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Archive for the ‘Growing Your Own’ Category

A few weeks I wrote about the changes we need to make to move towards more sustainable home lives, and how so many of those changes are built on the slow integration of deceptively simple habits like eating more vegetables (The Incredible Power of Habit). Even if you don’t yet have the time or the space to grow your own, you can start right now learning how to eat the vegetables that you will grow in your someday garden.

It sounds easy. Of course, if you had a garden, you would eat like Alice Waters, right? Doesn’t the ability to garnish poached beets with fresh chevre and call it dinner come automatically with that first harvest?

No. No it doesn’t. Not for very many of us.

Because although I adore poached beets and at least two other members of my family will deign to eat a few with me, I cannot call that dinner, cheese or no cheese. In my fantasy housewife life, I serve a small piece of grass fed meat with a simple pan reduction, alongside perfectly steamed local brown rice, those sweet poached beets and a pile of braised greens with garlic. A four part harmony of colors, half vegetables, 3/4 vegetable matter. A lovely, balanced, sustainable meal.

In real life, I remember to put the roast into the crock pot before lunch by some stoke of genius. I don’t think any farther than that until 5pm, when I remember in a rush I need to start the rice before I take the laundry off the line. As I’m setting the table it occurs to me that I have forgotten a vegetable, again. I run out to cut some collards, which I quickly steam with butter. But even I am tired of collards, and my lackluster approach certainly doesn’t appeal to anyone else at the table.

i've finally integrated the habit of washing and trimming veggies right when i bring them home, before i put them in the fridge. the beets i stick straight into the crock pot for a couple of hours, then when i crave that beet salad all i have to do is whip up the dressing.

The problem with vegetables is many fold. At the heart of the matter is the fact that most of us didn’t grow up eating them as a central part of our meals. In our culture, vegetables are an afterthought, almost a garnish. When I consider the question of dinner, vegetables are the last thing on my mental list, after protein (1) and starch (2). By the time I get to them, I just don’t have the energy or time to attempt anything beyond ‘cooked, with butter.’

Because dinner, in real life, comes down to a tally of minutes. I usually allow myself about 50 of them to get the job done, start to finish. With kids underfoot. And I am a fast, experienced cook! How many of us can afford more than an hour to prepare dinner? And what can you do in an hour?

In magazines, even in the ‘weeknight dinner’ section hidden in the back, they give you a recipe for one thing, with the associated time estimate. Disregard for the moment the fact that their time estimates are ridiculously low for a first run with a recipe, and consider instead the meal in it’s entirety. Maybe you can make sauteed chicken breast with mango in 20 minutes, if you know your way around the kitchen and don’t pay too close attention to the recipe (following recipes is much more time consuming than just cooking) but the photo shows the chicken reclining on a bed of rice with nothing else on the plate. Is that dinner? Chicken and rice? Probably you are supposed to open a bag of baby salad greens, dump them into a bowl and grab the bottle of salad dressing from the fridge. Even still, between that and starting the rice, you are looking at 30 minutes, for a super efficient cook with mostly pre-prepared ingredients.

What about us? Who start with the whole chicken from the farmers market because it’s the best value, who cook brown rice because it’s a whole food full of nourishing goodness, who feel that vegetables should not come sealed in preservative gas. Real vegetables take time. You start with a plant, necessitating scrubbing/trimming/deveining/chopping or any number of other verbs, just to get it ready to cook.

Then comes– what to do with it?

I actually love plain vegetables steamed with butter. But I do get tired of the same vegetable steamed with butter night after night. And when you eat seasonally, that’s often what you get. Whole seasons of just a few kinds of vegetables. I want to learn new recipes, new ways to make the same old veggies seem different. But I get frustrated by how many “vegetable” recipes are half dairy products. Of course it will taste good if you add a pound of cheese and half a stick of butter. I don’t need a recipe to tell me that.

There are a few good basic tricks out there:

Roasting. The best trick in the book, I’d say. Toss almost any vegetable (except greens) with oil and salt and roast at 350-400 until caramelly brown around the edges and tender through. All root vegetables are divine this way, and some green things too, such as brussel sprouts and asparagus. Sadly, I have trouble justifying the high blast of mostly wasted heat involved with oven roasting and so I only do it occasionally.

