Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Potato Lady

I first learned potatoes have eyes when, as a child, my paternal grandfather taught me to wield a sharp knife and carefully cut seed potatoes into pieces for planting.  Paw Hamby showed me how to recognize the small spots where sprouts form and how to slice around those places, leaving enough potato flesh to provide nourishment for the developing plants. Along with other gardening lessons I didn’t realize, at the time, I internalized, how to prepare seed potatoes is a skill I am thankful I learned.  As I inspect the annual late-winter delivery to my home, I can hear Paw Hamby’s voice, offering advice to maximize the harvest.

An example of LaRatte fingerling, aptly named

An example of LaRatte fingerling, aptly named

When I grew my first large crop of organic potatoes, several years ago, I was lucky to have a daughter, home from college for summer break, as my farm helper.  Since we did not own a plow at that time, we used shovels to turn tubers from the ground, taking care not to cut them as we repeatedly plunged the tools into dry, hard soil.  Backbreaking work, to be sure, but our rewards were buckets full of potatoes, ranging in size from tiny fingerlings to large baking and sporting beautifully colored purple, pink, gold and red skins.  We sold our wares at local farmer’s markets that summer and to Blowing Rock and Boone, NC, chefs.  Without Kate’s help, it would have been impossible to work the farm, harvest, prepare produce for market and then set up sales booths twice each week, plus make special deliveries.  No wonder she took an internship job in the city the following summer! 

Kate and Bob generated interest at the farmer's market

The photo of Kate and Bob generated interest at the farmer’s market

When I was a child, my family gardened and we grew a lot of the food we consumed.  We and others in our rural community planted potatoes early in the spring and harvested during summer.  Locally, folks referred to the tubers we grew as “Irish,” to distinguish them from sweet potatoes.  Kennebecs and Red Pontiacs were the usual suspects; Yukon Golds came on the scene years later and were not widely cultivated in our area.  Kate and I were the first to offer fingerling potatoes at the Blowing Rock farmer’s market and they were an instant hit. 

Colorful potatoes are delicious and beautiful

Colorful potatoes are delicious and beautiful

A large board advertised our weekly offerings and displayed farm photos.  People often stopped to look at a photo of bikini-clad Kate, astride a friend’s huge Belgium, guiding the horse as he pulled a plow to plant potatoes.  Although the photos were great conversation starters, potatoes, freshly harvested, brought us many repeat customers.  Once, a young woman rushed to our booth and said her mother, unable to visit that day’s market, asked her to buy potatoes from “The Potato Lady.”  Another day, a customer forgot her umbrella and Kate placed it beside our table for safekeeping.  Later, we saw the woman returning and Kate waved the umbrella.  Relieved to see it, the woman said, “Oh, thank you!  I thought I left it at The Potato Lady’s booth!”  Kate and I joked that I was now “The Potato Lady.”  I did not mind the moniker; after all, there are worse titles! 

Richard and I made this potato salad recipe with some of our first-of-the-season harvest and if you like a side dish that is hearty enough for a main one, try this.

Picnic Potato Salad

2-3 pounds fresh potatoes, scrubbed and cut into bite size pieces 

Gently cook potatoes in salted water until fork tender.  Do not overcook!  Drain potatoes, place in a large bowl and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons herbed vinegar or red wine vinegar.  Use hands to combine.  Add the following and stir all ingredients to thoroughly combine:  1/4 cup bottled Italian salad dressing, 2 tablespoons mayonaise, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons capers, drained, 1/4 cup chopped radishes, 1/4 cup chopped celery, 2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped, 1 tablespoon dill pickle relish, 2 tablespoons red onion, diced, 1 teaspoon fresh dill, snipped, 1 teaspoon fresh chives, snipped and 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves. 

Refrigerate several hours or overnight.

Squash Soup: Trick the Eye, Not the Palate

Falling snow reminds me of my grandmother.  For the first twelve years of my life, I lived four doors down the street from Lora Bolick Minton, “Granny” to me and her other grandchildren.  During summer, I was Granny’s garden helper and she taught me many lessons about growing and harvesting plants, lessons I thought I forgot, until I grew my own garden.  Often, when I reach for a cucumber, I hear her voice reminding me to take care not to step on the tender vines.  Other times, when insect pests devour seedlings, I remember which bugs she told me were “bad” and should be killed.  As much as I enjoyed working in Granny’s garden, which somehow, always felt more like play, I loved being in her kitchen, where enticing aromas wafted from her oven or stovetop, where simmering saucepans of goodness filled every gas burner.  At no time was Granny’s kitchen more inviting than when snow was falling.  As soon as she spied the first flakes, Granny began to make a huge pot of oyster stew and, without announcement or telephone calls, family soon arrived to enjoy steaming bowls of rich cream soup, topped with a thick layer of churned, melted butter and served with tiny oyster crackers. 

