Sunday, November 24, 2013

Re-Post - A Pie for Thanksgiving (Also My Favorite Pie Crust Recipe)

In preparation for Thanksgiving, I thought I'd re-post a pie recipe I wrote a few years ago. This fruit pie is still one of my family's favorites and the recipe I use for my pie crust (like this pie) has not changed in over 10 years. It's one of many recipes that I hope will get passed down from one generation to the next.  If you haven't finalized your pie list, I hope you'll decide to give this one a try.  You won't be disappointed! (Note: Obviously it's next to impossible to get fresh peaches this time of year.  Frozen peaches will work just fine for this recipe.)

Originally Published on September 14, 2009

Pie 3

The Egyptians may have invented pie in 2000 B.C., but it wasn't until a couple hundred years ago that Americans began transforming this culinary wonder into an art form (no offense to my British friends). A lot has changed since the first pilgrims landed in the new world, but our passion for pie has remained constant, which is why to this day no Thanksgiving feast would be complete without one (or 10). In my opinion, few things are more traditionally American than pie. And although this country was built upon many different cultures, it's really "the pie" that binds us. (Bad joke.)

That being said, I rarely have time to bake these days (which is sadly a phenomenon even more ubiquitous in America than pie). However, I try to make an exception during this time of year. You see, the last of the summer peaches are quickly disappearing from farmer's market shelves while the early varieties of pears and apples are just showing up. Therefore, there's only a narrow window of opportunity to make the local (and best tasting) version of what I like to call my Autumn fruit pie, which highlights all three fruits. I've been making this pie for many years now and it still remains one of my all-time favorites. I hope you enjoy it too!

Pie Dough
It's true what they say, a good pie recipe starts with a great crust. Here is one that has never let me down:

Perfect Pie Crust Recipe

2 1/2 cups of all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons of kosher salt
2/3 stick of unsalted butter (chilled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes)
3/4 cup of vegetable shortening (chilled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes)
1/2 cup of very cold water

In a large shallow bowl, mix the flour and salt together. Using a pastry cutter/fork, incorporate the butter and shortening until the mixture resembles a coarse meal (you should still have rather large bits of butter and shortening when you're done). Slowly drizzle in the water and mix with a wooden spoon. Transfer the dough onto a floured work surface, and fold it together using your hands. The dough should come together easily but should not feel overly sticky. Cut the dough in half and shape into round disks. Wrap each in cellophane and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Pie 2

Autumn Fruit Pie Filling Recipe

2 peaches pealed, pitted and sliced
2 pears pealed, cored and sliced
3-4 medium (or 3 large) apples pealed, cored and sliced
1 cup of blueberries or raspberries (fresh or frozen)
2/3 to 3/4 cup of sugar (depending on sweetness of fruit)
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
2-3 tablespoons of corn starch (depending on ripeness of fruit)
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon of salt
grated zest of 1 small orange

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Mix all ingredients together with your hands until the sugar and cornstarch are thoroughly distributed. Remove the dough one at a time from the refrigerator and roll each into a circle about 1/8 inch thick. Lay the first crust into a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan and fill with the fruit mixture. Beat together 1 egg and 1 tablespoon of milk and brush the edges of the crust with some of this mixture. Place the second crust on top and lightly press along the edge of the pie pan to seal the two layers. Cut the edges of the crusts to within 1/2 to 1 inch of the pie pan and then fold the edge of the top crust over and under the edge of the bottom crust, pressing lightly as you do so. Cut 3 slits onto the top crust (to vent steam), brush with more egg mixture and spinkle some coarse sugar on top. Bake at 425 F for the first 15 minutes, then lower to 350 F for another 30-45 minutes until a skewer inserted into the pie pierces fruit that is yielding yet still slightly firm. Cool for at least 2 hours before serving.

Pie 4

Friday, November 22, 2013

Preparing Potted Citrus Trees for Winter

My three citrus trees.
Those of you who've read my old gardening blog will know that I'd collected a fair number of citrus trees during the past few years.  Eight to be exact.  When we lived in Vermont, we had a fabulous green room that got lots of sun and warmth during the winter months.  Even so, my citrus trees would often show signs of stress by the time January arrived.  Indeed, it can be very challenging to maintain citrus trees indoors during our New England winters.  When we moved back to Massachusetts, I realized that we just didn't have enough natural indoor lighting  or space to support eight trees.  So sadly, I'm now I'm down to three - a meyer lemon, mandarinquat (cross between a mandarin orange and kumquat) and satsuma mandarin. 

