Strawberry Popcorn

A few years back on a whim I decided to grow popcorn. Certainly I wasn’t going to switch out the summer mainstay of delicious sweet corn any time soon, but I had room that year for a small block of starchy kernels carefully planted some distance away to avoid cross pollinating and dulling down the flavor of my favorite super-sweet. Summer passed all too fast which brought me to a cold winters evening remembering the dried corn tucked away in the cellar. I’ve not grown sweet corn since.

strawberrypopcornNot that I don’t like sweet corn, it’s just that the season for that particular snack is far too short, space too tight, and I’m a lazy gardener and avoid all efforts at special preservation techniques. No canning, no freezing, no processing, we prefer things fresh. Instead, after harvesting all the popcorn in September I just toss it into a box and forget about it until January when the flurry of holiday and family activities has calmed. There are few things on this earth as comforting on a cold winters evening as a warm bowl of the purest popcorn.

Last year I grew an attractive heirloom variety called Strawberry Popcorn. The 5′ tall plant produces several small ears of beautiful dark red jewels of whats called “rice” popcorn, as the ends of each kernel are pointed instead of round. My wife uses them throughout the house as an attractive fall decoration along with several French winter squashes.

Once popped, the little kernels are a delight in texture and taste, and in stark contrast to the large fluffy kernels of commercial corn that are mostly air. A half bowl of these little kernels are more than satisfying and without any of those hard hulls that get stuck in your teeth.

Growing Plan

Nothing too unusual about my growing plan this year, except that it’s not Strawberry Popcorn. Instead I elected to grow another heirloom variety called Dakota Black, but I can write about that next winter.

I sow three or four seeds per foot directly outdoors, three rows per bed, one or two weeks before last frost and watch the chickens and squirrels carefully so they don’t dig them up. After the plants are about 6″ tall thin them to 12″ apart and maybe transplant a few to fill in any gaps. Expected harvest is about mid September allowing them to dry as much as possible on the stalk. I husk the corn and then place them in a well ventilated area for a few more months to dry. You know it’s ready to eat when the corn pops readily.

dblackFor rich nutrient dense corn, there are few plants written about as extensively as corn. This is because corn is a major commodity and many biological farmers rely upon it to pay the bills. We will explore this in greater detail over the summer as we use my small patch as an experiment.

History

The history behind Strawberry Popcorn is a mystery to me, I was able to find only a few vague references to it being an Indian corn. I even had a short exchange with Jack, the worlds only commercial grower of Strawberry Popcorn. This was Jack’s last growing season, retiring from an astounding 30 year Strawberry Popcorn growing career and producing 5000 lbs of delicious little red kernels every season. Jack admitted that he had only seen what looked like this variety’s ancestor in a museum somewhere once. Whatever its true origin and the fate of its breeder I can’t yet say.

MaizeAs for the masters of vegetable gardening, the 19th century Parisian Market Gardeners, there is hardly a peep about corn and none about popcorn. One small page in the 1885 Vilmorin says “it is almost exclusively in the United States of America that the Maize is regarded as a regular table vegetable.” This lack of interest was hardly new at the time for we find another and earlier reference in the now amusing 16th century English tome of plant lore, The Herball of Generall Historie of Plantes, that “the barbarous Indians which know no better, are constrained to make a virtue of necessities, and think it a good food.” I am told that it’s still rarely eaten in Europe.

Popping

Certainly I’ve popped my fair share of popcorn in an air popper, and you may too if Styrofoam is your favorite flavor of corn. I have since learned however that the best way to pop corn is on the stove top with a pot, a lid and some olive oil.

popcornI set a burner to high, and drizzle in a table spoon or two of olive oil. Drop in a few kernels and wait until they’re sizzling before adding a few handfuls of my favorite popcorn. For large popping corn use a little less to avoid over flowing the pot, but for the pint sized kernels of strawberry popcorn more is the rule. Gently agitate the pot to keep the kernels from burning until you see one or two of the kernels pop. Then quickly place the lid on to prevent hot oil and your corn escaping its confinement. Keep agitating the pot and listen to the exciting roar of the popping. As soon as it starts to slow turn off the heat and a few moments later the popping will have almost stopped. Pull from the heat and immediately pour into a bowl while the last few kernels explode. Timing is criticle, if your a little early you will have more unpopped kernels, and if yoru a little too late it may start to burn. Watch out too, that pot will be extremely hot, so place it carefully away and out of reach. Add a few pinches of real sea salt, the gray or pink kind, and enjoy.

Store Popcorn

Popcorn is one of those rare high quality products actually available in stores. Popcorn will only pop if the kernel is dense and fully filled out. Corn with dents and pits are nutritionally inferior and will not pop. Purchase only organic and heirloom varieties and avoid the abomination that GMO corn has become. And microwave popcorn is a terrible idea. Not only does does the product contain toxins but microwaves themselves may denature the food.

Corn meal is typically made from average low quality flint or dent corn usually fed only to those poor sick animals in intensive feeding operations. Avoid that stuff as it doesn’t make the animals healthy and it won’t you either, instead grind your own. You can create a rich and flavorful corn flower from organic popcorn in a grain mill. Be sure your mill is rated to grind popcorn as the extra dense kernels can damage it.

~Sean

Mâche

Mâche, Corn-salad, Lamb’s Lettuce

French, Mâche. German Feldsalat. Flemish and Dutch Koornsalad. Italian, Erba riccia. Spanish, Canonigos. Portuguese, Herva beenta.