Caramelizing is the stovetop version of oven roasting. If you have not learned the joys of properly caramelized onions, you have some magic ahead of you! There are two tricks– not crowding the pan and getting the temperature right. I’ve found the best way is to start out on medium until the onions just start to color and then turning the heat down to med-low and eventually to low (as the moisture cooks out of them they need a lower and lower heat to keep from burning.) You want a nice rich caramel color around the edges of very soft onions. Cooked this way, they are a side dish in their own right, or a start to the best greens you’ll ever eat (see below). Many other vegetables benefit from the same careful temperature treatment– mushrooms are glorious if cooked in a single uncrowded layer until golden brown on both sides; cabbage can be cut into thick wedges, arranged cut side down in a buttered pan and cooked over med-low heat (covered with a lid) until golden brown on both sides and barely tender throughout, one of my favorite ways to eat one of my favorite vegetables; caramelized carrots are a revelation. The downside of pan roasting is that since the vegetables need to be in a single layer you can’t really fit enough in a single skillet to feed a family.

With dressing. I feel Americans are unfairly disadvantaged in the salad department. We have such a narrow view of it. I myself am only sometimes fond of the leafy variety, but I adore many other vegetables dressed in my garlicky homemade goodness– sliced cooked beets, grated carrots, thinly sliced cabbage and/or kale, steamed broccoli, fresh sliced tomato… Though certainly not all at once! In fact, I generally prefer just one kind of vegetable in my salad.

The Color Green

All of those techniques are great, but one of the challenges I’ve had is that my lazy gardens, on both sides of this continent, have generally pumped out one thing in almost nauseating quantity. Greens. And I mean the sturdy brassica variety– kale back home in Alaska, and collards here in New Orleans. Now, understand that I adore greens. Adore them! If I could rotate the kind of greens, I think I could eat them every day. But even I get tired of the strong flavor of collards, day after day after day.

I feel like greens deserve their own little segment here because they are 1. the easiest thing to grow, no matter where you live, 2. unbelievably healthy and 3. completely undervalued and underloved.

arugula, baby mustard, and purple kale. i love arugula for salads, but i've also found it can be cooked exactly like spinach and is delicious with eggs.

When new gardeners ask me what they should grow I always say kale or collards, depending on latitude. These hardy brassicas are easy to grow from seed and they look beautiful while growing. Whereas other crops require more careful planning to mature before the end of the season, or on a succession schedule, brassica greens can go in anytime, anywhere. They can be harvested at any stage and over a long season be pulling outer leaves as needed. They grow fast, make lots of extremely nutritious food in a small space, require very little care and generally seem to love life. You can see why I am always inundated with them!

The caveat is that people aren’t used to eating greens more often than a few times a month, if that. And when Americans do eat greens, it’s almost always spinach. Even though homegrown kale and collards are miles better than the tough store-bought versions, they’re still not spinach. And there are precious few recipes for cooking these sturdy greens to inspire newcomers.

Here’s my own green missionary recipe:

Caramelize half an onion in 2 Tablespoons of butter, don’t let them burn! Meanwhile wash a bunch of kale, collards or chard. Trim the thick central stalk out from the middle of the leaf and throw it to the chickens (if using chard, save the stems for this muffin recipe!) Chop trimmed leaves into bite sized pieces. When the onions are nicely browned, throw the greens in along with 1/4 cup each of stock and chopped tomatoes (I keep chunks of each in the freezer for just such an occasion). Cover the pan and allow to steam/fry for about ten minutes, stirring several times. Cook until the greens are tender, adding water if necessary to keep the pan from drying out. Don’t cook so long as to get limp and brown though, that’s only good when there are large quantities of pork involved (and then, my oh my is it good!)

What is your favorite way to cook vegetables? In that post about habits, several of you mentioned favorite cookbooks, and I thought it would be nice to open things up to your advice again. Because despite all those good ideas above, I still find veggies going soft and wilty in my bottom drawer all the time! I myself am not a recipe follower but I am an avid cookbook reader (I read for ideas). As I mentioned earlier, I am often disappointed by the quantity of vegetables in ‘vegetable’ recipes. But then, I think I am trying to get something out of nothing, you know what I mean? I want to use up that 3 pound pile of collards in my fridge, and I don’t want to have to spend $10 on fancy cheese to do it. But I want the end result to taste different than the same old pile o’ collards I always make…. I am hoping for some kind of magic trick I guess.

There’s no magic involved, but I am incredibly inspired by Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens. This book is literally half about greens! All kinds of greens, in fact wild greens figure big, as do lesser used cultivated greens like endive and beet greens. Wolfert is an authority on authentic Mediterranean food, and she bases this book almost entirely on the traditional foodways of that region.

