The Dirt

What's So Special About Heirloom Tomatoes?

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

What's so special about heirloom tomatoes? In a world where flavor and color are sacrificed for uniform, homogenous tomatoes bred for their ability to withstand the rigors of long-distance shipping, locally-grown, proudly diverse, and shockingly flavorful tomatoes are a precious rarity. And they're worth the wait. We are willing to forgo fresh tomatoes (often sad, forgettable rounds of pale pink on a sandwich or in a salad) all year for the pleasures of a sun-ripened, carefully-tended real tomato, either tart or a little sweet, dripping with juice and full of character and complexity. Farmers have their favorite varieties, and they'll tell you all about them. Here's a list of some of our favorites we've spied recently at SFC Farmers' Markets--now is the time to visit, try them all, and choose your favorites!

  • Black Krim - Dark reddish-purple, juicy heirloom tomato from the Black Sea area in Russia. Tangy, rich, and sweet. 
  • Brandywine - A big, beefsteak, "pink" tomato, dating back to 1885, Brandywines are fantastically sweet with a mild acidity. 
  • Cherokee Purple - An old Cherokee heirloom with a deep, dusky red hue; sweet, dense, and juicy.
  • Green Zebra - Bright chartreuese with darker green stripes, these tomatoes are rich and sweet with a tangy zing.
  • San Marzano - An Italian heirloom, first grown in the volcanic soils under Mt. Vesuvius, San Marzanos are a "paste" tomato, best for making sauce. 
  • Sungold - Actually a hybrid and not an heirloom, we included them here because their thin skins mean you probably won't find them in the grocery store--and because we love them so. These small, bright tangerine-colored cherry tomatoes are explosively sweet and flavorful--we guarantee you can't eat just one! 

Saving Heirloom Tomato Seeds

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Every heirloom tomato you buy at the SFC Farmers' Market comes with a fairy-tale prize inside: generation after generation of tomato plants, neatly packed away within each one! Heirloom tomatoes are treasured for their flavor and variety, and, like the keys to a kingdom, their seeds are shared and passed down from grower to grower like the priceless inheritance they are. With just a little effort and knowledge, you'll be starting your own tomato dynasty soon enough. Read on for the basics of what you need to know to start saving seeds right now! (hint: now is the time--once tomatoes go out of season, you'll have to wait another year)

And if you fall fully under the seed-saving spell, you might enjoy our summer film series all about seeds! Click here for dates & more info »

How to Save Heirloom Tomato Seeds:
  1. Harvest seeds: Cut the tomato in half. Use your finger or a knife to scoop out the seeds and juice from their cavities, or squeeze the tomato over a glass jar. Use a small jar, such as a jelly jar, if you are only saving seed from one or two tomatoes. Once the seeds and all their juice is in the jar, add no more than 25% water and slosh it around.
  2. Let them sit: Place the jar somewhere warm for two or three days, stirring occasionally.
  3. Check for readiness: After a few days (depending on the weather), a mold should form on the top. This method mimics the rotting of the tomato in nature or the actions of the digestive system of an animal and breaks down the clear gel coating around the seeds, which prevents the seed from sprouting inside the tomato. Once the mold covers the entire top of the liquid and the seeds have begun to sink, the gel coating has been broken down and they are ready for cleaning.
  4. Separate: You know seeds are ready for their final cleaning when most of them have sunk to the bottom of the jar. Add water to fill the jar and slosh it around. Let it settle for a moment. Carefully pour the water out of the jar. The mold, pulp, and immature seeds should sink and stay in the jar.
  5. Clean: Repeat this decanting process two to five times until you have only clean seeds and clean water. Pour out as much water as you can without losing the seeds or pour it through a fine mesh strainer.
  6. Dry: Pat dry through the strainer and then scoop the seeds out onto a small plate (like the lid from a yogurt container). Allow to dry without intense heat.
  7. Store: When they are very dry, store the seeds in a moisture-proof container in a cool, dry place. It is very important to label the container with variety and date. Tomato seeds can last for ten years or more if stored in a cool, dry spot.

