Friday, July 29, 2011

Let's Talk About (Squash) Sex

One of the most frequent things I am asked, when conversations turn to the garden, is how I know whether the blossoms on my pumpkins, zucchini, and butternut squashes are male or female.  And I just love to talk about (squash) sex!

Now, this is still a PG-rated blog, so I'm not using this as a euphemism, for all of you who are taking "hide the zucchini" a little too literally.  No, I mean the fact that not all squash blossoms are created equal.  There are males and females, and, like all organisms with two sexes, you need both to get a baby.  In this case we want our baby to be a bouncing one pound zucchini or five pound pie pumpkin, so it helps to know if your squash plants are setting up the proper conditions for procreation.

The above picture is of a male zucchini blossom.  See how the flower is lifted up on a fairly thin stem?  This stem will never produce a zucchini fruit; its purpose is to get that delicious pollen out for the bees to pick up and deliver to female flowers.  Therefore, this is the male.  You can often see the male flowers bloom in the mornings because they are so much more apparent than the females.  It is also typical for a squash plant to put out many males before it produces any females, so the bees get used to where to go to get their pollen.  Some years, I have had plants with only males, and then I did not get any squash.

Now, this is a female.  In this case, it is a female pumpkin blossom.  It has been fertilized, which I know because I have watched it get slightly bigger this week.  The fruit, in this case a pumpkin, sits behind the blossom and waits for the blossom to be fertilized.  If it is not, it will yellow, dry, and fall off.  If it does, you can see it start to plump up, and it looks green and healthy when the blossom falls off, as this blossom did when I moved the leaves to take a picture.

So now you know!  If this is new information to you, remember that you are never to old to keep learning about sex!
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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Green Thing

I received this email forward the other day, and although I typically don't share such things on this blog, I think there is a great point implicit here.  How many aspects of our lives have been distilled down into a choice between conveniences that we have been told are necessities, and a potentially self-conscious choice to be "green" (or "frugal," or "traditional," or pick your adjective).

So many of our aims of living a sustainable life could be accomplished just by looking back a generation or two and seeing if, perhaps, there is an advantage to doing things the "old fashioned" way.  Maybe the prior generation knew a thing or two about how to get things done.  Maybe there is something to be learned.

Innovation is great; it is why the human species continues to evolve and progress.  But continual innovation for its own sake can have consequences, as we increasingly rush to make more money to afford more stuff that gives us the time to make more money.  Is it possible that we have pursued making living so convenient that we have actually forgotten how to live?

The Green Thing

In the line at the store, the cashier told an older woman that she should bring her own grocery bags because plastic bags weren't good for the environment.

The woman apologized to her and explained, "We didn't have the green thing back in my day."

The clerk responded, "That's our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment."

He was right -- our generation didn't have the green thing in its day.

Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled.

But we didn't have the green thing back in our day.

We walked up stairs, because we didn't have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn't climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks.

But she was right. We didn't have the green thing in our day.

Back then, we washed the baby's diapers because we didn't have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts -- wind and solar power really did dry the clothes. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that old lady is right; we didn't have the green thing back in our day.

Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house -- not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana.
In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn't have electric machines to do everything for us.

When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used a wadded up old newspaper to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, we didn't fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn't need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity.

But she's right; we didn't have the green thing back then.

We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water.

We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.

But we didn't have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service.

We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn't need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.

But isn't it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn't have the green thing back then?

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Zucchini Pie

Another zucchini recipe!  And why not?  This is the season of all things summer squash, and I love zucchini more than I ever would have thought possible when I was a kid.  (For that matter, I don't think I knew what zucchini were as a kid.)

Today's recipe is another favorite around our house, and we make this dish at least once a week when the zucchini are in season.  It is a great way to introduce a vegetarian dish into your diet if you don't normally go veggie, because the texture of the zucchini is very hearty and toothsome.

FC&G Zucchini Pie

1 double pie crust
1 medium zucchini, sliced
1 medium onion (or equivalent), sliced
1 head garlic, chopped
1 handful fresh thyme, chopped
1.5 cups cheddar or cheddar blend cheese
1/2 cup yellow mustard

Mix veggies in a bowl to combine the zucchini and onion with the thyme and garlic.  Let sit while you make the pie crust.

