Thursday, September 30, 2010

Egads! Rain.

First hurdle in my local eating challenge: Rain.

I thought that the farmer's market was rain or shine. I devised a way to keep le bebe dry while we shopped and hauled all the gear into the car.  Then, I drove through the rain only to find the market area...empty.  I don't blame the farmers; I wouldn't stand out in the rain either.  But I hadn't figured the weather would hinder me in this challenge!

I'll try going to a market tomorrow and if weather prevents that, I'll see if my husband can go on Saturday (I have class all morning).

Although, my much neglected garden is probably appreciating the long drink.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

2010 Garden Roundup: What Was Awesome & What Wasn't

This year my garden was seriously struggling. Not only due to record temperatures, but also a drought and a pregnant gardener that couldn't weed properly or remember to water. Plus, the whole area was trampled through with construction workers for 2.5 months.

What I will plant again:
Sungold tomatoes- I didn't get the intense harvest like I did last year, but they were still quite reliable.  And, of course, they are delicious.

Stupice tomatoes- This gave me my first tomato of the season.  However, it's a colder region variety and wasn't too keen on the number of 90*F days this summer. I'll plant it again for early tomatoes and replace it when it gets hot.

Swiss chard- Most of my Swiss chard seedlings got taken by birds for nests.  However, what didn't get taken survive without water and care (the cucumber vines started to wrap around them).  That makes it a winner for me!  The downside is that they were shaded by the tomatoes and only 2 survived so I didn't really get much in the way of a harvest.

Arugula- This did super well in pots.

Edmonson pickling cucumbers- These were...prolific.  And that's putting it nicely. They climbed up our fence and into our neighbor's crepe myrtle. They climbed across the garden and into the netting of the blueberries. The vines were so dense that I missed several cucumbers resulting in inedible mammoths.  Thus, while I'll plant these again, I will definitely come up with a better trellis.

Kung pao peppers- This was a bumper year for these peppers. They are the perfect spiciness level for me.  I'll definitely grow these next year but just 1 plant as we are drying plenty for a 2 year supply.

Zucchini- Only one plant actually produced zucchinis but I like to think the other ones were instrumental in the pollination!  Plus, they did reasonably well in the shadiest part of the garden.

Ground cherries- I netted these this year and got probably 2-3 pints worth of them out of 2 plants.  I do need to do a better job of eating them up, though!

What is on probation (aka if it doesn't do well next year, it's banished from the garden!):
Carrots- The ones I put in pots did reasonably well (but didn't get very big at all), but the ones I put in the ground did not work at all.  Poor germination (even though I watered!).  I planted several kinds: Kaleidoscope, Nantes and a round one I forget the name...

Ping and Black Egg Eggplant- These were late bloomers in the garden.  First they were attacked by something and then they were just sloooooooowww to do anything.  With a small garden, I need vegetables to put out or go home!

Garlic- I really love the garlic scapes the hardneck garlic produced but overall the bulbs and cloves weren't very big.  I'm going to get some garlic from the farmer's market & plant that along with the biggest 2 heads my garlic produced.

Strawberries- This year construction blocked the strawberry bed, but overall the chipmunks get to the berries before I do.  With space at a premium, I'm giving these guys 1 more year to impress me.

Tequila sunrise peppers- I think I may have messed up on the germination of these so I'll give them another year.

What I won't plant again:
Mexican Sour Gherkins- These did well before the pickling cukes took over, but they just weren't useful enough for me to plant again. They taste good, but I could only think to use them in salads.

Thai dragon peppers- These also did OK in the garden, but the kung pao just did better in terms of yield and flavor.

