Saturday, March 30, 2013

Saturday Spotlight - Greek Gigante Beans

My first two Saturday Spotlight posts were about vegetables that I was harvesting at the time I wrote the posts. This time around my post is about a vegetable that is long past producing, it's actually time for Northern Hemisphere gardeners to think about sowing the seeds now. I want to get the word out about this fantastic, delicious, but little known and hard to find bean. I knew when my husband asked me if I was planning on growing Gigante beans again this year that I have a winning vegetable.

Gigantes, aka Gigandes, Yigandes, Yiyantes and even Macedonian Elephant beans for the extra large selections, are runner beans - Phaseolus coccineus - the same bean family as Scarlet Runner Beans. They do best where it doesn't get too hot so they are quite happy in my cool coastal climate. Unlike Scarlet Runners they have pure white flowers and huge white seeds.

In the kitchen they are traditionally prepared in a tomato sauce and served up as a meze.  This is how I first tasted them at Evvia, a very good Greek restaurant in Palo Alto, California. That's how I typically prepare them myself but I've also baked them with swiss chard in tomato sauce which turned out delicious. What I love most about this bean is the luscious creamy texture. Another plus in my opinion is that they hold their shape.

This bean came to me by chance, I hadn't been seeking it out, but a reader of my blog requested some caper seeds from me and sent a variety of seeds in return, including the Gigante beans (thanks Robert!). It took me 2 years to get around to growing them, for a variety of reasons including battles with rats, gophers, and moles, and a need to reconstruct, or rather construct some proper garden beds. These beans were some of the first vegetables to go into the new raised beds that I had built early last year.

Here's the result - 7.3 pounds of dried beans. Those are quart canning jars which will give you an idea of how large the dried beans are. Imagine how large they swell up to be when you rehydrate them!

Greek Gigante Beans

Now I'm going to bore you all with the story of their time in my garden. This is actually one of my primary reasons for writing this blog, to be able to go back and see what my garden was doing in the past, it's my garden journal.

I sowed the beans in paper pots on April 19 last year and planted them out into the garden not long after they germinated. The beans are so big that they nearly pushed themselves out of the little paper pots when they rehydrated. And then they quickly started to outgrow their little pots when they germinated so I had to set them out ASAP. I used two trellises, each one 3 feet wide by 5 feet high. I had sown 18 seeds, all of which germinated, and set them out along both sides of the trellis, each plant ended up about 1 foot apart. I knew that these plants would get to be big and I didn't want to crowd them.

At barely more than 1 month after sowing the seeds the vines were already starting to climb the trellises.

May 21, 2012

Only 11 days later they are already filling out, sending out side shoots, some of the plants sending up extra shoots from their crowns, and climbing higher.

June 1, 2012

Another 10 days and they are already blooming.

June 11

June 11

Barely 2 weeks later and they've topped the trellises and are in full bloom.

June 24

A little more than 3 weeks later the vines are draping down the front of the trellis. They could have easily climbed another 3 feet higher. The first pods to set are sizing up.

July 17

Only a few flowers on each raceme set a pod of beans. Most of the pods had 2 beans, some 3, and just a very few had 4.

July 17

A month later and the trellis looks like a hedge. The plants are full and lush and green, but the first pods are starting to dry on the vines. I harvested the first dry pods on August 20th.

August 15

August 15

And then one month later, with the vines full of maturing and drying bean pods the plants are starting to die back.

September 19

September 17

October 2

I didn't photograph the garden in October, but the bean plants were in transition between the photo above and the one below. By early November I had harvested all but a very few late drying beans. The vines were steadily dropping their leaves and dying back.

November 7

By late November I had cleared out most of the bed and planted my garlic. The vines haven't completely died back because we hadn't had any frosty nights yet.

November 26

Let's jump forward about 2 1/2 months. After a few freezing nights the vines had completely died, well, almost completely. Runner beans have very fleshy roots and in mild climates like where I garden they often times don't die, especially if the vines are not cut back. I believe, but don't take my word for this, that as the vines die back that they send their energy down to the roots which helps the roots to endure the cold wet winter. When I got around to cleaning up this bed a couple of weeks ago I found that most of the vines had died down to just above the crowns of the plants, most of them had about an inch or so of fleshy stem left above the ground and all but one of them had big fleshy roots. I cut each vine down to just a couple inches above the soil line.

February 16, 2013

So here's a couple of the plants yesterday, most of them are starting to send up new shoots from the roots. The first to sprout about 2 weeks ago is already sending a runner towards the trellis.

March 29, 2013

A couple more are looking more like this or just barely starting to poke a tiny green tip out of the soil.

