garden

PASA Local Food Month: Preserving the Harvest

Posted on September 15, 2012. Filed under: challenge, freeze, garden, local, technique | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Crushed tomatoes.

The idea of eating fresh, local food all year long is a delightful proposition: Crisp garden flavors delight our palates, and as one food craving begins to be satisfied, another one emerges. In turn, we help create a system of support for our farmer neighbors. When I lived in California, I gardened year-round and shopped farmers’ markets several times a week; I simply–and happily–changed my diet according to what was available. Alas, that’s a lot harder to in Pittsburgh. To be sure, there are a few options for buying local food all year long: Kretschmann Farm has a winter CSA, Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance runs a year-round farm stand, and you can pick up locally raised meat and eggs at the Pittsburgh Public Market. But let’s face it, winter is pretty bleak around here; I can’t grow lettuce in my garden in January or pluck Meyer lemons from trees while I walk my dog (seriously) like I did in February in CA.  So what’s a local food fan to do?

Preserve the harvest.

Preserving food for winter sounds daunting at first, but, with a bit of patience and practice, it’s easier than you think it is. Yes, you’re going to have to plan in advance, you might have to follow instructions, and it’s going to get messy. But it’s totally worth it. Think about how marvelous it’ll be to have bright-tasting tomatoes in January or lusty blueberries in March. You can make it happen. (OK, you probably should have started this in May, but there are still things you can do in September. Hello, sauerkraut.)

Perfect pesto servings, ready to freeze.

Freeze:

This one is easy because it doesn’t take a lot of special equipment–we all have freezers, right? Blueberries are a fantastic fruit to freeze; separate the berries individually on a baking sheet, let them freeze, and store in an airtight bag. Easy. Tomato sauce freezes pretty well, too. If you have a vacuum sealer you’ll be able to keep food longer, but a freezer bag with all the air sucked out will work perfectly fine. My favorite thing to freeze is pesto. Do it right, and it’ll taste almost as fresh as when you made it over the summer; all you have to do is blend basil, olive oil, toasted pine nuts, garlic, salt, and parmesan cheese. Protip: Freeze it in ice cube trays or cupcake pans; you’ll have perfect serving size.

Jar:

Preserving food in sealed glass is the classic way of extending the harvest. You can make jams and jellies, sauces and chutneys, and pack your shelves with goodness. I made strawberry jam for the first time this year, and as autumn begins to take hold, I can remind myself of the flavors of spring by cracking open a jar. The upside to making your own jams is you can control the sugar content. The downside is that it takes a bit of finesse to perfect your recipe; I have a grape jelly that’s more like a beverage than something I can spread on toast.

If you’re looking to get in the jarring game, there’s still time: you can find late-season tomatoes at farmers’ markets and it’s prime time to make Concord grape jelly! (Yes, I’m going to try again.)

Peach Shrub

Shrub:

My latest obsession. A shrub is an old-timey way of preserving the harvest; records date back to the time when the US was still a British colony (and it’s likely shrubs were made before that, too). Basically, you crush fruit, and mix it with an equal part sugar; let the mix sit in the fridge for a day or two. After that, you strain off all the solids, and then add an equal part of vinegar. The result is a savory-sweet flavor reminiscent of the fruit you started with. Shrubs are a hot trend in cocktails today, but you don’t need to be a drinker to enjoy the pungent sweet flavor of a shrub; just add Pittsburgh Seltzer and you have the world’s best fizzy drink.

Ferment: 

Pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi are all foods that are brought to you courtesy of  preservationist bacteria. Fermentation is one of the oldest methods of keeping perishable food edible for long periods of time. OK, a kosher dill pickle doesn’t taste anything like the cucumber that got it started, but sometimes preserving the harvest means creating a whole new flavor. You don’t need any special equipment for this one, but you do need to pay particular attention to sanitation. Also, the fermentation process releases some–unique–odors. Personally I find the smell of pickles in brine to be a beautiful thing, but if you don’t you might want to use a fan to circulate the air.

Peppers on cooling rack, ready to dry.

Dry:

My hot pepper plants were prolific this year, and I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I made a few salsas (those will extend the harvest, but a September salsa in January isn’t pretty) and put a few in recipes, but I still had too many. So I decided to dry them. Think about all the wonderful dried foods there are: fruit leather, herbs, sun-dried tomatoes. What they have in common is that they are all flavor…concentrated. The most efficient way to dry food is with a dehydrator–but they can be expensive, so don’t run out and buy one if you’re not going to use it. An oven set to the lowest temperature will usually do the job, and if you’re especially diligent you can dry food in the sun–it is the original dehydrator after all.

