The gardening year that is coming to a close here in northeast Pennsylvania was like no other. More than ever, I am grateful to live on a piece of land where I can grow food. It is not enough to sustain us yet enough to fill a freezer chest and several shelves of canning jars.
The pandemic has laid open how vulnerable the food supply chain is. Meanwhile, the local farmers and producers have been there, hard-working and dependable, with their produce, eggs, meat, cheeses, and countless other wonderful fresh foods. I promised myself I would not get into politics here. One thing I must say: if you really want to be a patriot and are serious about putting America first, start by supporting your local farmers instead of buying agricultural products that have been shipped thousands of miles, sometimes halfway around the globe.
At Thanksgiving two years ago, I started a list of the local places where I regularly shop. The latest addition to that list is a Facebook group called PA Farm to Family Table + which directly connects producers and consumers in Pennsylvania. Its founder, Heidi Flory, is a farmer herself and the 2021 Pennsylvania Elite Miss United States Agriculture. If, as I do, you associate a “pageant” as being only long-legged, scantily dressed girls with satin sashes, you should know that the Miss United States Agriculture Queens serve as ambassadors of agriculture and promote the appreciation for farming. Boots, overalls, and sun hats, and no bathing suits!
Working in a home office is not new to me, I have done this for the past 20 years, and living on a rural hilltop is a pretty secluded life to start with. But hunkering down for eight months and counting is a new dimension of social isolation even for me. In the fall, our dining table usually turns into a sorting and staging area for garden produce. This year, however, I did not have to clear it for dinner guests.
Not going anywhere other than grocery shopping and running other essential logistics errands can make you lose track of time. Instead, nature has created its own unique time markers. The day in May when we found a nest with 14 turkey eggs in the woods. It was saddening and upsetting when the entire nest disappeared without any trace a few days later. Another memorable day was in July when we spotted three more ladyslipper orchids along the trail in the woods. Then, on a Friday morning in early October, I finally saw my very first bear after living here for 20 years. He was sitting underneath a tree 20 feet away from me when I was in the car coming up the driveway. He, or one of his buddies, was most likely responsible for taking out the turkey nest.
My blogs, this one and my German food blog, Spoonfuls of Germany, have been on hiatus this year, with one exception. In March, I started donating all the royalties from the ebook edition of my cookbook to the Second Harvest Food Bank of the Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania. If you can, please consider buying the ebook, or giving it to someone who is into German food (the book also includes several German Christmas classics, such as Stollen). Or directly donate to a local foodbank; they need our help now more than ever.
In the absence of visitors, my husband and I had time to tackle projects like clearing large areas of dead trees and invasive plants and replanting them, and I can attest that climbing up and down 60-degree embankments and pulling truckloads of weeds replaces going to the gym.
In the spring, we started 90 red and white oaks in pots from acorns collected along a trail in our woods. It is a project that has a practical purpose as much as a psychological effect. Tending to those seedlings takes time, dedication, and protection from voracious critters. The one night we did not cover the box with impenetrable netting, five of the six-inch seedlings were eaten. For me, the little oaks stand for the belief that despite the horrid situation the world finds itself in right now, there is a future worth planning for. They also stand for the trust that we’ll be alive next fall to plant them and see them grow in the years to come.
Here are the highlights and low points of my gardening year and favorites made with locally grown produce. All the recipes, unless they are linked to in the text, are at the end of this post.
Like every year, I picked lots and lots of blueberries at County Line Orchard (as part of my participation in The Year of German America Friendship 2018/2019, the orchard was featured in this video). My favorite new blueberry recipe of the year is Blueberry Cream Cheese Babka (recipe below).
My favorite new apple recipe of the year is Apple Slices in Saffron Cardamom Syrup (recipe below). After I developed a few recipes with saffron (including a Thanksgiving Stuffing) for Zaffrus, a small company based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, I was hooked and couldn’t stop trying out new combinations with saffron.
Not new but something I make all the time is Low-fat, Low-sugar Granola. I haven’t eaten store-bought cereal in years. Every fall, I freeze unsweetened apple butter in a muffin tray, then pack the frozen portions into gallon-size freezer bags. I ran out of apple butter in the late summer; this year I loaded up on it.
Beans are often viewed as a humble food because they are inexpensive. Growing and drying them yourself surely adds a whole new dimension of appreciation. I tried some new varieties this year but Purple Kingsessing, aka Lenape blue bread beans, from Philadelphia-based True Love Seeds remain my favorite. Our son’s old baseball throwback turned out to be a perfect bean trellis that withstands even strong winds.