Gaining New Skills in The Happy Kitchen

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Angel Thornton (left) and Marva Bennet (right)

by Molly Costigan, The Happy Kitchen Program Coordinator

One of the many perks of having a kitchen of our own is that we can now invite participants in the free six-week community classes to join us at SFC for follow-up classes. On June 25th, we hosted our third knife skills class just for past participants in the series. Unlike the series, these classes are 100% hands-on. Everyone in the class practices their knife skills on about ten different vegetables (mostly sourced from Johnson’s Backyard Garden), and we also share tips for what to do with the veggies at home. When we sent out the invitation to the knife skills class, two participants responded with some updates about what they’d been up to since the initial six week series. Marva Bennet and Angel Thornton both originally completed the six-week series this March at Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church, and Angel also completed the “202” six-week series that we offered here at SFC this spring. These were their updates:

"I purchased my first herb plants to see how I could take care of them and what to do if I go out of town for 3-4 days. Right now they are in pots on a table on the east side of my house which is the back of the house. I bought Mexican parsley, Italian oregano, and sweet basil. I want to get mint. Maybe I will take a class on gardening in pots for the new person." (Marva Bennet, Mt. Sinai)

"Also, tonight I served sautéed spinach, roasted corn & the Swiss chard crust less quiche with a dessert choice of fresh chilled pineapple or "Ridiculously Healthy Oatmeal cookies" (lol, that's the name of the recipe) and everybody loved it! Thank you!" (Angel Thornton, Mt. Sinai and 202)

Precious Resource: Water Conservation Class

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Water Conservation Class

by Ellen Orabone, Grow Local Teaching Garden Coordinator

Grow Local gardeners spent a recent Saturday morning getting their hands dirty in the SFC Teaching Garden and learning about water conservation techniques for home gardens. Because we are in a drought, water-saving practices are important in every aspect of our daily lives, whether we’re brushing our teeth or watering the garden.

Water Conservation Class

Water usage in the garden can easily spiral out of control in the summer months if we’re not watering efficiently. Class participants learned how to water the soil instead of the plants so that water would not be lost via evaporation before ever reaching the plants’ roots. We learned about planting appropriate plants and plant varieties based on the time of year and region to also help save water, as many locally-adapted plants require less water. Home gardens are a great place to catch rainwater to irrigate fruits and vegetables. Class participants also toured the SFC Teaching Garden and St. David's Foundation Community Garden and installed ollas (porous clay pots that maintain soil moisture when buried in garden beds), set up a drip irrigation system, and learned how to mulch around established plants to retain soil moisture. At the end of the day, two participants walked away with their own ollas, and everyone was able to take home newfound knowledge about conserving precious resources as well as some native plant seeds!


Preserve the Bounty: Freeze It!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Freezing food has been around a long time--and by a long time, we mean thousands and thousands of years. Long before we harnessed electricity, people buried summer food deep in the tundra to see them through harsh winters. As history progressed, we continued to squirrel away food in the winter in ice-cold warehouses and shelters and added canning, drying, fermenting, and smoking foods to our preserving repertoire. Modern kitchens mean we can bring all these food preserving techniques into our own homes, offering access to summer goodness all year.  Of course, if we could just throw food as we find it into the freezer, Bird's Eye and all their friends would be out of business, so we're here to share some insider tips with you. Read on for our best food-freezing secrets--if you're ready to really put your freezer to work and want to learn more about preserving summer fruits and vegetables, check out The Happy Kitchen's preserving class that will teach you everything you need to know for freezing, drying, and canning summer's bounty!

1. Think about how you will use it - Freeze foods in the quantity you'll likely want to use for a recipe. Freeze pesto, herbed oils, and citrus juices in ice cube trays. Fruit is handy in quart sized bags and jars, while greens, vegetables, and soups are best suited for gallon size bags and containers.  

2. Cool foods before freezing - Food will freeze faster and more evenly if it's been pre-chilled. To speed up chilling, spread hot food onto a sheet pan or in a shallow dish or plunge fresh fruits into a cold water bath (drain completely before freezing).

3. Don't create an iceberg! - Spread berries, cut fruit, meat or fish fillets, and balls of cookie dough on a baking sheet and freeze before storing in bags. This way the items will stay separate instead of freezing into one giant block.

4. Label it! - Who wants to deal with bags and containers of mysterious frozen food? Make sure to label and date everything that goes in the freezer and use by date.

5. Best for freezing - Fruits (for smoothies, pies, cobblers, and quick breads), vegetables (to be braised or pureed in a soup), meat, fish, and shellfish, cookie dough, pie crust, grated cheese, butter, bread, and broths.

6. Not so great for freezing - Raw eggs in the shell, high water-content vegetables like lettuce and soft herbs, egg-based sauces.

Grow Some Happiness

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Grow some happiness! Community gardeners in our St. David's Foundation community garden have been turning on the smiles with the bright and cheerful sunflowers they've planted. Standing tall, faces turned towards the sun, they bring more than just a good vibe to the garden. Come see us and start learning about growing food and companion flowers in our teaching garden! You can see what's growing in the community garden, learn how to apply for a plot, and work alongside our Grow Local Teaching Garden Coordinator Ellen during open garden hours--check out times on our events calendar

And start growing happiness today--read on for our top five reasons to grow sunflowers!

