Monday, October 15, 2012

Last Hurrah

The garden's last hurrah before Friday night's killing frost. I can't believe we're here already--too soon for my taste.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Going to Seed

I've been hearing the same refrain several times a day: Where did the summer go? At Markate Estates we're knee-deep in tomatoes, making confit, sauce, ketchup, salsa, gazpacho, and canning like crazy. The Titan sunflowers, which grew to a towering eight feet this year, are already hanging their heavy heads. We're still waiting for the seeds to darken and dry, though, so we can harvest and eat them. A friend told us that the entire sunflower head can be roasted and eaten as a delicacy, but we haven't attempted that yet.

Three cheers for the ground cherries that are finally dropping off their bushes! But I'm still in denial about the pumpkins; a couple of them are already ripe! My brain is unable to make the transition from summer to fall just yet. And we have three more weeks to go till the autumnal equinox. I'm in no hurry for the bounty of summer to trail off, even if processing all these tomatoes is a full-time job.

I took these photos yesterday at dusk, in my favorite light with my favorite lens. Man, I love our garden, even when the overgrowth is trying to swallow me whole.


Monday, August 6, 2012

The Jungle

As you can see, this is the time of year when the garden starts to take on a life of its own. Eight-foot-tall sunflowers, watermelons as big as basketballs, and a bumper crop of tomatoes on the verge of ripeness. We're steeling ourselves for the weeks of desperate round-the-clock canning. Not that I'm complaining. We just have to keep telling ourselves that it's okay to feel out of control sometimes.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Baked Torta with Spring Greens

Right now our garden is exploding with good things to eat, and after waiting so long for spring to arrive, I can’t bear to waste a single lettuce leaf. Our bi-weekly share of amazing produce from Genesis Farm has also begun, so on occasion I’ll find myself with a fridge full of greens as well as bags full of them littering the kitchen floor. Like today, for example. When this situation arises, I do not panic. Our family can only eat so many salads, so I turn to this trusty recipe for a warm, flavorful torta that uses up to three pounds of spring greens and garlic. Served with a big communal bowl of snap peas that the kids gobbled in minutes flat, it was perfect for today’s cool, rainy weather.

This is a significantly adapted version of Marcella Hazan’s Baked Escarole Torta from her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I don’t often use recipes to cook Italian food, but when I do, Hazan is my guru.

Baked Torta with Escarole and Chard
  • 2 2/3 cups unbleached flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 scant teaspoon active dry yeast, dissolved in 1 cup lukewarm water
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 to 3 pounds fresh escarole, chard, kale, or spinach
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons chopped garlic (or 4 stalks garlic greens, or 2 heads young garlic, or even 1 cup chopped garlic scapes)
  • 3 tablespoons capers
  • 10 oil-cured olives, pitted and quartered
  • 7 flat anchovy fillets, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts or chopped walnuts
1. Mound the flour in a bowl (or on a work surface, if you’re feeling confident) and make a hollow in its peak. Put the salt, a few grindings of pepper, the dissolved yeast, and the olive oil into its peak. Pull together and knead for about 8 minutes by hand or in a standing mixer.

2. Shape the kneaded dough into a ball and put it into a lightly floured bowl. Cover the bowl with a damp, doubled-up cloth towel and put it in a warm, protected corner until the dough has doubled in bulk, 1 to 1½ hours.

3. Preheat the oven to 375°F and prepare a rack in the uppermost position.

4. While the dough is rising, prepare the filling. Wash the greens and slice thinly into 1-inch pieces. Put the olive oil and garlic in a large sauté pan, turn the heat to medium, and cook the garlic, stirring, until it becomes colored a pale gold. Add the greens, turning once or twice to coat it well. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for 10 minutes, turning from time to time. If the pan juices are watery, turn the heat up and reduce them quickly. Stir the capers, and then the olives, into the escarole. Remove from heat. Stir in the anchovies and nuts. Taste for salt, pour the contents of the pan into a bowl, and set aside to cool.

