Thursday, November 20, 2008

Foods for Bridging the Winter Months

The decision to eat locally and in-season as much as possible creates some issues in the winter months. It's obviously not possible to eat in-season in the dead of winter when nothing's in-season (if you live in the northern zones). Still, there are many ways to enjoy nutritious foods all winter long without having anything shipped in from Chile.

If you plant a summer garden, a root cellar will let you store many vegetables successfully through the winter months. Carrots, potatoes, cabbage, apples, beets, turnips, rutabagas all come to mind as good keepers, but a good book on the subject (such as Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables) will give you the information you need to store many other types of fruits and vegetables successfully. If you don't have an actual root cellar, many basements can be reconfigured to work well for food storage, so don't abandon the idea outright.

Certain crops can also be overwintered in the ground, or buried in a container in the ground.

Growing dry beans each year will give a nice supply to use in hearty winter soups and other dishes.

Canning, pickling, brining and freezing are other good options for extending your harvest into the winter. Even if you don't garden, the produce you buy at farmer's markets and roadside stands can be put up for winter use in the same way.

Then, experiment with indoor gardening. What can you produce indoors? Herbs and tomatoes (see my last two posts), baby greens, wheatgrass for juicing.

Start growing sprouts indoors. It's so easy and sprouts are packed with nutrition and beneficial enzymes.

Grow some cold-hardy greens in your garden each year. Depending on where you live these can keep going into at least the late autumn/early winter and in some places all winter long. My chard is still producing in Zone 5 in late November. The outermost leaves get killed by frost but the inner leaves keep coming. Parsley has also done well for me in the winter, although I've always had it in fairly sheltered places.

Dehydrate foods for winter use.

Use cold frames to extend the growing season--garden later in the fall and start earlier in the spring.

Build a green house or hot-bed.

Experiment with lacto-fermentation. This is a method of food preservation that our ancestors used before the advent of refrigeration. Sauerkraut is the one lacto-fermented food we're still most familiar with, but there are many types of foods that can be fermented. Not only is this a good way to preserve food, it also provides many health benefits. Here are two articles on the subject of lacto-fermentation:
Homemade Fermented Sauerkraut

As you can see, there are many ways to bridge the winter months. The best strategy I think, both to keep things interesting and to provide the best nutrition, is to use as wide a variety of methods as possible.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Indoor Tomatoes

If an endless supply of cherry tomatoes all winter long sounds good to you, you might be interested in a 2004 Mother Earth News article, "Real Food Winter Tomatoes" by David Cavagnaro.

It's too late for this winter, but bookmark the article now and refer back to it in late winter when you're getting ready to order next year's seeds. Make sure to order some of the indeterminate tomato varieties that the author recommends. These will grow well all winter long.

You will actually start next year's winter crop this spring. The elegant thing about this method is that you plant a summer crop first (outdoors), then take cuttings from these in late summer to start new plants that you'll bring indoors before the first frost. Then, enjoy a long winter of bountiful indoor production and, finally, take new cuttings at the end of winter to give your next summer crop a head start. You'll create an almost continuous year-round supply of tomatoes.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Indoor Herbs

In the dead of winter when the garden has gone dormant and is buried under a foot of snow, what could be nicer than a few potted herbs sitting on the kitchen windowsill?

Herb gardening, both indoors and out, is one part of my strategy to reach food self-sufficiency. Herbs may seem insignificant, but since across the board they contain so many life-enhancing properties they really deserve a prominent part in a healthy diet.

As I mentioned in another post, my attempts at establishing outdoor herbs this year met with dismal failure (not in the opinion of the little critters who nibbled away the tender new leaves, I'm sure). The only herbs that survived were the basil and a small bunch of parsley.

Indoors, I have a few things going--the rosemary and catnip pictured above, and a couple of basil plants. It is so nice to be able to snip off some rosemary to add to the oven-roasted vegetables, or add some basil to a sandwich, or brew a cup of soothing catnip tea. And the price is right, compared to buying fresh herbs at the store. When you have them growing on your sill you know you're going to use them. When your only option is to pay outrageous prices at the store, you're much less likely to include fresh herbs in your diet very often.