In a deep dish pie pan, lay bottom crust and coat with the yellow mustard.  Layer the veggies in, and top with the cheese.  (You can alternate cheese and veggie if you have a lot of veggies to use up.)  Top with pie crust.

Bake in 350 degree oven until crust is done and veggies tender, about 40 minutes.

Fast:  Mr. FC&G and I work together on this; he makes his famous flaky pie crust, and I chop veggies.  Then it is just sit and wait until the pie is done.

Cheap:  With all of the veggies coming from the garden, the only costs associated with this dish are the cheese and the flour and lard needed for the crust.  This dish regularly comes in at around $5 and provides about 4-5 servings.

Good:  This is a great way to use your summer zucchini and get a lot of healthy squash and root veggies in your diet.  It reheats very well; I think it is even better the next day.  To really maximize your oven time, make a batch of zucchini bread to bake alongside the pie.
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Friday, July 22, 2011

Zucchini Orzo with Garlic and Basil

Thank God for zucchini this year!

To my everlasting shame, I am one of the few Midwesterners who cannot always reliably grow zucchini.  Every year I listen to person after person chortle about drowning in zucchini, leaving bags of zucchini hanging on mailboxes and front doors, and feeding zucchini to every unsuspecting animal they have.  Meanwhile, I'm out there counting male after male among my zucchini blossoms and praying for a female to show up and give me some decent fruit.  (Maybe I watch too much?  Perhaps my zucchini need more reproductive privacy.)

Anyway, this year we are finally getting the zucchini I was denied last year, and I'm sure not wasting a single fruit.  I'm freezing it, plan to make relish from it, and we are having it in some form for dinner every night.  One of my favorite ways is Zucchini Orzo with Garlic and Basil.

This is an adaptation of a recipe from Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, one of my favorite ultra-realistic books about gardening.  I reread it about once a season, and it has gotten me through many a February as I live vicariously through her tales of canning tomatoes and planting garlic.  I've adapted this recipe to better fit our tastes and our garden.  Your house will smell like a fine Italian restaurant after you cook!

Zucchini Orzo with Garlic And Basil

1 package orzo pasta
1 package (5oz) or equivalent shredded Parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic
2-3 medium zucchini, shredded
big handful of basil, shredded
olive oil

In a saute pan, saute chopped garlic in olive oil while pasta boils and you shred the zucchini.  When zucchini is shredded, add to garlic and saute until wilted.  (The more you saute, the more it cooks down, a helpful tip if you are trying to "hide" zucchini from a picky family member.)

To garlic and zucchini, add cooked orzo, Parmesan, and a big handful of chopped basil.  Saute until mixed and cheese is melted.  Top with fresh cracked black pepper and serve.

The Analysis

Fast:  This cooks up in about 20 minutes, so call it 30 minutes from garden to table.

Cheap:  If your garden gives you the veggies, then you will only be buying orzo and Parmesan, which makes this ultra-cheap.  It gives 4-5 hearty servings, depending on how much zucchini you put in there.

Good:  Did I mention I love this stuff?  I love any mac-n-cheese dish, and this is a nice, light, summery version of mac-n-cheese.  I need to freeze some shredded zucchini so I can make it once or twice over the winter as well.

(Note:  What follows, for those of you reading on the actual blog page rather than the RSS or email feed, is an affiliate link for Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  If you decide to add this to your winter survival library and use this link, I'll get a small cut.  If you don't, please visit a local bookseller and keep those dollars in your community!)

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Monday, July 18, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow? Garlic

It is time for another report on the profit or loss from the harvest of a crop!  Today, we'll take a look at garlic.

Garlic is a great thing, in my mind.  For us, it is one of the few plants that will grow in this very narrow band of rocky soil I am gradually improving.  It also gives me something living to look at well into the winter and then again early in spring, so I feel like I am always gardening.  It also tastes wonderful and keeps forever, and it is so healthy, it is great to have plenty on hand to slide into recipes.

However, last year I royally screwed up.  I over-ordered seed garlic from Burpee, and then, panicked that it wouldn't come in time for planting (it did), I also ordered from Seeds of Change.  So, I had way too much seed garlic, and I planted only a portion of it.

