Harvesting and handling culinary garlic

Late June and early July are garlic-harvesting season. Our diverse culinary garlic has been very popular at market the last few years, with customers enjoying the ability to choose just the right variety for different uses. These include spicy garlic varieties for hot dishes like salsa, sweet garlic varieties best for roasting, and richly flavored garlic varieties with minimal aftertaste for raw uses like pesto. See the results of last year’s garlic tasting party for details.
Though garlic is not a labor-intensive crop overall, it does take a lot of work during the harvest period, particularly as our diversity requires a lot more care and handling than a generic one-variety wholesale crop. Harvest on our farm covers a three-week period, as different varieties mature at different times, and we have to fit in the extra work around our normal schedule. Here’s how we manage the harvesting and handling process.
IN THE FIELD

We hand-pull our garlic, sometimes having to use digging knives if the soil is hard or the heads are especially deep. Breaking off a stem is very bad, as it means the head can’t cure properly. We move along the row, laying the heads out in linear piles until the entire variety is out of the ground. This is much easier when the ground is drier; this year’s harvest was a lot cleaner than the muddy conditions of the past few years. In dry conditions there’s only a little extra dirt on the heads, like the clean-enough ones shown at upper right, but we try to gently knock off as much as possible. If the ground is wet, we’ll have to swish the heads through a bucket of water to get mud clumps off the roots, which slows down the work considerably and makes the heads wetter than we’d like. We pack these carefully into labelled baskets or containers, and haul them back to the barn for further processing. Labelling is especially important as it’s quite difficult to tell most varieties from each other by sight, as is careful handling to prevent damage that could lead to spoilage later on.

IN THE BARN

Once at the barn, we sort the heads by size and quality, using our handy homemade garlic sorter (above). Each head is run through this slot, which is marked by diameter to sort the heads into five categories: Jumbo (really large & beautiful); A (standard head); Seed (same size as A but highest quality for replanting); B (smaller than we’d like but standard quality); <b (and="" (too="" ,this="" 300-400="" adjustments="" all="" an="" and="" annual="" as="" assessments="" back="" can="" damaged).="" deformed="" details="" each="" especially="" for="" garlic="" given="" heads,="" heads="" hold="" important.="" is="" make="" necessary.="" of="" or="" our="" out="" own="" p="" quality="" replanting="" sales).
This year, the garlic is especially large and beautiful; in the photo above you see from left to right an A, Jumbo, and a truly monstrous head that we have no category for. We’ve had the highest ratios of Jumbos and the lowest ratio of Bs and <Bs that we’ve ever had on this farm. Overall the large heads make us feel like good farmers, but they may be slower to dry, and thus we are slightly more concerned about whether the curing process will go smoothly. We did find onion maggots in some of the heads again this year, and while we don’t think they’re a major problem, they are a bit of a concern, especially with extra large heads.

Once the garlic is sorted into its five categories, we bundle it to hang for curing. We use five heads/bundle for the larger categories, and 7-8 for the smaller ones. Used baling twine works very well; we tie a tight square knot around the leaves just above the center of gravity (so the heads will hang downward), and cinch tight enough to hold when the drying leaves shrink, but not so tight as to cut off circulation through the leaves (which act to draw moisture from the head and speed the curing process). We label each bundle with its variety, category, and bundle number using masking tape and marker, so that each label reads something like SIB A #3 (Siberian, size A, 3rd bundle).

The bundles are hung from the rafters of our packing barn (above left), generally one variety to a rafter, and left to dry for approximately 3 weeks. We set up multiple fans at the back of the barn, blowing out, to make sure there’s enough airflow to keep the process going. With our extra-large heads this year, there’s a little concern about their ability to dry fast enough, but we’ll just have to see what happens. In 2010, our garlic was curing during some very wet weather that had us really worried, but it came out fine so we’re less paranoid during this drier year.

We’ve found that each variety, with 160-200 heads, takes about 5 person-hours to harvest, sort, and hang, for a total of about 60 hours of work that needs to be fit into the three weeks of already busy farm work. One of the reasons we skipped market last weekend was to give us time to focus on catching up with the weeding and maintenance that this work had forced us to neglect.

