Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Grilled pizza - success at last

In an earlier post I mentioned that I was trying a new thing in cooking - grilling pizza.  It's taken about six tries to get this right but the end product was as good as I can hope for, and I wanted to share this with readers.  Making grilled pizza has been a real challenge.  The dough has to be right, the grill must be at the right temperature and the timing is critical.  Unless you are an accomplished cook it's not likely that you will get it right the first time, but be patient.

The pizza was made on a Charbroil TruInfrared charcoal grill.  If your are using a Weber or other grill the amounts of charcoal used and times in the grill will likely be different.  I'll show you what I did.

First off, the dough.  I've learned that pizza dough is wetter than bread dough.  The recipes that I used for a guide as well as the bread machine recipe called for about 3 1/2 cups flour and 1 1/2 cups water.  I used half whole wheat and half white flour, and added tablespoon of olive oil. The pizza cycle in the Panasonic bread machine was used because I'm a lazy arse and don't want to knead dough.  This is a 10 minute knead/ 10 minute rest cycle which is repeated.  As soon as the second knead was finished the dough was put in a bowl and allowed to double.  It was then punched down and divided into 3 equal pieces, 2 of which were put in the freezer.  This pizza was made from one of the frozen balls.  I took the dough ball out of the freezer this morning and put it in a metal bowl to defrost.  If you have worked with yeast and dough this is probably basic stuff. 

OK, so the making of the pizza:  By evening the dough ball had expanded a little and looked ready.  I started the charcoal - about 50 briquettes.  Your mileage may vary with your grill.  There's no air intake control with the Charbroil grill so it's important to start off with the right amount of charcoal to get the proper temperature.  A Weber will probably take a little more charcoal.

Then I began making a crust.  The ball was put on a floured board and punched out a little.  The extra flour on the board actually gets the dough to a workable state where it doesn't stick to everything.  The dough was stretched until it became what looks like a pizza crust.  Once the crust was stretched I moved it onto a cookie sheet dusted with corn meal.  The corn meal is like many tiny ball bearings and lets the crust slide off the sheet onto the cooking grate.  I've found this transfer of the fresh dough onto the cooking grate is the trickiest part, and the corn meal really helps.

Once the charcoal was ashed over it was dumped out of the chimney and the briquettes were pushed out to the edge, making a ring.  The cooking grate was oiled, set in place and the lid was closed.  I waited for the temperature inside to reach 300 F by the thermometer on the grill.  Once the grill was at temperature the crust was slid off the sheet onto the grates. This is the pre-bake of the crust.

I learned from the previous attempts that the pre-bake takes about five minutes.  At about three minutes I lifted the lid and brushed some olive oil on the top of the crust.  I was looking for the dough to make some gas and blister a bit, and that's what it did.  Perfect.

After five minutes on the grill the dough was picked up with a spatula and flipped over onto the cookie sheet.  Yes, flipped over.  The toppings go on the side that was toward the heat.  At this point the crust is stiff enough that it can be handled easily. There it is, a nice golden brown but not burnt. although it's a bit more done at the edges, which are closer to the coals.

The crust was taken inside the house for topping.  I've found that there is no rush to top the pizza.  The grill remains at cooking temperature for about 45 minutes, enough time to make two pizzas actually.  The crust was spread with a thin layer of marinara sauce and topped with mozzarella, basil, Jimmy Nardello peppers and pepperoni.  Since the dough has been toughened by the heat, the toppings do not soak in and make the crust soggy.  Here it is ready for baking:

Then came the easy part, returning the pizza to the grill and baking it.  At this point the grill had reached 375 F, a little hotter than I wanted but not a deal breaker.  The temperature in this grill can be controlled to some extent by the vents in the cover, and I had closed them which raises the temperature.  This may not sound like a very hot temperature but keep in mind that the grate is hotter and will transfer heat into the pizza by conduction.  The pizza was baked for eight minutes then put on the cookie sheet to cool.  I would have liked a temperature of 350 F and a bake of ten minutes but it came out fine.

The pizza was delicious.  It could have benefited from some garlic, but you can only improve when there is imperfection.   There was still plenty of heat in the grill.  No point in wasting it.  I put a batch of Jalapeno peppers on it. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Winter bed, cover crops, rabbit forage

I'm still working on a cover cropping strategy for the vegetable beds and I'll try to expand on this in future posts.   For me the number one reason to cover crop is to put nitrogen in the soil, which is done with legumes such as peas and clover.   Nitrogen is the one essential nutrient that can evaporate into the atmosphere, mostly as ammonia.  A compost bin holding plant matter and animal manure will slowly lose nitrogen while the water-soluble nutrients will remain.