PASA CHALLENGE

I posted this blog as part of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s Local Food Month challenge. Leave a comment below by Sunday, Sept 23, sharing what you’re preserving this winter, your favorite food preservation story, or any recipes/tips you have in your playbook. Winner will be picked at random and will receive a signed copy of Marisa McClellan’s remarkably informative book Food in Jars and a $25 gift certificate to the East End Food Co-op! Hooray for free things!

Meanwhile, try to get cracking with a preservation project. Visit a farmers’ market, raid your garden, or check out a local farm. Be creative and have courage! Feel free to ask me for advice, too.

For more on PASA’s local food month, check out the rest of the challenge.

UPDATE:

We have a contest winner! Congratulations to Sarah Leavens!

Method: I used random.org’s random number generator. The list of numbers is as follows:

1: Emily S.

2: Amanda W.

3. Catherine

4: Julia

5: Katie O.

6: Dora

7: Sarah

8: Lori D.

9: Food Me Once

10: Leah L.

11: Marieella

12: Leigh W.

13: Damarias

14: Jeralyn

15: Jackie @ Auburn Meadow

16: Brigid

17: Jackie

(15-17 via PASA blog). Winning number, generated at random, is 7.

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Impatient Garlic; Heavenly Jam

Posted on June 26, 2012. Filed under: garden, local, patience | Tags: , , , , , , |

Gardening can be risky business.

I nicked my arms pawing through my raspberry bramble yesterday; I suffered no serious damage, but I’ll certainly wear long sleeves from now on when I pick berries. Two days prior to the bramble burst, I, a la cartoon, stepped on the spiked side of a rake. The result was just as you’d expect–a long wooden handle unexpectedly flying toward me at light speed (note: the expected comedic outcome is not at all hilarious when it happens to you). I was able to block the handle before it broke my face, but my left forearm still evidences the incident.

Worse than the brambles and the bruises, though, was what I did to my garlic: I harvested too early.

Last year, I waited 20 days between cutting the scapes and harvesting the garlic heads. The end result was that I had a number of small, but fully formed, heads of garlic. So I figured I’d proceed in the same way this year. As I thrust my hand deep into the garden soil, the heads felt firm and full. So I pulled all of them, except for one. Most of garlic was huge, bigger than ping-pong balls. There was cheering and photo-taking. And then there was sadness.

I looked at the garlic heads. All of them were covered in just a thin layer of paper skin, and some seemed malformed. Garlic shouldn’t be flat on one side, right? Two from the harvers were still…bulbs. Like a small onion, except layered with inedible pre-paper instead of savory flavor. Why did this happen?

Lack of patience. Gardening, just like cooking, requires patience for the best result, and I blew it. Five of the heads look salvageable, but I won’t have certainty for another two weeks. All I can do now is be extremely…patient…with the curing process.

Happily, I had a pick-me-up designed to comfort me after my gardening woes: Strawberry Jam!

I’ve started playing with canning and preserving, and, after a questionable chicken soup experiment (nobody died, but nobody volunteered to eat more than one bite of the soup, either), I decided to make jam. Strawberries were in season, and I bought a lot of them from several farms. The jam making process is straightforward: crush berries, boil with pectin and butter, add sugar, and then jar. I’ll leave the specifics to the experts.

Best way to serve the jam? Take a thick slice of crusty bread. Toast it. Slather with a little bit more butter than you think is good for you. Top with thicker layer of jam. Smile.

Looking for something to listen to while you eat your toast and jam? I have two stories on this week’s edition of Essential Public Radio’s Allegheny Front:
An Interview With Legendary Environmental & Social Justice Activist Vandana Shiva
Seed Savers & Seed Libraries Aim to Restore Biodiversity and Preserve Unique Flavors

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Garlic Scape Pesto

Posted on May 31, 2012. Filed under: easy, garden, healthy, recipe, Uncategorized, vegetable | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Garlic scape pesto with garden-fresh snow peas.

One of my favorite things about my gardening hobby is that it has offered me a world of new challenges (and I love a good challenge). It’s not always a joyous introduction, as was the case of my hostile introduction to the spinach leaf miner. They are, ironically, eating my beet greens while the spinach sits, undisturbed, only three feet away. Happily, most of the learning opportunities are positive. Recent example: answering the question, “What Does One Do With Garlic Scapes?”