Sheboygan tomatoes- I don't know what happened, but these just up & died.  Could have been a fungus or a pest, I guess.  Whatever it was, I don't want anything that needs coddling in my garden.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Local Eating Challenge

My family has made many efforts to eat more local and/or organic fruits, vegetable and meat over the last 2 years. We get most of our vegetables from the farmer's market (or garden) during the growing season, our meat is free range/hormone- & anti-biotic free/vegetarian fed and we've started getting some of our cheese and butter from the farmer's market too.  I suppose our Local Eating Challenge will just be the next step of this-- turning the "most of our vegetables" into "all of our vegetables" and really moving to locally raised, free-range meat.

The Motivation
I firmly believe that while industrialized food has made it cheaper for the US to fill our bellies, it has done so with a large environmental cost.  I'm not just talking about the monocultures that require large amounts of pesticides or fungicides that damage the soil, but also the emissions from the trucks and planes that it takes to get the food from California, Florida or South America to my plate.

Additionally, I love the ritual of the farmer's market.  I've got an adorable little market basket I bring with me and everything.  I love picking up something for breakfast (maybe a chocolate-almond crossiant, maybe a whoopie pie, maybe a peach) and just staring at the best that Virginia and Maryland soil as to offer.  Baskets of berries, tables of tomatoes and crates of apples are such beautiful things to see in the morning. I also love that I'm directly supporting the farmer's in my local economy.  Any gardener knows growing food is hard work!

I would be lying if I didn't say that this was inspired by reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  I'd also be lying if I said we were going to do exactly what they did: Eat only from food grown in her county all year around, save for a few non-local items (spices, coffee, sugar, and flour were a few of their exceptions).

The Rules
Barbara Kingslover had her "rules," and we will have ours.

Foods Covered
Namely, we're going to do this for one entire month each season the farmer's market is open (May - November) for a year.  Right now, I'm thinking about doing October 2010 (for sure), May 2011, August 2011 and October 2011. I'm also only talking about fruit, vegetables and meat here for meals we prepare at home.  Thus, coffee, tea, flour, sugar, bread, spices, dried herbs, condiments like ketchup or mustard, olive oil, rice, vinegar, dried beans, etc. are still going to come from the grocery store.  However, processed items of things we can make with fresh vegetables, like canned soups, are not allowed.

Storage crops, like onions, garlic, potatoes, and other root vegetables, can be eaten out of the season they are harvested but most be from a local source. However, local but non-storage crops cannot be eaten in the local eating challenge outside of the season when they were harvested.  This means we can't use the garlic scape pesto or the oven-dried tomatoes I froze if garlic scapes or tomatoes aren't in season.

We will also buy the dairy when it is available at the farmer's market, which is usually cheese and butter.

I'm also going to do a caveat on Sprout's food.  He'll be eating solid food in 2011. Ideally, I want him to eat mushy versions of what we are eating, but if allergies or unforseen issues restrict what fruits and vegetables he can eat, I'm going to do what is best for him.  This might mean applesauce in the summer, for example.

What "Local" Means
Barbara Kingslover only ate food from her county.  That's would be impossible for me as my county, Arlington, is farm-less and having an egg-laying hen is illegal.  Thus, I'm going to adopt a 200 miles radius for my fruit, vegetables and meat to travel.  The markets I go to have a 150 mile radius, but I want to leave a bit of extra room if we want to get a cow share.

Eating Out
Additionally, we can still eat out during out Local Eating Month, but it can't be for more often than we currently eat, which is about once a week as a family and once a week individually for lunch. Also, if we are invited to eat at someone else's house, we won't refuse non-local, non-seasonal food. (Because I just don't think that would be nice!)

The Goal
You might be thinking that this doesn't sound very "challenging" at all; we can still eat out, enjoy coffee and buy bread from the grocery store. Tell that to my husband that eats pasta with red sauce for lunch 2 weeks out of every month, year round!  It will be a challenge not to reach for celery for soups when it's not in season.  It will be a challenge to still be excited about squash when you've been eating it almost every day for 30 days.  It will be a challenge to cook/eat new vegetables. And, it will definitely be a challenge to stick to our existing grocery budget.

