Sunny Slope Orchard

Sunny Slope Orchard
In the coast range foothills overlooking the Sacramento Valley

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Walnuts from tree to table

Cooler weather and shorter days are here. It's Fall again, the time when walnuts that have been maturing all summer are falling from their husks. Walnuts are nutritious, tasty and versatile and we eat the majority of our small crop ourselves throughout the year. Here we will share some tools of the trade that speed up both harvesting and shelling this locally abundant food.
For easiest harvesting we wait until most husks are at least split open. Then knocking the branches with padded poles or shaking the branches will easily release a shower of nuts onto the ground.
A walnut ready to fall from the husk

The Nut Wizard picks up objects like a vacuum cleaner
Picking up
Next is picking them up. That used to mean sore back time - bending over or crawling on hands and knees to fill buckets. But not any more! Since a friend told us about the Nut Wizard this once tedious job has become a breeze. This tool might at first look like just another gimmick, but in fact is a well made and very effective tool. Simply by rolling it over the ground it will pick up any type of nut, small to medium citrus, apples, golf balls and more. Roll it over walnuts and as if by magic they instantly pop inside the flexible wires of the rolling basket.

Then when full just lower it onto the included bucket hoop; this spreads the wires and the nuts fall into the bucket. It's so much fun to use you may be tempted to dump the bucket out and pick the nuts up again!

After harvesting, the nuts need to dry thoroughly before shelling. We spread them out on racks or in shallow boxes in a warm dry space for several days, until the meats become dry and brittle.

Once dry it's time to shell the nuts. A hammer and hard surface is the most basic option, but here are two alternatives:

The Texas Inertia Nut Cracker - This is a great little device, easy to use and it yields mostly halves. Just place a nut in the cracking chamber, pull back on the rubber band powered plunger and release. The shell is shattered without damaging the nut meat. Although it cracks one at a time, the job goes fairly fast once you get a rhythm going. Works with most types of nuts.

The Davebilt Nut Cracker - This is a heavy duty hand cranked machine that cracks nuts continuously. Just load them into the hopper and crank away. It is easily adjustable for English walnuts, pecans and almonds. This is the one we use, though I've modified ours to run off of an electric motor. But even hand cranking it works much faster than a single nut device. It yields a good percentage of halves and some smaller pieces of nut meat. Definitely the way to go for anyone with a whole tree's worth of nuts.

Once shelled, the oils in nut meats quickly go stale. So as with much of the food we preserve we use our trusty Foodsaver to vacuum pack the nuts into compact book-shaped bags then store them in our freezer.

Granola Recipe
This is our version of an Epicurious recipe called Everyday Granola; for comparison purposes, you can check out the original recipe at this link. You might want to adapt the ingredients to your taste preferences as we did.

Dry ingredients:
3 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1 teaspoon cinammon

Mix the above ingredients together in a large bowl.

Wet ingredients:
2 Tablespoons canola oil
2 Tablespoons molasses
2 Tablespoons honey

Mix the wet ingredients together and warm gently on the stove or in a microwave so you can stir and blend them together. Drizzle the wet mix onto the dry ingredients and stir with a large spoon to coat the oat mixture evenly.

Put the mixture in a large rimmed baking sheet, spreading it out evenly. Bake in a 275 degree oven for about 30 minutes, stirring the mixture every 10 minutes or so to assure that it browns evenly. It should look golden brown when done and the nuts should taste pleasantly crunchy.

Serve for breakfast with yogurt, fresh or dried fruits, and/or milk.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Some favorite vegetable varieties

A lot goes into successful gardening, like fertile soil, kind weather, watering method, and pest control. One of the most important factors is expressed in the old saying, "the best fertilizer is the gardener's footprints," in other words, watch the garden closely and you will catch small problems before they become big.

Plant varieties are also important, and with so many available it pays to experiment to find those that are best suited to your soil and climate. Here I will list a few of our favorites, those that consistently do well in our well drained soil, hot summers and mild winters. I will also share some of our favorite sources of seed and starts.
There are loads of great slicing toms, but for a good meaty sauce, salsa, soup and salad tomato we are sold on Juliet. These little guys are the sweetest things this side of Sungold, and bear nice clusters of perfect fruit all summer long. A perfect size to pop into your mouth, people invariably exclaim about their flavor. And since we process loads of soup and sauce, these are fast to process just by dropping whole into our Champion Juicer. We get starts locally from Morningsun Herb Farm.

Green beans
We've decided the only bean for us is a long bean variety. This one is called Red-Seeded Asparagus Bean from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They are stringless, have great flavor, and are resistant to pests and problems. Best of all we find they are much faster to pick and to process than the same weight of shorter beans. We freeze extra for winter meals, and it takes no time at all to drop a big handful into boiling water, fish them out 2 minutes later with tongs, drop into ice water, then lay a bunch across a cutting board and cut into 1" pieces.

Okra blossom
This is the first year we've grown okra, so can't recommend a particular variety. But we can recommend it as a reliable and very heavy producer. While okra might sound like something you serve alongside squirrel or possum, it is actually a delicious and versatile vegetable that is easy to grow and, at least in our experience, has few pest problems. We preserved a lot by freezing. We grew Clemson this year, and may try one of the red varieties next season. The blooms are also spectacular.

Tree Collard
This unusual plant has become a mainstay in our garden. Being big fans of greens, we used to grow your typical varieties of kale and collards, annual cool season plants that live one season and die. But a few years ago a neighbor gave us a start of a tree collard, a perennial variety that becomes a tall bush that can be harvested continuously year after year. The plant looks ratty and flavor gets bitter in our hot summers, but when cool weather returns we can once again harvest from our perpetual fountain of greens without having to start new plants. They are reported to be only possible to propagate from seed, however ours flowered and seedlings sprouted where the seeds fell. Bountiful Gardens is one source of cuttings.

Probably our favorite vegetable, we've settled on Arcadia as the variety that does best for us. It produces huge heads, then after harvest continues to produce good sized side heads for weeks longer. This year we did a late spring planting and kept it under shade cloth. Here in October we are still harvesting side shoots from those plants. Meanwhile our mid-summer plantings are growing vigorously and should be ready to start harvesting in a few weeks.

Known as Romanesco broccoli or Romanesco cauliflower, this unique plant is a must have for its looks alone. Someone once said it looks like a combination of geometry and vegetable. But in addition to its amazing decorative value, the taste is delicious and mild. This particular variety is Veronica.

There are lots of great lettuce varieties, and we often buy seed packets of mixes containing different colors and leaf shapes that really add interest to a salad. The one pictured here is Sanguine Ameliore from Baker Creek.

We are having great luck with a Chinese Napa cabbage variety called Minuet. It is really fast growing and mild flavored. We've had delicious results in stir fries, soups, stews and raw in a simple to make Napa cabbage salad (but we skip the butter and all the sugar in this recipe).

Nelson has been the best performer for us, with wonderful flavor, early maturity and heat tolerance. In fact, starting in late winter we have been eating garden carrots continuously all summer. Because carrot seeds are so small and hard to sprinkle on the ground with even spacing, I like to buy "pelleted" seeds, which are coated with a clay substance to make them bigger and easier to drop singly into the ground.

We always do one special Spring planting of around 500 carrots that we run through the juicer for freezing. And when digging so many carrots there are always a few unusual shapes. So I can't resist showing off this amorous pair discovered during our last big dig.

Sources for onions, garlic, and potatoes
We have had great luck with onion starts from Dixondale Farms. Order online in the Fall and they arrive in January ready to plant. For garlic and potatoes, I use The Potato Garden which has great varieties and service.

Happy gardening!