Tag Archives: specialty crop

growing fancy: chioggia beets

Farmflash:

  • Food = Expensive.
  • Kenya questions value of organics. (But did the study they cited test pesticide residue, or just nutritional content?)
  • Even England (not exactly renowned for its cuisine, and I say this with all due affection for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding) is jumping on the local food bandwagon: an author solicits help for a book about local food in Leicestershire.
  • The Times features salt potatoes, an upstate classic — among other local Finger Lake faves.

Growing fancy: Chioggia Beets

I’m going to make an effort to post about some unique veggie at least once a week, with more details than I’ve previously given. For the newly-revised “Growing Fancy” section, expect to learn about the veggie’s history, nutritional content, growing tips, and cooking tips, too! Take one: Chioggia Beets.

History:

Beets are thought to have originated from wild species in the Mediterranean area of Southern Europe. Their botanical ancestors have been cultivated just about as long as anything — as far as historians can tell, since prehistoric times. Those botanical ancestors are also known as chard, a bulbless beet that Aristotle wrote about in the fourth century B.C. (I’m hoping that if I keep writing about chard, maybe I’ll become extraordinarily wise and famous, too.) Early Romans ate only the greens; the root — still hard and fibrous at this point — was considered medicine and only used for treating illness.

In the third and fourth centuries A.D., Roman food writers started to babble about beta vulgaris — a plant that apparently possessed the fleshy, sweet root we’re familiar with today. (It was probably found growing in the wild and subsequently cultivated, but nobody is not too sure about that.) Anyway, not too much was written about the beet for a while after the Romans. (I harbor a sneaking suspicion that beets were largely a peasant food, and peasant diets aren’t often recorded in the history books.) Fast-forward to the fourteenth century: the beet entered European consciousness vis-a-vis written English recipes, where it clearly “took root.” (Groan.)

Linguistic note: as some of our customers have pointed out, Chioggia is technically pronounced key-oh-ghee-ah. The “Ch” in Italy is pronounced as a hard “c,” whereas an Italian “c” is actually pronounced like the English “ch.” Still, I really haven’t heard too many Americans say it this way. (I did take a year of Italian in college, but I’m going to stick to the colloquial parlance on this one.)

Botany:

Any gardener knows a beet seed when she sees it — unless, of course, it’s a chard seed. Chard and beet seeds are pretty much identical, and look a little like extraterrestrials destined for Martian soil; each “seed” is actually a multifaceted seed pod containing multiple viable plant seeds. As I mentioned before, chard and beets are closely related, and will in fact cross-pollinate with one another if given the chance. Ditto goes for sugar beets. Be forewarned: beets are wind-pollinated, and the pollen can travel great distances. If you want to seed-save and get true-to-type Chioggia beets next year, make sure your beets aren’t flowering at the same time as your chard (or at the same time as another beet variety, such as Golden or Bull’s Blood).

Interesting side note: if you leave the pods on the plant too long in a rainy season, you might find tiny little beet plants sprouting mid-air from the parent plant, like rainforest epiphytes. It’s not particularly useful, but it’s pretty cool to see!

Growing:

We follow Johnny’s Seeds’ instructions for these little guys: directly sow them one inch apart, half an inch deep. Water regularly (we drip irrigate every day). Since each seed pod will sprout multiple plants, you’ll have to do a bit of thinning pretty quickly. But since beet seeds aren’t cheap, I really try to get the most out of each sprouted seed: We wait to thin as much as possible until the greens are big enough to use in a salad (yum) — and even then we only thin them to, say, a two-to-three-inch spacing. We thin again for baby beets, which are so tender and tasty and have good-sized greens. Approximately two months after planting (depending on weather — hotter is faster, cooler is slower), the remaining beets should be nice and plump, the bulbs easily visible from the surface. (If you want a perfect-looking beet, you can mound dirt over the bulbs so the skin quality is more uniform. But when you cook it, you end up peeling off the skin anyway, so I don’t bother.)

Chioggia beets have been summering our ninety-degree days quite well, and haven’t found themselves too put out by our clay soil. While some of our other beet varieties (specifically the classic dark red variety) have suffered from mild bouts of beet scab — an unattractive but not fatal condition — Chioggia has proven more resistant. The tasty beet greens haven’t been particularly plagued by pests, either — despite the fact that they’re grown out in the open, without a row cover, in a field rife with leaf-eating cucumber beetles.

Eat It:

Roasted! This caramelizes the beet’s naturally occurring sugar (which is about 8% of the plant), bringing out the root’s innate sweetness. It also preserves the Chioggia’s striking colors better than boiling, which tends to fade the characteristic candy stripes, at least on the areas most exposed to water.

