Friday, September 17, 2010

Confessions of an almost gardener...

Fall is almost upon us and if you live in the desert, it signals the beginning of our second planting season. I have yet to have a garden that I would call successful. My early attempts failed due to watering issues, planting things in the wrong season, pest attacks and blatant neglect. The last three gardens were consumed by my chickens. Number one had no fence and I naively thought the chickens wouldn't notice it or care about it. Two had a fence that was too low and the crafty chickens flew over it and consumed my horticultural endeavor down to the roots. This spring's edition of my garden was the one I have waited for all my life. I harvested actual peas and broccoli, my tomatoes had little green fruits developing and real green beans were growing from delicate white blossoms on leafy green vines. Finally I could call myself a real gardener...that is until I went on vacation in June. While we were away, it was very windy and the gate to the garden blew down. I returned to my drip irrigation in disarray and no signs of life in the soil--the chickens had won again.

Not one to give up, I began planting my cool season garden today. I invited the chickens to join me inside the fence so they could turn the soil and devour any little weeds that were residing there. They did a great job on the weeds, but their work ethic on turning the soil left much to be desired. I even crumbled up cereal and mixed it in the dirt to encourage them to scratch around but they still didn't do a very good job. Eventually I kicked them out and turned the soil myself with a garden fork. After undoing the damage my feathered friends had done to the irrigation, I was ready to head to the nursery for seeds and plants.

As I mentioned earlier, one of my gardening failures was due to planting things in the wrong season. Apparently some things grow better in cool weather and some prefer it warmer. My early gardening days consisted of me going to the nursery and grabbing whatever sounded and looked good. I do not make that mistake anymore. A good rule of thumb is: things that have seeds like tomatoes, peppers or melons are warm weather crops and cole crops like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages, as well as most root vegetables are cool weather crops. On a visit to the Springs Preserve, I got a handy pamphlet that had a nice grid in the back to tell you what to plant and when. This publication is also available online by clicking here. A master gardener named Clarita Huffman created this calendar and I plan my garden around it. Now I do not actually know Clarita or what her credentials or experience are, but I will not plant something unless she says it is okay.

With the garden ready to receive new plants and seeds, I went to the nursery to see what transplants were available and what seeds I would need to purchase. My husband was drawn to tomatoes and peppers but I knew that Clarita would not approve so I told him it was the wrong time of year for those. With that remark, a nursery employee came over to tell me why it was okay to plant them now: they have a fast growing season, they are cold hardy enough to grow in Montana, etc.; but since her name tag did not say Clarita, I wasn't falling for it. My husband thought I should listen to her since she worked at the nursery but I decided that it was part of a larger conspiracy to get rid of their leftover summer vegetables on uneducated gardeners.
For transplants I selected broccoli, napa cabbage and brussel sprouts. I also grabbed seed packets of spinach, carrots and two varieties of lettuce, as well as some garlic bulbs. Mr. Garden State, aka my husband, cast a disapproving eye on my transplants. He thought they didn't look very healthy. I argued that they were the best ones they had and once they were in the ground they would be okay. He still didn't believe me and even taunted me all the way home about how in New Jersey you just stick stuff in the ground and it grows. You don't even need to water it, it's big, beautiful, blah, blah, blah. He is a firm believer that nothing good can grow here but I am determined to prove him wrong. I reminded him that we ate actual peas and broccoli from the last garden and he reminded me that it wasn't enough to feed the whole family. New Jersey may be the Garden State, but we have better winters and can correctly pronounce the word "water."

Most everything is in the ground except for the seeds. I have reinforced the chicken fence and secured the gate better, although I must confess there is some relief when the chickens eat the garden because then the pressure is off me. The garden can't fail when it's not there anymore. Still, I believe that this time I can grow enough broccoli to feed all four of us in one meal--if those chickens don't get it first!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How sweet it isn't...

"A sugar is a sugar whether it comes from cane, corn or beets."--Corn Refiner's Association

Is a sugar really a sugar? If that is the case, why are we trying so hard to avoid high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2008 Americans consumed 37.8 pounds of HFCS per capita. It is found in obvious things like sodas and fruit drinks, and not so obvious items like ketchup and the majority of breads at the supermarket. To see how it enhances the stability and shelf-life of different products, click here. After reading this list, I wanted to avoid this ingredient even more and this is the website that is supposed to convince me how safe it is!