When I see Squash Beetles, I hear Granny say: Kill It!

When I see Squash Beetles, I hear Granny’s voice: Kill It!

Oyster stew is a favorite dish in my family, also.  Even daughter Kate, who is allergic (sadly) to the bivalves, enjoys the soup base, albeit without oysters.  Although my first stews followed Granny’s basic recipe, several years ago I discovered a soup base that is perfect for oyster stew, looks deceivingly rich and buttery, but is actually very low in calories and is heart-healthy. 

Canned Soup Base

Canned Soup Base

With an abundant crop of summer squash, I made creamy squash soup.  I shared some with a friend, who made her own soup and served it to her father.  After enjoying a bowl, my friend’s father declared, “The soup was great, but I didn’t get a single oyster!”  The next time I tasted the soup, I realized this man’s palate was accurate.  The soup did have an oyster stew flavor and appearance, but without oysters.  When I added oysters to my next batch, I discovered it is possible to enjoy rich stew flavor, without a dairy base.  Since the soup’s color is deceptively close to butter and cream, I call it “Trompe L’Oeil Oyster Stew,” since trompe l’oeil is a French term that means “trick the eye” and is usually applied to works of art that create an optical illusion.

With squash harvest, help is always appreciated!

With squash harvest, help is always appreciated!

In North Carolina, oysters are not in season at the same time as summer squash.  Thankfully, I am able to preserve soup base that retains the flavor and texture we enjoy during squash harvest time.  For interesting presentation, top a bowl of this soup with a single, perfectly fried, golden brown oyster.  The following recipe is for soup base, but if you are interested in the recipe for fresh squash soup, it is in the “Farm Fresh Recipes” section of this website.  I apologize for the lack of organization in that area and fully intend to overhaul it . . . when I get time.  For now, it is squash season and I am madly processing!

 Trompe L’Oeil Stew Base (aka Summer Squash Soup)

Yield: 7 pints

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large stockpot.  Add 2 cups chopped onion and 1/4 cup chopped yellow or green pepper.  (I used an heirloom Fish pepper that has a little heat, but you could substitute banana pepper, either sweet or hot.)

Saute onion and pepper in oil until translucent, about 2 minutes.  Add 4 cups vegetable stock and 12 cups summer squash, sliced into 1/4 inch pieces.  Season with 1 teaspoon sea salt, not iodized (I used French Grey) and 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper.  Cover stockpot with lid and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, until squash begins to fall apart.  Remove pot from heat and allow to slightly cool.

Squash should be soft enough to blend

Squash should be soft enough to blend

Use an immersion blender to blend squash mixture until very smooth.  Alternatively, place mixture, in small batches, in a stand blender and blend until smooth.  Heat soup base over medium heat until boiling, then remove from heat.

Immersion blenders are great tools

Immersion blenders are great tools

Immediately fill hot glass canning jars, either pints or quarts, to within one inch of the top of the jar, with soup base.  Carefully wipe jar rims with a clean damp cloth and affix lids, screwing tightly to close.  In a large pressure canner, process soup at 10 pounds of pressure, 40 minutes for quarts and 30 minutes for pints. 

Handle canning jars carefully

Handle canning jars carefully

 

 

 

Purple Martins

I know it will happen very soon.  I will drive into the fields at Heart & Sole Gardens and I will miss the greeting I usually receive from my short-term residents, the Purple Martins.  Migratory birds, these social creatures arrive mid-spring at our farm from their winter residence in South America.  From April until July, or sometimes early August, these beautiful winged birds delight us with their aerodynamic stunts, their distinctive chatter and their dramatic antics.  Since they only eat flying insects, the Martins are also valuable unpaid organic farm workers, devouring scores of pests from morning until dusk.

Purple Martins gather on the poles that hold their gourd homes for a chat.

Purple Martins gather for a chat on the poles that hold their gourd homes

Before Richard and I erected the poles that support birdhouse gourds, inviting Martins to spend summers at our farm, we researched the birds’ possible negative impact on our honeybee colonies.  After all, we did not want to encourage predators to live in close proximity to the hives where they could eat our hardworking pollinators.  After months of reading everything we could find about the issue and discussing it with other local bee keepers and Martin enthusiasts, we found no definitive answers to our questions and since numerous other songbirds lived at the farm, we decided to take a chance with Martin housing.  In the Eastern United States, Purple Martins are dependent upon humans who provide housing, but even when clean, appealing gourds or other homes are ready for residents, there are no guarantees Martins will select what is offered.  Fortunately, a few days after we hung our first birdhouse gourds, freshly painted and cleaned, Purple Martins claimed them and eagerly began to build nests inside their new homes. 

