Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Spring on Denman Island

Getting a head start!
Spring has arrived early on Denman Island this year. The garden harvest right now includes kale, rhubarb and lovage along with other fresh herbs. Although a bit behind last year with my seed starts, I assembled the portable greenhouse a month early. Just days after, the evenings turned cool so I decided to keep the tomatoes in the sun room of the house for a few more weeks. I have however started two types of Sugar Snap Peas; 'Amish' from Salt Spring Seeds and 'Sugar Ann' from William Dam. They were sprouted then planted in long containers and moved inside the greenhouse for a good start. I spaced the seeds closely so when 'thinned' will provide fresh pea shoots which are an incredible delicacy if you have never tried them! If planting in the garden, plant two rows very close together, one for harvesting pea shoots and leave the other to mature for picking the pea pods.
Desert King Fig

My 'Desert King Fig' tree is still small (about 6 feet tall) and I'm always looking for tricks to increase its production. Last year, one of our local master gardeners told me to pinch the buds off (some of) the branch tips in the Spring. I was happy with the results so have done it again this year with some branches. Instead of producing a leaf and 1-2 figs, the pinched tip puts energy into 3-5 figs as shown in this photo. It seems to give a head start to the fruit and the leaves come out later.
Seascape Strawberries

The 'Seascape' strawberries are having a difficult start this year. I am still struggling with millipedes in the soil and it seems they are now possibly affecting the roots of the plants. I will assess this problem again in the fall. The June crop of this everbearing variety is always disappointing for me, and a battle with bugs and birds. I must keep reminding myself that the second crop in August will produce huge, sweet berries until frost.
Red Russian Kale

The winter bed of 'Red Russian Kale' has started to flower and will be allowed to go to seed. Some of the seed is saved for sharing or allowed to self start for this winter's crop. Small, tender leaves are still very sweet and a pleasure to snack on in the garden or brought in for salads. Our recent out of town guests were surprised that the fresh picked, overwintered kale was tender, sweet and had so much flavor... nothing like the stuff they buy in stores! 

The garlic bed, planted last fall, is looking great so far! The straw mulch was pulled back in February so the new shoots could emerge and grow straight. A few weeks ago a sprinkling of blood meal was put down between each plant to encourage large bulbs. 
'Lovage' is a vigorous, hardy, perennial plant that grows between 6 to 8 feet in height. This green giant herb requires very little care but the plant will spread and take a fair amount of space. One plant is plenty for any garden and you'll never use it all. April through June is the best time to pluck tender leaves since this robust herb can turn bitter in the heat. The stems and leaves smell and taste similar to celery. The leaves can be used in salads, or to season soups and broths. It is one of the aromatics used in my 'Roasted Tomato Sauce' page 198 in my cookbook 'For the Love of Food'.

'Rhubarb'... although a vegetable, is the first spring plant to produce anything that can be made to taste like fruit. Like lovage, it is easy to grow. Every spring without fail neon pink nubs emerge, transforming into thick, celery-like stalks topped with leaves the size of umbrellas. The stalks are edible, but do not eat the leaves, as they are poisonous. Even as the plant is picked, it will continue to flourish. In the next few days these beautiful stalks will be transformed into my favorite dessert 'Sour Cream Rhubarb Crumb Pie'. For that recipe and more, visit the chapter 'Rhubarb Reigns' on page 111 in 'For the Love of Food'.
It has been a busy few weeks, spring is in full swing on Denman Island. Time to work outside and get dirt under those fingernails!

Till next time... Happy Gardening and Bon Appétit! 

Photos by Sally Rae   

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Exotic Ataulfo Mangoes

Tommy Atkins and Ataulfo Mangoes
There are hundreds of mango varieties but only about 4 or 5 varieties are common in our local marketplace. My hands down favorite is the 'Ataulfo Mango'. Primarily grown in Mexico with peak season being mid-March to early June. Usually smaller than most varieties and sometimes more expensive but the only mango that consistently impresses me with their texture and flavor.

Ataulfos are small with an oval, flattened shape and are fully ripe when the skin turns a deep golden color with small wrinkles.
Note size of seed @ bottom; Tommy Atkins left ~ Ataulfo right

The flesh is vibrant yellow and has a creamy, sweet flavor. They have a very small seed so there is a high flesh to seed ratio. The flesh is smooth and firm with no fibers which makes them my first choice. Besides the color and wrinkles, another test of ripeness of the Ataulfo is that it will give slightly to a gentle squeeze. Use your experience with peaches and avocados which also become softer as they ripen. 
NOTE: the red color on some mango varieties is not an indicator of ripeness. Always judge by feel.

For the past few weeks, Thrifty Foods has featured Ataulfo Mangoes on sale at a great price. I took the opportunity to stock up, purchasing different degrees of ripeness. Unripe mangoes should be stored at room temperature. This way they will continue to ripen becoming softer and sweeter over several days. To speed up ripening, place in a paper bag at room temperature. Purchasing a few ripe, ready to eat and some still green, extends your eating enjoyment.
Ataulfo Mangoes at different degrees of ripeness
Once ripe, move to the fridge (if they last that long!) to slow down the ripening process. Whole, ripe mangoes can be stored in the fridge for up to 5 days. They can be peeled, cubed and placed in an airtight container in the fridge for several days or frozen for up to 6 months.

Mangoes have one long, flat seed in the center of the fruit. Once you learn how to work around the seed the rest is easy. Always wash mangoes before cutting. Stand the mango, stem end down on a cutting board and hold. Place your knife about 1/4" from the widest center line and cut down. Flip the mango and repeat for the other side. The resulting ovals of flesh are called 'cheeks' and what is left in the middle is mostly the mango seed. 

To slice; cut parallel slices into the mango flesh being careful not to cut through the skin. Then 'scoop' the sliced flesh out of the skin with a large spoon. Slices can be cut thick or thin as desired.

To dice; cut parallel slices into the mango flesh being careful not to cut through the skin, as for slicing. Turn the mango cheek 1/4 rotation and cut another set of parallel slices to make a checkerboard pattern. 

Now you have two choices; either 'scoop' the diced flesh out of the skin with a large spoon or turn the scored mango cheek 'inside out' by pushing the skin up from underneath and scrape the chunks off the skin with a knife or spoon.

Chef's Tip: if your recipe calls for diced mango, make your parallel slices closer together. The result is small pieces of diced mango and no need to further cut up on your board.

There is a gadget available called a Mango Slicer. The instructions read, '...simply place mango in the holder and press cutter to remove the pit.' Like many other kitchen gadgets, I have never tried these... I am more comfortable with the control of a knife and cutting board. It is a matter of comfort and preference.

Mangoes are a healthy snack for any time of day. Add frozen, diced mango to your morning smoothie or stir fresh mango cubes into plain yogurt with a drizzle of honey. Make ice pops by freezing mango puree in ice cube trays with a popsicle stick. Toss chunks into a fruit salad or add to a green salad. Elevate desserts, use fresh slices to decorate and garnish exotic 'Coconut Panna Cotta', check out my May 2015 recipe and post  'Simple, Sexy Panna Cotta'.

These methods can be used for all varieties of mangoes. Although in my opinion, the Ataulfo Mango is far superior in texture and flavor to other varieties I have tried. Therefore the Ataulfo wins as my hands down favorite!

Till next time... Bon Appétit! 

Photos and demo by Sally Rae