And the wonderful thing about indoor herbs is that they're easy to grow and you don't need a lot of space. A sunny spot is good, but you can use grow-lights instead. In fact, for winter growing, grow-lights left on about 14 hours per day will keep your herbs from getting too leggy from the short days. For now, I just use the windowsill and deal with my very leggy basil.

It's a lot of fun getting into herb gardening again. Back in my apartment dwelling days I grew quite an assortment of potted herbs year round. I can remember having basil, sage, fennel, dill, thyme and oregano, but I think there were even a few more. I'd like to get back to that kind of assortment again.

Working Towards Zero Food Waste

By some estimates, half of all U.S. food is wasted. For my part, I want to make sure I'm doing everything I can to keep food out of the waste stream. It's sacred stuff we're talking about here--food, sustainer of life. We shouldn't be treating it so casually.

I do pretty well, but there are still blind spots. I've been composting for years, so not much escapes the property. Food scraps get turned into compost which gets turned into more food next year in the garden. But the other night I discovered a small blind spot. I was making butternut squash soup from this year's bounty of squash. As I scooped out the seedy pulp and was about to toss it into the bin for compost (as I've done in the past) it occurred to me, Why am I not saving these seeds for toasting or sprouting? Until now I've been mindlessly composting them, which is a little silly since I'm careful not to let weed seeds into the compost bin, but had never worried about vegetable seeds. And I had always saved pumpkin seeds for toasting. I just never made the leap to saving seeds from the other winter squashes.

So, instead of sending them out to the compost, this time I toasted them and saved them for snacking on. This last bit of nutrition, that I'd been sending out to rot, now gets put to an even better use.

Blind spots are so interesting and so hard to explain. As time goes by I realize I have way more of them than I ever would have guessed. But I only know that after the fact, when something has jolted me into awareness.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Irradiated Lettuce and Spinach

In August the FDA approved the voluntary irradiation of fresh and packaged spinach and iceberg lettuce as a measure to prevent the spread of bacterial foodborne illnesses. It claims that the procedure is safe and does not destroy any nutrients in the food, in spite of plenty of research to the contrary (check out the references at the end of The Center for Food Safety's irradiation fact sheet for starters).

My own opinion on the matter is that the FDA is not concerned about providing consumers with healthy and nutritious foods, but rather with protecting industrial agriculture and its sloppy and unsafe environmental practices. Most of the outbreaks of foodborne illnesses can be traced to industrial farms, in one way or another, NOT to organic farms. This ruling simply protects the industrial farms from lawsuits and allows them to continue business as usual.

For now, the FDA requires irradiated produce to carry the "radura" logo and the statement "treated with radiation" or "treated by irradiation", but as the Center for Food Safety's fact sheet mentions, there is lobbying by industry interests to have that information hidden. Of course.

Find me a consumer who is attracted to that little "radura" symbol--who sees that and says "Ooh, I think I'll buy this! Safe, irradiated food!" I bet you couldn't find a single one, unless he or she was connected to the industry in some way. I'll tell you what my reaction was the first time I saw produce carrying that symbol--I literally backed away in horror.

The scary thing is that you just can't know what you're eating if you eat out at restaurants or salad bars. That's one of the reasons we almost never eat out. We grow our own greens or buy organic and joyfully eat them raw.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ditch the Microwave

An almost surefire way to begin changing the way you eat is to get rid of the microwave oven. This is a sneaky way to start eliminating processed foods from your diet. Eliminate the microwave and you'll no longer buy frozen dinners and other highly processed convenience foods (or microwave popcorn with artificial butter...). Getting these nasties out of your diet should be a priority and without a microwave oven there's little incentive to buy them.

I've seen articles suggesting that microwaving foods actually changes them molecularly (and not for the better). So even if you only use the microwave to cook healthy, unprocessed foods you may be destroying their health-giving properties and in some cases creating dangerous free-radicals and even toxins. It's hard to know what to think about these articles--the research I've seen cited is quite old and obscure. Yet there is a suggestion that evidence has been suppressed by big business so it's hard to know what to think.

Nevertheless, I don't own a microwave and will never have one again. When you cook with healthy whole foods, why risk destroying that goodness, even if the risk is minute?

Here's an article from Dr. Mercola's website citing some of the obscure studies: The Hidden Hazards of Microwave Cooking.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


I lied yesterday when I said I bake all of our bread products. I was forgetting about noodles. I'm still buying a lot of pasta.

