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Simple Caribbean Stew Base


We just experienced an early cold snap with two nights of freezing temps in a row. Many local gardeners spent hours constructing tents around their gardens with electric lights or sprinklers to keep their tender plants from freezing. Me? I just let it all freeze. I was ready to let the peppers and basil go, along with most of the other tropical food plants. I harvested all of the ripe peppers before the freeze, quite a good haul of peppers. I only grew a few kinds of peppers this year, mostly aji cachucha, a small Dominican mild pepper with thin walls and really nice flavor. They’re not as sweet as the thick-walled big red or yellow peppers, but a little sweeter than a cubanelle. More importantly, the plants survived an brutal onslaught of stem borers this year to produce quite heavily.

aji cachucha

Aren’t they pretty? I’m harvesting my subtropical crops like pigeon peas and cassava right now and we’ll be eating a lot of Caribbean foods this winter, so I wanted to make sofrito with these peppers. Unfortunately the peppers started going soft before I could gather all the ingredients for sofrito. I decided to make a quick recaito and freeze it, but then when I finally could go shopping everyone was out of recao/culantro, and you can’t make recaito without recao. Any self-respecting Puerto Rican would probably stomp on my toe for sharing a recipe for recaito with no recao. So this is not recaito (despite the label) but I think calling it “Caribbean soup base” is pretty safe.


Caribbean Soup Base

1 lb aji cachucha (or any combination of thin walled non-spicy peppers)

4 large cloves of garlic

1 bunch cilantro

Cut each pepper in half and carefully remove the seeds and stem. The seeds quickly become bitter when you cook them. Roughly chop the cilantro and garlic. Combine everything in a food processor and process only until the mixture comes together. Do not puree! Leave it chunky. Separate into small containers or 4 oz jars and freeze.

This base can be used to make ajilimojili sauce (just add some olive oil, lime juice, a Scotch Bonnet for some heat, and salt & pepper) or to cook anything from chicken & rice casserole to an omelet. Please note- the traditional preparation of this would include onions. My husband can’t eat onions, so I just leave them out.

Snake in the Ashwagandha

baby snake

This is a baby rat snake perched in the ashwagandha, probably stalking baby anoles. My son and I cheered when we found this baby snake… while we have quite a few avian predators around (Cooper’s hawks, red shouldered hawks, and at least one mated pair of owls) I have only seen two snakes the whole time we’ve lived here. I found at least a dozen snake eggs while I was clearing out the summer garden beds and pulling weeds earlier in the fall but this was the first baby I’ve seen.

The fauna I’m seeing on my property is steadily diversifying. I credit this to non-disturbance and diversifying the flora. I have planted so many new things! Now there are vast hedges of native flowering plants that never get walked through or mowed. We have a small “zone 5″ corner that’s almost completely undisturbed and full of birds. We have a lizard sex hotel (a pile of coquina in a sheltered spot). We found an armadillo burrow behind the satsuma trees a couple weeks ago, and we’re leaving it alone. We’ve seen mice in the compost and let them be. The wasps (mostly) live in peace. And because of this, we now have snakes and owls and hawks.

So Many Sweet Potatoes

sweet potato1

We got back from our trip to Texas and New Mexico late Saturday night. Sunday was a full day in the garden, a combination of being gone for 10 days and a freeze warning Tuesday night. We decided to harvest all of the sweet potatoes since we’d found a few with mole damage. Digging up the sweet potatoes with our hands was great fun. Most were small but a few large sweet potatoes survived mole damage. The white sweet potatoes fared much better than the orange ones- many of the orange ones were split or gnawed upon. The whites have less insect damage, no splitting, and were larger overall.

sweet potato2

After culling out the ones that were cracked, split, or had major insect damage, I packed away more than forty pounds of sweet potatoes! Not bad for a crop that was never irrigated after establishment, never fertilized, never needed spraying or pest control of any kind. There was some insect damage though, so I’ll either skip growing sweet potatoes next year or I’ll grow them on the farm. I don’t want any sweet potato pests to get established. I think I have found my forest garden groundcover crop rotation- sweet potatoes one year, pumpkins the next.

I decided to use a laundry basket lined with layers of newspapers for the curing. It’s supposed to freeze this week so I put the basket of sweet potatoes in the pantry to cure. I decided to leave the cassava and jicama in the ground. They’re both in protected spots and I think can survive a light frost.

