Tag Archives: tomatoes

When Life Gives You Hailstones, Make Polentil

Two weeks ago, we planted a beautiful field of heirloom tomatoes grown from seed we’d saved last fall. Later that evening, hail destroyed almost every plant.

We’d never seen a hailstorm like this one: three hours of pea-to-ping-pong-sized hail breaking in waves against the foothills, pummeling first from the east and then circling back even more fiercely from the west. We couldn’t even leave the house to check on the tomatoes, so constant was the hail and lightning that lit the sky like pinball machines in an arcade. Tornadoes destroyed 28 homes just miles east of us as the storm’s “tornadic activity” spun black clouds of hail over our region, leaving a twisted mess of sheered trees, damaged roofs, and cracked windshields behind.

As soon as daylight broke, we walked out to inspect the damage. An empty field greeted us where lush tomatoes had stood the day before. I had to look twice to be sure it was the same field we’d left full of hearty tomatoes. Now, broken stems marked where each beautiful plant had died.

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All the crops were tattered, but the tomatoes fared the worst, a loss not only of plants but of the countless hours spent saving and planting seeds, tending the greenhouse, watering, and transplanting into specially prepared fields. Even in good conditions, tomatoes are a high maintenance vegetable but we love them enough to make all the work worth it. Thinking of the effort wasted on row after row of ruined plants, we were all in a bit of shock at the damage they’d sustained.

Luckily, we had started many more seedlings than we needed in the spring. We were able to “cup up” most of what we lost. They’re two weeks behind and not as robust as our first crop, but we’ll make do. If the season’s a long one (we always hope for a late first frost), we’ll have good tomatoes.

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We cancelled our farm pick-up for members that first Saturday after the storm. With spinach and lettuce torn ragged and the fields muddy from two days of rain, we had nothing to pick. We’ve only cancelled a couple times in 24 years as a CSA, all for weather events, like the flood of September 2013 when our farm was barricaded behind the security barrier to our nearby town and most members were too busy evacuating to pick up vegetables anyway. Still, we know that farming in this region, we’ve been lucky never to cancel for hail before.

Instead of picking vegetables for the members that Saturday after the storm, the barterers came to cultivate the onion and carrot beds compacted from the hail and rain. We broke up the crust starting to form on the topsoil and weeded as best we could in the sodden soil so the finger-sized onions and tiny carrots could grow more easily.

Mid-week, a welcome crew of barterers and volunteers showed up to transplant the rest of the peppers, eggplant, and basil, which fortunately hadn’t been set out yet because of the cool weather. We cultivated many more beds, working down the long rows to ease the soil compaction and finish the weeding delayed by the recent rains.

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Last Saturday’s pick was meager—kale, scallions, arugula, spinach, baby bok choy, and garlic scapes. “Hail kale,” our barn boss wrote on the board, since it didn’t amount to much. Although not all our members are attuned to them yet, scapes were the standout vegetable that day. A scape is the shoot of a hard-necked garlic plant, the part that will flower and form a new seed head. Removing the scapes puts energy into the garlic bulb rather than the flower, forming a larger bulb. We used to compost the scapes until we learned we could cook with them too. Now we chop and use them just like garlic in stir-fry, sauces, or on bruschetta, or preserve them chopped in olive oil in the fridge.

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We also served pancakes, since last Saturday had already been scheduled for our annual pancake breakfast. Despite the skimpy pick, or maybe because of it, we wanted to celebrate the farm and say thanks to our members for supporting us during tough times, as well as during more fruitful seasons. This year, we learned again what tough times could mean. As always, folks brought toppings to share—strawberry butter, homemade salted caramel, fruit preserves, canned applesauce, even home-tapped maple syrup from a son’s tree back east. Nothing like sharing a multi-grain pancake and fresh toppings with friends to lift one’s spirits.*

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Last night, John and I sauteed our garlic scapes, scallions, kale, and spinach as a topping for what we call “polentil”—cooked lentils stirred with soft goat cheese into polenta just before it’s cooked to firmness, served with a glass of our own chai-spiced honey mead. We layered the polentil with tomato sauce from last year’s tomato harvest and topped it with the hail greens and alliums. It may not have been much, but it couldn’t have tasted better or been more filling.

