Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Cool Coincidence

There's a great book, Gardening for Maximum Nutrition,that was written in the early '80's. I have taken it out of the library several times in the past few years and this fall I needed to refer to it again for some articles I was working on. But when I went back to the library I discovered it was no longer in their collection. I guess it was just too old. The library I go to has a fantastic collection of materials and is constantly adding to it, but the drawback is that they have to purge the older books (even the high quality ones) to make way for the new.

I checked on the sale shelf down it the lobby, hoping it would still be there, but had no luck. Eventually I decided I would have to order my own copy from Amazon. I found the bookseller who was closest to me, Atheneum in Denver, and ordered a used copy for $1.70 plus shipping. The description stated it was a used library copy, and I just had a funny feeling it was going to be the copy from my library. When it got here, that was the first thing I checked. Sure enough it was! I guess that book was just destined to be mine.

The thing I really love about the book is that the author, Jerry Minnich, evaluates the nutritional qualities of foods in a number of different ways. He has a list of the the most calcium-rich crops, protein-rich crops, Vitamin C-rich crops, and so on. And then a list of the top ten most nutritious crops and a list of the top twelve most versatile crops (those that contain the greatest number of different vitamins and minerals, plus protein). To gather his data, Minnich analyzed the USDA's Agriculture Handbook No. 456, Nutritive Value of American Foods in Common Units. In order to make the data most useful, he compared foods by typical serving sizes rather than by an equal weight of food. This makes a great deal of sense to me, since we will commonly eat a half-pound potato, but not a half a pound of asparagus in one sitting. Other studies list asparagus to be more nutritious on a pound-for-pound basis, but that is simply not the way we eat. When compared in terms of typical serving sizes, the potato wins.

So, what were his findings? The top ten most nutritious foods he listed were: leaf amaranth, sunflower seeds, broccoli, soybeans, almonds, collards, navy beans, cowpeas, potatoes, dandelion greens, and peanuts. His twelve most versatile foods were: broccoli, leaf amaranth, lima beans, cowpeas, watermelons, almonds, collards, peas, potatoes, soybeans, sunflower seeds and the twelfth spot was a tie among five items, which he unfortunately didn't list.

I love these sorts of lists, but of course they're only useful up to a point. Minnich's lists evaluate the 89 most common fruits and veggies, but certainly there are highly nutritious crops that were excluded simply because they weren't part of the typical American diet. Also grains weren't included, nor were herbs and most seed crops (sunflower seeds notwithstanding).

Again, when it comes to growing foods for maximum nutrition, I believe that variety is key. The more diverse our diets are, the more likely we will be getting the full range of nutrients necessary for optimal health. If you're planning next year's garden, certainly focus on the nutritional powerhouses, but also plant a diverse range of fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, seeds, grains and herbs, as space allows.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Humanure in the Mainstream Media

Time magazine ran an article on Friday on humanure (in case the topic is new to you, that's the composting of human waste). I think that's awesome.

Humanure: Goodbye, Toilets. Hello, Extreme Composting.

The best source for information on humanure is Joseph Jenkins book, The Humanure Handbook, which he has been making available for free on the Internet for years. You'll find it an amazing resource (unless you're pathologically squeamish).

As I've mentioned before, I intend to use a composting toilet when I eventually build my cabin. My only issue with humanure is that humanure is only as healthy as the people who produce it. So, if people are eating the standard American diet full of chemicals and preservatives and devoid of minerals, taking their 11.2 prescription drugs per year, with their mouths full of mercury amalgam fillings and their bodies shot full of mercury, aluminum, and God knows what other toxic metals from such things as unnecessary and dangerous vaccines--well, they're going to produce some pretty crappy crap, if you don't mind me saying so.

Before people start composting their wastes, it would behoove them to attend to their own health first. In order to create organic poop you have to create organic humans. Anything short of organic compost isn't worth doing for the earth. Composting human wastes is a deep, deep commitment in my opinion, and one that shouldn't be undertaken unless you've put your own internal house in order first.

I'm very careful about where I source the cow and horse manure for my garden. I would want to be even more certain about the provenance of any human manures.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Junk Food

At the library recently I overheard the woman who runs the little coffee shop talking to a patron. She was talking about her kids and in a totally exasperated voice said, "Every night as soon as the dishes are put away, OUT come the chips, AND the cookies, AND the pretzels...!" And I thought to myself, But who is buying all of that? If you're so exasperated, just quit buying that junk. Seriously. We can't control what our kids are eating when they're out with friends, but at home we certainly can. If there are no chips and cookies and pretzels to be found at home, guess what? You're kids aren't going to be eating them. It's amazing how that works.

Now I can't totally sit on a high-horse here and lecture. I don't buy junk food, but I do bake sweets. So there's junk in the house. It's free of chemicals and artificial ingredients but still loaded with too much sugar and refined flour. So yes, I'm feeling all superior to this woman because I don't have store-bought junk in my house, but I can't ignore what I do have here.

At least with savory snacks we're in good shape. We've always got nuts, seeds and fruit for snacks (okay, so fruit isn't savory), sometimes popcorn, and I personally like to cook a big batch of chickpeas and snack on those at times. Collin has never complained that we don't buy junk food. And frankly, we don't do all that much snacking. When you eat nutrient-dense foods at mealtimes you just don't get very hungry between meals.

