12/31/12

A New Year's Resolution

If you do just one thing to improve your lifestyle eating habits in 2013, make a resolution to EAT LOCAL. What does this mean? Look at my personal food triangle, and you will see that I have tiers of food sourcing, based on my location. I try to utilize all these sources before buying the same items at the supermarket. I feel fortunate to have these options - look for similar choices in your location. Remember too that certified organic, non-GMO, wild harvested, free range, hormone-free, heirloom, antibiotic-free, and other means of raising our food in ethical, sustaining, and healthful ways should also be part of your criteria.


There are many benefits of eating foods which are grown and/or raised at or near where you live. Since fruits and vegetables peak nutritionally about the same time they ripen - and then begin to lose the nutrients almost immediately upon harvest - it is beneficial to eat them as soon after harvest as possible. Often the produce in supermarkets has travelled for days or weeks from far away. Eating locally grown fruits and vegetables also enables you to eat seasonally. Many studies document the health benefits of eating an in-season plant based diet.

Eating locally also helps the farmers who raise the crops, and keeps the money in the local economy. Look for farmer's markets, community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) programs, and pick-your-own growers. Often you can get more varieties if the foods are locally grown, and they are better tasting and more nutritional, since the growers don't need to make "shipping-ease" and "shelf-life" major factors in their choice of crops.

When you travel around the USA, seek the fresh produce from those places, like cherries from Montana, almonds from California, citrus from Florida, wild rice from Wisconsin, wild blueberries from Maine, hot chiles from New Mexico, peaches from Georgia, apples from Washington, and many many other choices. Treat yourself to these yummy local specialties.

Get in the habit of looking at the labels of fruit, veggies, fish, and other products you buy at supermarkets. Support "USA" and avoid buying from foreign sources where the growing conditions may include chemical pesticides and fertilizers banned in the USA, contaminated irrigation, toxic soil conditions, irradiation, ozone treatments, sulfites, and other harmful intrusions in the food chain. I've stopped buying fresh ginger root, since all the local markets carry is imported from China. Instead, I buy organically certified dry ginger root grown in Peru, from Mountain Rose Herbs. I don't buy pine nuts anymore, since I didn't like their sources, so I mostly just use hulled sunflower seeds in their place. Look for healthier alternatives to your favorites.

Happy and Healthy New Year!

12/7/12

Holiday Gingerbread Biscotti

These are sooooooo yummy, and perfect for Christmas gift-giving or for leaving out on Christmas Eve for Santa! Don't be afraid of making biscotti - there's nothing exotic about the process. If you make cookies from scratch, it's very similiar. I was inspired to create this recipe when I read a ginger snap cookie recipe. I reduced the sweetness a bit and substituted and added some of my preferred ingredients, and these will be at the top of our favorite biscotti list! My recipe is gluten-free, but you can make these with wheat flour, as noted.

Remember, if an ingredient is in RED type, you can find out more about it on the page listed at the top of the blog called "Ingredients". Some of my staples might not be on your shelves, so I sometimes list the conventional ingredient I've substituted for also.

 

Gingerbread Biscotti
Makes about 2 dozen

3/4 c coconut palm sugar
3/4 c coconut oil, melted
1 large egg, beaten and at room temperature
1/4 cup sorghum syrup
2-1/2 c gluten free flour plus 1-1/2 t xanthan gum (or 2-1/2 c wheat flour)
2 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
1 t ground cinnamon
1 t ground dry ginger
1/2 t ground cloves
1/4 t salt
1/2 c buckwheat groats

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment.

MIx together the sugar and oil. Add egg and sorghum and blend well. In another bowl, whisk all the dry ingredients. Mix the dry ingredients into the wet mixture. Mixing by hand works fine, in fact I discarded the spoon and literally used my hand for this dough. The dough will be shiny and soft, but not sticky.

Separate the dough into two pieces. Pat each into a fat log, about 10 inches long. I mold the ends into an angle, since I'll be cutting later on a diagonal. Lay each log on the parchment lined sheet, about 4" apart. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and remove the logs from the pan, to cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes.

Cut each log on the diagonal, into slices about 1/2" thick. Lay each slice flat on the parchment lined cookie sheet. They can be touching now, since they won't enlarge in the second baking.

Return the baking sheet into the oven and cook the biscotti for another 10-12 minutes, until stiff. Remove and cool on a wire rack.

11/29/12

A Kindred Spirit

It's rare that I encounter someone who shares my combined passions of preparing nutritious foods, gardening organically, and foraging for wild edibles. Last night I had the pleasure of not only meeting such a person, but hearing his presentation on "Eating Between the Rows for Nutrition and Sustainability" - a title which would get a yawn from many, but which grabbed my attention from the moment I read about the presentation in a local paper.

Jeff Ross is the Garden Manager at Blackberry Farm, an all-inclusive, all-exclusive luxury resort for those more rich and more famous than me, which is hidden away on 5000 acres about 90 minutes from where I live.  Unique to this resort is that fact that it is a working farm, with the products of its gardens, orchards, stocked waterways, pastures, chicken coops, and wild acreage being used fresh, dried, preserved, and otherwise in the resort food preparation. The website says "The passionate pursuit of our farm generates a range of heirloom produce from the garden, wild flower honey, farm-fresh eggs, and artisan cheeses from East Friesian sheep. Sustainably harvested ingredients are the essence of our celebrated Foothills Cuisine, and the Farmstead is the gathering place for people and products of the farm. While you are here, we encourage you to take part in the farm activities, which will increase your understanding and therefore appreciation of the relationship that we have to the land and to the food it provides us."  Jeff's business card lists his phone number at the "Garden Shed," which I suspect looks a lot different than the image those words conjure up! I'd love to visit it.

I was proud of myself during the lecture, in that I could identify most of the photos Jeff showed to illustrate the wild and cultivated nutritious foods he grows, harvests, gathers, loves to eat, and uses in cooking. One of my favorites he spoke of is wild Chickweed, which grows in abundance for me during the cool months. I love it raw; its taste reminds me of fresh corn on the cob. Here is info I gathered from a good online reference to wild harvesting food:

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Chickweed
Scientific name: Stellaria media
What: leaves, stems
How: raw or cooked
Where: sunny, shady disturbed areas
When: winter, spring, summer
Nutritional Value: Rich in iron, potassium, other minerals, and vitamins A, D, B, C, and minerals
Dangers: Chickweed contain a small amount of saponins (soap-like) chemicals. Excessive quantities of it can cause stomach distress.

Chickweed sprouts were a common source of greens on early navy ships and helped prevent scurvy before the discovery of vitamin C. Their small amount of saponins help give dishes containing chickweed a creamy texture, especially when diced finely and simmered in pasta sauces. It's also tastes wonderful in pesto, salsas, and raw food/vegan "green drinks" as well as greatly increasing the nutritional value of these foods.

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Jeff talked of some of my other favorites, like elderberry (medicinal against viruses), sumac (berries make a good lemonade), Jerusalem Artichokes (great raw or cooked), and garlic scapes (good lightly sauteed). He introduced me to gathering the young spring stem tips of hemlock trees (he says they are full of Vitamin C), using the stringy roots of onions to quick-fry into crunchy threads, eating the first green leaves which emerge in the daylily patch (an asparagus flavor, according to Jeff). He mentioned using parts of plants not normally harvested, as I have discovered and written about in this blog, such as all the green growth of English peas, leaves of sweet potato vines, and young flower bud clusters from mustard-family plants like kale and collards. And he psyched me up about planting field [aka crowder] peas, lovage, and sorghum in my garden in 2013, which should do well in our hot humid summer growing season. I'll also be on the lookout for lamb's quarters and purslane, both of which I think I've seen growing wild around my property, since he spoke so highly of their nutrient values and delicious tastes.

One cooking tip Jeff shared was his favorite way to prepare roasted fresh beets:
Harvest the whole beet, leaving about 1/2" stem. Wash, dry, and arrange in a baking pan. Cover totally with kosher salt, then roast at 400 degrees, probably about 1 hour. The salt seals in the moisture. Jeff says the salt will fall away as a big piece after the cooking is complete. The skins rub off easily when cooked. Sounds yummy to me, and I'll be sure to try it when I harvest the Bull's Blood beets currently growing in my winter garden.

