Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sustainable Tool: Spaetzle Maker

I've never been a big fan of "unitaskers."  Ever since I heard Alton Brown make fun of kitchen tools that do one thing and one thing only, I've tried to avoid their siren song.  As of recently, I think I owned only two:  my cherry pitter (because when you need it, you need it) and my ice cream maker (which also makes frozen yogurt, so I guess it is a duotasker).

I just added a third:  a spaetzle maker from Lehman's. (Note: This is not an affiliate link, and I don't get money from Lehman's.)

Although I think we're all trying to cut our carbs, I do really enjoy pasta.  A reasonable compromise seems to be to cut down our consumption and to make my own, thereby ensuring that our pasta is made with organic flour and farm eggs from pastured hens, and without a side of Round-up.  But I always hated forcing the batter through the screen of a grater or a pot strainer, and I'd leave my spaetzle-making to the weekends.

Enter the spaetzle maker.  Just mix up some fairly loose batter, fill that little hopper on top, then move the hopper back and forth across the grater.  The grater is sturdy and hooks onto nearly any size pot.  The gap between the hopper and the grater allows just enough batter to be forced through the grater to make perfect-sized droplets.  I was able to make a batch in just minutes.

The spaetzle maker does have a few grooves that are a bit challenging to clean, but I think if I did a better job of rinsing before putting it in the dishwasher, it would clean up better.  The hopper comes off to facilitate this cleaning.

While I'm still going to try to reduce our carbs, I feel better knowing that I can replace more store-bought pasta with homemade.  Now that's an improvement!

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Pollo Saltado II

I've been toying with my recipe for pollo saltado, a Peruvian chicken and potato dish, for over a year now. While I'm happy with my quickie version, I craved something a little more complex in flavor.

What we have here is my latest attempt, and I think it is quite good.  I substitute homemade spaetzle for the traditional potato component, and the traditional soy sauce flavor is brought in through the way the chicken is roasted rather than through adding it to the sauce.  The whole thing took about two hours to make, although half of that was chicken roasting time.

Pollo Saltada: Peru with a German Twist

2 pastured chicken breasts
2 T. organic butter
1/2 c. soy sauce (no HFCS)
sprig of rosemary, chopped

In a 350 degree oven, roast two chicken breasts for an hour in a roasting pan with the butter, soy sauce, and rosemary.  Baste regularly until the meat is almost falling apart.  (Note:  I did 4 chicken breasts with this same amount of basting sauce, so now I have two left over for wraps later this week.)

Meanwhile, make the spaetzle:

2 c. organic flour
2 pastured eggs
1 t. salt
water to make a slightly loose paste

Mix together ingredients and force through a strainer or a spaetzle-making tool (more on this later in the week) into boiling water.  Remove the little dumplings when they start to float and reserve them in a dish with butter to keep them from sticking to one another.

When you have everything prepped, assemble with:
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 jar organic marinara sauce
3/4 cup garden peas (or more if you have them)
1 c. garden cilantro, chopped

Cook onion in saute pan with a bit of butter until translucent.  Add chicken, spaetzle, and marinara sauce.  Add peas and cilantro last, and cook just until peas are tender and cilantro is wilted.

The Analysis
Fast:  As I said, this one is a little fussy.  I took about two hours to make this, but half of that was roasting the chicken while I was actually outside planting fall peas.  If I did everything together, I could probably get it done in 90 minutes.  So, this is a good weekend dish for when you have time to mess around in the kitchen.

Cheap:  I paid up for the best flour, chicken, and eggs, so I spent some money.  But this is really an exercise in featuring the plentiful garden cilantro, the precious peas, and the wonderful, fresh-butchered chicken.

Good:  This one's worth the effort and the cost.
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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sustainable Skill: Driving

I've always hated to drive.  Although I occasionally have the opportunity to drive a car that I really enjoy being behind the wheel of, mostly I view it at best as a necessary evil of transportation and at worst as a boring chore punctuated by occasional demonstrations of other drivers' idiocy.

But I can drive, and I daresay I drive well.  And I have been driving for as long as I have been legally allowed. Although my memory is hazy on the specifics of 1980s Indiana driver's license law, I do remember that those of us who took a driver's ed class could get our licenses a month past our sixteenth birthday.  This is how I wound up at the DMV after a major snow in December, proving that I could drive on slick roads and avoiding idiots who wouldn't adjust their speed for conditions.  I still think I was exempted from the parallel parking test in part because I skillfully avoided getting hit by one of these speeding idiots, and in part because there were no parking spots not filled with snow drifts. Nonetheless, I was unwilling to wait so much as an extra week for better testing conditions; proving that I had the skill and could achieve the rite of passage were that important to me.

