Gumbo Time! by Patty G. Leander

gumbo-104

There is nothing better than a cup of hot gumbo on a cool fall evening!

There are always a few things I can count on this time of year: shorter days, cooler temperatures, fewer bugs and either the Longhorns or the Sooners reigning over the Cotton Bowl till next year (congrats UT!). Plus a big pot of flavorful gumbo thickened with the last of the okra from the garden.

gumbo-089

Cooking the roux while the Cajun trinity waits their turn to be added to the pot

It is too dang hot to stand over a stove stirring a roux in the middle of summer when okra is at its peak, but in the fall, when the bell pepper plants are loaded and the green onions are big enough to harvest, I feel compelled to make gumbo just before okra gives up the ghost; a little for immediate consumption, a little for sharing and a little for the freezer to enjoy on cold winter nights in front of a cozy fire. A small disclaimer here – I am Texan and did not grow up making gumbo in a Louisiana kitchen.  If you grew up in the Gumbo State I bet you make amazing gumbo and I salute you, but for the rest of the readers out there, including my two daughters, here is a pretty good version that I have been making, sharing and enjoying for over 25 years.

gumbo-093

It really smells good now!

 

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

Gumbo contains onions, bell pepper and celery – the Cajun trinity.

1 pound andouille or spicy smoked sausage, cut in half lengthwise then cut into ¼” slices

4-6 bone-in chicken breasts, skinned

½ cup oil

½ cup flour

1 onion, chopped

1 bell pepper, chopped

2-3 stalks celery, sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tbsp Creole seasoning

2 bay leaves

1-2 tsp dried thyme

1 tbsp Worcestershire

1-2 tsp Tabasco

1½ quarts water or chicken stock, more if needed

1-2 cups okra, sliced

4-6 green onions, thinly sliced, plus more for garnish

Cooked rice

Cook sausage in a large Dutch oven until nicely browned (I usually cook half the sausage in a separate pan for more even browning). Remove to a paper towel-lined dish to drain. Add chicken to pan and brown on both sides in sausage drippings; remove and set aside. Add enough oil to Dutch oven to measure ½ cup; when heated through stir in ½ cup flour. Now get comfortable, roll up your sleeves and cook the roux, stirring constantly, for 20-30 minutes, until medium to dark brown. You may notice that my gumbo is not as dark as what you might be served in New Orleans – I may be a Texan but I am a chicken when comes to cooking a truly deep, dark roux. A darker roux gives a rich, smoky flavor but if you cook it too long or too fast or look way even for a second it can go from perfection to scorched and you will have to start over so pay attention!

Once your roux is toasty brown it’s time to add the trinity, but the roux is so hot I like to move the pan off the heat for a couple of minutes (this also prevents the roux from burning) then stir in the onions, peppers and celery and return to the burner. Cook over medium heat for 5-8 minutes. Add garlic and seasonings, cooking and stirring another 3-5 minutes.

Gradually stir in 1½ quarts of water/chicken stock and bring to a boil. Return chicken breasts to pot, lower heat and simmer 30-45 minutes. Remove chicken and allow to cool. Return sausage to pot along with okra and green onions and simmer for 30-45 minutes. Meanwhile bone chicken breasts and shred.  Return shredded chicken to pot and cook another 20-30 minutes until everything is hot and fragrant. Remove bay leaves and season, if desired, with salt and hot sauce. Serve with rice and fresh green onions.

gumbo-112

And finally, Chicken and Sausage Gumbo…enjoy!

 

A couple of years ago I was fortunate to receive some bulbs for green multiplier onions from the publisher of Texas Gardener magazine. He received them from a reader in Houston, who explained that they migrated to Texas with Cajuns from south Louisiana who had been growing them for over 100 years. They grew them for use in their gumbo and refer to them simply as gumbo onions. I don’t know if this reader has a stockpile to share via this blog but if he does I will provide his name and address in a future post. These onions are dependable and tasty, but unfortunately I have given away most of my bulbs and am trying to build up my reserves.  In the meantime try asking long-time gardeners in your area if they have any multipliers to share or order some white multiplier onions from Southern Exposure Seed Catalog (www.southernexposure.com).