The crop this year was plentiful -- 55 heads of garlic -- but the heads were small, coming in at 1 pound, 10 ounces total.  The Meijer organic equivalent is three beefy heads totalling 3 ounces for $1.99, or 66 cents an ounce.  That means my garlic crop is worth $17.16.

I figure that I planted about that much seed garlic in monetary value, so I'm going to call this one a wash. 

Had my crop yielded larger heads, I would be way into profit by now.  I think that will happen as the soil in that bed improves and gets less rocky.  I also think that, since I don't use nearly 55 heads of garlic in a year (I sold a few heads last year and gave several to my mom, and I still have 2010 garlic we are finishing), we will never be buying seed garlic again.  So, while this is a wash now, it will be a money-saver later.

The Analysis

Fast:  Garlic grows over the winter and matures in mid-summer, which, while not fast, is certainly pretty effortless.

Cheap:  As you can see above, due to my errors and some soil problems, this is not a money-saver yet.  But it will be.

Good:  Fresh garlic from the field is unbelievable.  It does lose some of that fresh flavor as the winter goes on and it sits in storage, but it is still pretty fine.

2011 Tally to Date: 4.81 lbs of crops; $4.69 saved
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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Why Are We Ashamed of Sustainability?

Have you heard about this one? A woman in Oak Park, MI, is facing possible jail time over the fact that she constructed some raised garden beds in her front yard, apparently in defiance of code that says that front yard vegetation must be "live" and "common."  Click here for the city's response, in which they seem to argue that people move to Oak Park because what they prize is lawn after lawn of closely manicured grass punctuated by the occasional hosta and marigold installation.  When it comes to the kinds of things, like gardens, that might actually get the residents out front of their homes, talking with one another while they enjoy their lawns in their own way, "the average citizen would prefer to see such d├ęcor contained to the back yard."

That's fine.  I have long defended the right of people to select their living environments based on any criteria they see fit.  I once owned a condo in a complex that specifically prohibited holiday lights up after January, and I was pretty happy about it.  I'm pretty sure my mother-in-law would live in any neighborhood with an ordinance prohibiting geese that wear seasonal outfits.

The larger problem here is not whether communities can make ordinances regarding what decorations can be on a property; they can.  What bothers me is that this is just one of many such stories that indicate a national fear that appearing to grow or raise your own food or undertake other sustainable activities is something shameful that will bring down the property values.

Look at these:
  • According to this link, a visible clothes line can bring property values down by 15 percent, because air drying your clothes is "unsightly."
  • Right here, we see one of many ordinances forbidding backyard chickens, in spite of the fact that raising chickens is a time-honored way of cutting food bills.  During the Great Depression, many people kept chickens in their garages, along with meat rabbits.
  • Speaking of, other municipalities in fact do forbid meat rabbits, considering them "livestock."  However, pets are OK.  So, keeping a parrot is probably OK, as is a pot-bellied pig, but forget about raising rabbits or chickens for consumption.
The takeaway?  It seems to all come together to indicate that if you spend your time and money watering, fertilizing, and manicuring a patch of grass, if you nurture your exotic flowers that were never meant to live in your climate, if you dry all of your clothes in the clothes dryer and bring all of your veggies home from the big box grocers in plastic bags, you are everyone's ideal neighbor.  But if you take steps to live more sustainably, growing/raising some of your own food and attempting to live a little bit lighter on the budget and the resources, it lowers property values and makes you some kind of problem neighbor.

I will renew my urging from last year to consider planting something edible in your front yard.  Make it pretty if you wish, but grow something there you can eat.  And while you are at it, hang a few clothes out to dry while you play a game of catch with your kid on the front yard.  It is time for suburban America to stop being driven into their back yards with every act  of sustainability.
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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Blueberry Jam: Worth the Time?

I love to make jam.  One of the great pleasures of the summer for me is going to the farmers' market or the u-pick (because we don't grow enough fruit to preserve) and picking up enough ripe fruit to preserve in those little glass jars.  It is no wonder that most writers will tell you that jars of jam look like jewels; just put one in your kitchen window and let the light sparkle through it to see why it is so fascinating.