There was a time, back when Collin was small, when I did buy junk food--Goldfish and Cheez-Its and pretzels and so on. I'm not sure how we made the transition. We just shifted slowly away from that habit. And that's the thing, it is a habit. If you try to give it up suddenly, you're going to miss it and have cravings. You'd probably have better luck making gradual changes, slipping in a few substitutions here and there, and working up to a total change of habits over time.

As I've said before, Collin is allowed to buy junk food with his own money. Mostly he buys soda, the cheap two-liter bottles at the dollar store. Recently he made an interesting discovery. For awhile he'd been having issues when he was at my house. Intestinal issues, shall we say, after mealtimes. We kept trying to figure out what food might be causing it, but could never come up with one ingredient that was common to every meal. Plus he wasn't having any issues at his dad's house. For awhile I was getting paranoid that it might be my cooking! But then he figured it out--it was the cola. Every time he had a glass of cola he would have problems. I think it's awesome that he worked this out on his own. He's at that age now where kids seem to start having a degree of body-awareness and health-consciousness (he's thirteen) and have enough self-discipline to make positive changes. I'm so impressed that he figured this out. In order for change to be lasting it has to come from within. He's now planning to have a finite soda budget for 2010--once it's used up, no more soda, even if it's only May. I'd rather he just give up soda entirely, but at least he's moving in the right direction.

P.S.--If drinking soda causes the same troubles for you as it does for my son, check out my post on Corn Syrup. It covers fructose malabsorption syndrome, which is most likely what you're suffering from (scroll about a third of the way down the post to reach the part about fructose malabsorption).

Friday, November 27, 2009

Whew, the Garlic's in the Ground

I've been saying for the past month and a half, "Gotta get the garlic planted, gotta get the garlic planted," and it kept not happening. Today was a gorgeous day, sunny and in the low sixties, and the first day since battling this respiratory thing that I felt up to doing anything physical. It's best to plant garlic at least a few weeks before the ground freezes so the roots can get a bit of a start--last year I planted at the end of October--but even planting this late I think they'll make it through the winter. I piled a ton of straw on top of the bed and can pile more on if we end up with a particularly cold winter.

I would have been so mad at myself if I hadn't gotten them in the ground. The bulbs I bought last year for planting were expensive and I would have had to start all over again next fall (and miss out on a whole season of garlic). Now I can keep my two varieties going.

The added benefit of getting out in the garden today was that I made a wonderful salad for my early dinner. I picked the last of the spinach and beets, plus a little bit of chard and a small rosette of red baby lettuce, then once inside made a salad of them plus some carrots, onions, sunflower seeds, hardboiled eggs, and grated cheese. All of the veggies came from the garden--pretty good for late November! Now the only things left out there are: the chard, a patch of parsley, a small mound of chives, and the frost-nipped oregano.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What's In Your Fridge?

Check out "You Are What You Eat", a great series of photos by Mark Menjivar, showing the contents of people's refrigerators.

Here's my fridge:

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Setback for Genetically Modified Sugar Beets

A federal judge has ruled that the government illegally approved "Roundup Ready" sugar beets in 2005, without adequately addressing the likelihood that wind-borne pollen would contaminate non-GM crops.

The full story is covered in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle.

What this means is unclear. The USDA will now have to conduct a review, including public input. In the meantime, sales of GM sugar beets have not been prohibited, but the plaintiffs in the case may yet seek an injunction prohibiting such sales.

Could it be the tide is beginning to turn against Monsanto's irresponsible and greedy practices? Let's hope so. This is at least a step forward.

Last year, I had to switch back to cane sugar after they introduced the Roundup Ready sugar beets. Sugar beets are a major crop in my county and it would be nice to support my local farmers. But I see the trucks going past town, all mounded up with sugar beets, heading to the sugar mill in Fort Morgan. And I know once they get there they get dumped into gigantic piles --and no one is sorting the GM beets from the non-GM beets. So even if pollen from the GM sugar beets isn't contaminating the non-GM crops (unlikely), it wouldn't matter because all the beets get mingled in the end anyway.

Hopefully GM sugar beets will eventually be outlawed. If the plaintiffs in this case seek an injunction the damage could be limited to just these first two seasons of use, while the case proceeds. And once the proper review has been done let's hope it will be glaringly obvious there's no place in agriculture for GM sugar beets.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Lazy Woman's Guide to Composting

To compost:

Throw stuff in bin.

Keep throwing stuff in bin.

Dump used cooking water on top here and there, rinse compost bucket (aka sludge bucket) out and dump water on top here and there.

Allow strange and fantastic things to sprout out of the top. See how many strange and fantastic things show up. (That's a tomato plant sprouting out of the pile in the picture.)

Next spring sift the whole pile through 1/2-inch hardware cloth sifter, throw chunks back in bin, spread sifted compost on garden.

Tah-da. Composting made easy.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Maggots and Vinegar--My Learning Curve With Fermented Foods

Hew Boy, have I been having some fun learning how to ferment things! It seemed to be going well for quite awhile, but then I hit a few bumps in the road. I guess there are too many biological processes involved when you're not sterilizing your food to death. Things can go awry, horribly awry.

The beet juice thing was awesome for a few weeks. I kept brewing new batches and drinking a small glassful every morning. Note that in the recipe I've been using, it calls for placing a piece of sourdough bread on top of the beets. This introduces beneficial beasties as well as keeps the beets under the liquid, which is critical. So, there were the beets and the liquid, topped by a piece of sourdough bread (it was the top half of a sourdough bun, which fit perfectly into the jar), then the jar was covered with four layers of cheesecloth tied snugly around the rim.

