The New Home Economics


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Book review: all-in-one garden

all-in-one garden
Grow vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers in the same space
by Graham Rice

Here’s a little gem of a book that’s useful for beginners, people who have grown flowers but not food, and people like me who already do both.  If nothing else, this book has major vegetable eye candy.  Just take a look at the author’s garden vegetable photo gallery to get an idea — vegetables can be very beautiful in the landscape indeed.

The book has ideas — with diagrams — for several different landscape situations (including containers), as well as plant guides and lots of top ten lists, such as “Graham’s top ten shade-tolerant food plants.”  In everything, he considers form as well as function.  He wants plants to look good at a distance, up close, and with each other, creating a beautiful and harmonious landscape.  He mixes flowers and fruits with cabbages and runner beans, and the results are gorgeous.

Rice is also very fond of putting in very young pear, apple, and peach trees and training them to grow in a fan shape against a wall or fence — this way they take up very little room and provide a beautiful backdrop for other fruits, vegetables, and flowers.  I am really unfamiliar with this technique but I am intrigued.  Not that I really have space for it in my current yard, but I’m definitely going to keep it in mind.

I would put this book on the highly recommended list if only for the inspiration those pictures brought me in the bleak month of February when I was reading it.  This book is a great way to get into more of a permaculture mindset without having to read about peak oil or composting toilets.  Not that those things aren’t important, mind you, but there are kinder and gentler ways to start, and this book is one.

Rice doesn’t really go into it all that much, but there’s also a companion planting aspect to all this — flowers attract bees which help pollinate your vegetables.  Interplanting lots of different plants helps confuse and deter pests — this is Integrated Pest Management 101.  A row of cabbages plus cabbage moths may equal a whole row of lost cabbages.  Cabbages spread out in different areas of the landscape, mixed in with flowers, might mean only 1 or 2 lost to cabbage moths.

If Minneapolis had planted a bunch of different species of trees instead of just one species of elm — by the thousands — our boulevards might not have been so devastated by Dutch Elm Disease.  Some elms may have even been spared because they need to be in close proximity to each other for the disease to spread.

But I digress, majorly.  Here are the ideas I’m going to try this year, from the book:

1) Keep on continuously starting more seeds through the months of May, June, and even into July.  That way as you pick things like kale out of your combined flower/vegetable beds to eat, you can pop in a new plant and avoid having bare spots all over.

2) Make beautiful containers of things like mint, nasturtiums, and sage.  Bonus: the container will keep the mint from taking over your garden.  (I’ve not yet tried growing mint but I have been warned by several different people now to be careful with it.)

3) Curly-leaf parsley — the most useful plant I have EVER grown — looks really, really great in the landscape with a couple of cute little petunias or violas mixed in with it. Seriously, you can put parsley in pretty much everything you eat — it becomes addicting.

4) I really ought to work an evergreen plant or two in my landscape — I have very little “winter interest” right now.

5) Someday, but not this year, I’d like to try growing a purple brussel sprout or two mixed in somewhere with my flowers.  They look really neat.

Rice also listed some common edible flowers, including: calendula, day lilies, geraniums, nasturtiums, sunflowers, and violas.  All good choices.  I also want to try Jerusalem artichokes, which look like sunflowers, but which apparently are fairly invasive.  So I might try them in a pot.  SO MUCH TO DO.  I have to try and control myself this year because with starting a new job, I’m going to be able to take days off work to garden, and there’s only so much one can do on evenings and weekends.

Yeah right, I’ll totally be picking raspberries wearing a headlamp again this year.  I might as well just mentally prepare now…


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Food nights

We’ve been really busy.  It’s hard to make time to make foods from scratch when you are packing so much into your day already.  So one or two nights a week, Adam and I have been having a “home-cooked” night where we break out a bottle of wine after the kids are in bed, and then proceed to cook a bunch of foods at once to get us through the next few days.  The other night we made yogurt, bread, granola, and a bean sandwich spread.

Adam put orange zest in the granola, and it was really elevated to new heights by that simple addition.  He used our basic recipe but sweetened it with a little brown rice syrup, and added orange zest and craisins at the end.  YUMMY!  My bean dip turned out really good too; I used the “a little for you and a little for me” method with my glass of red wine and it really elevated the recipe quite a bit.

