Once that calendar page turns and April stares us in the face, we have no choice but to get our collective butt in gear and start doing prep for the season. Sure, we’ve done some stuff up until now, but April is when things really get moving. Farmer Sonny/Dad/Papa starts doing his field preparation by plowing and tilling and spreading plant vitamins where they’re needed.
The greenhouses get cleaned out and tilled and the beds are covered with row cover. Why row cover if we’re just putting trays of seedlings down? Because those plant roots LOVE our rich organic Black Dirt and they will stretch and grow until they reach through the drain holes, quickly and firmly rooting themselves in the fertile ‘muck’ that they prefer over standard potting soil.
Some things are started from seed in the greenhouse, then moved into ‘cells’ or trays with either 50 or 72 openings each. Once they’ve established an ample root system, and the fear of frost is pretty much behind us, we can plant the seedlings outside. We wait until at least mid-May to plant things like tomatoes and peppers and eggplant outside. We’ve learned our lesson to not push Mother Nature. We’ve had damaging frosts as late as June 1. Other cool-weather crops have already been planted from seed directly in the fields.
Those crops (spinach, radishes, carrots, swiss chard, beets, peas) take a week to 10 days to emerge from the ground, and we hope that the sunshine and warm temps will guide the little seedlings upward. I say hope because on this seasonal journey, Mother Nature has a funny way of changing lanes on us. We kinda have to play it by ear though. We’ll set the tender plants out in mid-May, then get a light (or sometimes heavy) frost that damages them, and if we CAN, we’ll replace them with seedlings that we saved for just such an emergency.
Sometimes it’s too much rain that rots the plants from the roots up, or even hail or wind that break off the delicate plants. Last year was ‘one of those years’ where we lost most of our early spring peas (Shell and Sugar Snap) because of wind. The wind basically lifted the dry soil and blasted it across the tiny stems, shearing them off at their bases. One day, or even just a few hours, of that can destroy weeks’ worth of a seasonal crop and it’s very sad to see, not to mention financially devastating.
As you can imagine, with nearly 60 acres (one acre measures 43,560 square feet, so put your multiplication hat on – that’s roughly a boatload of land) to be tended and planted, we’re quite busy. Funny thing though, that busy doesn’t stop until December. We plant some things once, like potatoes, garlic, onions, tomatoes, peppers. Other crops, such as radishes, corn, carrots, cilantro, chard, beets, spinach, get planted over and over again until they won’t grow in time to harvest for market or because the weather says ‘no more planting’.
When we’re busy, even I, someone who loves to cook and create, have a tough time getting dinner on the table – and oftentimes it’s because I’m just too tired. Sound familiar? I know, you can totally empathize. Because of times like these, I make big batches of things that I love and I freeze them so they’re available to defrost at a moment’s notice. It’s a blessing to have a hearty and healthful meal ready for The Boy and myself whenever I need it, and all it takes is just a bit of advanced planning.
This chili is a pantry whore’s dream. (*Pantry whore being someone who, like me, stocks her pantry with an unusual assortment of goodies, usually in mass quantities. You have 3 boxes of quinoa in your pantry too right? ). The onion and garlic are staples in my house, so the only things I need to purchase are sweet potatoes and red peppers, and even those will last for a week or more in the fridge, just in case you don’t ‘get to it’.
I have served this dish over rice or polenta or even cornbread squares, but it’s not necessary. Usually it’s just reheated and garnished with sour cream, hot sauce and fresh cilantro (again, if you don’t have this, use the cilantro-chile sauce that I told you about last summer). If I’m lucky enough to have a perfectly ripe avocado, I slice that along with a bit of onion and serve it alongside, simply dressed with a bit of lime juice, salt and pepper.
Also, please get GOOD chile powders. Typically, the chili powders (notice the spelling difference – it’s not a typo) you find in supermarkets are blends designed for throwing together a standard chili (generic chile powder, cumin, coriander, oregano, salt). I prefer to make my own mix and use chilE powders, always a blend of both ancho and chipotle chilES. My purveyor of choice, as I’ve mentioned before, is Penzey’s Spices. Mail order is good for busy gals plus you get the bonus of retail therapy.
Sweet Potato and Black Bean Chili
1 med Onion, diced
1 med Red (or yellow or orange) Pepper, diced
2 cloves Garlic, minced
Salt and ground Pepper to taste (salt well because the potatoes will need the help)
1 T Ancho Chile Powder
2 t Chipotle Chile Powder
1 1/2 t Oregano, crumbled if dried (or 1 T fresh, minced)
2 t ground Cumin
1 t ground Coriander
1 large Sweet Potato, peeled and diced about 1/2-inch cubes
1 large can Plum Tomatoes with juice (or diced tomatoes… whatever you’ve got!)
1 small can Diced Green Chiles (they’re mild)
1 large can Black Beans, drained and rinsed
about 5 Dashes Liquid Smoke
Frozen Corn (I like Trader Joe’s Grilled Corn niblets), a few handfuls
*Note: adjust seasonings to your tastes. You may need more – these amounts are strictly a starting point as all onions, peppers and sweet potatoes will be different sizes and who the heck needs the hassle of measuring them?
Heat large skillet over med-high heat then add olive oil. When hot, add onion and pepper. Saute for several minutes or until just starting to brown and get tender. Add garlic and cook another minute. Stir in dried spices (I mix them all in a bowl and have them ready to dump in so the first one you add doesn’t burn by the time you add the last.) and cook for about a minute. Heating the dried spices in oil helps release and intensify their flavors.
Stir in the sweet potato, tomatoes (break ‘em up if whole) and juice, green chiles, and about 1/2 a can of water. You may need more water depending on how much sweet potato you have and how soupy you like your final dish. Simmer gently for about 10 minutes or until potatoes are nearly tender. Stir in black beans, liquid smoke and frozen corn and continue to simmer until thick, hot and the potatoes have cooked through. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Serve as is or on top of a starch with garnishes (cilantro, sour cream, cheese, avocado, hot sauce, crumbled goat cheese) or separate into smaller containers and freeze for future use.