Seeing Blue, Indigo Blue.

Three summers ago, I was cruising the Nashville Farmers Market when I spied Hill and Hollow Farm’s vegetable, flower, and hand-dyed yarn stand. What drew me in was the color blue. Indigo blue. 

On that June morning, owner, Robin Verson, was selling Japanese Indigo plants; the plants she uses to make indigo dye for her gorgeous yarns. The yarn is milled from wool shorn from her own flock of Jacob sheep. I wanted in on this exciting blue action. I bought four of her seedlings and planted them that day. By September, the plants looked like this.

As the plants matured to the flowering stage, I was surprised to see there was no blue in sight. The leaves were green, the flowers were pink, and the stems were a bronzy-red. With winter approaching, I left my small crop of indigo to die, in situ. Little did I know how easily they would self-seed here in Tennessee. Three years later, I had a bumper crop of volunteer Japanese Indigo plants.

During the summer, I noticed there were hints of blue on some of the bruised leaves. Hmmm. The color was in the leaves. I read up on how to extract indigo pigment from leaves, and I saw words like alkalization, oxidation, and reduction in the directions. Principles of Chemistry– the only course in college that made me call home crying.

Back I went to the Farmers Market, now three years later, to find Robin to look for the help I needed.

It turns out every summer when Japanese indigo plants are ready for harvest, Robin hosts all-day long indigo workshops at her farm in Breeding, Kentucky. I signed up for a Sunday in late August.

Upon arrival, I immediately fell in love with her farm and her sheep. I wanted both!

Robin explained the steps we were going to go through. Two weeks later, when I went to try it myself, I texted her to ask for a quick cheat-sheet version of the directions. Here is what she wrote: strip leaves, steep in water to 160º (measure water first), alkalinize, oxidize and reduce water, wait for reduction to be complete, dye and send me pictures! Robin had walked us through all these steps with humor and grace … and hospitality; she and her husband, Paul, fed us every step of the way.

Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Harvest and Strip Leaves
Our first job was to strip the basil-like leaves from the 24 pounds of indigo stems harvested that morning. To create the brightest color, the plants are picked just before they start to flower. Once cut, they need to be processed immediately before naturally occurring enzymes in the leaves start to decay the indigo pigment (aka indican).

The black buckets were full of fresh stems, the red baskets held the stripped stems, and the two 80-quart stainless steel pots held the fresh leaves.

2. Make the “Indigo Tea,” aka Dyebath
Robin placed the pots of leaves over propane burners. She poured 12 gallons of tap water into each pot (enough to cover the leaves with water) and lit the burners. The water was heated to 160º over a two-hour period. We used a long compost thermometer to keep track of the temperature.

At 145º you could smell the wilted copper-tinged leaves and see why the dyebath is referred to as “indigo tea.” When the tea was 160º, we cut the heat. We put on heat-resistant gloves and used a short rake to scoop out the leaves and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. The leaves went into the orange compost bucket. The tea stayed in the kettle.

We poured the tea through a sieve to remove dirt and debris.

Robin scooped up a jar of the tea to show us the desired color. The indican molecules had broken down into blueish-indoxyl and sugar.

The indoxyl will not stick to cloth in its current state. It needs to be chemically modified by alkalinizing it with ammonia, oxidizing it with oxygen until it becomes blue-green in color, and reducing it by adding sodium hydrosulfite and allowing it to rest until it becomes neon yellow. Here’s the play by play of that:

3. Alkalinization of the Dyebath
We raised the alkaline level from 7 (the pH of water) to 9 by adding household ammonia at the rate of 2 tablespoons/gallon of liquid used. Some people use baking soda, wood ash, or lye to accomplish this.

4. Oxidation of the Dyebath
Next, we oxidized the dyebath by introducing oxygen in the form of air. We scooped up and poured bucketfuls of dyebath over and over again for 20 minutes to add lots of air bubbles. The liquid turned a deep green-blue. During this process, the indoxyl is transformed into very fine insoluble blue particles. They still won’t stick to fiber in this state, but we’re getting there.