5. When the dough has doubled in bulk, divide it into 2 unequal parts, one twice the size of the other. Roll out the larger piece of dough into a circular sheet large enough to line the bottom and sides of a 10-inch springform pan. To simplify transferring this to the pan, roll the dough out on a piece of lightly floured wax or parchment paper.

6. Smear the inside of the springform pan with butter. Transfer the large circular sheet of dough to the pan, covering the bottom and letting it come up the sides. Smooth the dough, flattening and evening off any particularly bulky creases with your fingers.

7. Pour all the filling from the bowl into the pan and level it off with a spatula.

8. Roll out the remaining piece of dough until it is large enough to cover the top of the pan. Lay it over the filling, covering it completely. Press the edge of the top sheet of dough against the edge of the sheet lining the pan. Make a tight seal all around, folding any excess dough toward the center.

9. Place on the uppermost rack of the preheated oven and bake until the torta swells slightly and the top becomes colored a pale gold, about 45 minutes. When you take it out of the oven, unlatch the pan’s spring, and remove the hoop. Allow the torta to settle a few minutes before loosening it from the bottom and transferring it to a serving platter. Serve either lukewarm or at room temperature.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Two Hearts That Beet As One

Leaf beets, where have you been all my life?
Mark and I recently had a revelation similar to the one a couple of years ago when we discovered ground cherries. Intrigued by a rave review in the Fedco catalog, we ordered some leaf beet seeds to supplement our spinach crop, which always seems to peter out too early in the season.

Leaf beets are basically beets that don't have an edible root. But the leaves are completely delicious, and I actually like them more than spinach. They don't squeak between your teeth, they're a little more succulent than spinach, and the flavor is unexpectedly savory, almost salty. The whole family chowed down on a big bunch at dinner tonight, and I didn't hear a single complaint from the kids.

Internet wisdom tells me that leaf beets are an ancient vegetable that lost popularity once spinach came on the scene, but I don't get it. Why eat spinach when you can have these tasty, crunchy leaves instead? They're even more heat tolerant than spinach and can grow right through the summer, like chard. And they're prolific as all get-out, not spindly like spinach plants can be.

I'm already brainstorming recipes.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Promises, Promises

I often get impatient in the spring, my mind jumping ahead to harvest time. But it's easy to forget how overwhelming August and September can be: trying to keep the garden under control, canning all that produce, and planting fall crops.

Spring is so full of promise; nothing has gone seriously wrong yet, and I can blithely imagine that the deer won't eat our gooseberries, that beetles won't chew on the eggplants, that the tomatoes won't succumb to end rot and we'll actually have time to pick and process them all instead of leaving some to wither on the vine because we're so frazzled.

In May I can take pictures of flowers and enjoy their winks and whispered innuendos. Consider me seduced.

Chive flowers

First-year strawberries

Little lettuce volunteers from last year's plants that went to seed.

Pea shoots--yum.

My new friend the violet.

Mark's hugelkultur experiment:
growing potatoes in mounds of old wood.
More to come about this soon.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Blueberries: From Alkali to Juicy Pie

Happy blueberry bush in our garden.
What’s that you say? This is supposed to be a gardening blog and you haven’t seen any actual gardening for a while? I’m glad you mentioned it, because it’s not that we haven’t been doing any. Mark has been itching to talk about the extensive array of berries we’ve planted this year, especially the blueberries. He’s also been taking advantage of his new headlamp to stay out in the garden until 9pm. (Hilarious photos to come.)

Blueberries are about as quintessentially “Jersey” as the Turnpike and the Sopranos. When it comes to growing them, the southern part of the state is the perfect environment with its distinctively acidic soil thanks to all those pine needles. While most fruit plants enjoy soil that is neutral to slightly acidic, blueberry bushes prefer to plant their feet in well-drained sandy loam, rich in organic material, with a pH range of about 4-5. This habitat abounds in the evergreen forests of Atlantic, Burlington, and Ocean counties, but not so much in western Morris county. A certain amount of backbreaking toil is required--music to my ears!