I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by.  The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ Okra by Patty G. Leander

 

Southern-Living-Seed-Guide

The Southern Living Seed Guide

A little over a month ago I was thumbing through the February issue of Southern Living while waiting for a dental appointment. I skipped past the kitchen redo, the make-your-own-berry-wreath and the South’s new hotels to land on a piece titled The Southern Living Seed Guide. As a seed-admiring, seed-saving vegetable gardener I am drawn to stories and articles about seeds, varieties and the stories behind them.

My favorite seed story, of course, is the one I am most familiar with and one I have a personal connection to – ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ bushy okra, developed by my all-time favorite garden mentors, teachers and encouragers, the late George and Mary Stewart. So when I saw ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’  listed as a Southern Living pick it made me smile real big, and then my smile turned to disbelief and dismay when they referred to it as a Louisiana heirloom!

Stewart’s-Zeebest-okra

‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ okra harvest.

Uh-uh, no way. We love you, Louisiana, but the Lone Star State’s reputation is at stake here: ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ is not a Louisiana heirloom though you certainly get some credit since George was born in Westlake, Louisiana and ‘Zeebest’ was selected from a planting of ‘Louisiana Green Velvet’ okra. But all the toil and sweat that George and Mary put into developing ‘Zeebest’ – planting, selecting, saving, replanting and ultimately sharing – occurred in the 1980s at the Stewart homeplace in Houston, right down on South Main where George and Mary spent most of their adult life, across the street from the train tracks and a few doors down from the auto repair shop. And to add a little more perspective, George and Mary had lived in Houston so long they could remember the installation of Houston’s first traffic light and gleefully shared tales of the days before air-conditioning.

houston-chronicle-stewart

Houston’s premier garden educators, George and Mary Stewart, profiled by Kathy Huber in the Houston Chronicle, 1990

George and Mary Stewart were extraordinary gardeners, full of wit and wisdom and a special gift for entertaining while educating. They drew the audience into their horticultural adventures with stories and laughter, inspiring a can-do attitude that made you want to go home and grow-your-own. For posterity’s sake and to keep the record straight, here is a brief history of ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’:

George-Stewart

A proud George with one of his branching, productive ‘Zeebest’ okra plants. Photo by William D. Adams

In the 1980s George and Mary were given a few pods from a highly productive planting of ‘Louisiana Green Velvet’ okra from the garden of family friend Joe Ziegler. The seeds were planted in the Stewart garden and George recognized that some of the plants developed a strong branching pattern. They began carefully selecting for tender, productive and heavily branched plants which George enthusiastically referred to as ‘Stewart’s Zeebest Bushy Okra’; over time it was shortened to ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ or simply ‘Zeebest’ and soon they were promoting their home-grown Texas variety and giving away seeds. That was almost 30 years ago so it hasn’t yet reached heirloom status. An heirloom is generally defined as an open-pollinated variety that has been grown and maintained by an individual or a community for 50 years. Well, George and Mary are gone now but they left ‘Zeebest’ in our hands and we in turn need to keep it in production for future generations. Today, thanks mostly to the efforts of Bill Adams, Retired Harris County Extension Agent and good friend of George and Mary, seeds are available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Rare Seeds) and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (Southern Exposure).

Whether you are a native Texan or a transplant, if you live in Texas I hope you have learned to love okra. If you haven’t planted seed yet now is a good time. Okra not only survives but it thrives in our heat and looks pretty good while doing it, thanks to being a member of the mallow family which also includes hibiscus and hollyhock. Most varieties produce in 60-65 days and will continue to produce right up to the first frost. Overgrown okra can be fibrous and tough and should be picked when it is 3-5” long. It grows fast so check for pods every other day.

stewarts-zeebest-okra

Flag the best okra pods for saving and let them dry on the plant.

Saving seed of okra is very easy to do as the seeds are big and the pods are a perfect receptacle.  To ensure the purity of the seed it is recommended that you grow and save seed from only one variety at a time. Select one or two pods (or more if you want to have plenty to share) from your healthiest specimens, flag the chosen pods with brightly colored tape, and let those pods dry on the plant.