As for the bread, I’ve moved on to a new experiment: making more recipes from Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day but using 1/3-1/2 the amount of yeast they call for and greatly increasing the initial rise time — letting the bread rise overnight.  This week’s batch turned out great.

I have a whole bunch of books that I’m in the middle of and hope to review this week.


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Starting seeds indoors – and outdoors

It’s March, so time to start some seeds for my garden.  Last year I experimented with starting seeds of some hardier plants earlier, in February, and then planting them out in April.  The results were decidedly mixed.  I also was disappointed in my Burpee Ultimate Seed Starting System that I had purchased.  Everything sprouted, and for that I should be grateful, but it was really difficult to get the seedlings out of the tray.  I damaged many of them in the process.  Also, I pretty much had to destroy the tray in the process of removing them.

So for this year, I kept the felted bottom piece and the plastic cover and made my own system:

Generic tray, plus felt, plus peat pots and soil, plus (obviously) seeds.

Before adding the water, I placed it in a nice warm spot: the top of my refrigerator.  This way I [theoretically] do not need to buy a warming mat to get those seeds sprouting.

I watered thoroughly, planted the seeds, and then I’ll be using a mister to keep things nice and moisturized until they sprout.  I hope they sprout.  We’ll see.  I planted 6 tomatoes, 9 banana peppers, and 3 beets.  I figure I can plop the beets somewhere in my flower bed in mid-late April for a little early spring beet goodness before CSA season starts.

Now for the final shot, showing my brand-new “Jump Start” light system:

I had big plans for Adam to custom-build something almost exactly like this, but when he found the Jump Start system for $40 on ebay, he decided it wasn’t worth his time to do all that work.  I have two things to note about the Jump Start so far:  firstly, it is a bit on the chintzy side.  I was trying to slide it around on the fridge and the whole thing kinda collapsed and fell to the floor — happily the bulb did not break.  Adam kindly put a couple extra bolts in the upper corners just to make it a bit sturdier.  Secondly, I had ultimate plans to purchase two of these and squeeze both of them on top of the fridge, but I realize now there is only room for one.

Now on to the second part of my seed starting experiments for 2010: starting seeds outdoors.  My Master Gardener mentor was telling me about this, and she even made me a copy of a how-to article from Northern Gardener magazine.  Unfortunately, this article does not seem to be available online, except for this PDF preview.  Basically, you create mini-greenhouses from various things found in your recycling bin.  The freezing and thawing that naturally occur outside [supposedly] loosen the coating on the seeds, making them sprout easier when the weather warms up.  WE’LL SEE.  Here’s what I did, for posterity:

In the interest of science, I used several different types of containers.

I cut the milk jug, water jug, and 2-liter bottle in half, then cut air holes in the tops of the lidded containers and drainage slits in the bottoms of all the containers.  I would recommend you use a utility knife, not an exacto like I did.

I set the containers in a sheltered, sunny spot and filled them with dirt and water until it reached a muddy consistency, then popped in my seeds.  I planted one or two of several different things, including herbs, tomatoes,  cabbages, and celeriac, just to see what happens.

I put the covers back on, attaching with duct tape where necessary.  Now I just wait, and keep an eye on them in case they start to dry out.  When the weather really starts warming up and the seeds have sprouted, I can start to gradually increase the size of the holes on top, eventually removing the tops altogether to harden the plants off in preparation for putting them into the ground.

I followed the process that the article outlined, so I’ll let you all know what happens, both indoors and out.


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Recipe: easy, no-knead 100% whole wheat bread

A few weeks ago I had great success with this recipe, but I really wanted to nail down a version of it that was 100% whole grain, and that would be more in line with a Nourishing Traditions-style bread (where the grain is soaked, fermented, or sprouted).  So after a bit of tinkering, I present you:

Easy, No-knead, 100% Whole Wheat Nourishing Traditions Bread
3 3/4 c. whole wheat flour
1 1/3 c. buttermilk
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 c. honey (optional)
Scant 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
1 1/4 tsp. salt
Cornmeal for dusting

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add buttermilk, oil, honey, and 1 c. water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky, almost more like a very thick cake batter than bread dough. Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap. Let dough rest 18 – 24 hours, at warm room temperature.

