Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Five Ways to Eat More Sustainably in 2016

As a professional writer, I know that it's the time of year for the "how to lose weight and get in shape" articles. I'm not immune to following this trend.

But losing weight, as a goal, feels punitive. It feels like you're punishing your body for something it did wrong, and, if you are at all sane, you won't punish yourself voluntarily. Getting in shape is a better goal, but it needs a food component to support the exercise.

So, here are five quick ideas that you can implement to eat healthier and more sustainably without feeling deprived.

  1. Join a CSA. Standing for "community supported agriculture," this allows you to get farm-fresh food while supporting a local farmer. Pick one that practices sustainable farming practices, and find out if you can get meat, vegetables, or both.
  2. Grow something. This is a theme for this blog, but it bears repeating that everyone can grow something. If you have a plot of land, plan to till it up for a garden; if you have a windowsill, grow sprouts or herbs. Every bit you grow yourself is that much less transportation cost that goes into your food.
  3. Avoid pesticides, herbicides, and HFCS. Learn to read labels. High fructose corn syrup is often listed in the ingredients as such, making it easy to avoid. To avoid pesticides and herbicides, choose organic options where possible, because these farmers and producers can't use harmful chemicals like glyphosate on their crops. 
  4. Avoid GMOs. More than ever before, it is possible to avoid consuming genetically modified organisms, as more and more producers are opting to label when they are GMO-free. While these plant products may not be inherently harmful (the jury is still out, as far as I'm concerned), they are often code for a plant that is "Roundup Ready," meaning that it can withstand being treated with Roundup. I try to avoid glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) everywhere I can, so avoiding GMOs is a good start.
  5. Reduce sugar consumption. Not only will you be avoiding the sometimes-questionable production methods of sugar, you'll be avoiding excess calories. This, I must admit, is my big challenge, so this year I'm trying to leave the sugar out of my coffee most days while cutting down the number of times I succumb to the temptation for a pop. 
What are your sustainable food goals this year?
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Friday, December 18, 2015

The Leggiest Potatoes

So, I like to think I have a green thumb, but sometimes my experiments go a little crazy on me. As you can see on the right, I'm currently in possession of the world's leggiest potato plants growing in my garage.

This whole experiment started when a friend told me that her neighbor or somebody managed to grow and harvest container potatoes by letting them overwinter in the garage. The fact that this conversation took place in a bar after dance class maybe should have been my first clue that I wasn't necessarily receiving high quality gardening information.

Anyway, as you know, I had a bag of potatoes go bad and start sprouting this fall, so I put them in my potato containers, and, once the weather started to dip, brought them inside from within the makeshift cold frame where they had been living.

The idea here was that the weather would turn cold, and the garage would be cold but not freezing. Therefore, the big plan was that the plants would go dormant and then pick up growth next spring when I could move them back outside.

As it turns out, we have been blessed with one of the warmest Decembers in quite a while, and my potatoes won't go to sleep.  So, they are eagerly climbing up toward the window seeking the sunlight instead of staying nice and squat for the winter.

Since I invested exactly $0 in this little experiment (thanks to already having all the materials and planting store potatoes that had started to sprout), I'm just going to leave them there and see if they succeed in living, and, if they do, if they produce any potatoes.

But you can imagine the look on my face when I went out into the garage after not being out there for a couple of weeks and found this mess going on.  Yeesh!
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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Seven Sustainable Things

Time for another edition of Seven Sustainable Things, in which I tell you seven things over the past seven days I've done to live a sustainable lifestyle.  This time, the cold weather December edition.

1.  We harvested a lime!  Since my lime tree is tempermental at best, there is no such thing as a regular lime crop around here.  So, it's always a treat to get a lime to put in our iced tea.

2.  In the interest of losing weight and saving money, we have set a new rule that we can't have desserts unless we bake them ourselves.  That means no mixes, too.  The result over the past two or three weeks has been more organic ingredients in our desserts and, more importantly, more days that we don't eat sweets at all because we're too tired to bake.

3.  To cut the heating bill, I've started spending an hour or two in the morning with my office door shut and my space heater on, but with the house heat still turned down.  Since Mr. FC&G is on a slightly different schedule than me, I just wait until he starts his day to turn up the heat.

4.  This is high sales season for our Etsy store, Carrot Creations, so I've been busy at night crocheting yoga socks as fast as I can for Christmas-time sales.  Hopefully, these gifts will help others live a more sustainable life too!

5.  I picked up an extra class to teach this coming spring semester, which will help the budget out a bit while giving me a fun new opportunity to spend time with my students.

6.  We've got an appointment for an oil change and check-up for our everyday vehicle.  Now, spending money doesn't sound all that sustainable, but last year we caught a brake problem before it turned into an expensive repair.  A little preventative maintenance can go a long way.

7.  Finally, let's hear it for the fireplace!  December is a wonderful time for us to have fires in our fireplace with its stove insert.  It lets us turn the house heat down and convert some of our wood pile into heat while enjoying the festive ambiance.  Win-win!

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

How Much Does a Garden Grow: October and November 2015

Why yes, I am, in fact, behind on this column.  But fall is a very forgiving time for managing the garden, with very little coming in.

I'm always surprised by the spring and fall garden.  Summer is fairly predictable; July and August will be the big months, I generally will get a lot of cucumbers unless the cucumber beetles hit, and I'll never get enough tomatoes.  But I'm never sure about fall.  Sometimes I get a lot of true fall crops, like squash and potatoes, and sometimes, like this year, I'm still finishing the summer up.

As I've mentioned, we hauled lots of containers inside this year, so I've been making small harvests of peppers, tomatoes, and salad greens.  Most of those have come to a halt now that November is over; the photos show almost the last peppers, which came in on December 1.

As far as totals, I brought in about a pound and a half of produce over the two months, for just a few bucks in profit.  Quite the change from previous months, of course.  But I still enjoy seeing what comes in.

Next month, I plan to do a garden summary of what worked and what didn't.  And, like all good gardeners, I'm already dreaming of seedlings and saying "wait til next year!"

