Friday, September 02, 2011

Tommy's Pumpkin

Tommy grew a pumpkin this year. It's small, and it was a hard-fought battle to get this little pumpkin for two reasons:
  • As I've belabored to the point of becoming tiresome, our backyard is not sunny enough to grow anything bearing fruit.
  • Squash bores got into the squash vine, and this pumpkin was the sole survivor of that attack.
The pumpkin's special because it was grown from a seed I saved from a pumpkin Tom picked during a kindergarten trip to a local pumpkin patch. Around early November last year, when Max and Tommy had friends over, I removed the seeds, saving and drying some and roasting the others. Then I cooked down the pumpkin and froze the pulp, and threw anything left over into the compost heap. It reminded me of fifth-grade social studies class learning how the Indians were respectful of the buffalo they killed, and used every last part.
So Tommy's prize this year, a descendent of his kindergarten trip, will be cooked into the chocolate chip pumpkin muffins he likes, with seeds saved for next year's sunny front-yard mini pumpkin patch.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Hints from Heloise: Gleaming Cutlery

A dear friend of mine gave us a set of cutlery for our wedding almost 14 years ago: Marquise by 1847 Rogers. It sat in its case for about 12 years while I worried that it was too fancy for the likes of me and Phil. Since I pulled it out and started using it, it's slowly grown a layer of tarnish that I've hardly noticed. Others have. In fact, one neighbor has casually mentioned not once but twice that he thought maybe we shouldn't use my "fine" silverware because of the patina. I'm sure he was thinking more about the stained fork than my baked ziti. One day, I thought, I really need to sit down and spend a few hours cleaning that stuff up like the household help in the 1920s.
Then I stumbled on a recipe the other day for cleaning silverplate. Here's what I did:
  1. Make a single layer of silverware in one of those disposable foil things you use for potluck baked ziti. The silverware needs to touch the foil. You can also line a pan or dish with foil.
  2. Heat some water to boiling, and then pour it into a 4-cup Pyrex container. For 4 cups of water, add 1/4 cup baking soda. It's going to bubble up impressively when you add the soda.
  3. Pour the boiling water and baking soda over the silverware and watch in amazement as the tarnish disappears. Just disappears.
  4. Call your husband in from the porch where he's trying to have a quiet martini and do a little reading, and drag him in to watch the magic. Marvel that this will be your fourth-grader's first science fair project.
  5. Invite your neighbor over for dinner -- something that will require a few pieces of cutlery -- so he can marvel at your sparkling home.
For really stubborn spots, swirl the water around a bit. Then take out that silverware and add more. When the water cools, you can either re-heat it or make some more.
In other Household Hints news, I finally paid attention to my kale, which I'd sort of OD'd on in the early summer and hadn't really noticed for a bit. I realized something was chewing the heck out of it. When I went to get rid of the tattered leaves, I found small green caterpillars having a party on my kale. A little Facebook research, and my friends informed me these are white cabbage moths, and the eggs are laid by the little white butterflies I always look at sanguinely when they flutter around the lavender. I couldn't find a good solution until I found the following on an Internet garden Q&A: Pay a kid 5 cents a caterpillar. Max made $2.50 today working next to me, and is eager to start his shift again tomorrow.
Sometimes money DOES buy happiness.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Musings on the Tomato, with Lacto-Fermented Salsa

Yes, it's been a long time since I've posted. I think this is a record. Yeah for me.
Last year my friend Dave pointed out that my anemic tomatoes weren't the result of the universe plotting against me, but simply that I'd not paid attention to their needing more sun than my semi-wooded backyard would afford. Noted. This year I moved the tomatoes to the front yard, and while we've only had six plants, I've been beside myself with how they've thrived. Simply beside myself. If you have any doubt what sun can do for sun-loving plants like tomatoes, here are two heirloom tomatoes, one in the backyard (because I had some extra plants and a little extra room in the raised beds) and one in the front yard. Case closed.
Sylvia explaining last May why we planted tomatoes out front.
It's been a fun gardening year. I tried potatoes for the first time and am giddy that you can put a part of a potato under ground, and a couple months later dig under the resulting foliage and find... Potatoes. As Phil says, "honest potatoes." I planted a 4 X 4 box with Purple Haze potatoes and we've been eating on them for a bit. I can't find a good source for seed potatoes this fall, so I'm sprouting some myself, and sharing them with my dad, who's never grown potatoes but was fascinated when I told him about our experience this year. By the way, if you're thinking of planting potatoes, you might want to check out The Resilient Gardener, which devotes a whole chapter to spuds. One thing I learned from that book was to watch for the foliage to die, wait another week or two, and then dig up the potatoes. Apparently they keep growing and getting nutrients even while their foliage looks dead and as if nothing good is going to come of them.

