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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Buy Local, Buy Fresh

Most states have buy fresh buy local programs to promote agriculture.

The local foods movement seemed like a fad just a few years ago. Mainstream media and the general public basically relegated local foods advocates to a few, “radical tree-hugging, barefoot hippies,” as I heard one person declare. Well, no more. What may have once been a fad is now a national cultural shift in thinking about food sources. Food recalls and food scares for items like spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and eggs in recent years, has awakened people to the need to know the safety of their food and who produced it.

Reeds Spring farmers market is an evening market with entertainment.

I became keenly aware of how big a change this movement had become when I was a delegate from the U.S. to the first Slow Foods Conference in Turin, Italy in 2005. Gardeners, growers, artisan cheese makers and lots more, came to the conference to share how they were making a living selling to local consumers. Five thousand delegates attended that year and the conference grows larger every year.

Fresh vegetables and herbs, picked the day you buy them.

The garden interns we host at Long Creek Herb Farm each year are mostly in their 20s, young people who are intensely interested in where their food comes from. They come to learn how to grow food without chemicals, they want to know how to grow food to feed themselves and their families. Many would rather go without a food item than to buy it from a big box store.

Fresh flowers are big sellers at farmers markets.

Farmers markets are the meeting place for local growers and local consumers. Most markets won’t allow imported produce - whether it’s imported from over seas or simply grown on big production farms two states away. Many farmers markets require organic certification to even sell at their market. The advantage for consumers is we know our supplier. If you buy from a chain store, you have no idea if the produce you buy comes from China or South America or what chemicals were used. You might learn a week after your purchase that the spinach you bought was recalled because of botulism. But if you bought your spinach from a vendor you know at a farmers market, you know how he grew your produce. You know he uses ethical means of growing and washing your produce because it’s in his interests to see you again the next week. The food you buy from him is the same food he feeds his own family.

There are more farmers markets across the Ozarks this year than ever before. Increasingly the big box stores are getting in on these changes. Wal-Mart and Sysco, the world’s largest retail store and the world’s largest food supplier to restaurants, have both started adding organic produce and locally-grown foods to their food lines. Consumers have demonstrated they will buy from local producers if it is available.

Young tomato grower at Reeds Spring Evening Farmers Market.

Every time you buy from a local producer, whether at a farmers market or through CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) you are helping keep local money in your community. You are also helping farmers continue to produce high quality, healthy food that is safe to eat. Support your local growers by shopping at area farmers markets!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Why is Lavender So Popular?

Lavender flowers.
In researching the Top Ten Most Popular Herbs in America in recent years, I was amazed to find that lavender is the number two most popular herb for gardeners. That surprised me simply because I don’t know alot of people who actually use lavender. Most people seem to grow lavender just to have it in the garden.
Lavender needs to have well-drained soil to be happy.

Lavender is hardy in Missouri and Arkansas, not marginally so, but fully, totally hardy, provided you live by lavender’s rules. Lavender needs good drainage or its roots rot. That means grow it on a berm or in a raised bed. Don’t dig around lavender, it has very shallow, easily damaged roots. Don’t put a heavy mulch around the plants - pine needles work exceptionally well. Give the plant some garden lime each spring, and be sure to prune lavender back by at least half in February or early March. Lastly, stick to Hidcote or Mustead, both reliably hardy lavender varieties.

So if lavender is the number two most popular herb in America, what can you do with it? First, there’s the seasoning blend named Herbs de Provence, once connected to that region of France and containing lavender, savory, fennel, basil and thyme. It was used to flavor grilled foods, meats and fish, as well as in chicken stews. Maybe lavender is better known now as an ingredient in ice cream and cookies. Our lavender is in bloom here at the farm this week and I’ll be making cookies. Here’s the recipe:
Lavender cookies are so good you can't eat just one!

Jim's Lavender Cookies
1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup additional sugar
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Combine 1/2 cup sugar and 3 Tablespoons fresh or dry lavender flowers in the food processor and pulse blend until the flowers are well chopped. Set aside.