Although produced from corn, a healthy vegetable, HFCS bears no resemblance to it's original form. It is highly-refined into a cheap sweetener that is created from a crop highly subsidized by the U.S. government. As a sweetener, it is chemically different than sugar and not metabolized the same way. Table sugar is composed of sucrose which is not broken down and used by the body the same way as fructose. In animal studies, fructose produced insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, high insulin levels, high triglycerides and high blood pressure. HFCS is also the prime suspect in the obesity epidemic that is plaguing America. Mice fed fructose experienced higher weight gain than mice that were fed the same amount of sucrose.

So why I am I bringing this up? With all the attention on the dangers of HFCS, it's consumption has seen a 21% decrease compared to 10 years ago. Prominent brands such as Hunt's Ketchup and some Sara Lee breads have removed it entirely and advertise this fact on their labels. This revolution has hit the Corn Refiner's Association in their pocket book and they are scrambling to recoup their losses. If you visit the Sweet Surprise website, you will almost be convinced that there is no difference between HFCS and other sweeteners. They are even lobbying for permission to rename HFCS to "corn sugar" on the labels of foods. Corn sugar? Really? For those that aren't avid label readers, this is not a big deal, but for the rest of us it is an insult. It is on the news, do you think we aren't going to figure it out? A highly-processed sweetener by any other name will be just as sweet--and unhealthy!

There was a time when I read labels to avoid sugar but now I am excited to find labels boasting my snowy-white, granulated friend. Today, while buying a barbecue sauce, only one brand (not in the organic aisle) did not have HFCS as an ingredient. For all the others it was listed first or second. Buying organic products is another way to eliminate or reduce your HFCS consumption. This may sound corny, but the only sweet surprise I see is that food manufacturers are listening and removing this ingredient from their products. Keep up the good work American shoppers!

Friday, June 25, 2010

You mango me crazy...

For the almost half of my life, I did not eat mangoes. I am not sure I had even heard of them until high school and the first time I tasted one it came from a jar and was packed in syrup. Since then, they have become pretty popular. They grace our smoothies, shampoos and flavor chewing gum. My kids love them and from Cinco de Mayo through the summer they are pretty affordable. Their health benefits are numerous: they contain phenols, a powerful antioxidant; they are high in iron; and contain vitamins A, E and selenium to name a few. So why do I HATE mangoes? Have you ever tried to peel and cut one? In the photo, you can clearly see the pit, yet whenever I cut one the only way I can distinguish the pit from the fruit is when my knife hits it. I have seen cooking shows where they score it in the peel and one well-placed horizontal slice yields perfect cubes, yet I have never had this work in real life. I have tried peeling and then slicing only to have mush on my knife and juice running down my arm. It's for these reasons that I avoid making mango salsa, mango smoothies or just buying them to snack on. They beckon you with their beautiful skins, painted various hues of red and green while concealing their golden-orange flesh which is so difficult to remove that you need to be a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu just to try. In spite of all these negative reasons I was convinced to buy some by a pleading seven-year-old boy and a very attractive sale price. I wish I could say this time was different but I could barely harvest enough flesh out of three of them to produce 2 cups of puree for ice cream. According to the recipe, three mangoes should have yielded enough for the puree and 1 1/2 cups diced to serve with the ice cream. Stinkin' mangoes!

Since our chickens began laying, we have had an abundance of eggs. So much so that we can usually give away a dozen a week. We scramble them, fry them, bake them, feed them to the dogs and sometimes even to the chickens. I've made chiffon cake, angel food cake and several quiches. Now that it is summer, egg production has gone down just when I found a new thing to do with them. My friend has a food blog and posted this recipe for mini frittatas. They were so easy to make and I substituted bacon and cheddar for the ham and parmesan since those were the ingredients I had on hand. They bake in a mini muffin pan so you don't have to worry about having the middle loose or your oven on for an hour in the summer. They were a big hit with my family and needless to say, we had no leftovers.

Speaking of eggs, remember how they were bad for you because of the cholesterol and needed to be avoided or at least consumed in moderation? Well avoid them no more, they are good for you! The whites contain the most perfect form of protein you can consume and the yokes are an egg-cellent source of choline, a nutrient required for healthy liver function among other things. New studies show that they may even reduce your risk of heart disease. History has demonstrated that food dietary guidelines fluctuate with the current scientific studies and hypotheses so how can we know what is best to eat? Don't be swayed by the trends and processed foods with healthy things added in. If it looks close to how it was created in nature, how could it be wrong?