March 29, 2013

And a couple are looking less happy, fleshy roots but no shoots, but I'll leave them be and see what happens. Most of the plants are starting to pop out new shoots, so I'm really hopeful for another good and perhaps early harvest of Gigante beans.

March 29, 2013

As I mentioned earlier, seeds for this variety of bean are really difficult to find. The Mother Earth News seed and plant finder turns up not one source. A google search turns up one seed purveyor that is selling a lima bean, and lots of links to people searching for seeds. So where I wondered did Robert find his seeds? From a package of imported beans for cooking! And so far as I can tell that is still the only "seed" source.

So if you love big (huge) creamy easy to cook white beans and you live in a climate favorable to growing runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus), I urge you to go find a packet of imported Greek Gigante beans. Cook up a bunch and save a few to sow in the garden, I don't think you will be disappointed.

Now be sure to head on over to Surburban Tomato to check out Liz's Saturday spotlight about Summer Dance cucumbers and find links to other spotlight posts by other garden bloggers.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Cute Little Visitor

Hey, what's that in there?

It's green but it isn't a plant.

It's a little frog!

What a cutie.

What beautiful eyes you have.

I think this is Pseudacris sierra.

Sierran Treefrog.

He spent the day in the flat of beans and then took off after sundown. I hope he's enjoying eating lots of bad bugs in the garden.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Harvest Monday - March 25, 2013

This week was all about celery. The one and only harvest was the four celery plants that were heeding the call of spring to procreate. So I cut them all down. The timing was good, I needed the space to plant out my fennel seedlings that I had started in paper pots.

Here's the largest of the four, it was producing a lot of side shoots. After I trimmed all the side shoots off the head looked more "normal".

Here's the three largest heads. The two on the left hadn't produced the abundance of side shoots like the big one on the right. The center bunch is showing that hint of yellow in the inner stalks that gives this variety its name.

Dorato di Asti celery 

Here's the prettiest of the lot.

And here's the runt of the litter, it has the shortest stalks. You can see how I harvested the stalks on a cut-and-come-again basis.

Here you can see how short the stalks are in comparison to the stalks on one more normal sized.

After trimming off the side shoots and the bulk of the leafy tops the harvest came in at 7 lb., 5.9 oz.
And that bumps my harvest totals for the year up to 46 lb., 3.1 oz.

I haven't had a chance to use any of the celery yet, but tonight I'm planning a salad that will feature sliced celery and apples and I'm not sure what else yet, perhaps some Oregon pink shrimp that I've got stashed in the freezer.

Harvest Monday is hosted by Daphne on her blog Daphne's Dandelions, head on over there to see what other garden bloggers have been harvesting lately.

Friday, March 22, 2013

March Seedling and Sowing Update

A sprained ankle (much improved now) has not kept me from keeping up with tending spring seedlings nor has it kept me from sowing yet more seeds. I've potted up or planted out most of the first round of seedlings. I always start far more than what I need in the garden. It never fails that when I sow just what I need that there is failure of some sort and I end up with not enough. There's a bit of method to my madness also, I get to plant out the biggest happiest healthiest seedlings in the garden. Then I can give away the rest of the seedlings and failing that they get "recycled".

I'm giving Purple Peacock broccoli a second chance. My autumn planting turned out to be something of a dud but I think that that was my fault, the young plants ended up in a very shaded spot and didn't get very large. So they are going to get a chance to show me what they can do in the spring garden. If they turn out to be duds again then I'll move on.

Purple Peacock broccoli seedlings.

Here's seedlings for my all-time favorite kale - Lacinato (aka Tuscan kale, Cavolo Nero, Dino kale). I don't usually grow kale as a spring crop, but I really didn't get my fill of this kale this winter so I want more. I used to start it in the spring and it would produce for a year. A big advantage to that method was that the plants would be huge heading into winter which pretty much guaranteed an abundant harvest through the winter. But the last few years it always seemed that the plants would bolt prematurely so I gave up on the spring planting method. But I'm willing to try  again.

Laciniato kale seedlings

Here's the greyhounds of the brassicas, Little Jade napa cabbage. I sowed the seeds for these babies at the same time as the kale and broccoli. Whoa baby, look how they've grown!

I haven't met a sprouting broccoli that I don't like (except Purple Sprouting, aka The Aphid Magnet). This year I'm returning to my first broccoli love, Di Ciccio, an Italian heirloom. It's been a number of years since this variety has graced my garden so it's time to see if the old fave is as good as I remember. Those are in the top pot on the left. This afternoon's project is to get them potted up into larger containers. There's also two 6-pack's of extra lettuce seedlings that were left after I set out most of the seedlings in the garden. These are back-up in case the birds or bugs do in too many of the plants that I set out, or I will try to give them away if I don't need them. The other 4-inch pots are sown with English watercress, Sweetie Baby romaine lettuce, Early rapini, Wild Garden Frills Russian kale, and Green Fortune baby pak choi. The flat of paper pots is sown with mostly Summer Perfection spinach and a few pots of Romanesco bulbing fennel.