Keep yourself open to trying new and unusual "green" foods, particularly those grown locally and organically, and I guarantee you'll discover delicious tastes you've never before experienced.

9/24/12

Spice Cake


This moist cake doesn't need frosting, and can be made as a gluten-free cake (see flour substitution in green type below). The original recipe from Bob's Red Mill spelt flour package - which I've modified - called for apple sauce, but I used unsweetened homemade pear sauce. This can also be made in two small round cake pans and layered, or made into individual muffins instead of a sheet cake. (NOTE: words in red are described in more detail in the "Ingredients" list in the right column.)

  • 1/2 c coconut oil, softened if solid
  • 3/4 c honey
  • 3 eggs
  • 1-1/2 c apple or pear sauce, unsweetened
  • 2-1/4 c flour *
  • 1-1/2 t baking soda
  • 1-1/4 T baking powder
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 1-1/2 t cinnamon
  • 1/2 t each: ground nutmeg, ground cloves, powdered gingerroot
  • 1 c golden raisins
  • 3/4 c chopped raw nuts, divided


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* For a gluten-free version of this cake, I used 2 c of this flour mixture:
  •   6 parts fine brown rice flour
  •   2 parts potato starch
  •   1 part tapioca flour
… then I added 1/4 c almond flour, plus 1t xanthan gum

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Preheat overn to 350°. Grease a 9" x 13" glass cake pan (optional: line with greased parchment paper). Cream the oil and honey, add eggs and apple/pear sauce and beat until well mixed. In another bowl, mix dry ingredients and spices. Mix dry ingredients into wet. Add raisins and 1/4 c nuts. Pour batter into prepared pan. Sprinkle remaining chopped nuts evenly on top of the batter.

Bake for 35 minutes, then turn off the oven and leave the cake in it for another 10 minutes - this helps cook the center without over-browning. Cool and remove from pan to a rack as soon as possible, since the steam released while in the pan will make the cake get too soft.

9/18/12

My Summer Garden 2012

Summer has flown by, without any posts on my gardens. I guess I've been too busy getting my hands dirty! It's a dreary wet day, so a good chance for me to catch you up on what I've been growing.

The weather has been odd, with off and on torrential rains through June, then dry and over 100 degrees in July, still hot but with occasional rain in August, and a mixed bag this month. But evidently it has made gardens happy, with a banner year for things like peppers and tomatoes for many local backyard farmers.

My garden strategy this year was not to be overwhelmed with any one crop, and it has been successful. We've had a great variety of vegetables, fruit and herbs. My neighbor shared his abundance of tomatoes, plus sweet and hot peppers; I canned salsa, discovered homemade tomato paste, and made marinara sauce to freeze. Our one cooking Keifer pear tree yielded a big harvest during the last month, which I made into pear sauce (like apple sauce) and froze. Four minutes in the pressure cooker is all it takes for a big batch of apple or pear sauce - try it. (I'll be posting a Spice Cake made with pear sauce soon - it's yummy.) A few volunteer plants popped up in my garden, either from birds dropping seeds or from seeds still viable in my compost soil. Two of these surprise plants turned out to produce wonderful sweet cantaloupes, in addition to the Hale's Best melons I had purposely planted. I found what cantaloupe couldn't be eaten right away can be cut into chunks and frozen in zip bags for a great smoothie ingredient. Another volunteer plant has given a us a regular supply of tasty pickling cucumbers, enough for a couple of jars of refrigerator pickles. Otherwise, we've pretty well kept up with eating everything freshly harvested. Our diet is very healthy!

My bush Blue Lake green beans grew in slow motion at the start, but then provided what seemed to be an extended period of production, largely free of bug damage. I have been growing okra for the first time, a Midget Cowhorn Okra variety and a standard tall one, Crimson Spineless Okra. The midgets produced just as well, on strong stalks not over 3 feet tall, and tasted just as good. I've cooked the okra in many different ways, and we love it. I've panfired the Southern-favorite cornmeal-breaded slices, panfried the okra with onions and carmelized in soy sauce, added slices to stirfries, grilled whole pods until charred then eaten like French fries, sauteed and added to pasta sauce, and cooked them in a big pot of Seafood Gumbo. I even like to eat small okra pods raw! If you've ever eaten okra and found it was too slimy, I would guess it was either sitting around too long after being harvested or not cooked properly. Okra is going to be a mainstay in my future veggie gardens, especially since it's virtually pest- and disease-free.

Chufa, a grass which produces a nut-like tuber
My friends Art and Judy gave me a big bag of marigold seeds and I started a bed early in the spring. They grew wonderfully, into bushy foot-tall plants, which I transplanted all over the vegetable garden. Slow to flower, but once they started it's been an endless flood of orange/yellow blossoms. They add much to the garden: beauty, attraction to pollinating bees, and - I believe, although some authorities disregard this - detering harmful bugs from the vegetable plants. I like the scent; it reminds me of a little garden I planted when I was about 10 years old, so I must have planted marigolds. I've gathered loads of seeds to replant these next year.

As I mentioned in a spring post, I quarantined my tomato plants. This helped to delay and minimize the onset of blight, long enough so I've gotten a good harvest, considering I only grew 3 tomato plants. The "Legend" variety, an heirloom resistant to blight, has done the best for me. Only recently the plants have been under attack by hornworms, so my challenges continue! I seemed to be winning the war with grasshoppers. The white netting I laid over the sweet potato bed when I planted it has filled up with a mass of lush, healthy, un-eaten vines underneath, so I am looking forward to a good potato harvest later this fall.

Other successes in this year's vegetable garden include Japanese long cucumbers, Albino Bullnose sweet peppers (start out an ivory color and mature to bright orange), Patio Red Marconi sweet peppers, and Black Beauty eggplant.

I tried growing Kabouli Black garbanzo beans, but I consider this experiment a failure. Each little pod only produced 2 seeds, and they were all shriveled up. Plus it seemed to take forever to grow. I've also been growing a grassy plant called chufa (or chuffa) which should yield some little nut-like tubers on the roots before frost hits… I'll report on those after harvest. I grew a cucumber-bug resistant plant called West India Burr Gherkins, which I grew in a tall tomato cage. It climbed well up the cage then overflowed, looking like a topiary of Cousin It! The oval spiny fruit is hard to pick and eat, so I mostly used it in smoothies, since it's very mild tasting. Didn't attract bugs, but I don't think I'll grow it again. Cushaw White Squash was also supposed to be squash bug resistant, but succumbed to wilt (usually transmitted by squash bugs) and I had only harvested one big squash. It's been in cool storage in the basement since; we'll eat it later in the fall. Other new plants in this year's garden include lime basil, with fabulous lime flavor, great for pesto or used fresh in fruit smoothies; Perilla Purple Zi Su or "shiso" which is a lush dark red foliage plant used raw in salads, fresh in smoothies, or added to cooked food, like rice, to color it pink; cinnamon basil which is strong in its spicy flavor and will be in all my gardens from now on. Anise hyssop grew wonderfully from seed, has a great licorice flavor for tea or smoothies, and attracted masses of bees to its pretty purple flowers. I'll miss these flavorful herbs in the winter, but I've dried lots of their leaves and made vodka-based tinctures also. I've done the same with my super sweet stevia plants, started from seed, harvested for its leaves.
Black garbanzos

With autumn arriving soon, I've been planting my fall/winter crops. Garlic went in 2 weeks ago and I'll do another planting of it in Oct. I started seedlings in my basement, where the temp is about 65, for Georgia collards, brussels sprouts, Blue Curled Scotch and Siberian kale, Bulls Blood beets, and spinach. I've already transplanted some into the garden, holding back half the seedlings in case hot weather returns and destroys the first planting. I also sowed seeds for a few kinds of lettuce, and a mild tasting green I've not tried before - called mache or corn salad. It's time to plant cilantro (coriander) seeds now too; I've already transplanted one which Mother Nature started in my "excess" garden. I'm going to try a bed of pea pods, which I've only grown here in early spring, to see if I can get a late fall harvest. We've gotten several inches of rain in the past 12 hours, so I might have lettuce and mache growing all over the garden soon!