I found this image of workers in Asia adding oxygen to an indoxyl-laden dyebath at http://www.industryofallnations.com/Jeans-At-Industry-Of-All-Nations-ccid_80.aspx.

5. Reduction of the Dyebath
The next step is to reduce the dye molecules in the dyebath. To do this, a reducing agent like sodium hydrosulfite, Spectralite, or Rit Color Remover is added at a rate of 1 tablespoon/gallon of water. Robin had us gently stir in the first two tablespoons of the reducing agent and sprinkle in the rest to not introduce more air. Reducing agents absorb electrons and transform the blue insoluble particles into a neon-yellow color that is now considered in solution. Cover the pot for the two hours it takes the reduction process to happen. The dyebath will look like this when it is ready to dye fibers.

While the mixture reduced, we had lunch. Lunch and dessert were prepared by Robin and her family. The amazing farm-to-table meal was scrumptious. Everyone was gushing. The meal included slow-roasted tomatoes that I loved. Here’s the recipe for them.

Time to Dye!
Before coming to the farm, Robin had asked us to wash the textiles we wanted to dye to remove all dirt and grease. She soaked them in warm water before we dyed them.

The pre-soaked textiles are now added slowly to the warmed dyebath (100-120º). Absolutely no stirring is allowed (to prevent another oxidation). The garments or yarn stay submerged for 15 minutes. It is during this soaking period that the textiles lose their color and become “indigo white” which is in fact, more like “neon-yellow.” The items are removed slowly along the side of the pot to diminish the chance of drips introducing air bubbles.

6. Re-Oxidation
As the textiles are removed, the yellowish indigo particles adhere and penetrate into the fabric’s crevices and transform into insoluble indigo blue as the air mingles with the dye and re-oxidizes it. To intensify the color, let the textiles rest and then redip for another 15 minutes to add more layers of color. Never leave items in the dyebath for more than 15 minutes per dip.

As the re-oxidizing is happening, you’ll see the fibers turn yellow, then green, then green-blue, and ultimately indigo blue. It’s kind of magical.

 

Give the yarn a bath in clean water and vinegar to set the color and then allow to dry. As an aside, notice the four ties spaced intermittently around each skein of yarn. That’s what keeps yarn from getting tangled while dyeing. In all of my years of knitting, I never considered why those ties were there.

I dyed yarn and this shirt.

I can’t thank Robin enough for her instruction and hospitality while we were with her. I urge anyone interested in learning more about this artform to sign up for one of Robin’s classes next year. You can find her here.

And so what did I do with my crop of indigo? Did I try this at home? You Betcha.

I harvested, weighed, and stripped the leaves, and stewed them in water to 160º.
  

I removed and strained the leaves, alkalinized the dyebath, oxidated it for 20 minutes, and finally, reduced it for 2 hours in the kitchen sink.
  

I unwound a ball of yarn, rewound it around a chair, and loosely tied it (so it wouldn’t leave marks), soaked it in the reduced dyebath for 15″, and later, rinsed it in a vinegar and water bath to fix the color.
 

The results were terrific. I dyed both skeins of blue yarn in the photo, one with indigo dye made at Robin’s workshop using her super fresh indigo leaves and the other, a lighter blue, in my sink using my not so fresh leaves (they had already flowered). I also over-dyed a gray linen shirt I had made for me in India. I love it!
 

Once you get started and have a sink full of dye, you start searching the house for things that would look good blue. These muslin dish towels painted for me by my beautiful friend, Mary Carter, were dingy and stained. Now they are a pretty indigo blue.

If it wasn’t time for dinner, I would have re-dipped everything to add another layer of color, instead, with a roomful of hungry family looking at me (it was now 6 pm – this took all day!), I opened the drain and let the dye go.