Cumulative Totals

Harvest, Ounces: 2,326.0
Harvest, Pounds: 145.375
Harvest Value: $482.50

Expenditures: $141.40

Total Saved: $341.10

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Garden Experiments

Winter is always difficult for me because I don't have my garden.  This year, however, I've been much more deliberate about moving plants into the sunroom and other places to keep things growing.

See that slightly blurry picture to the right?  That's a green bean!  OK, right now I only have two green beans on this plant, but I'm pretty chuffed about it because I wasn't sure if the plant could bear fruit at all in these temps and inside away from the bees. I'd love to present Mr. FC&G with a plate full of tender green beans for him to snack on raw, like he enjoys doing.

Also still living in the sunroom are three pepper plants, each of which has at least one reddening pepper on it.  Mostly, I'm hoping to keep these plants dormant but alive to get a jump on next season. However, I'll take any extra food I can grow.

We also have a tomato plant in the sunroom that has some lovely, if small, green tomatoes on it. It did have a lovely reddening tomato on it, but I think a critter found its way into the sunroom and nibbled it.  In any case, I found a red tomato in the pot, pulled from the vine and with teeth marks in it.  I'm not happy.

Finally, with the first hard freezes of the year on us, I brought two containers of potatoes into the garage to live in the weak light under a window. I don't really expect them to grow much over the winter, but, again, I'm hopeful I can induce dormancy and have a head start on potatoes in the spring.

What are you still growing? Let me know in the comments!
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Monday, November 16, 2015

Why You Need to (Occasionally) Go Factory Free

At my Etsy store, Carrot Creations, I have been starting to use the tag "factory free."  I think it's an important one, and I think those of us in the sustainable living movement need to know a little more about it so we can look for it.

"Factory free" means that an item was made by individual or cottage labor, often by hand, instead of being mass produced in a factory setting.

Now, let me say on the front end that, especially as a historian, I'm a big fan of factories.  The Industrial Revolution brought with it a tremendous change in lifestyle and the way we produce goods that has meant largely positive changes.  Suddenly, many goods that were out of reach to the common consumer were made available, and the power of human production was better harnessed.  These are positives that should not be dismissed.

But relying on factories for everything is not good, either, and the positives of the Industrial Revolution must be balanced by a place for individual and small group effort.  This is where "factory free" comes in.  If you buy a product that lists itself as "factory free" (including food), you may see some of these benefits:

  • The business that produces the item (including farms) is far more likely to be small and local to you.
  • The business is less likely to be beholden to large corporate production policies.  Often, this means that a small business will hold itself to higher standards or take time to explain their production methods to you.
  • The quality control processes are often more thorough.  A sock produced on a machine may never be inspected by human eyes; my yoga socks, on the other hand, spend 6-8 hours per pair in my hands and in view of my eyes, making it more likely I would catch a quality problem.
  • You are more likely to get the product you want, even if you want specialty attributes.  If you want an organic, free range egg, you probably want one that is not produced on a factory farm but is, in fact, factory free.
  • You are more likely to be supporting a small business, and small businesses are essential to maintaining the flexibility of our country's economy.
  • You can target your dollars to exactly the type of business and the location you feel most passionate about.  If I want to support my hopefully-future hometown of Key West, I will look for something factory free and produced locally on the island.
Factory free items will never completely replace mass produced ones, nor should they.  But for many purchases, you might consider looking for a factory free tag to learn more about exactly what your money supports.

Have you purchased anything factory free?  What do you look for?
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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Planting Fall Potatoes

I always dislike the fall because it means taking the garden down. This year, however, has been rather fun.

First, we brought so many plants that are still producing into the sunroom that it touched off a full reorganization of the dining room and living room, which are the two rooms with the south-facing windows that need to hold plants. So, I got a whole new living room arrangement out of the deal!

Second, it has been unseasonably warm. Having temps in the lower 70s in November is nothing to sneeze at, and that means we've gotten most of our outdoor work done in shirt sleeves rather than in parkas.

Because it's been so warm, I've given my fall potatoes a bit of a break in the sunshine.  My initial plan was to plant the fall potatoes in their containers and then put them in the garage, where the cool temps and week light would probably make them stay dormant until they finally sprouted in the spring.

It's been so warm, however, that I planted them and left them next to a cozy wall on the back patio. They are protected from any cold nights by a couple of old sliding glass doors, and I can put up some black side pieces we have for just such an application once the weather turns a bit cooler.  I won't have to bring them inside until we start getting legitimate freezes at night that seep into this makeshift greenhouse.

I've got to admit, I have a love/hate relationship with those sliding glass doors. When we replaced that ugly door to the house and put in a pretty French door, I rolled my eyes pretty hard when my husband wanted to keep the glass. And, about 10 months out of the year, I wonder why we still have them. But every year, I have some plants I want to keep outside but keep protected, and Mr. FC&G triumphantly tells me, "let's go get the glass doors!"  And, at that point, I become extremely happy that he had the foresight to recognize a DIY cold frame when he saw one.
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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How Much Does a Garden Grow: September 2015

Wow, believe me when I say that October has been a real disaster around the microfarm.  So much so that I'm only now getting to tally my September results. Suffice it to say, enough craziness has been going on to make us say, like many Cubs fans, "Wait 'til next year."

But this year hasn't been all bad.  Overall, our September tallies show us harvesting 24 pounds of produce, with a net savings of around $47 for the month.

Most of that was due to our beans. Our bean crop, which we nursed through some horrible Japanese beetle infestations (including about a month of daily trips to the garden with a container of soapy water to remove beetles by hand and drown them), finally started to pay off.

For the entire year, we harvested 8.25 pounds of beans for a total value of $25.08.  Many of those beans made their way into jars for winter consumption.

The remainder of the total comes from peppers and tomatoes, which both finished their years in September.  Interestingly, the Cuor di Bue tomatoes continued to produce well, with a total production of the year of $84.50.  I'll be doing a post dedicated to tomatoes very soon.

Cumulative Totals

Harvest, Ounces: 2,302.0
Harvest, Pounds: 143.875
Harvest Value: $474.16

Expenditures: $141.40

Total Saved: $332.76
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Thursday, October 22, 2015

On Not Throwing the Baby Out with the Bath Water

OK, so this is a little self-serving of me, but I figure I'm allowed once in a while.  And I do really have a point to make here.