My meyer lemon tree has many more blooms than usual this year.
Unfortunately, our home gets very little direct sunlight.  In fact, I don't think any of the rooms in our house gets more than a couple hours worth each day.  As a result, I've had to think long and hard about how I'll manage my citrus trees during the winter months moving forward.  These are some of the things I've come up with based on my past observation and experience. 

Pest Management - Scale and mites are probably the worst pests my citrus trees have had to contend with during the winter months.  Their populations tend to explode in the protected environment of a home.  A few weeks ago, I sprayed my trees with neem oil as a preemptive measure against any pest that might be present.  I regularly inspect my trees and have not found any evidence of scale (sticky leaves are a dead giveaway) but I will most likely spray my trees again before they are moved indoors permanently for the winter.  Citrus trees tolerate spraying much better while they are outdoors. 

Supplemental Light - Lack of light is probably the biggest issue effecting my citrus trees during the winter months.  Leaves that develop during this time are usually much larger than the leaves that develop while the trees are outside - a sure sign that they are not getting enough light.  I have fluorescent lights that I use to start my seedlings each spring.  While I hate to use electricity to grow something that isn't native to our part of the world, I plan to use them this winter if my trees start showing signs of stress. 

Watering and Misting - I've made the mistake of watering my trees inconsistently or waiting too long in between waterings while they are indoors.  With the heat cranking and lack of humidity, you'd be surprised by how often the trees need watering.  During the summer time, potted citrus trees require a thorough soaking every few days as they actually like to be grown fairly root-bound, increasing the chance that the roots will dry out.  During the winter months, I've found that it's better to try to keep the soil damp to the touch, but never soaking wet, which calls for lighter but more frequent watering.  Even more important than this, however, is misting.  My trees perform much better indoors when misted once a day.  This also helps to keep pests in check. 

Food - I've come to learn that sometimes, I'm the main cause of why my citrus trees don't fair well when they are indoors.  In the past, I've fed my trees with slow release organic fertilizer three times a year - early spring, early-mid summer and late fall (usually when the trees are in full bloom).  I'm realizing now that the fall feeding might be doing more harm than good as the trees aren't getting much light during this time.  So this year, I'm skipping this feeding. 

Fhe Gardener Shuffle - I try to leave my trees outside as much as possible, even when the night time temperatues dip down into the mid-30's.  And when temperatures dip down lower, I will usually carry my trees in each night and back out each morning until daytime temperatures no longer reach into the 40's.  Just being outside in the fresh air for a few hours each day helps to keep the trees happy.

Mandarinquats are tart but sweeter than kumquats and have a wonderful scent. 
So only time will tell whether my trees will make it through this winter in decent shape.  Last year, all three of my trees were stripped completely of their leaves - if not from stress than by the local wildlife early last spring.  Remarkbly, they all developed new dense foliage by early summer.  So even if your trees look like are dead by late winter, give them some time and in most cases, they will recover. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Planting Tulips in Pots for Spring Blooms

A piece of clam shell at the bottom of my flower pots helps to facilitate drainage.
I absolutely love tulips.  It's a flower that reminds me of my childhood living in Philadelphia.  An elderly neighbor on our block of row houses always had a fabulous display of them on his tiny front lawn each spring.  I would always slow down to take in their colors and smell when walking to and from school.  It's a flower that also reminds of my late father who was an avid gardener and groundskeeper for a Catholic retreat center that always had a wonderful display each year in several of their many ornamental gardens.  This fall, I wanted plant enough for at least a modest crop of blooms next spring.

A bit of lime is added to the growing mix.