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This week’s pick looks pretty much like normal, a decent size and offering for late June. The broccoli’s coming on, spinach and kale have sized up, and stunned lettuces have grown through their hail-laced moment. More scapes are on their way, and everything else isn’t far behind. Before we know it, we’ll be back in the bounty of the season, the time when a share puts lots of hearty meals on the table. The gardens have their own recovery plan; we just help it along. As with any season, we’ll do our best to follow the land’s lead: we work, we wait, and the earth gives again.

 

*You can find our pancake recipe in A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography

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Heart of the Harvest

Can today really be September 1? Stonebridge is deep in the heart of the harvest this week, with more food in the fields than ever before. We’ve had perfect growing weather this season, moist and warm like a garden in a greenhouse. Even the apples are heavy this year; we’ll start pressing for cider in a couple weeks. With eight Saturdays left for our CSA shares, we’ll be picking every day until the first frost slows us down a bit. Until then, here’s a few pictures of many bushels’ worth coming in from the fields. Happy Harvest, everyone!

 

We've had to net gladiolas and sunflowers from the deer this year

We’ve had to net gladiolas and sunflowers from the deer this year but it’s worth it to get a bouquet like this.

John picking heirloom tomatoes from the tomato field, also netted around the perimeter for deer

John picking heirloom tomatoes from the tomato field, also netted around the perimeter for deer.

Heirloom tomatoes in the barn. We grow red and gold Brandywine, Mennonite, and Cherokee Purple tomatoes and save seed from the best of each for the next season.

Heirloom tomatoes in the barn. We grow red and gold Brandywine, Mennonite, and Cherokee Purple tomatoes and save seed from the best of each for the next season.

Beautiful Juliet cluster tomatoes in the bluehouse. We dehydrate these for winter meals.

Beautiful Juliet cluster tomatoes in the bluehouse. We dehydrate these for winter meals.

Onions on the drying rack with the Rockies in the background.

Onions on the drying rack with the Rockies in the background.

Gorgeous eggplant--we love our new globe variety, Diamond, as well as Nadia, Traviatta, and Galene.

Gorgeous eggplant–we love our new globe variety, Diamond, as well as Nadia, Traviatta, and Galene.

We've been thinning these apples and will harvest after a little frost. No worms or coddling moths this season! Can't wait to press cider!

We’ve been thinning these apples and will harvest after a little frost. No worms or coddling moths this season! Can’t wait to press cider.

An apple from the old orchard by the farmhouse.

An apple from the old orchard by the farmhouse.

Our 13-year-old Kashmir goat Cinnamon. We lost 14-year-old Slippy this season. Cinnamon's a little lonely but she's adapting to being top goat after all these years.

Our 13-year-old Kashmir goat Cinnamon. We lost 14-year-old Slippy this season. Cinnamon’s a little lonely but she’s adapting to being top goat after all these years.

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From Seed to Sauce: Dreaming of Tomatoes in June

 

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At Stonebridge Farm, we plant our high summer vegetables—peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, basil, summer squash, cucumbers, and beans—as soon as the nights and the soil warm up from the winter. That’s around June 1st in our Colorado Front Range climate.

But many of those crops were started much earlier in the greenhouse. We’ve been tending them carefully for a couple months, worrying about potential disasters like the water system failing, a pest infestation, or a hungry mouse chewing through the flats. We’re always relieved to get the peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and basil into the fields. Even though we know we could still lose them (like we did the first round of tomato blossoms last year from heavy hail), at least they’re in the ground growing and have half a chance of survival if the weather cooperates. And that’s a big IF.

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Those greenhouse crops start in flats, the wooden boxes in which seeds are dropped in rows. After the seeds emerge and have at least two sets of real leaves (the first set are the cotyledons, not true leaves), the plants are “cupped up” in bigger pots with our own special soil mix. They’ll continue to grow in the greenhouse for a few more weeks while we water and foliar-feed with organic plant food. Then we’ll move them outside to the big cold frame, where they’re semi-protected as they “harden off” to the sun, wind, and nighttime temperatures in anticipation of planting in the fields.

Last Thursday morning, six of us transplanted 1000 peppers of our favorite dozen or so varieties, from sweet to really hot, with many shades in between. The peppers also vary by shape: some skinny for roasting, some large for slicing and cooking, some thin-walled and cup-shaped for stuffing, or thick-walled and juicy for eating raw in salad. After we filled the many beds of beautiful peppers, we admired our work and exchanged pepper recipes, a sign that it must be time for lunch.