At first glance, it’s tempting to lump blueberries in with members of the bramble family (raspberries, blackberries, etc.), mostly because of the similar ways we use the berries. I mean, how hard can they be to grow? Wild raspberries grow like weeds around here, and even the cultivated varieties thrive in less-than-ideal conditions. But the highbush blueberry plant, a member of the heath family, differs in many ways from your garden-variety bramble. In addition to the acidic soil requirements, blueberries grow as individual bushes and take longer to establish than raspberries. That said, once established, blueberry plants can produce for decades, and wild version are every bit as successful as their wineberry counterparts given the right conditions. And that’s the key with blueberries: getting the conditions right.

My first blueberry experiment began 2 years ago with about 8 plants and a new garden space. I read up on planting techniques and made a plan. The biggest challenge was to get the soil pH down from neutral to below 5 if possible. A lot of sources recommend using peat moss and sulfur, so I merrily dug 8 holes in hard-pack, rocky clay and filled them with with some sphagnum moss, sulfur granules, and some native “soil” for good measure. I planted each seedling, watered them once or twice, then dutifully ignored them for the next 24 months; three or four survived but never showed much growth, and the others called it quits altogether. They turned into casualties of an over-ambitious start to an overwhelming new garden. I’m sure it won’t be the last horticultural atrocity I commit.

Flash-forward to Plan B. My latest scheme is influenced an orchardist friend who has actual experience growing blueberries just a few miles from my house. The first step I took was to spread some sulfur, peat moss, and pine needles over the planting area last fall. The idea here is to try to slowly--not instantly--lower the pH of the entire area. Then, instead of digging individual holes for each plant, I excavated a 35’ long trench to a depth of about 12” and filled it with peat moss, sand, some native soil, and a little compost. Importantly, NO sulfur went into the hole. Sulfur is apparently a very slow-acting agent that can take years to activate, and it does not belong in intimate contact with plant roots. Next, I planted the blueberries and dumped lots of compost on top of the filled-in trench and around each plant. I mulched the entire planting area with cardboard [Kate: This lends our garden a delightful hobo je ne sais quoi."] and then dumped straw on top for weed control. The finishing touch is a mound around each blueberry plant made of pine needles and forest litter I dug up from our yard. I’ve even managed to water each plant deeply twice during this hellacious drought we’ve had.

For “fun,” I dug up the surviving stragglers of Blueberries v1.0 and planted them at the end of the new row. I could be imagining things, but I feel like these three old veterans have already perked up noticeably this year at bud-break. Perhaps they’ve been biding their time, waiting to explode with fecundity when conditions turned favorable. Or perhaps I’m delusional and simply enjoy using disgusting adjectives. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Infusiasm, Part II

The two infusions, much reduced.
In Infusiasm: Part I I merrily picked bucketsful of violets and honeysuckle, then poured boiling water over and let everything sit overnight. Today I finished the experiment.

The syrups turned out to be subtle but surprisingly flavorful. I wasn't sure what to expect from the violets, since one friend warned that commercial violet syrup, like Monin, tastes (in her esteemed opinion) like old lady perfume. I'm relieved to report this is not the case with the homemade version. It's floral and a little fruity without tasting like you ate a handful of potpourri.

The honeysuckle tastes like a garden with bees in it. It's so lovely I had to immediately mix a couple of drinks with each. First I tasted them both with sparkling water on ice (so refreshing!), then I got serious. Here's what I came up with:
A splash of lemon juice turned the violet
syrup from dingy purplish-gray to true violet.

Violet syrup with sparkling water, Cointreau, and a squeeze of lemon. So delicate and ladylike! Not at all perfumey like violet candy.

Honeysuckle syrup with Courvoisier and mint has a lot of personality. You get the floral honey and mint flavors with an edge of cognac that gives the drink some structure.

You can't go wrong mixing either of these with prosecco, too.

You may be wondering which one of these delightful cocktails accompanied me into my office to write this blog post. Gentle reader, it was the violet. Who can resist such a beautiful color?

