Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Shop for a good deal that benefits everyone

Twenty five years ago when I was living in New York City I didn’t like going to the grocery store. Like most people in the city, I didn’t have a car so I could only buy what I could carry. (I heard a number of people use that as an excuse for eating most of their meals out.)

The grocery nearest to my apartment was dingy and the gum-smacking teenage cashiers obviously would have preferred to be elsewhere. So when I could, I shopped at the fresh fruit and vegetable stand that I passed on my walk home from the subway. Maybe that should have clued me in to what would be in my future.

When I moved to Kentucky twenty years ago, I missed those stands but I discovered the joy of shopping in a well-lit, clean grocery store with clerks who offered a friendly a smile. I could redeem coupons, choose from a wide variety of items and easily take home three bags filled with food if I so chose. I truly began to enjoy grocery shopping, searching for healthy bargains as I perused the aisles.

My motivation for where I shop and what I buy has changed since then. I no longer look for the cheapest sales or the one store that will have everything I need. My shopping priorities revolve around good health, eating local foods, buying in bulk and getting a good deal.

Good health. I believe the best way to establish good health, at least for me, is to eat primarily whole foods. I still used canned goods sometimes but most of my vegetables come either from my garden, my freezer or shelf of preserved garden vegetables or the produce department. The fresher the food is the better it is for my health, not to mention ensuring the most flavor.

Eating local foods is also strongly tied to good health. I belong to Good Foods Coop in Lexington that buys what they can locally and in-season. The less distance a food has to travel, the fresher it is and the more nutrients it maintains. That means eating primarily what is in-season in our region. (It does limit my fruit choices and I’m still puzzling over that problem.) That diminished trip also means fewer fossil fuels are burned to get the food to me. I get a fresher meal and a cleaner environment all at the same time.

Buying in bulk. I began to consider this when someone I interviewed for an article about simple living pointed out how much energy and how many resources are wasted in packaging the food I was buying. So even though there are just two of us in the Brown household, I began buying in bulk when possible and looking for items with less packaging. That led me to the Amish grocery store that’s about 15 minutes from here. They buy everything in bulk and package it simply. I was amused not long ago when I went to the store to refill my supply of flour and sugar and checked out after an Amish man. There I was with my less packaged products to cook with from scratch. There he stood with boxes of manufactured cereal and snacks. So no, everything at this store isn’t healthy and environmentally friendly to the max, but they do better than many places. And since we don’t have a grocery store in my town, it’s the nearest source for baking basics.

Getting a good deal. I’ve come to understand that there’s more to getting a good deal than only saving money. No, I’m not overrun with piles of money that I can throw at organic and local choices. But luckily for us, what we save from gardening gives us a little bit extra to spend on the more expensive items. As I’ve gotten to know the stores available to me and the local farmers, I’ve found ways to save money while following my shopping priorities. If I can shop to make myself and the earth healthier at the same time than I think I’m getting a very good deal.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Seed saving season

Every winter I receive at least a dozen seed catalogs that encourage me to think ahead to spring. And every fall I consider that if I would save my own seeds, I wouldn’t need to buy as many next year. This year, I’ve tried to do more than just think about seed saving.

Squash and bean seeds are easy enough to save. Squash seeds are large so I rinse them then put them in a bowl or on a paper towel to dry before storing them in a glass or hard plastic jar and labeling. Beans can be left on the vine until they dry then it’s simple to open the pod and pop them out for storage.

Then there are tomatoes. I’ve tried a few different methods but I think the one Jim showed me this year worked the best. It’s the method he used for years as a farmer and agriculture teacher, now adapted to our back yard garden. Here’s what I did.

1. Collect all frost-bitten (or too green to ripen) tomatoes from the vines. Put them in a bucket.

2. Let the rain cover them. If it doesn’t rain, use your water hose to add water. (The rainwater is my addition. Jim prefers the power of the garden hose to help separate the seed from the pulp.)

3. Put on your rubber gloves, crush the remaining tomato chunks with your hands, releasing the seeds into the water. Remove as much pulp and skin as you can.

4. Soak for a week or so to encourage seed separation from the rest of the pulp.

5. Place half of a large screen over another bucket. Pour out the water and seeds over the screen. The seeds and a few tomato bits will remain on the screen. Cover the seeds with another screen (to avoid feeding the birds)and put outside in the sun with the top screen securely in place. (We used bricks to hold it down.)

6. Let seeds dry. If the sun is out and you’ve removed most of the tomato bits, it shouldn’t take more than a day or two.

7. Use your hand and fingertips to loosen seeds from screen and pour into a storage jar. Label and keep for spring.

I collected my Constaluto Genovese and San Marzano seeds yesterday then reused those screens for two other types of tomatoes. I had hoped to collect the rest of the dried seeds today but Mother Nature delayed me with a morning rain. That’s okay because planting season is still months away and Mr. Sunshine is at work to dry for me.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pay homage to your end-of-season tomatoes

Thank you David Lebovitz.

This past weekend I was invited to a party and asked to bring something to eat. As is my habit, I first looked at what I had in the house before deciding what to cook. Across my blue kitchen windowsill sat a row of our final ripe tomatoes of the season—red and yellow. They were such a pretty sight and in need of using before they spoiled. I wanted to make a dish that would show them off.