Since I'm still in the process of planning our landscaping beds, I thought it would be best to start some tulips in pots that I can position strategically all around our property next spring.  Planting tulips in pots also offers the advantage of being able to provide them with better growing conditions than what they might otherwise get in the ground.  Tulips grow best in well-drained fertile soil that's either neutral or alkaline - something that's truly lacking in these parts.  This garden mix of loam, compost and horse manure that I got from a local landscaping supply company, however, should offer the tulips just what they need.  To it, I added just a bit of lime to ensure that the pH is within an acceptable level as well.

I planted my tulip bulbs rather densely in pots.
I planted the a good number of bulbs per pot as I wanted each to have a dense clutch of blooms. (I probably could have gotten away with a few more in each.)  These were then covered with about 4 inches of soil mix.  For now, the pots sit outside next to the barn.  When the weather gets colder, I'll place them in our unheated barn, lightly watering them periodically if the soil feels dry. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Cultivating Mushrooms on Logs - A Lesson in Patience and Human Ingenuity

Freshly cut oak logs courtesy of my brother-in-law Paul.

When you have a passion for food and for growing things, often you find yourself focusing on a particular food item and wondering where it came from, how it was made or grown, and whether you can replicate it in your own kitchen or home garden.  As a cooking and gardening enthusiast, I think about food and plants all the time.  For reasons lost to me now, a few years ago I started reading about modern and traditional methods of mushroom cultivation.  I was particularly fascinated by how shiitake mushrooms are traditionally grown on hardwood logs (which isn't all that surprising since they are one my favorite mushrooms to cook and eat).  And to this day, I wonder why more vegetable gardeners haven't embraced the idea of home mushroom cultivation as a way to make practical use of otherwise underutilized shady parts of the yard.  Whatever the reason might be, I for one am very excited to be able finally to try my hand at growing mushrooms.

The oak logs are left to sit for a couple of weeks before they are inoculated.

The practice of growing shiitake mushrooms on hardwood logs dates back hundreds of years.  Early techniques involved simply placing logs cut from shii trees next to trees or other logs already producing the mushroom.  It wasn't until the early 20th century that the practice of directly inoculating the logs with sawdust spawn (i.e. sawdust colonized by the shiitake mycelium) began in Japan.  Eventually, wooden dowels were used in place of sawdust, though many folks still prefer the latter. 

 The logs are drilled to the same depth and width as the mushroom plugs (this is case, 5/16" wide by 1" deep). Holes are spaced 4 inches apart in a diamond pattern.

The method for growing shiitake mushrooms on logs is pretty straight forward.  While generally any kind of hardwood would suffice, shiitakes are said to grow particularly well on oak.  Back in September, my brother-in-law Paul allowed me to cut down one of the many small oak  trees on his property for this mushroom growing endeavor.  (Actually,  he cut down the tree for me.)  Using freshly cut logs is best since older logs may already harbor other fungi or may be too dry to facilitate colonization.  While trees with a trunk diameter of 4 - 6 inches are best, larger diameter logs can still be used, though it may take longer for the fungi to fully colonize and start fruiting.  The logs are then cut to 3 - 4 feet lengths for easier handling. 

Once the holes are drilled, a mushroom plug is placed in each one.
Once cut, some sources suggest leaving the logs to sit for about two weeks in a shady location and away from direct contact with the ground.  This offers time for the anti-fungal compounds naturally found in the wood to break down, facilitating colonization.  Other sources, however, recommend inoculating the logs as soon as possible after the tree is cut down.  In either case, logs will remain fresh for several months if kept off the ground and watered during dry periods.  I decided to let my logs sit for a week or two before inoculating. 

The white spiral on these wooden dowels indicate that they have been sufficiently colonized.

After receiving my plug spawn (hardwood dowels inoculated with the fungi) in the mail, they were kept sealed in the refrigerator.  Storing them this way keeps them viable for up to 6 months.  A couple days prior to inoculating, I took them out of the fridge to get them acclimated their new environment. 

A rubber mallet is then used to drive each plug into the log. 

On inoculation day, we began by drilling holes about 1" deep into each log using a 5/16" drill bit (essentially, the same diameter and length of the plugs).  These holes were arranged about 4 inches apart in a diamond-shaped pattern all along the surface of the log.  Prior to drilling, I'd used a ruler and black marker to map out the holes on each log.  Doing so not only made the drilling process more precise and efficient, but also enabled me to determine how many plugs I would need for each log.  Using a rubber mallet, we then drove a plug into each hole so that it was flush with the surface of the log.  (Did I mention this was a kid friendly activity?)