Backyard on the left; front yard on the right.
So, back to the sun. I took Dave too literally. While I moved the tomatoes to the front yard, I didn't apply his lessons to all summer vegetables needing sunlight. So my first attempt at corn turned out miniature. The raccoons got it, and frankly, they could have it. Ditto the peppers, which were less than impressive other than one hot pepper plant that did me proud. So the plan next year is to expand the little garden plot next to the driveway , and stock it with tomatoes, peppers, corn, rhubarb, and everything else that's been struggling in the backyard. The raised beds in the backyard will be planted solely with the leafy greens and spring/fall vegetables that thrive there: radishes, lettuce, kale, chard, mache.
Meanwhile, the tomatoes.
I will admit that my ultimate strategy is that we'll be able to grow all or most of our vegetables, and even fruit, on our little 1/4 acre suburban lot. But this year the thought of canning tomatoes made me tired. So very tired. So we're eating and enjoying them fresh, and I'm going to rely on the eight packs of Del Monte organic tomatoes at Costco to get through the winter. Sue me.
That said, we've got an abundance of tomatoes, and even tomato-philes like me and Phil are a little overwhelmed. And we've got a raccoon problem that ends in slightly blemished tomatoes that are still mainly good, if a bit scratched or bitten here and there. Bring in lacto-fermenting. I'm a little in love with it. This is a way to get probiatics (you know... Jamie Lee Curtis yelling at you about a yogurt brand that helps keep you "on track") through crazy-quick and easy prep. No canning. Essentially, you're prepping vegetables (pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut) and then letting them sit at room temperature. The result is living food filled with good bacteria; canning, on the opposite spectrum, kills all bacteria -- bad and harmful as well as good.
So I'm loving lacto-fermented salsa, which uses up less-than-perfect tomatoes, takes about five minutes to make, and tastes phenomenal. (Phil, who is more sensitive to salt than me, says it's a bit salty; I haven't noticed.) I'm using a combination of the method from Nourishing Days and a very slight riff on the recipe from Cheeseslave. I'm tickled that the tomato, garlic, and hot peppers all come from my garden. Next year, the onions will, too. Here's what I've been doing.

Lacto-Fermented Salsa

1 small to medium onion
2 cloves garlic
1 to 2 hot peppers, depending on your taste, split and seeded
Juice from 2 lemons
1 Tbsp. salt
4 oz. whey or 1 Tbsp. salt
About 3-4 decent-sized tomatoes
If you like, fresh herbs like cilantro or oregano

In a food processor, process the onion, peppers, and garlic. Now add the tomatoes and whir them a bit. I have a very small food processor, so I have to add the tomatoes, quartered, one at at time. If you're using fresh herbs, put those in and whir them a bit more. Now pour into a bowl, add the lemon juice, salt, and whey (or additional salt). You should have about a quart, so after it's all mixed up, pour it into a quart canning jar, making sure you have about an inch of headspace (space between the top of the salsa and the lid) and let it sit on the counter for a few days. The salsa should be pretty watery, and you'll want to be sure that stray pieces aren't clinging to the lid, as these could develop mold. In two or three days, taste your salsa; it'll be a little tangy and, in my opinion, crazy-delicious. Stick it in the fridge, and it'll keep for a long long time.

If you're really into this, just double the recipe and use a half-gallon canning jar.
For a lot more about lacto-fermenting, which used to scare the bejezus out of me, you might want to check the books Wild Fermentations or Nourishing Traditions.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Taking Stock

Phil and I recently cleared out and defrosted our deep freezer in anticipation of our annual quarter-cow purchase from a local farmer. In the midst of organizing, using up, or throwing out Parmesan rinds that I saved in 2008 and was sure I would use to flavor soups, five bags of edamame, a large stock of beef from last year's cow, and various other treasures, I made a gruesome discovery. The chicken carcasses I'd been saving for making stock "some day" created a veritable graveyard of Ziploc-enclosed body bags stacked at the back corner of the freezer. This macabre collection needed to be used up or thrown out, and some Depression-era gene couldn't let me just toss what I felt held potential for putting up stock.

Up to this point, I'd made stock once. Using the soup bones that had amassed with our cow delivery, I followed Julia's recipe in The Way to Cook. The recipe took our biggest pot, two years of soup bones, lots of vegetables, and six precious weekend hours. For my effort, I got two quarts of stock. Lovely stock, but the thought of devoting the next eight weekends to chicken stock wore me out.

Then I found the slow cooker recipe on NourishingDays, and I've since become a stock junkie, using up the chicken bones, as well as a turkey carcass from a turkey breast also found in the freezer. The stock is now frozen (in our newly defrosted and recently restocked freezer), lined up in quart canning jars, and waiting for winter soup making. It's crazy-easy, and because it uses kitchen leftovers, virtually free. I'm tickled pink every time I make stock. Tickled. Pink.