John and I planted 500 eggplant the next afternoon, and the Saturday crew put in a couple hundred basil plants after the pick. (We always joke that our members get the equivalent of their share price in basil alone, given the high per pound price of basil in the grocery store. Pesto’s so easy to make and freeze, around here, it’s practically a condiment.) With all those starts in the ground, that left just 600 tomatoes for the two of us to tuck in today.

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Nothing gets as much TLC at Stonebridge Farm as tomatoes. From seeds in flats to plants in the field, we watch each step of their progress and monitor conditions to grow the strongest, healthiest plants we can. We’ve tried lots of varieties over the years and now have our open-pollinated heirloom favorites, the ones we save seed from each year to plant back our own stock. We know they’ll do well, we know our members love eating them, and we know they make wonderful sauce to freeze for our winter meals.

Today is sunny but not too hot, except at the height of the afternoon when we broke for lunch. We start planting in the morning shade, the soil still moist from last week’s watering and a little rain. John digs the holes and fills them with compost from the bucket of the red tractor. I come along next, transplanting by varieties in alphabetical order, east to west (our way of remembering what’s planted where).

Tomatoes are the fussiest of transplants. Not only are they susceptible to breaking, they also require the extra step of removing the bottom cotyledons and leaves to create more air flow around the base and mitigate the attack of soil-borne diseases.

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We plant all day, providing lots of time to discuss the latest news (the 25th anniversary of Tiananman Square; the misogynist shooting last week in California) and its connections to our lives. We talk about our families, our projects, and the books we’re reading, all topics we’ve been discussing for the last seventeen years of farming together.

Working down different rows provides moments of solitude, too. Alone with my thoughts, I dream of the tomatoes and how good they’ll taste in just a couple of months. How we’ll pick them on Saturdays for a beautiful display in the barn. How I’ll make sauce from own special “Stonebridge Blend,” which means whatever’s leftover from the Saturday pick. How I’ll combine golds and reds in tarts or salads. How I’ll select the best of each kind to save for seed next year.

This year, I dream of a new workshop I’ll be co-teaching this September 18-19 here at the farm with Allison Myers for the Center for Digital Storytelling’s Savory Stories Series. We’ll be writing and producing digital “snapshot” stories about food preservation, stories that nourish, instruct, and delight–from childhood memories of grandparents canning garden vegetables to jam-making from pick-your-own berry patches to adult mishaps with rogue pressure-cookers gone wild.

In the chapter “Putting By” from A Bushel’s Worth, I recall the treasures of my grandmother’s farm root cellar, gem-colored jars filled with the fruits and vegetables of my grandparent’s labor. Today, many people who vowed to follow more “modern” ways after watching the women of their mother’s or grandmother’s generations spend long, hot days in the kitchen canning bushels of beans, carrots, applesauce, or plums are returning to the canning skills they’d rejected in their youth. Such knowledge is experiencing a renaissance in the local food movement, with small-scale farms like ours providing the produce.

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But food preservation stories aren’t only about canning. Food preservation might mean hunting for illusive mushrooms or even composting, the ultimate in preservation that sends food nutrients back to the soil. Depression-era hoarding of cake mixes or cans of soup is food preservation for people who “can’t stand to use the last one up.” My own food preservation story involves some unusual road food ingredients and a natural disaster.

We’re not only going to write food preservation stories at this workshop—we’re going to learn how to can vegetables, too. We’ll be joined by Luther Green of Preserving Communities, a social equity company that dedicates its resources toward improving our community food system and increasing the capacity for resilience, sustainability and justice. We’ll learn how to can together, sharing stories and recipes, and then enjoy those tomatoes for lunch the next day. And around it all, we’ll write, preserving stories, as well as food.

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At five minutes to five, John and I plant the last tomato and pick up the empty pots and flats. “You drive the truck back,” John says. “I’ll drive the tractor.”

“You put the water on out here,” I suggest, “and I’ll put the water on inside.” I’m talking about water for pasta (with asparagus, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted walnuts, and chevre), before I realize that a shower is the first water I’ll turn on.

The tomatoes are planted, as are the onions, peppers, and herbs that will accompany them in the sauce we’ll create next September. The promise of more good meals has been planted, too. It’s June 2. The weather’s perfect. The farm’s off to a good start. We work, we wait, and the earth gives again. We’ve accomplished another early season’s tasks with our friends in the fields—and that’s a story worth preserving.