What I'm hoping to do is to, in incremental steps, force ourselves to eat seasonal and local all the time and to incorporate local meat into our diets.  I almost feel like our stomachs are on a kind of jet lag; they don't know what season it is when you can get apples in June at the grocery store. By doing an entire month for each season, I feel that we will get a better feel of the ebb and flow of the seasons as well as be pushed into trying new and creative ways to use each season's offerings. Also, I hope to make it to the farmer's market every week (let's face it, sometimes the grocery store is more convenient) more of a priority, as well as try growing new crops in our vegetable garden to supplement the market (actually, it would be nice if that market supplemented the garden!).

So, there you have it. I'm really looking forward to this. I'll post what I bought, how much I spent and our meal plan for the week to keep you all in the loop and me accountable.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Recipe: Eggplant & Tomato Gratin

I still can't pass by the tomatoes and eggplant at the farmer's market, which means I'm still looking for new and delicious ways to keep them interesting.

Now when I think of "gratin" I think of potatoes in cream topped with cheese or bread crumbs.  So I was suspicious when I came across recipes for "Tomato Gratin" (Did that mean tomatoes baked in cream & topped with breadcrumbs?!? That sounds like a soupy mess!) or "Eggplant Gratin" or, even worse, "Tomato and Eggplant Gratin."  However, it appears that "gratin" is a fancy-pants way of saying "casserole topped with cheese and/or breadcrumbs."

Casseroles I can do!

Below is a much healthier hybrid of all the recipes I found. This would be good with zucchini instead of the eggplant if you're one of those eggplant haters. If you are worried about the water content in the tomatoes, you can de-seed them but I used very meaty heirloom varieties that did not shed too much juice. You could serve this as a side dish or a vegetarian main course. However you eat it, you'll find yourself making it often when tomatoes and eggplants are at their peak.

Ingredients (Serves 4-6)
2 medium-large eggplant, sliced 1/4" thick
3 large tomatoes, sliced 1/4" thick
4 cipollini onions or 1 medium onion, sliced thin
olive oil
salt & pepper
1/2 c grated parm
1/2 c grated mozzarella
1.25 c panko breadcrumbs
1/4 c mixed fresh woody herbs, chopped (I used 2 sprigs of rosemary, 2 sprigs of oregano and the rest thyme)

1.  Preheat oven to 375*F.
2. Lightly oil the bottom of a 8x13in casserole. Put half of the eggplant in one layer & season it with salt and pepper. Top with half of the onions.  Next, place half of the tomatoes on top of onions and top with 1/3 of the chopped herbs and a bit of salt and pepper.
3. Repeat for the next layer.
4. Top final layer of tomatoes with the mozzarella.
5. Mix the remaining herbs with the parm, breadcrumbs and about 2 tsp of olive oil.  Spread the mixture evenly over the mozzarella cheese.
6. Bake for 55-65 minutes or until eggplant is tender and the topping is golden brown (cook longer if you sliced your eggplant thicker).

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

All About Onions

With my summer garden winding down, I turn to thinking about next year. I'm very comfortable starting from seed and growing nightshade vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant by this point.  This year I added cucumbers, summer squash, greens, garlic and carrots to my garden. Next year, I want to try a few more new vegetables. And, I'm thinking about growing onions in the 2011 garden.  For some reason I feel like onions are kind of confusing: long day v short day v intermediate, bunching v green, sets v transplants v seeds, etc. Thus, I've turned to books and the internet to try to sort this all out.  This is what I've learned:

What's the difference?
As far as I can tell there are 3 "types" of onions: Bulb, bunching and multiplier/perennial onions. The bulb type are what we generally buy in the grocery store (they're are the option to choose if you want storage onions) and one seed/set/transplant will give you one onion.  Bunching onions are basically "green onions" as they don't form large bulbs. And, finally, multiplier (or perennial) onions are like the bulb onions but they--as their name implies--multiply and create their own sets. Shallots and potato onions do this by creating clusters that you separate & divide, while top-setting onions, like the Egyptian walking onion, create bulbets that form on the top of the stem which take roots

Sets, Transplants or Seeds?
Sets are tiny bulbs, about the size of a marble without any sprouting, that were started from seed the year before. These are the easiest way to plant onions, but transplants actually offer better success and store better. Sets can be planted before the last frost, but the soil needs to be rather dry and a bit warm otherwise they can rot.