Sadly, and this is a lot of the problem for many of us I suspect, I am cooking for an increasingly picky audience. Most of these greens-rich recipes simply don’t get eaten. I perservere with cooking greens, partly out of an obligation to use up the glut of greens from my garden, partly so that at least my kids still see greens on the table, and see me eating and enjoying them. But considering that I am the primary eater, and I have 3 other eaters to cook for, I don’t find the time to sex my greens up. I’m lucky to get the onions caramelized for that missionary recipe above, let alone tantalizing, time consuming recipes like Paula Wolfert’s wild greens gnocchi.

Here are a few of my older posts on cooking with vegetables:

Harvest First, Cook Second– this one discusses Grains and Greens and my corresponding epiphany about local food knowledge

Swiss Chard Ravioli– the 4yo ate these! a big project though, with lots of cheese

If You Can’t Beet ‘Em– pink pancakes go over very well with little people

Green Tomato and Turkey Enchiladas– using up those end of the season beauties

What are you favorites?

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These few years in New Orleans have been really great, this place is as good as a city gets– charming old architecture steeped in history, a vitally important music and art scene, fabulous restaurants, a very un-American lack of prudishness, and whole seasons of jasmine and magnolia flowers. But, I am not a city girl. As our return to Alaska approaches I’m getting quite eager for our sleepy little hole in the wilderness where a Saturday drive ‘out the road’ yields adventures like this:

Just as much as the place, I am really yearning to be back in Our Own Home. This rental stuff is fine, but I have been realizing just how much my ‘work’ and my homeplace are intrinsically bonded. I can shop at the farmers’ market and grow a small garden anywhere, but that’s just treading water. To really move forward with the lifework I aim for, to climb the rungs of my chosen ‘career’ ladder, I need to stay in one place. One home which I can continually make more efficient, one chunk of land which I can build up towards my edible Eden, one particular ecosystem which I can come ever closer to knowing.

I have felt it here, the loss. The landscape so unfamiliar, the weather patterns confounding, the flora an almost complete blank (I am a wild plant buff in my home territory). Even eating confused me for a while– a responsible local diet here consists of things I had rarely let myself buy at home and didn’t know how to turn into mainstay meals; let alone that cooking itself is all wrong as a way to approach dinner when it’s 95 degrees in your kitchen. And unlike when I was young and resilient with energy to burn, I found it hard to rally myself for re-learning and re-building everything.

This homesteady lifestyle is all about investment and return. And I’m not talking metaphor. I have put 4 years of hard labor and hundreds of dollars worth of soil amendments into my Alaska garden. I built it up from a sorry looking lawn over a bare inch of topsoil with gravel fill substrate, to 160 square feet of luscious dirt in raised beds. In a town where you cannot, no matter how much you are willing to pay, order a truckload of dirt, those garden beds are pure gold. And they are only going to get better! After the very large up-front investment there is only so much work necessary every year to maintain the beds and build up fertility, but the return will continue to grow.

The garden is the best example, but really my entire lifework is wrapped around sticking to one place. Back in this now proverbial Home, I had also built a tight little chicken coop, put in a 20 foot long raspberry hedge to close off our yard, and spent years setting up an efficient kitchen (not to be underestimated!) Beyond the tangible accrual of humus and building projects, the knowledge of the area and the skills for using local resources grow slowly, over time. I had several years under my belt of ‘local university,’ learning which varieties of vegetables did best in our ridiculously rainy climate, how to process 35 whole sockeye salmon in two days, and creating an internal map of where all the best berries, wild mushrooms and edible plants grew in proliferation.

Very few of you have such an intensely localized tie to one place. Down here in rest of the 48 states, the most green responsible lifestyles are based of farming– whether you do it yourself or support someone else’s effort– and farming is at least recognizably similar throughout the temperate world. Even moving across country doesn’t shake everything you’ve ever known to the ground. Nevertheless, I think we all underestimate the profit to be realized from staying put.

The books always stress that “even renters can grow a garden,” and while that is true, I have built up and left behind a few times now, and I can tell you it is a certain kind of heartbreak. You don’t get to take your equity with you. No one else will recognize the value of your hard work, or care about the money you spent. When you leave, you leave it all behind.

I don’t mean to discourage those of you who do not own your own place, but rather to remind those of you who do how much it means. Don’t take your investments of time and money for granted. Just like in business, the ‘profit’ goes right back in as further investment for many years, which makes it hard to see. But so long as you manage to stay in place (a feat these days), you are building up for future dividends.