I will never forget the morning I took the cheesecloth off my most recent batch of fermented beet juice. I had eagerly been anticipating the newest batch, but when I looked in--OH MY GOD!! (I've had a lifelong aversion to wormy things of all sorts)--the sourdough was crawling with maggots! Just crawling with them. I have NO idea how that could have happened. Four layers of cheesecloth! The cheesecloth was suspended at least an inch above the bread. Maybe the bread needed to be fully submerged in the brine (it wasn't) but still, how could a fly have gotten to it to lay eggs? And we haven't even had many flies this year. That week was the first time I had noticed any in the house at all.

It was so traumatizing I haven't been able to make more beet juice since then. When I get brave enough to try it again, I think I'll use something else to hold the beets under the brine. Something inert like a small cup or plate.

I am so glad I didn't totally freak out and drop the jar on the floor. That would have been great--glass shards, beets, blood red juice, a sloppy piece of bread and MAGGOTS EVERYWHERE. I would have just lost it. Luckily, I maintained control of my faculties enough to get the jar out to the compost bin and dump it before the worst of the willies set in. Bleck!

The next adventure had to do with my sourdough starter. I was making a new batch of ginger ale and had all the ingredients in the bottle except for the yeast. As I mentioned before, I've started using a tablespoon of my sourdough starter in place of commercial yeast, and have really liked the results. So I got the starter out of the fridge, opened it, and held it up to my nose. Instead of the pleasant yeasty aroma of sourdough, my nose was assaulted with the pungent smell of vinegar. My sourdough had turned to vinegar--Oh No! It's true I'd been abusing it lately. I left it out on the counter too long without feeding it one time. I think that's what did it. If you've never worked with sourdough you might not realize the liquid that forms on top of the starter is pure "hooch"--grain alcohol--so, yes, it's possible for your starter to turn to vinegar. In wine-making that's why fermentation is done in narrow-necked containers, to keep the vinegar-making beasties out. But I had left my wide round bowl of starter out on the counter (for a very long time) which was just a big ole' welcome sign for them.

So then I had another problem. Here I was with a three liter bottle of ginger ale all ready to go except for the yeast. And I didn't have any sourdough starter nor any commercial yeast. I decided to see what would happen if I just let it go as is. Would there be enough wild yeasts present on the ginger to get the process going and allow it to ferment? Well, guess what--it worked! It took about two or three days, instead of the usual one day, but it carbonated itself. Yay! I learned something really valuable--adding yeast was never even necessary. It just speeds things up a bit.

Aside from these lessons, my other fermentation projects are going well. I've made fermented chard stalks which are coming along nicely, as well as a fermented salsa that's not half bad.

Live and learn, though. These sure have been some interesting food adventures.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Grassroots Movement to Take Back Our Food A Must

Have you been following the Obama family's adventures (and misadventures) with gardening this year? And now the Farmers' Market they just opened near the White House?

Michelle Obama launches D.C. farmers market, touts White House garden

I love what they're doing, but at the same time I'm really bothered by the disconnect between their personal actions and what the Obama administration is doing to address the economic crisis.

We need to be moving to a steady-state economy. Yet no one in government has the courage to tackle this issue. Instead, all the measures being taken to address our economic problems represent business as usual, a continuation of our unsustainable growth economy.

In contrast to that, there's now a presidential garden and a presidential farmers' market. These are so at-odds with the concept of a growth economy. They perfectly represent the principals of a steady-state economy. I love it, but I just can't stand the contradiction! If everyone were to grow their own food and/or buy locally grown food at a farmer's market, the growth economy would implode. If everyone took back responsibility for their food, we'd be well on our way to having a steady-state economy and true hope for our future.

Do you think Obama realizes he's powerless to change anything through policy, so he's trying to show the public what needs to happen by personal example? Seriously, if we all followed that example, really profound change would happen. There's gridlock in government, but we the people can create a sea of change. So get out there, get busy. Plan next year's garden and start shopping your farmers' markets. It matters.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Zero Waste

How do we get the concept of Zero Waste to catch on with the general public? I've searched Google to see how this movement is catching on and the sad fact is it isn't yet. Not really. Not in the home at least. I see governments and municipalities trying to address the issue, but very few examples of families trying to address it.

As usual, the UK and Australia seem to be miles ahead of the US. Why are we such laggards?

How do we educate people that it's not enough to just recycle, especially if your pattern of consumption changes not one iota? Zero Waste is the concept that needs to be pushed, not mere recycling which can be a feel-good distraction from the real work that needs to be done.

Of course recycling matters. But it's not enough, not by a long shot. We need to be examining our patterns of consumption and making fundamental changes in the way we live.

If you're reading this, I challenge you to take a look in your trash bins, make an inventory of the things you're discarding, and seek ways to eliminate those items. Let me know what you learn. I'll post any tips that you pass along so we all can learn together.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Every available space covered with tomatoes! I can a big batch, then go out and pick some more and the counters are covered again. I'm swimming in these things. Help!!

What's In My Trash? Moving Towards Zero Waste

I did a little analysis this morning, picking through the trash cans. I don't create much waste, but I still have a way to go to get to zero waste. I wanted to see what was really in there, so I could see if there was any way to reduce my waste even further.

My largest form of waste is used cat litter. I have an elderly cat who goes through two 25-pound bags of clay litter per month. The other cats I care for (spawn of the local feral population) are mainly outdoor cats and do their business outside. For now there's no solution, but since my indoor cat is 17 and in the advanced stages of kidney failure, that will change all too soon.