Purple Martins seem to prefer natural birdhouse gourds

Purple Martins seem to prefer natural birdhouse gourds

For the next few years, we welcomed “our” birds back to the farm.  They seemed to recognize us and chattered excitedly when we pulled off the highway to drive along the farm path, swooping over the truck and showing off their flying stunts.  Often, while working at the farm, I hear a cry of alarm from Martins when hawks fly too close to the nesting area or, occasionally, the predators sit on the poles, hoping to gobble a Martin baby.  When I hear that strident signal of trouble, I run toward the gourds, shouting loudly at the would-be attacker and waving arms over my head.  Long after the hawk flies away, Martins circle my head as I work, pleasantly chattering, as if they are grateful for the help. As if to celebrate ridding themselves of predatory birds, Martins will often “wing bump” each other as they fly.

Although synthetic gourds are available for purchase, we only use natural dried gourds for our Martin housing and the birds seem to prefer these.  Last winter, after years of Martin use, I found cracks in some of the gourds while I was cleaning them of old nesting material and dirt, so I began the process of creating new housing.  After cleaning dried gourds, I used a pattern to cut a half-moon shaped opening that works for Martins, but discourages English Starlings, an invasive species that will lay eggs in Martin nests, then leave the eggs for Martins to care for, along with their own offspring.  Bluebirds also love the Martin housing, but at Heart & Sole, the Martins are able to claim the gourds for their own.  This spring, however, was different. 

The half moon shape repels Starlings

The half moon shape repels Starlings

After hanging the new gourds, we waited for our first arrivals.  And waited.  I checked the Purple Martin Conservancy’s scout report page http://www.purplemartin.org/scoutreport/ and saw that other hosts in our area welcomed birds, but ours were still no-shows.  In late March, two scouts arrived, but after a couple of days, they disappeared.  Richard and I discussed possible scenarios for our missing birds.  In late winter, work was completed for a creek restoration project at Heart & Sole, so perhaps the different terrain was not acceptable.  Could it be the scouts did not favor our new housing?  Perhaps “our” Martins found a site that was more appealing?  Just when we thought we might have to face a season without Martins, a scout arrived, much later than usual, but we were thrilled when we observed, in early May, several Purple Martins claiming gourds. 

New homes ready for Martins

New homes ready for Martins

Almost immediately, we noticed our latest colony exhibited different behaviors from the birds we previously hosted.  For one, they were not as social as our earlier families.  By late June, they tolerated our work when it took us near their homes, but they were not as chattery or welcoming as earlier birds.  Another difference we noted is that these Martins often perched on tomato cages, tree limbs or even freshly tilled soil, unlike other Martins that only used their gourd support poles to rest.  A few weeks ago, I watched a Martin take a “dust bath,” a first for me.  Birds will sometimes scratch to create loose soil and then flap wings to settle the dust on their feathers.  This is common among some species and helps to keep feathers healthy and groomed, however, I had never seen a Martin take a dust bath.  Since there had been weeks without rain and more birds tend to dust bathe in arid climates, I suppose this could have been the reason.  Still, it was an unusual sight.

Purple Martins

Purple Martins

It is always a treat to watch fledgling birds fly for the first time.  Often, I witness parent birds encourage young Martins to leave the nest.  Purple Martins only eat live, flying insects, so the parents will stop feeding their young, hoping to drive the hungry young birds out of the gourds to catch their own food.  Adults fly to the gourds, where open mouths and stretched necks reach to them, only to pause briefly and then fly away, leaving the baby birds hungry enough to follow.  Several days ago, I saw two young male fledglings attempt to land at the same spot on a birdhouse support pole, only to crash into each other and fall toward the ground before gathering their wits to fly again.  When all fledglings join the adult birds and soar overhead, working to perfect those daredevil moves, it is an incredible sight.

As we prepare for the inevitable Martin departure, Richard and I are making plans to visit eastern North Carolina where thousands of Purple Martins gather before they make the long flight back to South America.  We joke about how the time these birds sped “down east” must be like attending a huge family reunion, complete with lots of food and conversation.  We hope “our” birds will have safe travels and we look forward to next spring when scouts will, hopefully, choose our gourds to raise their young.