On Horseradish

DSC06079My husband has a rather exaggerated opinion of my capacities.

I was out in the chilly, damp day digging out some horseradish roots, and he called over with concern, “don’t kill them all!”

Heh. Anyone who grows this hardy perennial knows that’s about as likely as harvesting every last sunchoke tuber and having a barren patch come spring. Ain’t happenin’.

I did once have difficulty getting a horseradish patch established. Admitting this to fellow gardeners caused looks of suspicion, head-shaking, and the occasional smirk. What kind of vegetable farmer can’t grow horseradish?

I was saved by my friend Amy, who quietly slipped me some roots and said something to the effect of: You’re being too nice to it. Take these roots and whack them up against a fence post. Swear at ’em a few times, then stomp them into the dirt where you want your patch. Kick some dirt over the top, swear one more time, and walk away.

Voila! A healthy rampant horseradish patch that proceeded to invade everything within twenty feet.

The patch harvested today is one I inherited from the previous owner of this farm. It’s fairly small on account of being hemmed in by a double layer of landscape fabric, but it’s plenty prolific. I forked up three good-sized chunks of root to trim and store in the crisper for winter sauce-making.

DSC06080I am an absolute purist when it comes to “prepared horseradish.” The only acceptable ingredients are grated horseradish, vinegar, and a pinch of salt. It’s not that I object to adding this basic preparation to other sauces, dressings, dips, etc., but I am absolutely opposed to those commercial horseradish preparations that contain soybean oil, weird un-pronounce-able ingredients, and artificial flavor.

That last one irks me the most–why in the heck would you add artificial flavor to horseradish? Horseradish tastes like horseradish, and even if it’s not fresh and pungent, it still tastes like horseradish; it just doesn’t have the side benefit of clearing your sinuses. I’ve seen horseradish that’s gotten so old it’s gone kind of brownish colored, and it STILL smelled like nothing other than horseradish.

Speaking of the heat factor, the fresher and finer-grated the root is, the hotter it is. My dear friend Matt from over at Cookrookery gave me a microplane (yay! a microplane!) for my 40th birthday, and so that’s what I used to grate this fresh-out-of-the-earth root.

DSC06081Tears of joy, I assure you. And pain.

Normal, reasonable people (I’ve heard) often grate their horseradish outside. Well, it’s cold out there, so I just turned on the range hood exhaust fan.

On the tongue, the flavor is outstanding. I used apple cider vinegar plus a little Real salt–tiny pinch. And there was just enough time to savor that clean horseradish flavor before the searing heat ran up through my sinuses and momentarily blinded and incapacitated me.


Bringing in the Last

Yesterday afternoon, I dumped all the potted annual herbs into the wheelbarrow and brought in all the tender houseplants from the back deck.

Thunder was grumbling, and days of rain and potentially even a little snow are in the forecast. I didn’t want to haul in frigid, heavy, sopping wet pots at the last moment. So, amid rumbling and flashing and the first spatter of drops, the season of patio plants ended abruptly.

A little later, a bolt of lightning splintered a tree by the kitchen, nearly causing me to spill boiling tea-water on my foot. Then wind forced open the mudroom door, hail flew in with a clatter, and THEN the weather radio sounded a warning.

There is no “fall garden” this year other than what’s out in the older beds already, mature, planted in spring. Some of the newly-built raised beds are filled with a combination of “black dirt” (which is farm field soil, stripped off so that excavators can get to the gravel underneath) and barn cleanings–a mix of straw bedding and goat manure. I combine the two because black dirt from an industrially-farmed field, while gorgeous-looking to those who garden in less-than-ideal soil, is nevertheless a dead medium. There aren’t any worms, no organic matter. When it’s dry, it blows like the Dirty Thirties; when it’s wet, it pools and runs to gullies.

DSC05815I see whole big fields of it in places–fall cultivated bare to allow for earlier spring planting, and I wonder how much soil that farmer will lose before they wise up to what their grandparents learned the hard way.

A couple of the newly-filled raised beds are serving as winter nurseries to perennials I dug from the yard in Clinton–I don’t want to lose what I worked on if the house should sell after the ground freezes, and I don’t want to ask for stipulations about digging plants in the spring. A couple beds have asparagus crowns dug last weekend from a plot now outside the new garden boundaries. Some of the new beds still stand empty, and I guess they might stay that way till spring.