All the above seedlings and starts are outside 24/7 now. I was schlepping the flats show below inside at night and outside for the day, but I've finally set up my seedling heat mat outside and I'm going to keep these starts on it until most of the seeds have germinated. There's one flat of Fagiolo del Purgatorio (Purgatory beans) and one flat of Cicerchia (Lathyrus sativus, more on these later). And I've sown the larger white pots with Romanesco zucchini and Ortolano di Faenza zucchini. And the 4-inch pots are sown with five varieties of cucumbers - Garden Oasis, Green Fingers Persian, Tasty Green Japanese, Tortarello Abruzzese, and Carosello Tondo di Manduria.

The latest seedlings to be planted out into the garden are Iceberg Superior and Rhapsody butterhead lettuces. I start all my lettuce in 4-inch pots and let them grow until they have at least a couple of true leaves.

Then I tease all the seedlings apart and choose the best of the bunch.

I space the best ones far enough apart to allow them to mature into full size heads and then fill in between with more seedlings that I will harvest as babies. There's 24 seedlings of each variety set out and I hope to grow about half those to full size heads.

The next round of seed sowing will be tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. And one more round of beets, snow and snap peas. Oh, and I can't forget the snap and runner beans. Whew, I hope there's enough room in the garden - I really must get that last bed finished. I nearly had the space ready when I did my ankle in.... 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Harvest Monday - March 18, 2013

The harvests reached a late winter crescendo this week. We've had a run of beautiful warm and dry weather that has pushed a lot of the overwintered veggies to the point of harvest now or it's compost.

First into the harvest basket this weekend was all of the Diamante Celeriac. This bunch weighed in at 5.4 pounds as shown. I toss the leafy celeriac stems into the compost because they are too bitter for my taste.

This basket contains another harvest of Tronchuda Beira shoots on the left and the flowering shoots from one of the Lacinato kale plants plus whatever leaves were still edible. The rest of the plant then hit the compost bin. I topped the other Lacinato kale plant which was slower to bolt than the first one and should be able to get one more harvest of side shoots and leaves before it goes into the bin.

The Tronchuda Beira plants still have some really nice leaves so I harvested a bunch of those as well.

And the Dorato di Asti celery is producing some excellent stalks. No signs of bolting at the moment, but I'm sure its time is coming soon.

My husband and I were quite the social butterflies this weekend, dinner out Friday and Saturday and a friend's birthday bash on Sunday so I haven't gotten around to using any of the harvest other than the celery. The celery has added a lovely crunch in my continuing nearly daily salads featuring the over achieving Golden Corn Salad. I had to clear out one row of the corn salad because it's starting to crowd the garlic too much and I'm afraid most of it went into the compost. That one row came to over 3 pounds of greens but I'm not including the total in my tally, just the 8 ounces that I kept.

Take a look at the temperatures we've been enjoying lately:

It's been absolutely delightful and is giving me a really bad case of spring fever - I want to get out and enjoy it to the max but I'm really limited at the moment because last week I absentmindedly missed a step on the stairs leading to my front door and sprained my ankle. Arrrgh, I can climb a 19,341 foot mountain but I can't negotiate my front steps! At least I've been able to ditch the crutches and I can finally hobble around the garden to do some harvesting and light work.

Here's the harvests for the past week:

Apollo broccoli (the last few little shoots) - 6.1 oz.
Dorato di Asti celery - 1 lb., 2 oz.
Diamante celeriac - 5 lb., 6.1 oz.
Tronchuda Beira shoots - 11.7 oz.
Tronchuda Beira leaves - 1 lb., 10.7 oz.
Lacinato kale shoots - 10.9 oz.
Lacinato kale leaves - 10 oz.
Golden Corn Salad - 8.2 oz.

The total harvests for the week were - 13 lb., 13.4 oz.
Which brings the total harvests for  the year up to - 36 lb., 3.2 oz.

Harvest Monday is hosted by Daphne on her blog Daphne's Dandelions, head on over there to see what other garden bloggers have been harvesting lately.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Saturday Spotlight - Tronchuda Beira aka Couve Tronchuda, aka Portuguese Kale, aka...