And Sunchoke Bounty!

The fall root vegetable harvest has definitely begun around here. The day before I started harvesting sweet potatoes, I finally got my new machete sharpened and chopped down all of the withering sunchoke plants. I needed that bed for winter vegetables! So I pulled the first plant out of the ground.


Look at all that food! So I kept going…


That is one huge bucket of sunflower tubers! I haven’t weighed them yet, but it’s at least 15 pounds out of a small bed that was interplanted with several other things. This was the cowpeas bed last year that I sheet mulched over the winter. After these plants were established they never received any supplemental irrigation or additional amendments.


After I was done raking and digging for sunflower tubers, I immediately added a bucket of compost, raked the bed back out flat, added some more wood to the edges, and planted mizuna and purple cabbage seedlings for winter. I also pulled out all the damn bermuda grass that had crept in over the summer. Today I’m following the advice of Masanobu Fukuoka and seeding clover everywhere there’s bare ground- especially in the garden paths.

So now I have an entire produce bin in my fridge full to the brim with sunchokes! What’s your favorite sunchoke recipe?

Sweet Potato Surprise

Record-keeping is an area of needed improvement for me. In the spring I planted a handful of sweet potato starts. I don’t remember exactly where they came from and of course, I didn’t write it down. The starts took a while to “catch” but once they did, they really went wild. Here’s a photo of the center of the forest garden completely covered in sweet potato vines.


A couple weeks ago I was walking along the edge of the path (the rest of the path being swamped by sweet potato foliage) and pulling weeds. A weird shape caught my eye down in the path, and I reached down and pulled back the vines… to find a sweet potato as long as my foot heaved up most of the way out of the ground, and bright green.


Thinking of green potatoes and freaking out that my sweet potato crop was ruined, I started clearing vines immediately around that sweet potato and pulled another five sweet potatoes, each at least a pound. Each one was at least partially green. They were all big and felt heavy but were strangely pinky-beige everywhere they weren’t green. I took some photos and posted them with a slighty panicked plea for advice on the local gardening group and then googled for another hour. The consensus was that they weren’t poisonous, but no one knew whether they’d still taste good. So I decided to let them cure and see what happened.


My husband was baking some sweet potatoes from the store last night for dinner so I told him to pull a couple out of the crate on the front porch and throw them in the oven. They took a long time to cook through- longer than the store sweet potatoes. The skin was almost burned. When I cut them open I found out why. I somehow planted white sweet potatoes. This one was dry and dense, not as sweet as the orange-fleshed ones, more like a chestnut flavor. Really good. Comparing varieties, I’d say these are either Nancy Halls or O’Henry’s. I have only harvested sweet potatoes from one vine, so there may be some orange ones out there. If the area I dug up is representative of the whole bed, I am going to be pulling a whole lot of sweet potatoes.

Fermented Hot Sauce

The peppers are finally coming in! Earlier in the summer I had a serious infestation of Papaipema nebris, stalk borer. These moth larvae bore into the stems of all kinds of plants but in my yard they only attacked the chile peppers. They bore into the base of stems and live inside the stem, sucking out the plants’ juices and eating the interior pith, until they emerge to pupate. Even if I decided to use pesticides for some reason, broad-spectrum pesticides are useless against larvae inside plant stems and I didn’t want to invest the time or money into the only effective resistance, which is injecting each infected stem with Bt. I decided to wait it out. Almost all the plants lived and now are producing a bumper crop of peppers- thin-walled mild and fruity aji cachucha and bright and hot scotch bonnets and habaneros. I’m regretting planting the scotch bonnets and habaneros, frankly. They are producing like crazy and they’re too hot to do much with. I wish I had planted the mildly hot peppers I planted last year. I think next year I’m going to start the peppers late and see if I can break the pest cycle.


So I had to do something with the sudden bounty of extra-hot peppers. I found an interesting recipe for a fermented hot sauce but I can’t just use habaneros- none of us will eat it. The aji cachucha is for ajilimójili and sofrito but I decided to use them to tone down the fierce heat of the habaneros. I want this to be a hot sauce I will actually eat.


The recipe calls for a sweet white wine like a Riesling. So off I went to Wards Supermarket to find a bottle of German Riesling. As my daughter and I are searching the shelves for Rieslings and finding nothing, this bottle of wine caught my eye. Why not? The wine is sweet, like the recipe specifies, the fruitiness will probably complement the fruity habaneros, and it’s local.


