From the vine to the kitchen

GERALD BLUDAU - Victoria County Master Gardener
Thursday, May 25th, 2006

For many, the coming of spring awakens a desire to get outside and play in the dirt. Just the smell of newly turned soil can instill in us the need to plant seeds. Whether you plant flowers or veggies, gardening can represent an excellent form of therapy and relaxation.

As many of you can attest to, there is a great deal of "sweat equity" in planting your garden. Much of this "sweat equity" can be redeemed in the enjoyment gained from growing the most beautiful rose, geranium or blooming plant - or being able to harvest fresh vegetables. An article published two weeks ago in this column also discussed how you could benefit from selling vegetables and plants through the Farmer's Market or your own business.

Now that you have harvested these veggies, and choose to use them for your own consumption, what do you do with them? Following are some of my favorite recipes, which are the result of trial and error.

Spring and summer crops

• Okra

Okra is a great spring and summer crop that I like using in okra gumbo for which there are many recipes. My favorite way to cook okra is to sauté them in butter or your favorite oil. This works best with small, 2-to-3-inch fruit with the stem removed. Use your favorite seasoning and sauté for 10 to 15 minutes.

Other tried and proven ways to prepare or preserve okra include the old favorite of rolling them in cornmeal and frying them or to pickling them.

• Sweet corn

Whether you raise sweet corn or buy it from the grocery store or Farmer's Market, this is one my family truly enjoys. Try cooking your corn in the microwave. Just cut off the ends; do not remove the shuck and place two ears in the microwave, cover with a wet paper towel and cook for two minutes.

• Squash

My favorite vegetable is squash. There are many varieties and many ways to prepare them. I like a squash medley, using zucchini, yellow and scalloped cut into small pieces. Throw in some onion and banana pepper, salt, pepper, Mrs. Dash and cook until tender. The banana pepper greatly enhances the flavor.

This past spring, County Extension Agent Joe Janak gave me a bag of winter squash. Having never raised these, I decided to experiment with them. I cut them into 1/4-inch slices, brushed them with olive oil, seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, Mrs. Dash, and baked at 315 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. They were really good.

One last family favorite is squash fritters. Use 3/4 pound of any squash, sliced and boiled until done. Squeeze all the liquid out and use one cup of the strained squash and one beaten egg. Then add 1/3 cup of flour, 1/3 cup of cornmeal, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, a dash of pepper and however much grated onion you like. Mix these ingredients together and put a level tablespoonful into hot cooking oil. Cook until golden brown and drain on paper towels.

These are similar to hush puppies, only lighter in texture.

• Tomatoes

As you read this you may notice I have not mentioned the most popular garden vegetable of all - the tomato. Having raised them commercially as a child, I usually pray for a crop failure. I don't like them. However, I do raise them for my sweet wife and I do use them in soups, stews, and chili.

• Lima beans

Another great summer vegetable is the lima bean. If you are successful at producing a crop then you have the backbreaking job of picking and shelling them. To prepare them, I sauté bacon and onion, add a little butter, seasoning and cook until tender.

Fall and winter crops

• Cabbage

My favorite gardening is in the fall/winter when the garden produces for a longer period. Another of my favorite vegetables is cabbage. You can boil it, pickle it or stir-fry it or use it for slaw or sauerkraut. I love to sauté bacon and onion, slice the cabbage as you would for slaw and stir-fry until tender. This past spring I tried pickling some cabbage the same as you would cucumbers, and it came out very well. I just cut it into wedges, seasoned it with dill, red pepper, garlic, etc,. and was careful to use the proper procedure for pickling.

Call the Extension office at 361-575-4581 for up-to-date precautions in pickling vegetables.

Among the other cole crops that I like to prepare is a medley of cauliflower, broccoli and carrots. Cook these together with your favorite seasoning and add your favorite sauce.

• Spinach

One of the last vegetables I would like to mention is truly a favorite - spinach. If you have never tried to sauté with bacon and onions, you're in for a real treat. Just fry your bacon with a little onion and depending on your cholesterol level use whatever bacon grease you feel comfortable with. Put the cleaned spinach in the skillet and let it wilt. I must remind you that spinach has a high water content and what you might think is a lot of spinach cooks down to very little. So it takes quite a bit. It really tastes good.

I know there are many and better cooks, but these ramblings are just some of the many ways my family has been able to enjoy what we are able to produce from the good earth. I hope some of you readers will find some of the cooking ideas appealing enough to give them a try.