Academics are currently all in a flutter (well, as much as academics ever deign to "flutter") over an opinion piece in the New York Times called "Lecture Me. Really." In it, the author talks about the value of the traditional college lecture.

We currently live in a climate in which the lecture has fallen into disfavor. The "sage on the stage" has been replaced by the "guide on the side," and professors are urged to use more participatory and student-led forms of instruction, particularly those involving technology.

There's nothing wrong with that.  The more good teaching techniques we have around, the more students we can reach, and the more learning that goes on. That's the name of the academic game.

But part of the problem is that those who lecture are considered dinosaurs, and the lecture is considered passe. That's a shame, because part of sustainable living is not throwing out things that might still work, even if they are old. (See, this really does relate to my blog!)

Lectures have worked for centuries because people love stories. Beowulf was meant to be chanted around a campfire, not read from a book. Many of the first universities have their start with experienced "professors" taking on students to whom they would lecture. Even American universities by and large have relied on the lecture as their primary educational method, and some of our best thinkers have emerged from that system.

But many people don't know how to lecture effectively.  It's more than just putting some bullet points on a Powerpoint deck and reading them allowed.  A truly effective lecture should leave the lecturer a little breathless, because she should be walking the aisles, reading student faces, adapting to student reactions, and constantly tailoring her comments to the needs of the students she has in front of her.

My first book, a very quick read, tells you how to give the "dynamic lecture" effectively.  If you want autographed copies, there's a link to my Etsy store at the right where you can order.  Otherwise, you can get really great deals as below:

Amazon Kindle
Barnes and Noble

And don't hesitate to contact me for bulk discounts or for (dynamic!) speaking engagements.

Now back to your regularly-scheduled gardening posts.
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Monday, October 12, 2015

Strawberry Bread

First off, my apologies for the delay in posting recently. Last week was...not conducive to blogging. Let's leave that there.

Anyway, I've wanted to share this recipe for strawberry bread with you,but the last time I made it, it disappeared before I could photograph it. I don't mean that I waited a couple of days; I mean that I baked, went to take a shower and do some chores, and came back downstairs to find an empty cake plate with a few crumbs on it.  Guess it was a hit!

Anyway, the next batch has survived long enough for me to photograph. This is a great way to use some of your strawberries frozen from this summer; it's quick and easy to make and, obviously, pretty tasty!

Strawberry Bread

1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup milk
1 egg
1/2 t. salt
2 t. baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
1 3/4 cup flower
1 cup strawberries (frozen, thawed, and drained)

Preheat oven to 375.

Mix ingredients in order listed, blending wet ingredients first and then adding dry.  Toss in strawberries and fold in lightly.

Place in greased bread pan. Bake for 50 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.  Cool and remove from pan.

The Analysis

Fast:  I mixed a batch of this while I was on the phone last night, then baked while I was crocheting.

Cheap:  Right now, inexpensive is the name here at Casa FC&G.  We have these ingredients on hand, and most are organic or from sustainable sources.

Good:  It appears that Mr. FC&G really likes it.  The piece that I had was pretty good too.  :-)
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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Seven Sustainable Things

Welcome to another edition of Seven Sustainable Things, seven things I've done to advance my sustainable living in the past seven days.

Fall is always sort of iffy in that regard here on the "microfarm."  Gardening is slowing to a trickle, but it isn't yet cold enough (thank heavens) for any of the real wintery tips.  But we've done quite a bit this week:
  1. Beans!  Thank heavens Mr. FC&G is so insistent about how much he likes beans, because we've had a truckload! I've been pretty insistent about him eating beans with every meal.
  2. But the beans are finally giving up, which means I can harvest the shellies that hold the seeds.  This year, our entire bean crop came from saved seed from last year, and I think next year will be the same.  This will make our bean crop self-sustaining.
  3. I've kept up with my pledge to make a batch of cookies each week. More baking means more savings and fewer additives.
  4. I've been making socks like crazy.  Most of these are going into the Carrot Creations Fleece Shop and into the Carrot Creations yoga sock stock so that you can have sustainable goods to purchase this winter, but some of the socks will go to replace worn out ones from last winter for Mr. FC&G and I.  The warmer our feet, the less likely we are to turn up the heat.
  5. I've been making homemade frappuccinos for Mr. FC&G from leftover cold coffee and some nice flavorings.  He says he likes these as well or better than pop, and they are much less expensive.
  6. We've had a nice bout of warm weather here, so Mr. FC&G and I are biking for our local errands.  Every mile and every calorie burned adds up!
  7. Finally, Mr. FC&G has been able to shift to working from home for a bit while he works on lining up his next major project, so we are happy to see some savings in gas expenditures.
What sustainable activities are you doing this week?
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Friday, September 25, 2015

Almond Snickerdoodles

My mother recently gave me her copy of Modern Approach to Everyday Cooking, a wonderful 1966 cookbook that has so many cookie recipes that I remember from my youth.

One of my favorite is "Old Fashioned Sugar Cookies," which we always made and rolled out to make iced Christmas cookies.  This is tremendously versatile recipe that can turn into basically any kind of cookies you like.  Recently, with the addition of some almond flavoring and a cinnamon/sugar dusting, I've been turning them into sugar cookies.

This is part of my continuing effort to get myself to bake a batch of cookies each week.  We eat far too many cookies around here, and not only is that expensive, but it also introduces GMO ingredients in some cases as well as HFCS.  At least, if I bake one batch a week, I have a bit of quality control. Every little bit helps!

Almond Snickerdoodles
3 cups organic unbleached flour
1/2 t. baking soda (get the kind without sodium aluminum sulfate)
1/2 t. baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) organic butter, melted
2 eggs (free range)
1 cup organic sugar
2 t. almond flavoring

cinnamon and sugar

Sift together the dry ingredients.  Cream the wet ingredients together and add the dry ingredients, mixing continuously. Refrigerate if you feel your dough is too soft to handle.

