All Hail Mother Nature

hail storm in garden
Just when you think things are going fine in the garden, Mother Nature decides to shake things up. This has been a weird growing season. I have talked to and heard from growers at various ends of the state and the general feeling is that this has not been a good year to be a grower. I have heard that numerous crops have failed this summer, even for experienced growers. The number of produce growers is down at the farmers’ market which I take as a bad sign. My latest obstacle was a hail storm.

Here in Arizona we welcome rain and thunderstorms. While I have never seen it rain anywhere else as hard as it typically does here, the promise of rain is always welcome. That was put to the test on Saturday when pea and marble sized hail was mixed in with the rain. In little more than an hour we measured about 1 inch of precipitation.

hail damaged plants

As you might imagine, hail and gardens are not the best of friends. The hail ripped apart the plants with bigger leaves, like squash, gourds, kale, and rhubarb. It flattened many other plants, including the beets and lima beans. It also broke branches and knocked tomatoes off the plants. I am hoping this turns out to be mostly cosmetic damage and that the plants will bounce back with a bit of calm weather and sun. Only time will tell.

Despite all this, I harvested about 28 pounds of tomatoes this week and 21 last week. For those of you who have not grown a lot of tomatoes, that is a lot for personal use. Until I heard that many local growers are having significant issues, I was concerned about the reduced production from some of the plants. I chalked a bit of the loss up to the deer eating the tops off many plants and the extra hot July this year. Now I am thinking things are going relatively well.

bowl of homegrown tomatoes

We have been roasting the extra tomatoes for future marinara and roasted tomato soup. The peppers are growing gangbusters; the eggplant plants are the biggest and most productive we have had; and, although we don’t have a large number of banana squash, we likely still have over 60 pounds of them.

I expect out peak harvest is still two or three weeks away. We have lots of green peppers and tomatoes busy ripening and a record number of eggplant blossoms. The one crop not doing well at all is cucumbers. We have made a batch or half-sour pickles, but they are growing very oddly. Any amount of bread and butter pickles we make this year might have to come from cucumbers from farm stands that will be visited on a trip to Colorado. While I would love having a big garden in a more conducive location, I am glad I am not trying to make a living as a farmer.

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Baked Eggplant Parmesan Bites

Baked Eggplant Parmesan Bites

Every year I plant a few new plants to test them out. One part of the test is to see how they grow and produce. The second part of the test is to see how they taste and whether we can make good use of the product. A number of plants have been abandoned over the years for issues with either of these. For example, we tried growing strawberries and blueberries (you had to see that coming if you know how much time I spent in Maine) and both failed to grow, as did asparagus. This year I decided not to grow one of the peppers I grew the last couple of years, not because it did not grow well or taste well, but because I could not find a compelling enough use for them. The “holes” left in the garden from removing these plants are where I try new varieties. Last year’s star new variety was Japanese eggplant.

Japanese Eggplant on plantThe eggplant variety I grow is named Orient Express. They are long and thin. They cook fast and easy, no salting or frying required, and the skins are tender enough that no peeling is necessary. The primary reason I started growing eggplant was to make cabonatina. Make it we did and it tasted great. With successful growing comes the inevitable issue of excess production. We tried all kinds of recipes. Now that the eggplant are ripening again, I have been refining what I started last year. As you can tell, patience is a key component.

Last year, using traditional methods, I fried the eggplant rounds after dredging in flour, then egg, then bread crumbs, all gluten-free. That took a lot of time and added a lot of oil and bread crumbs, two things I don’t need more of in my diet. So, this year I tried baking the eggplant rounds without frying them, then making as usual. It was a very tasty success. The sausage I used was homemade spicy Italian sausage (that is not on the blog yet). I realize most people are not as obsessive as I get, so use whatever Italian sausage, spicy or not, that you prefer. I also usually make this and most recipes on a two-oven Aga. If using an Aga, I did all this in the upper oven. I also usually eat them as an appetizer, but they could easily be substantial enough for dinner.


Baked Eggplant Parmesan Bites

Ingredients

  • 1 Japanese Eggplant (or more depending upon your needs)
  • 1/4 Cup Marinara Sauce
  • 1/2 Pound Italian Sausage, spicy or mild
  • 10 Fresh basil Leaves, sliced thin
  • 2 Pieces Provolone Cheese
  • Parmesan Cheese

Directions
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Slice the eggplant into 1/2 inch thick rounds, or lengthwise. Spray a cookie sheet with oil. Arrange eggplant slices in a single layer. Cook for about 8 minutes, until just cooked through. You can do this step ahead of time and refrigerate until needed.