 Here’s the mashed chiles and salt, before adding the wine. Isn’t it beautiful? I can’t wait to see how it turns out. See the link above for the recipe and instructions if you want to try it yourself. It’s autumn- ferment all the things!

Changing the Plan

I think my meal planning habits and our usual diet are going to have to adjust. My food “standards” started when I was a homeschooling mom with three young children and an additional part-time job. I was busy but my schedule was flexible. Our budget was very tight and I am naturally thrifty so meeting those self-set standards became a point of pride. It became part of my identity as a mother and wife. I cooked almost everything from scratch, shopped at multiple stores and markets each week to eat seasonally and get the best prices, and seldom bought “convenience” foods. You can eat a very healthy diet for a reasonable amount of money if you’re able and willing to devote the time to it. Healthy food isn’t expensive. Healthy convenience foods are expensive. I never factored in the value of my own time or the amount of time I was devoting to food preparation.

For many years our diet has been based on seasonal produce, whatever we bought at the farmers’ market. We’d had the common American quick breakfast/light lunch/heavy, full dinner pattern of meals. I did one large grocery shopping trip once a week because that’s the best way to stay on budget.

Our current family life is just too hectic. My husband’s business keeps him incredibly busy with an erratic schedule. My kids have evening classes and band practice. I am regularly stuck between beating myself up for another failed meal plan and killing myself to make my over-ambitious meal plans work. We all have been splitting the cooking between us- the kids starting dinner prep and I finish when I get home from work, my husband cooking on his nights at home, and lots of oops nights when dinner ends up being at 9pm or we eat scrambled eggs. Lately it’s been me chasing three teenagers around, haranguing them to eat the dinner that I spent an hour cooking after my 10-hour shift. This habit is no longer working for us. I have to change the way I think about meals for our family.

So, loyal readers, give me some suggestions. What works for your family? Do you eat a larger lunch and simpler dinner? Do you cook ahead? Do you spend the money on high-quality convenience foods? Tell me what works for your family.

Garlicky Lacto-Fermented Giardiniera


I am a total sucker for the discount bin at the grocery store. Today I scored a cauliflower and a bag of five yellow sweet peppers for $3. How can you pass that up? Since I already had carrots, more peppers, and garlic at home, I decided to try a new ferment- Italian pickled vegetables, also known as giardiniera. I read a recipe for a winter salad based on muffaletta (which is one of my favorite foods) that included giardiniera and I need to add more fermented goodness to my diet. So of course I started by reading a couple dozen recipes on the internet and found that most giardiniera recipes aren’t lacto-fermented at all- they’re briefly soaked in brine to draw out moisture and then either marinated in olive oil or pickled with a vinegar brine. Now I have no idea if giardiniera was ”traditionally” lacto-fermented  or not (vinegar pickles have a very long history, too) but I’m going to try it.


Garlicky Lacto-Fermented Giardiniera

I will admit to playing it fast & loose with pickling brines. I don’t measure carefully but the goal is a 2% solution of salt to water. I live in Florida where there’s plenty of warmth and bacteria, so ferments live most of their lives in the fridge. If you don’t plan on refrigerating yours, measure carefully.

1 head of cauliflower
2 carrots
5 yellow sweet peppers
1 red Italian pepper
1 stalk of celery
10 fat cloves of garlic (no really! Ten!)
1 tbl whole coriander seeds
1 heaping tbl dried oregano
3 quarts filtered or boiled tap water, warm
3+ tbl sea salt

First wash the vegetables carefully with warm water and rinse well. The break the cauliflower into small florets and cut everything else as small as you want it. I left my pieces on the large size. Slice the garlic cloves. Then take a gallon jar with lid and wash it thoroughly in the hottest water you can. Then pack the vegetables into the jar (you can put them in pretty layers if you want) with some of the spices and sliced garlic between each layer. Then pour three tablespoons of salt over the top. Pour in warm water until the water completely covers the vegetables. If you added more than two quarts, add about a teaspoon of salt for each cup of water over two quarts. Add your jar weight if you use one (I use a plastic lid weighed down with a small bowl) to keep the vegetables submerged. Put the cap on loosely and put it somewhere you can keep an eye on it. Check it every day for a week to make sure the vegetables are still submerged. The brine will get cloudy and then clear up slightly, and start smelling like pickles. After a week, take a pair of clean tongs and fish out a piece. If it’s sour enough for you, put it in the fridge for another week, then eat. If you like it more sour, leave it on the counter and taste every couple of days.