Tomato quiche? I searched for a recipe but didn’t find any that I thought would pay adequate homage to the tomatoes.

Tomato tart? I don’t really know what defines a “tart” except that it is made with pastry dough. So I did an online search. That’s when I found David Lebovitz’s website. Lebovitz is a chef whose site is subtitled, Living the Sweet Life in Paris. He not only includes beautiful photos of dining in France, but he also has a simple recipe for a French tomato Tart.

I should have taken a photo of my creation because it truly was beautiful. And the taste? Exquisite. It was truly a fitting salute to the end of the 2010 tomato season.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Grind your own herbs and spices

When was the last time you replaced the spices you rely on to add flavor to your dishes? I’ve been wanting to replace many of mine for several months. This is the time of the year when I can do just that with some of what I’ve been growing.

This morning, for example, I put the hot peppers I had dehydrated into my blender and pulverized them. Keep in mind that I dehydrated the peppers outside to avoid their strong scent taking over the house. Pulverizing them also emitted a strong odor that made me sneeze. I think, however, that the result is worth the temporary inconvenience. We now have a small jar of very aromatic hot pepper spice that will add zing to many dishes this winter.

Although spices don’t go bad, they do lose flavor and aroma. One good reason to grow herbs is that at the end of the season, you can easily dry them (either by hanging in a dry location or using a dehydrator), grind or crush them and replace your old spices. I find herbs easier to grow than vegetables since bugs don’t seem to bother them. (I will admit, thought, that a small animal did eat my borage earlier in the year. I wasn’t really sure what to do with it anyway!)

I like using herbs fresh when they are in season. Some plants hold up to the cold quite well, only giving up their productivity when the temperatures drop to an extreme. For example, my first rosemary plant lived outside through its first winter. The next year, however, we had an ice storm that decimated it. This year I covered my parsley wioth dried leaves before our first hard freeze and it still looks good.

Store your spices in a dry, dark place in a tightly sealed container. Although it’s convenient to keep them near the stove, the heat can quicken their demise.

Herbs and spices not only add flavor to your meals, but also nutrition. whfoods.com reports that Oregano has 23 percent of the daily recommended value of Vitamin K. Cayenne Pepper has 30 percent of the daily recommended value of Vitamin A.

If you didn’t grow spices yourself this year, check your farmers market. Now is the time to stock up for winter.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pepper jelly utilizes end-of-season produce

I’m preparing to pull up stakes and tomato cages from the yard since a frost finally decimated the remaining plants. That leaves me only with the freshness I have already harvested to use in my creating and exploring. I recently put the hot peppers to use in a jelly.

Jelly-making was new to me so, as I typically do when I try cooking something unfamiliar, I read several recipes to pick up tips then sort of pieced together the best parts of them for my jelly. It turns out that making jelly isn’t that difficult. This type of jelly can also yield a culinary as well as a slightly medicinal product.
Here are the basic steps I followed.

1. Wash and cut up peppers. I used one pound bell peppers and ½ pound hot peppers. You can vary the ratio but be forewarned that even that 2:1 ratio can yield a spicy product, depending on the types of peppers you use.
2. Cook peppers with 1 ½ cups white vinegar. Bring to boil then simmer for 30 minutes or so.
3. Strain mixture through cheesecloth, getting out as much liquid as possible. It will be approximately 2 cups of juice.
4. Return juice to pan. Combine with 2 ½ cups sugar. Bring to boil then add two packages powdered pectin. Boil hard for one minute then simmer 30 minutes or so until slightly thicker.
5. Fill four jelly jars and process in a hot water bath for five minutes.
6. When canning, always remember to sterilize your jars, lids and funnel.

Because I used a combination of green, red and orange peppers, our jelly is a pretty color. Some recipes recommend adding food coloring to your liking.

Jim loves the jelly on toast, saying if he adds butter also then it cuts the heat. I, on the other hand, found toast even with butter to be too hot for my mouth. Next I’ll try it with cream cheese on crackers, a combination I had once at a party. Until then, I know that if my head gets congested, I need only take a bite of pepper jelly to breath freely once again.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Preparing for frost

Every time I hear a weather prediction of low evening temperatures, I scurry around the garden picking anything that’s ripe. I’m still finding five types of tomatoes. Yes, the kitchen windowsill is full again. They might be smaller than they were a month ago, but they are so precious at this late date.

Then there are the peppers—bells and hot peppers. I tried a pepper jelly recipe over the weekend that I’ll share soon. It turned out to be a good way to use that end-of-the-season abundance.

I’ve also been cutting many of the herbs. Herbs are simple to hang in your kitchen and dry. They can also be fun to add to flower arrangements (I mixed my last zinnias with lemon balm) or turn into wreaths. I crafted some rosemary wreaths (I love that smell!) that I shared with friends. Next I want to try winding lavender through them.

Speaking of flower arrangements, I also cut marigold and mum blooms to put into a piece of florist’s foam and turn into a nice fall arrangement for the living room.

Yes, the end of the season is an especially creative time in our household. I so value these last few days of beautiful living things in my yard that I want to put them all to good use. In the process, I remember the many blessings that have allowed me to enjoy this fruitful before-frost harvest.