I have taken steps toward making it all myself. I always make homemade egg noodles for chicken noodle soup, and here and there I've made homemade ravioli and homemade tortellini.
But on a weekly basis, no, I'm not there yet.

The tough part is planning ahead. Store-bought pasta is quick and convenient, but homemade takes time, which I don't have on school nights. I will need to get more disciplined about pasta-making so I can freeze big batches and have a lot on hand.

I don't know why pasta is the hurdle for me. Why not bread, which is equally time-consuming? There are school nights where we get home at 5:00 or 5:30 and I'll start a loaf of french bread. It won't be ready for three hours, and ends up being a bedtime snack, but for some reason that doesn't stop me. Yet the thought of getting home and starting a batch of pasta from scratch at 5:00 is too much for me.

I don't know what that's about, but I guess we all have our idiosyncratic hurdles. This may be another one of those incremental things--as I get more and more accustomed to making pasta, there may come a point where I don't even think twice about it. I'll just get right to it.

Mentally, I see the goal. I know I'm disgusted with processed foods. I want to control what goes into the pasta that we eat. I know we like the taste of homemade pasta much better. All of these things are a start.

I'll get there eventually. (Or in the meantime, maybe Collin will grow out of loving pasta so much.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Changing The Way We Eat

Changing the way we eat can seem really daunting at first. Especially if you're like me and need to be mindful of costs. It just wouldn't be possible to suddenly switch to all-organic, all-local food overnight; the household budget would implode.

I've always liked the quote by Theodore Roosevelt, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."

Figure out what you can be doing right now, and start doing it. You'll make incremental changes, but eventually it'll all add up to a complete change in lifestyle and eating. And as you gain new skills and knowledge, you'll find that switching the way you eat doesn't have to be expensive. It's only expensive when you remain dependent on others (thinking, for example, that you have to buy everything at Whole Foods). I've been making incremental changes for several years and I've discovered that healthy food isn't actually expensive. But I've taken responsibility for a lot of things that most people leave to others.

I bake bread. All of it. Bread, bagels, tortillas, muffins, rolls, cookies, pastries. Everything. Did that happen overnight? No, absolutely not. If one day I had been purchasing everything, and the next day I was cut off from that and suddenly had to make it all myself, I would have been totally overwhelmed. But I changed my habits gradually. I've always baked our sweets: cookies, muffins, pies and brownies, from scratch. So, that was one step. And I had occasionally baked bread. There was another step. Eventually I was baking most of our bread, but not things like tortillas and bagels. Here and there I would gather recipes for different types of bread products and try them out. I hit on an awesome bagel recipe online and started making that a lot. I tried some tortilla recipes and gave up for awhile because I didn't like any of them. When the name-brand tortillas we usually bought changed their recipe and the resulting tortillas took on a plastic consistency, that was the last straw. I went back online and found a really good flour tortilla recipe. No more store-bought plastic for us. And the last straw that got me to shift from baking most of our bread to all of it was a slice of store-bought white bread that simply refused to grow mold. If there wasn't enough nutrition in that thing to feed the moldies, I figured it wasn't even food at all. Why waste the energy sending that kind of junk through our systems? It couldn't be contributing anything to our health, and might even be detracting from it.

Bread is just one example of an area where we can make incremental changes and have it all add up to significant change. I'll get to some other good starting points in my next posts.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

How to Grow More Vegetables

The bible of biointensive gardening is John Jeavon's book How to Grow More Vegetables (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine.It is absolutely the best gardening book you could own if you are serious about growing your own food.

It includes instructions on how to double dig your garden beds, sample garden plans, and companion planting guides, among other things. But by far the most useful and amazing part of the book is the section devoted to detailed planting charts. These tell you everything you need to know about spacing, planting and expected yields.

I know, for instance, that in my house we go through about 3 pounds of carrots per month, so next year I'd like to produce roughly 36 pounds of carrots. The charts tell me to space my seeds 3 inches apart and that I can expect a yield of at least 100 pounds of carrots per 100 square feet of garden. (This is the yield expected for beginning gardeners--it's 150 pounds for intermediate gardeners, and possibly over 400 for advanced gardeners.) Since I'll be planting in a newly dug bed next year, I'll use the lowest figure. I will need to devote 36 square feet of space to grow my carrots next year. Since carrots mature fairly quickly, I can plant two successive crops at 18 square feet each.