Puffball for Dinner

I ate a wild mushroom and I lived!

Well, this isn’t the first time I’ve eaten foraged mushrooms or wild mushrooms… I’ve been chanterelle picking in Oregon with my sister, and I’ve purchased foraged chanterelles and honey mushrooms from Southeast Mushroom at the farmers’ market many times, but this is the first time I’ve found an edible wild mushroom myself, identified it, and cooked it. The best part- it came out of my front yard, and there are probably more!

old puffballs

I have been finding these old, dried out puffballs under the mulch in the herb garden for over a year. The herb garden was one of the first sheet mulching mounds and is always full of fungi. I was just joking with my husband a week for so ago that this was one of my most successful crops- it’s too bad we can’t eat them. This photo above is composed of dried out puffballs discovered over two weeks. That white sphere is a lacrosse ball for size reference.

puffball youngOn Monday I found my first young puffball! I was weeding the herb garden and touched something cool and damp and yielding under the mulch. I thought it was maybe a toad burrowed down in the mulch, but when I uncovered it, it was a beautiful white young puffball!

puffball split

I knew puffballs were edible, but I still had to make sure what I had was actually a puffball mushroom. First I googled (Thank you Green Deane, as usual), then I posted photos on a local garden group, then I took the mushroom to a local mushroom forager for an in-person ID. Michael Adler of the Edible Plant Project confirmed that it was definitely an edible puffball.

trimmed puffballI thought the smooth skin meant it was free of worms and bugs, but when I started cutting it up I found that they were hiding under the skin. By the time I trimmed off all the bad spots there wasn’t much left, about enough for one person. This turned out to be fortuitous, since my husband declined to try any, declaring that one of us should be able to drive to the hospital, just in case.

sauteed puffballSliced puffball, sauteed simply in butter with salt and pepper, served with fresh bratwurst cooked in beer with sauerkraut, and roasted cauliflower and home-grown sunchokes tossed with sage and blue cheese. It was all delicious! And I didn’t die!

Now I just have to figure out how to find the puffballs hiding under the mulch while they’re still young enough to eat.

Ginger & Turmeric First Harvest

The subtitle to this post is “How To Do Everything Wrong”.

Most of the crops I am planning on growing out at the farm are in the ginger family. I played hooky from basically everything this morning and spent the morning watching youtube videos and reading ag websites on ginger farming. I watched farm videos from Costa Rica, India, and the Philippines. I downloaded cultivation and processing guides from India and Ghana.

And then I looked outside at my ginger patch, I realized I have been doing just about everything wrong.

ginger bed

Well, sort of wrong. Wrong in that irritating “It depends” sort of way. What I’ve been doing is just fine for the home ginger patch in the back of the garden. Not so much for farming. Farming gingers, which as a plant family include turmeric, galangal, ginger, and a bunch of other edible and medicinal rhizomes, is quite different.


In order to grow great ginger, you have to mound soil over the tops of the rhizomes as they grow. This is a preliminary ginger harvest. See the green at the tops of the roots? That ginger is not fit for the market. See how the rhizomes are long but shallow? That’s because I grew them right up under an oak tree and next to a low gardenia- the ginger had to compete with these other plants for root space.


This is my meager galangal harvest. I guess this is decent considering the “mother” was a small chunk of half-dead root with three live “eyes” brought home from a Vietnamese grocery store in Atlanta. Not enough fertilizer, not enough soil mounding, not deep enough soil. I may split up and replant the larger clump as “seed” for next year. 


This preliminary turmeric harvest was the most disappointing. Unlike other gingers, turmeric wants sun and lots of it. This turmeric was planted too closely together and definitely in too much shade. There’s only one “hand” and it’s very small. I expect fresh turmeric to be my #1 money-maker so I need to get good at growing this.

seed turmeric

This is “seed” turmeric from a local nursery. This kind of turmeric is fine for a backyard garden plot but I have no idea what variety this is. I would invest in a named turmeric variety from India if I could, but to import things like that you have to buy huge amounts. So I’ll probably pay out the nose for organic varietal seed turmeric from Hawaii.

I have a half-dozen other Zingiber-family plants to sort out, too! There’s so much to learn, and I love it.

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