My favorite, most satisfying days are the ones where I get lost in a project and lose all sense of time. Trying my hand at making dye extracted from plants I grew in my yard provided for one of those exciting and memorable days. Please write a comment if you have anything to add to this epic post. I still have so much to learn about growing plants and making natural dyes.

A Good Book
For a good read about the history of indigo farming and dyeing in Colonial America, I suggest, The Indigo Girl, by Natasha Boyd. The book tells the story of Eliza Pinckney, who, as a young, industrious farmer learned to successfully grow indigo in South Carolina. It’s a page-turner.

One last indigo image: the inspiration for this indigo journey started during our trip to India in February. Little did I know, when I took this photo of an IndiGo Airlines bus from our airplane window in New Dehli, how far my curiosity about this rich color would take me.

Related Posts
Making Homemade Plant-Based Dyes
Group Project: A Shibori Dyed Quilt
Morning Rounds in the Garden, July
To Dye For: Making Naturally Dyed Easter Eggs
Learning How to Block Print in Jaipur (India, Part 2)
Shopping for a Saree in South India

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© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

The Volunteer Gardener

When I was ten, I planted my first packet of seeds in a thin strip of dirt bordering the back of our house. I remember asking my mother what germination meant. In my twenties, my husband and I grew vegetables on the roof and in the window boxes of our first apartment as newlyweds in downtown Boston.

When we bought our first house in Nashville, my husband built me a fenced-in vegetable garden. He used white picket fencing recovered from a neighbor’s backyard. As a transplanted New Englander, I felt so … Southern Living.

For Valentine’s Day, he borrowed a truck and went to a friend’s chicken farm to get me a load of chicken poop. Later, Mary Hance, a columnist for The Tennessean, wrote a story about it for her “Ms. Cheap” column, “Sometimes even chicken manure is a gift of love.” In 2018, re-using scrap wood and hauling in chicken poop is considered PC and falls under the category of “keeping stuff out of the landfill.” Back then, it was known as plain old saving money, and another example of my husband’s mantra for our children, “Be a problem solver, not a problem identifier.”

I thought about all of this as I watched this week’s episode of Volunteer Gardener [episode 2713], an educational gardening show on Nashville Public Television.  It was filmed in my backyard.

My friend, Jeremy Lekich, owner of Nashville Foodscapes was interviewed by the show’s host, Phillipe Chadwick, to talk about growing edible backyard spaces, Jeremy’s specialty. I’ve got to warn you, Jeremy’s passion for edible foodscapes is contagious! He gets booked up in April when folks get the urge to plant. Now is the time to call him to plan and build next year’s vegetable gardening space.

Here is a clip about how figs reproduce. It didn’t make the show but is a great example of how Jeremy inspires people to become curious and productive gardeners.

You will never look at the inside of a fig in the same way.

Thank you to Greta Requierme, producer of Volunteer Gardener, for bringing her crew to visit my garden and to my dear friend, Jeremy, for all the ways he inspires me to grow more food. Here is Jeremy’s mission statement from his website:

“Nashville Foodscapes connects people with their food source by growing food where people live. We achieve this by offering creative food solutions through landscaping. We create custom designs of our clients’ yards, homes, and living spaces allowing food to be grown in a way that pleases the eyes and taste buds: a fusion of aesthetics and function in a landscape.”

Yes, I adore him!

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Crostini with Slow-Roasted Tomatoes, Burrata, and Basil

Although my tomato garden started out pretty, it did not produce all summer. I heard similar comments from many of my backyard gardening friends. About two weeks ago, I cleaned up my 26 tomato plants and gave them one last chance to make fruit before pulling them. I picked every tomato in sight in various stages of ripeness.