Form into balls a bit smaller than golf balls.  Roll in a cinnamon/sugar mixture (I like about 1 t. cinnamon for a half cup of sugar) and place on baking sheet.  Flatten with the back of a spoon.

Bake 11 minutes in a 375 oven.

The Analysis

Fast:  The reason I don't bake as much as I should is the time constraint, but, as cookies go, these are about moderate in time investment.

Cheap:  The organic ingredients drive up the price, but I believe these are still less expensive than an all-organic variety at the grocery store.

Good:  Everyone loves a good snickerdoodle, so these are a good bet to have in your repertoire.
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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

How Much Does a Garden Grow: August 2015

August is always a great month for the garden, and this year was no exception.  We brought in just over $200 worth of produce, some of which got turned into canned chili sauce and green beans for some of Mr. FC&G's favorite meals.

Stand-out producers this month:
Cuor di Bue tomatoes stand at 20 pounds harvested.
Our "Yulia" volunteer variety stands at 6.3 pounds harvested.
The San Marzano has brought in 13.3 pounds.
My favorite, the Black Krim, is at 9.4 pounds.

Also, by the end of August, I had harvested 26 ounces of beans (for a value of $4.94) and 15 ounces of peppers (value of $2.85), with those two crops poised to take off in the month of September.

Finally, the cucumbers finished strong at 59 pounds harvested by the end of August for a total value of just over $151.

Cumulative Totals

Harvest, Ounces: 2,071.0
Harvest, Pounds: 129.4375
Harvest Value: $425.79

Expenditures: $141.40

Total Saved: $285.39
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Friday, September 18, 2015

In Praise of the Purple Potato

I've mentioned before how much I love purple potatoes, but, since it is officially time to plant your fall and winter crop, I wanted to encourage my readers to think about ordering some purple potatoes.  Several reasons you might enjoy this fun crop:

  1. Most, if not all, purple potatoes maintain their color even after they are cooked. What this means is that you have a chance to make lavender mashed potatoes if you have a picky eater who would enjoy something different.
  2. Every variety of purple potatoes I've tried is excellent for boiling. For some reason, I'm never satisfied with boiling the traditional russet potato you can get in the grocery store; that's a baking potato, to me. The purple potatoes boil up soft, but their flesh retains its integrity for a wonderful mouth feel. Again, this is ideal for those of us who are picky eaters and have trouble with some textures.
  3. Purple potatoes get their color from the phytochemicals that make foods blue. This is fairly rare in the plant kingdom; blueberries are one of the few other foods that have these chemicals. While I won't swear that you have to eat a certain number of blue foods, this is one way of getting those colorful plant chemicals into your diet. Can't hurt, might help.
  4. Potatoes will grow over the winter. They need a little TLC to get started, so be sure to green chit them before you plant them. (Put them under a strong light or in a window until they start to sprout, then bury them.) But you can definitely grow these over the winter in a large container, and they'll probably be your first crop to harvest next spring.
  5. Harvesting purple potatoes is like an Easter egg hunt for grown ups! (And for your little gardeners, too.) The purple flesh is easy to see when you dump the container and start pouring through the dirt, and there is something fun about having a basketful of these colorful potatoes ready for your evening dinner.
What unique veggies are going into your fall garden?
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Monday, September 14, 2015

Seven Sustainable Things

So I thought it would be fun to add a new periodic column to FC&G.  Welcome to "Seven Sustainable Things," which will chronicle seven things we've done over the previous seven days to live a more sustainable lifestyle.  Hopefully, you'll see that sustainable living doesn't need big projects all the time but can move forward with little actions.

  1. We put up the pop-up greenhouse, which you can see in the photo.  I'm hoping to really extend the season on some container tomatoes, peppers, and beans, and this will be a much lighter and sunnier place for the plants to live until it is way too cold and I have to move them into the sunroom.
  2. I had to make three trips to the grocery to pick things up we needed, but I biked all of those trips.  According to my fitness app, that was a total of 13.41 miles that burnt an extra 543 calories while saving a bit of gas and wear and tear on the car.
  3. I canned beans from our garden.  Not many, mind you, but I'm slowly amassing enough beans to make for some meals for Mr. FC&G.
  4. I worked a bit on the blanket I'm making from yarn ends from my projects for Carrot Creations. It takes a lot of time, but I'm slowly getting a cozy all-organic cotton blanket from the yarn ends that would otherwise go to compost or clutter up a shelf.
  5. We made a veggie pizza with onions, plus peppers and basil from the garden. This gave us a meat-free meal that even Mr. FC&G, the resident meat-eater, enjoyed, and it was healthy and cheap.
  6. With a cool spell over the weekend, I turned off the AC and let the cool air flood into the main level of the house.
  7. Similarly, we are now only using the window AC at night in the bedroom as needed and trying to leave the whole-house AC off to save money.
What was your best sustainable action this past week?
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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Canning Beans

With tomato season nearly done, I've moved on to canning beans for my little family. It really is a labor of love: I remember snapping beans with my great-aunt, and I love the job, but I absolutely hate green beans to eat. So, these are all for Mr. FC&G.

Growing up, we used to joke about pressure canners exploding and winding up with beans on the ceiling, but today's pressure cookers seem to be more reliable. At minimum, I can promise that I've never had to scrape beans off the ceiling, and the only jar failure I've had was indeed the result of a chip in the rim of the jar, not a problem with the canner.

If you want to can beans or any other "low-acid" vegetable, you must use a pressure canner in order to kill as many of the bacteria in the jar as possible. A pressure canner is, in fact, an autoclave, just like the machinery that sterilizes medical instruments. It does just as good a job on foodstuffs.

For green beans, just blanch the beans for three minutes and then fill the jars full.  Top off with water from the blanching so that all the spaces are full, then load the jars in your canner.

Since we are right at the 1,000 foot elevation line, I use 15 pounds of pressure with my canner; other guides will say 10 pounds at lower elevations. Follow your canners instructions for the amount of water and the amount of venting time, then process for 20 minutes for pints and 25 minutes for quarts.