Garden season continues here in Zone 7. I'm already thinking about different crops; my friend Judy shared Dragon's Tongue Bush Beans from her garden, and they are so tasty I've made her promise to save me seeds. I just tried cooking turnips, prepared as you would mashed potatoes, which I bought from the nearby Mennonite farm, and they were so tasty that I'd like to try to grow some myself. They are a cool weather crop, so if I can find some seedling plants I'll try growing them soon. Tomorrow will be a great day for pulling weeds, with the saturated clay soil all loosened up. Happy gardening!

7/26/12

3 Great Homemade Salsas

Seems everyone has too many tomatoes around here these days, so here are some more tomato recipes. 

For me, nothing beats fresh summer salsa made from homegrown tomatoes, but in the dark days of winter some home canned or frozen salsa tastes quite wonderful.

Here are 3 ways to make your own salsa, ranging from simple to complex. Any of these recipes can be eaten right away, and all can be preserved for later enjoyment. Even if you don't do home canning, a cooked salsa like any of these freezes very well.


 
SALSA 1:  Packaged Mix (makes as little as 1 pint)

Rated: Easy

There's a line of salsa mixes and other canning products called "Mrs. Wages®." The ingredients are all natural, basically a mix of dehydrated vegetables, herbs, salt, and spices. Choose the spice mix suited to your taste - Classic Salsa, Hot Salsa, Jalapeno Salsa, Verde, Habanero, etc. - and simply add chopped tomatoes and vinegar! The package says you can even use canned tomatoes from the supermarket. Boil, simmer, then eat, freeze or can. These mixes are available for small quantities, like just one pint, so you won't be overwhelmed. Or use several packages to increase the quantity.

SALSA 2: Simple Salsa (makes 6-8 pints)

Rated: Moderate

I made this salsa in a canning class conducted by our county extension service. I like the simplicity of just a few ingredients. The peppers can be roasted and peeled if you want a slightly more complex flavor, but I don't find this makes much difference. You can vary the balance of hot and sweet peppers to suit your level of heat. If you preserve this for eating in the off-season, you can add chopped fresh cilantro when you are ready to serve it.

5 lbs. tomatoes
2 lbs. chile peppers (or a mixture of hot peppers and sweet peppers, according to your taste)
1 lb. onion
1 cup vinegar
3 t salt
1/2 t pepper

Wash tomatoes. Scald 30-60 seconds in boiling water. Dip into cold water. Cut out cores. Remove skins. Chop tomatoes coarsely, put into a big kettle. Chop peppers in fine dice, wearing gloves to protect from hot peppers; add to kettle. Peel and chop onion into fine dice; add to kettle. Add remaining ingredients, cook over high heat so it boils for 20 minutes. For canning, fill prepared jars with hot mixture, leaving 1/2" headspace, and process in hot water bath for 20 minutes. For freezing, let the mixture cool then freeze in individual serving size freezer containers.



SALSA 3: Judy's Favorite Salsa for Canning (makes 16 pints)

Rated:  Complex… but worth it!


This cooked salsa is the closest I've found to my favorite fresh uncooked salsa, the recipe created by our friend Bob (sorry, he won't let me share his recipe). I like a thick, hot salsa, and that's how this comes out. It uses a lot of tomatoes and hot peppers, so it makes a large batch. (When I am going to all the work of canning, I like to do a lot at once, to make the set up worthwhile). I canned mine and ended up with 16 pints. I used lots of my kitchen aids and did the preparation of the ingredients on Day 1 (storing the uncooked tomatoes in a big kettle in the fridge, and all the other ingredients in a covered container in the fridge), then finishing with the cooking and canning on Day 2.

2-1/2 gallons of tomatoes
18 oz. (3 small cans) tomato paste

I process the tomatoes in my Roma food strainer, using the salsa screen. This separates the skins from the rich, thick sauce. Conversely, you can prepare the tomatoes by hand: scald 30-60 seconds in boiling water; dip into cold water; cut out cores; peel off skins; chop tomatoes coarsely. Put the tomatoes and tomato paste into a big kettle. Cook over high heat until reduced in volume about 1/3, at least 45 minutes. This will thicken it nicely.

Meanwhile, prepared the additional ingredients, mixing them in a large bowl. I juiced the limes with my electric juicer and I did all the chopping by pulsing individual ingredients in my food processor:
Juice of 6 limes (1 cup total)
2 c packed chopped fresh cilantro
1 large onion, chopped
1 head garlic, peeled and chopped
3 banana peppers, seeded
15 jalapeno peppers, seeding 3/4 of them (caution: wear gloves when handling hot peppers)
1 t ground cumin
1/4 c cider vinegar

When the tomatoes have cooked, add all the other ingredients. Cook 5 minutes, until boiling again. For canning, fill prepared jars with hot salsa mixture, leaving 1/2" headspace, and process in hot water bath for 20 minutes. For freezing, let the mixture cool then freeze in individual serving size freezer containers. Or refrigerate and eat some right away!

7/20/12

Easy Homemade Tomato Paste

 Simple ingredients, quick procedure, easy storage, and delicious! I thought it was so cool to make my own tomato paste when I found this recipe online. I followed the instructions exactly, although I am not sure about the necessity of the final low-temperature baking step. I had such wonderful results, that I quickly applied the same method to creating a fabulous marinara sauce recipe (below).


TOMATO PASTE
(makes 1/2 cup)
  • 1 lb. fresh ripe tomatoes (about 3-4)
  • 1/4 sweet bell pepper (green or red)
  • 1 t salt
  • 1/2 t garlic powder
Core and quarter the tomatoes. Process all ingredients in a blender until smooth. (My Vitamix super-blender works great for this, pulverizing all the tomato seeds and skin.) Pour the liquid into a 3-qt. saucepan and bring to a boil. From the blender adding lots of air, the mix will be foamy and the foam will rise in the pot, so be prepared to stir and/or reduce the heat slightly. Let it boil for 8 minutes - halfway through the foaming will disappear.

Pour the mixture into a mesh cloth jelly bag, or line a strainer with coffee filters, and place over a bowl to collect the liquid. Strain for 30 minutes. (You can reserve the strained off liquid for soup stock or for a flavorful liquid for cooking rice.) Spoon the thick paste into a heat-proof mason jar and bake in the oven for 20 minutes at 250°. Remove from the oven and cool. Smooth the top surface with a spatula, then pour a skin of olive oil to coat the top of the tomato paste, cap the jar, and store in the refrigerator. As you use the tomato paste, recover the top with a glaze of oil and it will keep for months. Alternately, you could freeze dollops in ice cube trays, then pop them out and bag them, having them available to thaw whenever the need arises. NOTE: I doubled this recipe and the results were perfection!

I think you could use this as a basis for homemade catsup (ketchup) too, just adding a little vinegar and sweetener, maybe some dry mustard or ground cinnamon - I'll try it myself next time I grill fresh marinated whole okra!

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I've made homemade tomato sauce many times, chopping ingredients by hand or processing loads of tomatoes in my ROMA food strainer, or chopping everything in my Vitamix then low cooking it for hours to thicken the sauce. After making the tomato paste recipe above, I experimented and made the recipe below. So much faster and easier than any I've ever made before.

THICK DELICIOUS MARINARA SAUCE
makes about 1 quart
  • 5 lb. fresh ripe tomatoes (12-15), cored and cut in quarters
  • 1 onion, peeled and cut in half
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 sweet pepper, stem and seeds removed
  • 2 t salt
  • 2 t fennel seeds
  • 2 t dry marjoram or oregano
  • 1 t black pepper
  • 1/4 c chopped fresh basil
Process all the ingredients in a super blender, like a VItamix, in 3 batches so you don't overfill the blender and end up with a tomato mess when the top blows off! The Vitamix will pulverize everything, making a foamy, smooth pinkish liquid.