Lately, however, I have read blog posts that suggest that making jam just doesn't make sense financially.  True, I would probably make it even if it didn't make financial sense -- hey, a hobby is a hobby --but let's put it to the FC&G test.

(Note:  This is not a jam-making tutorial, as there are plenty out there.  My "secret" recipe can be found in the box of Certo pectin.)

I purchased a quart of fresh, farmers' market blueberries for $4.75 a pint or $9.50 total.  This seems pretty expensive on the face of it, especially when you are accustomed to seeing those little cup sized jewel boxes of berries in the store on sale, but these were perfect, picked that morning, and uniformly blue.  And they didn't travel hundreds or thousands of miles to get to my table.

The berries were the most expensive part of the project.  I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation that the remaining ingredients (3.5 cups of sugar, a pouch of pectin, and a splash of lemon juice, plus new canning lids) brought my total ingredients to $15.50.

The batch gave me five full half pints of jam, plus a half a jar that got devoured on fresh bread in a few days.  Let's call that 44 ounces of jam.  That means my batch cost $0.35 an ounce, or $2.80 for a half pint jar.

So how does this compare with purchased analogs?  Well, typically I see those half pint jars at the farmers' market for $4.50 or $5.00, or $0.56-$0.62 an ounce.  Now, granted, you are paying in that case for the jar, ring, lid, and label, because you aren't going to give any of those things back for reuse (and you can't reuse the lid and label anyway).  So, that price you see is probably pretty fair; if you are going that route, be happy to purchase a good, locally made product.  I will be happy that I could save money with my own canning supplies.

How does this compare to the store varieties?   I checked out a few brands at the store, and true blueberry jam is relatively hard to find.  However, the brands I did find came in at between $0.50 and $0.56 an ounce.  You get a jar in this case too, but it is not one that is easily reused and you definitely can't use it for canning.

So there you go.  I saved an average of $0.20 cents per ounce or more, for a total savings on my jam production of $8.80.  Given that I can put up a batch of jam pretty quickly (figure on an hour from start to finish, and part of that is sitting on my duff waiting for the canner to do its work), I've made that much money per hour after taxes.  So, in a way, this is much like landing an hour of paid work at $12 or so an hour and then letting the government take their share.  While its not the hourly rate I charge in my "day" job, I wouldn't turn it down.  And I have the blueberry jam for my winter biscuits and bread to prove it.

The Analysis

Fast:  Once you get your canning mojo going, you can make it through the jam-making process pretty efficiently.  An hour for five jars in your pantry and a partial on your table is not bad.

Cheap:  Thanks to using my own jars and my own time, I've saved a respectable $8.80 and potentially kept a jar from a commercial producer out of the landfill.  I've also not contributed to making blueberries take a long, lonely flight from Chile in a refrigerated airplane.

Good:  I do believe the homemade product tastes much better, as the jam is made within hours of picking the berries.

Welcome to everyone who is finding me through the BlogHer network!  I am pleased to be a new affiliate; take a look at the blue bar at the top for links to interesting content and the option to share Fast, Cheap, and Good through Facebook and Twitter.  I'm happy to have you here; have a look around and let me know what you think in the comments section!
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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Salmon Patties

July is a great time to save a little money on the food bill.  If you garden, your garden is full; the farmer's markets are too.  And all of these lovely new veggies look great beside some inexpensive proteins to round out a meal, giving you some cheap eats to offset that huge air conditioning bill you are no doubt running up.

Today's recipe is courtesy of Mom FC&G:  Salmon Patties

1 can or pouch salmon (6-7 oz) -- look for wild caught domestic if you can
1/2 sleeve of saltine crackers, crushed
1 egg
1 t. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 t. mustard powder (I often up this to 1 t.)

"Sort" the salmon to remove any skin or bones that have been included in the package.  (You could use the flaked leftovers from fillets you grilled, as well.)  Mix with the rest of the ingredients and form into about 4 patties.  Fry in olive oil until golden brown on each side, about 3-5 minutes per side. 

Serve with sauteed garden veggies -- use whatever is ready in your garden.

The Analysis

Fast:  These patties are ready in a jiff!  Experiment with the salmon you use; I have unfortunately found a trade-off to be made between brands that are "clean" (don't include a lot of bones and skin) and brands that are domestic, wild caught product. 