Easy as that. And no need to clean the ceiling.
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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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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Battle of the Bugs

Welcome to monsoon season in Ohio!  Seriously, I've rarely seen as much rain in one season as we've had this year.  We've been walking a very narrow line between happy garden plants and a total washout.  So far, the garden is plenty happy with the wet, but we could certainly use a few sunny days to encourage those tomatoes along.

It's so wet that half of our obsessive-compulsive neighborhood has their yards half-mowed at all times:  you just go outside when you are able and mow until it starts raining, then come inside.  It kind of gives the neighborhood the overall look of lawn mange.

Along with the wet has come a bumper crop of bugs.  Now, I thought I had outsmarted the bugs this year.  I spent all of the past couple of years battling cucumber beetles, but this year I moved my cucumber crop and installed yellow color-bait traps early on.  So far (knock on muddy soil), I've only had a few cucumber beetles munch my plants.

What I "lack" in cucumber beetles I make up for in Japanese beetles, unfortunately.  Thee copper-colored menaces, also called "June bugs" in some areas, will eat the daylights out of your bean plants.  While I've always gotten a few destructive pests, this year has been nearly out of control.

So, last week, I took action.  I bought two scent-bait traps to hang in the garden, and I rapidly caught several hundred (several hundred!) bugs, but there were more to eradicate.  Since I don't want to use pesticide on my garden plants, I tried spraying with organic insecticidal soap and with garlic oil, but to no avail.  Mostly, it just rains too often for those solutions to be effective.

Therefore, I've been battling the bugs by hand.  I take a small container full of water and Dawn dish soap out to the garden, and I knock the bugs from the leaves into the soapy water.  This kills them pretty quickly.  I have found that it's better to do this in the evening, when the bugs are more sedentary and less likely to fly away.  Then, you can pretty much just shake the leave lightly and watch the bugs fall into the soapy water.

The soap helps kill the bugs, but it isn't meant for gardens, so I am not dumping it in compost.  Instead, I'm taking the opportunity to flush the bugs, with the knowledge that Dawn is also a good way to clean your pipes.  The grease-cutting action is very helpful in making your toilets run smoothly; I learned long ago that a couple of tablespoons of Dawn and some patience will unclog a toilet without a plunger or a plumber.

So, that's the romantic life of a micro-farmer these days, with me out on the hunt to rid the garden of the little copper menaces.  Who could have ever dreamed life would be this good?  (Snicker!)
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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Introducing Fast, Cheap, and Good, the Book!

Ever since I've started this blog, I've gotten the occasional request or suggestion to turn it into a book.  Well, today that book is a reality!

Introducing the book version of Fast, Cheap, and Good.  This 180 page book is filled with reprints of your favorite columns from the first three years of this blog, plus new introductory information in each section.

Chapters include:

  1. Introduction
  2. Philosophy
  3. Gardening
  4. Recipes
  5. Food Preservation
  6. Textiles
  7. Household Helps
  8. Preparing for the Worst
The book is available in soft cover for $14.99 and Kindle for $7.99.

You may purchase on Amazon here.

You may also purchase direct from me at my Hilltop Communications Etsy shop, here.  My other book is also available at this site, and you can request an autographed copy here.  (Note that I reserve the right to edit or omit parts/all of your requested inscription, just in case anyone wanted me to transcribe War and Peace in the front cover or something.)

Local customers can see me in person for purchase.

I am available to the media for interview, and review copies are available on request to confirmed members of the media/blogosphere.

Thank you for your support of Fast, Cheap, and Good!  Now, back to work on Fast, Cheap, and Good, the movie and the interactive theme park.  :-)
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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Amaretto Cherries

One of the historic methods for preserving food is submerging the food in alcohol.  The alcohol controls the bacteria, allowing the food to remain shelf-stable.

Of course, we have many other methods today, but there's something quite special about using alcohol to preserve fruit.  I present to you: Amaretto Cherries.

Alcohol and fruit are a natural match, as anyone who's ever eaten the fruit from a Hairy Buffalo or slurped on a vodka watermelon can tell you.  But this is a much more sophisticated product.

Take about a quart of either sour pie cherries or sweet cherries, and place them in a sterilized mason jar.  Cover the fruit with alcohol.  Here, I used some of the finest sipping amaretto.  Let the flavors blend for about a month, checking regularly to be sure your fruit is fully submerged.  You can store the finished product in the fridge, or it does stay shelf-stable for quite some time.

The quality of the alcohol you choose is important.  I tried this trick last year with some fairly cheap rum, and my finished product tasted a great deal like cherry-flavored rubbing alcohol.  By switching to sipping amaretto (I used DiSaronno), the finished product tastes a lot like maraschino cherries but without the cloying sweetness or artificial colors.  For my project, I used sour pie cherries, but sweet cherries will work just fine.

You can eat the fruit and enjoy the flavored liquor from this little project.  I think it will be just the thing on a cold winter's evening - if it lasts that long!  If not, I anticipate some very sophisticated homemade ice cream topping in my near future!

The Analysis

Fast:  Alcohol submersion is one of the fastest preservation methods.

Cheap:  Not particularly.  The cherries cost a bit from the farmer's market, but it's the quality alcohol that really drives up the price.

Good:  But I think it's well worth the investment!
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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Benefits of Raw Foods

Every once in a while, you will hear someone discuss the benefits of a raw food diet.  Although there is a lot of theory and science behind the idea, the basics are that a raw food diet will allow your body to access the nutrients and other beneficial phytochemicals that are available in the foods as they are grown, without any damage inflicted by heat.

In the summertime, I love this idea.  I can't imagine anything healthier than going out to the garden and harvesting my lunch, eating cucumbers and blueberries that are so fresh off the vine that, for all intents and purposes, you could say they are still alive.  Surely, eating fresh food in as close to its natural form as possible is a healthy move.

However, before I advocate an entirely raw food diet, I have to acknowledge that human beings have evolved to cook.  There are some theories that suggest that our teeth are formed as they are because, early on, humans discovered fire and no longer needed to be able to rip apart and chew raw meets or woody plant fibers.  Cooking has been with us for millennia, so there's little reason to think that it is generally speaking harmful.

