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Monday, July 29, 2013

Zucchini Relish

One of my favorite ways to use up the zucchini crop is to make zucchini relish.  This is a wonderful condiment that we eat all year on hot dogs.  I like to tease Mr. FC&G and credit him with the concept of mustard, ketchup, and relish on a hot dog, since he was the one that introduced me to the combo.  This is our favorite relish for this classic American treat.

I've adapted this recipe from the Ball Blue Book of Preserving.  I wilt my zucchini more than they call for, shred the zucchini instead of chopping it, and omit the peppers.

Zucchini Relish
About 2 cups shredded zucchini (3 medium or 2 large-ish zuchini)
1 cup chopped onion (about 1 medium to large)
1/3 cup salt
1 3/4 cup sugar
2 t. celery seed
1 t. mustard seed
1 cup cider vinegar

Shred the zucchini and chop the onions -- place in a non-metal bowl coated with the salt, and let wilt for at least 2 hours.  Drain and rinse the mixture.

Combine remaining ingredients and bring to a boil, then add vegetables.  Simmer for 10 minutes.  Pack into hot jars and process 10 minutes for half-pints, 15 minutes for pints.  Make 4 half-pints or 2 pints of relish.

The Analysis
Fast:  This relish actually comes together a bit faster than traditional cucumber relish, since you don't have to wilt as much water out of the zucchini as you do the cucumbers.

Cheap:  With zucchini coming in fast and furious from the garden, this is a great way to capture the bounty.

Good:  The taste of the celery seed and onion really comes through, with very little zucchini taste involved.
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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Beauty of Vertical Gardening

If you are a suburban gardener like me, you know that your gardening space is finite.  This is especially true if, like me, you prefer to use a broadfork or other manual method to prepare your soil in the spring.  It is so much better for the soil, but you simply cannot manually plow acres and acres of land, even if you had them.  Kind of gives you an appreciation for ancient civilizations.

So, whether you are limited by available land or available muscle power, you want to get the biggest harvest possible out of your land.  And there is no better way of doing this than vertical gardening, or "growing up."

At the right, you can see my bean pole.  I planted beans in a circle around a decorative wrought-iron post, and they have been happily climbing all summer.  I was planning to string some twine from each plant up to the top of the post to give them something easier to climb, but they all "reached out" for the post, some covering as much as two feet to make contact and start twining.  I've even planted some beans in the hanging baskets you see, just to add to the fun.

On the left, you see a picture I took a few weeks ago of my cucumber trellis, which I love and which I have written about before.  It is still going strong and ensuring that I have great cucumber harvests.  Currently, my cucumber vines reach far above these trellises, making sort of a mountain of cucumber vines that I paw through twice a day to do my harvest.  Take that, everyone who has ever told me that cucumbers have to be well-spaced to do well in a garden!  There are probably 20 or more individual plants on each side of this trellis, and they are all bearing fruit.  The only trouble I have is reaching the carrots that are growing under the trellis, but hopefully this just means I have to keep my hands out of them until they are larger and cucumber season is at an end.

With all of the vertical gardening and then the tall plants like corn, walking into our garden is like entering into a magical tunnel.  Mr. FC&G says that it looks like a formal garden, and it does -- a formal garden that is cutting my food bill every time I harvest!
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Friday, July 19, 2013

Gardening, Food Preservation, and the Freelance Life

I just got back from the farmers' market, where I bought 9 pints of fresh raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries.  While Mr. FC&G and I will certainly eat our fill from our "berry bowl" that we keep in the fridge, I will also be turning some of these into the yummiest of preserves and the best of frozen fruit.  We know that we'll enjoy them in winter.

While this is a step toward living sustainably, it is also a natural outgrowth of the fact that we are both small business owners.  Read any article on freelancing, and you almost certainly will see the advice to sock a chunk of your income away in savings to guard against the inevitable unevenness in workload.  But what most people don't tell you is that you also have to have mechanisms in place to lower your outflow of cash when times are rough.  For us, gardening and food preservation help bridge any gaps.

As you know from reading this blog, I keep a fairly obsessive tally of the retail value of my garden harvests. Even in the worst years, the garden more than pays for itself, giving us fresh, organically-grown produce that has a retail value far above our investment in seeds and plants.  Obviously, this decreases our food bill overall by that amount while we eat healthy, fresh food.