I can hardly wait to get back to my own double lot homestead and do some re-investing. My garden beds have been cover cropped for three years and I have a chicken coop full of aged manure. I’ll know what to plant, and when to do it. Times are going to be good.

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Growing food in containers can be useful for so many situations– it’s quick to set up and can utilize very small outdoor spaces. Since it requires no commitment to a piece of ground, it’s renter friendly. Because growing in containers is so approachable, it’s where many people start gardening. Unfortunately, although the setup is undeniably quick and easy (albeit expensive) actually getting food plants to grow and produce in containers is often much more challenging than in the ground.

Perhaps the biggest problem for container growing is inconsistent moisture– while herbs and some flowers do fine with the occasional droughts, food plants often never recover from even short gaps in watering. When you’ve planted into the ground, once your plants get a good root system established there’s almost always a little moisture down under there, but a containers can go really and truly dry in not very much time at all. Unless you live in a cool damp place, and are a good every-day-without-fail waterer (very much not me!) you are likely to hit some trouble.

This is partly because of the other reason food in pots can fail– almost every garden pot sold is much too small. In addition to not providing enough root space for any food crops except lettuce, spinach and radishes (not coincidentally the three crops most sensitive to dry soil), a small amount of dirt is considerably more prone to drying out, especially if it’s in a terra cotta pot. Those suckers ought not to be allowed in sizes smaller than 12 inch. I’ve even managed to kill plants in small pots in Cordova, the cold northern end of the temperate rainforest! When something dies from lack of water in Cordova, it is truly impressive.

Ever since I read about self irrigating planters (SIPs) on Root Simple years ago, I have been fascinated by them. The idea behind SIPs is to use a large container such as a rubbermaid tote, create a water resevoir in the bottom and some form of a wick up into a peat-heavy potting soil. When you water, you fill the resevoir, and it slowly wicks up into the soil providing consistently perfect moisture for your plants. I am a sucker for simple technology, particularly when it repurposes trash, and loved the quiet brilliance of this design.

At home in Cordova I had no reason to build a SIP, I had all the ground-based growing space I could manage. So I was excited when we moved to a rental house in New Orleans and I finally had a good excuse to give it a try. Shortly after our move, with a toddler helping and newborn fussing, I made three SIPs out of rubbermaid totes.

with good help you'll be done with this project before you can say, 'self irrigating planter'

Of course, I don’t like to do anything the regular way, even the regular alternative way, so I made some adjustments to the classic SIP design. I’m not sure if my adjustments are an improvement, but it does make the design more accesible.

The classic design uses upright sections of PVC with holes drilled in them to hold up the divider between resevoir and soil, as well as a “pond basket” to hold the wick of pure peat moss. I didn’t want to have to drive all the way to Lowe’s to buy PVC and a pond basket. Even though these items are cheap, I had some kind of mental block against buying them, which for a few months prevented me from tackling the project at all. Do you do this? I knew I was being ridiculous, losing months of good growing weather, but I couldn’t get over the idea that I ought to be able to scrounge good substitutes.

Eventually I hit on a slightly different idea. Lots of materials wick water, couldn’t I use some kind of old cotton cloth? Like these old sheets, cut and braided into a fat wick?

And why did the resevoir need to be integral? Could I use something else, put into the tote, like…. an old milk jug?

So was born my super simple scrounge SIPs. I bet you have the materials on hand to make one of these right now!

  • one rubbermaid or similar large tote, not clear (or algae will grow)
  • two old gallon milk jugs, scrubbed scruppulously clean and bleached (if you can find water jugs in someone’s recycling you can skip the scrubbing and sterilizing)
  • two small (12 oz) drink bottles
  • one old bath towel or cotton sheet
  • razor blade or very sharp knife

With the traditional SIP design, you need the tote to be free of holes or cracks, but for this design, because the resevoir is in the jugs, you can use any old tote off the side of the road, so long as it’s sturdy enough to fill with soil. In fact, it needs to be able to drain so that rain doesn’t pool up in it. So, start by drilling a dozen or so holes in the bottom, or if you don’t have a drill, punch holes with a nail.

emergent DIYer? or upcoming corporate exec out of pure rebellion and spite?

Cut your towel in half lengthwise, trim to about 2 and 1/2 feet long, and roll into a tight log. Squeeze your hand around the roll and try to estimate the size, then cut a similar sized round hole into the top of your milk jug. Cut it smaller than you think, you can always cut a bit more. You want the towel to fill the hole completely so that dirt doesn’t fall in. Work one end of the towel roll through the hole (a butter knife might help) and all the way to the bottom of the jug. Repeat with your other jug. [If you are using an old sheet, cut in half widthwise, then cut each half into three pieces. Braid them together and rubberband the ends to secure.]