Next are the cat litter bags and the dry cat food bags. Doing this analysis today I realized the litter bags are probably recyclable, since there's no glossy coating. I bet they can go in the paperboard pile at the recycling center. The cat food bags have a glossy outer and inner layer, but sandwiched in between is a brown paper layer that would be recyclable. So, at least a third of the bag material can be diverted from the waste stream.

The best solution would be to start making all of our cat food, but I don't see that happening with my elderly cat. She won't eat anything that's moist anymore and I don't want to force her to change at this stage. Maybe once she's gone I can switch the others over.

The kitchen trash doesn't build up very quickly, since we don't buy much processed food. It consisted mostly of used plastic wrap, meat wrappers, milk jug lids, cheese wrappers, cracker sleeves, butter wrappers, a brown sugar wrapper and ziplock bags that had held meat.

Here there's room for improvement. I need to buy more glass storage containers, so I can eliminate plastic wrap and ziplocks. I'll also need to buy some butcher paper to wrap the meat in, before placing the meat in the containers. I've been using those nifty ziplocks that allow you to suction the air out. It will be hard to give those up. Are there other ways to guard against freezer burn? Would some sort of oxygen absorber work? (Just thinking out loud here.)

Meat and dairy wrappers are a problem. Next year I hope to get some chickens and meat rabbits, so that will cut down on the problem but won't eliminate it, since we'll still be buying other types of meat. If I could find a meat market that still used butcher paper that would be great, although it's unlikely. Most of them use plastic-lined paper. The dairy issue will remain a problem until I can raise dairy goats. I'd like to get a milk share, but all of the raw milk dairies have waiting lists, and I don't know if any of those use glass containers anyway. But even if they didn't, I could just buy milk and then make all of our other dairy products from that. Then the only waste would be the milk lids.

The brown sugar wrapper. Sigh. I just need to give up sugar.

The cracker sleeves. Need to make homemade crackers--they're the last bread product I'm not making myself.

The bathroom trash was mostly tissues and Q-tips--things that could be composted but might be pretty ewww-y if they don't fully break down. I think I just need to get over that.

Not present at the moment, but still showing up in our trash too frequently, are candy wrappers and fountain drink cups. I don't finance such purchases but neither do I forbid them, so my son uses his own money to buy them from time to time.

Away from home, the only trash I create are used coffee cups. I don't know why I don't take my stainless steel travel mug. I need to fix that.

I'm not doing too badly. This was a useful exercise, though. I learned a few things. We'll see how much further I can take this. I'll keep you posted.

Edited to add:

I forgot about the other things--not in the trash cans--awaiting my next trip to the landfill. There are two lumpy old bed pillows with synthetic fill. I wonder if I could re-fluff the fiberfill enough to make it usable again and then make some new pillows out of that? Then I'd only be tossing the synthetic covers.

I need to make sure in the future only to buy 100% natural pillows.

There's also a bag of meat scraps, fat, and gristle waiting in the freezer. I talked about that issue in an earlier post (Waste Not, Want Not), although I haven't done anything about it yet.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lessons from Another Year in the Garden

No stack of gardening books could teach me as much as I've learned by simply being out there in the garden working and observing. Here's what I learned this year.

My book-learning had already taught me that cucurbits don't transplant well (cucurbits are all the members of the squash family--cukes, zukes, pumpkins and other winter squashes, gourds and melons), so it's best to direct-seed them into the garden and leave 'em. This year I planted six zucchini seeds in a space that could support three plants, and all six of them sprouted. Since I had an empty spot elsewhere in the garden I thought I would move the three extra plants just to see what would happen.

The first one I sort of mindlessly scooped up and in the process didn't leave very much soil clinging to the roots. I knew it would be traumatized and probably wouldn't make it. I was more careful with the other two plants, scooping each up with a big ball of soil surrounding the roots. All three were very traumatized by the move for about the first week, then all recovered. The first plant however was always sickly and weak and the grasshoppers attacked it severely. Any zukes that formed were small and grotesquely deformed. I was afraid of them.

The other two plants did okay, produced some zucchini, but were never as robust or productive as the three plants in the original bed. In the past week or two, the sickly plant took to its deathbed. I had been leaving it in the ground because I thought it served as a pest decoy, drawing bugs to it and away from the other two somewhat healthier plants. But I finally decided to put it out of its misery. As soon as I did, the other two got sick and I had to pull both of them within a week.

Last year I had six zucchini plants all together in one bed. There was one that was sickly and all of the squash bugs flocked to it while leaving the other plants alone. I left it in the ground all season and the other plants remained healthy (and pest free).

Lessons learned: 1)don't transplant cucurbits and 2)sickly plants may offer pest protection to their neighbors (as long as their sickness isn't contagious, in which case you need to pull the plant immediately and destroy it).

The hail and grasshoppers made it a very interesting year in the garden. We had at least six hailstorms, two with golf-ball sized hail and larger (2.5" diameter). We got lucky though because one of the storms that dropped golfball-sized hail on us dropped grapefruit-sized hail on another town before it got to us.