Last March I planted field peas and oats in the future squash bed and covered the seeds with compost.  Once established the green shoots were harvested with shears every day for rabbit forage.  The bunnies loved it, especially the field peas, which is a high protein forage.  The roots of the peas were thick with nodules that held the nitrogen fixing bacteria, so I know that nitrogen was being added to the soil.  Once the heat killed the cover crop it left a nice mulch on the soil that also suppressed weeds. This year the squash has produced a record crop, which may be due as much to the weather as the soil.  At any rate I'd consider the cover cropping a win/win here.

Later in the summer after the cole crops were finished in their beds I planted buckwheat, again covering the seeds with compost.  I was hoping that berseem clover would be the summer legume of choice, but it never germinated or grew well enough to work.  Next summer I will plant crowder peas, a heat tolerant legume.

Cole crops were grown in these two beds.  The bed in front got the early plantings and was finished by the end of June, when I seeded buckwheat and topped the seeds with compost.  I don't have a seed drill and have found that covering the seeds with compost protects them from birds.  The buckwheat by this point went to seed and I debated whether to dig it in or pull it out.  I didn't want volunteer buckwheat everywhere so I pulled it out, very easy since buckwheat has shallow roots.

The bed in back got the later plantings of brassicas.  It was seeded with buckwheat and field peas in late August.  The field peas made it through a few weeks of very warm weather and have established themselves, while the buckwheat acted as a 'nurse' crop.  I've been harvesting the plants for over a week and feeding the cutting to the rabbits.  That bed is their salad bar.

As for the rabbits, they began eating greens at a little over three weeks old.  That takes some pressure off the doe to provide milk.  I've never had a problem with young rabbits eating greens, in spite of warnings about bloating.  I think the mother may provide them with the necessary gut bacteria in her milk.   The babies are still not big enough to eat pellets.  Here they are at 25 days with a willow branch to feed on.  They've already learned to use the water bottle.

Back to the beds - the one brassica bed was cleaned up, hoed and raked.  This will be the winter bed, where cold tolerant crops are overwintered under a plastic greenhouse.  In the past I have planted only spinach for overwintering but this year I'm going to expand the plant list.  I'm going to plant corn salad (mache) and a winter lettuce mix from Pinetree.  Also a row of bunching onions.   And garlic.  I'm not sure how garlic will respond to the relatively higher soil temperatures under the plastic but found someone on the internet who tried it and got earlier garlic.  I'm going to plant it there because that's the only spot available now.

So there's a bed ready for planting, but not quite.  September has been unseasonally warm, more like August, and the lettuce, spinach and mache won't germinate in warm soil.  (Not complaining.  The weather has been spectacular.  No bugs.  Cool nights).  That problem was solved two days ago when the area got two inches of rain, followed by a sharp cooling.  It's now more like October, and I expect to begin planting everything except garlic in a few days as the soil loses heat.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Monday September 26

There hasn't been a lot to harvest in September compared to years past.  Sometimes it seems like the vegetable garden is a bust this year, but it's really not, although losing the tomatoes to blight was certainly a disappointment.  I'm still getting a steady trickle of okra, mostly from the lone Silver Queen plant which peaks this time of year, while the Millionaire and Jambalaya F1 plants are just about finished.  Twelve pounds of okra this year, not bad.

Snap beans have also slowed to a trickle.  Maybe I'll get one more picking and that will be it for the year.   A seven foot row of pole beans has produced eighteen pounds for the year.  I would have liked more for freezing.  I still haven't found a better pole bean than Fortex.   It looks like the summer squash will produce another squash.   The plant was seeded mid-summer and took a long time to get established.  Now its huge but most of the squash die on the vine.

The top performer this year is the winter squash.  It looks like the best year ever for them.  A few weeks ago I harvested the Golden Nugget squash from the single plant that survived the borer and set them on the screens to cure.  Now cured they were taken inside and weighed.  It's the first time I've grown this squash and I'll probably grow it again.  It's very flavorful.

This harvest was nine and a half pounds. Combined with the two already consumed that's just over twelve pounds from one plant.