Additionally, we know that cooking frees up certain nutrients that otherwise remain locked away in the food.  Tomatoes are fantastic both raw and cooked, but, while your body will access more vitamin C from a raw tomato, it will more easily access the lycopene in the fruit from a cooked preparation. And, of course, cooking meat makes it easier to digest while killing off potentially harmful pathogens.  You just need to beware of overcooking it to the point that you create too many carcinogens from the burning.  (And I'm guilty of loving a nice darkly roasted hot dog, so I'm not innocent on that.)

So, do I advocate a raw food diet?  Occasionally.  This is certainly the time of year to enjoy foods in all their raw, freshly harvested glory.  I think its worth exploring how to eat many foods both raw and cooked to best access all the healthy nutrients, fiber, and other beneficial chemicals they contain.  Plus, nothing beats a variety of preparation styles to keep your taste buds happy!
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Friday, July 3, 2015

How Much Does a Garden Grow: June 2015

Nothing quite so pretty as a June garden, made even prettier by some harvests!

June brought over 3 pounds of garden harvest worth more than $14. With no expenditures, we are crawling our way out of the red and into the black, which we typically achieve some time in July.

Notable harvests in June included 4 ounces of garlic that grew over the winter and 3 ounces of cilantro, along with a few peas, leeks, and greens.

The big harvest, however, was from our two producing blueberry bushes.  By the end of June, they had given us 38 ounces of blueberries, for a comparative retail value of $9.50.  This is certainly a substantial harvest from just two bushes, and there will be more to harvest as the season finishes up in July.

As I write, I'm eagerly awaiting the first tomato and cucumber.  High gardening season will be here for sure!

Cumulative Totals

Harvest, Ounces: 55.0
Harvest, Pounds: 3.4375
Harvest Value: $17.50

Expenditures: $141.40

Total Saved: (123.90)
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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Blueberry Pie for Two

One of the nicest things about having a couple of productive blueberry bushes out back is the fact that we can bring in four to six ounces of blueberries by weight every other day during the season (late June/early July).  However, we're never going to really bring in the quart of berries needed to make a nice standard-sized pie, nor do we need that much pie all at once for a two-person family.

This weekend, we took about 8 ounces of blueberries and made a wonderful small blueberry pie that was just enough for two small pieces each. What a wonderful way this was to showcase our entirely-local and organic blueberries while getting some much-needed fruit into our diets!

Mr. FC&G's Flaky Pie Crust: We made a half-recipe, which was enough to fill and top a small glass pan that was five inches in diameter. The crust in the photo looks brown because we used unbleached organic flour and organic sugar.

8 oz. blueberries (by weight)
1/2 cup organic sugar

Preheat oven to 425.  Line small pan with crust, fill with blueberries mixed with sugar.  Apply top crust and crimp.  Make your holes for the steam to escape.

Bake 20 minutes or until crust is starting to brown.  Makes 4 small servings.

The Analysis

Fast:  The smaller pie is easier to make and quicker to bake than a larger pie.

Cheap:  We paid for flour, sugar, and lard, but the blueberries were free!

Good:  Blueberry pie is my favorite; it always tastes like confirmation that summer is here.

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Beef and Pork Meatloaf with Fresh Cilantro

It's always feast or famine for the self-employed. And, although I think I see feast on the horizon, both Mr. FC&G and I have been experiencing just a bit of famine. Time to employ those money-saving techniques I'm so fond of!

As I've written before, one of the classic ways of saving money is by stretching your expensive foodstuffs, and the classic in this regard is meatloaf. The addition of an egg and a bit of cracker crumbs will make your expensive meat last into several meals. Since we buy our meat through a meat CSA, we have a "meat budget" of sorts in the form of our monthly allotment from our subscription. In times of plenty, we'll supplement with additional purchases, but in lean times, we try to make do with just what we have available for the month.

This recipe is dead simple but has a unique flavor thanks to the addition of cilantro, an herb that lends a Latin flavor to the dish. Since cilantro grows so fast, and since you have to cut it regularly to keep it from prematurely flowering and forming coriander seeds, this is a great time to use it in cooking.

According to some sources, cilantro is said to help chelate or remove heavy metals from the body. Since it's difficult to control your exposure to heavy metals depending on your geographic location and lifestyle factors, any little bit of help is a good thing. If the chelation properties aren't your top concern, you can comfort yourself with the idea that fresh herbs, at minimum, make a dish yummy!

For your reference, I harvested about an ounce (by weight) of cilantro stems, then stripped the fronds off and mixed them into the meat.  You could use more or less depending on the state of your garden and how much you like cilantro.

1 lb ground beef  (pastured, organic)
1 lb ground pork or mild pork sausage (pastured, organic)
1 egg (from pastured and organically-raised hens)
1 cup cracker crumbs
1 oz fresh cilantro on the stem (from home garden)
1 cup ketchup, optional (organic)

Remove the cilantro "fronds" from the stem and roughly chop if needed.  Combine remaining ingredients (except for ketchup) with the herb and mix well. (Mixing with your hands is traditional and faster than using a utensil.)

Shape into a loaf in a cake plate or similar pan and top with ketchup.  Cover with foil and bake at 350 for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Potatoes will bake alongside this very nicely, if you'd like to maximize your oven time.

The Analysis

Fast:  Prep is pretty easy, and it's even easier around here:  Mr. FC&G does all of the mixing with his hands, since he knows I don't like to touch meat.

Cheap:  All told, this is probably $12 or so worth of ingredients.  We buy fairly expensive meat and eggs, which is why stretching is a good idea.  Mr. FC&G will eat for several days on this one batch, however.  There are probably 6 to 8 servings here.

Good:  I like Latin flavors, so I will eat a small piece of this as part of my once-a-week meat consumption routine.  Mr. FC&G seems to like the addition of the cilantro "just fine," as he says.
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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Dealing with Blossom End Rot

Well, I spoke too soon last week; my wonderful now-five-foot container tomato has spent the week fighting blossom end rot.

I remember one of the first times I ever mentioned blossom end rot to Mr. FC&G.  I was reading Facebook and noticed one of my fellow gardeners complaining about the dreaded tomato condition.