Valerianella locusta (olitoria) & V. eriocarpa

machefeb2014This beautiful little plant is the star of the winter garden. It’s so cold tolerant it can withstand temperatures as low as -20°F (-29°C). I’m always surprised to see it still green and happy come January and February during our long cold winters, and regret that I hadn’t planted more.

Sow in late summer or early fall for a winter harvest of fresh greens, or sow a little later and allow it to overwinter for a fresh spring salad when most plants are only just beginning to wake. I provide scant protection under plastic and am always surprised to see it doing so well. I’m certain it would do equally fine totally uncovered or perhaps a few conifer branches as is done with spinach.

The plant is also quite small, so serve up the small rosettes in their entirety as picking the small leaves on their own can be tedious, although perfectly acceptable especially on a nice sunny day that warms the hoop house. This works quite well mixed with other greens or entirely on their own splashed with a little vinegar and oil.

While researching this I learned that the soil should be carefully smoothed and flattened before sowing. I saw this referenced in the 1895 Vilmorin manual, but without explanation. After reading what Elliot Coleman had to say, it became quite clear that it’s to aid in harvesting. To harvest use a sharp nife and carefully cut at ground level. A smooth soil will help keep the plants clean.

I’ve planted Mache for several years now but in early November 2013 I completed my 10′ x 30′ movable high tunnel, thus my plan is quite a bit more elaborate than previous years. This is what I have going on:

machecal

Spring

My first planned sowing is mid-late February directly into the hoop house (completed on Feb 15). I plan to rework the bed right around last frost in order to insert tomatoes so we shall see how well they do on such a short growing period. I have a second small sowing outdoors uncovered in mid march and plan to harvest in mid to late May.

Summer

Mache is not heat tolerant, save it for the winter.

Fall

I have four sowing’s planned. The first is outdoors into the winter bed in mid August that will be covered by the movable hoop house in early October. I worry about it not germinating well during our very hot August weather so am planning a second sowing indoors. The third sowing is planned for mid-September and the fourth in October, both outside. The last two sowing’s will be carefully performed between the other winter veggies to maximize usage of space.

Winter

The earliest I would expect to harvest would be in late October. Compared to London and Paris, my summers are hot and dry and I doubt I can get sufficient germination for an October harvest. Realistically I think harvest will be in mid-late November, just in time for a nice holiday dinner, and then continue into May.

days to transplant: 
days to maturity: 47
days to mat. baby: 
direct sow or trans: both
seeds per ft: 12
plants per ft: 6
row spacing in.: 4
rows per bed: 8
seeds per oz: 
min germ temp: 40
optimal germ temp: 60
max germ temp: 70
min legal germ:

Market Gardening History

About the name, the word “corn” in corn-salad refers to the fact that this is a common weed found in wheat fields throughout Europe. In the old-world, the word corn refers to a “staple grain” and not the corn plant we are more familiar with here in the US. Also, in the Brother’s Grimm tale Rapunzel, we learn the true inspiration for the main character’s name, in Germany this plant is also known as “Rapunzel”.

Mache still grows wild in much of Europe and was, I have no doubt, a rare and important winter green for peasants innumerable. As a fine culinary herb however, it gained it’s reputation in the 17th century for being first cultivated and served to the king of France by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie. He was also the designer of the French royal garden, the Potager du Roithe worlds grandest and still operational market garden.

cornsaladIn my copy of the 1895 French book on market gardening, Vilmorin-Andrieux’s the Vegetable Garden (Les Plantes potagères), the author lists seven different varieties in use by market gardeners in London and Paris. Seeds were sown in late summer or fall, producing harvestable greens from October to spring and it was accomplished “without requiring any attention or protection.” Another interesting note in the book is that the first year seeds do not germinate as readily as those that are already a year old. I think I am actually going to test this out as I feel like the seed germination has been less than ideal and have read others express the same.

cabbagecornAt the time, European market gardeners grew two different types of Mache: the round leaved types (Valerianella olitoria) and the Italian types (V. eriocarpa). The round leaved varieties were considered best for winter growing and were sown from August to October. The Italian type however were sown in October and harvest delayed until the following spring when the first type was no longer usable due to bolting. Seeds were sown by broadcasting and lightly raking in among other crops such as winter onions. Modern resources list the Latin name as V. locusta instead of olitoria. 

italiancornVilmorin lists the following varieties for the “round types”:

  • Round-leaved Corn-salad,
  • Large-seeded Corn-salad,
  • Golden Corn-salad,
  • Etampes Corn-salad,
  • Cabbaging Corn-salad.


The Italian type of Corn-Salad (Valerianella eriocarpa) is native to southern Europe and thus is a little more sensitive to cold. If it were available I suspect it would do well enough under a cold frame or tunnel. Vilmorin lists two varieties:

  • Lettuce-leaved Italian Corn-salad,
  • and Spoon-leaved Corn-salad.

Another interesting reference to Mache is within John Gerard’s Generall Historie of Plantes published in 1597. This gives us a clue to how it was consumed by the peasantry of 16th century England. About Mache he says “This herb is cold and something moist, and not unlike in faculty and temperature to the garden lettuce, instead whereof in winter and in the first month of the spring it serves for a salad herb, and is with pleasure eaten with vinegar, salt, and oil, as other salads be, among which it is none of the worst.”

andvirtues

Seed Source

If you’re interested in growing Mache, a quick look through through the seed companies here show several named varieties available (Verte de Cambrai, Verte a Coeur Plein, Verte d’Etampes, Coquille de Louviers). A search on the internet did uncover a large seeded variety called Grosse Graines Mache available at Kitchen Garden Seeds.