Sunday, January 24, 2010

Planning the Summer Garden as El Niño Entertains

There's nothing like browsing through seed catalogs while a persistent, several-week-long series of exceptional storms pounds our hillside with heavy rains, high winds, lightning and now marble-sized hail. We were grateful the veggies didn't get destroyed, and the chickens are fine (just pissed off, confused and ready for spring). We've put away the Coleman camp stove and candles, still keeping some extra flashlights around.

Now it's still rainy but nothing too intimidating, but El Nino isn't done yet. The weather becomes the immovable force that immediately gets the most respect from a new gardener.

As we hibernate indoors, I've been flipping through seed catalogs, gardening books, notes and any credible information I can get my hands on before starting our first spring/summer garden. I dropped our orders for the season in the mail and started to map out where everything might go.

As usual, I'll probably have more seeds and starts (peppers, tomatoes and eggplant) than places to put them. I can't grow in the native soil and have a gopher problem, which means I can grow in raised beds with welded steel mesh stapled to the bottom (have four so far), individual wire mesh root guards, or containers. If it were easy, it wouldn't be all that interesting, right?

So anyway, here's what I've planned for next season (can't wait to make sauteed tomato and eggplant with garlic again!):

  1. Eggplant: Casper (ivory colored), Millionaire (purple, slender), Black King (large, round)
  2. Tomato: We get our tomato starts from this awesome local veggie & chicken farm in Ben Lomond: Love Apple Farm (hundreds of outstanding heirloom varieties, plus great classes on gardening, raising chickens, bee-keeping and other related endeavors)
  3. Pepper: sweet - Wonder Bell (red), Golden Star (yellow), Gourmet (orange), Italian Sweet (red), Mini Chocolate Bell; hot - Holy Mole, Mulato Isleno (perfect for chile relleno)
  4. Potato: Yukon Gold (2 1/2 lbs. of seed potatoes from Seed Savers Exchange)
  5. Herbs: Lemongrass, English Thyme, Stevia, Aroma 1 (basil), Santo Coriander, Cumin, Dukat (dill), Valerian
  6. Beans: Romano Purpiat (purple bush variety French beans)
  7. Cucumber: Orient Express (long, slender variety)
  8. Watermelon: New Queen (nearly seedless, with yellow-orange flesh)
  9. Squash: Tigress (zucchini), Fairy (winter), Butternut
  10. Corn: Stowell's Evergreen (sweet)

As the rain persists, I'm already thinking ahead to drier and sunnier days. Since I have virtually zero experience growing a summer garden (and the climate can be harsh up here, with heavy winds and drought conditions), it will be a truly humbling task.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Soy No Plug-and-Play Panacea

Like most freshman vegetarians, Liz and I thought we could simply substitute soy for any number of animal products we had decided to give up. We've moved back up the food chain a little, eating some fish and cow's milk (we never could give up cheese or eggs, at least now the eggs come from the backyard), but now we limit our household soy intake to tempeh and the occasional Tofurkey brand Italian sausauge -- which is pretty good sliced and sauteed in oil. And of course soy sauce.

Back then we drank soy milk, ate soy-based yogurt, cooked up lots of tofu, used silken tofu in smoothies, and then we started learning more and more about soy. I initially eased up on soy consumption after reading an article about soy and migraine headaches, but soon realized it just made sense for the whole family.
We never gave Simone soy until she started eating solid food (soy-based formulas are not recommended, while breastmilk has been perfected through a couple hundred million years of mammalian evolution).
But while tofu and its ilk have an attractive health profile, our bodies have a difficult time processing the protein (Weston A. Price).

Overconsumption of soy also has been blamed for some cancers and other serious diseases and disorders, while some believe a hormone-mimicking compound in soy has a feminizing effect on men. Food author Michael Pollan talks about the ubiquity of highly fattening, potentially deadly soybean oil (Democracy Now, via Alternet).

I should probably say something about Weston A. Price. They have a great philosophy of eating fresh, whole foods, including fish, properly raised meats, liver, cod liver oil, raw milk, cream and particularly butter (as someone who likes to cook, I can appreciate that). But the organization, in my humble opinion, is much too animal-centric and even dismisses the virtues of a plant-based diet (Weston A. Price).

Still, I think they provide top-notch information on soy.

Another reason not to eat soy is its enormous global footprint. Soy and corn are the two staple crops in the US (which means they're subsidized to the hilt), grown over massive tracts of farmland, drowned in chemicals, disassembled and recreated into all of these novel new food-like substances. Along with corn (high fructose corn syrup, et al), soy is a plastic that can be easily molded into various meat-like substances.
And it's cheap enough to mold into institutional fare, eaten at schools and prisons. Some Chicago inmates actually sued the state of Illinois because most of their diet and nearly all of their protein came from soy (Chicago Criminal Law Blog), and they were getting sick.

For reasons others can better explain, fermented soy products remove most of the toxins and render the proteins much more usable. They include soy sauce, soy yogurt, miso and tempeh. Tempeh is a whole-bean cake of cultured soybeans, so there's minimal processing and much less waste (it still comes from soybeans, so know your source).