I had the idea I’d get all the beds filled and the newly-defined garden fenced this fall, but the list of what can be accomplished before freeze up is shortening along with the days. I also remember thinking I’d get a plot tilled and the small high tunnel erected down on the south lawn. The frame and plastic for that is still in the shop in town.

DSC06017Yesterday evening, casting around for dinner ideas, I decided to make lasagna–not because I was particularly in the mood for it (it was excellent!), but because I could combine the making of it with processing the rest of the ripe tomatoes in the house. I also had some soft goat cheese in the fridge from a local farm tour last week, and that’s not something you let go to waste.

Now, with the weather tending toward chill and damp, and the fact that some animal (probably a squirrel) is competing with me for the last of my lovely heirloom tomatoes, I am planning to cut them down and bring a wheelbarrow-full to the chickens. If critters are going to eat the last few, I ought to get something in return (theoretically speaking, since my hens have not yet begun to lay eggs).

DSC05983I don’t think I’ve ever pulled healthy tomato plants before a frost, but their production is waning, and I’d like to bare those beds and get compost worked in sooner rather than later. Another first: two days ago I pulled all the sweet pepper plants but two–again, waning production and a desire to beef up the soil organic matter before winter closes in.

Yes, and to make room for the garlic that still needs planting, though I have it on good authority that with a power drill and ice auger, it’s possible to plant it in December, even.

It’s a bit of a relief to be bringing in the last–to know that the constant inflow of baskets and boxes and buckets of produce is coming to an end, and what we’ve got is it until the first greens of spring. Sure, there’ll be a few more trips to the farmers market for winter squash and onions, to the orchard for apples. We’ve got currants and elderberries in the freezer that are destined for jam, jelly, and syrup, the canning of which will warm the house in the chilly damp weeks ahead.

But it seems clear from the forecast, and from the geese gathering by hundreds in the sloughs, that the Time of Too Much Eggplant is coming to a close, and the stored-up Feast of Fall is about to begin.


Putting By: Tomato Soup

This wasn’t a great tomato year for us, if by great tomato year I take the measure of the years on the CSA and market farm in southeast South Dakota, where 80-100 plants provided plenty for members, market, and for my own canning projects, or even if I look back to the past couple of seasons in Big Stone County, where the smaller but still substantial plantings meant there was plenty to share.

This was more of a getting-by tomato year. The garden at Clinton house was flooded out repeatedly, then drought took hold and weeds took over. Along about midsummer, I started referring to it more honestly as the “weed patch” and not as a garden. The tomatoes I planted there are stunted and spindly and barely producing one fruit every couple of weeks.

The saving grace of that garden weed patch is all of the volunteers that have sprung up from last year–mostly small varieties like Santorini and Old Pink Plum–tough, wild, and plentiful. So, I am getting maybe 5-10 pounds a week out of there–a pittance, really, but enough to discourage me from brush-hogging the whole thing.


Out here on the farm, I put in six heirlooms (Stupice, Speckled Roman, Japanese Black Trifele, Big Rainbow, Louis’ Oxheart and Hungarian Heart) and that is really saving my butt. Yes, we had to buy tomatoes for an earlier sauce project, but now we are harvesting enough throughout the week to do a batch of something on the weekend, and so the jars are filling up. Considering the ongoing remodeling and landscaping projects that’ve been our primary focus this summer, it’s probably a good thing we aren’t pulling in 100lbs of tomatoes every 4-5 days.

Once we had enough of John’s spaghetti sauce put by (three batches–or nearly three cases), I turned to one of my standby recipes: tomato soup. I started making this during a heavy tomato year, when I was casting around for what more to do with the abundance, and it proved to be so delicious, convenient, and popular that I now make it every year.

The basic rule comes from 4th edition of Putting Food By, Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg, and Beatrice Vaughan’s Bible of canning, freezing, curing, and storing food. I’ve written about this recipe before, but I’ve made some additions to the recipe and fine-tuned the method to fit my schedule, so I’m giving it another post.

I always at least double the recipe–this is one where, if you’re going to invest the time, you might as well really go for it. This is also a recipe that requires a pressure canner–so borrow a neighbor’s or dust yours off if you haven’t been using it.