AT MARKET

The good news, of course, is that with harvest done we can look forward to selling all this beautiful garlic at market. We display our twelve varieties in a cedar-stick grid ( see 2010 display, above), with informational signs for each. I bring 150-200 heads a week to market, and hang the bundles from the rear of our market tent. When I set up the stand, I cut down 4-5 heads of each variety for sale display, and will keep cutting down new heads to keep the numbers steady as they sell. Toward the end of market, I’ll stop cutting new ones; the goal is to have few cut heads left at closing time, as it’s easier to store and re-market them the next week with the leaves still on and in a labelled bundle.

AT HOME
Garlic is incredibly useful and diverse, and we’re looking forward to supplying lots of market customers with our wide selection of varieties. For some of our favorite ways to use & compare culinary garlic, see this post from 2010 on simple preparations.

Mushroom success

This spring we started another of our many experiments in different ways to raise food and make a living; this time it was raising shiitake mushrooms outdoors on logs. We harvested and prepared over 20 oak and maple logs, and spent a day inoculating these with shiitake spawn before stacking the logs within a low-lying cedar grove which we hoped would provide shade and conserve moisture.

We ended up not paying as much attention to these logs as we would have liked, and were concerned about maintenance of log moisture and signs of a competitive fungi. From our reading, we knew that it could take a full year for the first mushrooms to appear, though it was possible that a few mushrooms could show up in the fall of the first year. And that’s just what has happened. A few weeks ago, shiitakes started appearing (triggered by September rains) and we’ve enjoyed several small flushes of early mushrooms since:

Joanna has never liked mushrooms, while I love them. This was my best chance to prepare really good mushrooms in a way that might convince her otherwise; we’ve often found that we learn to like a previously scorned food when it’s sourced fresh from the farm and prepared well. I’ve gotten much more tolerant of zucchini and asparagus, while Joanna becomes ever more fond of meat.


A nice collection of truly fresh mushrooms like these, only minutes off the log, can be prepared in a variety of easy and excellent ways. Sliced or chopped and sauteed in butter, they’re just the right texture with a great flavor; the stems add great flavor to stocks and soups. We used a batch on fresh pizza where they really stood out, and also made an excellent shepherd’s pie of fresh potatoes, parsnips, carrots, onions, and mushrooms with a scratch-made biscuit topping. Heaven.

These logs should produce mushrooms for 3-5 years with proper maintenance. We still have a lot to learn about the details of outdoor shiitake cultivation, but it’s nice to have a literal taste of success. Having seen that we can produce something with a manageable amount of work, we’re now intending to double the number of logs next spring and work toward building up a market-worthy quantity. That would be a nice diversification of income, but at the very least it’s another source of on-farm food for a minimal investment of money, relying mostly on farm-sourced materials and labor. Just our style.

Are you changing the food system?

I’ve tried many times to write something like this. It’s always too strong, too personal, too vitriolic; something we don’t dare go on record saying. So I’ll let this other full-time farmer say it for me. Read it with an open mind, and try to see things from our side of the market table. One caveat, the shot at fancy restaurants isn’t fair to places like Sycamore, which take very seriously their commitment to local foods and farm-sourcing. Otherwise, I think it’s spot-on and would welcome some comments or constructive debate on its somewhat provocative argument.

Ballpark edamame

We all know fresh edamame are a tasty snack, but this weekend we took that to a new level. As my main birthday present, we took Sunday off and went to an afternoon baseball game in Kansas City (I prefer the city, the stadium, and the team to their counterparts in St Louis). Being ourselves, we had no interest in ballpark food and brought our own. Fresh pitas with farm lettuce, cukes, tomatoes, aged raw-milk cheddar… I’m pretty sure we were the only fans there eating homemade cheese. Oh, and the edamame.

Peanuts and ball games go great together; the salty shelling snack balances the beer perfectly and keeps the hands busy. But I’m not about to pay overblown peanut prices, so we boiled up a large batch of fresh edamame before we left, figuring they’d make a great substitute. We were right. Here’s me displaying our gallon bag of farm-fresh goodies:

As we sat in our $13 seats, alternating between Boulevard Wheat and shelling edamame, watching a very enjoyable 2-1 win, I think we got a pretty good value out of the day. And if this fall’s peanut harvest goes well (we have several rows planted), maybe we’ll set aside a very special batch for this time next year. In the meantime, I can attest that our edamame travel well and complement baseball nicely.