"Oh, no, [Name] has blossom end rot!" I declared to Mr. FC&G.

He replied, "Just so we're clear, that's a tomato thing, not a personal thing, right?"

Yes, folks, blossom end rot is a tomato thing, although gardeners do tend to take it like a personal failing of some sort.  You'll know you have it when you see a dark spot appear on the bottom of your tomato, like you see in this photo.

The good news is, blossom end rot is a physiological problem, not a viral or bacterial one. It happens when tomatoes don't have enough calcium while they're growing, or sometimes when the water level varies too much or too quickly. Given that we just had a relatively dry week followed by a week of torrential downpours during which this plant grew another foot in height, I think it's no surprise that there are some structural problems going on.

Generally, I prevent blossom end rot with egg tea, made by soaking egg shells overnight in water, then dumping that water on the plant along with the crushed shells.  This poor guy will be getting extra egg tea attention this week (if it ever stops raining).

Also, since the damaged fruit can't communicate the disease, I'll still be putting any fruit I remove into the compost pile. I have read that you can allow the fruit to continue to mature and eat it after cutting out the bad spot once it's ripe, but that's often not a very appetizing idea.  I have been known to do it with very small spots of damage, however.  Needless to say, I never use a damaged fruit in canning, because starting with perfect fruit is the first step in canning safety.

Are you fighting blossom end rot this year?  (In your tomatoes, silly!)
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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Triumphant Container Tomato

See that monstrously large tomato sitting right in front of my dining room window?  That's one of my experiments for the year, and, if things keep up, it may change the way I grow tomatoes.

This year, I decided to grow several tomatoes in containers to see if I could have success without the actual garden soil.  Last year, I ran a similar test, but I didn't get my container tomatoes in until around the first of June, which is about two weeks past the traditional planting date.

This year, I started seeds around the first of March and got them out into containers around the first of May.  That giant in the middle is a Cuor di Bue from saved seed.  It is in the process of out-growing a 4.5 food tomato cage, and that is including the fact that at least six to eight inches of stem are buried under soil to allow for extra root growth.  To compare, the container on the left of the photo shows some other healthy tomatoes grown from seed that are also taller than anything found in the garden, coming in at about 2.5 feet tall.  Everything in the garden is currently standing at about two feet tall.

As far as early production, my giant Cuor di Bue is also out in front.  When I took this picture about a half an hour before I wrote this post, I counted eight tomatoes the size of dimes or larger, including one that is about the size of a golf ball.  There are also a couple of dozen blossoms.  Compare this to the other container tomatoes, which are just now starting to show the smallest tomatoes, and the ones in the garden, which are heavy with blossoms but have not yet set fruit.

At the rate I'm going, I'm not sure if I'll have a tomato on the Fourth of July, but I'll be close.  And, if this works as well as it has so far, I'm seriously tempted to fill the back patio with containers for tomatoes and dedicate the garden to beans and cucumbers, both of which love it there.

Anyone have 30 large containers they can spare next year?
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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Cheers to Target on its Grocery Revamp

As you may have read, Target has announced that it will shift its grocery offerings to minimize it's reliance on packaged foods from large conglomerates toward a mix of fresher foods from smaller manufacturers and providers.  The move is said to be undertaken to allow Target to better compete with Whole Foods, which is a smart business choice.  After all, the customer base of Target, who often jokingly refer to the store with the French pronunciation "Tar-zhey," are more likely to do their grocery shopping at the affluent consumer destination like Whole Foods and even Costco than they are big box stores like Wal-Mart.

This is good news, though, for those of us hoping to influence food production with our food dollars. I know I cannot generalize from just my own area, but our suburb has seen the opening of several organic and fresh food-focused grocery stores in just the past year.  Adding Target to the mix of options for those of us wanting more control over what we consume is another triumph.

Of course, it still pays to read labels and do your homework.  We try to buy as many organic and local options as possible.  But, in the past six months alone, I have seen an influx of organic blueberries available in our area grocery stores where before I didn't even know if it was possible to grow blueberries organically on a large scale.  And I have seen several signs on traditional brands committing to no GMO ingredients and no HFCS.  Those are major wins for our health.

Although large grocery and store chains still have the problems of large distribution networks to deal with, it is nice to see them committing to providing better, more local, and more sustainable options.  I'll be looking more favorably at the Target grocery section from now on, and I hope you also support these stores taking positive steps toward making safer and healthier food available for everyone.
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Friday, May 22, 2015

Five Late May Garden Tasks

As I write this, it's 54 degrees outside.  It's been 54 degrees so many mornings in a row, I'm starting to think my weather app on my phone is broken.

It feels a bit chilly for late May, to me, but I know late May weather is variable around here.  That's why we spend so much time hurrying out into the garden the minute it's sunny and 70; the next day, our gardening will be interrupted by rain, chilly temps, or paying work that demands to take priority.

But, as we move into Memorial Day weekend, I thought I'd share five things I will be doing in the garden to hopefully encourage a huge future harvest of healthy, inexpensive, sustainable food.

  1. Keep nurturing the cucumber and zucchini seedlings.  I got a late start getting my cukes and zukes started this year, but I'm kind of glad.  I think our chilly mornings would have stunted the fragile baby plants, and I'm happy enough to let them sit in their plant incubator under a grow light, happy and warm until I can plant them.
  2. Keep sifting compost.  The winter has given me a bumper crop of finished humus for the garden, and every chance I get I'm running through the sifter and applying it where needed. This "black gold" goes on the main garden, in the potato containers, and in the other containers that hold plants.  The rapidly-growing tomato you see in the photo is planted entirely in finished humus from my compost pile.  It is easily six inches taller than its siblings in the garden, which are in a combo of humus and garden soil.
  3. Make egg tea.  This is the season to make the egg shells do double duty.  When tomatoes get blossom end rot (that horrible black, soft, flat blemish that ruins a tomato), it is generally from too little calcium.  We soak our egg shells in water overnight, then use the "egg tea" to water the tomatoes.  We also crumble up the shell and put it at the base of the plant to get even more calcium into the soil.
  4. Tent the blueberries.  Since the blueberries have set fruit, it's time for me to get out the bird tent and try to keep the critters from pulling at the ripe berries from below and the birds from taking the ripe berries from above.  Last year, I wasn't very successful, so I'll be fortifying my tent this year.
  5. Plant beans.  Green beans can be planted pretty much up until the Fourth of July around here, but giving them a later start than the rest of the garden gets them a bit out of sync with the Japanese beetles, so they incur less beetle damage.  I have one planting of beans in the ground already but hope to put in a few more over the next week so that I have plenty to can for the winter.