Pour all the processed ingredients into a tall cooking pot. and bring to a boil. It will be foamy and the foam will rise in the pot, so be prepared to stir and/or reduce the heat slightly. Let it boil for 8 minutes - halfway through the foaming will disappear.

Pour the mixture into a mesh cloth jelly bag, or line a strainer with coffee filters, and place over a bowl to collect the liquid. Strain for 30 minutes. (You can reserve the strained off liquid for soup stock or for a flavorful liquid for cooking rice.)

I like it as thick as possible, and used the contents of the mesh bag for my sauce, but you might want to stir back some of the drained liquid to create the sauce consistency you prefer.

Try these recipes now while garden fresh tomatoes are available. Freeze well, so you can enjoy them all year 'round

7/14/12

What's with Wheat?

Are you overweight, diabetic, suffering from arthritis, heart disease, allergies, rashes, acid-reflux, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, pre-diabetes, estrogen related cancer, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, Crohn's disease, constipation, high blood triglycerides, insomnia, cravings...or a belly you can't shed? I don't know too many people - especially in the baby-boomer generation - who can't find something they experience on this list.

I strongly recommend a book I just finished which is on the NY Times bestseller list: Wheat Belly, by William Davis, MD, a preventive cardiologist. This book is not just for people who are gluten-intolerant or thinking they have celiac disease, although it is good for all of those to read too, it's for everyone to read and benefit.

The basic premise of the book is that "…traditional wheat has been replaced by the high-yield, semi-dwarf strains that we know are genetically removed from the wheat of 1950." The hybridization of the wheat now grown worldwide has changed the way it affects our biochemistry, compared to ancient grains certainly, but even when compared to wheat grown 100 years ago. And this alteration is affecting us in many many negative ways.

You can get more of the flavor of the book at the author's blog:
http://www.wheatbellyblog.com/

Read a review of the book, including the author's comments.
http://healthyfoodnaturally.com/2011/09/13/book-review-wheat-belly-lose-the-wheat-lose-the-weight-and-find-your-path-back-to-health/

Me and my husband Rick eliminated wheat from our diet over two weeks ago, after I read a lot of the blog. A wheat-free diet takes some adjusting, label reading, menu reading, and self-education, but it's been painless (literally). There are loads of tips on how to do it in the book, including recipes, and there's lots of helpful info online too. We've all seen the supermarket shelves full of "Gluten-Free" labeled products, but, as the author warns, you don't want to substitute other non-healthy foods when you eliminate wheat.

I'll report on my own progress in this blog, and I hope you'll read the book, at the very least.

From the author:
"…the U.S. government, with its repeated advice to 'eat more healthy whole grains,' transmitted via vehicles like the USDA Food Pyramid and Food Plate, coupled with the extensive genetic transformations of the wheat plant introduced by agricultural geneticists, underlie an incredible deterioration in American health…." - William Davis, MD

7/2/12

I'll Never Buy Garlic Again

Fifteen pounds - that's my recent harvest of garlic which I planted last September. Even for someone like me, who cooks from scratch and loves garlic, that's a lot! I had planted a few different varieties, including many cloves of elephant garlic. Many say this is a less strong type, but mine tastes just as potent as any garlic I've ever tasted, and the giant cloves are so easy to use. (Click here for my tips on growing garlic.)

I dug up the garlic beds in two sessions, since it takes a lot of time time to peel all the cloves and to prepare such a big haul for using over the next 12 months. Since curing, drying, and hanging garlic doesn't work so well for me (the cloves shrivel up over a few months), I've come up with other ways to store it… so many that my list starts to sound like Bubba's description to Forrest Gump of how to prepare shrimp!, here's what I now do to store garlic for future use:
Pureed garlic, frozen in ice cube trays, then bagged


Pureed Garlic Cubes - I run peeled whole cloves of garlic through the food processor with organic extra virgin olive oil. Since the garlic is fresh, it holds a lot of moisture, so it purees into a thick paste. I spooned this mixture into ice cube trays, froze them, then popped out and bagged the cubes, to save freezer space and free up my plastic trays for other stuff. When I add garlic to recipes, most often there is some oil in whatever I am making, so this mixture is very helpful to have on hand. I always keep a small jar of minced garlic in the refrigerator, and when I've used it up (in my Caesar dressing, hummus, salsa, soup, stirfry or other favorite recipe), I just replenish with a garlic ice cube from the freezer. You'll notice in the photo that I labelled the cubes; I've learned to label everything, since there are just too many things in my brain to remember, and it helps avoid errors. I don't want to mistake a garlic cube for a pineapple cube!

Garlic Powder - I use the largest of my harvested cloves for this purpose, putting them through the food processor with the slicing blade. I spread the slices in a single layer on the trays of my electric dehydrator and dry these "chips" to a brittle stage. These are then stored in a cool, dark place in jars, and ground into garlic powder easily in my designated herb/spice [coffee] grinder. I save the moisture absorbing cylinders from vitamin and supplements I purchase, and I always place one in with a jar of dried foods, to be sure moisture doesn't form. Also, I don't grind it  into powder until I need to, since some of its potency might be lost unless I vacuum sealed the powder.

Whole cloves in oil
Dehydrated garlic "chps", which I grind to powd
Whole Cloves - preserved in organic extra virgin olive oil, refrigerated in jars. If you don't plan to use these cloves for a while, you might add Hollywood brand safflower oil, which is 20% vitamin E, a natural preservative.

Potent cough syrup
Cough Syrup - In a workshop for natural home remedies I took years ago, the instructor made a cough syrup by filling a jar with chopped garlic, chopped onions, and honey. I added some dried elderberries to my version of this cough syrup also, since this is a natural flu virus remedy. This concoction gets stored in the refrigerator, and after about 6 weeks the mixture is strained, discarding the vegetables and reserving the potent syrup as a cough remedy, again storing it in the refrigerator. Why this combination? A 2007 study (reported in Science Daily) proved that honey outperformed dextromethorphan (cough suppressant) in suppressing nighttime coughs. Onions are anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and antiviral. Elderberry tincture tested in the laboratory and in double-blind human studies cut the severity and length of Influenza A and B measurably and significantly. Garlic is a naturally powerful antibiotic, effective against toxic bacteria, viruses, and fungus. Garlic can relieve conditions of asthma, hoarseness, coughs, chronic bronchitis, and other disorders of the lungs, because of its powers of promoting expectoration. As for the medicinal benefits of garlic, see "More than a food ingredient" below. So this is a very potent syrup, strong tasting but effective.

Insect Repellent - I took any cloves which were not perfect for storing, as well as the chopped up main stems of the garlic heads, and spread them on the soil throughout my vegetable garden. Garlic is an organic natural detractor of insects, and I think it helps in my garden. All the other parts of the garlic plants went into the compost pile.

When I dug up all this garlic, attached to the root strings and/or below many of the heads were individual round cloves, especially on the elephant garlic. I call these the "garlic babies". They readily air-dryed, and I've stored them to replant my garlic bed in the fall. I am quite certain that I didn't unearth all these little cloves, so the garlic will likely replant itself in the old bed too. I'll have a great harvest again next year, after using up all the preparations described above!

MORE THAN A FOOD INGREDIENT:
Not only does garlic add loads of flavor to my cooking, it has widely recognized health benefits. As I've read online: "Garlic promotes the well-being of the heart and immune systems with antioxidant properties and helps maintain healthy blood circulation. One of garlic's most potent health benefits includes the ability to enhance the body's immune cell activity. The active component in garlic is the sulfur compound called allicin - a chemical produced when garlic is chopped, chewed, or bruised. Allicin is quite powerful as an antibiotic and a potent agent that helps the body to inhibit the ability of germs to grow and reproduce. There are now over 12 studies published around the world that confirm that garlic can reduce cholesterol. Garlic is known to stimulate T-lymphocyte and macrophage action, promote interleukin-1 levels, and support natural killer cells. Strong activity of these key cells promotes healthy immune system function, and strengthens the body's defenses. Garlic has germanium in it. Germanium is an anti-cancer agent, and garlic has more of it than any other herb. In lab tests, mice fed garlic showed no cancer development, whereas mice that weren't fed garlic showed at least some. In fact, garlic has been shown to retard tumor growth in human subjects in some parts of the world. 
Garlic "babies" to plant next fall
Another benefit of garlic is it helps regulate the body's blood pressure. So whether you have problems with low or high blood pressure, garlic can help equalize it. Garlic helps strengthen your body's defenses against allergies; helps loosen plaque from the artery walls; helps regulate your blood sugar levels; and is the best choice for killing and expelling parasites such as pin worms from the human body. In addition to all these health benefits, garlic is packed with vitamins and nutrients. Some of these include protein, potassium, Vitamins A, B, B2 and C, Calcium, Zinc and many others. In a 12-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, allicin powder was found to reduce the incidence of the common cold by over 50%."