Cheap:  As a meat-stretcher recipe, this probably comes in at under $3.  If you have some garden veggies to flesh things out, you will probably get 3-4 servings of food for under $4 total.

Good:  This has always been one of my favorite recipes, so of course I love it and wanted to share it with you!
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Monday, July 4, 2011

Sauteed Root Veggies

I tend to think of root veggies as winter fare, but then I start to do serious summer harvest, and I remember just how tender and sweet new potatoes and new carrots are.  As today was our first potato harvest, I thought I'd share a great way to prepare these.

Sauteed Root Veggies
New potatoes
New carrots
Any other dense veggies you may have pulled from the garden; the other night, we added the first zucchini and the last of the peas

Garden garlic -- 2 cloves
Garden dill
2 T. butter
Salt and Pepper

Melt butter in a saute pan and add chopped garlic.  Add diced veggies in order of how long you want them to cook; for the above photo, I chopped potatoes first, then carrots.  Salt and pepper liberally, then add chopped fresh dill.  Saute until desired tenderness.

The Analysis

Fast:  This takes about 20-25 minutes to cook, and you can pretty much chop while you cook if you do your veggies in the order of density.

Cheap:  Since we had potatoes, carrots, garlic, and dill all in the garden or pantry, I only paid for butter and seasonings.  That's my kind of dish!

Good:  The garlic and dill really made the dish for us.  It turned this from your generic mixed veggies or hash browns into something really special.  I've made this twice in three days.  (Note, for those wondering:  the purple bits are the lone blue potato that we harvested today.)

Have a Wonderful Fourth of July!
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Friday, July 1, 2011

Homemade Soda Pop

Say what you will about the unhealthiness of soda pop, there is something undeniably summery about a big glass of root beer or sarsaparilla after a few hours of gardening.  (In fact, that might be one of the best anti-obesity messages out there:  go ahead and have a pop -- right after you've weeded the garden for an hour.)

Soft drinks are at once a part of American culture (think of all the rec rooms that are decorated in Coca-Cola advertising) and a part of the American problem.  And while I acknowledge that it would be both cheaper and healthier to restrict ourselves to water and unsweetened iced tea, I still love a glass of pop now and again.

Here's a good solution if you want to have your pop and your sustainability too:  Lehman's and others sell the syrup for homemade soda pop.  You can control the sweetener this way, an important issue since both HFCS and aspartame have both come under fire for possible health consequences.  Also, you are paying to ship a tiny little bottle instead of participating in the shipment -- in large plastic bottles, often -- of gallons and gallons of what is primarily water.

Cost wise, this is favorable.  A gallon of this mix will take about $1.90 worth of syrup and about 80 cents worth of sugar, plus a little yeast if you want to carbonate the mix (I usually don't, because I actually like flat pop).  That translates to about $1.15 in inputs; let's call it about $1.25 per 2 litre bottle if you follow the instructions in the box for that project.  That is on the high side, when you can get pop on sale for 99 cents per 2-litre, but it is very favorable if you compare to specialty pops that use cane sugar and come in specialty flavors, often for $1.00 per 12 oz. serving.

The specialty flavors are what make this project fun.  Sarsaparilla, spruce beer, and ginger beer are all unique flavors that I love -- in fact, it is worth keeping a bottle of the ginger beer around to mix up in the event of upset stomachs.  We are not big fans of the cola flavor, although I think that is because we have all been trained since infancy to like the flavor of Coke or Pepsi, and these are close but not exact.  However, Mr. FC&G has been looking for a cola with a drier flavor, and I think he can find it here by tailoring the mix to his liking.

The Analysis

Fast:  Takes practically no time to mix up, although you do have to allow 4-6 days if you want the yeast to add fermentation. 

Cheap:  While probably not cheaper than the mainstream pop varieties, certainly a financial win over the specialty flavors, and with the ability to choose your own sweetener.  And, just as important, you aren't contributing to the shipment of water over long distances, one of the least sustainable practices ever.

Good:  Treat yourself to some of the classic flavors that you don't usually see bottled in stores, or keep some around to mix up a treat.  A little box of extract is certainly easier to keep than a case of pop, and the flavors will be the talk of your next cook-out.
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