Transplants are just like any other seedling/plantlet...they are baby plants. You can buy these (although I don't think I've ever seen these in the nurseries around here) or start your own from seeds.  These tend to result in bigger onions than sets and have few pest issues. When the danger of frost has passed, plant harden offed transplants in the ground, but don't bury too deep.

Seeds often allow the greatest variety of cultivars.  Start them indoors 8-12 weeks before transplant date, but if you're blessed with a long growing season, you can direct sow outside.

If you're doing bulb onions (by seed, transplant or set) you'll need to match to your summer daylight. If you're north of a line from North Carolina to San Francisco, plant long-day cultivars.  If you're south of it, plant short-day cultivars.

Growing Conditions
No matter what type of onion you choose, they all seem to need well-drained soil with at least half a day of direct sun.

My Verdict
I think, should I plant onions next year, I'm going to go with seeds of bulb-type, long-day cultivars  that I'll start indoors. The idea of perennial onions is tempting (I love stuff that you just plant once!) but I'm not sure where I would put them.

Monday, September 20, 2010

There's an App for That...

During a late night rocking-the-baby-to-sleep session, I found myself searching through the iPhone App Store to pass the time. 

The truth is that I don't really play games (besides Tetris) and I generally don't use my smart phone for anything other than making calls and checking Google maps. So, I wanted to search to see if there was an app for something I'd actually use: To see what produce is in-season.

Lo and behold!  There *is* an app for that!  Several, actually.  I ended up going with the one called Seasons. It lets you know what's in-season (both local & imported), what's out of season and what is having it season end.  If you search for produce, it shows you it's harvest period.  Granted, I have a pretty good handle on what is in season right now from my garden and shopping at farmer's market, but it's handy to look up, for example, what will be in season in March. 

What app I really want to see, though, is one where you input your last frost date and the fruit/vegetables you are starting from seed and it outputs the dates you should start each seed as well as putting that info in your iPhone calender with alerts.  That would be awesome.  Anyone want to build that for me?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Recipe: Squash & Corn in Coconut Milk with Thai Basil

Let me preface this by saying this is incredibly delicious.  Like, so good that I'm sad that summer squash season is winding down.  And, so good that I ate it and totally forgot to take a picture!  You'll just have to imagine shockingly yellow summer squash (I don't know the variety!) and pale yellow corn kernels in a pool of white coconut milk and flecked with green bits of cilantro and hot peppers.  Ahhhhhh..

Another plus is that the dish comes together crazy fast if you've got leftover cooked chicken or picked up a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store.

More to the point: This is the perfect recipe to bridge summer and fall. Not only are squash, corn, hot peppers, thai basil and cilantro all available at the farmer's market right now, but this dish is light, yet as comforting as a bowl of a more fall-ish stew. I suppose you could say this is "comfort food," summer style!

The recipe comes from Deborah Madison via The Washington PostThey took a picture, but my dish was prettier.


1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 medium squash, cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 3 cups)
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
Kernels from 2 ears of fresh corn
2 to 4 jalapeƱo peppers, stemmed, seeded and minced (I used my kung pao peppers & didn't seed them)
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
1/2-inch piece peeled ginger root, minced (I grated this with a Microplane)
5 scallions, white and light-green parts only, cut crosswise into thin slices
15 ounces (1 can) low-fat coconut milk
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup chopped cilantro, plus more for optional garnish
1/4 cup chopped Thai basil, plus more for optional garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup shredded cooked chicken (optional)
3 cups cooked basmati rice, warmed, for serving