Try planting garlic in your garden next fall. It's easy to grow, pest-free, delicious, and good for you!

6/14/12

Strange Bedfellows

There are some strange contraptions in my vegetable garden beds this spring. My efforts to garden organically have engaged me in various battles - against insects, funguses, and diseases - using alternatives to chemical treatments. I'm trying various "preventative" measures, some rather unconventional, which I've either read about or invented. I'm using other containers as mini-greenhouses, aids to watering, and other purposes. Here's a look....

You know from my past blog posts that for two years I've lost my tomato crops to "blight," which is caused by a fungus in the soil. This is the same strain of blight which caused the potato famine in Ireland over a century ago. In an effort to avoid the fungus which is likely residing in my garden soil, I have isolated my tomato plants. I've also sterilized my garden tools, tomato cages, stakes, and other items which would contact the plants, with bleach. I've avoided using my compost soil on the new plants as well, since that might have contaminants from last year's crops. The photo to the right shows how I planted a Baby Roma heirloom, which I started from seed. My garden cold frame, with its cover panels removed, has become a quarantine ward. I covered the soil with a layer of weed barrier cloth, covered by a layer of red plastic mulch, since this cold frame is actually in my established vegetable garden (the fungus resides in the soil, and spores bounce onto the lower leaves when rain splashes). I've also trimmed off the bottom 12" of leaves, in case any splashing occurs. The plant is healthy so far, with little bunches of green tomatoes forming.

The photo left shows a second effort to get tomatoes: an isolated tomato garden. I started two tomato varieties from seed which are supposed to be "blight resistant" - Old Brooks and Legend. I chose an area where I've never gardened or planted tomatoes, the spot where I piled the composted cow manure my friend Mitch delivered for a couple of years. I figured this area would have decent soil, since it got run-off from the now depleted manure pile (most of our land is clay and needs to be amended). Again, I covered the soil with a fabric barrier. In addition to all these precautions, I am doing weekly spraying with an organic fungicide, and also sprinkling ground cinnamon, a natural fungicide, around the base of these plants. When I see any discolored leaves, I remove and dispose of them. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Elsewhere in my garden, you'll see various other covers and containers. Descriptions are below each of the photo collages below:

The photo above left shows fine netting over my sweet potato bed. Last year grasshoppers kept eating the sweet potato vines. The leaves would grow back, but I'm guessing that the plants put all their energy into growing new tops, since my harvest of sweet potatoes - the roots - was really skimpy. I planted little plants from a 9-pack of Beauregard sweet potatoes, rather than from slips, since bunches of slips usually include 25 or 50, and I didn't need so many. The dead branches you might notice in the photo are the remnants of the peapod plants which grew in the same spot in early spring, left there to impart their nutrients to the soil. The white netting comes from the fabric department, 72-inches wide for just 99 cents per yard. It lets in the sun and rain, but so far keeps out the bugs. I've held down the edges with garden staples. A hint: tie a piece of survey tape to the staple top and you won't lose it in the soil - it could damage to a passing rotatiller blade. I left one sweet potato plant uncovered, to compare my results. Sweet potatoes don't flower or need pollination, so the netting can stay on for the entire growing period. I've also used this netting over some of my bigger blueberry plants, which are now ripening and protected by the netting from hungry birds. To the right is a celery plant, growing in a plastic sleeve I made by cutting the ends off a big white jug. This is not to fight insects, it's mostly so that the celery plants get a good drink of water when I am hosing the garden, since they like extra moist conditions. I thought it might also "blanche" the stalks, keeping them from being real green, but I don't see that happening... they are green - and delicious.

I've used translucent jugs, with just the bottom cut off (and cap discarded), as mini greenhouses. Above left shows a jug covering a canteloupe plant, pushed about an inch or two into the soil, keeping the plant warm and shielding it from squash bugs; the center photo above shows the same plant uncovered. To the right is another plant I used this method for, Black Beauty eggplant, which grew much faster under cover than another which I left uncovered - and grew strong without any flea beetle damage.

When I have young perennial flowers, shrubs, and tree seedlings which need special attention, I plant them in a big pot of good soil and submerge the pot in garden soil. The buried pot doesn't dry out as fast as it would if it were above ground, and the pot gets watered and gets my attention when it's in the veggie garden. By next year, a tiny cutting should have grown strong roots and be ready to transplant to a permanent location. In the top right photo above is a fig tree seedling, which I have lovingly nurtured from a little twig cutting from an established fig tree, given to me by my friend Richard. The other two photos above show contraptions I also used last year; in the center, a mesh hamper (folds up flat when not in use) over a gherkin plant - I'll remove it when flowering begins, so the plant will get pollinated. I've used another hamper over a small blueberry bush, to keep the birds from eating the ripening berries. On the right you see a pocketed red plastic Kozy Koat (the pockets hold water, which absorbs the warmth of the sun), keeping a healthy sweet Marconi pepper good and warm, since peppers like growing in hot weather.

Don't be afraid to try unconventional aids in your garden!



5/28/12

Making Homemade Ricotta

Some of the ricotta ingredients and tools
A new Mennonite community farm market has opened near where I live, and they sell whole, unpasteurized milk. By law, it is labelled "not for human consumption." I thought this milk would be perfect to use for making my own ricotta, a process which requires the milk to be heated, thus pasteurizing it in the process (according to the internet, milk is pasteurized at 161°).

Homemade ricotta is surprisingly simple, although my first attempt was a bit of a struggle; I realized later that I had measured the milk wrong! But some good came from this error - I discovered I could use less heavy cream than the original recipe called for. Also, I've written my recipe to make a larger quantity than the original made; same amount of work, so why not make plenty - it's so delicious there is no trouble using it!

HOMEMADE RICOTTA
(makes about 1-1/2 cups)
2 quarts (8 c  or 64 oz) whole milk
1/2 c heavy cream
1/4 t salt
1/4 c fresh lemon juice*

Adding lemon juice to the heated mix makes it curdle
To prepare for straining, line a colander or other strainer with cheesecloth. As my photo shows, you can buy cheesecloth in the paint department. My friend Sherri  strains her homemade cheeses with cardboard/mesh paint strainers from the home store! Alternately, you can use overlapping flattened coffee filters, or, for a small batch, a cone-style coffee filter set over a tall bowl.

Heat the milk and heavy cream in a large saucepan over medium high heat. If you have an instant read thermometer (the type for making candy), heat to about 185°.

Add the salt and lemon juice, and stir. Reduce heat to low, stirring until the mixture curdles, which should be in about one to two minutes.

Remove from heat and pour the mixture into a strainer set over a bowl to catch the "whey". (I dispose of the whey by pouring it into my compost pile).

Straining the liquid off the cheese.
Let the mixture drain for up to an hour, then remove to a refrigerator container.

SUGGESTIONS FOR USING THE RICOTTA:
This is so yummy, just eaten plain off a spoon! You can, of course, use this ricotta in any recipe which calls for ricotta, such as lasagna. Or make an herbal spread as I did in my previous post, or mix with roasted garlic and chili powder for another delicious dip. I used some of this batch to make a chicken salad. I'll never be able to duplicate it, since I was using leftovers, but it was made with leftover grilled marinated chicken breast, chopped celery and scallions from my garden, a few spoonfuls of my homemade Caesar Dressing, a few spoonfuls of the fresh homemade ricotta, and about 1/4 cup of leftover homemade tabouli. It was delicious, with fresh garden lettuce, all wrapped in a spelt tortilla!