DSC05840First off, I fill an 18-quart roaster full of tomatoes–all ripe or very close to it. Really small tomatoes can go in whole, and bigger ones with large cores should be cut up and have the cores and any blemishes removed. I set the roaster to 225 and let them cook overnight–stirring once or twice if I get to it.

The next morning I turn the roaster off and let it cool a bit before running the resulting stew through my tomato strainer to remove seeds and skins (I think this works better for getting more of the juice than putting the tomatoes through raw). As the juice comes through, I have a 16 quart kettle set up on the stove to start it simmering.

The last bowl of tomato juice to come through the strainer gets saved back and put in a smaller (8 quart) stockpot, into which go (chopped) 6-8 sweet peppers–green and/or red or whatever you have (if you are using the big bell peppers, you can cut that down to four), 4-6 yellow onions, a couple to a few cloves of garlic, and 4-6 good-sized stalks of celery (leaves and all if you are using home-grown). I also usually add a handful of parsley and basil leaves to the pot.

At this point I add (also cut up) any tomatoes that escaped the roaster on the first round, but have magically got to ripeness overnight. It’s not necessary to add more tomatoes, but at this point of the season, I find myself simply trying to cut down on the amount of produce building up in the kitchen. If you have them, you might as well use them.

Cover the pot of mixed vegetables and tomato juice and bring to a boil, then simmer until soft. Cool (either naturally, or put the pot in an ice bath and stir), then put through the strainer and add the bulk of the veggie “cocktail” juice to the bigger pot of tomato juice you’ve got simmering. Save a cup or so back for the next step.

In a small mixing bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons salt, and 14 tablespoons cornstarch, then add six tablespoons white vinegar and blend into a paste. Using the cooled juice (it MUST be cool) you saved back from the last step, add enough to the paste to make it pourable, then drizzle the cornstarch blend into the big pot of soup, stirring continuously until it is all blended. (If you forget to save juice back–either to simmer the mixed veggies or to blend with the cornstarch–you can use water instead).

Heat the soup to boiling (not forgetting to stir it often to avoid scorching or cornstarch clumping) and ladle into clean quart jars leaving 1 1/4″ headroom (don’t skimp on headroom–it will boil over if you do). Clean rims, affix caps and rings, and pressure process at ten pounds for 35 minutes. The longer processing time (5 more minutes per batch than in the original recipe) is due to the addition of celery, which in my opinion is really central to making this taste like tomato soup instead of a thin, slightly sweetened pasta sauce masquerading as soup.

At this scale, you should end up with about 12 quarts (a case) of soup.


There are other potential variations of method with this recipe–if I have time and don’t have quite a full roaster of tomatoes, I add all the mixed veggies to roast with the tomatoes on the first round. It saves time on the second day of the process, but typically I am washing and throwing the tomatoes in the roaster in a spare moment the night before I plan to can, and I don’t have time to gather, wash, and prep all the other veggies at the same time.

You could also do the tomatoes in the oven, or do the whole darn thing in one day on the stove top, but this requires more time and attention throughout the day than using the overnight roasting technique. In the end, do it the way that best fits into your kitchen and your schedule. Just don’t skimp on headroom and processing time/pressure.

Pie for Breakfast

One of the ongoing jokes/discussions I have with a friend down in southeast Minnesota is about pie for breakfast.

cherry pie

When I first mentioned the concept, which is native to my New England upbringing, she was like, “Whoa. Pie? Breakfast? I’m pretty sure pie is a dessert thing.” I suggested that this might come off as a bit hypocritical from someone whose native culture calls Jell-O with bits of things suspended in it a “salad.”

Our mutual friend, Paul B. clarified this perfectly legitimate and culturally appropriate custom of pie for breakfast like this (attributed to his father, who is from Connecticut):

In the U.K., a Yankee is a person from the U.S.
In the U.S., a Yankee is a person from the north
In the north, a Yankee is a person from New England
In New England, a Yankee is a person from Vermont, and
In Vermont, and Yankee is a person who eats apple pie with cheddar cheese for breakfast.

It’s true that the ultimate pie-for-breakfast is apple with cheddar cheese (I have seen recipes where the cheese is baked into the crust or shell–very suspicious). But, cherry pie with Gouda is, in my mind, perfectly acceptable–probably because that’s what I ate this morning. One should not feel guilty about pumpkin with Havarti, either. We are not overly dogmatic.