Cook sausage until cooked through and a bit crispy. I do this in the upper oven also.

Put a small amount of marinara sauce on each piece of eggplant. Don’t use too much. Put a small amount of sausage on top. Put a few slices of basil on top of the sausage. Top with a piece of provolone cheese and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Bake about 8 – 10 minutes until the cheese is bubbly and browned. You can also broil on Hi for about 3 minutes.

Enjoy!

Let the Fun Begin

bowl of fresh picked vegetables
It’s about that time of year the last eight months have been building to – weekly harvests. This past weekend we were able to start what should be weekly harvests of various produce. This is always an exciting time in the garden. It is also coinciding with the start of monsoon rains. The weather report shows we have had about 2″ of rain this week. I know for some of you that is an average week. For us in the desert it brings not only a bit of rain, but cooler temperatures, an always welcome occurrence.

Thanks to help from my two favorite helpers this last March we harvested almost 2 pounds of beets. This too is welcome as we have not harvested many beets the last couple of years. The equally good news is that this was just a thinning of the larger beets and we have lots still growing.

ripening tomatoes

The peppers are really starting to get going and there are lots on the plants. I thought I had reduced the number of Shishito peppers enough so we wouldn’t be overwhelmed, but that is not the case. I guess we will have to step-up our consumption. We also have a bumper crop of Aleppo peppers ripening. I am saving the seeds so hopefully they are stabilized and the pepper we get will be close to what we have now. I have a few I just planted so I should know before next summer.

The tomatoes are also growing gangbusters – our Lady’s in Waiting as I refer to them. Most of our preserved tomato supply, whether canned or frozen, is dwindling so this is just in time. Other than the plants being a bit shorter than expected there is hardly any evidence the deer munched them a couple of months ago.

Thief!

tomatoes growing on the vine

I had planned on doing a post on drying and tasting an Aleppo pepper and planting a couple of seeds. That post will be postponed due to thievery. As near as I can determine, a small, flighty thief found my Aleppo pepper while I was letting it dry outside during our record heat, and absconded with with the pepper. Can you believe that! Finding nothing after looking around my yard to at least recover a few seeds, I accepted reality and resolved not to dry anything else outside that isn’t covered. Lesson learned. Birds, Beware!

My Aleppo was not the only thing stolen from the garden. We have something systematically eating the tomatillos. Whatever is eating the tomatillos is eating them neatly, going down the row, one each night. We now have a motion camera pointed at the tomatillos to try to identify the culprit. I also covered the plants with netting, hoping that our predator is not small enough to just walk under the elaborate protection.

Sarit Gat pepper turning yellow

We had record heat over the weekend – not something we look forward to this time of year seeing as it is already too hot. Severe weather at the garden is always a bit nerve wracking because I’m not actually at the garden during the week. Hopefully the increased watering will be enough to keep the plants alive and somewhat happy. Hopefully the heat will drive the deer to higher ground. Actually, I don’t care if they go to higher ground, as long as it is different ground.

In the meantime, we have a record number of tomatoes on the plants for this time of year. The peppers continue to thrive, and there are even some eggplants busy ripening. Although I doubt many tomatoes or peppers set during the heat, the ones already on the plants seem to be doing well. With a bit of luck we will be trying our first Sunrise Bumble Bee tomato and sarit gat pepper this coming weekend.

Now, if only I could remember to do this year’s harvest log so I can keep track of what we harvest. So far we have harvested some kale, radishes, beets, onions, and a few different peppers.

The Aleppos are Coming

ripening Aleppo pepper

The plants continue their onward march to full-production. Even the tomatillos that looked very unhappy when I planted them seem to be doing fine, if a bit small. What surprised me the other day while walking around the garden was a crinkley reddish pepper. At first glance I thought it was a Cupid pepper going bad, so I picked it. Turns out I was wrong; it was a ripening Aleppo pepper. Once I realized it was not going bad, I had to save it and give it a taste.

I know the pepper wasn’t fully ripe so I expect the flavor to change a bit. As it was, it had a quick, front of the tongue heat not quite as hot as a jalepeno that quickly went away. I am not aware of any of my other peppers doing that. It also had a surprising amount of a bell pepper taste. Some of the cumin and earthiness was there. It is quite thin walled, which will make for easier drying and grinding.

With any luck this is just the start of the produce. As for the Aleppos, next step is letting more ripen, then seeding them, so I can save the seeds to determine how stabilized they are, then drying and grinding. If the plants survive the predicted heat this coming week we should be in good shape with an early harvest of most everything.