I now keep a gallon Ziploc bag in my main freezer in our kitchen, and all the stock-appropriate scraps from vegetables and herbs go in there: onion skins, half a rosemary stalk, carrot peelings, celery that's gone limp.

Here's how to make it:

Easy-Peasy Slow Cooker Stock

Two chicken carcasses, or whatever will fit in your slow cooker
1 to 2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
A couple handfuls of frozen vegetable leavin's

Put the chicken carcasses in the slow cooker, and add enough water to cover. Pour in the vinegar, cover, and let it sit, without turning on the slow cooker, for about an hour. This tip from lets you extract some of the nutrients from the bones. After an hour, add a couple handfuls of the vegetable droppings you've saved for stock, cover, and turn to low. Leave it alone for 24 hours. After 24 hours, strain through a coffee filter, paper towel, or cheesecloth, and either use the stock in a couple days, or freeze for later.

Used to be I'd buy organic stock at Costco. Six four-cup (e.g.,one quart) boxes are around $10. This recipe in my cooker usually gives me about two quarts. FOR FREE, as I keep reiterating to my long-suffering husband. Just kitchen scraps. And water. I so love this.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Modified Compact Revisited

At the start of the summer, with three kids going into camp or daycare (and the resulting costs), an oil spill gushing in the ocean and making it clear our days of relying on petroleum are numbered, and having felt more and more convicted about traveling more gently on the earth, I entered a modified compact.
Max and Tommy are back in school, and my 10-week experiment is over. How did it go? Here's what didn't go strictly according to plan:
  • Let's get this out of the way immediately. I bought an iPad. Some of the motivation had to do with my job and being conversant in new forms of e-publishing and understanding what some have touted game-changing technology. But it would be disingenuous to say my boss told me she'd fire me if I didn't have an iPad. And, as you can guess, I didn't get this on Craig's List or at a garage sale.
  • When traveling for work, a publishing partner took us to a strip of new, locally owned shops and I bought this t-shirt because it made me laugh out loud, it was on sale, and I felt okay supporting the shop and the local goods.

  • I had not one but two benders at, my newest vice. I swore I wouldn't succumb to the $3/yard sales, but when some designer fabrics dropped to $2.50, I succumbed. I'm weak. I'll admit that. I convinced myself I was just buying it to make gifts for others.

What did go well, and was surprisingly easy:

  • I didn't buy new clothes for myself or the kids.
  • I didn't buy physical books, although read some good ones on my Kindle.
  • I didn't buy new, nonconsumable gifts. I bought my dad some asparagus plants for his birthday. I bought Phil consumables for Father's Day and his birthday, and made him a gift. I made gifts for other family members who had summer birthdays, but I've yet to get them in the mail. I promise guys, they're coming!
  • I didn't even have to buy new canning supplies for the garden -- a loophole I'd left myself. A co-worker with a toddler, who has no time for canning these days, brought me some jars that were collecting dust in her house. (Thanks, Melody!)

Phil and I have a pretty simple budgeting method: We pay our bills and ourselves first, and scrape off any extra money in checking to go into savings, or, if checking's tight, stop spending. So I can't tell you to the penny whether the compact actually saved money. Also, our income this summer was a little atypical, with the iPad purchased from an unsalaried windfall, so I would have to do some heavy number crunching that I don't have the patience or time for to see whether this made a financial impact.

But it's definitely showed me that (iPad notwithstanding), new isn't always necessary.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review: This Organic Life

Have you ever read a book that changed the way you viewed the world?

For me, this past winter, one of those game-changers was This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow. The friend whose slow-food eating inspired me to start this blog had referenced the book a couple times, but I never got around to reading it. It's not new; I'm very much a Johnny Come-Lately to the table of Joan.

In short, the book chronicles Joan's 40-year-old garden, which moved to a new location when she and her husband moved from a large Victorian home to a funky house on the Hudson River in New York. The garden over the years had grown until Joan, a food advocate, was fairly insistent that she grow all the food she needed -- a huge and life-dominating undertaking. Through talking about the garden, sharing recipes, providing tips for better yield, and relating her noble battles with rodents, Joan also documents major life changes and how often the one constant in her life was the work to be done in the garden.

I was transfixed by this book; it should be on the shelf (or in my case, loaded on the Kindle) of anyone looking to learn more about modern food culture, ways we can take back the family farm, and how to cook a delicious potato and kale soup.

I had trouble envisioning the new space Joan and her husband moved to so I (and I'm not proud of this) cyberstalked her. I put her name into, then plugged the address into to see an aerial view of the house. It's fascinating. The backyard, a not large suburban backyard, is plot after plot of garden beds that lead directly to the bank of the Hudson.

