Friday, March 23, 2012

Cucurbitaceae - Loofahs, Lemon Cucumbers and Super Pumpkins

The Cucurbitaceae is a family of vegetables native to tropical and subtropical climates in both the New World (North and South America) and the Old Word (Africa, Europe, Asia) - consisting of such familiar household staples as cucumbers, squash, gourds, melons, and --- wait for it --- loofahs!

Really, it should not come as a complete surprise that we might be able to grow useful household items in the garden - after all, linen is made from flax, hemp cloth is made from hippies a certain green plant, and beets can make a beautiful pink food dye. But I can honestly say I had never contemplated WHERE loofahs might originate. From the loofah gourd, of course.

A sampling of cucumbers from 2011
In my 2012 garden, I am going to pass on the loofah gourd this year, in favor of pickling cucumbers, lemon cucumbers, watermelons, sugar pie pumpkins, super pumpkins, zucchini, yellow summer squash, butternut squash, and Hubbard squash (if I can manage to fit them all in). 

I'm excited about the lemon cucumbers, which are small, mild-tasting cucumbers that will hopefully grow prolifically. In addition, this will be my first year trying to grow a big pumpkin - a.k.a. a super pumpkin! I just found out that growing enormously large pumpkins is serious business. Like racehorses, super-sized pumpkins can be tracked by lineage, with the seeds of the award-winning Biggest Pumpkins being in high demand among a certain crowd. My super pumpkin seeds come from a 1,095-lb pumpkin named Urena from 2007, whose parents were the 1,100-lb Wallace (dad) and the 1,195-lb Zunino (mom).

By the way, the reason why it's easy to track the parentage of pumpkins and other cucurbits is that they have two different types of flowers - male and female. Unlike many other garden plants that have both male and female parts in the same flower (termed "perfect" flowers), cucurbits produce two types of "imperfect" flowers, one with stamens (the male reproductive part) and one with pistils (the female reproductive part). It is a simple process to use the male flower of one variety and hand-pollinate the female flower of another variety. Here's an informative article from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana about breeding your own plants, including a step-by-step on hand-pollination pumpkins or squash.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Fabaceae Family: Cosmopolitan Beans

This post is all about beans... hopefully, it will be more interesting or useful than a hill of beans.
The Fabaceae is the bean family, which includes, among many others, the pea, the green bean, the lentil, the soybean, the fava bean, the black bean, the chickpea, and the peanut.

Snow peas in a tangle of vines
The bean family is considered "cosmopolitan"because these plants are found throughout the world. The bean family is extremely important to many food cultures, providing a wonderful source of vegetable protein that is portable, storable and flexible. By flexible, I mean that there is a wide variety of ways that beans can be prepared - beans can be eaten raw, dried and then cooked, smushed into hummus or peanut butter, ground into flour, fermented into tofu, tempeh, soy sauce and miso, and even concocted into red-bean ice cream.

Personally, I prefer fresh green beans to dried beans, and so I am devoting a good amount of space in the garden for both bush beans and pole beans (Rattlesnake and Kentucky Wonder). However, if I don't quite get to all the Rattlesnake beans in time, I've read that these taste something like pinto beans when dried and cooked. I'm also planning to grow a lot of snowpeas, as these flat green pods are a favorite in our household - and they freeze really well. Depending on space constraints and my ambition, maybe I will plant green shelling peas, as you really can't have pasta primavera or chicken pot pie without peas. This year will be the first year for trying to grow soybeans for edamame-eating purposes; I've ordered the Beer Friend variety from Fedco. (How could you not love a soybean that is a friend of beer?)

Hard to believe my garden will look like this in 3 short months.

For Dark Days Week 14, our challenge within a challenge is to cook a vegetarian meal. While the easy way out would have been to make this egg and cheese breakfast sandwich, I worked with my husband to make a green bean noodle casserole with mushroom sauce. I need to work on my egg noodle-making - the first time was not the charm.

Local ingredients - eggs, wild mushrooms, onions, shallots, butter and milk.
Flour from King Arthur Flour (local company, but grains grown in the Midwest)
Frozen green beans from Trader Joe's - I thought I had some garden beans left from last summer, but I couldn't find them in the chest freezer.