By preserving some of this bounty (and supplementing from the farmers' market), we are also guarding against income fluctuations in non-harvest months.  If neither of us are having a particularly productive February, for example, we know we can cut back our grocery budget and still eat well by relying on our stocks of tomato sauce, chili sauce, soup stock, jams and preserves, and relishes, all of which add nutrition and interest to very inexpensive meals.  Some of our preserved food, like my bread and butter pickles, are also popular gifts in our family.

It is unconventional advice, but I swear by it.  If you are contemplating a freelance/small business career, you simply must garden as much as your property allows and preserve food to the best of your abilities.  Your budget and your business will thank you.
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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In Praise of Basil

In These Happy Golden Years, the final "official" volume of the books from Laura Ingalls Wilder, there is a charming scene in which Laura and her new husband Almanzo are visiting another couple when they are caught in a hail storm.  Almanzo, always equally charming and annoying (or so I've always thought), tries to put a good spin on things by commenting that "the rich man gets his ice in the summer, but the poor man gets his in the winter."  He then suggests making ice cream.  I've always kind of hoped Laura gave him a good earful in the buggy ride home for that irresponsible comment.

Anyway, I always think of that when I harvest basil, but in reverse.  If you grow basil in your garden, you are simply awash in the stuff this time of year.  The bushes are huge, and if you take your fresh basil by pruning them right above where they fork, they will continue to spread and get bushier and bushier.  I eat as much basil as I like all summer long, and I freeze a good bit in oil for winter pesto.

Contrast this with the store-bought version.  On the one hand, I'm happy to see fresh basil leaves sold in grocery stores like Trader Joe's.  But I must say that one look at the price should send you straight to buy your own plant.  Fresh organic basil leaves are $2.99 for 2.5 ounces.  Yikes!  Of course, this must reflect the absolute difficulty of transporting a very fragile, temperature sensitive herb from where it is grown (Florida and Massachusetts by the label) to a Trader Joe's, then keeping it in any kind of condition until purchase.  I figure, based on my experience with basil leaves, that these are good for maybe a week from harvest to eating, even assuming modern packaging and transport.

I'll be using this price this year in "How Much Does a Garden Grow," although I'm going to cut it a bit to $1.00 per ounce to take into account that I bring my basil into the house on the stem, which weighs up a little.  Even so, I can easily eat $1.00 of basil a day for the entire summer, which makes it a luxury that would start to get pricey if I got my basil anywhere but my back yard.

I guess the rich can have their basil in the winter, but I have mine in the summer.

The Analysis
Fast:  Trimming basil from your own garden or container is way faster than going to the store.

Cheap:  Look at those prices!  You pay for a basil plant within 3-4 ounces of harvested basil; the rest is pure garden profit.

Good:  I can't imagine the store-bought kind will have the aroma and flavor of fresh-harvested, with the leaves full of their aromatic oils.  Yum.  Affordable luxury indeed.
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Friday, July 12, 2013

Five Sustainable Ways to Live Healthier

As promised Wednesday, here is my "prescription" for fighting unhealthy obesity and living a healthier life. Please note that I am not a doctor, a dietician, or a Certified Diabetes Educator.  You should consult one or more of the above if you want to try an idea you think might conflict with an existing health condition, prescription, or lifestyle plan you already have in place.  This is what works for me, and I will certainly admit I don't check all of the boxes all the time!  Try these ideas and see if they work for you.