Chicken salad, with ricotta in place of mayo
* Apple cider vinegar, another acid, can be used in place of the lemon juice. I love the flavor with lemon juice, but I'll try the vinegar next time.

5/9/12

The Pea Report

Oregon Sugar Pod II (left) and Sugar Ann Snap Peas (right)
I'm harvesting big quantities of two varieties of heirloom peapods now. The ones shown in the photo on the left are Oregon Sugar Pod II. I took a chance on our mild winter weather and planted these seeds on January 29th, and the gamble payed off. I purchased these seeds from Bakers Creek Heirloom Seeds. The plants are vigorous and highly productive. Equally sweet and crunchy are the variety shown on the right, Sugar Ann Snap Peas, which I planted at the end of February. The pods are fatter, with the peas developing larger inside. These can be eaten as edible pods or shelled... I don't bother with the extra work of shelling. I love peapods raw, with a dip or in a salad, as well as lightly stir-fried. I mixed some into a yellow squash casserole too (I'll make that recipe a future post, since I had a request for it when I served it.) I picked both types today, and I am going to experiment with dehydrating with a wasabi coating, like those wasabi peas from the supermarket, great for snacking.

Both of these peapods are considered "bush" varieties. The Sugar Ann plants were shorter - about 18" tall - but they were in a newer part of the garden where the soil is not as rich, so that might be why. Both types were easily supported in my usual manner of sticking branches about 30" tall into the garden soil among the emerging seedlings. The pea plants grab onto the sticks with fine curling tendrils, and are supported as they grow taller. If I only grow one type in the future, which would be smart if I intended to save the seeds, I'd choose the Oregon Sugar Pod II. Remember that pea and bean plants add nitrogen to the garden soil, and it is fine to rototil or turn the plants back into the soil when you are finished harvesting. Try an early planting of peas in your garden next year!

5/7/12

The Shocking Truth About Sugar

"Decadence" - original painting © Judy Lavoie
Obesity? Diabetes? Heart Disease? Cancer? Spend the next 15 minutes with this video and you might learn a thing or two about the horrible consequences of sugar on your health.

My philosophy of nutritional eating as part of a healthy lifestyle has long included the minimizing - or elimination - of refined sugar in the diet. I use this blog to share my knowledge, trying to help educate others about what ingredients to use and about how to prepare foods that are good for the body, avoiding foods which are toxic. There are so many healthy alternatives to sugar-sweetened foods, and, once a balanced everyday diet is adopted, the craving for sugar is reduced.

There's no argument - sugar tastes good. Unfortunately we live in an age of over self-indulgence, and many don't want to give up anything that makes them happy. The American diet focuses on eating (overeating, actually) overprocessed food (most laden with sweetener) as a convenience in our busy lifestyles. Sugar, in its many forms, is an ingredient in so many packaged foods - even where you would least expect it. You have to search for salad dressing without sugar - even something like blue cheese dressing; soy milk (which everyone thinks is so healthy) sells much better in the sweetened vanilla version than in the "unsweetened" variety; there's even sugar added to frozen pea pods! I could go on and on.

Don't be foolish and think that "artificial sweeteners" are the answer to this problem. I get disgusted every time I hear the propoganda of an advertisement for Splenda. Their website says "It is made through a patented process that starts with sugar..." Well, it soon becomes a toxic chemical engineered by big industry (read about what it really is, in my ingredients list in the right column). But wait, there's more... now you can get vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber pre-added to your toxic sweetener! Anyway, I don't need to get any deeper into this topic - you know where it's heading.

Becoming aware is the first step in making positive changes, so please take a look at the video and educate yourself. Wishing you better health through nutrition!

5/4/12

Make the Creamiest Smoothies Ever!

If you make your own fruit or green smoothies, there's an unusual ingredient which will make them so creamy and smooth your tongue will smile! Add some ripe avocado. A powerhouse of nutrition, the avocado adds great benefits with no unpleasant change of taste to your smoothie.

I use one half of a pitted, skinned, ripe avocado in my Vitamix, with ingredients for about 32 oz of smoothie. The darkest green part of the avocado flesh, closest to the skin, is the most dense in nutrients, so be sure to scrape the skin clean before putting it in your compost pot.

The yellow-green color of this fruit might alter your smoothie color, which is no problem if you are making green smoothies. For all-fruit smoothies, if this color change bothers you or those you share smoothies with, experiment initially by adding avocado to a smoothie made with colorful ingredients, like blueberries or blackberries. Or add a big spoonful of unsweetened powdered organic cocoa or carob for a flavor boost and color mask.

Here are some avocado facts from Natural News
  • Avocadoes provide all 18 essential amino acids
  • Avocadoes provide the healthy kind of fat that your body needs. Like olive oil, avocadoes boost levels of HDL (the "good" cholesterol)
  • Avocadoes are an excellent source of carotenoids
  • Avocadoes offer powerful anti-inflammatory benefits
  • Avocadoes have a unique combination of Vitamins C and E, carotenoids, selenium, zinc, and phytosterols
  • Avocadoes are rich in omega-3 fatty acid

4/26/12

My Kind of Gift!

I received such a treasure from my fiddling friend Becca's sister and mom - fresh artisan ricotta made from their own dairy goats. I can't describe the delicious and distinctive taste, lightyears away from the taste of any store-bought ricotta. To prevent me from eating the whole container just plain, I decided to make into a delicate herbal spread. A visit to my organic gardens provided chives, thyme, lemon balm, Italian parsley, and fennel fronds… a combination I thought would taste good without overpowering the cheese. I chopped the herbs in my hand blender, then mixed them into the ricotta with a bit of cracked black pepper. The cheese was crumbly in texture, so I felt the need to add something to make it more spreadable. I had some plain organic Greek yogurt, and a few spoonfuls were all that was needed. A lovely chive blossom finished it off, and I served it with raw peapods just picked from my garden. Try this yourself if you are fortunate enough to find a source for artisan cheese, or use some gourmet goat cheese from the market.

4/16/12

Please Eat the Flowers!


"Am I supposed to eat the flowers?" I often hear this question when I add fresh flowers to a salad I've brought to a potluck. Many flowers are edible, but we are more accustomed to eating other plant parts in our salads, like leaves (lettuce, spinach), roots (radishes, carrots, onions), fruit (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers), stems (celery, asparagus), and seeds (chick peas, peapods). Add broccoli to your salad, and you are even eating unopened flower buds. Flowers can add color, beauty, flavor, and, in many cases, nutrients, to a dish.

Many edible flowers grow wild, and others grow on trees and shrubs, and in our cultivated flower, vegetable, and herb gardens. Use caution if you intend to harvest any flowers to eat. Here are good rules:
  • Be 100% positive of the plant identity - Use reference guides, like my favorite for wild edibles, Peterson Field Guide: Edible Wild Plants. Some online references are included at the end of this post.
  • Know what plant part is edible - Even though a plant is in your veggie garden, the flowers might be poisonous to eat, while another part of the plant is edible - such as the case with potatoes. Inversely, some flowers are edible while the other parts of the same plant are toxic. You wouldn't want to make a mistake and end up with a mouthful of poison ivy!
  • It is best to harvest plants grown on your own property, from locations where you know they have not been exposed to pesticides, herbicides or pollution from vehicle exhaust fumes. Do not use florist flowers, which might be treated with chemicals. If you pick from someone else's property, get the owner's permission. Gathering plants is prohibited on most state and federal lands, such as in a National Forest.
  • Don't eat too much of any one plant - Eating too much of even the most mild substance can cause illness
  • Beware of allergens - If you are allergic to strawberries, you might also react to strawberry flowers, for example. Perhaps try only a very small amount of a blossom the first time. While blossoms might be delicate they can still pack a chemical punch. Introduce them gradually into the diet if you are not sure. Also, some flowers have known side effects, such as yellow violets which can act as a laxative when eaten in quantities.
  • Harvest sustainably - In the case of wildflowers, don't overpick any one species or you might wipe them out from that location, and don't pick if there are just a few of one plant. Keep in mind that the flower is the plant part which produces the fruit and seeds… if you pick strawberry flowers, you'll have that many fewer berries. Also, tread softly in the wild and respect the land.
  • Cultivate wild edibles - You can scatter white clover seeds as a groundcover, collect the fluffy white seed heads from dandelions and plant them in a pot, or grow your own chicory from purchased seeds, just as a few ideas.
  • Learn the best way to eat your flower harvest - Flowers can be eaten raw, cooked, stuffed, fried, steeped as tea, coated with sugar to use to decorate cakes, or infused to flavor vinegar, jelly, wine, or alcohol. With some flowers it is best to just use the petals, others need the inner parts (pistils and stamens) removed.