The remaining squash on the vine are Metro Butternut and Teksukabotu.  A rule of thumb for winter squash is they need about two months from fruit set to full maturity.  I start removing any squash that set around the third week of August.  The average first frost around here is mid-October although that can vary by several weeks.    This weekend I went through the patch to harvest any that looked ready, looking for the squash that had been on the vine longest.  How do you tell?  With butternuts the color is helpful.  Immature ones are pale while the more mature ones develop a deeper hue.  The stem is probably the best guide.  It should show some brown.

I went through and picked the squash that looked the oldest.  Also any squash on vines that had already died.  Squash bugs are just now infesting the patch, but they seem to concentrate on spent leaves.  I try to go through the patch every few days and remove those leaves.  Here's what I got on the first pass, seventeen butternuts and one Teksukabotu:

The blotches come from contact with the ground.  I turn them up to face the sun.  That's eighteen squash that probably weigh at least 40 pounds.  It's about a third of the total squash in the patch, so a total yield of at least 120 pounds of winter squash is not unreasonable, and that's from about one hundred square feet of planting.  Yes it's a very good year for winter squash.  To see what others are growing, head on over to

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Pallet planter and plans for next year

With the kitchen remodel dragging on into Spring I wasn't able to implement any changes to the vegetable garden this year.  Next year will be different and I'm getting a start on it now.  It starts with the perennial bed, which has six asparagus plants, everbearing strawberries and herbs.  I've realized that the bed can't produce enough asparagus or strawberries, so one of them has to go.

The Tribute strawberries provide a nice harvest in May and June, then they take a break for a few weeks and produce a trickle of berries the rest of the year.  These berries are poor quality and the birds get many of them.  Next spring they will make way for more asparagus.  I thought I'd take a shot at making a strawberry planter, and had read about converting a pallet into a planter.  And there is a pallet sitting in the pole barn. 

It's a straighforward little project.  Two layers of landscape fabric were stapled to the back side and some slats were added to keep it all sound, a piece of one-half inch screen was fastened to the bottom, some repairs were made to the front and some legs were added:

This is the back side showing the landscape fabric bolstered by thin slats of wood.  The legs are attached to stakes:

I added potting mix from a SWC that grew, unsuccessfully, anise fennel, then had to buy another bag to fill the planter.   Some space at the top was left to add water:

Then plugs were taken from the strawberry patch and planted into the mix.  The ground slopes toward the planter and forms a bowl-shaped depression in front of the planter.  I packed more potting mix at the base which contacts the mix in the planter (the bottom is screened).  When I water I add water to the top and bottom.  Seems to work so far.

The biggest concern is how will they do over the winter.  One option is to lay the planter down flat and put some straw over it.  The other option is to make a sort of insulating blanket by filling some burlap bags with straw and covering the planter with them.   In the spring I'll replace any plants that have died from the main bed, then take out the rest and put in the asparagus crowns.  If the planter does its job that's fine.  If it doesn't work out then I'm out the price of a bag of potting mix, which can likely be re-purposed.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Commenting on a post a few weeks ago, blogger Mark Willis suggested making harissa from the harvest of peppers.  My first reaction was 'what the heck is harissa?'   After a brief investigation it looked like harissa is the kind of thing that I like, a hot spicy pepper based paste than can be spread on a multitude of things.  So I gathered up some recipes on line and began looking through them.

The first thing one finds when looking at different preparations is the tremendous variation in the recipes.  So I found two that looked promising and compared them.  One used tomato paste, the other did not.  One used about four times the spice as the other.  You pretty much have to come up with what sounds good to you.  In my case, I don't know if I have ever tried harissa, and if I did, did not know it was.  So I did not really know what harissa is supposed to taste like. You probably just have to try different concoctions to get a sense.   But I had some notion of what a Tunisian pepper paste might taste like.

Here's how I made mine.  It starts with freshly picked ancho and Mama Mia Giallo peppers.  I made grilled pizza a few days ago, a dish that is slowly improving.  Once the pizza was finished the coals were still hot enough to slowly grill the peppers.  The ancho peppers are a modern F1 cultivar, Mosquitero.  It's a terrific variety, stout stems and large peppers, wonderful flavor.

Most recipes call for rehyrating dried ancho chiles, which you can find at the grocer.  Since these were available fresh there was no need.  The flavor of a fire-roasted ancho is sublime, sweet with notes of black currant, chili, and raisin.  The Giallo peppers are sweet and fruity.  After deskinning and removing the seeds all of the anchos and three of the Giallos were put in the blender for the base.