Lessons learned: Gardens want to grow, life wants to happen. You can't keep life down. If there's any opportunity for it to spring back from adversity, it will. My potatoes were decimated by grasshoppers (and to a lesser extent hail). I'd say at least eighty percent of the leaves were destroyed. The plants never flowered, except for three or four blossoms on one plant before the hoards descended. The vines started dying back on the potatoes but never died completely. Now with the arrival of cooler weather the number of grasshoppers has decreased dramatically and all of a sudden I have tons of lush new growth on my potatoes. These were supposed to be a mid-season potato, but better late than never. We have harvested new potatoes here and there and they seem to be forming just fine, but it's all kind of weird. I suppose the frost will end up killing the vines. The potatoes probably won't store well, but at least we'll get some.

Also with the cooler weather and decreasing number of grasshoppers, my Swiss chard and basil plants are going crazy. The chard was so full of holes all summer I was only using it for making pasta. It was too ugly for anything else. Now I'm eating it almost every day and freezing a bunch for the winter.

Another lesson learned: intensive gardening protects against wind damage. The plants are spaced so closely that they support each other and create a biomass that the wind can't mess with as much. In conventional rows, each plant is out there alone, getting whipped around in every direction by the wind.

Which brings me to:
Lesson learned: very stiff cutworm collars on very tender plants can act just like actual cutworms when a ferocious spring windstorm is added to the mix. Note to self: toilet paper rolls and pepper plants do not mix.

I also learned that John Jeavons' estimate of yields for tomato plants is quite accurate. A hundred square foot bed should produce about 200 pounds of tomatoes for an intermediate gardener (as much as 418 pounds for an advanced gardener). I've got my tomatoes in a 100 square foot bed, but have 20-some basil plants in the middle, taking up some room. So far I've harvested 140 pounds of tomatoes and probably have at least another hundred pounds on the vine. I love that his charts really let me do some accurate planning.

I learned that fall crops come up much faster than spring crops and seem to get off to a much healthier start. (The cool summer probably helped.)


Tomatoes love soaker hoses and mulch.

Oregano makes a delicious tea (especially with some rosemary thrown in).

Coriander attracts ladybugs.

Clay saucers and wood scraps are very protective when placed under pumpkins, melons, and gourds.

Hail damages horizontally sprawling plants more than vertically growing plants, it damages broad-leafed plants more than narrow-leafed plants, and it damages succulent stems more than woody stems. Therefore, untrellised cucurbits are among the most vulnerable plants in the garden when it comes to hail.

A cool, wet year brings hoards of grasshoppers and mosquitoes, but also hoards of toads (who seemed to have kept the squash bug population in check this year).

Melons and gourds take over the garden, but their shading and biomass seems to be appreciated by the other plants.

Five cucumber plants never produce enough cukes of uniform size at any one time to make a decent batch of pickles. Well, maybe they would if they weren't hail-damaged.

Dill wants to mature long before the cucumbers mature, so plant dill continuously throughout the season.

A 500 square-foot intensive garden produces a lot of food, but bigger would be even better.

And last but not least--the number one lesson of the year-- I learned to always call before you dig.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It's A Jungle Out There

The garden is in its full glory and it's all I can do to keep up. The kitchen looks absurd. Tomatoes everywhere, onions, garlic, today's green beans, cucumbers soaking in ice water, beet juice and salsa lacto-fermenting in their jars, sourdough starter sitting out, and dill and coriander seeds drying. The living room has a braid of garlic, more dill and coriander hanging to dry and some oregano drying.

Today I have to finish the pickles, blanch and freeze the green beans, bake bread and make pasta. Tomorrow morning I'll need to bake zucchini bread and can a batch of tomatoes, probably as spaghetti sauce. The sweet corn may be ripe by this weekend and the potatoes will need to be dug before too long. And I keep forgetting to blanch and freeze the swiss chard so we can have it for winter soups. Gotta add that to the list. I also need to make more pesto this weekend. Whew!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sugar Shortage

Since I've been obsessing about sugar all summer long, I can't possibly ignore the news in recent weeks about an impending sugar shortage.

My initial reaction was that of course it would be a fabulous thing. We'd all be better off if we drastically curtailed our sugar consumption. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it just won't play out that way.

If the government doesn't relax our import quotas on sugar and prices skyrocket, food manufacturers will switch back to high fructose corn syrup for any product where that is a viable substitute.

And if the government does relax our import quotas and we're flooded with cheaper sugar from the global markets, then our domestic sugar producers will be put out of business and all that acreage switched over to something more profitable--like corn.

It's not like sugar is the only sweetener available. High fructose corn syrup waits in the wings, ready to fill in at a moment's notice. Sure, if the shortage is extreme enough it will drive up the price of HFCS--and all forms of sweeteners--too, not just sugar. But sugar will take the worst hit.

I don't expect a shortage to change American habits. And I'm sure manufacturers will find a way to keep our collective sweet-tooth satisfied.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Fermented Beet Juice

After a week of brewing, my first batch of fermented beet juice was ready for the big taste test today. I was a little worried because I had heard others refer to the taste as "medicinal"--and that usually doesn't bode well. Fermented beet juice is medicinal, i.e. it's known to have anticancer properties as well as other health benefits, but the taste is actually very pleasing. Salty, tangy, a little bit fizzy and very beet-like (go-figure). I suppose if you don't like beets to begin with, you might think of this as medicine, but as for me I'm sure I could enjoy a small glass of this every day if it was available.

I've had a great summer beet harvest this year, and my fall beets are still coming up, so I'll definitely be brewing more of this. This was a good introduction for me into fermented foods--very easy to do and I had all the ingredients on hand. Until now all I'd experimented with was ginger ale and sourdough bread. I really want to make sauerkraut, but the grasshoppers have been having too good a time with my cabbage, so I'm not sure if that's going to happen this year. And I'm waiting to get enough cucumbers at any one time so I can make pickles. But at least I've still got tons of beets.