I met George and Mary in 1989, when Mary was 79 and George was 83. I was in my early thirties and they could run circles around me in the vegetable garden. They gardened intuitively and frugally, generously sharing what they knew about growing vegetables to scores of home gardeners along the Gulf Coast.  George and Mary were proud of the vegetables that they grew and their produce needed no enhancements. But George was a born storyteller and was known to sometimes embellish the truth. Though he tried to keep his exaggerations to a minimum, it seemed to be Mary’s lot in life to keep George grounded in truth. In fact, at the age of 83, after some 60 years of marriage, Mary wrote and dedicated the following poem to George:

Tell any tale you like, m’love,

Embroidered with lies and fiction;

I’ll not interrupt to correct, m’love,

                   Your facts or figures or diction.

Embellish your stories to any degree

                   With fables and falsification;

Just don’t turn to me and expect me to give

                   My unqualified verification.

 

With that in mind, below is a description of ‘Zeebest’, taken right out of Mary’s garden notes:

“The parent plant of these seed had 28 branches and 243 pods on it at one time.  We started with Louisiana Green Velvet and over a period of 9 years of selection for branching tendencies, this is the result.  To save seed, let a fine pod on a good specimen plant dry on the stalk,
then shell out and let dry completely in open tray at room temperature.  Store seeds in a tightly closed container in the refrigerator.”

mary-stewart

Mary’s collection of recipes and remembrances, published at the age of 80

Mary learned to use a computer when she was 80 years old and proceeded to write a cookbook which she titled, “Kitchen NostalgiaAn Incomplete Cookbook–A Collection of Heirloom Recipes, Past and Future”.  The preface of Mary’s cookbook begins “This is in memory of Mamma.” Here is a favorite recipe from the files of vegetable gardener and home-cook extraordinaire, Mary Stewart, in her own words:

Okra and Tomatoes

“This has been a summer mainstay as long as we have had a garden, which has been forever. Some add browned beef, but I never have. It is good served over rice or just as a side vegetable. Searing the cut okra in hot fat at the start takes away some of the slickness and makes it more palatable. The amounts are really variable, so feel free to deviate.”
4 cups sliced fresh okra

¼ cup oil (or bacon fat)
1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped bell peppers, red, green or mixed

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon cumin

2 8-ounce cans tomato sauce or 1 can tomato paste (or 2 cups peeled, chopped tomato)

1 cup water

Heat the oil in a heavy pot or skillet; add okra, stirring to sear the cut edges. Don’t let it burn. Add onions and sauté till limp, then add garlic and pepper and simmer about 5 minutes, stirring to prevent burning. Then add the tomato sauce or paste, thinning with water to have it a bit on the “soupy” side. Add the seasonings and simmer about 15 minutes, stirring now and then until the okra is tender but not falling apart. Yield: 8 servings

George and Mary Stewart in their Houston vegetable garden in the early 1990s. Photo by William D. Adams

George and Mary Stewart in their Houston vegetable garden in the early 1990s. Photo by William D. Adams

I hope that if you decide to grow ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ bushy okra, you will share it with compliments of George and Mary, and take the time to reflect on the heritage of gardeners from your own family history, passing these stories down to a future generation of vegetable growers.

Tip of the Week – Week 19 in the Zone 9 Garden

Yesterday I heard a meteorologist say that we have a two thirds greater chance of having a cooler and wetter summer than normal.  While that is great news it is still Texas and it is still going to get HOT out there.  I bring this up because even though May is the beginning of harvest time, it is also the first month where high temps begin to be a problem.  Each year I pay hundreds of dollars to have pre-cancerous spots burned off and I always manage to dehydrate myself.  Patty Leander has a great article full of tips that will help you stay cool and safe in the garden this year.  Click here to read her tips.

blog6 Vegetables

While there is still time to plant lima (butter) beans, southern peas, gourds, winter squash and sweet potatoes, May is really the beginning of harvest time.