2. After a good rest, the dough should have expanded and should be releasing occasional bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice — if it’s really wet you might not be able to handle it like normal bread dough.  If it seems really hard to handle just use a scraper to scrape it into something resembling a pile. Don’t worry about it if it seems gooey and weird. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; scrape your dough up into something resembling a ball and put it down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise/spread for about 2 hours.  If your dough is still really wet at this point, the towel will absorb some of the water and it will start to look a lot more like bread dough. When it is ready, dough will be roughly double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. Around a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 5- or 6-quart heavy covered pot in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove the now-hot pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 20 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned — keep an eye on it during this last part because it can vary.

Make sure you cool it completely on a rack so the crust can fully develop.

This bread is good, but honestly don’t expect it to be quite as tasty as my other recipe for no-knead bread.  The fact is, the more white flour you use, the more palatable the end result will be.  So I guess I would call this version more of an every day version, and the other version could be a special occasion type of thing. This is not really a sandwich bread.  More of a dipping in soup or mopping up lentils type thing.  You could make sandwiches with it, but the crust is quite thick and chewy, so be aware of that.  YUM.

For quite a lot more about the whole no-knead bread baking phenomenon, read my original post and recipe.  More information than you will ever need, really.

Note for the NT people: notice that I don’t call for freshly-ground whole wheat flour.  I have not had good luck AT ALL with using that for bread.  My flour mill is a lower-end one, and I think it just doesn’t grind the kernels finely enough.  So for our bread-baking we’re using store-bought organic flour from the co-op.  For now.

Update, January 21, 2011: So, our lives just keep getting crazier and crazier, and I’ve adapted this recipe even further.  Here’s the version I’ve been making lately:

Ingredients:
7 c. whole wheat bread flour
1 scant tsp. yeast
1 scant T. sea salt
2 1/2 – 3 c. water
1 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. honey
1/2 c. olive oil

This will give you a dough that’s less wet, and therefore more suitable to other methods of baking.  The original recipe above is very wet and can really only be baked with the hot cast-iron pot method.  This adaptation is firm enough to be shaped into a free-form loaf or used for pizza crust.  It also makes a lot more.  So now I mix up this recipe about once a week and we can make regular loaves of bread or pizza, all from the same bucket.  I just let it rise at least 8 hours or overnight, then stick it in the fridge and we grab a handful of it as we go.  (This is all very much inspired by Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day, which I highly recommend.)  This makes around 3 small loaves, or 3 pizzas.


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Updates

As it turns out, starting a new job takes a lot of energy out of a person.  I have so much I want to share with you but I need to condense it all into one marathon post here tonight.  So without further ado, I think I’ll start with two books I’ve just [sorta] finished:

Food Politics
How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health
by Marion Nestle

I started this book, but just didn’t finish it.  It was interesting, but much of the information is similar to information on the author’s blog.  In many ways, this information is well-suited to a blog because she can point to what the government, the USDA, and food corporations are doing RIGHT NOW to influence nutrition and health.  I highly recommend the blog, and I recommend the book if you’re really interested in policy, politics, and getting really depressed about the effects of lobbying on America’s government.

Bones
Recipes, history and lore
by Jennifer McLagan

The pictures in this book would have completely done in the vegetarian Jennifer of yesteryear.  I found them highly entertaining, now.  Most of these recipes look really amazing.  But the amount of effort involved for many of them is a little more than I or even SuperDad Adam can really handle.  First of all, they involve going to a butcher and ordering special cuts of meat that have — guess what? — bones in them.  Big bones.  Little bones.  BONES BONES BONES.  As it turns out, cooking meat on the bone imparts extra flavor and nutrition into the meat.  Good stuff all around.  I copied down a couple of the recipes in here that I hope to get around to trying:  Millennium Rib Roast (if I can find a 4-rib standing rib roast), Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic (really!), and Grilled Quail with Sage Butter (this one makes me feel a bit squeamish because it calls for breaking each bird’s breastbone, yet it looks really delicious).  I think I’ll leave the pigs’ feet recipe alone for now, thanks.