With shortages, you become inventive. When I couldn’t find wire at the hardware store for the bean trellis, I used leftover knitting yarn to crochet thin ropes. They held up great, in fact, they are so sturdy that I will be able to reuse them next year.
The zucchini harvest was cut short by the squash vine borer, thankfully by that time, we had already enjoyed four large jars of Giardiniera. In addition to yellow zucchini, I added cauliflower, candy onions, purple carrots, and green bell peppers from Foothill Farm. Making this delicious refrigerator quick pickle with only locally grown vegetables can be tricky. Especially with the long and cold spring we had this year I had to make some adjustments to the recipe, and it was just as good as the original.
This was not the first year I grew cucamelons but I had forgotten how finicky the seedlings are, and how slowly they grow initially. The two plants that survived and took off grew into a real thicket of tiny vines and produced enough of the adorable mouse melons to make my two favorite ways of preparing them, Peach Cucuamelon Salsa and Tomato and Cucamelon Salsa.
Saying that I had a cucumber glut this summer is an understatement. The two cucumber plants in my garden produced incessantly. After we had eaten chilled cucumber soup, cucumber sandwich, and cucumber salad every day, I had made cucumber pickles and cucumber relish and I was getting low on canning jars (with jars in short supply this summer, I did not want to risk running out), I made Cucumber Syrup with Basil. Mixed with seltzer water, it is very refreshing.
My friend Alice, where I unloaded a lot of the cucumbers, dug out an old family recipe for Cucumber Mousse (recipe below). It was delivered as a surprise, dropped off on an ice pack to our porch. I am not embarrassed to confess that we ate the whole thing for dinner. It was probably the one and only thing with jello in it that I will ever eat.
It was my second year of growing edamame beans, which I find one of the easiest, most low maintenance, and dependable garden crops to grow. I did not plant enough of them last year, so I doubled up this year and froze the shelled beans for Edamame Hummus. Another favorite is Edamame Pesto, which I freeze in small jars so it’s ready to use.
Planting the nasturtiums in the fenced-in garden instead of making them an easy snack for critters outside paid off. They bloomed profusely and I picked lots of seed pods to pickle nasturtium capers, aka poor man’s capers. I like them better than store-bought real capers because they have a cleaner, less briny taste.
The beets did well this year too. A new comfort food in my collection that I know I will make often this winter is my friend Sasha’s Vegan Borscht, for which I froze the cooked beets in the exact amounts needed for a batch of soup.
Failures and lessons learned
After 17 years, a groundhog found out that it can climb the fence of my garden. It ate every single of the ripe tomatoes and I thought I would not harvest any this year. Eventually, a combination of vile-smelling homemade hot pepper spray, plastic bags blowing in the wind, and an old radio blasting 24/7 helped and the chewing stopped.
My attempt to grow two large patches of buckwheat, not as a cover crop but to harvest after the first frost, didn’t work out. The plants were almost three feet tall and the flowers attracted lots of bees and other pollinators. Then the birds came and ate all the grains. I am happy that at least someone got to enjoy them!
Other than the quince trees, the other fruit trees – donut peaches, European plums, sweet cherries, and American persimmons—did not produce a single piece of fruit. I know that I need to do my homework this winter and learn about better pest and disease management.
Farmers grow winter squashes and pumpkins out in the open field and I thought I take my chances and do the same thing. In the midst of a meadow, I planted a long row of red kuri squash. It is my favorite winter squash; the edible skin adds a deep flavor and color, and its small size is perfect for just one meal. Like with the tomatoes, homemade pepper spray worked as a critter deterrent during the summer. Then I caught a groundhog in the act taking big bites out of the ripe squashes. Our dog, instead of running after the groundhog, stole the squash leftovers. I harvested about 15 red kuri squashes, not bad. I view this as a semi-failure.
Last year, the cabbage moths decimated the kale, collards, and Brussels sprouts. This year I protected the young seedlings with floating row covers. That worked well and once they were tall and strong, I removed the row cover thinking it was safe. Unfortunately I got too busy to check on the plants regularly and dang, within a few days an onslaught of cabbageworms made the leaves look like Swiss cheese without the cheese. Note to self: next year, invest in a hoop house.