Five Ways to Live Healthier

  1. Consider fruits and vegetables to be "free foods." You have to be responsible for anything you put on them -- salt, sugar, dressing -- but you can eat as much of the underlying fruit or veggie as you want without counting calories or feeling guilt.  Most are pretty low in calories anyway, especially compared to the nutrition they provide. I suppose it is theoretically possible to eat enough avocados to gain weight, but I honestly don't think anyone can sustain that level of consumption for very long. Too often, we hear advice such as that I once heard repeated that one should decrease one's consumption of yellow and orange vegetables because they lead to weight gain.  Even if I thought that was true, I'm going on the record to say that I don't think that excess consumption of carrots and squash are part of this country's obesity problem.
  2. Avoid food with HFCS or preservatives; meat from animals who received growth hormones, prophylactic antibiotics, or an inappropriate diet (such as all corn for cattle, which are ruminants and eat grass); and plant foods that have been exposed to herbicides or pesticides.  Avoid food from GMOs, and try to cut your exposure to BPA in your food containers and other places in your environment.  Some of these will ultimately be proven to be absolutely safe.  Some of these will be thought safe until that is disproven some years in the future.  Some we are pretty darn sure right now are unsafe.  But all of these things raise caution flags, and cleaning up your diet in this way can't hurt.  Far better to eat three cookies made at home from unbleached flour, turbinado sugar, organic butter, and free range eggs than to have three cookies filled with HFCS and a bunch of stabilizers and preservatives.
  3. Pick a hobby that requires you to move your body, and practice that hobby for its own sake, not for the exercise.  We dance, swim, and garden, but I am perfectly happy to recommend golf, shuffleboard, or darts-throwing if that is where your heart lies.  Just get up out of your chair and start doing something you want to get better at, and along the way you will move around a little or a lot. If you need to, treat yourself to the gear that goes with your hobby, like the proper equipment or a magazine dedicated to the subject.  Just watch out for your attitude.  If you find yourself saying "I've got to X tonight" about your hobby, you are not doing it for enjoyment, and you will quit.  Pick another hobby.
  4. Build in some movement during the day, especially after meals.  This doesn't have to be a big thing, either.  Go out and walk around the yard after dinner, or walk to a sunny spot to eat your lunch rather than driving to a restaurant. Bike to a local errand, or swim a couple of laps in the pool when you take your family on the weekend.  I'm a big fan of the "non-smoking break," where you take 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the afternoon to get up from your desk and walk around outside, just as you would if you were taking a smoke break, but without the tobacco.  Make that an expectation at your place of business if you can.
  5. Find a way to get in touch with your soul.  We practice yoga once a week at least, but you may like to build in some meditation or a religious service if you are so inclined.  Whatever helps you deal with stress and get back in tune with the moment is a great thing and can only help you live a healthier life.
What are your favorite healthy living tips?
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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Obesity, Disease, and Sustainability

I'm going to step outside my normal, self-imposed editorial guidelines here and get mildly political with you.  I don't do this lightly.  I have always tried to keep this site pretty neutral on hot button issues, because I think sustainable living is an important lifestyle choice that can be embraced by a wide rage of individuals with an equally wide variety of opinions on a number of issues.  I want everyone to feel comfortable here.  I know I'd get more hits on my blog and marginally increase the small amount of money I make from it by taking controversial stances and inviting contentious wars in the comments section, but frankly, I have enough anxiety in my life without inviting more of it here.

But this business of classifying obesity as a disease makes me a little nervous.

In case you haven't heard, the AMA recently declared obesity, widely defined as having a BMI (body mass index) of 30 or above, as a disease.  That means that the actual condition of obesity is considered a sickness, if you will, instead of just the conditions -- like diabetes, coronary heart disease, joint pain, etc. -- that can result wholly or partially from it.

Better commentators than I am have identified some of the obvious problems with this.  For one, BMI is a wildly inaccurate measure of health.  Since it is a number derived from your height and weight only, it has a tendency to produce some pretty bad results at either end of the curve.  Professional athletes with lots of heavy-for-their-size muscles tend to be declared obese, while fashion models starving themselves into anorexia might be declared simply "underweight."  Even if you eliminate these populations, there are perfectly healthy people whose bodies are simply tuned to carry more weight on them than others.  If you doubt me, you should visit any dance studio I've ever been in.  I'm in pretty good physical shape, and I regularly meet dancers who have a good 50 pounds or more on me (often without my height) who can keep up a technically perfect Viennese Waltz (note for non-dancers:  read that as "fast, spinning sprint of a dance") for round after round, while I'm winded in the corner.

(Digression #1:  One of my major concerns is that our society is more likely to consider overweight a problem than underweight.  It is very, very true that we have an obesity "epidemic" in this country, and marginal overweight probably causes more health problems than marginal underweight.  But I also think that we are far more likely to criticize someone with a BMI of 26 -- one point into "overweight," than we are a BMI of 17.5 -- one point into "underweight."  The first person will be asked, "how could you let your body get this way," while the second will more likely be told, "you look great, but you could use a sandwich."  The pressure to measure ourselves by numbers is a contributing problem to the health issues we have.  How can you stay inspired to keep taking care of your body if the feedback you get is overwhelmingly negative?)