Here is just a partial list of edible flowers:
WILD PLANTS or TREES
Bachelor's Buttons
Chicory
Clover
Dandelion
Redbud Trees
Violets
Mustard
Indian Strawberry
Pink Showy Primrose
Wisteria (note, only flowers are edible, everything else is toxic)
Blackberry
Daylily
Violet
Yucca - young flowers
Wild Rose

HERBS
Borage
Chamomile
Chive
Lavender
Mint
Basil
Calendula
Fennel
Dill
Cilantro
Oregano
Rosemary
Sage

CULTIVATED FLOWERS, BERRIES, SHRUBS, FRUIT TREES
Carnation/Dianthus
Chrysanthemum
Strawberry
Citrus
Apple
Fuchsia
Gladiolus
Hibiscus
Hollyhock
Impatiens
Jasmine
Johnny Jump-Up (violet family)
Pansy
Lemon Verbena
Lilac
Nasturtium
Rose
Sunflower
Violet

GARDEN VEGETABLE PLANTS
Onion, garlic and other alliums
Radish (don't harvest the root, let the plant grow)

Squash, Pumpkin, Zucchini
Peas, Peapods
Broccoli, Collards, Mustard Greens

There's lots of information online about edible flowers, helping with identification, plus creative ways to use them. Here are some websites I've used:
http://www.foragingtexas.com
from the UK:   http://www.torrens.org.uk/FFF/index.html
http://www.pfaf.org/user/default.aspx (Plants For A Future)
http://www.eattheweeds.com/

Have fun using edible flowers and let me know of those you use and how you use them!

DISCLAIMER: Judy's Good Food Blog cannot take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. 




3/30/12

March in the Vegetable Garden

March is nearly over, and it's been such a busy time in my gardens that I'm just squeaking in this post before the month ends. Anyone who thinks that Zone 7 is only for warm weather gardening is missing some of the best months of harvests. I've been doing every imaginable garden task this month - weeding, seeding, transplanting, thinning, harvesting, turning soil, raising seedlings, freeezing produce, drying herbs, and EATING great food.... but not having to deal with bugs, diseases or fungi. Unseasonably warm weather (in the 80s) for many March days has made some plants think it is time to flower, like my collards and kale, so I've been harvesting, chopping, and freezing bags of greens (beet greens too). I was concerned when the blueberry bushes began to flower, thinking it was way too early, but the bees appeared just as quickly, doing their pollinating job. I also blame the off-the-chart temperatures on some of my seeds failing to germinate outdoors - particularly several lettuce varieties I sowed, which won't germinate in hot weather. Our average last frost date is April 15th, so I'm still keeping my warm weather seedlings - like peppers, tomatoes, basil, eggplant, etc. - in their pots, rather than planting them in the garden.

Here's what is growing this month:
  1. I've harvested greens every day since last October (for our daily green smoothies) and this bed of spinach has been a great producer, particularly since winter was mild. I will need to start pulling whole plants rather than just harvesting leaves, since crowding is one clue that makes spinach think it is time to go to seed. I will continue to harvest, wash, dry, chop and freeze spinach for future enjoyment.
  2. I planted a bed of Sugar Ann bush pea pods here in February, and the plants are up about 5" now. Should be ready to harvest in late April.
  3. This is a bed of lettuce which has germinated well, even in our March heat. It's an heirloom variety I am trying for the first time, Mignonette Bronze, which is supposed to tolerate heat better than other varieties. Further toward the south in this row were 3 other beds of various lettuce seeds which did not germinate, I think due to the heat.
  4. Pointer ends at a lush grouping of Chiogga beet greens, which have generously supplied me since last fall. To the north of the beets I've transplanted Siberian kale seedlings from a bed in the next row where they were growing too close. It's been so hot since I did the transplanting that I have had to drag out the hose to keep the bed wet while the little plants get re-established. Further south down this row, to the south, is a fabulous patch of cilantro. As I've stated before, cilantro will quickly bolt (send up a flower stalk) in warm weather. Since taking this photo, I harvested a huge bowl of cilantro, washed, dried, and pulled the leaves off the stems (which can be stringy). I've now frozen the chopped cilantro in freshly squeezed lime juice, as ice cubes, to see if I can preserve the taste to use in my homemade salsa next summer. I'll report on my success.
  5. My strawberry plants - June varieties - began to flower in early March. I have about 6 dozen plants, along this side of the garden and in other beds. 'Can't wait for harvest time!
  6. I probably will regret this planting. I grew "Breadseed Poppies" last year, a pretty purple flower I photographed in June in the Vegetable Garden, which produces larger (though still tiny) seeds, suitable for breads and other baked goods. As with my red poppies, I scattered the seeds in one of my flower gardens last fall, but not many germinated. So during the winter, I scattered more of the seeds in the vegetable garden - and loads germinated! I've thinned and transplanted them (I have a very hard time throwing any plants or seeds away!) and now I have a bed of breadseed poppies about 3' x 8'. They will be beautiful, but my challenge will be to harvest the seed pods before they fall all over the vegetable garden and replant themselves. It will be Judy vs. poppies!
  7. I took a chance and planted Oregon Sugar Pod Snow Peas in a bed here at the end of January. Peas tolerate cold very well. I was lucky, and they germinated well and now the bush-plants are about 8" tall and I expect they will begin flowering soon. They are twisting their tendrils on the sticks I've stuck in the ground around the plants to support them. I don't like to have to accommodate peas, beans, and other climbers on big supports, since I rotate my plantings all around the garden constantly, so I favor bush varieties. Did you know the leaves of pea plants are edible and very tasty raw? Flowers are beautiful and edible too, but you loose a pod for every flower you eat. Also in this garden row are curly kale plants and brussels sprouts. The brussels sprouts plants I started from seeds late last summer have grown well, but I think this warm weather will prevent them from forming sprouts. Next time I'll start the plants much earlier, perhaps July, keeping them in the window of my 60 degree basement to grow until fall planting time.
  8. This row has yielded more beet greens, more lettuce, scallions, and collards all winter. In the front row of the garden are the plants I've awarded the "slowest grower" award - celeriac, a root vegetable related to celery. The seeds I started in July started plants which survived in the garden and in the cold frame all winter… but they are only about 2" tall now. I had hoped to be harvesting a big celery-tasting root during the winter, to use in soups and stews. I'll keep it growing, and I can harvest the green tops as I wait for the roots to develop - but the harvest will be small!
  9. My patch of Florence fennel has reseeded itself behind the cold frame. I love the fennel seeds I harvested last summer, using them ground in baked goods or throwing a big spoonful in my breakfast granola. I think I will move these young fennel plants from the vegetable garden into my "excess garden" where it can grow and spread relatively unrestricted, where I grow horseradish, mints, jerusalem artichokes, and other perennial or reseeding plants considered to be invasive… that's where the breadseed poppies were supposed to be growing! Next to the fennel I have planted seeds for two types of Japanese edible chrysanthemums, a new crop for me. My regular flowering chrysanthemums grow well, without any pests or problems, so when I read about these greens I thought they might be successful for me. The curly parsley growing here has provided me abundantly all winter, and we enjoy tabouli salad from freshly harvested parsley, scallions, and mint (click for my tabouli recipe). The Italian flat leaf parsley has grown well in the cold frame, being a bit more cold sensitive.
See how the strawberry flower becomes the fruit.