At our next monthly Master Gardeners of Davidson County meeting, I asked our UT Extension Agent, David Cook, if he had an explanation. He said in long periods of heat and drought, tomatoes take longer to ripen. Additionally, he said the plants do not set new fruit because the heat coupled with high humidity cause the flowers to shrivel up and drop. He said he’s been wondering if it is time to rethink when we plant tomatoes locally.  Perhaps later in June would work better since we have a long growing season. Coincidently, I learned my father-in-law planted his tomato beds on July 1st, and they were lush and producing when I saw them last week.

The first thing I did with the ripe portion of tomatoes I harvested was to make and freeze a few batches of @JudysChickens Marinara Sauce. Soon after, I had the pleasure of tasting Robin Verson’s slow-roasted tomatoes while attending an indigo dyeing workshop at Hill and Hollow Farm, in Kentucky. I’ve made oven-roasted tomatoes before, but their flavor wasn’t nearly as intense as these. These were like little flavor bombs.

I asked her how she prepared them. She wrote, “Cut off the tips of Roma tomatoes, then cut them in half. Place in baking pan and sprinkle olive oil, salt, and pepper. Put a nice
amount of freshly pressed garlic on top of each half. Bake at 225 for many hours, usually half a day.” Thus began my days of slow-roasting tomatoes.

Slow Roasted Tomato Ingredients

4 pounds small tomatoes (I used 3# Roma and 1# cherry)
5 -6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic pepper (used only for cherry tomatoes)

I divided the tomatoes into cherry (Juliettes and Sungolds) and the larger tomatoes (Romas and Lemon Boys). I found that garlic doesn’t stick well to whole cherry tomatoes, so I used garlic pepper for them.

Instructions
Preheat oven to 225º
Line two 13″ x 18″ rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

For the pound of cherry tomatoes: mix tomatoes with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 teaspoon of garlic pepper. Spread them on a baking sheet. Set aside.

For the three pounds of Romas and Lemon Boys: cut the tomatoes in half, lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds with your index finger. Mix olive oil and minced garlic in a small bowl to moisten the garlic. Place tomatoes on a baking sheet in a single layer. Use a teaspoon to drizzle the olive oil and garlic over the tomato halves.

Slow cook tomatoes for 4-5 hours. The cherry tomatoes were ready about 30″ before the Romas.

We call the cherry tomatoes “poppers.” They are fun to eat individually or to throw in sauces, salads, and vegetable dishes for a burst of flavor.

The roasted Romas are good to eat as an appetizer, a side dish, or as a mix-in for foods like hamburgers, vegetable dishes, and even over pasta. They are especially good smushed on bruschetta, or on crostinis, as we shall see. They will last in a covered dish for about a week in the refrigerator, or they can be frozen.

Crostini Ingredients
Yield: 18 Crostini

1 baguette
½ recipe of slow roasted tomatoes (see above)
4  2-ounce balls of burrata cheese
a few leaves of basil, minced
balsamic vinegar
Cracked sea salt and pepper

Instructions
Preheat oven to 400º

Slice a baguette into ½-inch slices. Lightly brush each with olive oil. Place slices on a sheet pan and toast for about 7-8 minutes.

Slice the burrata and place some on each slice of bread.

Top with one roasted tomato half.

Grind a little sea salt and pepper over each crostini. Sprinkle with chopped basil. Drizzle each with a few drops of balsamic vinegar. Arrange crostini on a serving platter.

If you are looking for other ways to cook tomatoes check out Tomatoes! on the MENU page.

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@judyschickens Marinara Sauce

I have two ways of preparing marinara sauce, the summer way and the winter way. Either way, marinara sauce is super easy to make and so much better than store bought sauce.

In the summer, I use fresh tomatoes. I often use the over-ripe and cracked tomatoes for cooking and save the pretty ones for salads.

In the winter, I use Italian, canned, whole, plum tomatoes.

There is also a “hybrid” version of sauce that I make at The Nashville Food Project. There, I use a combination of fresh and canned tomatoes — a mixture that includes canned tomatoes that are often dented (they’re okay to use) and homegrown tomatoes (some perfect, some cracked), all of which are either donated or grown in TNFP’s production gardens. I happily get to make that version in a tilt-top stove which can hold enough sauce for 300 servings!