Cream the butter and 1 cup of flour in the food processor until the sugar is well dissolved. Add the remaining ingredients, including the sugar-lavender mixture and pulse blend just until the dough is mixed. Roll out the dough in tablespoon-sized balls in your hands, then roll that in the reserved sugar and place about 2 inches apart on baking sheet. Bake for 8-9 minutes, or until the edges begin to brown. Bake a minute longer if you like dryer cookies, or take out at the 8-9 min. mark for softer, chewier cookies. Makes about 16 cookies.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Growing Better Basil

Spicy globe basil, left and Thai basil center.
From two nationwide surveys I conducted, basil has consistently been the top selling herb in the United States for the past 20 years. I surveyed both wholesale and retail nurseries and seed companies, first in 1989 and again in 2009, and my book, Growing & Using the Ten Most Popular Herbs, was the result. Basil remained at number one in both surveys.

Sweet basil, the most common variety.

Many people think of basil as simply a generic basil, as if all basils were alike. I grow around 12 to 14 basil varieties each year, and each has a different flavor and use.  Sweet basil, which is the generic basil most people think of, is good for spaghetti sauces and pizza. Lemon basil, and its cousin, lime basil, works well on grilled shrimp and in pesto for grilled fish. Thai basil is perfect for Thai cooking, and ruby or red ruffles basil is better for making vinegars, jellies and sorbets. Lettuce leaf basil produces extra large leaves that are good on sandwiches or in salads, just like you would use lettuce.

Thai basil is delicious with Thai foods, shrimp and chicken dishes.

Regardless of which basil you grow, there are some basics that help your plants produce well. Basil requires a full day of sunshine to grow well, meaning, 6 to 8 hours, or more. Since basil plants are also decorative in the landscape, you can plant several plants among your landscape plants. Spicy globe basil, for example, stays in a perfect round mound and looks good all summer.

Basil plants can look great in the landscape. This is a curly-flower Thai basil.

The flavor of basil will be best if you keep the plant clipped. I’ve noticed people who plant one single basil in a pot on their patio, then are afraid to “hurt” the plant, so they’ll timidly pull one or two leaves to use. Basil responds well to getting a haircut. Don’t you feel good after you’ve had your hair cut or fixed? I’m convinced that basil plants like that, as well. Every two or three weeks, take a pair of scissors and give the entire plant a really good haircut. The flavor of the leaves will be much better.

Variegated Sweet Aussie basil, better for landscape than cooking.

Since all plants have a genetic goal to bloom and set seed, when that process starts, the chemical make-up of the plant changes. If you allow basil to start blooming, the leaves will become bitter. Keep the flowering tops pinched out and the flavor will be noticeably  better. If your basil plants are already blooming, trim them back by one third all over so they will go back to producing better tasting leaves.

Basil-tomato salad, served in homemade cracker bowls.

There’s no perfect way to preserve the taste of fresh basil, but several methods come close. You can dry basil leaves slowly and on the lowest heat setting in a food dehydrator. You can chop the leaves and freeze them in water for adding to soups and sauces later. Or you can make pesto and freeze it in ice cube trays.

Basil Pesto for Freezing
4-6 cups basil leaves, moderately packed
1 cup, approx, olive oil (buy the good olive oil for this)
4 tablespoons walnuts or almonds, or pine nuts if you wish
6 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon Fruit Fresh or 1 T. fresh lemon juice (not the bottled kind)
Salt to taste

Combine ingredients and process in a food processor, scrape out into ice cube trays and freeze. When frozen well, remove from trays and put in Zip-loc bags.
When ready to use the pesto, let thaw and add grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, or equal portions of each. Or you can drop into sauce or stew without adding the cheese.

When cooking with pesto:
For soups, add in the last 5 minutes of cooking, otherwise the basil may taste bitter.
For chicken dishes, such as baked chicken, put the pesto under the skin of the chicken and bake at no more than 325 degrees to preserve the flavor of the pesto, and to make the chicken tender.
For use on bread, add a bit of extra cheese, spread on French bread and broil under the broiler until bubbly and eat while still hot.

For homemade cracker recipes, go to my website for my book, Easy Homemade Crackers Using Herbs. More of my recipes for using herbs are in my book, How to Grow and Use the Ten Most Popular Herbs.
Happy gardening!