I am excited to say that we will soon be harvesting artichokes for the first time.  We will also start picking green beans soon.  If you don’t already have green beans you will in the next week or so.  Your green beans should produce until temps start to stay in the 90s.  Harvest often for best yields.  Summer squash should soon be on your plate as well.  Again, pick it early and pick often.

In my opinion, the big harvests of the month are potatoes and onions.  My potatoes still have a couple of weeks to go but my onion tops are beginning to fall over.  My onions have been in the ground since December and I am ready to get them up.  Not only do I need the space for my purple hulls, I truly love onions.   If you have a large harvest, be sure to cure, or dry them before you store them.  Patty and I both have articles on how to properly harvest and care for your bulbs.  Check them both out.

Patty’s article – Harvesting and Curing Onions

My article:  How to Harvest and Cure Onions

poppies-potager Ornamentals

Last week I wrote about how much joy I get from my daylilies.  While that is true, they are not the only thing blooming right now.  All of my salvias have started blooming.  I also have datura, dianthus, crinums, yarrow and petunias that are in full bloom.  All of these flowers are filling my yard with bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.  Keep flowering plants well watered to extend bloom time.  Also dead head often to encourage re-bloom.

If you grew poppies this spring, they should just about be ready for you to harvest the seeds.  I collect my poppy seeds each year.  Because of this I have been able to spread them all over my property.  Read more about collecting your own poppy seeds by clicking this link: Remembering our Veterans with Poppies.

I share my posts on the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to stop by the hop.  It has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

crinum-bulbisspermum-1

 

 

 

 

Tip of the Week – Week 16 in the Zone 9 Garden

Spring is definitely in the air!  Many of my roses are in full bloom and one of my chickens just hatched three new baby chicks!  This is going to be a great weekend to be outside.  The sun is out, temperatures are mild and all of this rain should make those beds a joy to work in.

chicks-1 Vegetables

The middle of April is a great time to plant our heat loving vegetables from seed.  Patty Leander just did a great post on growing Butterbeans (Lima Beans).  In addition to Butterbeans and Southern peas (black eyes and crowder), this weekend is a great time to plant vining crops like cantaloupe, water melons and gourds.  It is also a great time to get your okra in the ground.

Quick note on vining crops.  They are water hogs!  If you give them as much water as they need by watering overhead you are setting yourself up for the best crop of uncontrollable weeds you have ever seen.  Save water and reduce your weed problems by setting up some type of drip system for your watermelons, cantaloupes and gourds.

grilled-okra Ornamentals

Most of my roses are truly beautiful right now.  There really is not much in this world that is prettier than a rose bush in full bloom.  If you have a rose (or other woody shrub) that you would like to make more of, now is the time to do it.  I have found that people are somewhat intimidated by the thought of propagation.  Don’t be.  Most plants are very tough and adaptable.  Making a new one from a cutting is pretty easy once you know a few tips.

If you would like to try your hand at propagation, read my article “Propogating Antique Roses”.  It has all the tips you need to save a few bucks by creating your own plants from cuttings.

Cherokee-Rose Lawns

Right now the conditions are perfect for the formation of brown patch in St. Augustine.  Brown patch is a fungal disease that forms when rainfall is high and temps or low.  It is also more come in lawns that are over fertilized.  Brown patch is not fatal.  Generally, you can control it by cutting back on watering and fertilization.  If it spreads to an area larger than a trash can lid you may want to apply one of several granular fungicides that are designed for control.

If your brown patch does not go away as the temperatures rise you may have Take All Patch.  This is another fungal disease that is becoming more common.  Unlike brown patch, take all patch is fatal.  While there are fungicides for control, this disease is hard to beat once it is established.  If you get Take All, you may want to consider replacing your water hungry St Augustine with Bermuda or zoysia.  Both require less water and are bothered by fewer pests.