Monday, June 21, 2010

I scream, you scream...we all scream over $20 ice cream!

Sometimes I feel like I was meant to live over 100 years ago. The idea of being self-sufficient and living a simpler existence is so attractive at times. I know if the women of that era could travel to our time and see our washing machines, SUVs and water dispensing refrigerators, they would probably be perfectly happy to trade places. It's just another case of the grass being greener on the other side.

My pioneering spirit has long desired to make ice cream from scratch. I received a hand-me-down ice cream maker this past winter and have been waiting for the scorching days of summer to bust it out. While traveling in North Carolina and Virginia this month, we ate a LOT of ice cream and some of it was homemade. There was definitely a difference! I couldn't wait to return home and make some for us. I decided that cherry vanilla would be our first flavor since it was my husband's favorite when he was a kid. I bought my ingredients only to come home and find that the metal container that holds the ice cream was missing the lid! In desperation, I went to Kohl's but could only find an ice cream maker that made 1 1/2 quarts. What is the point? There are four of us! It would take two batches just for all of us to have a bowl. I hit Target next and found one that could make a gallon and was the old-fashioned style with the wooden bucket. I was back in business! Our first batch was amazing, though the kids didn't like the actual cherries in it very much. Did they take into consideration the fact that I hand-pitted 3 cups worth for this ice cream and had red-stained hands the rest of the day? Of course not. There may have been too many cherries and I didn't chop them very small so they were pretty icy when you bit into them. My next batch was to be vanilla bean. I decided that I would use the finest ingredients to make the best vanilla bean ice cream possible. I already had good eggs (the recipe called for 8 yolks) and just needed some cream, half and half and vanilla beans. I went to Whole Foods so I could buy organic dairy products. Straus Family Creamery's adorable glass bottles beckoned me. They cost about 40 cents more than the other organics but I decided to splurge. While checking out, the cashier asked if I knew about the bottle deposit. Apparently it costs an additional $1.50 per glass bottle which is refunded if you bring the bottles back to the store. Too embarrassed to want to take them back and switch out for the cheaper cardboard cartons, I opted to pay the extra $3.00. Did I mention the glass bottles were adorable? In all my obsessing over the dairy ingredients, I forgot to buy vanilla beans. Not wanting to trudge back to Whole Foods, I hit my local Albertson's. This being my first purchase of whole vanilla beans, I was totally shocked to discover that they sell for $7 for ONE! Fortunately they were on sale or else I would have had to pay $10! Although my recipe called for two beans, I settled for bringing home one giant spice jar with one skinny crinkled bean. At this point, it was almost a $20 gallon of ice cream; I had totally lost my mind. I wish I could say it was the most amazing ice cream ever, but sadly, it was so rich we could barely eat it. At least it made a good berry milkshake and I have learned a valuable life lesson that just because something costs more, doesn't mean it's better.

This last week I signed on to the Bountiful Baskets produce co-op. Several of my friends have already been purchasing through it and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. This Saturday morning, I was standing in line behind a warehouse and holding an empty laundry basket that was to be filled with a mystery assortment of fruits and vegetables. The process is actually very simple. You contribute on Tuesday morning towards the upcoming Saturday delivery. It is $15 for conventional produce or $25 for organic. There is a one-time charge of $3.00 added to your first order. Drop points are located around town and you select the one that is most convenient for you, then arrive at the scheduled time to pick up your produce. They have co-ops in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Texas and Washington. For more information check out their website here. I was very happy with amount I received and the overall quality was acceptable except for a little too much mush in one of the tomatoes and some slightly wilted lettuce. The lettuce did perk up once I put it in the fridge. My first organic purchase consisted of:

5 cameo apples
4 black plums
6 bananas
Somewhere between 2-3 pounds of white seedless grapes
2 grapefruits
1 pint blueberries
1 bunch celery
1 bunch of lacinato kale
4 tomatoes
3 avocados
1 head green leaf lettuce
1 head cauliflower
2 heads brocolette (A longer, thinner broccoli, it looked like what we grew at home)

You only participate when you want, so there is no obligation to contribute every week. I can't wait to see what my basket will have next week, and it also nice to have a laundry basket not filled with dirty clothes for a change.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The breakfast blues