To maximize the wow factor and minimize the cooking effort, simply slice the beets in half, place them on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil, sea salt & pepper — maybe some balsalmic if you feel the urge — and put them in an oven until they’re nice and tender. (Cooking length depends on size of beet.) Then simply peel the skins off and serve. (Or, like we do at our house, simply serve and warn people about the skins. Our kitchen is a do-it-yourself operation.)

Chic Chioggia:

  • Doesn’t stain the heck out of everything like the classic purple beet.
  • The stripes are truly stunning, especially for peppermint fans. (Also: Can trick unsuspecting kiddies with promises of ‘candy cane beet’.)
  • It’s Italian, and those people really know how to cook, so chances are they developed a darn good — sweet and succulent — beet variety, too.
  • A good way of getting fiber without becoming The Prune Eater; you’ll also benefit from beets’ high levels of folate and potassium. (Beets contain some calcium, too, but be sure to eat the greens for an extra dose of calcium and Vitamin C.)

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growing fancy: beautiful baby lettuce

It’s not one hundred percent pest proof, but it’s pretty darn good. While our brassica mix attracts flea and cucumber beetles like none other — which I found interesting, since it’s considerably more spicy and slightly tougher than this mix — our awesome Johnny’s Seeds lettuce mix is surprisingly resilient and mostly beetle-free. It’s got lots of fancy-sounding varieties in it (Rouge D’Hiver, anyone?) but mostly it boils down to: curly red, curly green, (both of which are great for loft, i.e. fluffing up your salad bags), flat red and flat green. All are quite beautiful, and the “flat red” are slightly mottled — a beautiful red-and-green color blend.

Despite the summer heat — note: we water with one-foot-tall misters, but only sprang for shade cloth for a fraction of the space — the salad hasn’t yet bolted. It can easily be cut (and come again, as they say) three times without getting too tough or bitter. It takes about four weeks until it’s a harvestable size (three with lots of water and lots of heat), but regrows very quickly. I find that the flat leaves grow, and regrow, much more quickly than the curly. (Same as curly versus straight hair, I guess.)

Main thing to watch for this with this crop: weeds. (You can spot a few grasses and one wild mustard in the photo above.) But if you’re growing for home use, the weeds shouldn’t be too big of a problem — if you’re picking on the scale of one dinner at a time, you can easily pick them out while washing the leaves. For a commercial scale (even a small one), we have to spend a couple of hours a week pulling out mustards and grasses… otherwise it’s a painfully slow harvest, come Saturday morning, as we pull weeds out of each handful we snip.

One other thing to watch for, thanks to the overhead misters: slugs, which love all things damp. I’ve caught a few on the leaves, but they were really small, and I haven’t noticed too much slug damage.

Note: the organic version of this mix is called “Encore,” and the conventional is called “Allstar.” The conventional is considerably cheaper, and I think we settled for that the second time around. We always go for non-treated seeds, but I’m still torn about whether or not the seeds themselves need to be grown organically. Yes, I obviously believe in organic agriculture — but in terms of my end product, how much can one lettuce seed carry in terms of residual chemicals, etc? If the lettuce you’re eating is grown with only organic inputs, isn’t that good enough? Hopefully in the future we’ll be saving our own seeds, eliminating this discussion altogether — but it’s still some food for thought.

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growing fancy: french breakfast radishes

They’re radishes, only slightly less boring.  Oblong, with a pink base fading to a white tip, occasionally they have a pretty blush of pink inside when sliced in half lengthwise.

Are they truly idiot-proof to grow?  Pretty much.  A few growing notes:  flea beetles will punch holes in the tops, but who cares?  They’re a bit hairy for my tastes anyway.  Also, if these radishes are faced with especially cloddy clay soil (ahem, not that we would ever have anything like that) about 5% of the crop will look like commas, with ingrained-dirt evidence of scraping against some hard clod or rock.  It’s not a big deal, and we eat the commas–if they’re particularly warped/stained, we just don’t sell them at market.  (And like I said, it’s only about 5% of the radishes anyway.)

Growing tip:  companion-plant them with beets (a double, close-by row), in their own row 2-3 inches away from the beets.  Since the radishes are harvested in just a few weeks–compared to beets which take longer to bulb–they don’t interfere with one another, and it saves you the work of preparing a separate bed for the radishes. Also (and I’m not sure if this really helps or not because I haven’t harvested a just-radish bed and a radish-by-the-beets bed at the same time and taste-tested), the beets afford the radishes a modicum of shade by the time they’re bulbing, which might keep them a touch cooler, which might make them a bit less spicy.