But lately, I've noticed a change.  Young people don't drive.  And it isn't just that they don't drive, it's that they can't drive.  I know many young -- and not so young -- people who don't have driver's licenses and who depend on others to ferry them around.  The fact that AAA can run an advertisement trying to encourage parents to goad their adult children into learning to drive before college starts shows just how much things have changed.

I've been hemming and hawing over writing this post for over a month, especially because I'm about to tell you that learning to drive, in this society, is just as important a sustainable living skill as knowing how to grow your own food.  And while I don't want to insult those who choose not to drive, I think that not being able to or legally allowed to is an unnecessary sacrifice of potential independence.

This is not to say that I think extensive, unnecessary driving is a good idea.  You don't have to drive to do your errands if you can make a bike work for you.  Carpooling to school or work is a great idea.  Heck, you don't even have to own a car if you don't want to.

But for heaven's sake, and, more importantly, for your own protection, learn how to drive a car and become legally licensed to do so.  You never know when you will get caught in a situation when you are the only available driver and you need to be able to drive competently: a small child in your care has to get medical care or you are out with friends that become ill or incapacitated.  You also never know when being able to use this tool -- and a car is a tool -- will help you live a more traditionally sustainable or frugal life.  City dwellers might borrow a Zip Car occasionally to stock up at a far-flung farmer's market or warehouse club. Those in suburbs and rural areas will find that driving is essential to access many of the resources you need for living, at least occasionally.

With that said, I will soon return to discussions of gardening, crocheting, cooking, and other more traditional sustainable activities.  But if you don't have a driver's license, please: learn to drive and get licensed.  What you do after that is your call.
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Friday, July 18, 2014

Identifying Bacterial Wilt in Cucumbers

Into every gardener's life a little tragedy must fall, and when you grow cucumbers, that tragedy usually takes the form of bacterial wilt.

I planted two entire packages of Burpee Pickler and Straight Eight cucumbers, my favorite varieties.  And, to my surprise, I had a really high germination rate.  Thus, I have cucumbers climbing my cucumber trellis, cucumbers under my sunroom windows, cucumbers on the terraced hillside that Mr. FC&G is excavating, and cucumbers in a grow box.  Those are the ones you see to the right in the photo.

Bacterial wilt is an insidious disease spread by cucumber beetles.  If you've never seen such a beetle, you're in for a treat, at least initially.  They are simply the prettiest bugs ever; they look like something that should have been dreamed up by Willy Wonka, with their neon yellow bodies decorated by precise black stripes or dots.  Really, these things look too perfect to be bugs.

Trust me, they are.  They harbor a bacterium in their systems when they are waiting to emerge in the spring, and when they come out to mate and feed, they chew on the stems and leaves of your curcubits (including cucumbers) and inject the bacteria.  Once the plant has caught the bacteria, the water transportation system inside the stems and leaves gradually shuts down, leaving a plant that looks like the droopy one in the photo. There is no cure; I'll be removing this plant this weekend.  The other plants in this box are probably fine; at least; I hope they are.

Since there's no cure for wilt, gardeners are left to guess if their plant is infected until it makes itself evident. Sometimes, a few leaves will wilt and I will panic, only to find the plant was eager for water.  That's always a good first diagnostic step, although it is not 100 percent on identifying wilt.

I knew I'd have to deal with a little of this scourge because I had an absolute flock of cucumber beetles emerge over the Fourth of July.  I went outside to the garden about once an hour during the morning and evening (when they are most active) and pinched them off the flowers, where they were sitting and mating, of all things.  The nerve of them!  I hope they enjoyed it, because it was the last thing they'll ever do. Nonetheless, I couldn't get all of them, so it was inevitable I'd lose a few vines to wilt.

I installed some yellow sticky traps and used some insecticidal soap spray for control, and now I'm only seeing one or two beetles on a plant a week.  This fall, I'll probably spray with beneficial nematodes, which help control the cucumber beetle larvae.