1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the squash and onion; cook for about 6 minutes, until tender. If anything, under cook the squash slightly as it will have a few more minutes cooking in the coconut milk.
2. Add the corn, hot peppers, garlic, ginger and scallions to the pan, stirring to incorporate. Once incorporated (so, these aren't really sauteing), stir in the coconut milk and water, then add the cilantro and basil.
3. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the corn is heated through. Add the chicken, if desired, and stir to incorporate.
5. Serve over rice.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Recipe: Stuffed Eggplant

This summer I've made a better effort to visit the farmer's markets and eat seasonally. Sometimes this means only produce from the farmer's market and sometimes it means buying tomatoes, eggplant, squash, corn, green beans or peppers from the grocery stores if I can't make it to the market this year.

In theory, this is glorious as it's far easier to make in-season fruits and vegetables taste good. Really, it's the lazy way to eat. However, the reality, as I discovered last year with my CSA, is that you run out of tried & true recipes and ultimately get sick of tomatoes, eggplant, squash, corn, green beans and peppers. It's safe to say that I'm currently at the end of my recipe rope at this point.

Staying home with the baby has allowed me to watch more cooking shows. After all, one can only rock a restless cherub for so long in silence. On one such occasion I stumbled upon this recipe by Michael Chiarello: Mom's Stuffed Eggplant. I'm sure his recipe is good as-is, but I made some changes reflected in the recipe below (I also doubled it so we'd have leftovers).

Ingredients (Serves 12 as a side dish; 6 as a main course)
6 small/personal-sized eggplant
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 lb ground beef
2 onions, small diced
3 Italian peppers, small diced (about 2 bell peppers would work too)
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 c basil leaves, chopped
2 tsp crushed red pepper
1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 c unseasoned bread crumbs (I used panko)
2 eggs, slightly beaten
3 chopped tomatoes

1. Preheat oven to 350*F.
2. Scoop out insides of eggplant leaving enough flesh so that it will serve as a stable "cup" for the filling. Put the flesh in a pot of boiling water & cook for 10-12 minutes or until soft.
3. Meanwhile, in a skillet heat the oil with the crushed red peppers and saute the peppers, onions and garlic until softened. Add beef and cook until browned. Next, add tomatoes, Parm and basil. Remove from heat.
4. When eggplant is done, drain & add to skillet, breaking up pieces as necessary.
5. Taste filling for seasoning and add salt/pepper as necessary.
6. Add egg and bread crumbs to skillet.
7. Fill eggplant cups with the filling and top with Parm (if desired).
8. Bake for about 50 minutes. Rotate pan halfway through baking if your oven has hot/cold spots.
9. Enjoy as a one-pot meal or a side dish!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Gardens are a Sign of Commitment to a Place"

My favorite part of Hidcote Manor Garden from our trip to England a few years ago was this amazing beech "forest". A charming iron gate leads you to perfect rows of beech trees. It was just magical. I remember thinking that many of the grand gardens and grand houses we were seeing had plants that would take a more than lifetime to form a 15 foot tall hedge or a mature mock-forest. I also remember thinking that fast growing trees and shrubs (along with eye-catching annuals) was what I could mostly find in my neighborhood.

Today I attended a lecture by the author of Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, Fritz Haeg. He was describing his project on turning lawn-filled front yards into productive and beautiful landscapes and how that affected the garden owners and their relationship with the people around them.

He also described his excitement, and trepidation, with doing the project for a more transient apartment complex.

One of the audience members asked if he had ever considered more mobile gardens for these apartment residents to take with them when they move. Mr. Haeg responded that whatever garden that works on this street may not work on one street over. "Gardens," he said, "are a sign of commitment to a place. You're not going to tear up your front yard if you're planning to sell your house in a year."

Is the American dream of moving your way up the real estate ladder the reason why we don't see more daring front yards such as what Mr. Haeg has created? Or why we see vast stretches of lawn from coast-to-coast that historically said/says "I'm so rich, I don't need my land to be productive"? Is it why we see the likes of Bradford Pears and other fast growing, almost disposable trees? After all, why spend time & money on a plant you, your children or your grandchildren won't see to maturity?