Set the jugs into the tote at opposite ends of the same side, and flop the towel ends over the edge of the container. Cut the bottoms off of the small drink bottles, and invert, setting the mouth into the mouth of the milk jugs. These will be where you stick the hose to fill the resevoir jugs.

If you have access to top quality potting mix you can use it straight up, but if all you can find is that crap with sticks and chunks in it, mix with an equal quantity of good, finished compost or if you’re really desperate, peat moss and organic fertilizer. The mix needs to have a large proportion of fine organic material in order to wick the water around. Add in some perlite or vermiculite if you have it.

Pour soil mix in around the jugs, tamping down firmly as you go. When the dirt is even with the wicks (make sure it’s well tamped), lay them down on the surface. Being careful to keep the drink bottles in place, continue filling with dirt right up to the rim of the tote, it will settle a bit over the next few weeks.

Fill jugs by sticking hose into the inverted drink bottles, when the water level rises into the top bottle, it means the jug is full. Since it’s not a tight seal, extra water will leak out where the two mouths meet, but it doesn’t matter. Soak the soil itself thoroughly and then plant.

The classic SIP technique is to sprinkle fertilizer on the soil surface and then cover the whole thing with plastic mulch. You cut the middle out of the lid to make a rim, then just cover the tote with a black plastic bag (white if you live in a hot climate), snap on rim, and cut holes for your plants.

I never got around to doing this though, I just couldn’t get over cutting the soil off from the world to such a complete degree. The top plastic would keep a lot of moisture in, keep weeds from growing, and allow the top-dressing of fertilizer to absorb slowly. But plastic on all sides? Couldn’t do it. Instead I mulched my totes with a thick layer of leaves, just like I do in the garden. Worked great, but then our climate is very damp.

Which brings us to the question of outcome. How did my alternative SIP design work?

Well, it worked just fine, I only needed to water once every few days, and the soil stayed very moist. Plants grew large and healthy, and produced as well as those in the ground. But, given our incredibly damp climate (summer is downright wet) I was not entirely convinced that plain old totes would not have done the job perfectly well on their own. They hold such a large amount of soil that it even when I got lazy and forgot to water for days on end, the soil stayed reasonably moist 6 inches down and the plants seemed fine.

I grew out 3 seasons of plants before I dumped the soil out to refill with fresh stuff (I needed organic material for my dirt garden, if I hadn’t I would have added in a good quantity of compost and fertilizer and kept going with the same stuff for a few more seasons). When I dumped it out, I discovered that the wicks had almost completely disappeared. Oh! Of course! Cotton + consistent moisture + heat = compost. Whoops.

To be honest, I didn’t re-make them as SIPs. I just filled them up to use as regular, very large planters. I planted salad greens, who’s shallow roots are very sensitive to lapses in water, and so far they’re doing beautifully.

I’m still a fan of SIPs though. If you live in a dry place, or go out of town often, and want to give them a try, this super easy set-up has the advantage of immediacy. No complicated trips to the store, which can put a mama with kiddos back for months. No fancy tools. No questionable PVC. Almost no money outlay at all if you’ve got an old tote around, though you still have to buy potting mix. The wicks lasted at least a solid year, and replacing them every spring wouldn’t be hard.

Even easier though? Skip the stupidly small and infuriatingly shallow (but darn aren’t they pretty) regular garden pots and plant vegetables in a plain old large plastic tote with drainage holes. If you live in a damp climate, this will probably be enough to make the difference.

Just don’t tell your neighbors it was my idea.

For the bible of SIPs, including several designs as well as spacing recommendations for planting and other good tips, check out this pdf from Seattle Peak Oil Awareness. If you want to use a couple of old 5 gallon buckets, or just want to be entertained punk urban survival style, check out this video from the old Homegrown Evolution (now Root Simple.) Lastly, here’s a couple more great pictorals for totes and buckets from Crestone Solar School.

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Apron Stringz is two years old! Over that time, the content has grown like a nursing baby with knee dimples. While much of what I write is just day-to-day flotsam, I do sometimes crank out a useful and, I feel, enduring post. And I hate that blogs (at least, free ones like mine) don’t support any decent kind of index for these posts. Blogs are ephemeral, meant to be enjoyed hot off the presses, I guess. But it bugs me to no end that our hard work, one week after publishing is more or less lost to the world.