Give okra a try

Okra produces a wide variety of reaction from customers, ranging from YUM to EW to HUH? Fresh okra is delicious, but it’s not surprising that okra has a bad reputation among some, as it can be slimy and tough if overgrown or old. Also, it doesn’t store or transport well, so if it’s been sitting very long it’s not going to be very good. We only sell okra harvested within a few days of market, to keep it tasty and fresh.

We grow two varieties, a standard Clemson Spineless and a more unique Burmese. The latter is paler than other okra, and can grow much larger than usual while still being tender and flavorful. These can be 8-10″ long and still taste great, not hard or nasty like other okras get at that stage. This claim is backed up by both our employees’ raves, and reviews from Sycamore Restaurant and Uprise Bakery, who have been buying and approving of it. To the several customers who have argued with me about Burmese’s size: everyone who tries it understands that it’s not the same as others’ overgrown okra that looks similar. Give it a try.

Okra is best used within a few days of purchase, partly because it is hard to give okra perfect storage conditions at home. Okra is subject to chilling injury if stored in too cold of a spot in the refrigerator, but room temperature is definitely too warm. It is best stored at temperatures of 45-50 degrees, and we come close to those conditions by storing okra between harvest and market in our walk-in cooler, which we maintain at about 55 degrees (a compromise between ideal temperatures for tomatoes, okra, zucchini, and cucumbers).

We like okra best when it’s sauteed or fried. Just heat some oil or butter in a skillet, chop the okra into 1/2″ rounds, maybe coat it with some cornmeal & salt, then fry or saute it until the “goo” is gone but the okra is still tender. These have a great flavor on their own and make a nice side dish or main meal. Okra freezes well & easily; just throw them whole into a Ziploc-type bag and chuck in the freezer (don’t blanch or they’ll turn really slimy). The texture won’t be as good on its own, but it adds great flavor and structure to soups and stews throughout the winter.

Our okra is really producing now, so we’d like more people to try it. This week we’ll have two pricing structures, a higher price for small “normal” okra and a lower price for the larger Burmese. This is our attempt to convince customers the Burmese is in fact edible and not just the result of a lazy or uneducated farmer, and to reflect the basic economics in which picking small okra lowers our yields per area and thus needs to cost more. We can let Burmese grow longer, getting more yield with less picking, and thus we can charge less for it. If you really want little okra, you’ll have to pay for the extra work it takes. Our prices also reflect the fact that we’re not bringing the entire week’s harvest to market, only the few days before.

If you’ve ever picked okra, you understand. The plants are tall, leafy, and prickly. There’s something in the plants which really irritates the skin; after picking long rows, my arms & hands feel like acid has been poured on them. We’re moving toward using gloves and long shirts, but it’s often so danged hot during okra season that those have their own problems. Hunting for the one or two fruits in a tall, jungly plant takes time, and care in order to cut them off without damaging the plant.

But oh, is good okra good.

Garlic in the News

We’re featured in today’s Columbia Tribune Food Section; check it out here if you’re not a local subscriber. Marcia Vanderlip, the food editor, attended our recent garlic tasting event and put together a very well-written and accurate piece on our garlic and the farm overall. I think it’s easily the best local media piece we’ve had.

For those who enjoyed the piece and found their way here, but aren’t already customers, we intend to have at least 11 varieties at this Saturday’s Columbia Farmers Market. If you like the idea of taste-testing garlic, we’re running an ongoing customer taste-test challenge in which you buy two or more heads of different varieties, take them home, and explore using them in different preparations to see if you can tease out differences. We have an official data sheet we send home with participants, and the results are tabulated and used to prepare our weekly garlic recommendations signboard at market. In return, you’ll be entered on an invitation list for an on-farm event later in the year and a chance to win some free garlic in a drawing.

We had also hoped to have a complete tabulation of tasting data so far, first in time for Marcia to use in this piece, then in time to post when the piece came out….no such luck. Just too busy. We’ll get to it sooner or later, but in the meantime enjoy the article, and come out to the Columbia Farmers Market to enjoy some interesting garlic.

And thanks again to Marcia for a great piece.

Garlic tasting results

We had a great time with our garlic tasting, and I hope our visitors did too. We ended up with 9 folks who helped us explore 12 different varieties. As we didn’t think anyone could truly taste-test 12 types of garlic in one sitting, we divided the varieties into three different preparations. Each person then was responsible for testing two types head-to-head and taking notes, then could explore the others free of duties.

Below is a quick summary of results; we’re too tired to crunch all the numbers. Look for a more detailed set of results later in the week.