 These are three among at least a dozen logs I've inoculated with shiitake and oyster mushroom spawn.

Once the logs are inoculated, the individual plugs are then covered with a thin layer of melted bee's wax.  The cut ends of the logs were sealed as well.   This helps to prevent the logs from drying out and protect the mycelium as it begins to colonize the wood.  Currently, I have about 13 logs that I've inoculated with either shiitake or oyster mushroom spawn (never on the same log).  These logs now lean against a wooden fence in a shady spot behind our barn.  Generally, I'll water the logs about every few days if the weather is dry.  But now that we are well into fall, I don't think that this will be necessary again until sometime during the spring.

While it is possible to cut down and inoculate mushroom logs year around, they say that the best time to do so is in late winter or early spring when sap is flowing up the tree trunk (more sap equals more food for the fungi).  Logs inoculated during the winter months should be stored in a protected area (like a garage) since freezing temperatures will slow the colonization process and greatly delay mushroom production.  In my case, I'm hopeful that I've inoculated my logs early enough so that the mycelium has had enough time to settle in before the harsh winter months arrive.  Only time will tell I guess.

If all goes well, my logs should start fruiting within 9 months to a year (depending on the species of fungi) and the logs themselves should remain fruitful for at least several years. Of course I will be sharing my results as time progresses.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Planting Garlic - A Fall Favorite

After I installed my first two raised beds, I went ahead and planted garlic for next year.  Planting garlic cloves each fall has to be one of my most favorite things to do as a gardener.  I love the fact that it's the last thing to be sown each year and the first to burst from the ground after a long and often hard New England winter.  In a way, garlic is like the timekeeper of the vegetable garden.  It signals the end of one growing season and the promise (and beginning) of another. 

In my opinion, there's no one 'right' way to plant garlic.  In fact, I like to keep the process as simple as possible.  I don't remove the papery skin or soak my cloves in any kind of sanitizing solution.  Instead, I just try to reserve the largest and healthiest looking bulbs for planting each year.  So far, this has worked out just fine for me. 

 In each row, I like to create a long narrow trench about 2 inches deep with my hand (moving it back and forth like a saw) and then place the individual garlic cloves pointy side up at the bottom of the trench about 6 inches apart.  When all of my cloves are in place and evenly spaced, I push each clove  another inch or two into the soil and then cover up the trench so that the cloves are planted about 4 inches deep.   Each row is then spaced about 6 inches apart.  When all of my cloves are planted, I'll cover the bed with about 3 inches of straw or dried leaves.  And that's basically it. 

This year, I'm growing four varieties of hardneck garlic, three of which I've grown in the past with great success - 'Music', 'Pskem River' and 'German Extra Hardy'.   With the moves that we've had, I wasn't able to grow garlic last year or this year so I had to order new bulbs for planting. This is my third (and hopefully my last) time purchasing seed garlic from Seed Savers Exchange.  While the quality of their stock is always great, I can do without the expense.  (Though it would undoubtedly be going to a great organization.) This past summer, I also found Music and other variety called "Red Russian" at our local farmer's market.  At $1.50 a bulb, it's a fraction of the cost of buying seed garlic online.  Next summer, I think I'll keep an eye out for other varieties worth planting. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Building Raised Beds for the Vegetable Garden

When we moved into our new house, I knew right away that I wasn't going to be able to have the same type of vegetable garden I had at our previous home - one that was low to the ground and relied heavily on the natural soil in our backyard.  Here, we have little to no top soil.  Dig a couple inches down and you'll find plenty of fist-sized rocks and heavily compacted dull-brown subsoil.  The good news is that there's not a slug, grub, vole or other soil-bound pest to be found anywhere near this area.   The bad news is that there are no worms or other beneficial insects either.  My only real option in this case was to build my garden up.