So here is a directory of posts on the wide subject of food. These are all posts with a more practical edge, those that you might reference. There’s an equal number of my more journal-style posts which I have left out, particularly on the subject of gardening. They make an interesting read if you like that sort of thing (and if you read this blog, you probably do) but seemed less in need of reference-able indexing. If you’re going for the journal aspect, try the archives. A few brave souls have apparently read start to finish.

How to Make Home Cooking Work:

Kitchen Efficiency

Real Life Kitchens: Part One

Part Two: The Sink

Part Three: Work Zones

Part Four: Microzones

Cooking Efficiency

Not Menu Planners — solace for the rest of us

Dinner in Real Life

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen — summer cooking

Tools

Cast Iron Cookery

Rescuing and Seasoning Cast Iron

Cast Iron for the Rest of Us — taking care of your pans

What and How to Cook in Cast Iron

Pontification

Caution: Martyr in the Kitchen

Sourcing Good Groceries:

Responsible Consumerism: How to Make it Work

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Part One

Part Two

Fair Trade is Fair

A Trip to the Grocery Store — peeping Tom my cart!

Whole Wheat Pasta Rises from the Grave

Punk Housewife Tip: Oil and Wine

Home Food Production:

Gardening

Gardening for the Table

Harvest First, Cook Second

Planning an Efficient Garden — it’s all about follow-through

Self Irrigating Planters Made Easy

Chickens

Just Wing It — build a half-assed coop and get by, if you need to

DIY Chicken Waterers

Egg Shells to Egg Shells

Preserving Local Bounties:

Bringing Home the Basil — how to make, store and use pesto

Monastery Marmalade — scavenged fruit and citrus pectin

Marmalade Redooo — note to self: it is entirely possible to make too much marmalade

Truly No-Nonsense Tomato Sauce

Ghee: Frying Local

Recipes:

Bread

Bread Evangelizing — the perfect cherry-popper bread recipe

Bread Every Day, Part One: Ingredients

Part Two: Techniques

Sprouted Wheat Bread: an exploration

Mastering Sprouted Wheat Bread!

Perfect Whole Grain Biscuits

Breakfast

Homemade Grape-Nuts — they’re just caramelized bread crumbs!

Grrr-nola: Make Your Own Breakfast Cereal and Stick it to Kellog Corp (from the old blog)

34 Times Round and a Recipe for German Pancakes

Bouquet of Choice: A Recipe for Swiss Chard Muffins

Anything But the Kitchen Sink — leftover granola muffins

Slow Cooker Leftover Granola Bread

If You Can’t Beet ‘Em — pink pancakes win major mama points

Leftover Easter Eggs to Savory Breakfast Pockets!

Food to Go (a well packed snack bag = less emergency food purchases)

Chewy Granola Bars

Surprising Kid Snacks — no recipe, just a plug for seaweed

A Problem of Sandwiches

Dinner

Stop Buying Salad Dressing NOW

It’s What’s Fer Dinner — favorite quick meals

Baking Bonanza — home cooking in the real world, plus a recipe for easy lasagne

Good News For Half Beer Lovers — meat and/or mushroom carbonade

Green Tomato and Turkey Enchiladas

Swiss Chard Ravioli

Dinner Deconstructed: Ground Meat Patties, Brown Rice and Glazed Carrots — thorough instructions for beginner cooks

What to Feed Kids When You Really Need Them to Eat — at our house it’s macaroni and cheese’n’fish’n’peas

Sunday Dinner Any Day of the Week — pot roast your local grass fed carbon-neutral meat to melt-in-your-mouth perfection

Value Menu: Whole Chicken — get the most out of your $4/lb farmer’s market bird

Chicken an’ Bisket — my favorite roast chicken and what to do with the leftovers

Of Stock and Bullion (from the old blog)

Making Your Own “Canned” Soups (also the old blog)

Leftover Queen — savory vegetable pie

Empanadas: A Confession

Dinner Every Night: Pasta with Lentils

Not So Goaty Enchiladas

Dessert (which is to say mostly chocolate)

Chocolate: Cures What Ails Ya — the easiest way to stretch $9+/lb fair trade chocolate chips

The Best F***ing Brownies Ever

HOT Hot Chocolate — turn your thermostat down 5 degrees and whip up a batch!