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Time for Putting By

Monday morning—the last Monday of August—I started this fall’s first batch of Stonebridge tomato sauce, an act that signifies that the “putting by” part of the farm season has begun.

I’ve already been drying tomatoes from the greenhouse for a couple of weeks, but the first big pot of onions, garlic, peppers, and heirloom tomatoes simmering all day on the stove means I’ll be spending the next four or six or eight weeks—depending on the first frost—putting up food for the winter and early spring. We had sauce on pasta for dinner that night and the rest went into the freezer for a snowy night when we need a quick and hearty meal.

We laugh that our tomato sauce could be called “a delicious blend of vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes”—but that really means “made from whatever tomatoes were left over after Saturday’s pick-up at our CSA.” They are vine-ripened and heirloom, including rich yellow and red Brandywines, green-shouldered Cherokee Purples, pinkish Mennonites, striped Vintage Wines, hefty Amanas, heart-shaped Russian Annas, and pointy Opalka and squat Amish pastes, but they’re usually the least attractive or most compromised of the tomatoes and thus left behind, all the better for saucing.

Today I’ve got another batch of paste tomatoes in the dehydrator, along with the Juliets, which are small, oval cluster tomatoes that we planted in both the greenhouse and the fields. They grow three to a cluster and are perfect sliced in half lengthwise for drying. This is our first year growing Juliets, a variety we picked to complement the cherry Peacevines in the greenhouse, and we’re impressed by their size and productivity. I depend on deep red dried tomatoes for putting by because they’re like a little piece of sunshine in the deep of winter.

At a seed-saving lecture recently, we learned that while Juliets were developed as a hybrid decades ago, their seeds have been carefully selected for so many years, they’re now essentially an heirloom. That means that the big seed growers don’t have to cross-pollinate them from parent plants anymore but can save seed from the fruit instead. Of course, most seed companies don’t want you to know all that or you’d save your own seed rather than buy from them, but we do know now, so we’ll save Juliet seeds to replant next spring.

Seed-saving is part of putting by at Stonebridge, where we save our favorite tomatoes and peppers in little scalloped sauce dishes all over the kitchen table, transferring them to glassine envelopes when dried. Just today a friend dropped by with an heirloom early, cold-night tolerant tomato called Precocibec that she tried for the first time this year. After I save the seed, the tomato will go in the veggie korma, an Indian dish I’m making for dinner with zucchini, onion, green beans, carrots, and potatoes from the garden.

I wish I could capture in words the glorious weather we’re having here on the Front Range of Colorado right now, days in the upper 80s with just a hint of coolness in the air. We’ve had a lot of moisture this summer and some beautiful blue skies canopied with white clouds. Last night we sat with friends after our last softball game of the season and watched as the western clouds gleamed rose-pink over the mountains and one tall cloud in the east was caught in the last of the sun’s rays, glowing white longer than the darkening clouds around it.

When earlier sunsets and cooler days of the receding summer remind us of the coming cold, putting by begins in earnest on the farm. This morning I spent time in our new drying hut, a gift from a friend who built it from reclaimed materials for a music camp in the Rockies as a luthier workshop. We inherited the hut–christened “Egg” after the other bird-named cabins–when the camp applied for heritage status and the satellite disk roof didn’t quite fit the building criteria for the camp’s auspicious history.

This is the third of our disk-roof huts and they’re all useful—one for tools out in the field, one for wood by the house, and now this one for herbs under the shady cottonwoods by the greenhouse. We added an old multi-paned door fitted with doorknobs salvaged from my grandparent’s farmhouse. Inside we store garlic and shallots for our members in the coming months and dry herbs on a discarded window screen set across two campstools. A rewindable clothesline from the 40s stretches from side to side for hanging bunches of herbs like tarragon and rosemary.

I love this little hut. Sheltered under the trees, it’s dry and clean and out of the direct sunlight that can fade herbs. It reminds me of the arched chicken coop-turned-playhouse at my grandparent’s farm where we served tea to our dolls in discarded cold cream and canning jars.

This afternoon I’ll start drying herbs in the hut for our Thanksgiving share—an extra harvest of roots and squash and alliums we’re offering this year for the Thanksgiving meal and more. Thanksgiving is only 11 weeks away and we have lots of vegetables to harvest before then, but I’m happy to start thinking about the end of the season as I put by today’s sunshine in vegetables stored for the winter.

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