Here's a link to the beet juice recipe I used:

And here's a link to an article on the benefits of fermented foods:

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Perfect Batch of Homemade Ginger Ale

I finally did it! I've been experimenting with homemade ginger ale for awhile, and although the results have always been passable, this week I finally brewed the perfect batch.

The big difference this time was that I was out of commercial yeast, so instead I used a tablespoon of my sourdough starter. I think the gentler action of the starter was just what was needed. The result is a sweet, tart, fizzy drink with the perfect gingery kick--and no hint of alcohol flavor, as some of the other batches had. The fermentation went just long enough. I think commercial yeast is probably far too active, so that the window of time between the perfect carbonation for ginger ale and having it turn to ginger beer is a much narrower one. Letting it ferment with natural yeasts gave me a wider window.

Here's my recipe:

(Makes one 3-liter bottle)

A chunk of ginger, peeled and grated--I like a lot, a piece up to the size of my palm, maybe a little less
Juice from 1 1/2 lemons
1 tablespoon sourdough starter or 3/8 teaspoon commercial instant yeast
1 1/2 cups sugar
Filtered or otherwise chlorine-free water.

Peel and grate the ginger. Mix the grated ginger (and its juices) with the sugar, lemon juice, and some of the water. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Pour into the bottle, top off with remaining water plus one tablespoon sourdough starter. Screw on the lid and shake well. Leave at room temperature for a day or longer. I use a large (3-liter) soda bottle. Do not use a glass container unless you have a fermentation lock as there is a danger of explosion as the carbonation builds. Even with the plastic bottle you will want to check it frequently. Give the bottle a squeeze every few hours. When it reaches a point where it doesn't yield under the pressure of your squeezing, it's time to put it in the refrigerator. This will stop (or nearly stop) the fermentation process. At this point it should be ready to drink. If you try it and it's not fizzy enough, set it back out at room temperature for awhile and taste it again in a few hours. When it achieves the desired carbonation, refrigerate it again. I use a fine-mesh tea strainer to strain each individual glass as I pour it, but you may want to strain it all at once and re-bottle it.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Giving Up Sugar and Refined Flour, Progress Report 2

I'm now three weeks into my diet experiment, and have continued the trend of losing one pound per week. I've never actually been on a real "diet" in my life (i.e. a diet to lose weight), since my problem has always been too little weight and not too much. But I can confidently assert that a low-carb diet works for weight loss! It's quite amazing.

Collin gets back from his trip on Monday, and since I will then be cooking his normal portions of carb-laden foods, I imagine that I'll end up eating more carbs again. If I cook it, I will eat it. I understand that much about myself.

One thing I learned in the past three weeks is that sugar-cravings very quickly disappear. Well, maybe not disappear completely, but at least drastically recede. It took less than a week before I could finish a meal and not immediately crave a sweet dessert. That's far quicker than I ever would have guessed.

Not to say that I've beaten my sugar addiction. This hasn't been about abstinence. And in the past week I've been more lax than I was in the first two weeks. I made homemade ginger ale (a 3-liter bottle!) and then there was the small matter of the Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies that were given to me (hey, I lasted three whole days before I even cracked the first sleeve...and when food is a gift, it would be totally inconsiderate to let it go to waste).

But I've been pretty good about flour consumption and whole grains. I've been eating brown rice in my stir-frys and baking whole-grain breads. The only straight-up refined flour I ate this past week was my spinach pasta--two servings that I made into pierogies in order to use up some leftover mashed potatoes (I had needed those to go in a pumpernickel bread recipe).

What I've learned: I could quite easily learn to go without added sugar, and I could adapt quite well to eating mostly whole-grains. I'll continue to shift my diet in that direction, but it'll probably be a slow process. But that's okay. At least now I know I can do it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Waste Not, Want Not

One of the Permaculture Principles is "Produce No Waste". I'm constantly working with this principle in my home and on my small patch of earth.

How can I close the loop on waste? How can I get out of the importing and exporting business and instead cycle resources continuously around my patch of earth, with nothing entering or leaving the property? These are questions I constantly ask myself.

While getting to the point of having absolutely nothing enter or leave might be difficult, I believe I can make great strides in that direction.

The basic loop on my property is garden to plate to compost bin back to garden. But of course that's not all there is to it and even there there's much to learn and many things that can easily be overlooked.

The kitchen drain is one weak area in the loop. It's easy to have momentary lapses where nutrient-laden water from the steaming of veggies, or the boiling of bagels or pasta, gets poured down the drain instead of being saved for watering the garden or the compost bin, or for use in soup stocks). In moments of laziness I've also rinsed moldy jars of spaghetti sauce down the drain, instead of carrying them out to the compost bin. Fortunately there's no garbage disposal here, so I can't be lazy about my solid wastes.

And without a graywater system installed, perfectly good bath water, dish water and laundry water goes sailing off to the treatment plant instead of out into the garden. Likewise, the lack of gutters and downspouts means that I can't collect water from the roof. If I ever buy this house (and I have a standing offer) then that's something to add to the to-do list. But in all likelihood, since I'm planning to move back east in five years, it won't happen.