I understand why some parts of the medical community are happy to have obesity be named a disease.  After all, if you are a primary care physician (and if you are, you are indeed a hero), you have maybe 15-20 minutes per patient visit, and it is hard to get insurance coverage and ultimately payment to counsel said patient about lifestyle choices that impact obesity.  Recognizing it as a disease would mean making this time for counseling and any resulting therapies something that the physician is less likely to have to do on a near-pro-bono basis.  And the last thing I want physicians to do is not be able to run their businesses and make a good living.  They are too important to us for that.

(Digression #2:  We are pressuring our primary care physicians way too much.  It is no wonder we project a shortage in that profession happening very soon.  My primary care doc is fabulous, but, knock wood, I'm a generally healthy person, so I see him once or twice a year.  It is hard for him, conscientious as he is, to amass a lot of background information about my life that would let him make good suggestions to me.  I would love to have the option to schedule 30 or 60 minutes where we just chat with no attempt to solve an underlying problem -- just talk about my lifestyle and my hobbies and my family and my worries and anything else that might impact my health.  Then, I'd like to walk out of that appointment and write a check for the value of that time to his practice.  I would be happy to pay out of pocket to give my doc information that could help him do his job better in a no-stress situation for us both.)

I'm over-simplifying here, but overall, our medical establishment is far more likely to pay for a prescription than a suggestion to visit the farmer's market.  And that's really the problem here.  Once you classify something as a disease and attach a handy-dandy numerical measure to it, the system starts rewarding an over-reliance on a single measurement.  Look at blood pressure.  Normal is 120/80.  Most primary care docs I know see this as a general target, not an absolute, but I have definitely talked to over-zealous physicians who would start to suggest prescriptions for 125/85 and pat you on the back for 115/75.  (Again, this is not all physicians, so if you are one and feel your hackles rising while reading, I seriously doubt if you are doing this.  I do a lot of medical writing, and I hear this kind of thing once in a while, so I know it is out there.  But I don't think it is representative of the profession as a whole.)

(Digression #3:  And where the money is, Big Pharma will follow.  Again, I have spoken to far more ultra-conscientious pharmacists and drug researchers that money-grubbing ones, but we are building a system that will reward the development of and the prescribing of drugs, because that's where insurance reimbursement will be.  I'm pretty sure that none of this will result in your health insurance reimbursing you for buying a bunch of carrots at the farmers' market or for paying your gym membership.)

And this is where I'm afraid we are headed with obesity, only our numerical measure is an inaccurate one.  So, more insurance coverage and ultimately more money for prescriptions and for surgeries and other therapeutic measures that all have their place.  But you can bet that money isn't going to go into addressing systemic issues, like whether there are enough bike paths and bike racks, why there are food deserts in this country, what impact HFCS and glyphosate (an herbicide used widely in preparations like Roundup) has on the human metabolism, and the like.  And it almost certainly won't be used consistently to differentiate the person who is healthy and obese from the many whose lifestyle has led first to obesity and eventually to life-shortening conditions.

So I'm not sure what to do to fix this, other than to say that identifying another disease to code in medical billing probably won't solve the problem and is probably unsustainable.  Obesity is a definite problem in this country, and it needs to be addressed.  Luckily, there is a lot that you, the individual, can do to impact your overall health and, consequently, your chances of developing obesity or remaining obese in an unhealthy way.  I'm just not sure whether more policy and procedure is the way to solve this problem.

(Next post will be my own tips for a healthier lifestyle, worth every penny I paid for my non-existent medical degree!)

Your thoughts?  (Keep it respectful  -- remember, different viewpoints are valuable and my anxiety level needs to stay low!)
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Friday, July 5, 2013

How Much Does a Garden Grow: June 2013



Now the old spreadsheet is getting wide enough that I will have to split it in two parts next month!  But I think you can see some of the salient points for the harvest coming in for June.