For the past year, I have been fiddling around with pancake recipes. I used to be a die-hard Krusteaz Buttermilk mix user until I read the ingredients. The label begins innocently enough: enriched bleached flour, sugar and leavening, but it's the remaining ingredients that trouble me. Soy flour(not sure why this troubles me but I am sure with a little research I could pin it down.), dextrose, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils, and mono-diglycerides (emulsifier). I decided that the "just add water" convenience of this product was just not worth consuming the questionable additives. In my journey to find the right recipe, I experimented with different flours, buttermilk and the ratios of the standard ingredients as well as an amount of batter that will make enough pancakes for my ravenous family. Feel free to use organic ingredients when available. Today I think I found a winner and here it is:

Semi-Whole Wheat Blueberry Pancakes
(Makes about 18 4-inch pancakes)

3 eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons of organic cane sugar or regular sugar (organic cane has bigger crystals for a nice texture)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 pint of blueberries
butter for cooking

Beat eggs with whisk in a large bowl until fluffy. Whisk in remaining ingredients except butter and blueberries until just combined. It is not necessary to be lump free! Set pan or griddle over medium heat and grease with butter(you will need to add more butter after each batch). You will know the pan is hot enough when the butter sizzles as soon as it is in contact with the surface. Ladle desired amount of batter into greased pan and top with 5-7 blueberries per pancake. Flip when the bubbles start to pop and cook for about one more minute. Serve with REAL maple syrup and enjoy!

Why real maple syrup? I know it is expensive compared to Mrs. Butterworth's but once you make the switch you won't want to go back. Just a comparison of the labels was enough for me. My bottle of the Whole Foods 365 Organic Grade A Maple Syrup requires refrigeration after opening and it has one ingredient: organic maple syrup. In contrast, Mrs. Butterworth's does not require refrigeration yet has an incredibly long shelf life. It's ingredients are: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, water, salt, cellulose gum, molasses, potassium sorbate (preservative), sodium hexametaphosphate, citric acid, caramel color, natural and artificial flavors. I recommend ditching the brown corn syrup and eating pancakes and waffles less often to compensate for the increase in the price of the syrup. The food conglomerates have created a way to produce cheaper "food" at the cost of quality. Real food costs more, but it is cheaper than the medical care that will be required to treat the diseases brought about by an unhealthy diet and lifestyle. We'll pay now or we'll later!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Good fences make good gardens...

Wow, if I had waited just 18 more days, it would have been a full six months since my last blog post. I debated whether or not to fully retire but slowly but surely the words are coming back. The last six months found our household with a new member, my bed-ridden grandma. It was quite the journey and we have seemed to returned to our normal routine since her passing almost two months ago.

During my hiatus, I planted a spring garden complete with peas, green beans, carrots, tomatoes, watermelon, zucchini and cantaloupe. Gardening in the desert is not for wimps! Yes, we have a long growing season but if you don't hit everything just right, you may never see a harvest. I was overjoyed when my peas blossomed and produced the most delicious little green orbs. When my tomatoes were covered in delicate yellow flowers, I imagined them sliced and covered with basil and balsamic vinegar, but sadly our love story ended tragically. May was unseasonably cool and because of the evening temperatures being below 60 degrees, the plants never set fruit. The carrots and green beans tried to compensate and began to fill in nicely until the wind blew part of the garden fence down and the chickens wiped out the entire carrot crop in 15 minutes. Their scratching and digging severed the green bean and pea vines from their roots, thus ending their brief residence in my garden. I did not despair because there were tiny green buds finally coming out of the tomato blossoms. My little hens had also eaten the leaves off of the melon vines and all the cantaloupe blossoms but even these had overcome the tragedy and were returning to their growth cycle.

Yesterday we returned from a week-long visit to Virginia. I knew there was an intense heat wave while we were away so I fully expected to see a stressed-out garden when I returned. What I found instead was NO garden. The strong Vegas winds had once again blown the garden door down, but this time I wasn't there to prevent the merciless slaughter of that which I had poured my heart and soul into for the last few months. Honestly I can't blame the chickens for being chickens and I could have not been so lazy and secured the door better, but still...

Since chickens seems to be the one thing I am good at when it comes to producing our own food, we added three more to our flock. The new girls will lay white eggs which will nicely round out the colors in our egg basket. They should begin laying around October which will give us the possibility of up to 9 eggs per day. While in Virginia, I bought the first grocery store eggs I have had in about 8 months. I splurged on what seemed to be the best possible eggs the store offered. They were organic, free-range, Omega-3, etc. When I cracked open the first one I was greeted by a pale, yellow and runny yoke. It was quite different than the firm orange yokes that we have become accustomed to. My kids wouldn't eat them and when I tried one I found the flavor diluted and just plain wrong. I ended up hard boiling them so we couldn't tell the difference. The next day I was able to buy some at a Williamsburg farmer's market and they looked and tasted more like we were used to. (Confidentially, I still think mine taste better but don't tell Farmer Bill).