The kitchen in general is a dangerous part of the loop, because a lot of things can get overlooked. For instance, when I buy (import) chicken I always buy whole birds instead of parts. I get soup, soup stock, and another meal or two out of one bird. When the carcass has been boiled to death, I'm still left with bones and gristle, which I end up sending to the landfill. I've been trying to figure out how to make use of this, instead of exporting it. I thought about drying the bones and then grinding them to use as bonemeal in the garden. But I'd have to dry them in the oven to keep them away from the cats and other vermin, and that would mean importing the energy to do so. My other option (probably the best one) is to bury them in a deep enough pit to keep away the critters and just let the nutrients slowly return to the land.

Likewise, I need to figure out a use for kitchen grease. I could get into soapmaking I guess, use it as suet to feed the birds in winter, bury it in my bone pit. Right now it goes to the landfill.

I'd also like to raise my own chickens, but the property can probably only support a few laying hens, rather than a whole flock that could give me meat. Meat rabbits are something I've given some serious thought to as well, because one buck and two does could very easily supply most, if not all, of our meat requirements and they have a small ecological footprint and rabbit manure is such a valuable thing for the garden. Having no meat imports would be ideal. Dealing with the dairy issue is another matter. When I move back east I plan to have enough space to get some dairy goats, but I can't see that happening here. I've seen it done here in town, but it would require me importing almost all of their feed.

The garden is another part of the loop where I have to be very careful. Last year a lot of food went to waste because I didn't keep on top of harvesting as well as I should have. The spinach bolted, zucchini grew to monstrous proportions, some cantaloupe rotted because I didn't prop them up. This year I'm determined to stay on top of everything. At least with this part of the loop, waste isn't really waste since it goes on to become compost if it rots on the vine. But it would be nice to cycle all of that nutrition through some human bodies.

Which gets me to the uncomfortable topic of humanure. The cabin I'm planning back in Pennsylvania will have a composting toilet, and the product of that contraption will be returned to the earth. But here, there's not much I can do. I've heard of people using their diluted urine on their gardens--I could do that--but I'd feel like a total freak.

In John Jeavons method of intensive gardening, cover crops are used to improve soil fertility--in place of using animal manures. I'm still importing manure from my friend John (it travels just two miles to get here, but still...). I'd like to incorporate cover-cropping into my gardening routines. With that, and my compost and possibly rabbit manure at some point, I should be able to keep the garden quite fertile. A worm bin would be a nice addition too.

Since I only use hand-tools in the yard and garden, I'm not importing any carbon. I've got a reel mower, shovels, rakes, grass clippers, pruners, forks, wheelbarrow, etc. and not a single motorized device to speak of. Just human power, fueled more and more by the products of the land here.

A fully closed loop (or nearly so)--what I hope to accomplish when I move back home--would look something like this:

  • Passive solar heating, high thermal mass.
  • Supplemental masonry fireplace for winter, fired by deadfallen timber from the property.
  • Chickens, rabbits, dairy goats, bees, worms, and sheep--providing meat, eggs, dairy, honey, fiber and manure.
  • All fruits and veggies grown on site.
  • Small-scale grain production.
  • Cover-cropping.
  • Haymaking for winter feed, harvested by scythe.
  • A graywater system and rainbarrels.
  • A composting toilet.
  • Seed-saving.
  • Root-cellaring, a springhouse if suitable, non-electric fridge contraption (can't remember where I saw that online--I'll post the link when I find it). [Here it is: Four Mile Island Icebox]
  • Efficient wood cookstove indoors and out, outdoor bread-oven, bean pit.
  • Homemade soaps, candles, wool items, rabbit skin items.
  • Compost bins.
  • Spring or well.
  • Off-grid, totally non-electric house and property (unless solar or wind needed to pump a well).
  • Hand tools (but I'll probably cave in and get a chainsaw).

Until then I need to work with what I've got and continue to examine and re-examine all of my habits, looking for ways I can continue to close the loop here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How's That For Ingenuity?

We're starting to finally get some hot weather and when I went outside to water this morning I noticed that most of the spinach looked dangerously close to bolting. So, since I made a commitment to really stay on top of the garden this year and not let any perfectly good food go to waste, I rearranged my day and set about dealing with the spinach.

I decided to turn it into more spinach pasta, rather than just blanching and freezing the stuff. Collin has missed out on the whole spinach harvest, since the spinach was still too small when he left. I thought this way he could enjoy some of it when he gets back (and in a form he appreciates).

So I made a triple batch of pasta--with a pound of spinach in it--about five or six whole plants after they'd been cleaned and de-stemmed. There are still a few little plants left out in the garden but they won't last much longer. Too bad I got such a late start planting it this year, but there'll be a second planting for fall.

Once I got the dough rolled out this time I faced a dilemma--where to hang that much pasta to dry?? It was hard enough rigging up something to hold the single batch I made on Saturday, but a triple batch? Finally, a lightbulb went off. I have a neat little device from back in my weaving and fiber artsy days--an umbrella swift. It's used for holding skeins of yarn when you're winding or unwinding bobbins, etc.

It worked like a charm! You could just stand there and keep spinning it around as the little slats filled up with pasta. Very convenient. So, if you're that one person out there who's making homemade pasta and has an umbrella swift--well, there you go! For the rest of you, I don't have any suggestions. Sorry.

A New Food Philosophy

What happens when you take back responsibility for your own food supply?

  • You eat healthier and more interesting foods and become a healthier (and more interesting!) person.

  • You reconnect with nature and the rhythms of the seasons and become more grounded.