Moving on, I have been linking to the Cornucopia Institute just about every week, haven’t I?  I am so glad that I added them to my RSS reader.  Today they released a report about manure digesters on factory dairy farms, written by a Wisconsin dairy farmer, that includes this gem:

Numerous studies by Tom Kriegl of the UW Center for Dairy Profitability have shown that the most efficient dairy operations have less than 100 cows, mostly outside and eating grass — yet, such a family farm is not large enough to qualify for taxpayer support and does not create enough manure to require a methane digester.

As long as my tax dollars and those of other organic sustainable farmers are being used to bankroll schemes that just increase pollution for more corporate profit, there will be no economic recovery. Indigenous communities developed “earth-friendly” farming methods that kept our planet healthy for thousands of years. Many of these practices are being incorporated into family farming today. In fact, a recent 2008 study by 400 scientists for the United Nations International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development concluded that small-scale organic agriculture is not only the best means to feed the world, but also the best response to climate change.

(Emphasis mine.)

On the homefront, I am closing in on a 100% whole wheat, Nourishing Traditions-friendly version of my easy, no-knead bread recipe.  Should be able to post it this weekend or early next week.

Finally, I am also picking up two new books at the library tomorrow and will attempt to actually read both of them in their entirety!  They are:

Deeply rooted: unconventional farmers in the age of agribusiness by Lisa M. Hamilton and Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, the latest by local foods movement hero Michael Pollan.  His Omnivore’s Dilemma, and especially, In Defense of Food, really impacted my life and so I am looking forward to this one especially.

OK that’s all I’ve got for tonight.  Sorry for the randomness…


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Buyer-beware: ultra-pasteurized milk

I stopped by Kowalski’s the other night; usually I get groceries at the co-op but the only thing we were out of was milk so I just picked some up there.  Wish I wouldn’t have been in such a hurry: I accidentally brought home ultra-pasteurized milk.

This stuff is useless.  You can’t make cheese or yogurt with it because the proteins have been discombobulated (my technical term) so much that they are unable to act normally.

Why do milk producers, even from Organic Valley, ultra-pasteurize?  Simple!  Longer shelf-life.  The milk I bought earlier this week won’t expire until the middle of April.  In fact, I noticed the expiration date before I noticed the “Ultra Pasteurized” part of the label.

Yesterday I went to Target and took a look at their organic milk, and I couldn’t even find organic milk that was NOT ultra-pasteurized.  Those two for some reason seem to go hand in hand at Target.  I’m guessing this is the reason: people who are paying a premium price for organic milk don’t want to have to throw it out if it goes bad.  So they like the longer shelf-life.  Could that be it?

I don’t know, but I wouldn’t make a habit of drinking this stuff.  Worst case scenario: it’s potentially-toxic junk.  Best case scenario: it could be a greener alternative to milk because it doesn’t require refrigeration.  I lean more towards the former: milk was meant to be drunk with its live enzymes — they are part of what make milk healthy.  Standard pasteurization destroys some of these enzymes, but not enough to completely change the protein structure of the milk.  Destroying them completely — sterilizing the milk — is a waste of a good live food.

Update, 1/24/2011: This continues to be a very popular post, and I know the whole raw milk vs. pasteurized milk issue is very contentious right now.  Let me be absolutely clear: I would not drink raw milk unless I or a close friend owned and hand-milked the cow.  However, I do think there is a qualitative difference between standard pasteurization and ultra-pasteurization, and I much prefer standard.  If you live in or near Minneapolis, MN, you have access to what I consider to be the gold standard for pasteurized, non-homogenized milk: Cedar Summit Farms.  One taste of their milk brings me right back to the milking parlor on Grandpa Rensenbrink’s farm.

Update, 2/27/2013: FINALLY! A study proves that milk from grass-fed cows is better for you.


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Corruption at the USDA

A USDA veterinarian and meat-processing plant inspector testified before congress, blowing the whistle on corruption at the USDA — the guy was shut down by his superiors for issuing citations of animal cruelty, and also overruled 3 times when he tried to shut down a meat-processing plant in Vermont.  From the Cornucopia Institute press release:

Asked why he blew the whistle and ruined his career, Dr. Wyatt responded: “I truly believe that the USDA inspector is the only advocate animals have in slaughter plants. When we turn our backs on the helpless, when we fail to speak on behalf of the voiceless, when we tolerate animal abuse and suffering, then the moral compass of a just and compassionate society is gone.”

Read the entire press release here.