ROASTED HEADS
Chrysalis Purple
German Extra Hardy
Samarkand
Shvelisi

German Extra Hardy was the clear winner in roasted, with the best flavor and texture. A few people really liked Chrysalis and Samarkand. Shvelisi was fine but nothing special.

SAUTEED IN BUTTER
(spread on fresh bread or cucumber slices)
Inchelium Red
Bogatyr
Lorz Italian
Siberian

Siberian was the runaway winner here. Everyone who compared Siberian with something else loved it, and none of the others could be consistently told apart from each other. Even tasting it again this evening, the Siberian garlic butter spread on bread has the richest, most luscious garlic flavor that none of the other three could match. Bogatyr is second in richness of flavor, and other other two are very mild. Not bad, just mild.

RAW
(infused into farm-made goat chevre)
Georgian Fire
Chet’s Italian Red
Russian Giant
Tochliavri

The core result of raw garlic is that preferences depend heavily on whether you want a hot/spicy or a mild garlic. Those who liked spicy garlic thought Russian Giant was fantastic, with Georgian Fire a close second. Chet’s and Tochliavri are far milder and were preferred by people who like really mild garlic. Personally, we’ve found that Chet’s is excellent for uses like slaws and salad dressings where you want garlic flavor with no heat, and little aftertaste.

Obviously there are many other preparations and combinations, which is why we’re also recruiting customers at market to buy several heads and do some taste-testing at home with simultaneous preparations. Ask at market if you’re interested in trying this.

We’ll crunch the numbers one of these hot afternoons, but the basic conclusions seem to be that raw and roasted were easier to differentiate from each other than sauteed. This is sensible, as cooking in more complex dishes would tend to cover the subtleties of flavor, whereas raw and roasted preparations allow more leeway for flavors to come through.

When it comes to choosing a variety, even for cooking, it’s also still worth looking at the structure of the head. Cooks who use only a bit at a time might prefer a variety with many small cloves, whereas cooks who really like garlic should buy varieties with large cloves so there’s less fussing with peeling and preparation. And we’re hoping that as more customers do at-home testing, we’ll have more data from other varieties in other applications. As we get more data, we’ll be able to do a better job of suggesting varieties based on customer taste preferences and plans for cooking.

One final note: one brave couple stayed on afterward and embarked on an adventure with us, tasting all twelve varieties raw one after another. It was stimulating, and reinforced the conclusion that these varieties are very distinct when used raw (such as in salads, slaws, salsas, etc.).

Other takes on the garlic tasting will be available soon, as the author of Capturing Como will be writing up her experiences, and Marcia from the Columbia Daily Tribune will have a story in the food section a few weeks from now. And perhaps some attendees who read the blog will add any comments or experiences, good or bad?

Coming produce attractions

Despite the somewhat empty appearance of our stand for the past few weeks, we really do have a lot on the way. Talking to other market vendors on Saturday, I heard many tales of woe. Everyone seems to be having a difficult year, as rain and insects ruin or set back crops. Really, it’s mid July and there are almost no tomatoes at market? Must be a bad year.

We’re always late to the summer produce party, partly because of our frost pocket valley and partly because we just get things in late because we’re so busy with spring items. But we have lots of things coming on strong now and within a week or two (or three?) of market, such as:

Tomatillos, which are very slow to develop but surely will be ready soon. Those half-filled husks are teasing us…

Garlic, which in this poorly lit photo is filling the rafters of our barn. The crop was an overall success, with a good distribution of beautiful, large heads. The conditions have been on the humid side for the curing process, but we haven’t detected any problems yet. We’re thrilled to start bringing our diverse display to market soon.
Tomatoes, which are looking vibrant and loaded. Probably still several weeks from real production, as all the fruits are still green, but plants are healthy with no sign of disease so far. We’re hoping it will dry out just enough to enhance the flavor as these begin to ripen.
Peppers, which like the tomatoes are healthy and productive, just need more time to mature. The variety in the photo above is Jimmy Nardello’s Italian, an heirloom variety of sweet pepper that is good for drying, among other things. This is recognized on the Slow Food “Ark of Taste” list for its exceptional qualities. The upcoming week’s heat and sun will do wonders for the peppers.
Edamame, which we’d already have at market if voles hadn’t decimated our first planting. We have a few self-seeded plants in last year’s beds which are maturing now; we ate the first fresh edamame of the season Sunday. The photo above shows pods at full size but not yet filled out; possibly a few this coming weekend, more likely the week after.
The cucumbers have been productive so far, especially these wonderfully sweet and crunchy Poona Kheeras. These are an Indian heirloom, and I had a nice young Indian-American woman double back to the stand in excitement when she saw them, as she was born in the Poona region from whence these came.