There are definite pros and cons to having a tall raised bed vegetable garden. In this type of garden, you can import high-quality soil and have greater control over the growing conditions of your plants.  In addition, I think raised bed gardens are generally easier to weed and maintain.  The major con, however, is the higher start-up costs.  Each of my 8' x 4' x 20" beds will cost me about $70 - $80 in building materials and that's not including soil.  Times that by 8 or 9 beds and it can get quite expensive.  Tall raised bed gardens also require more water, which is why I'll have to seriously consider installing a more efficient drip irrigation system next year. 

Building the beds themselves was actually quite simple.  In this case, I used 2" x 10" x 8' boards of Douglas fir,  a total of 6 for each bed.  For the corners, I used 2 feet lengths of 4 x 4's and 3 1/2 inch wood screws.  The extra 4 inches at the bottoms of each corner act as footings, though I seriously doubt these beds (which weigh a ton) would be going anywhere even without them.

I also considered using pressure treated wood but in the end decided against it.  Though the chemicals used nowadays in the pressure treating process are much less toxic than the ones used a decade or two ago, I figured the 7 to 10 years of life I'll get out of these untreated boards won't have too much impact on my wallet in the long run.

I also installed 1" PVC pipping in the corners and middle of each bed using medal straps at the top and 2 1/2" screws at the bottom.  These will allow me to install 3/4" PVC or metal hoops easily to each bed if needed.  I can also use them to hold up simple trellises. 

Once the beds were installed, I added a thick layer of partially composted grass clippings from this past summer and dried leaves.  Not only will these break down during the winter and help feed the plants next year, but they'll also help to cut down on the amount of soil I'll have to add to each bed.  (Another reason why fall is a great time to start a garden.) The soil I'm using is from a local company and is a mix of loam, vegetative compost and horse manure. 

And here are the finished beds.  Two down and many more to go. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Landscaping Project - Planting Along a Fence

Last month, I started on the first of many landscaping projects I have planned for our property.  Behind our home lies a long wooden fence that essentially cuts the back of our property in two.  To one side of the fence is a fairly large shady stretch of lawn we consider our backyard.   Our barn, the circular driveway and a space I've reserved for our future raised-bed vegetable garden (where the giant spruce used to overshadow) are located on the other side.  Running along this fence is a narrow strip of grass at least 40 ft long and about 4 ft wide.  This strip also happens to be one of the sunnier spots on our yard - something that is in short supply due to the tall oaks and maples that line our property on all sides.  After some careful consideration, I decided that I would turn this unused area into a soft fruit and perennial flower bed.

When we moved back to Massachusetts from Vermont, we lugged back with us many fruit shrubs and vines, some of which I'd started from cuttings taken during the spring of 2012.  Among them were several types of currents  (including black, red and white), gooseberries and hardy kiwi.  In July, I also bought three fairly large blueberry bushes that were on sale for half-price.  I thought this strip would be a great place to plant them since the shrubs would receive adequate sunlight here and help define the fence border separating the two spaces.

My first order of business was to create a straight edge for the bed.  I marked the proposed edge with string and dug a narrow trench about 4 inches deep, which for the time being will prevent the grass from creeping back into the bed.  Eventually, I'd like to install some kind of stone edging next year. (I think that simple landscape cobblestones would look nice here). In the spring, I also plan to dig up the rest of the grass to the right of the bed when it comes time to replenish the gravel in our driveway.

I wasn't planning on removing most of the grass within the bed itself, but it came up rather easily with my garden hoe.  I soon realized that this was due to the fact that there is so little topsoil in our backyard.  As a result, the grass roots were incredibly shallow and peeled up like a carpet. 

The next day, I went about planting my currants, gooseberries and blueberry bushes, setting them approximately 4 inches above the soil line.  After this was done, I laid some cardboard around the plants to help smother the remaining grass and covered the entire surface of the bed with about 4 inches of a soil mix I had delivered from a local landscaping supply company.  The mix is a blend of loam, compost and aged horse manure. Also, I was careful to maintain the narrow trench I'd dug along the edge.

After a few hours of work, I think the bed turned out rather nicely despite the fact that it looks pretty bare at this point.  I have to remind myself that gardening is a process and that it will be several years at least before these shrubs, and any future perennials I plant here, fill this space.  But that's OK, because as many of you already know - time is every gardener's constant companion.