"Bayou Bill" Scifres
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Copyright © 2009 by Bill Scifres

THE GARDEN GOURMET-- February 2009

Well, there may be snow on the roof, but there is a gardening fire in the furnace . . . And I fear it must be dampened, at least, or perhaps allowed to wink out. It still is winter and it is likely to stay for a spell.

That’s the way it is, and to place emphasis on the correct syllable, giant snowflakes swirl in on the northwest wind as this column takes shape.

In trying to make some sense out of last spring/summer gardening efforts, I asked Tom Waitt, a Boone County dairy farmer who hosts my garden, what I (and hundreds of others gardeners) did wrong to create such miserable conditions in our plots.

Tom’s terse tirade was simply: “You just started too early.”

Fortunately, Tom, who has been tilling the soil for many years . . . though he is a young man . . . tells me it doesn’t make a lot of difference when you put the seeds or plants in the ground . . . they are just going to sit there like “the robin in a barn” until the temperature of the earth is 60 degrees or higher.

 Last spring and summer, when nothing seemed to grow (we were getting a lot of cold temps and rain), Tom predicted it would be better in the last part of summer. And it was. Growth of tomatoes and other veggies was not as good as usual, but I laid that to earlier stunting.

Put seeds in the ground too early and they just sit there (maybe mold) until the earth temperature is 60 degrees, says Tom

This could be traced last year to the extremely wet and cold spring, and to planting without regard to the adverse conditions. I might add, too, that some gardens were better -- especially those planted later.

Peppers followed the pattern of tomatoes as they came on good -- but small -- in late summer.

What will the weatherman give us this spring? Who knows? But it will be wise to keep a thermometer in/on the earth.

If you are not familiar with this concept, as it applies to gardening, there are three types of earth thermometers available. They are not real expensive. The Angled thermometer lies flat on the earth and can easily be read. Sheathed thermometers and Insulated are a bit more complicated. All three are available in some garden shops but may have to be ordered if they are not in stock. 

CHILI WEATHER -- With winter holding full sway on culinary delights, I have done some experimenting recently and found my departures from chilis of the past to be good moves, maybe excellent.

Since chilis past have been downright edible, I had no reason to tamper with my recipe. But with a keen desire to make my chili better (I also was living up to my credo that any recipe can be improved), I set out with a can (about 30 ounces) of crushed tomatoes, a pound of ground beef (in a frozen chunk), a whole onion (baseball size, chopped) and a 15 ounce can of cooked great northern beans, no red kidney beans). Also, one strip of good bacon, cut (with sissors) into bite size pieces. Chili seasoning is optional, as are salt and pepper. But I like the foil envelopes, and pretty spicy-hot. Red pepper (dried or fresh) is optional, but use at your own risk and with great care. I used two small dried and crumbled reds from my garden two years ago. 

I started by dicing the whole onion on a cutting board and dumping it in a six-quart sauce pan. Then added the can of tomatoes and washing inside of can with an ounce of water. When that mix warmed (medium heat), I added the frozen beef and allowed the mix to thaw it as I broke it up with wooden spoon. With meat thawed, I dusted in the chili mix before adding the can of beans.

Periodic taste tests indicated it needed more salt and pepper, so I added this very slowly to the right taste.

Then, to bring out all of the various tastes, I simply simmered the chili uncovered, allowing steaming to cook away excess moisture. The best chilis are moist -- not soupy -- and the moisture is in the form of gravy, not soup. Longer simmer time creates this feature. But the simmering must be closely monitored (stirred often to avoid burning).

Note: The addition of a strip of cut-up bacon, and the change to pre-cooked great northern beans seemed the big factors in changing overall taste.

SAVE BROTH -- More and more cooks are saving the broth in which they cook veggies for use in preparing other foods for the table . . . even meats. Now, it seems, we should be doing vice versa.

Liberal amounts of water -- and other liquids not only help render meats (almost any of them) more tender and edible. But now, it seems, they will do likewise for vegetable and other dishes. These liquids -- often almost juice from the meat -- will offer excellent cooking agents for veggies -- even mashed potatoes instead of milk -- not to mention dumplings, noodles, and other residuals.

So save the broth, and use it. 

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All columns are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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