Whatever the answer to those questions are, I do believe that he's got a point: Gardens ARE a sign of a commitment to a place. They require care and maintenance and work. You don't do that if you aren't emotionally involved with that place.

Needless to say, I'm not more excited than ever to turn half of my front yard into an herb garden this fall.

Friday, September 10, 2010

ISO The Perfect Pickle Recipe

And by "pickle," I'm referring to cucumber pickles here. I love pickles. Partly because I love all things vinegary, salty and crunchy. Like salt & vinegar chips. (Pickles are healthier, though!) Thus, I am on the quest for the perfect pickle recipe.

Last year I made a recipe from Putting Food By that was good, but wasn't my idea of the "perfect" pickle. Too sweet.

This year I used my Edmonson pickling cukes (they are white variety) and a recipe from Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. They are also quite good and are getting closer to what I am after, but not quite. In fact, I'd probably make the recipe again (maybe adding a dried chili to the jar)

Next year I plan to do multiple recipes early in the season and do a taste test to pick my favorite. The Ball recipe below will probably be my basis for this.

Ingredients (Makes about 3 quarts)
3 Tbsp pickling spice
4 c vinegar (I used white, Ball recommends cider. Both are at least 5% acidity)
4 c water
3/4 c granulated sugar
1/2 c pickling or canning salt (I got this at a local hardware store)
3 bay leaves
3 garlic cloves
2.5 tsp mustard seeds
~3.5 lbs pickling cucumbers, trimmed and cut into spears (try to make sure all the spears are the same size)
Ball Pickle Crisp, optional

1. Sanitize jars and lids.
2. Put the pickling spice in cheesecloth (or a large tea ball) and place in a sauce pot with the vinegar, water, sugar and salt. Boil for about 15 minutes, stirring to dissolve salt and sugar.
3. In each jar, put 1 bay leaf, 1 garlic clove, and 1 tsp of mustard seed. Pack in cucumber spears, leaving 1/2-in on top of the jar. If using Pickle Crisp, add that according to package instructions.
4. Ladle hot pickling liquid in jars, keeping 1/2-in of headspace in the jar. Remove air bubbles and screw on lids.
5. Process in boiling water bath for 15 minutes. Wait to eat for a least a week for flavors to develop.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Last Summer Harvest

Almost. I kept 2 Sungold plants that still looked OK, a zucchini plant that's nursing a little baby zuke and our kung pao & thai peppers which are producing like crazy. But otherwise? The summer garden is out of production.

This represents 1.5 lb of cherry tomatoes, 10.5 oz of cucumbers and 10 oz of eggplant (my only ones all summer). There were more cucumbers, but they were hidden by the mass of vines and had turned all yellow. Not good eatin'!

Arugula and mustard greens have gone into pots on the south side of the house.

Monday, September 6, 2010

RIP 2010 Garden

I'm leaving the hot peppers and the zucchini, but the rest of this year's garden is headed for the compost pile or the trash bin (I never compost tomatoes or anything that looks like it might have disease/fungus). The tomatoes look terrible, the eggplant have struggled all season and the cucumbers are dying back.

Onward to next year! In the next month or so we're going to redo our garden beds. They are too wide* and, after our construction, they don't fit the shape of yard anymore. We're going to basically have 2 beds: one 2 ft x by 33 ft (it's against a fence) and one 3 ft by 21 ft (I can walk on both sides). We'll have 3 ft walkways which is what we have now & it seems to work out well.

I'll do a thorough recap post to detail what worked & didn't work for me this year. What has been the star (or dud!) of your 2010 garden?

*Note to others: If you're doing a Square Foot Garden, Mel knows what he's talking about when he says making beds only 2 feet wide if you can't walk on both sides. My rebellion to make them 3 ft deep was not a good idea.