I share my posts on the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to stop by the hop.  It has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

Eating in Season: The End-of-Summer Lull by Patty G. Leander

Below are several easy and tasty recipes that will allow you to get the most out of those late season summer veggies that are still producing.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Below are several easy and tasty recipes that will allow you to get the most out of those late season summer veggies that are still producing. Photo by Patty Leander

It’s the end of August, the kids are back in school, 100 degree days are still in the forecast and here in Central Texas we are experiencing the end-of-summer-lull in the vegetable garden. The bounty of the spring garden has passed and we are not quite revved up for fall, but for now the heat-loving (or in some cases heat-tolerating) mainstays in my garden include okra, Malabar spinach, Southern peas, hot peppers, yardlong beans, tomatillos, cherry tomatoes and eggplant. The Northern half of the country may be boasting a summer harvest of juicy, ripe tomatoes and fresh picked sweet corn, but bless their hearts, they were still waiting for the soil to warm up on Mother’s Day and before you know it they’ll be pulling out their jackets and snow shovels again! Yet we lucky Texans will soon have another opportunity for cucumbers, green beans, tomatoes and squash followed by a round of broccoli, cauliflower, beets, peas, greens and more to finish out the year. It’s good to be Texan.

Since “grow what you eat and eat what you grow” is the vegetable gardener’s motto here are a few of my favorite recipes for enjoying the current harvest.

Shelling-Peas

Many hands make light work when shelling southern peas

Fresh Southern Peas

These heat- loving peas are so versatile – enjoy them fresh, freeze some for later or dry them on the vine for winter storage. When cooking a fresh pot of peas harvest and snap a few immature pods to add to the pot the last 15-20 minutes of cooking.

2 slices bacon, chopped

½ cup chopped onion

3-4 cups shelled cream, crowder, black-eyed, purple hull peas

2-3 cups water or chicken broth

½ tsp sugar

½ tsp salt

½ tsp pepper

Cook bacon until crisp. Remove from pan.  Sauté onion in drippings. Add remaining ingredients and simmer 45-60 minutes, until peas are tender, adding more liquid if necessary. Season to taste. Serve with crumbled bacon and hot cornbread.  Yield: 4-6 servings

Ninfas-Green-Sauce

You can make the world famous Ninfa’s Green Sauce at home with your late season vegetables. Photo by Bruce Leander.

Ninfa’s Green Sauce

Recipe courtesy of The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation in Houston, Texas.

3 medium green tomatoes, coarsely chopped

4 fresh tomatillos, husks removed and chopped

2-3 jalapeños, coarsely chopped

3 garlic cloves, chopped

3 medium avocados

3 sprigs cilantro

½ tsp salt

1 ½ cups sour cream (no disrespect to Mama Ninfa but I use half this amount, and sometimes even substitute yogurt)

Combine tomatoes, tomatillos, jalapeños and garlic in a saucepan. Bring to a boil (tomatoes will cook down and release liquid), reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes. Remove from saucepan and cool slightly.  Peel, pit and slice avocados. Place all ingredients in a blender with avocados. Add sour cream and blend until smooth. Spoon into a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Serve in small bowls as a dip for tortilla chips. Refrigerate leftovers.

Vegetable-quesadillas

Vegetable quesadillas are a great, lower cal way to use your late season veggies with a Southwestern flair! Photo by Bruce Leander.

Vegetable Quesadillas

1 mild pepper, diced

2 zucchini/yellow squash, diced

1 tablespoon oil

1 cup fresh corn kernels

2 small tomatoes, diced

¼ cup cilantro

1 tablespoon lime juice

4 flour tortillas

2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded

Heat oil in skillet and sauté peppers and squash 3-4 minutes. Add corn and cook 2 more minutes. Stir in tomatoes, cilantro and lime juice and season with salt and pepper. Set aside. Heat one tortilla in a non-stick skillet until lightly browned. Flip tortilla and top with ½ cup vegetable mixture, then sprinkle with ½ cup cheese. Top with second tortilla and carefully flip over. Heat 2-3 minutes, remove from pan, cut into 4 wedges and serve.  Yield: 2-4 servings

grilled-okra

Yum, yum, yum…if you have an aversion to slimy okra be sure to try this – no slime at all, I promise! Photo by Bruce Leander

Grilled Okra

Toss whole, dry okra pods in olive oil, season generously with salt and cracked pepper.  Grill 10-15 minutes, until slightly charred and tender.

roasted-tomatoes

Roasting tomatoes really brings out their flavor! Photo by Bruce Leander

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

Roasting tomatoes brings out an amazing, concentrated flavor – these beauties can be used in sauces, salads, sandwiches or simply as a savory snack. They don’t last long around my house, but they can be stored in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks or frozen for up to three months without compromising the flavor.