Since reading the book, I've read some criticism of Joan. Some disagree that she can be such a staunch food advocate and organic gardener and still unabashedly advocate meat eating. I have no skin in this game. At this point in my life I'm not a vegetarian, and to me, her arguments for eating meat made sense, so I had no issue.

Others have criticized her near-obsession with the garden and growing food, going so far as to contemplate integrating the ashes of a loved one into the garden to enhance the soil. Again, I have no criticism here. This is what she does. This is the constant she was able to come back to when everything around her felt like it was crumbling. Do ashes do more good in a vase on the mantle? Probably not.

I did think she might be a bit of a challenging neighbor; she's borderline strident in her beliefs. And I was a bit off-put by her relaying her anger at an obnoxious neighbor who "stole" four carrots and an onion, forcing her to harvest the onions before they were ready in order to save them from further pillage. I personally love the idea of having enough vegetables to get to share; would it be so bad if she ran low on onions and had to buy some from a local source?

That said, she's made me a firm believer in the power of kale, and the ability of regular folks on suburban plots to affect the food machine.

The book contains about 30 recipes for using the bounty; they are generous with the butter and meat -- my kind of dishes.

Now that the major gardening season is winding down, this would be a good read for starting to plot out next year's garden, or the next forty years of gardening.

Two green thumbs up!

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

You Say Tomato

A couple months ago I was at the Meredith Corporation office in Des Moines on business, and got to take a tour of the Better Homes & Gardens test garden. It was, as you might expect, jealousy-inducing and so peaceful and colorful, one just wanted to tuck in and take up residence. The garden manager explained that the garden is about 12 years old, "really quite young for a garden," and that they've continued to refine and hone it. As she said, "You're never really DONE with a garden." What a comfort to know that even the BH&G staff, with their Better Garden, sees gardening as iterative.

Which is a long way of saying that my tomato harvest wasn't what I expected. I have about 10 tomato plants in (three are grape and other tiny varieties that volunteered when we moved the old compost location). The tomato plants went insane in early summer, growing taller than me before they toppled over. I had visions of being overrun by tomatoes; handing out heirloom varieties to lucky neighbors and keeping the stovetop canner in constant use. I spent a lot of time researching what to do with my bumper crop once it came; perhaps a bit less (some might say no) research on ensuring the bumper crop.

So we're getting a few tomatoes a day, and we're eating them now. I stand at the mangle of bushes and eat cherry and grape tomatoes off the vine. All in all very pleasant, but it's a good thing our winter eating isn't dependent on our Purple Cherokee harvest.

Fortunately this past weekend an old friend and co-worker dropped by. Dave and I worked together my first job out of college, and have stayed in touch over the years. For the past decade he's been a a volunteer at Gingko Community Garden (that's him on the home page!), an urban garden that supplies fresh, organic produce to those in need. He took a quick look at my toppled tomato plants and had a few tips I'll be integrating next year:

  • Prune. Getting rid of the nonproducing (but not downward-pointing) stems will mean a fuller stem and a better harvest. Let the plants more plant energy into creating the fruits, not more foliage.
  • Move the tomatoes to a sunnier spot. My backyard gets ample morning sun to grow lots of things, but tomatoes need lots and lots of afternoon sun. In fact, the huge growth is likely less attributable to my green thumb as to the plants trying to grow and stretch and get themselves to a sunnier spot. Next summer, I'm putting them in the front yard where they'll have constant access to sun. (Dave reminded me, realizing I'm a pretty lazy gardener, that this will mean I'll need to water more often. Noted.)
  • The sunnier spot goes double for the tomatillo plants. I chalked up the fact that these plants only produced sad little empty husks to their being overwhelmed, nay intimidated, by the monster tomato plants. In fact, they probably needed more consistent sun.
  • Stake. In years past, I've forgotten tomato cages until the plants were too big for them. So I was patting myself on the back over the fact that all were in cages this year. Dave reminded me that I also needed to stake them. This could save the current embarrassment of having a small step-ladder next to the garden trying to keep the fruit of toppled-over plants from touching the ground.
With the garden doctor on hand, I also complained as a helpless victim about the bores that had eaten my zucchini plants. Rather than the bushels of zucchini these plants should have produced, I got one -- one -- before the vines rotted and had to be pulled up and replaced with kale. Dave explained that I could actually bury the nasty part of the vine and the healthy part likely would take off and continue growing and producing. Nice tip.

He also tasted my basil and disagreed that it tasted "wrong" and "soapy," and I made a delicious pesto that night.

I'm already planning next year's garden, what I'll do better, what I'll research, where I'll get seeds. Mucho thankso, Dave.

In other news, this one headed off to kindergarten last week. He's taking it like a champ, and has been excited about the bus and chill about having his personal style succumb to a uniform. I'm in denial that he's this big a boy.

I'm going to pretend that she's never going to grow up:

So there.

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