  • The cucumbers just started to come in at the end of the month.  I found a store-bought price of $0.99 per pound, which I reserve the right to change later if I find an organic equivalent.  They are cheap, but they weigh up quickly.
  • The zucchini, of course, is practically a cash crop around here.  We have started to eat zucchini daily. 
  • Blueberries have been a pleasant surprise, with the farmers' market equivalents coming in at $5.00 per pint volume, which weighs out to 11 ounces on my scale.  Our bushes gave 15 ounces of blueberries in June and, as of this writing, are still cropping.
  • Radishes turned out to be a disappointment, bolting quickly before I could get very many to eat.  Sigh.  First real loss of the year. 
  • Peas and strawberries are container crops that I don't try to grow a lot of.  Nonetheless, they made for some great snacking while gardening.
  • Finally, the first harvests from my container potatoes brought in over a pound of fresh new potatoes, which were seriously yummy.  I currently have four containers growing and a number of volunteer potatoes in the garden.
There were no expenditures to report in June, so we are working off the initial investment and heading for some profit.  A total harvest of 4.75 pounds doesn't sound like much, but just you wait!  I have a good feeling about this gardening year!
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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Blueberry Preserves

With high gardening season upon us, it is time to start putting up some of the harvest for later months.  My three little blueberry bushes don't give enough for me to need to preserve the overage, but I picked up a few pints of blueberries at the farmers' market so I would have some to preserve.

I have found myself making more and more preserves in lieu of jam.  I have seen differing opinions on definitions, but for me, I consider jam to be whole or crushed fruit, sugar, and pectin.  What I call "preserves" is just whole or crushed fruit and sugar, with no pectin.  It is easier to make because you don't have the additional pectin step of the process, and it is more scalable because you don't have to have an exact amount of fruit to match up with a package of pectin.  (Note that you can buy bulk pectin that solves this problem too.)

Preserves will not be as thick as jam, which is fine with me because I can then use them in many different applications, from topping peanut butter to making smoothies to making desserts.  They will gel a little bit because of the natural pectin in the berries themselves.

One thing I like to do with my fruit preserves is pack my jars full of fruit, which often leaves me with a jar or more of plain syrup.  I can this syrup as well, and we use it in the winter as coffee flavoring or ice cream topping.

Blueberry Preserves
2 pints blueberries, washed and crushed
Equal amount sugar (you can get by with just a bit less, but sugar is essential to the preservation process)

Heat crushed berries and sugar until sugar dissolves, forming syrup.  Continue to heat until to a low boil.

Pack in hot, sterilized jars.  Seal with lids, and process in a water bath canner for 15 minutes for half pints.  As you can see, I got three half-pints of blueberry preserves, and one half-pint of syrup from my quart of berries, but your yield will depend on the juiciness and size of the berries.

The Analysis
Fast:  Making preserves is super-quick.  I have even been known to put up a couple of jars of preserves while I'm making dinner.

Cheap:  Surprisingly, making your own preserves is typically not a money-saver.  Generally, your finished product will come in about the same as store-bought gourmet preserves once you factor in fresh-picked berries and new jars.  (Reusing your jars season to season helps bring down the cost somewhat, so you really are only paying up when you want new jars for gifts.)

Good: Flavor and freshness are where it is at with the berry preserves.  I've never tasted a store-bought brand, even the gourmet varieties, that have that intense, cobbler-y flavor you can get when you make your own.
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Monday, July 1, 2013

Zucchini Au Gratin

Zucchini season is finally here!  This weekend, we started taking the first small zucchini from our plants, which I think is one of the less celebrated joys of gardening:  you get immediate access to young, small vegetables that would sell at a premium as "fancy" baby varieties in a grocery or restaurant.

Anyway, the high summer veggies are some of our favorites, and I was really looking forward to trying this idea this year.  Zucchini au gratin is a great way to get some zucchini into your diet.  It tastes almost exactly like the cheesy flat bread you get from pizza delivery places, but obviously with fewer carbs and more fiber and vitamins.  Yum!

Zucchini Au Gratin
1-2 small young zucchini, sliced thin
mozzarella cheese to cover
Italian-flavored bread crumbs

Place sliced zucchini in a baking pan in a single layer or a slightly overlapped layer, depending on the size of your pan and the amount of zucchini you wish to use.  Cover with mozzarella cheese in a thin layer (slices work well for this), then sprinkle Italian-flavored bread crumbs over top.  (If you wish to make this even lower carb, you can omit the bread crumbs and sub in some Italian herbs, but it won't have quite the crunch.)

Bake at 350 until cheese is bubbly and brown, about 15-20 minutes.

The Analysis
Fast:  I've been making this along with our normal dinners, and it is a snap to assemble and bake beside something else you have in the oven.

Cheap:  Way cheaper than delivery cheesy flatbread, and much healthier.

Good:  Healthy and yummy.   Let the high gardening season begin!
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