms are gone. Yep.  Every last one of them, gone, bye-bye, escapees from the worm bin leaving only their stinky remnants behind.  Which is your first clue.  Stinky.  Remember, a properly maintained worm bin doesn’t stink.  It doesn’t smell, doesn’t bother anybody…  It just exists for them to produce. 

So when I returned home from a week in the mountains and removed the lid, you can see how the unpleasant waft gave away the fact there was a problem. Combined with the dried carcasses on the garage floor around my bin, it was no stretch to realize what had happened.  My heart sank.  I poked through the nasty gooey debris, but nothing.  No sight of those gorgeous red wriggly bodies to be had anywhere.

Now mind you when I left, the bin was healthy and clean and my babies had plenty to eat.  They were fabulous!  And worms should be able to make it a week without my help.  Granted my husband remained home while the kids and I jaunted through hiking trails, leapt from waterfalls and cavorted along the paths of Rock City but remember:  he’s not exactly a fan of the worm bin, especially as it’s located within close proximity to his vehicle.  I can only hope he wasn’t standing there cheering them on.  “Run, Willy, Run!”

I wouldn’t put it past him.  While supportive of my endeavors, he’s a reluctant worm farmer to say the least and he’d rather buy bags of the dried stuff from our local seed store.  “Aren’t you trying to be a localvore, honey?  Why not support your local merchants and buy their worm poop?”

Very funny.  I’m working toward self-sustainability, remember?  As for my worms, I won’t give up.  I hate to give up.  After our planned trip to the worm farm this month, I’ll be armed with the secrets of successful worm binning just you watch.  Until then, I’m open to suggestion! 🙂

Tomato Update

Okay, so I’m not sold on the red paper thing.  Not because I doubt it reflects the perfect rays of sunlight to ripen my fruit to ruby red perfection, but because it’s interfering with my plant’s ability to absorb water.

You see, cutting slits in the paper for my tomato plants to grow does not allow sufficient water to get to the roots.  Florida downpours can do the trick, but my sprinkler?  Not so much.  My plants are stressed and susceptible to attack by the fungus and worse, the dreaded hornworm.  In fact, much of the water ends up in puddles on top of the paper–despite my every effort to weight the paper down in all the right places, encouraging the pools to funnel down toward my plant.

Nope.  Not working for me.  I’m sure there is an answer to this dilemma.  It just remained out of my reach for this first season of experiment. 

 Needless to say, I’m open to suggestion.  I hate to give up, but I hate wasting time, too. On to brighter beds, my Hungarian Wax Peppers are doing well.  Not huge by any stretch of the imagination, but they are producing some rather robust peppers.  Used one last week for some homemade Pico de Gallo.  Tomatoes, onions, peppers, cilantro, little lime juice and voila!  A delightful homemade salsa! 

You see, there is good news.  Even though my tomato plants look horrible, they have produced.  And isn’t that what’s important?

I think so.  Did find an interesting development with my sunflowers this week.  Now granted, I’m no expert with these mammoth marvels but I had no idea that the flowers could actually form all the way down the meaty stalk.  In our school garden, the flowers were solely at the top of the plant.  Our second batch, too. 

But mine?  I have blossoms running all the way down the stem!   Which is pretty cool, if you ask me.  Not only do I get the huge flower up top, I get the added benefit of these little beauties.  

I realize this may be an anomaly, but that’s okay.  I’m not too picky when it comes to my plants producing.  They produce, I pick ~ and that’s about as far as I care to dwell on the matter.  Remember, I’m a happy gardener!  And happy gardeners don’t sweat the small stuff.

Maintain Vigilance

One thing to keep in mind about gardening is maintenance.  Not only do things go “bump in the night,” they go chomp in the garden.

Tami’s lettuce have gone to flower, now taller than her okra, and the bugs are in hog heaven–sans the swine.  Ick.  At this point, Tami need only remove the plants and put them in the compost pile–her new compost pile!  Yep, she’s decided to join the organic ranks and start her own compost pile, beginning with the pile of oak leaves she recently raked up.  Smart.  Very smart.  Best of all, it’s mere feet from her garden.

The okra are growing gangbusters and spitting out “cobs” all over the place.  One thing to keep in mind when you’re growing okra, is these guys are fast operators.  Once they begin producing, you’ll want to visit every day.  This will ensure you harvest your okra at its most tender because trust me, large cobs of okra are tough and NOT delicious.  Great for seed saving though!

Always a silver lining (if you know where to look).  Moving right a long… Tami has her first watermelon.  Isn’t it adorable?

Won’t be long before this little guy is burgeoning from the vine.  Note on watermelon harvest:  in Florida, these babies have a tendency to explode during hot summer days, so while you’re visiting each and every day, keep an eye on the melons.  Give em’ a tap and when you hear the nice dull “thump” sound, pull that rascal from the vine and haul it onto the picnic table.  Another good indicator is to check the curly tendrils.  Light green = not ready.  Brown and dry = thump it baby, thump it!

Another technique is to press your thumb nail into the skin.  If it makes an indentation, not ready.  No mark, you should be good to pull.  Tomatoes are a much easier fruit when it comes to harvest detection.  Red, they’re ripe.  Green they’re not–unless you’re a Southerner and like your tomatoes green.  Tami’s are looking mighty fine.

Her basil could use a little pinching.  I prefer to pinch the budding blossoms from mine before they reach 1/2 inch, then toss them into my lunch salad.  Mmmm…  Aromatic and delicious.  Did you know that basil eases digestion?  Wunderbar.  Nothing like making my roughage go down “easier.” 🙂

Have you seen the recipe for my favorite summer salad?  Strawberry and goat cheese and oh-so-delicious!  Add basil for an added delight.

And since we’re speaking of maintenance, these squash need some attention.  Fungus.  Very hard to rid the Florida garden squash of fungus, what with all our rain and humidity, but we must. 

This plant wants to survive and produce more squash.  It simply needs a helping hand.  So Tami will remove the diseased leaves and allow the center healthy green ones to thrive.   Remember, your plants want to produce and sustain you.  They just need a little help sometimes!