Even though it seems to be virtually impossible for me to have a garden, at least food is growing somewhere and I can buy it. Summer welcomes so many wonderful foods: berries, stone fruits, tomatoes, melons and artichokes to name a few. If you eat these when they are in season and not shipped from South America or artificially ripened, the flavor is incredible. I have found if I invest in a variety of the summer fruits and leave them ready-to-eat on the counter, my kids will snack on them all day. When you are feeling fancy you can turn them into light and refreshing desserts to enjoy on the hot summer nights.

Since we cannot live on fruit alone, I am working on ways to incorporate more vegetables in our diet. I would like to try at least one new veggie each week this summer to help break us out of our corn, peas and broccoli rut. Tonight we enjoyed grilled endive(pictured with grilled chicken) drizzled with balsamic vinegar. I got the idea from a magazine and it was enjoyed by all of us, even the kids. Our weather was not cooperating with my plan to grill outside so I cooked them indoors on my George Foreman grill. Simply slice Belgian endive in halve lengthwise. Brush halves with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place face down on a hot grill for about 4 or 5 minutes and drizzle with balsamic vinegar before serving. Next week's assignment: celery root.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Everyone else has a "Best of 2009" list and I want one too!

I have to confess that it has been so long between posts that I almost forgot how to login but I refuse to let the blog die! Happy New Year and welcome to the first post of 2010.

At the end of the year there are many lists citing what was amazing about the past year so I decided to create my own list of our family's top 10 nutritional changes for 2009:

10. In an effort to cut back on processed foods and the chemicals and preservatives they are laden with, I have quit buying certain staples that used to always be found in a cupboard: Chunky Soup, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and any Campbells "Cream of" soup to name a few.

9. When it won't make the item unpalatable, I have substituted whole-wheat flour for part or all of the all-purpose flour called for in baked goods. I have learned that some items just aren't as good with whole-wheat flour and I don't think we will ever get used to them that way.

8. I started this blog which makes me accountable to any of my friends that I see on a regular basis. If I am writing about how bad a food is, I shouldn't be seen stuffing it in my face!

7. We have an actual garden growing in our backyard with spinach, broccoli and beets. We have been able to eat some spinach but the beets and broccoli are growing very slowly and are not ready yet. I hope they are ready in time for me to start the warm season garden.

6. When possible I buy organic products. I have learned how to shop around and get decent prices on them and have gotten used to paying more for items such as butter and cereal but I truly feel it is worth it.

5. We discovered grass-fed beef and although I do not use it exclusively for all cuts, it has been the only ground beef I have purchased in months and every time a beef recall is in the news I don't need to check my lot numbers!

4. We started receiving Winder Farms dairy products on our doorstep and I love them! It is also good to know that when I go to sleep on Sunday I will wake up to a week's worth of milk on my doorstep the next morning.

3. I have become a better steward of my food because I am paying more for it. In order to cut back on waste I have to shop more frequently for produce and bakery items but I try to stretch them further. I have even made my own chicken stock from bones and veggie scraps and froze it for future meals.

2. I have discovered that I am not alone in this journey. Whether it be friends or online communities and newsletters, there is overwhelming support for these changes.

1. Chickens! I adore my little hens. Raising them has been such a wonderful experience and we have just started receiving the fruit of that labor: 2 nice little brown eggs each morning. We hope to have up to six a day but not all the girls are on board with that plan yet. They do cause us some frustration since it seems impossible to keep them in the part of the yard we want them and out of the parts we don't and we really hate when they visit the pool deck(soon to renamed the poop deck)! In spite of that, they have brought us many hours of joy and, as of today, 12 eggs!

If you have been inspired to make changes in this new year, don't try to do it all at once. Take it a step at a time such as cutting back on processed foods or avoiding anything with high fructose corn syrup in the ingredients. It is also important to read the labels on what you are buying. Know what is in it and where it is from and don't be fooled by the claims on the front of the boxes. Who knows, maybe this time next year you will be getting fresh eggs from your backyard chickens too!

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