Blueberry Cream Cheese Babka
The video for this fabulous yeasted bread by Vanilla Caramel is on Youtube. I wrote down the recipe details with minor adjustments, that way I don’t have to watch it over and over again because this is a clear keeper.
I’ve tried two different variations so far, one with spelt flour instead of all-purpose flour, and another with cherry filling, both of which were delicious. The spelt flour blueberry babka was probably my favorite. Depending on the flour you are using, you might need to add a little more flour.
12 ounces (350 g) blueberries, fresh or frozen
1/3 cup (65 g) sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 pinch salt
5 tablespoons (70 g) unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup (120 ml) lukewarm milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon yeast
2 cups (10 ounces / 300 g) all-purpose flour or 12 ounces (350 g) bolted spelt flour, more as needed
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 ounces (120 g) softened cream cheese
1/4 cup (50 g) sugar
Heavy cream for brushing
Blueberries for sprinkling (optional)
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting (optional)
1. Place the blueberries in a saucepan and add the sugar. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir to combine.
2. In a small bowl stir lemon juice, cornstarch and salt until dissolved. Add to the blueberries in a thin stream and cook, stirring and scraping over the bottom of the pan, until the mixture has thickened, about 3 to 4 minutes.
3. Fill into a jar and let cool, then refrigerate for a few hours until fully set.
4. In a bowl mix butter, sugar, milk, vanilla, egg, and yeast.
5. In another bowl mix flour and salt. Add the yeast mixture and knead with the stand mixture until the dough is smooth. If it is very sticky, add more flour, one tablespoon at a time. Cover and let rise for 60 to 90 minutes.
6. Punch down the dough. On a large piece of parchment, roll it out 1/4 inch thick.
7. Stir cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Spread the dough with the cream cheese and leave 1/2 inch free all around. Spread the blueberry filling on top.
8. Roll up the dough tightly lengthwise using the parchment. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to firm it up.
9. Cut the roll in half lengthwise. With the cut side inwards, twist the two halves around each other. Seal the ends by pinching. Place in loaf pan lined with parchment.
10. Cover and let rise for 60 to 90 minutes.
11. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C).
12. Brush the dough parts with heavy cream and sprinkle with blueberries (optional). Bake until golden brown, about 40 to 50 minutes. Let cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes before unmolding. Dust with confectioners’ sugar (optional) just before serving.
Apple Slices in Saffron Cardamom Syrup
If you eat these within a week, there is no need to can them, just fill them in a clean screwtop jar and store them in the fridge.
Use firm apples that hold up well when cooked. The apples don’t need to be pretty though, on the contrary, I always use a mix of sort-outs from different varieties.
5 pounds (2.3 kg) apples
1 tablespoon citric acid powder
1½ cups (350 ml) water
¾ cup (150 g) sugar
9 cardamom pods, crushed
¾ teaspoon saffron threads
1. Wash, peel, and core the apples. Fill a large bowl with cold water and add citric acid. Stir to dissolve.
2. Slice the apples directly into the bowl.
3. In a large pot heat water and sugar and bring to a boil. Add the cardamom seeds and saffron.
4. Drain the apple slices, rinse under cold water and drain again. Add to the pot. Bring to a boil and cook until the apples start to soften, stirring gently so they don’t break apart. Don’t cook them for too long, they should not be mushy or fall apart.
5. Fill the piping hot apple slices and syrup into pint jars placed on a damp kitchen towel, leaving ½ inch (1.25 cm) headspace. The apple slices should be fully covered with syrup. Prepare more syrup if necessary.
6. Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp piece of paper towel to remove any drips. Place the lids and the bands on the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes. To prevent siphoning, leave the jars in the hot water bath with the heat turned off for 5 minutes before lifting them out of the canner.
7. Let cool and set for 24 hours without moving the jars.
Makes 4 1-pint jars
Alice’s Cucumber Mousse
1 (3 ounce) package lime jello
3/4 cup boiling water
1 package unflavored Knox gelatin
1/4 cup cold water
1 cup mayonnaise
1/4 medium onion, chopped
1 cup cottage cheese
1/8 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 unpeeled medium cucumber, chopped
1 medium clove garlic
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1. Dissolve lime jello in boiling water and dissolve gelatin in cold water.
2. In the blender, put mayonnaise, onion, cottage cheese, tabasco, cucumber, garlic, and almonds.
3. Blend well then add jello and gelatin. Blend again. Pour into mold and chill overnight. Serve on lettuce bed.
Makes 8 servings