French breakfast radishes bonus points:

  • Fancy-looking: impress your friends, customers, family, lovers with your refined French palate.
  • More heat-tolerant than traditional varieties.  Even in hot weather, it ain’t like eating wasabi.
  • Lovely internal texture.  Something about them is so smooth, it’s almost creamy, but crunchy at the same time.
  • Bugs don’t seem to eat the roots.
  • The roots very rarely split — far less frequently than the traditional round bulb varieties, which can split when they get too big/wet/hot (I’m not exactly sure what combination of conditions bring it on).
  • Goes well with butter, or so we’ve been told by excited customers.  Apparently this is how they’re usually eaten in France: you spread butter, take a bite, spread butter, take a bite… how do those French people stay so thin anyway?
  • High in vitamin C (as all radishes are) as well as minerals like iron (especially important for the ladies — 11% of all women between 20 and 49 are iron deficient!), sulfur (needed to produce collagen, which keeps your skin looking young), and iodine (necessary for a healthy thyroid).
  • Can be added to vegetable juice–especially if you’ve got a cold–to provide a bit of kick, not to mention sinus-clearing, and throat-soothing abilities (thanks to antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties).
  • Quick to grow (like all radishes) — about three weeks should do it.

Try ’em!

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growing fancy: armenian cucumber

I think it’s safe to put the Armenian cucumber in the ‘successful’ category now, although I might be jinxing myself here.

The winter squash may be dying, but the Armenian cucumber is as healthy as can be. (Knock on wood.) Heck, we keep stepping on the tendrils that spill over into the path–they keep growing back like some Swamp Thing. And the cucumbers themselves are somewhat beyond belief: you blink and a three-incher has turned into a two-footer.

At the market, although we didn’t sell all of them (the ten percent rule seems to be in effect for our cukes and zuchs — the farmer’s market adage you’ll never sell the last ten percent of your produce because people don’t like buying what seems to be the leftovers), people kept asking about them. (“What is it?” was the most common question.) And I’d say that a third of the people who tasted them–we had a sample dish out–ended up buying them.

Points for the Armenian cucumber:

  • they look really cool. I’m an especially big fan of the long, curled ones. and they have a serrated surface that looks nice when sliced thinly for salad.
  • I love the way they taste. I’m not a big fan of regular cucumbers, but these are slightly more dense, slightly less watery, and slightly less seedy.
  • so far, we haven’t killed them.

Try it! But know that they will sprawl all over the place, even if you’re trying to trellis them, unless you’re really on top of your pruning. (Of course, we aren’t.)

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growing fancy: quinoa

It’s not something I ever would have thought of growing myself. But when Emmett and I were wwoofing on a small family farm in New Zealand, our hosts had a few quinoa plants going. They were healthy, bushy, beautiful things, and their grains were just starting to dry.

So, when we were on our online seed-spending spree a few months ago, we thought ‘why not?’ and ordered some Temuco Quinoa. It sounds fancy — and I went most of my life never having heard of quinoa — but it’s pretty practical stuff. It’s one of the few plant-based complete proteins — a protein that has all 8 amino acids. As such, it’s especially useful for a mostly-vegetarian like myself. (Other sources of complete protein include: spirulina, amaranth, soy, buckwheat, and hempseed, but I’m really not too sure how to serve some of those guys, besides blending them into some disgusting protein shake.) Quinoa’s also really pretty when cooked. The little hard seeds, once boiled/simmered sufficiently, burst open into tiny white spirals. They’re a pretty and healthy addition to soup–just throw ’em in 15 minutes or so before your soup’s done–and can make a nice side salad on their own, with some seasoning and veggies thrown in.

But back to the growing side of things. So far, so good: the plants have proved quite hardy. Sure, the cucumber beetles munched the leaves a bit, but let me tell you these plants looked absolutely wretched when we transplanted them. They were victims of our seed disaster–stunted, tiny things with only a couple of leaves apiece–and it was only Emmett’s deep-rooted sense of optimism that led us to put them in the ground at all. Good thing we did! They’re now hip-high bushes, vigorous and a pretty shade of grey-blue-green, and they’re starting to form buds. We’ve barely had to weed them–once they got going, they quickly shaded the weeds out–and water them about once a day. They haven’t minded our slightly soggy clay soil one bit. My only complaint: the stalks are on the brittle side, and break easily. But really it’s our fault for planting them too close to the chard row, which we harvest a lot (which means I sometimes back into the quinoa while trying to snip chard leaves and avoid stepping on the chard’s floating row cover, which we take off and put on the ground).

I’m excited for a quinoa harvest. If it’s successful, this might be something I plant in bulk in future years. It’s not too often you see grains at the farmer’s market, and I’m guessing people might be excited at something unusual like locally-grown quinoa. (I also have a hunch it might make an awesome protein supplement for chickens, but I’ll have to try that out first.) It’s a good storage crop; we’ve kept store-bought quinoa for close to a year without any sort of problem. Since most of our sales right now are in salad and chard, I can’t wait for something that doesn’t have to be harvested day-of-market!

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