I'm left with a few questions: Are the violets I used less potent than most? Does it matter that I collected the honeysuckle blossoms on a rainy day? I wonder if the syrups will be stronger if I pick them under precisely the right conditions. I'm happy with the results, but I plan to keep experimenting. Here's my recipe.

Flower Syrup
(Folks, make sure your flowers are safely edible before you start.)

2 cups packed blossoms
3 cups boiling water
1 cup sugar 
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Pick your flowers, using only good quality fresh flowers. Cover with boiling water and let steep anywhere from 12 to 24 hours. Strain through a sieve, then simmer gently until the infusion is reduced to 1 cup. Make a 1:1 sugar syrup by adding the sugar and the lemon juice. Pour into a glass jar and use right away or store in the fridge. These are safe for canning; simply put in a hot water bath for 15 minutes and store in a cool, dry place for up to a year.

Makes 1 1/2 cups.
Peter Rabbit can't choose a favorite!

Monday, April 23, 2012


Aren't you lucky? You get to watch me perform my latest kitchen experiment in real time. Not much is ready to harvest in our garden yet besides rhubarb and mint, so I'm taking my impatience far afield and going foraging. We were treated to the deluxe version of foraging a couple of weeks ago at a little ramp festival in the woods with the best local ingredients prepared by some chefs who really knew what to do with them. My humble contribution was some Golden Treasure syrup I had made from late-summer yellow tomatoes and herbs from our garden--rosemary, some basil when it starts to flower and take on an anise flavor, and the season's first apples. My friend Ben made a mouth-watering sweet-tart sauce for barbequed local pork by pureeing some of my rhubarb together with this syrup, and it was completely amazing.

This got me thinking about infused syrups, taking inventory of what's in season now. Spring has busted out so quickly that I'm afraid if I blink I'll miss something unique and then be forced to wait another year to cook up some obscure recipe. Last year I wanted to try violet jelly but was preoccupied by the garden. I've always loved the fragrance and taste of honeysuckle, too; pulling the sweet stamens out and eating them was a favorite pastime when I was a kid.

The violets are all over our lawn, so it was easy to collect them. They're not very fragrant, though, so how can they make a perfumed syrup? Guess I'll find out soon enough. This week I've been seeing honeysuckle bushes in bloom wherever I go, tempted to pull over when I'm driving and sniff them to my heart's content. Today I picked a huge jarful of blossoms that turned out to be only 1.5 ounces, half of what I needed for the recipe I'm using. No matter, I'm forging ahead!

Step 1: Make a kind of flower tea by pouring boiling water over the flowers and letting them steep overnight.

I promise to post the results whether this succeeds or fails.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Getting There

I can't believe how many strawberries, blueberries, elderberries, and raspberries we've planted (mostly thanks to Mark) in the past two weeks. How much dirt we've moved. How many seeds we've planted. The greens and broccoli are ready for transplanting. Peas and trellises are up, garlic and shallots are happy. Mark attended a grafting workshop, I took an intensive 16-hour apiculture course. We're getting there.

P.S. Did I mention my farmers' market opens tomorrow? So yeah, we've been busy.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Spring is coming. It really is.

Ice crystals under the workable topsoil


Perennial garlic chives

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fresh Start

Mark finished the second gate and laid these gorgeous pavers in the entrances on either end of the garden. It feels like we're starting with a clean, organized canvas this year. Let's see how long it stays that way!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Microfarming and the New Markate Estates

Microfarming. You won’t find the term in Webster’s Dictionary just yet. But that’s exactly what we’ve been doing without knowing what to call it. It’s not like we coined the term, either. The blogosphere is awash in aspirational folks like ourselves, some coaxing out a little slice of agricultural heaven on much smaller parcels of land than our two acres. We’ve struggled for years to define what we do with our own little scrap of Earth for years; we’re more than gardeners, not quite farmers. Definitely permaculturists, but that term doesn’t resonate with a lot of people. So--”microfarmers” it is!