This is one confusing leafy green vegetable, it defies categorization. Is it a kale, or is it a cabbage, or is it something in between? Seed catalogs cannot seem to agree, but it is generally listed amongst the cabbages. My nose tells me it is cabbage because when I cut into a fresh leaf it has a distinct aroma of fresh sweet cabbage and the flavor is more akin to cabbage than to kale. But for my taste it will not substitute for heading cabbage in a recipe. The texture is softer than heading cabbage. The color is a darker green than heading cabbage. And in spite of its darker hue, it is less cabbagy flavored than heading cabbage. And you certainly cannot cook it as long as heading cabbage or kale and don't even think of substituting it for kale. (Although kale is the generally recommended substitute for couve tronchuda in Caldo Verde). Really, I think it should just be in a category unto itself.

There is one thing about Couve Tronchuda that is undisputed, it is the key ingredient for Caldo Verde, a Portuguese soup - practically the national dish of Portugal. Caldo Verde is a deceptively simple soup featuring Couve Tronchuda, potatoes, onion, garlic, Portuguese linguiƧa or chouriƧo, olive oil, and water. It was a recipe for this soup in Jean Anderson's book The Food of Portugual that put me on a quest for Portuguese cabbage seeds (which she called couve gallego - this vegetable has a number of pseudonyms). I have a habit of reading about new (to me) vegetables which can't be found in markets and then searching for seeds so that I can try growing them myself if my climate allows. This vegetable was worth the search and at the time (round about 10 years ago) the seeds were barely to be found in the US. I only found one source, Comstock Ferre, but they don't carry them anymore. These days the seeds are much easier to find (use the Mother Earth News Seed Finder if you are in North America) and one of my favorite local seed companies just started to sell a named hybrid variety last year - Tronchuda Beira - which is the variety that I'm spotlighting today.

I sowed the seeds for the plants that are out in my garden now last year on August 13. The seeds were sown into a 4-inch plastic pot and then the best seedlings individually potted up into larger pots, then grown on to transplantable size. The best four plants were planted out on September 19. There's the new little plants shown below.

I harvested the first leaves on November 29 last year. Here's my first harvest of almost 14 ounces of caterpillar munched leaves. The munching cabbage worms and pecking birds were the biggest problems that I had with this crop this season. I didn't use any treatment for the cabbage worms, I just kept inspecting the leaves nearly every day and picked off the offending critters. The birds were more difficult to deter and I ended up covering the plants with a lightweight rowcover cloth.

I ended up harvesting 3 pounds of leaves last year, and 6.4 pounds so far this year, although that includes the flower shoots now that the plants are starting to bolt. The potential harvests were quite a bit more than I did harvest because I was gone for nearly a month earlier this year. All of the early harvests went into soup, both Caldo Verde and other vegetables soups.

Here's a photograph of a more recent harvest which included the flower shoots. I've been preparing the shoots by blanching them for about a minute in boiling water and then shocking them in ice water. This helps to get rid of the few aphids that are hiding amongst the buds. Then I've been lightly sauteing them in a bit of olive oil to finish them. They are delicious and mild tasting, very tender.

In the photo below and in the second photo down from the top of the post you can get an idea of how fat and juicy the leaf stalks become. The leaves and stalks become larger and larger as the plant matures. I think some of the largest ones on the plants got to be at least 18 across. One of the marvelous things about those leaf stalks is that they remain tender for a long time - they are sweet and juicy, delicious eaten raw or cooked. When I was making soup other than Caldo Verde I would slice up the stems and include them in the soup, otherwise I sliced them up and munched them on the spot.

This particular variety of Couve Tronchuda is particularly vigorous and productive. I've grown a couple of other varieties and found that I needed four plants to meet my needs but these babies are so productive that I think that only two will suffice in the future. Just how much soup can two people eat? Ah, but I'm finally finding that it is good for more than just soup - it's taken me a while to find a method of cooking the leaves that I like. In the past I've tried to prepare it like kale with less than satisfactory results. The leaves turned too soft and I didn't like the texture. Lately I've taken to slicing the leaves as they would be prepared for Caldo Verde - into fine slivers about 3 to 4 inches long. Then I saute some onion, finely slivered prosciutto, and pine nuts in some olive oil; add the shredded couve tronchuda to the pan and toss just until the leaves wilt. Season with some mild pepper flakes and wine vinegar. Yum, I really like the texture of the wilted leaves, a bit chewy but not tough. I'll be experimenting with a few more variation on this method in the next week or so, or until the leaves get too old and tough or I need to pull the plants out to make room for some spring plantings.

Oh, and if you want a recipe for Caldo Verde, just do an internet search, there's recipes galore to be found. But do try growing Caldo Verde to put into that soup. Kale in caldo verde makes a very tasty soup, but it's just not the same.

There's a very interesting post on the Renee's Garden Seeds blog about Portuguese soups and tronchuda cabbage that you might enjoy also.

I'm joing Liz's Saturday Spotlight series at her blog Suburban Tomato. It's definitely worth a hop over there to see what other worthy vegetables are in the spotlight today.