A wedge or two of cheese alongside or on top of your pie is definitely a plus and makes it traditional, but if you don’t happen to have any appropriate pairing for your slice, just go ahead and eat the pie.

The fruit pies are certainly the best for breakfast, but pecan seems like it could work in theory (notwithstanding the fact that pecans are a southern thing and therefore even more suspect than baking cheese into a pie–probably it was southerners who thought of such a thing).

That said, there are some pies that do NOT qualify as appropriate breakfast material any more than a custard or jelly-filled and frosted long john (or Bismarck, or whatever you call it) does. I’m talking about cream pies, pies with meringue toppings–“poofy” pies and glorified puddings-in-a-shell. Those are not breakfast, and you should indeed feel guilty if you treat them as such.

Otherwise, I invite all non-Yankees to indulge take part in our perfectly legitimate custom of eating pie for breakfast with zero guilt and immense satisfaction. Unless you are a southerner, and then you should feel a slight sense of indignation that the Yankees put one over on you again. 😉

***Full disclosure: This Yankee girl actually married a southerner last Saturday. His family’s great, and I’ll bet they eat pie for breakfast, too.

Red Currants & Random Mangoes

Yesterday dawned a sprinkly day out here in the bump of western Minnesota. A good day to relax a bit after a couple hard days of cutting small trees, pulling odd bits of chicken wire, tomato cages, rocks, and fencing out of the weeds, and string-trimming clear various patches of ground around the house and yard.

The red currants are ripening alongside the chicken coop–a jungle of big bushes smothered in red berries. So far, the birds haven’t really attacked them, so I suited up in long pants, socks, boots, and a long-sleeved shirt. About the time I stepped out the door, it decided to rain in earnest.

The first thing I learned about red currant-picking was to scale down the size of the vessel you think you’re going to fill. I went out with my biggest stockpot and soon realized there’d be more rainwater in there than berries. But I did manage to get about 3/4 cup clean-picked (no stems) before deciding it was enough for now.

And then I had to figure out what to do with them. It certainly wasn’t enough for a batch of jelly. I didn’t feel like making muffins or scones. So, I decided to experiment.

My lemon basil needed cutting back from the flower stage, so I grabbed some of that, and I simmered the currants and basil leaves with a tiny amount of water and about 1/3 cup sugar. I threw in a little splash of white wine because it was there. Twenty minutes later, I strained the fruit mixture through a fine sieve and called it good.


It tastes a little like Twinings Four Red Fruits tea, only sweeter and thicker, of course. Yummy. I drizzled some over roasted veggies last night, and John is talking about finding some salmon to use it with. Next time, I’ll make more–maybe enough to do it as a jelly. There are a lot of currants left in that jungle.

Fresh basil (whether sweet or lemon or another variety) is a great complement to a lot of fruits. If this sounds weird to you, consider that basil is considered a natural complement to tomatoes–which are a tangy-sweet fruit even if we treat them & eat them like a vegetable most of the time.

The success of the red currant-lemon basil syrup inspired me to look at other interesting fruit-basil pairings, and since I just happened to have a random ripe mango sitting in my kitchen, I figured why not try something with that?

I don’t buy mangoes often. They’re obviously not local, and because of that, they’re often not of very good quality by the time they make their long journey up here. But, I had a weak moment in the grocery store with my son, and when he asked for one, I thought, at least he’s asking for something healthy, and bought it.

The mango has been sitting in a bowl on the kitchen island ever since (a couple of weeks), and it finally started to feel soft enough to use–which usually means half of it is rotten. But, I peeled it and it wasn’t too bad. I always start out thinking I’m going to slice a mango in a completely civilized manner and then end up squashing and squeezing the super-ripe flesh off the pit. Oh, well.

I added a sprinkle of sugar, a few drops of vanilla extract, and some slivered sweet basil leaves, then immersion-blended the pulpy mass to a smoother consistency. We had it over peach ice cream, and it was fantastic. There was a little left over, and I couldn’t find a small enough storage container to justify taking space in the fridge, so I just hid out in the kitchen and gobbled the rest with a spoon.

When I went down to shut the “girls” into the coop last night, I decided to see if they like currants, too. Several fruit-laden branches have pushed their way into the enclosed run, and I popped a few berries off to see what would happen. It only took a couple before all the hens were in a mad rush to grab the gleaming red berries as they fell. Guess it’s good they can’t get to the rest of the patch!