1. They're tough! Easy to cultivate a grow, sunflowers are also drought and heat tolerant.

2. They're lovely! Sunflowers come in a kaleidoscope of varieties, from the sunny pom-poms of "Teddy Bear," to the exquisite deep burgundy petals of "Moulin Rouge," and to the towering height of mammoth "American Giant," there's no end to the fun of growing sunflowers..

3. They're powerful! Sunflowers draw toxins from the soil, leaving the earth cleaner than they found it. Fun fact: after Hurricane Katrina, non-profit groups spread sunflower seeds all over the city to clean the soil.

4. They're delicious! Harvest seed pods when flower heads dry and toast and salt them for a healthy, chemical free snack.

5. Bees love them! Industrious bees will turn sunflower nectar into honey and while they're there, they'll gladly pollinate your fruits and vegetables while they're at it.

Celebrate Berries: Rustic Blackberry Galette

Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Blackberry Galette

A little rain changes everything. At the market this spring and summer, we've seen how the earth celebrates, yielding tender greens long into the summer and bursting forth with heavy tomatoes, plump squash and eggplant, and most of all by offering us an abundance of sweet, juicy melons, peaches, plums, and berries. It would be a crying shame not to join the party! This rustic galette--really a free-form tart--is the perfect way to showcase your market haul. The crust is quick and forgiving, made with both whole wheat and unbleached flours for a rustic texture and lots of pastured butter for richness that offsets the tart berries. Not overly sweet, this dessert is perfect for a picnic along with a variety of local cheese. Get your rolling pins out quick, though, berry season doesn't last forever!

Rustic Blackberry Galette

adapted from


  • 1 1/4 c all-pupose flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1 1/4 c whole-wheat flour
  • 2 T sugar, plus extra for dusting
  • 1 t salt
  • 16 T cold butter, cut into small cubes
  • 1/4 to 1/2 c ice-cold water
  • 1 egg, beaten, for glazing the crust


  • 2 pints fresh blackberries (substitute blueberries or sliced peaches or plums)
  • 1/4 c sugar
  • 1 small lemon, juiced
  • 3 T flour

Preheat oven to 400° F 

In a standing mixer with the paddle attachment or in a food processor, mix together the dry ingredients. Add the cubed butter and mix or pulse until butter breaks down into pea-sized pieces. With the machine running or pulsing, add the ice water until the dough JUST begins to come together. Turn the crust mixture out onto some plastic wrap, then wrap it and flatten it into a disk shape. Refrigerate for about 10 minutes while you prepare the filling. 

Throw all the filling ingredients into a bowl and mix well, so that that the sugar and flour coat all the fruit. Remove the chilled crust from the fridge and unwrap it onto a silpat or piece of parchment paper large enough to cover your baking sheet. Dust it with flour, then roll out the dough until it is between 1/8 and 1/4-inch thick. 

Spoon the filling and any juices into the middle of the crust and spread it out, leaving a 2-inch border of crust. Fold the border of the crust over onto the filling, creating nice rustic edges. Brush the crust with the beaten egg and sprinkle it with sugar. Slide the galette, still on the silpat or parchment paper, onto a baking sheet. 

Bake for about 40 minutes, or until crust is golden brown.


Corn, a sweet summer favorite

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Corn Soup

Maize which is more commonly known as corn, is one of the most ancient food crops in the world. Originally domesticated in Mesoamerica, the Olmec and Mayan cultures cultivated corn for its grain, which easily grew in different climates. When grown with squash and beans, corn forms the nearly perfect agicultural and nutritional trifecta called the “Three Sisters,” which was common throughout various Native American peoples. The corn plant acts as a natural support for the vining bean plants and adds carbohydrates to the diet, whereas the beans and squash add protein and vitamins.

There are hundreds of varieties of maize in existence. Today, however, more than 98% of the corn produced in the US is a variety used in livestock feed and food manufacturing but is inedible to humans. Sweet corn is a variety that humans eat and can be grown in gardens during the hottest months of Central Texas.

Sweet corn is a natural mutation of maize with a high sugar content. It is harvested while still immature and eaten as a vegetable instead of a grain (e.g eaten fresh instead of dried and ground into corn flour). However, once sweet corn is picked, its sugars quickly convert to starches meaning that it must be eaten or preserved quickly. Varieties that are best to grow in Travis County include Ambrosia, Country Gentleman, How Sweet It Is, Kandy Korn, and Silver Queen.

Sweet corn can be planted either from March 15 through April 15 or from the June 1 to August 30. Starting seeds indoors is not recommended, nor is purchasing sweet corn transplants. Corn needs full sun, so be sure to plant in the sunniest spot in your garden. Plant seeds 1 inch deep, 4-6 inches apart, with rows approximately 30-36 inches apart and keep seeds well-watered. Since corn is pollinated by wind, it is important to plant corn in blocks of at least four rows rather than longer, fewer rows.