Last year, I grew garlic for the first time. It was a modestly successful attempt, certainly encouraging enough to try again this year. I planted the bulbs from the largest head last autumn, and (not so) patiently watched as the plants grew up this spring. I’d learned last year that you need to cut off the scape (the immature flower) when it begins to curl, so that the garlic plant could put all its energy into bulb development. I also learned that the scape was edible–it has a mild, chive-garlic flavor. What I didn’t learn last year was what to do with the edible scapes, so I just chopped them and added to whatever I was cooking. They certainly enhanced the flavor of a dish, but I wasn’t highlighting the flavor.

Last week, my friend, writer Sherrie Flick, suggested making a pesto. I’d already made ramp pesto (miss you, dear ramps) this season, and that was a success. So, why not try scape pesto?

Blend:
5 Garlic Scapes
Slightly less than 1/4 Cup Roasted Almonds
(Soak almonds in water for 10 minutes before blending, add 2 Tsp of the water)
1/8 Cup Grapeseed Oil
1/8 Cup Parmesan cheese
Pinch of salt

The pesto is terrifically versatile. I used some on grilled chicken. But the real highlight was tossing the pesto with some garden-picked snow peas and a teaspoon of bacon fat. The dish tasted like springtime bathed in rich butter; yet it was fairly low in calories and cost less than a dollar to make. Win!

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Spring Garden: Spinach, Snow Pea, and Scape Stir Fry

Posted on May 26, 2012. Filed under: easy, garden, healthy, recipe, Uncategorized, vegetable, vegetarian | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

I feel like for the last few months I’ve been beginning nearly every post with an apology for not writing very often: “So busy with school,” “other writing projects,” “traveling,” etc. I probably need to reorganize this space in a better way, too. Point is, so sorry for not writing here for over a month, I’ve been very busy finishing school (I’m a master of studying food now), with writing projects (stories on food & the environment for The Allegheny Front, a weekly column in Pittsburgh City Paper), and traveling (mostly around Pittsburgh; it’s been beautiful here). I’ve also been spending a lot of time in my garden, and now I have some delicious treats to eat.

Ramps might be the first edible sign of spring, but spinach is one of the first garden crops to really pop from the ground. I’ve been eating from my spinach patch for three weeks now, and that’s forced me to be awfully creative; one can only eat so many spinach salads or lightly wilted spinach. Luckily for me, my garlic started to scape (see my post on harvesting garlic for more information on garlic scapes), and the snow pea plants are producing (a bucket-load) of pods. That sounded like a promising start to a new recipe, so I rode my bike down to a wonderful little market called the Lotus Food Company; they sell house-made tofu, and it’s ridiculously inexpensive. I also purchased a bottle of black vinegar enhanced with “fruit and vegetable juice.” That’s about all that was written in English on the label! It’s a wonderfully complex vinegar with apricot and spice flavors. All in all, I had the makings of a terrific stir-fry.

Add 1 Tsp. Vegetable Oil to a medium-hot pan.
Pan fry Half-Pound of Firm Tofu, cut into 2-inch squares until brown.
Set aside.

While the tofu is cooking, mix:
1/4 Cup Chicken or Veggie Stock
1 Chopped Garlic Scape
2 Tsp. Soy Sauce
2 Tsp. Mirin
2 Tsp. Black Vinegar
1 Tsp. Minced Ginger
1 Tsp. Corn Starch
1/2 Tsp. Toasted Sesame Oil
Set aside.

Wash and pat dry:
4 Cups Spinach
(Spinach should be loosely packed. Also, I didn’t measure this precisely.)

Wash, and halve:
Two Cups Snow Peas

Chop:
Two Garlic Scapes

Saute the spinach, snow peas, and scapes for 2-3 minutes over medium-high heat.
Return tofu to pan.
Add sauce mixture.
Cook for 1.5 minutes, remove from heat, and allow dish to rest for 1 minute before serving.
Top with Toasted Sesame Seeds

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Food, Community, and $35 for the Week

Posted on November 5, 2011. Filed under: challenge, community, favorite, garden, grocery, hodgepodge | Tags: , , , , |

Last week, The Huffington Post reported that nine Democrats in Congress decided to challenge themselves to live on $4.50 per day (the rate food stamps would be reduced to under a Republican proposal). They did this for a week. However, their diets were comprised almost entirely of processed foods.

We can do better than that.

Challenge! A few friends and I are taking up the mantle to see if we can do this without cheap, processed foods. Or at least not any more processed foods than we normally would eat. (True Confession: I am, on occasion, partial to a bowl of Top Ramen.) We are giving ourselves a weekly budget of $35, but also the freedom to trade our time/skills for food: if we garden, anything still left from that garden (in the dirt, jar, or freezer) is good; if we can cook a meal for someone who supplies the ingredients, that’s good too. The theory: if you are connected to the food community, you can still eat Good Food on a tight budget.