I was recently reading the reviews of this book on Most people, like me, found the book to be an absolute godsend. But there were quite a few people with complaints that the book was "too technical". For a hobbyist, growing a few tomatoes--maybe. For anyone serious about providing for their family--no way. I wouldn't call the charts "technical", just highly detailed. And with each new edition of the book (now in its seventh), Jeavons adds more information to the charts. He's learning as he goes, just as we all do, and his dedication to this very important work is amazing.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Food Miles

Fifteen hundred miles is the number I most frequently hear mentioned as the average distance our food travels to reach us. In some cases, food that has been locally grown is shipped away somewhere to be processed before being shipped back to appear on local shelves. The inefficiencies are astounding.

That's why I'm thrilled to be seeing more and more things like the 100 Mile Diet , where the goal is to purchase food grown within a 100 mile radius of home, and even the 100 Foot Diet, which should be self-explanatory.

We've turned something relatively basic (food production) into something very complex and convoluted. Let's return to basics. If the people of Havana, Cuba were able to grow 90% of their produce within the confines of their city, surely there is no excuse to be shipping the majority of our foods thousands of miles. (Click here to read an excellent article on Havana's urban gardens.) We have evidence that food can be grown successfully in even major urban centers, so there is no good excuse left. It can be done, and it needs to be done. And it is being done--bit-by-bit. We're slowly catching on.

Gardening Goals

This past season I planted a small garden. It was the first garden I've put in at this location, so it was an experiment. I didn't know what to expect from the local soil, a light sand I've never encountered before (being originally from Pennsylvania, and later living near Denver where the soils were heavy clay).

My garden was a tiny 4 foot by 25 foot plot, but I used a biointensive, organic method that allowed me to grow tons (okay, not quite tons, but a lot) of food in a very small space. Plus, I succession-planted several things to get two or more crops in the growing season (carrots, beets, and spinach). Altogether the garden produced: beets, chard, lettuce, spinach, radishes, carrots, green beans, lima beans, sweet corn, pickling cucumbers, zucchini, butternut squash, watermelon, cantaloupe, sugar snap peas, basil and parsley. There were many smashing successes (chard, zucchini--of course!, cantaloupe, butternut squash, spinach, carrots, beets, basil) and some near failures (sweet corn--although I knew we didn't have a big enough block from the start, limas and green beans).

Altogether, it was far more productive than I ever imagined it would be and I am totally hooked on biointensive gardening.

My goal now is to grow the bulk of our produce myself, so I will be expanding next year. I aim to have roughly 400 square feet of beds, plus some additional space for herbs along the side of the house. (I tried to get herbs going this year too, but some little critters kept eating everything when they had only a few leaves each--there will have to be a new strategy next year). Four hundred square feet won't allow me to grow our grains, nor many of our dried beans, but it should allow me to grow most everything else. We're a small household--just me and a son who's here half of the time. Granted, by the next growing season he'll be a teenager, so that might mean he eats like two of me...but I still think we'll do very well.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Food is Fundamental

Food gives us life. It's what allows us to be here. It should be everyone's number one priority. If we get lazy and complacent about our food (and we have), leaving it to others to provide for us, we put ourselves at risk. Especially when the "others" we are leaving it to are interested primarily in profits rather than in nourishing people or creating a liveable planet.

I'm creating this blog because like many people, I am fed up. I am ready to learn how to take back responsibility for my own food supply. I've already taken some steps in that direction, but this is where I will chart my progress from here on.

Some of my goals are:

  • To grow the majority of my food.

  • To buy locally, or at least regionally, what I can't or won't grow for myself, and to limit national and international foods to less than a percentage point or two of my total food supply.

  • To use only sustainable, organic, and humane methods of food production and to ensure that those I buy from do likewise.

  • To eat what's in season and supplement through the winter months with foods I have preserved myself (through canning, freezing, fermenting, root cellaring, etc.).

I don't want to support corporate agriculture and factory farming, so I will be voting with my fork. If everyone did likewise, we could finally take back our food.