A full-time farmer friend of ours was the one to call our fledgling homestead a “microfarm.” (My heart fluttered a little that he thought us worthy of any name with “farmer” in it.) This was a watershed moment for us. Being human (for all intents and purposes) we adore classification. We’ve got to slap a label on something before we can wrap our brains around it. We knew we were onto something big with the long-term “more than just veggies” approach to gardening. Besides, the term “garden” conjures up images of Better Homes and Gardens, or of your Great-Aunt Rosie outside in a floppy hat, kneeling before her rosebushes on a little mat with a pair of shears in her neatly gloved hand. Our garden isn’t quite like that; it extends beyond the boundaries of the eight-foot-tall deer-proof fence, encompassing our entire yard, our sensibilities about what to eat, the most ethical place to buy it, and the ever-expanding boundaries of self-sustainability. We may move compost, dig holes, pinch grubs, and curse flea beetles, but I’ve always cringed at the notion that our little project is something as delicate and Victorian as a “garden.” On the other hand, it sure would be nice if our effort were as attractive as one of those.

Enter the microfarm, which is simply a tiny version of its much bigger predecessor. Microfarms exist in all settings, rural or urban, in zones 3-10 and beyond. A microfarm emulates the techniques of larger operations on a scale that’s realistic for a few people to oversee. In our case, our mentors include several local biodynamic/permaculture-based CSAs. We watch them closely, impressed by their accomplishments, and strive to replicate them on a smaller scale in our own front and back yards. This year, we attended the NOFA NJ Winter Conference in Princeton as proud practitioners, primed to absorb as much practical knowledge as the largest professional farmers in attendance. We no longer make excuses for the size of our endeavor, nor do we apologize to friends and family about our eccentric forays into all manner of organic agriculture. While our process hasn’t changed (although the scope of our work has), the microfarmer label has inspired a small but significant shift in the way we define ourselves and move forward.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Seedy Neighborhood

Hard to believe our seeds are already here! We even planted the first leeks under lights last week. This mild winter is tricking us into thinking that spring is near. I'm trying really hard to keep in mind that there's a good six weeks left before we can really expect warm weather. Winter is bleak, but it's easier to deal with if I brace myself. So instead, let's talk about SEEDS! If anyone reading this is as excited by this list as I am--call me!

We're proud to say that we've saved a good third of the seeds on this list from plants we grew last year. The rest we ordered from Seed Savers Exchange, Fedco, Southern Exposure, and Seeds from Italy. The last is a new place that gets rave reviews from the well-respected Garden Rant. Seeds from Italy sells heirloom seeds from--you guessed it--Italy, and some varieties are hundreds of years old. We're looking forward to seeing the good germination results they're known for. If you're curious about any of the varieties on here, give us a holler and we'll be happy to opine on why we love it.

Tom Thumb (saved) (butterhead)
Rouge de Vif (saved)
Cimarron (saved)

Fedco mix (saved) (interplanting with spinach)

Bordeaux (saved)

Leaf Beet

Green Arrow

Sugar Snap (saved)

Sweet Lorane

Masai (bush)

Hidatsa Shield Figure



POTATOES (experimenting with hugelkultur this year)
Yellow Finn
Purple Viking

Boule D’Or (honeydew style)
Petit Gris de Rennes (cantaloupe style)

Japanese Trifele Black
San Marzano (saved)
Blondkopfchen (yellow cherry)
Principe Borghese (for drying)


3-root Grex

Scarlet Nantes

Suyo Long

Aji dulce (saved)
Burapa (saved)
Marconi Rosso
Devil’s Kiss
Santa Fe Grande
Gigante Ancho

Walla Walla
Yellow of Parma


Bleu de Solaise

OKRA (saved)

Titan (edible seeds)

Genovese basil (saved)
Holy Basil (saved)
Queenette (saved)
Sweet peas
Empress of India nasturtiums


Rubel blueberries
Earliglow strawberries
Jewel strawberries
York elderberry
Adams elderberry
Caroline golden raspberries
Blue Ray blueberries