I use the same ingredients in all three versions: tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, basil, sea salt, and ground cayenne or red pepper flakes. What I don’t use is dried oregano. I’m not sure why people think oregano should go in Italian tomato sauce, but no one in my family ever used it. All versions simmer for ten minutes on medium heat once they have come to a rolling boil. Marinara sauces do not cook for as long as a thick and meaty “Sunday Sauce.” They are meant to show off the beautiful flavor of tomatoes.

Although I’ve been making marinara sauce for most of my life, it wasn’t until the summer of 2006, when our family was on an overnight sailing trip in the Adriatic Sea with friends, that I learned to make a delicious marinara. Our skipper, Toto, prepared lunch for ten on a two-burner cooktop in the small galley kitchen of his boat. What did he do differently? He did not add onions (I used to), he used a pinch of cayenne pepper (for heat), and he only cooked the sauce for ten minutes (I was cooking it for 30-45 minutes). In other words, he kept it very simple.

And I’m not the only one who loved the sauce. To this day, if you ask my boys, they will tell you it was the best spafhetti and marinara sauce they ever had.

Yield: Makes 4-5 cups

Ingredients:
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
6-8 cloves of smashed and chopped garlic (about ¼ cup, chopped)
4 pounds of ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded, and rough-chopped (about 8-9 cups) or 2 28-ounce cans of whole Italian plum tomatoes
2 teaspoons sea salt
A pinch of cayenne pepper OR ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
15 large leaves of basil, rough-chopped OR 2 loaded stems (about ½ cup when chopped)
1-2 teaspoons sugar (optional, it cuts the acidity)

Instructions:
Core the stems of the tomatoes, slice tomatoes in half (horizontally), and use your index finger to scoop out the seeds. Rough-chop tomatoes into 1 to 2-inch chunks. I do not peel the tomatoes. If using canned tomatoes, pour them into a bowl and break them up with your fingers. Swizzle each empty can with a ½ cup of water and pour the liquid into the bowl. Set aside.

Smash the garlic to break up the bulb. Remove the tissuey peel. Take the flat side of a chef’s knife and press it down over each clove to flatten and make it easier to remove the last layer of peel, then rough-chop the garlic cloves.

Pour olive oil into a 6-quart sauté pan. Add garlic. Sauté for about one minute on medium heat until the garlic starts to change color. Do not brown the garlic. If you do, discard and start over. It will make your sauce bitter.

Add the tomatoes, salt, and cayenne or pepper flakes to the garlic and oil. Bring to a boil and then simmer on medium heat for about ten minutes. Stir in sugar. Remove from heat.

Stir in basil. Let flavors meld together for at least 15 minutes. If desired, purée the sauce. Personally, I like a chunkier texture.

Serve over cooked bucatini and sprinkle with Reggiano Parmesan.

Recipes from Judy’s Chickens that use this Marinara Sauce recipe

Roasted Eggplant, Mozzarella, and Ziti  Amazingly delicious! My family loves it.

Fresh Marinara Sauce with Pasta and Mozzarella Yummy for a quick evening dinner. You could add cooked chicken for protein if desired.

Spiralized Zucchini with Fresh Marinara Sauce I’ve taught this recipe to a few different groups and each time half the people present ordered spiralizers before they left the room.

Check out other family-favorite Italian pasta dishes here.

Never buy a bottle of salad dressing again! Keep a bottle of this 4-ingredient vinaigrette in the cupboard. Use it for salads and marinades: @judyschickens Everyday Salad Dressing

One of the most popular recipes on the blog developed by me after our trip to Croatia: “Croatian Cheese” a Flavorful and Exotic Appetizer Made with Feta and Goat Cheese

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Remember to always check this website for updated versions of a recipe.  

© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.