 We are not trying to play-act like we are food stamp recipients. All of us are creative professionals, and we all have greater access to the food community than most people do (at least at the moment). There are plenty of valid critiques of this project; many emails were exchanged regarding these critiques, and we came to the conclusion that perfection isn’t the goal. Having said that, I will try to address some of these issues at the end of the week. For now, I just want to see if I can do this.

I’m up for the challenge. This is going to be tough. I can quite easily spend $35 a day on food. I like meat, but I try my best to only eat meat that’s been humanely raised. That kind of meat isn’t cheap. (And it shouldn’t be.) So I’m going to be mostly vegetarian this week. That’s a good challenge in itself, and I like it. Can I make $35 last for a week? We’ll see. At least I have a plan.

Each day for the week, I’ll engage in a food-related activity that will hopefully result in a free (and delicious) meal. But before I do that, I need provisions.

Task One: Provisioning.
Coupons are allowed, so I’m cashing in a Living Social deal. I have $20 to spend at Whole Foods for the cost of $10. Budget is now $45. Most excellent.

I shop for provisions.

Here’s how I spend my $20 at Whole Foods:
1Lb. Rolled Oats: $1.49
.5Lb. Cannelloni Beans: $1.50
.43Lb. Red Beans: $1.03
.45Lb. Pinto Beans: $0.90
.48Lb. Barley: $0.67
.45Lb. Quinoa: $2.11
.43Lb. Roasted Almonds: $4.60
.86Lb. Carrots: $0.85
.56Lb. Onion: $0.55
.55Lb. Mozzarella Cheese: $3.29
.92Lb. Bananas: $0.63
One (10z) Frozen Spinach: $1.99
With the bag refund, my total is $20.02

Other Provisions:
I also purchase 1 Bunch Celery ($2.00) and .67Lb. Kale ($0.60) from Giant Eagle.
I already have 6 eggs in the fridge ($2.50) and 5 apples from the farmers’ market ($3.50). One of those apples was given to me for free.
In the freezer I have an andouille sausage (given to me over the summer), pesto (garden), frozen tomatoes and sauce (garden).
In the pantry I have 2 squash (given to me by a friend who had too many squash), garlic (garden), and various oils, vinegars, and spices (let’s factor $3.50 for those).

Total spent so far: $32.12
I have $12.88 left to spend this week. I can do this.

Please check out Sentences and Food and Culinary Cory. They aren’t planning on posting until the end of the project. However, you should read their blogs anyway–they’re full of wonderful stories and recipes.

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Nectarine Salsa

Posted on August 20, 2011. Filed under: garden, healthy, hodgepodge, recipe, salsa, summer, vegetable | Tags: , , , , , , , |

About a month ago, tomatoes the size of my head starting amassing on the large vines growing in my garden. My feeble plan of using bamboo sticks to keep the vines vertical was looking more and more futile every day. A makeshift system of shoelaces, bricks, and more bamboo provide temporary respite from that problem, but I could tell this was going to be trouble. Then another problem arose–what was I going to do with all the tomatoes?!?! I never thought I wouldn’t know what to do with a tomato. This isn’t my first summer growing them. Every summer I lived in Los Angeles I raised a few plants, and I never had any trouble eating the harvest. A quick sauce, add them to a salad, perhaps a soup. Easy.

But this year has been different. I heard terrible things about the tomato blight that has afflicted Pittsburgh the last few years, so I decided to plant five plants as an insurance policy. One dude, five plants. No blight, many tomatoes. This year, it was time to be creative. Nectarine salsa is the first of a few dishes I created with what what around my kitchen and garden.

Combine:
2 Cups Diced Tomato*
1 Cup Diced Nectarine
1 Clove Garlic, minced
1/4 Cup Diced Shallot
Pinch Salt
Squeeze Lime Juice
Poblano Pepper, to taste
Cilantro, chopped
Mint and Basil, chopped (just a few pinches of each if you have them around)

Let everything sit for 1-3 hours at room temperature before serving.

...more tomatoes to come...


*
Remove seeds from tomato before dicing. If you have time, let diced tomatoes drain in a colander for a few minutes–your salsa will be less watery. (Drained tomato water can be saved and used in a soup, or as part of a refreshing drink.) Also, try to use a variety of tomatoes if you can.

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