In addition to what is in the vegetable garden, I also have trays of many different seedlings I've been growing indoors - tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, herbs, beets, squashes, eggplant, stevia, hyssop, and others. My friend Judy's suggestion that my big patch of lemon grass would not survive our winter proved to be correct. Fortunately, I had dug up a portion of it and grew it in a pot in the basement window, so now I've replanted that outdoors. I've also been tending to the grape vines, blackberries, red raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries, as well as to my perennial herbs - sage, chives, lavender, oregano, thyme, lemon balm, rosemary, mints, and others. I've started a bed of marigolds to transplant around the garden, but most of my flower beds are perennials. The ajuga is blooming in waves of blue, my fragrant irises are now open, the lilacs are flowering, lily of the valley are perfuming the air, and carpets of creeping phlox are cascading over my rocks. I love this time of year! 

By the way, in the garden photo there is a leaning flowering dogwood in the background. It had been uprooted when we had a direct hit by an EF-2 tornado last April and we propped it up, buried the roots in good dirt, watered it all summer, and hoped it would survive. It has been struggling, but looks like it might make it. It will probably end up with a lovely asymmetrical shape and much character, like a bonsai. Mother Nature does awesome things.

I've now done a monthly garden post for an entire 12-month cycle. I'll continue to update you on what is in my garden, but more sporadically. I hope this will allow me to devote more of my writing time to bring you new recipe ideas, nutrition information, food preservation tips, and other good food news. Please subscribe to this blog in any one of the ways listed in the right column, and share it with others too. Thanks for reading and for all the continuous positive feedback.


3/17/12

Mystery Plant Identified!

The unidentified plant pictured in my February garden post aroused much interest. A commenter said it might be a member of the mustard family, but when I google the commenter's identification of the plant as "Leavenworthia" the flowers didn't quite match my plant, although the leaves are similar. Someone else said it likely is a "Cress", which is indeed plant family related to mustard plants. I searched my books and online references and I finally have narrowed it down to two possibilities, both Bittercress:

Wood Bittercress
(Cardamine Flexuosa)
or
Hairy Bittercress 
(Cardamine Hirsuta) - "hairy" refers to the very tiny hairy spikes, which show best if you click on the photo on my February post to enlarge it.

And my research reveals it's an edible plant. The young raw leaves taste mildly similar to watercress, which you might know from gourmet produce markets - a bitter, peppery taste. Watercress grows wild in my creek (roots need moving clean water) and has very similarly shaped leaves to the Mystery Plant. As with many plants, once it starts to flower the leaves get more bitter tasting. My large photo matches one I saw on a good wild edibles website which said: "…when the leaves form a rosette on the ground, it's a small, insignificant weed. However, this is very early in the year when there's not a lot around that's worth eating…. ripe seed heads and stalks tend to be fibrous, therefore unpalatable." The young leaves can be mixed into a fresh salad or used in a sandwich, for a peppery bite.



Beware if you don't want this weed to re-seed. The Barbie-doll size seed pods which form after the flowers contain many tiny seeds. I often hear them "POP" and scatter the seeds when I bump into the plant… meaning many more plants in the future.

As with any edible wild food, be 100% sure of your identification before ingesting. One of my upcoming blog posts will be on more wild edibles now growing.

2/21/12

February in the Vegetable Garden


Our winter weather continues to alternate between full sun and rain, with very mild temperatures. Daffodils and lenten roses are blooming, and the forsythia will burst with yellow flowers soon. Even my purple verbena is flowering, sun-warmed by the limestone rocks in the "boulder garden." I've done gardening tasks never before attempted during the winter, due to this unusual weather. Here are the details:

TRANSPLANTING - This is one task commonly unheard of in winter, but I've successfully thinned the bed of cilantro I planted in the fall, replanted the little plants, and they have new growth. I transplanted a couple of rows of beets from a patch which had reseeded itself. I've also discovered that once you grow garlic, expect volunteers to appear long after you think you harvested everything. Those little stragglers are now moved into the garlic patch and are growing well too.

DIRECT PLANTING SEEDS - In late January I planted a bed of snap pea seeds, more than a month earlier than I normally would. Peas are very resistant to cold, although they will grow slowly. I figured the worst I had to lose was $1.25 worth of seeds. I've just begun to see green growth emerge from the soil, so my head start should be successful. I've also direct seeded corn mache (a salad green), romaine lettuce, and kale, but no signs of growth yet.

RAKING - My latest gardening reading is a book called Good Bug, Bad Bug and I recommend it to other organic gardeners. It prompted me to rake the leaves out of the low walkways in my garden, once I learned that many damaging insects will over-winter in matted leaves. I'll be revealing more tips from this book as the gardening season gets underway, like planting certain crops near others to deter bad insects or to attract good ones.

Please help me identify this weed, growing everywhere!
WEEDING - I've been weeding, which is usually unheard of this time of year. The warm wet weather has spurred on the growth of weeds which usually don't germinate in winter. Can any one tell me what the weed I've photographed is? I added my fingertip as a size reference. This plant is everywhere, and it is flowering now so more seeds will follow soon. There is so much of it, I'd love to learn that it's edible! Meanwhile, at the very least, I am trying to eliminate it from the veggie garden. Other weeds I've been pulling are mostly grasses.

HARVESTING - As I keep saying, I love those collards! My next recipe experiment will be using the leaves to make Stuffed Cabbage, since they are big and flat and not apt to break like cabbage leaves do. The few times the temps have dipped below 20, I've still been covering my collard bed, since I don't want to risk damage. The brussels sprouts continue to produce, so I keep harvesting from the same plants. Even the ones I started from seed last fall have been growing, so I might get a spring harvest out of those plants. Also continuing to pick spinach, beet greens, curly parsley (more cold tolerant than flat leaved, which crocked last month), lettuce, cilantro, mint, kale, onion tops and garlic greens.

PRUNING - It's time to prune my two Concord grape vines. The trick with grapes is to prune WAY MORE than you think you need to. Look online for lots of instructions, and your vines will reward you with much more to harvest. Unfortunately the birds or some other culprit beat me to the harvest last season, so I may need to cover the ripening grapes with netting this year.

INDOOR SEED STARTING - As I would normally do in late January, I've started a couple varieties of blight-resistant tomatoes, and sweet peppers in my south-facing window, as well as some lime basil and stevia - all in peat pellets. The store shelves are packed with seed-starting trays and pots, but I have those from previous years, so I just buy the replacement pellets. Once the roots start poking out of the bottom of the peat pellet, I transplant the seedlings to individual 3" square plastic pots I save and reuse year to year. This year, I struggled to find ingredients for my potting mix for the seedlings. In the past, I've been able to buy shredded sphagnum peat moss, and mixed it with vermiculite and organic potting soil. This year I can't find the fine peat moss for sale. Also, since I grow organically, I don't want to buy any soil starting mixes with chemical fertilizers added, as with the MiracleGro mixtures. I never thought I'd be reading ingredients labels on soil mixtures! With some searching around the garden center shelves, I've found some premixed seed starting which are organic and close to that which I mixed myself, one made by Jiffy (at WalMart) and one from NK Farm (at Lowes).

I am always looking for ways to recycle, and many plastic discards become part of my garden supplies. Plastic clam-shells from grocery store lettuce mixes and strawberries provide mini-greenhouses for seeds started in peat pellets. The air holes are already there, allowing drainage at the bottom, circulation of air at the top, and heat escape. You can open the lids when the temperature is warm too. Berry baskets are good for holding peat pellets too. I use 32 oz. yogurt containers to cut I.D. tags (I label everything - too easy to forget what each plant is!), and I also poke holes in the bottoms to use them as pots, both in the 6 oz and 32 oz sizes. Little grated cheese containers make ideal drain cups under the yogurt-container pots.

Next month will be a busier gardening month, so I am enjoying my non-gardening time with my other passion, painting. See what I've been working on lately in my Art Blog.