In the meantime, the only thing to do is make sure I don't spread the wilt myself.  That means being careful about not touching other plants or harvesting with hands that have handled wilted plants or that have squished bugs, and disposing of wilted plants some place other than compost.
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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Recipe Review: Zucchini Cakes

This is the time of year that everyone, myself included, writes articles about how to "use up" zucchini.  But I really don't want to use mine up; I want to celebrate it! Zucchini is with us for so short a season, and it goes in so many yummy things, that I'm perfectly happy having zucchini for every meal during late summer.

I found this great recipe from A Teaspoon and a Pinch, and I had to try it out.  Go ahead and click over to see the original.

And the verdict is:  fabulous!  I am a huge fan of what my family calls "salmon patties" (and what others might call salmon or crab croquettes), and this is a great veggie version that makes a nice meat substitute on your plate or a great side dish.  A couple of notes:

  • I omitted the salt and the shallot because I had seasoned bread crumbs.
  • Shred your zucchini very fine, and it is entirely possible that the zucchini haters in your life will barely notice that its there.  The taste comes from the bread crumbs and whatever fat you use to cook it in.
  • The second time I made these, I greased my pan with bacon fat, and I think the patties took up a little too much of the salt.  If you choose to do likewise, make sure you don't over-do the seasoned bread crumbs, and rinse your zucchini really well after you wilt it so you don't introduce any more salt than necessary into the recipe.  The bacon-y goodness will be plenty. Otherwise, for a truly vegetarian dish, opt for olive oil.
I love this dish, and I can see myself making regular batches of these to keep in the fridge for quick lunches and dinners during zucchini season.  Bring on the zucchini!

The Analysis

Fast:  About 25 minutes of cooking time and less than 15 minutes for assembly.

Cheap:  Bread crumbs and eggs are your only expenditures to make a perfectly acceptable meat replacement.

Good:  I love them, and I suspect this will be a hit with picky eaters of all ages in your house.
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Friday, July 11, 2014

Are You a Helicopter Gardener?

Having worked in and around higher education for 20 years now, I confess I've made my share of fun of "helicopter parents."  You know them:  the parents who micromanage every bit of their child's life so that no misfortune or hurt feeling should ever befall their little darling.

But this morning, as I made what must have been my eleventh trip out into the garden to check on a spot of wilt or the status of a blossom - all within about a three hour period - it occurred to me that I had become a helicopter gardener.

Are you a helicopter gardener too?  Award yourself a point for every "yes" you answer below:

1.  Do you know everything about each plant's life, from the time it was a seedling until now?  Add a bonus point if you can remember where each plant sat in the seed starting tray back in late winter.  Add another point if you can gesture to each plant and tell visitors its life story.

2.  Do you keep a photographic record of the progress of your garden?  Add another point if you post most of these pictures to Facebook.  Add yet another if you suspect some of your friends block you from their news feed during high garden season.

3.  Do you weigh your harvests?  Add another point if your "first tomato" post to Facebook read like a birth announcement (5 oz, Black Krim, mother plant looks healthy and happy).  Add a bonus point if you actually felt yourself tear up a little when you harvested your first tomato.

4.  Do you obsess over your garden's nutrition?  Add another point if you use only organic fertilizers on your garden.  Add yet another point if you suspect your plants are eating cleaner than you do.

5.  Do you obsess over your garden's health or illness?  Add another point if you are terrified of wilt, mold, and plant-eating bugs.  Add yet another point if you have checked your garden for these more than once today.

6.  Do you have an armchair PhD in botany?  Add a point if you have more than five gardening books on your bookshelf.  Add a bonus if you have your county extension office website bookmarked.

7.  Do you tremble at the suggestion of taking a vacation during garden season?  Add a point if you refuse to leave for more than two days once plants are in the ground.  Add a bonus if you've ever "employed" a plant sitter to come watch your garden for you.

8.  Do you think you are obsessed with your garden?  Add a point if your friends ask you about your garden right after you ask them about their kids.  Add another point if you sometimes forget to ask about their kids because you are asking about their gardens.

How did you do?  Tally up your score and....

Who am I kidding?  We don't have time to tally scores.  We have gardens to check!

What are you still doing online?

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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Seed Potato or Bin Potato: Which Should You Plant?

I'm quite a big fan of growing potatoes.  I grow them in large containers, mainly, which allows me to grow them year round, although I do occasionally plant a trench of them in the spring.  And while I do order seed potatoes to plant from time to time, I mostly rely on planting the store-bought organic potatoes that have started to sprout in my potato bin before I could cook them.