Toss whole cherry tomatoes generously in olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and roast 4-6 hours at 300°.

Aloo-Bhindi

Spice up your summer with this Indian classic! Aloo Bhindi is another way to use your okra and the last of those spring potatoes. Photo by Bruce Leander

Aloo Bhindi

Potatoes and okra cooked with fragrant Indian spices.

2 tablespoon canola oil

2 medium potatoes, sliced

1 lb okra, sliced

1 medium onion, sliced

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon coriander

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon garam masala

½ teaspoon turmeric

½ teaspoon cayenne

 

Heat oil in a large skillet. Add potatoes and cook until lightly browned,

5-10 minutes. Add okra and onion and cook gently over medium low heat

10-15 minutes. Add salt and spices. Mix gently, remove from

heat and cover pan. Let sit 5-10 minutes to absorb flavors before serving.

The really is nothing better than fresh salsa.  In fact, I know several gardeners that grow nothing but onions, peppers, tomatoes and cilantro so they can enjoy this treat fresh and then can it for later.  Photo by Bruce Leander

The really is nothing better than fresh salsa. In fact, I know several gardeners that grow nothing but onions, peppers, tomatoes and cilantro so they can enjoy this treat fresh and then can it for later. Photo by Bruce Leander

Salsa

4 fresh tomatoes, chopped (peeled and seeded if desired, but I usually don’t)
2-3 jalapenos, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, smashed
1/4 cup cilantro
1-2  teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon cumin
2-4 tablespoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Chop the onion, jalapenos, garlic and one tomato in a blender or food
processor. Then add the seasonings and the remaining tomatoes, and blend
till it seems right. This is personal taste. You can leave it chunky but I
usually blend out most of the chunks. Then I taste and usually end up
adding more tomatoes, lime juice and sometimes another jalapeno. I let it sit a
bit and then go back and taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. It gets a little redder and a little spicier as it sits.

 

** You do not have to use a blender/food processor. If you prefer, finely chop the first five ingredients by hand, then stir in the seasonings and adjust to your taste.

This corn recipe is another great way to enjoy your productive and heat loving malabar spinach.  Phot by Bruce Leander.

This corn recipe is another great way to enjoy your productive and heat loving malabar spinach. Phot by Bruce Leander.

Corn and Malabar Spinach Sauté

It’s hard to resist the fresh sweet corn that shows up at the supermarket this time of year. Pair it with your home-grown Malabar spinach for a quick and easy side dish. But don’t stop there – sauté sliced okra, zucchini, peppers and/or onion before adding corn and Malabar spinach.  

1 tablespoon butter or olive oil

4 ears of sweet corn, husked and cleaned

1 clove garlic, minced

2 or 3 handfuls of Malabar spinach, coarsely chopped (it will cook down by almost half)

Salt and pepper to taste
Cut corn kernels from the cob. Sauté corn and garlic in a medium skillet for 4- 5 minutes. Add Malabar spinach and a tablespoon of water, cover and cook until wilted, 3-5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve with Tabasco sauce, pepper vinegar or your favorite chopped herbs. Yield: 4 servings

BTW, this post has been shared on The HomeAcre Hop Be sure to check it out.  It is full of great posts from homesteaders across the web.

Heat Loving Veggies for the Texas Garden – Patty Leander

Jay’s enthusiasm for horticulture is infectious, and I could not resist his invitation to contribute a guest post to his interesting and well-organized blog.  Growing vegetables is my favorite horticulture-related activity and like many a gardener I am addicted to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat that comes my way each season.