Tempeh's actually quite versatile, some applications better than others. I found one recipe online that really makes good use of the stuff (101 Cookbooks), cutting it kind of thin, frying until slightly crispy and browned, then glazing it with fresh-squeezed orange juice, ginger, garlic, maple syrup, some spices.
It's good stuff, especially with rice. I served it earlier this week with Roman-style broccoli.

Since giving up most soy, the frequency of my migraines also has gone down. I noticed getting substantially more migraines when Liz and I stopped eating meat and tried the soy switcheroo. Besides, we don't need nearly as much protein as most Americans think and there are plenty of other options out there.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Kitchen Management 101: Dry Goods Storage

We buy stuff in bulk whenever we can, particularly those items that keep for a long time and/or which we use regularly, such as beans, lentils, grains, nuts, popcorn and pasta flour. Bulk purchases are much cheaper than packaged goods, at least in theory (I suspect that some stores take advantage of this assumption and jack up the per-pound price, but usually it's a better deal than buying packaged goods).

It also forces us to use whole foods, since you can't buy Hot Pockets or pizza rolls in bulk.

A bonus advantage is the lack of wasteful packaging, not to mention the wasted energy that goes into packaging and shipping the weight of that packaging (then there's the pollution from the manufacturing of boxes, inks, etc...). But one disadvantage is that sometimes bulk goods, if kept in their bags with only a numeric code, are easily lost among other bags of bulk stuff.

That's why -- on the advice of my mother-in-law, who's a master organizer -- I decided to obtain several large, one-quart mason jars and a digital label-maker. Originally the plan was to get some larger food containers with lids that snap open and closed, but the jars proved much more affordable and we use them for other things around the house (jams, jellies, etc.).

Here are some one-click resources to get you started, but the great thing about mason jars is that they can be found at garage sales and thrift shops, as well as at most grocery and hardware stores. Wide-mouth jars are the best, allowing easier access and filling.

There's no need to actually buy anything, but this is the system that works best for us. You can also just collect jars and containers (personally, I think it helps for them to fit together on the same shelf), and then label them with tape and a sharpie.

I know, this is pretty boring stuff. But it sure makes cooking and managing the kitchen a whole lot easier.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Getting Fired Up About Broccoli

At risk of sounding like a gardening snob, nothing bought in a store or even from the farmer's market comes close to broccoli picked just minutes before cooking. I'd heard that was the case but became a believer when we cut our first home-grown crowns a few weeks ago. It's sweeter and has a wonderfully crisp, firm texture.

We've topped four plants now and have about four more, and each of the topped broccoli plants will grow two smaller shoots. We also have some purple cauliflower on the way (but only one is really thriving).

I usually like to cook broccoli "Roman" style, which involves high heat, garlic, lemon zest and some charring. But I've been cooking these garden fresh crowns gently in a small amount of water with only a dash of salt to really taste the freshness (learned about it from Alton Brown's "Good Eats" on the Food Network):
  • Cut the crown(s) into smaller florets
  • Save the stems (except the tougher portions), cut into 1/8-inch slices
  • Arrange stem pieces flat in a wide saucepan or deep skillet, fill with enough water to just cover them, arrange florets on top evenly
  • Sprinkle with salt
  • Turn burner on HIGH heat for three minutes (don't wait for it to heat up), then turn it to LOW for three minutes.

Super-simple and cooks it just right. It's basically just steamed, but having the stems on the bottom immersed in water cooks them that extra little amount while the tender florets don't get too saturated or overcooked. It's one of the more healthy ways to prepare it ( and that's how we do it up for most weekday dinners (be forewarned, though, that this method doesn't enhance the blandness or hide the "offness" of older or lesser-quality broccoli).

Roman-style probably scorches a lot of the nutrients away, but man it's really good. I learned this method from How To Cook Everything, but I'll paraphrase it below:

  • Cut the broccoli much as you would in the above recipe
  • Mince the zest of about half a lemon, squeeze the whole lemon's juice.
  • Chop or mince a few cloves of garlic
  • Parboil cut broccoli for just a couple of minutes, drain and submerge in an ice water bath (this will halt the cooking process, for now)
  • Heat oil (canola, grapeseed, something that holds up to high heat) to MEDIUM, add garlic, fry until at least translucent
  • Increase heat to HIGH, add broccoli, stirring occasionally at first and then reguarly as it gets smoking hot
  • When broccoli is cooked (slightly charred and fiery), throw in the lemon zest and mix it in
  • Remove from heat and add lemon juice, plus salt, mixing it all together

And probably the best piece of broccoli advice? Don't eat it raw. It tastes bad and gives you gas.

So go cook some kickass broccoli, especially if you can find some super-fresh, super-local stuff. When we get a critical mass of cauliflower, I'll share some more decadent recipes (I like to either drown it in cheese sauce or deep-fry and sautee it in hot, spicy ketchup).