What are you doing in your garden this weekend?
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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

It's Time to Join a CSA!

Seriously, you guys:  Do you have any idea how hard it is to photograph a pound of ground meat and have it look like anything but a crime scene?

Blog illustration woes aside, I want you to think about joining a CSA or two now that summer is here.  If you believe in sustainable living and supporting your local farmers, a CSA is a great way to make your support tangible.

CSA stands for "community supported agriculture." Think of it as Kickstarter for meat and veggies. You purchase a "subscription" for a particular period of time, and once a month (or once a week, maybe), you receive a delivery of farm products that you've specified.

This time of year, many farms are selling subscriptions to vegetable CSAs, which is a great option for those who don't veggie garden for themselves.  You'll pay a certain amount up front, and then once a week or so, you'll go to a pick-up point (maybe at a farmers' market) and get whatever the farmer has harvested in the past couple of days.  If it is a good veggie year, you may get more; if it isn't, you may get less.  And you may get some veggies you don't normally buy, which is fun.

What we belong to, however, is a meat CSA.  I want to talk you through that process as a consumer, because it is a bit different, and I'll admit I felt a little confused at first until I got the hang of it. Now, I wouldn't consider any other way of stocking my freezer!

  1. Twice a year, we are asked for a subscription payment and the "level" of our support.  We pay around $180 for a six month period, during which we receive 5 lbs. of ground beef and pork sausage each month.  That works out to about $6 per pound, which is fantastic for animals raised with a sustainable rotational grazing method on a small farm that uses organic farming methods.  I know that Mr. FC&G and I are minimizing exposure to killers like glyphosate and getting all the healthy goodness of meat from animals raised in pastures rather than on a CFO. And because I've seen the farm with my own eyes and look the farmer in the face at least once a month, I have a level of trust I wouldn't have otherwise.
  2. Each month, our farmer emails us a reminder of our pick-up point.  For us, it's a set time on a certain day in a certain parking lot.  Other customers will pick up at farmers' markets the farmer goes to.  
  3. We also receive a discount on other farm products, and I can tell the farmer by email what I want:  eggs, pork chops, roasts, or the like.  So I know I have a set quantity of the basic meat we need each month, and then I can tailor our other purchases to my budget and our needs. Grilling season means time for some of his yummy pasture-raised pork chops.  I also put in an order for some whole chickens to be harvested later in the summer, so he knows how many animals he needs to raise.
  4. That's the big benefit.  The farmer gets some up-front payment to help him buy and raise expensive animals, and I get a measure of certainty about how much meat I'll have each month and the quality I can expect.  I also know that the meat I'm getting is very fresh, sometimes only days after harvest.

I encourage you to look into the various CSA options available in your area, especially meat CSAs if you are a meat eater.  For two people, that five pounds of meat each month are plenty to feed one meat-eater and one "flexitarian," and we feel good about making sure that we're supporting a family farm that treats its animals and the humans who consume them in the most kind, humane, and healthy way possible.

The Analysis

Fast:  Picking up the delivery takes no more time than running to the store, and the purchase is as easy as writing a check twice a year.  Very efficient.

Cheap:  The prices are very competitive for sustainably-raised meat in this area.

Good:  You can't put a value, however, on the benefit of directly supporting a farmer who is taking pains to provide the kind of product you want to put in your own body.
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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Testing Carrot Seed Tape

I've always loved to experiment with plants.  Even as a kid, I was forever taking cuttings of different plants, jamming them in a pot of dirt, and seeing if they would grow.  (Spoiler:  Many of them will.  Don't let people fool you about needing to always cut at a node and dipping in rooting medium and starting in a glass of water.  These things might increase your chances of success, but a fairly high percentage of plants will start little copies of themselves if you jam a cutting in dirt and keep it moist for a couple of weeks.)

Anyway, spring is a great time to experiment, because you are busy putting all the lovely new plants in the ground.  I'm running a couple of experiments this year, and I'll keep you updated on their progress.

The first one is using seed tape to start my carrots.  Normally, I just sprinkle carrot seeds across a raised bed that I have and let them grow in a random sort of way.  It generally works, except they really need to be thinned, and I'm really bad at making myself do that.  So, I often wind up with stunted carrots and less yield weight-wise than I would have normally.

Longing for a beautiful, long row of well-spaced carrots, I bought some seed tape.  It's kind of ridiculously expensive, costing I think $3.49 for about a row and a half of carrot seeds.   But the beauty is, you prepare your soil, dig a furrow, and lay the tape in and cover it.  Ideally, the tissue-like paper will biodegrade, the seeds will sprout, and you will have a perfectly-spaced row of carrots.

That's the plan.  I just put some carrot tape in the ground this weekend, so it's too early for any sprouting.  But I'm hoping this gives me a nice load of robust carrots we can enjoy this summer and freeze for winter.

I'll keep you posted.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How Much Does a Garden Grow: April 2015

Spring is a time for preparation, not harvest.  This is certainly true of my tomato plants, which you can see in this picture from about three weeks ago.  I have three varieties of tomatoes growing currently, along with one pepper variety.

We finally return to our monthly tallies with a modest expenditure on seeds and soil of $55.64 this month.  This is far less than I typically have spent by this point each year, but I am growing more plants from saved seed, at a substantial savings.

However, it's not all in the negative, as I harvested 0.5 ounce of leek (I know, I know...) for a value of just under $0.10.

Cumulative Totals

Harvest, Ounces: 0.5
Harvest, Pounds: 0.03125
Harvest Value: $0.10 

Expenditures: $55.64

Totals Saved: ($55.55) (Total accounts for rounding)
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