Many seed potato houses say you should plant only seed potatoes (potatoes grown for the purpose of planting) for the best yield, and I think they are right.  However, there's something to be said for recapturing food waste and turning it into something of value.

So how do you know whether you should plant seed potatoes or bin potatoes?

Plant Seed Potatoes if:

  • You want to grow a variety that is not readily available as an organic in the grocery store, like any of the many varieties of blue potatoes.  I order some blue potatoes to plant every year.
  • You can't get organic potatoes in the grocery.  Non-organic potatoes have been treated with a chemical that prevents sprouting, so they simply go to mush when they go bad.
  • You simply must have the best yield possible.  If you have a very small space or you will be very disappointed with poor performance (such as if you are growing these potatoes as an experiment with a child), then hedge your bets by ordering actual seed potatoes.
  • You are in the mood to do everything right.  If you feel like cutting your potatoes down so each piece has only two eyes, green chitting your seed potatoes (that is, letting them cure and sprout before planting), and then spacing them ever-so-carefully in your container or trench, then treat yourself to the seed potatoes.
  • You want guidance on planting times.  Some seed houses will ship only when it is OK to plant in your growing zone, which prevents the frustration of planting a potato in December and not seeing it poke its nose up until June.  (Such as in the same bed that you just planted your spinach in.  Not that this has happened to me or anything....)
Plant Bin Potatoes if:

  • You can readily buy organic potatoes at the store.  Obviously, eat your food, but realize that your purchase can double as seed for the next generation.
  • Your organic potatoes have sprouted in the bin.  You can always knock off a few of the little white roots and still eat a potato, but if you are getting actual sprouts or green places, then what you have is seed, not dinner.  Don't let it go to waste -- you'll eat your investment.  You'll just eat that potato's offspring.
  • You are not in the mood for playing around.  Even those of us who adore gardening occasionally tire of going through the right steps.  If this is you, then you won't feel so bad about throwing a few potatoes from the bin - cut or whole - into a container and seeing what happens.
  • You aren't worried about yield.  I pretty consistently will get about five or six pounds of potatoes from planting nearly an entire three-pound bag that has gone bad on me, which is good but not fabulous. Doubling my investment is fine with me, but if you are planning to fill the cellar with potatoes, you may not want to go this route.
  • You love the potatoes you're buying at the store.  Obviously, the potato you harvest will be very much like the potato you plant.  I love gold potatoes, so I'm happy to get more any way I can, including planting those I got from the store.  If you weren't fond of what bought, don't plant it and get more!
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Friday, July 4, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: June 2014

First things first:  If you are looking for my recent article in Grit, check it out here.  And remember that the magazine is the July/August issue and is available on the newsstand, so feel free to pick up a copy or six!

Now, onto the real purpose of our post today:  how much the garden grew in June.  June was extremely wet for our part of Ohio; I don't keep a weather journal, but I would say it rained for most if not for a significant number of the days of the month.  And many of these rains were of the "torrential downpour" variety.  I have a couple of pepper plants in some small pots I've forgotten to drill drainage holes in, and it is becoming a regular task to go outside and dump excess water from the peppers, then hope they can survive living in a marsh.  The rain has delayed some crops that are already delayed from the cool spring, so I have a number of tomato plants that are just now setting fruit and I've yet to see my first cucumber.  The first tomato, however, came in the first part of July from our Tennessee transplants.  You'll have to wait til next month to see how all that fairs!

In any case, we started harvesting modestly but in earnest this month.  Our harvests include:

  • Carrots:  Organic carrots are cheap right now at the store ($0.89/pound), making my little harvests of thinnings a pretty modest savings.  I pulled 9 ounces of baby carrots over the month for us to eat, which comes out to be $0.54.  
  • Potatoes:  Again, organic potatoes are very affordable here right now, at $1.28/pound.  I did our first big potato harvest of the season, digging up the half-trench and emptying two containers, and I wound up with 60 ounces of potatoes for a value of $6.40.  However, since all of these potatoes were grown from potatoes that had started to sprout in my potato bin (that is, not purchased seed potatoes), this was a pretty enjoyable way to recoup some food waste.
  • Blueberries:  Aargh!  Organic blueberries are pretty expensive here at $0.29/ounce, and my plants set lots of fruit.  Unfortunately, the critters have gotten to most of it, so I've only gotten to enjoy 9 ounces for a savings of $2.32.  I have a tent over the blueberries to protect them from birds; I don't know what else I can do to deter the chipmunks that like to dig into the tent and pull on the branches.
  • Basil:  Fresh basil is not even available in my regular stores yet, let alone an organic variety, so I am using last year's price of $1/ounce.  I accidentally harvested an ounce by knocking the top off one of my plants with the weed whacker.  (Oops!)  Anyway, the fresh basil was yummy.
With no expenses for the month, we harvested 6.125 pounds of produce for a dollar value of $10.26, in spite of the rain.  Our cumulative totals are:

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 118
Pounds: 7.375

Total Value of Harvest: $23.30
Expenditures: -284.24

Total: $-260.94
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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Why Botulism Shouldn't Keep You from Canning

Canning season has started in earnest, with the first batches of jam already safely stored away downstairs. This is always the point at which I go through my pantry, taking stock of what we need to eat soon, what I made too much of last year (and so should skip this year), and what we are totally out of.  It is also the point at which I inevitably discover the jars that got shoved into the corner and are now too old to be safe to eat.

This is discouraging enough, but once in a while, this clean-out procedure will turn up a jar with the lid button popped outward, indicating the seal has broken. Inevitably, people's minds turn immediately to botulism. And some people let this fear keep them from learning to can.

Botulism is not to be taken lightly.  Botulism is a paralytic nerve condition caused by the botulism bacterium, and you don't want to mess around with it. But inexperienced home canners sometimes want to avoid canning out of fear of botulism, and this is unfortunate.  So let me help put your mind at ease.

According the the CDC,  there are about 110 cases of botulism every year in the U.S.  About a quarter of these are foodborne.  That means that there are about 30 cases of foodborne botulism each year.

To put this in perspective, there are about 318 million people in the U.S. (Check this out. This is really cool.) If everyone is having an average of two meals a day and no snacks (to even out for infants who are nursed by their mothers, people with food insecurity, and others who may not be consuming food regularly), that's 636,000,000 meals.  And that generates about 30 cases of foodborne botulism, not all of which can be traced to home canning; botulism bacteria can infect factory-canned and -prepared foods too.

Ultimately, your chances of getting botulism from any food source or meal are extremely small.  Avoiding home canning because you are afraid of botulism is like not walking around your own yard because you're afraid a car could come careening off the road and kill you.  It's possible, but it isn't at all likely.

How can you further lower your risk of botulism if you are a nervous home canner?

  • Wash and sterilize all your jars before canning, even if you know they will go into a pressure canner (which should, theoretically, kill pretty much anything).  
  • Keep your hands and workspace scrupulously clean.  Wear a clean apron, use clean towels, and wipe up regularly.
  • Follow your canning recipe exactly.  Food preservation depends on some basic chemistry; if a recipe calls for a certain amount of sugar, vinegar, or other acidic element, it does so to kill bacteria.  Don't alter the recipe.
  • Use new canning lids if you use the disposable metal kind.
  • Process your canned goods for the amount of time specified in the recipe.  Don't skimp.  
  • Take a minute each season to refamiliarize yourself with your canning process before you begin, including reading the instructions on your pressure canner if you are using one.
  • Test completed jars for a seal.  The "button" in the center of the lid should be firmly down with no wobble.  If it isn't and you discover this within a few hours of processing, the food is usually safe to eat right away.
  • Let your jars sit out for a few days before storing, and retest the seal before you put them in the cabinet.  Store them in a cool, dark area.
  • Test your seal again before you open the jar.
  • Smell and examine your food when your jar is first opened.  Discard anything that seems wrong to you.  I've been canning for years, and I still occasionally get rid of a jar that was almost certainly safe but that looked a bit strange to me.  Usually it is just a question of food getting above the canning liquid and thus changing appearance during storage, but you never know.
  • If you have a jar that is sealed but past its "best by" date, you can empty the contents into compost and wash and sterilize the jar for reuse.  
  • If you have a jar that you have opened or you have reason to believe the seal was compromised, the safest thing is to throw the whole thing away.  Screw the lid back on with the band, wrap it in a couple of plastic bags, and send it out with the trash.  Don't dump suspicious contents into compost, because, on the off chance you really do have botulism bacteria present, you could accidentally poison a child or pet who came into contact with the food.  Go ahead and sacrifice the jar -- they make more.

Home canning is a great pleasure and a great money saver, giving you nutritious food year round.  Don't let the fear of botulism stop you from learning to can.  No one will take more care in providing quality food for your family than you will, and you can ensure safety by following proper procedures.  You can do this.
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