Selling these can be hard as the market is saturated in cheap cukes right now and we’re not going to lower our price to a loss just because others are overproducing. I’m also a bit concerned about a similar dynamic on other “standard” items like tomatoes and peppers, so we’ll see. We’re also concerned about our ongoing cucumber beetle infestation and its long-term effect on cukes and summer squash, but for now we’re getting good production.

So those are some things for customers to look forward to in coming weeks.

Product handling & quality at market

Even though we strive to handle our products well on the farm, it’s still pretty easy for the quality to go downhill at market. Items have to sit out on tables to sell, and on a breezy, warm day like today’s market, lots of products start to be affected. By 10:00 today I was putting wet towels on the radish tops, trying to keep them from wilting. It’s really hard to maintain high quality under such conditions, which hurts when our business model is based on things being extra-fresh and long-lasting for customers. But I can’t leave things in coolers, either, because customers won’t stop and buy what they can’t see laid out.

Moreover, many customers don’t always think about the best way to handle their produce post-market. If you buy some nice fresh lettuce or herbs, which then sit in your handle-bag at 85 degrees for the next 30-45 minutes while you shop and talk, plus the 10-15 minute drive home in a hot car, you’ve just taken some real shelf-life off your produce. I’ve heard many farmers bemoan the pattern of folks buying produce, then going off to Gerbes to complete their shopping trip while the market stuff sits in the hot trunk. So please, please consider bringing a small cooler for your purchases and taking them back there if you’re going to be very long. Our reputation will thank you.

That being said, sometimes we don’t get things right either. We brought a few heads of broccoli raab this morning, which we’d gotten a good review on from a friend who’d tried some of ours, but we hadn’t eaten it ourselves yet. I brought one bunch home, we sauteed it for lunch, and found it to be really bad. Way too strong & bitter for our tastes, I actually spit it out. So if the other bunches were like that, our apologies to the customers and please ask us for your money back. I emailed one purchaser whom I know to warn her.

We also had a nice lady inform us that the radishes she’d bought from us last week had gone bad very quickly, becoming soft and shrivelled by the next day. I found this very odd, as we routinely keep de-topped radishes in our fridge for a week with no ill effects, and have overall had very good reviews of the radishes from repeat customers. I asked about her handling, and she swore she’d taken them right home, taken the tops off, put them in the fridge. So who knows what we did wrong with those. She bought some more, and I told her if there was any problem with those we’d give her both weeks’ money back.

Our overall trend is certainly to have many repeat customers happy with our quality, but we’re grateful to those who give us any forms of feedback so we can monitor our results.

Oh, and thanks to everyone who came out today and made the Memorial Day market a huge success. The place was bustling, and I sold out by 11. We never know what to expect on holidays, but this was fantastic. Enjoy the rest of your weekend; we’ll be planting, transplanting, and weeding like crazy until/unless the expected storms pop up.

Garlic scapes

This weekend we’ll have the season’s first garlic scapes. These are the tender young flower stems of hardneck garlic, which begin to emerge about a month before the heads are ready. They should be removed to force the plant’s energy into bulbing. The easiest way to harvest scapes is to cut them off, but that wastes the best part: the tender, flavorful stem within the plant itself. With equal parts luck and skill, you can gently but firmly tug on the scape and convince it to break near the base of the plant, then be drawn up through the long, almost 2-foot stalk of the plant to emerge as a tender, coiled garlic scape. If harvested too late, scapes will become tough and woody, but the young, tender scapes are a true highlight of seasonal fare for us.

We sell ours in grades; highest price for those we’ve extracted successfully intact, and lower prices for smaller ones and broken ones that don’t have the inner portion. Use scapes like garlic scallions; chopped into anything they add a nice flavor. I particularly like them with eggs and soup. Another more creative way to use them involves making pesto; read our recipe here with a photo.

We love scapes for their tender texture and fresh garlic flavor and always enjoy their brief season. And it’s a good sign that the true garlic harvest is growing near.