Holiday Baking Party — German Christmas bread and super easy truffles

Food Recycling: Lickety Split Leftover Apple Pie — with the easiest ever pie crust

Flaky Whole Wheat Pie Crust — not the easiest, but so good

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Do let me know if you find this index useful, it will help motivate me to keep it updated!

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As an Alaskan, I think of weeds as small, relatively demure plants. Dandelion, plantain, horsetail. Buttercups were my hated nemesis back home.

Buttercups!

What they call “weeds” here in New Orleans, and the speed and size to which those weeds can grow, continues to blow my mind right out of the water.

When we moved to our new house, I asked the landlord to give me a tour of the landscaping, so I would have an idea what out of the jungle of overgrowth was an intended plant, and what was eligible for culling. These big tropical plants below are apparently a weed called ‘canna,’ which grew out of an old attempt at a vegetable bed (note the block border). This photo was taken in May, when their stature as a “weed” impressed me. They are now more than 8 feet tall and advancing on the remainder of the backyard. And that is not because I haven’t battled them back, on several occasions!

 

But what really creeps my shit out is the cat’s claw. This photo looks innocuous enough right? Could be ivy almost. Except that this is about a month’s growth. We have to pull these long cat arms down pretty frequently to keep them from reaching the roof.

These innocent looking vines have actual claws on them. They literally climb your house, looking for a way in.

After we got back from our week long vacation, our daughter’s room had one growing in through her window. Yes, it was closed. And locked. The barbed fingers found a crack. The vine was two feet long, reaching for her bedside lamp.

Our immediate neighbor has one of those overgrown yards full of junk that everyone everywhere hates (I secretly am much more comfortable next to a junky yard than a manicured one). But here in New Orleans, there is a special reason to hate such yards. Among the many other “weeds” here are a number that grow up into actual trees. The trees support the cat’s claw. The cat’s claw climbs up over the neighbor’s fence and reaches into your roof.

If you look carefully up under the eaves, you can see the brown shreds of some old cat’s claw that had grown up into the roof itself (before we got here). Imagine your rafters crawling with green fingers, ripping your roof apart.

There. Does that make you feel any better about your garden, and it’s summer accumulation of soft, leafy weeds?

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As I’ve said before, I love eggplant. That’s why I planted six plants in my garden. What the fuck was I thinking?

I love eggplant, but my family? Not so much. Is this a female thing? My latest bloglove, The Girls Guide to Guns and Butter has the selfsame issue. She posted a wonderful looking recipe for easy moussaka recently, which I haven’t yet tried. I’m still busy trying to hide my eggplant, and subsequently force my family to eat it.

Because even though two of the plants didn’t make it, the remaining four are an endless waterfall of purple fruit. I go to my garden once a week lately (to my surprise, I’ve found that the thick leaf mulch on my garden, combined with the well established plants means I don’t need to water. At all. I haven’t watered in months. I barely have to weed because of my initial kick ass soil preparation and again, the mulch.) All I do is pop over to harvest. Every week a heaving bag full of eggplant and red marconi peppers. Neither of which anyone but me likes to eat.

Fortunately, although cohesive pieces of eggplant are entirely disagreeable to those who don’t like it, I’m finding it is easy to hide. It has little flavor of it’s own, and melts right into other foods if you cook it long enough. Last night I made a tomato (and red pepper) sauce with some roast chicken thrown in, and a heap of leftover grilled eggplant, which completely disappeared into the sauce. Even I couldn’t tell it was there. I served the sauce over gnocchi (which sounds fancy, but is actually the world’s easiest homemade pasta and it uses up leftover potatoes!)

Several weeks ago I blended up some fresh eggplant and added it into a batch of meatballs. I used the food processor to finely chop it and thoroughly squeezed the resulting mince over a fine mesh strainer to drain off the copious amount of juice (! Who knew those dry spongey seeming things had so much water?)

it turned brown almost immediately, but for adding it to meatballs, who cares?

Then I added it to my usual meatball recipe. I used 2 full cups of it to a mere pound and a half of meat (meaning the “meat”balls were 1/3 eggplant), along with the usual egg and breadcrumbs.

No one noticed.

For myself, I made Paula Wolffert’s fabulous pate. The recipe calls it a ‘dip,’ but I remember from the book that she scooped it into a (flexible) container and chilled it, after which you can un-mold it and slice it, just like real pate. What a treat!

Eggplant’s also good for quicky mama lunches like this one.

Don’t forget that eggplant lasagna! That was a winner I I will surely make again. Also on my list (most definitely for myself) is caponata.

What are your favorite things to do with eggplant? Do you serve it front and center, or do you have to hide it too?