Patty and I in her garden

We endured a hellacious drought last summer – not our first, not our last – yet winter and spring have brought much anticipated renewal, for both garden and gardener. The drought has reminded us of the importance of mulch, efficient irrigation and planting the right plant at the right time. It’s not even a bad idea to think of summer as a dormant time in the vegetable garden, but for those who are not deterred by rain deficits, sun, heat and sweat I’d like to highlight a few Texas-tough vegetables to fill the summer gap: 

 

 

Okra can be a little "prickly" to some gardeners. if okra gives you the "itch" simply wear gloves and a long sleeve shirt when harvesting. Photo by Bruse Leander

Okra – This quintessential heat lover is first on my list.  Smooth, ribbed, long, short, green or red, I have never tried a variety that I didn’t like.  Okra seed can be planted once the soil has warmed (70-80º), usually April or May in Central Texas.  It will reach maturity (4-6 feet tall) in approximately two months and picking will be easier if you space it at least 2 feet apart – and once it starts producing you will be picking almost every day!  In fact the secret to tender okra is to check your plants daily and harvest pods when they are only 3-5” long. And unlike those temperamental heirloom tomatoes, heirloom okra varieties grow like champs without much coddling or cajoling at all.  ‘Clemson Spineless’, ‘Emerald’ and ‘Hill Country Heirloom Red’ are available from Baker Creek Seeds (www.rareseeds.com). I know of two open-pollinated varieties with Texas roots that deserve mention.  ‘Beck’s Big’, a giant okra with fat pods, introduced in 1968 by organic trailblazer Malcolm Beck of San Antonio, and my personal favorite, ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’, a smooth, dark green variety carefully selected over several years for branching and productivity by two of my favorite gardeners, the late George and Mary Stewart of Houston. Both okras are available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com). Okra plants have tiny, mostly inconspicuous spines that cause an annoying itch, so be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting pods.

 Grilled Okra

Not sure what to do with your okra bounty? Try it grilled: toss whole, 3-4” pods in olive oil, season with salt and pepper and toss them on the grill. Grill 10-15 minutes, until pods are tender and slightly charred.  Yum!

A plump pod full of Colossus Crowder peas. Photo by Bruce Leander

Southern Peas – These legumes go by many names – cowpeas, field peas, black-eyed peas – but no matter what you call them they can take the Texas heat. They also taste delicious, produce beautiful blossoms, and can be used as a cover crop to build nitrogen and organic matter in the soil.  Two old-fashioned varieties for summer cover crops are ‘Red Ripper’ and ‘Iron and Clay’.  For fresh-eating I am partial to ‘Purple Hull’ and crowder peas (so called because the peas are crowded in the pod) such as ‘Mississippi Silver’ and ‘Colossus’.  Heavenly Seed (www.heavenlyseed.net) is a small, family-owned seed company located in Anderson, South Carolina, that offers a superb selection of southern peas.

Asparagus, or long beans, can grow to 18" and are great in a stir fry. Photo by Bruce Leander

Asparagus BeansAlso known as yard long beans, this heat-loving relative of the cowpea is popular for use in Asian stir-fries. Most varieties are vigorous vines that require a sturdy fence or trellis. Harvest when pods are about 15-18” long, before beans begin to swell. ‘Red Noodle’, available from both Baker Creek and Heavenly Seed, produces long, burgundy pods that can be sliced and sautéed or stir-fried.

 

Malabar spinach is a great green for the Texas heat. Photo by Bruce Leander

Molokhia and Malabar Spinach – Lettuce and other greens thrive in most of Texas from fall to early spring, but home-grown salad greens are hard to come by as summer approaches. As the days grow long and hot many gardeners turn to Malabar spinach as a warm weather salad green. Another summertime option is a popular Middle Eastern green called molokhia, sometimes referred to as Egyptian spinach. The nutritious, grassy tasting leaves are plucked from fast-growing, multi-stemmed plants that grow 4-6 feet tall. Young leaves and shoots can be added to salads or sandwiches and older leaves can be cooked or sautéed and added to soups or casseroles. A reliable seed source for both of these greens is Kitazawa Seed Company (www.kitazawaseed.com).

Molokhia leaves and seed pods. Photo by Bruce Leander