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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Know Your Cukes

For many of us, cucumber season is nearly over, but there are several U.S. growing zones still harvesting, not to mention our southern hemisphere readers who are starting to plan their summer gardens.  So, it seems like a good time to discuss the difference between a slicing cucumber and a pickling cucumber.

Now, first and foremost, there is no cucumber police that will come banging down your door if you slice a pickler and pickle a slicer.  I do so myself every year, because I happen to like the flavor of my picklers raw, and I like the way my slicers hold up to my pickle brine.  But if you are selecting a variety to grow or buying a bunch at the farmer's market, you may want to know the difference.

In the photo, the slicing cucumber on the left is an heirloom "Straight Eight;" the pikcler on the right is a "Burpee Pickler" hybrid that I let get a little over-large.  For comparison purposes, the one on the right is about seven or eight inches long at this point.

The slicing cucumber, the "Straight Eight," has a darker, more even skin to it.  The skin is a bit thicker, which makes it easy to peel if you like your cucumbers peeled for either pickles or eating raw.  It also has a lighter, more consistently-colored interior flesh, and the seed cavity is a bit bigger.

The picker, the "Burpee Pickler," has a more variegated skin that is thinner than the slicer.  In the early season, it is quite easy to mar the skin with your finger nail when you pick the fruit.  The interior is a bit more colorful, a pale yellow as opposed to the white of the slicer.  The seed cavity is smaller than that of the slicer.

Overall, the pickler would be ideal for pickling whole as gherkins (if harvested small) or as whole kosher dills, because the thin skin and robust flesh would allow the brine to soak into the fruit and flavor it without it losing it's integrity.  The smaller seed cavity means you have less mess in your jar and less excess liquid to contend with if you slice them.

But, as I mentioned, I never obey this.  I find a slicing cucumber to be just right for my bread and butter pickles, while the more robust flavor of the pickler is better in a salad.  That may just be me.  But one thing's for sure: enjoy your cucumbers now, before you have to go back to those flavorless, store-bought things!
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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Preparing the Fall Garden

Wow, late August, already! Somehow, I feel like the summer never really started, and here it is time for fall planting.

I've had fairly dismal luck in the past with planting the main garden with cold-tolerant crops, so this year my fall garden will be all containers that I can shelter with my pop-up greenhouse and then move into the sunroom as needed.

I'm starting to harvest the summer potatoes, so I'll have a few containers of potatoes to plant. These tend to grow slowly over the winter, but they tend to give at least a small crop in early spring.

I'm also way overdue to start the fall lettuces so they can get a nice start and be more or less fully grown by the time I bring them inside. I grow whatever cut-and-come-again varieties I have in my seed box, and they tend to replenish themselves slowly over the entire winter, meaning that we have at least a few fresh lettuce leaves for our plates a couple of times a week in the winter.

Also this year, I am going to rescue a volunteer tomato that I found growing in the compost and see if I can get it to set fruit before I pull it inside.  I've had about a 50% success rate in the past with tomatoes that got their start late; one year, I got 3-4 tomatoes off a plant in December. It's enough hope that I plan to try it again with this brave volunteer.

Finally, if I can keep my pepper plants healthy enough, I hope to pull them inside and see if I can get them to overwinter and give me a head start next year. I've never tried this, but I've heard good reports from someone who has tried it, and I'm game to see if I can extend the pepper season.

What are you growing in your fall garden?
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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Saving Coriander Seeds

Herbs seem to require constant attention in the garden. There's nothing more sensitive to changes in temperature, water, or fertilizer, and many herbs bolt and set their seed really early if you don't keep an eye on them. And between the fact that it's rained about every 36 hours this summer and the fact that I had a little physical hiatus during which not much gardening was getting done, I'm afraid I've neglected my herbs.

Cilantro is one of the worse. You either love this herb in Latin cooking, or you think it tastes like soap. (That's genetic, by the way; either you do or don't have the gene that makes cilantro taste funky to you.) I love it, but it sets flowers and goes to seed pretty much overnight.

Luckily, going to seed is not that much of a problem, because cilantro seed is the spice we call coriander.  It's easy to save, and you'll want to save a lot, because it is a wonderful meat spice.

When your cilantro blooms, it will set little green seed pods. Then, the stems and seeds will start to dry until you have what you see in the picture. Each of these little seeds is covered by a paper-thin husk. Don't worry about that, because it's no big deal if you eat the husk.

To harvest, just go out to your plant with a bowl and shake or pull off the seeds.  Make sure to let a few fall in your herb bed if you'd like the cilantro to reseed itself for next year.