For the spice I used two tablespoons cumin, and one tablespoon each of coriander and caraway.  The seeds were toasted for several minutes in a dry pan, then ground to a powder.  I've found that toasting improves the flavor of cumin, taking away the sharp, green bite that raw cumin has.

The heat came from serrano peppers, which are growing in abundance in the beds.  Cutting the hot peppers open and deseeding was the most labor intensive part of the preparation.  Nitrile gloves are recommended.  It looks like about 25 serranos were used.  I like them ripe, they are hotter and more flavorful than when green.

The deseeded hot peppers were combined with half of a chopped red onion and cooked in extra virgin olive oil at medium/low heat for about eight minutes.  Four finely chopped garlic cloves were added and the mix cooked a few more minutes.

Putting it all together the roasted peppers, serrano/onion mix, spices and juice of a lemon were blended together until smooth. 

There was enough to put in three small plastic tubs.  Since all ingredients were cooked I put two of the tubs in the freezer.  How does it taste?  Quite good in my humble opinion.  It combines bright citrusy flavors with the deeper tastes of cumin and anchos, with a nice layer of heat.  Hot pepper fanatics could add a habanero to the mix to pack a bit more punch.  This morning I made an okra/cheese omelette and spread some of this on the dish.  It's much better than salsa on an egg dish. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Late summer

I haven't posted in a few weeks and the growing season is coming to an end.   August was not a very good month for production, but September looks better.  About a month ago the tomato plants were removed after succumbing to blight.  Since then the cucumber vines, three Calypso and one Diva, have also been taken out after dying from what looks like bacterial wilt.  The last time the cucumbers got wilt, about 5 years ago, the squash followed, which worried me greatly, as this is a banner year for the squash.   So far it looks like they have not been affected, and at this point many of the squash have already matured.

The pole beans mostly stopped producing in August but have now picked up again, just not like they were.  The zucchini that replaced the first plant which got the borer took it's sweet time getting established.  It's finally sized up and has given me one large squash, with more on the way.

The four okra plants in the same bed are nearly finished, the leaves nearly gone, but they keep producing a few okra.  These hybrid okra start producing early and continuously all summer - I've picked nearly 10 pounds so far.  In another spot there is a Silver Queen okra, an heirloom.  It is just now starting to produce heavily.  I think this must be a 'deep south' okra that requires a long growing season.  In this area it is hit and miss depending on the summer.  Next year I am going to plant at least two of this type of okra.  I've found a way to freeze okra, by slicing, breading in corn meal and dry blanching in the oven and a late season okra that produces heavily would be perfect for freezing.

The tomatoes may be finished but their cousins the peppers have done well.  I picked hot peppers for salsa a few weeks ago, but had to buy the tomatoes.

Also Carmen and Jimmy Nardello sweet peppers, which were grilled and put into the salsa.

The Mama Mia Giallo peppers are nearly ready to pick.  I plan to grill and freeze them for later use.

There's a whole new batch of Jalapenos and Serranos that are ready, but don't know if I'm ready to can more salsa.  It's a lot of work.

Much of the garden is being 'put away' for the winter.  I don't do fall plantings as the tree line to the south of the garden has already begun casting long shadows on the vegetable plot.  By the end of the month many of the beds will get only a few hours of sun a day.  These two beds have been planted with cover crops.  The bed in front was seeded with buckwheat and field peas two weeks ago, and the bed in back was seeded with buckwheat in late July.

The tender greens will be cut regularly and fed to the new litter of bunnies.  The field peas had to make it through several days of unseasonally hot weather but they look good and will add nitrogen to the soil.  Since the rabbits like the young buckwheat I tasted it.  Not bad really, mild but not much flavor.

The back bed will be the greenhouse bed for the winter.  I will plant spinach, mache and bunching onions in that bed and put the plastic greenhouse over it for the winter.  I'm not sure when you plant bunching onions to overwinter,  probably soon.   The squash curing on the screen are Golden Nugget, from one plant.  I don't know if all of them are fully ripe but the plant was done.

This trellis is thick with butternuts and Teksukabotu, and there are many more on top of the soil. 

The large bed will be very productive this year.  It's already given me about 40 pounds of potatoes and 15 pounds of beans.  I expect 60 to 80 pounds of squash and some yield of sweet potatoes, unless the voles get them all.  The Silver Queen okra plant and the Teksukabotu squash seem to be having a contest for tallest plant.