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I am a master garden planner. I have sketch books, graph pads, notebooks, lists, calendars and homemade schematics of all kinds. When your garden is small, or your season short, planning is everything.

Oh, wait. No, there’s one more mildly critical factor.

Follow-through.

I don’t think I have ever followed a single one of my 10+ years of garden plans. I mean, I sort of follow them. I start out good, with rows of pots germinating just the prescribed number of seeds. But then messy, messy life gets in the way, and pretty soon my garden beds are a jumble of unmarked varieties, empty spaces filled with whatever seed I had on me at the time. Nevertheless, my gardens still manage to be pretty productive, if only because I just change my diet to suit the harvest.

Everyone gardens for a different reason. Some people just want the opportunity to see plants growing. I can dig that, I do adore on some primal level the sheer visuals of gardening. Some people want to relax with a trowel at the end of their office day. That’s cool, I appreciate dirt as much as the next earthbound heathen. But for me, nothing trumps filling my kitchen and dinner table with food. I want to grow as much poundage, or at least nutritional value, as possible.

Our first two years here in New Orleans I cut myself some slack. In such a radically new climate (coming from Alaska) I figured successfully growing anything would be good. And I wanted to indulge the opportunity to grow things I can’t back home. Melons, squash, beans, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant! How truly thrilling for a freak like me. I took my focus off of efficiency and just played. It was good, it was fun (though certainly depressing in no small measure to try to grow anything here in the bug infested swamp). I dabbled, and I don’t regret it.

Now that our last long growing season is approaching (summer is the dead season here– fall, winter and spring are the growing seasons) I feel a return to my more classic gardening moral. Production. For our third winter, I want to be kicking ass with my garden.

I know that for the majority of my readers, talking about garden planning now is irrelevant, possibly rude. But plenty of you live south of the equator (a surprising number! Are there a disproportionate number of Aussies and New Zealanders on blogs in general, or is it the subject matter? And if so, how do I sign up to emigrate?) so you might be right about where I’m at, facing “spring” and the soon-to-be crush of planting.

There’s a weird alchemy about garden planning. By necessity it occurs ahead of the plantable season. Back in Alaska, garden planning happened in February or March, when the world was still hilarious inhospitable looking. Here in the sultry south, after poking around the wilty garden beds in late August under the hot iron of our sun, coming back inside to plan out the planting of peas and cabbage sounds absurd. You have to have faith that the time will come, that the world will be transformed and become genial to your little green starts.

You also have to have some concrete information about when exactly one could reasonably expect that transformation to occur. Of course every year is different, blah, blah, blah. But when we moved here, and the weather system and seasons were an enormous blank slate in my head, I realized just how important regional knowledge is. I had to base my garden plans on a calendar put out by the Extension Service for all of Louisiana, which is of course, much too general. Fortunately I had made a very savvy gardening friend here before we even moved (that’s how I roll, baby). He was the director for the community gardens, helped secure me a space, and even delivered a stack of scavenged materials for me to build my bed with. Yea for him, my guardian garden angel!

Through his expertise and vague recommendations (true experts will always give you vague recommendations), the Extension Service’s dates, and my little experience here, I put together this crudely detailed calendar:

I considered re-writing my calendar more legibly (and in pen) for you, but that’s just not my style. Also, I don’t have that kind of time. Anyway, this is not for you to print out and use, this is just to demonstrate a useful regional gardening calendar. The crops are listed on the left, and the months up top. The big dots are planting dates, the brown lines are the time each crop spends in the dirt, and the green are harvest windows. Note, this is an extreme guessing game! But, you gotta start somewhere.

This calendar is especially useful in a climate like this, with a 9-12 month growing season (depending on how hard you want to fight in the summer). Planning gets very complicated with ‘winter’ and ‘summer’ crops overlapping twice/year, and endless succession plantings twisting your brain up in knots. With the calendar, I can just look down each column and see what needs to be planted in any given week. This is a general calendar, I won’t be planting everything on it, but I can make a detailed schedule for each particular season and proceed from there.

And this year, this year! I swear I am going to follow that planting schedule. I will not plant all 6 cabbages at once just because I have the seeds in my hand. I will not spread 4 square feet of arugula. I will not plant once and then forget all about my calendar. I will practice restraint, organization, timeliness, perfection!

And then maybe the weather/pest/disease gods will look down on me with favor and not take out half my garden.

May my sowing be devout, may my harvest be bountiful.

Amen.

 

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