I let the seeds continue to dry in their bowl for a few days just to be sure, then bottle them up and put them in the spice rack whole. When the time comes to use the coriander, I grind it in a mortar and pestle.  At that time, any tiny bits of stem will kind of float to the top, and you can brush them out before use if you like.

I love cracked coriander in pork sausage, and I often use just coriander and sage when I make my sausage. So much better than the store bought!

The Analysis

 Fast: Harvesting coriander seeds takes basically no time and is fun, too.

Cheap:  Since this herb/spice reseeds itself, it's fairly easy to ensure that you have a steady crop each year for free.

Good:  Coriander is a natural with pork, and the freshly ground seed has a brilliant flavor.
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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Deciding What to "Put Up"

For many of us in the U.S., it's high gardening season. And, I'm gratified to see from my Facebook feed, an interest in gardening often leads to an interest in food preservation or "putting up."

There are many methods of putting up your harvest, including drying and freezing, but one of the most popular is canning (formerly called "bottling," which is probably more descriptive). But once you learn how to can in a water bath canner and maybe in a pressure canner, there is the inevitable problem of deciding what to put up.

Of course, part of the decision will be made by your garden basket or farmers' market haul.  That pile of tomatoes or cucumbers or that basket of fresh fruit has to go somewhere, and you and your family probably won't eat it all fresh. Therefore, you want to put some of it in jars.  So how do you decide what to make?

I think there are three main approaches; I've used all of them, so they are detailed below so you can make your own choice:

Fast: Putting up bulk ingredients:  You've got a countertop full of tomatoes, and, even though you know you will regret saying this come December, you simply can't contemplate one more capresse salad or tomato sandwich. That means it's time to get as much of your garden haul into jars as you can as quickly as possible, and you'll deal with it later. Tomato chunks, plain tomato sauce, and pickles all fill this category for me, as I try to simply keep up with the harvest.

This is probably the fastest method of putting up in jars, because you are unlikely to choose too many recipes that need multiple exotic ingredients or a ton of cooking time.  However, you have to be aware that you will probably have to spend some time cooking this winter, not necessarily a bad thing if it fills the house with the smells of cooking tomatoes in January, but a bit cumbersome  if you head home from work and still need to make a lasagna to really showcase your homemade tomato sauce.

Cheap:  Putting up meal components:  For various reasons this year, I need to devote my putting up time to creating future meals that we can make without very much in the way of additional expenditures.  In the photo above, you'll see my weekend canning.  I've been making WWII Chili Sauce with every batch of tomatoes because we can make a yummy batch of beef and pork meatballs swimming in this stuff very quickly, and we will have no additional investment; the meat comes from our CSA membership, and the chili sauce gives it flavor.  Bingo, a meal that's already been "bought and paid for," as they say.  You'll also see a batch of chicken stock I put up from giblets I've saved in the freezer, and that will form the basis of many winter soups.

This is the way to go if you want to maximize the potential benefits of your canning to your bottom line. If you plan well, you'll also have a few (or more than a few) winter meals about half made for those nights when you are running behind or too tired to get inventive with the cooking.

Good: Putting up gourmet items:  Jams and jellies made with fine alcohols and exotic spices; hot sauces tailored to your own preference for heat and spice.  If you are feeling in a gourmet mood, you may choose to put up recipes that require you to source and use specific ingredients and that are likely unavailable in stores (at least in any quality that will rival your own.)

This is a great way to put up food, and it's particularly nice to pull out your own homemade gourmet condiments when you have guests or you need a gift.  You will probably spend some money with this approach, but you aren't undertaking some of these recipes because you think you'll be saving money. Instead, this is a good way to maximize the "good" in our FC&G analysis.

What are you putting up right now?


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Friday, August 7, 2015

How Much Does a Garden Grow: July 2015

And the garden is profitable!

July always brings a profitable garden, with the harvests finally overtaking the initial expenditures. This year, the garden zoomed into the black on July 23, and overall it wound up netting a "profit" of $82.57 thus far. The monthly harvest came in at around 62 pounds of produce, with a net value of just shy of $207.

What made up all that bounty?  Cucumbers were a huge contributor, with 508 ounces harvested through July 31 with a value of $81.28.  The blueberry harvest also finished up at an even three pounds for the year, a value of $12.00.  Basil and peas also contributed a bit, even though the critters ate my pea vines, which had to then recover before they could set any fruit.

The stand-out crop, however, was tomatoes.  Some of my most impressive totals to date:

  • Cuor di Bue: 209 ounces, $52.25
  • Black Krim: 113 ounces, $28.25
  • "Yulia:" 66 ounces, $16.50
The interesting thing to note is that both the Cuor di Bue and the Yulia are from saved seed, so there was no real initial investment; just pure profit!  The Black Krim were ordered at about an average price of $4 per plant, so still well in the black (no pun intended).  The San Marzanos, the other variety grown from seed, look poised for an August harvest.