Once plants grow to about 4 inches tall, thin to 8-12 inches apart. Be very careful not to damage roots when weeding as their roots are shallower than most plants. Water at a rate of 5 gallons per square yard per week. Once the corn begins to grow tassels, shake the tassels so that the pollen can spread – remember that each string of tassel on a corn plant is connected to an individual kernel!

Harvest sweet corn when the tassels begin to brown and the cobs are noticeably swollen. The kernels should be full and milky in appearance. When harvesting a cob, pull the ear downward and twist to take off the stalk; do not simply yank or rip.

One of our favorite ways to cook with fresh corn is in soups, as it imparts a wonderful and sweet taste. You can make the following recipe with canned or frozen corn, but it will not be as sweet as using fresh corn off the cob.

Golden Summer Squash and Corn Soup
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 medium zucchini or other summer squash, diced
  • 3 teaspoons chopped fresh herbs, such as thyme or oregano, divided
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 1 cup fresh corn kernels (from 1 large ear; see Tip)
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • ¼ cup crumbled feta or queso fresco (optional)

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heatAdd onion and cook, stirring, for one minute. Add squash and 1 teaspoon herbs and cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash starts to soften, three to five minutes.

Add broth and salt; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the squash is soft and mostly translucent, about five minutes more.

Blend with a stick blender or transfer to a blender and puree until smooth.

Return the blended soup to the pan and stir in corn. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the corn is tender, three to five minutes more.

Remove from heat; stir in lemon juice.

Serve garnished with the remaining two teaspoons herbs and the feta or queso fresco.

To remove corn from the cob, stand an uncooked ear of corn on its stem end in a shallow bowl and slice the kernels off with a sharp, thin-bladed knife. If making a soup, after cutting off the kernels, you can reverse the knife and use the dull side to press down the length of the ear to push out the rest of the corn and its milk.

Serves 5

Market Finds

Saturday, June 14, 2014

At SFC Farmers' Markets, each season has its particular and distinctive delights. The rains this spring have yielded an abundance of lush produce unlike any we've seen in years, and we know the dangers of walking into such temptation without a plan! We're pretty good about making a list and keeping within a budget, but setting aside a dollar or two for special finds and exciting discoveries makes shopping the market especially fun. In these weeks of early summer, here are a few unusual delights you might stumble upon, delicacies you certainly won't find at the grocery store.

Plums--We're all talking about the tart, tiny, green plums from Lightsey Farm's orchards. After a day or two on the counter, these puckery little fruits turned a lovely soft share of rosy pink and baked up beautifully in an upside down cake. We thought about pickling them too or putting some up in preserves for winter.

Radishes--This year, we've seen long, lavender purple daikons; peppery, fuschia watermelon radishes; and spiciest-of-all black radishes that would give horseradish a run for its money.

Squash Blossoms--One of summer's most abundant crops, zucchini and yellow squash can spare a few blooms. Snatch them up for stuffing with creamy goat cheese and frying or sauteeing to toss with pasta or tuck into quesadillas.

Onion Flowers--Pale periwinkle pom poms at the top of the onion stalk are great in vegetable str fries or tossed into a salad of peppery arugula and cucumber.

Keep Your Cool in the Garden

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The days are definitely heating up, but don't let that stop you from getting out in the garden--summer veggies need lots of love and care, and the weeds will take over if you don't make inroads daily. There are lots of tricks for keeping cool when the mercury rises--here are our top five tactics for battling summer's intensity. 

  • Stay hydrated and keep your electrolytes balanced. Feeling dizzy? You're probably dehydrated. In addition to drinking lots of water, you can replenish lost minerals and keep your blood sugar stable by stopping for a snack of lightly salted, ice-cold watermelon to replace lost fluids, sugar, and salt (way better for you than processed sports drinks, which are full of chemicals and questionable ingredients).
  • Wear light colors to deflect the sun's rays. Dark colors absorb the heat and will definitely feel hotter in the sun.
  • Protect your head. A wide-brimmed hat keeps sun off your face and keeps your head cool, which in turn keeps you cooler all around.
  • Don't forget the sunscreen! Many a time we've gone out in the early morning when the garden is shady, only to stay out until mid-day and wind up lobster-red and blistered. Anticipate bright sun and put sunscreen on before you need it.
  • It sounds counter-intuitive, but long sleeves can be a gardener's best friend. Wear something loose-fitting but keep your arms covered, protected from the worst of the sun as well as blackberry brambles and okra itchiness, and you'll be glad later!