I've already made a few quarts of pickles and a couple of jars of chili sauce from the bounty.  As we zoom into August, this is the month to put away as much food as we can that we will eat, so that our profit helps reduce our food bills into the fall and winter.

Cumulative Totals

Harvest, Ounces: 1052.0
Harvest, Pounds: 65.75
Harvest Value: $223.97

Expenditures: $141.40

Total Saved: $82.57

Want some of your favorite sustainable living ideas and recipes in one place?  Fast, Cheap, and Good, the book, is ready for order:  
On Amazon

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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Tomato Review: Window Box Roma

This year, I grew mostly tomatoes for which I had saved the seed, which means the bulk of my crop is coming from Cuor di Bue, San Marzano, and a Black Krim descendant we call "Yulia."  But, of course, that didn't stop me from picking up a variety of one-off plants at the greenhouse and the hardware store, just to play with.  One of these was the "Window Box Roma."

I wanted to try a container tomato because I am experimenting with learning to grow the bulk of my crops in containers.  While I don't think I'll switch to containers on our current property, I will definitely do so if our Key West retirement plans pan out.  So, time to experiment.

The WBR is a bit misnamed, since the fruit are more like a cherry tomato than a true Roma.  It's a determinant tomato, which means that it sets nearly all of its fruit all at once, and they ripen more or less within the same window of time.  An indeterminate, in contrast, will keep setting fruit and letting it ripen until frost or until the plant dies.

The fruit on the WBR is a bit disappointing.  It lacks the true tomato flavor that is the reason that most of us grow tomatoes, being a bit closer to a "salad bar" tomato than I would like.  Of course, the yield is not tremendous, but one can't expect that from a tomato this small.  There are many little round fruits, but they don't weigh up to much.

Overall, I found the WBR not really worth my while.  You can grow a true indeterminate tomato in a container with no problem, which gives you the opportunity to grow a slicer or a canning tomato.  In my world, these are much more useful.  So, next year, I'll give the WBR a pass.

The Analysis

Fast:  Not sure that speed is one of our metrics here; it didn't take longer to plant or care for the WBR.

Cheap: On a price-per-yield basis, this is not worthwhile.  I'll be surprised if I get a pound of tomatoes off the plant, which will make it just about break even with the purchase price.

Good:  While I always say you should grow any veggie you love and that you will eat, the WBR was far too close to a salad bar tomato for me.  It was watery and a bit flavorless, meaning it wasn't worth the real estate in my garden, even if that was a container.

Want some of your favorite sustainable living ideas and recipes in one place?  Fast, Cheap, and Good, the book, is ready for order:  
On Amazon


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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Now That's Dedication

I usually am not the type of blogger who shares the ups and downs of her personal life with her audience. While I understand the fun of reading such things, I've never been able to get myself to blog regularly about broken toilets or car repairs that destroy the budget or health issues, unless they somehow impact sustainable living. Thus, you would be excused for thinking that somehow Mr. FC&G and I roll along here smoothly, rebatching our soap and roasting our chicken and preserving our harvest without a blip.

For the past few days, however, it has been nothing at all like that, and for once I'm willing to admit it.

Last week I had knee surgery.  Now, this has been a long time coming.  I was so thrilled to finally get a doc willing to do something about my lousy knee that I actually did a victory dance in the parking lot. This probably didn't do much to further my case that my knee was a piece of painful crud most of the time, but hey, I was already on the schedule! No backing out now!

I'm not kidding when I say that one of the things on my surgery prep list was "make pickles."  Now, the surgeon didn't specifically say "make pickles" as part of the prep; my list from him was more focused on arrival times and finding someone to drive me home, but I was nobody's fool.  We went to the grocery, set up an area for recovery, and I made pickles.

Because, of course, the cucumbers are coming in fast and furious right now, and of course I knew I wasn't going to feel much like standing over a hot canner on a couple of crutches in the first few days. So, pickles it was.

The first batch of pickles got me through the first three or four days of my recovery, until the counter was taken over by cucumbers once again. (Fortunately, I felt good enough from the first day to crutch my way into the garden and point at things I wanted Mr. FC&G to harvest.) So, last night, I hobbled out to the kitchen and made pickles.  Luckily, the knee was feeling good and a small batch of pickles didn't seem out of the question. So I made them.

Because you'd better believe that I'm not letting those cucumbers go to waste.  And you can bet that I will think with amusement on my antics hopping about the kitchen on one leg making pickles this winter when I'm eating them, hopefully right before I head to a dance class and dance on a knee that finally works as it should.
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