  • You feel secure and empowered because you know how to provide for yourself and your family.

  • You save money.

  • By your simple acts, you protest against industrial agriculture and its destructive practices.

  • You become a role-model for health and sustainability.

I've noticed something interesting happening with me this year as I get more serious about growing my own food. I'm starting to understand how everything fits together--ecologically speaking. I'm getting a good sense of how much I should grow of any one thing and how much land and water each thing requires. With that kind of understanding, my eating habits automatically begin reverting to healthier and more sustainable patterns (by reverting I mean going back to the healthier ways of my ancestors).

Okay, so the average person in the US consumes 136 pounds of flour per year. Do you know how much land is required to grow that? What about for a family of four? I believe John Jeavons says we can expect about 10 pounds of yield per 100 square feet. So, at current consumption levels a family of four would need to allow 5,440 square feet just for their wheat.

How much land is required to provide our 89 pounds of beef per person? How much land for our sweeteners?

Once you start to think about all of this, you realize how out-of-balance our diets have become. When we left the farms and started buying our food at the supermarket, we lost our common sense. When we lived on farms we grew sensible amounts of everything. We automatically understood sensible portions on our plates, because we understood sensible portions out in the fields. We had to work those fields so we didn't take anything to wild extremes. But once we shifted to industrial agriculture and mega-supermarkets, we lost that knowledge. At the supermarket, we can buy any quantity of anything. We can buy enormous quantities of anything (and everything). The supermarket is a fantasy land--it makes you think anything is possible. It hides the truth. We obliviously buy our 136 pounds of flour, our 89 pounds of beef, 52 pounds of chicken, 154 pounds of sweeteners... and never for one second consider how much land and water is required to grow and raise all of that.

So we buy ridiculous (and unhealthy) quantities of food. Imagine what our ancestors would think if they saw into our cupboards and fridges and freezers. How their jaws would drop! How utterly irresponsible we would look.

As long as we continue to think that our food comes from the supermarket, rather than from the land, we will continue to allow destructive, unsustainable agricultural practices and we will continue to eat very unbalanced and unhealthy diets.

Growing our own food reconnects us with the real. It gets us out of fantasy land and leads us toward the things that really matter.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

My Beautiful (Grasshopper-Munched) Garden

The garden has bounced back from the hailstorm so I went out and tried to get some pictures. It was not the best time to shoot pictures, but these at least give a broad impression of the garden.

I've got 448 square feet of biointensive beds--the rough equivalent of a 20 x 90 foot conventionally-spaced garden. I love gardening intensively and I can't imagine ever going back to the old way. This year I've got over thirty types of things growing--fruits, veggies and herbs combined: potatoes, red onions, white onions, garlic, radishes, carrots, zucchini, lima beans, cantaloupe, watermelon, spinach, swiss chard, various lettuces, green beans, beets, roma, beefsteak and several heirloom tomatoes, Collin's gourds (several varieties), pie pumpkins, butternut squash, pickling cucumbers, several varieties of both hot peppers and bell peppers, an early sweet corn and a late sweet corn, basil, cilantro, catnip, rosemary, chamomile, dill, parsley, chives and oregano.

I'm also getting ready to plant the fall peas--two varieties. They'll be joined shortly by other plantings for fall--more carrots, beets, lettuce, spinach and radishes. Plus I've got eight little cabbages started in the house and they'll be ready to go out in a few weeks.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Growing Sprouts

Sprouts are little nutritional powerhouses--no other food packs as much nutrition per calorie. They're full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and beneficial enzymes. Best of all they're inexpensive and always in season if you grow them yourself.

And growing sprouts couldn't be easier. Place seeds in a quart-sized canning jar, cover with water and soak for the recommended length of time (this dissolves the plant chemicals that coat the seed and inhibit germination).

(Get down Olive. BAD girl.)

Once the seeds have soaked the soaking water will be yellow. That's all the dissolved stuff that inhibits germination. Place a piece of fiberglass windowscreen over the top of the jar and screw on a lid band (you can also use a few layers of cheesecloth and a rubber band). Drain and rinse (always use filtered tap water or the chlorine might kill off the poor things). Place in a container that allows your jar to rest at a forty-five degree angle. This allows air to circulate and water to drain--you don't want moldy sprouts!

Put the whole thing in a dark place, like a kitchen cabinet, rinse twice a day, and in a few days you'll be enjoying delicious sprouts.

Supermarket Bad, Garden Good

If only all stores would be so forthright:

I hate supermarkets--everything about them--and the more responsibility I take back for my own food supply the more dysfunctional the whole concept of the supermarket seems to me.

The supermarket: A building with a huge ecological footprint, situated in a vast sea of concrete and accessible to most people only by carbon-spewing transport devices.

The supermarket: An enormous repository of wooden, tasteless and nutritionally-devoid food-like substances.

The supermarket: A giant chemical and pesticide warehouse.

The supermarket: Where there's competition amongst all the thousands of products to see who has travelled the farthest ("I'm ground beef from Argentina." "Well so what. I'm a bulb of garlic from China!"

The supermarket: Designed to bring out the absolute worst in people. Think I'll park my shopping buggy here in the middle of the store exit for awhile, just for the joy of watching everyone struggle to get past me. And when I get out to my car, which is in the spot right up front (because I circled round and round the lot twenty times to land it), I'll just leave my cart right there cozying up to the car in the next space (you know, the one with the immaculate paint job) because really I am so special and I can't be bothered with such trivial matters as returning a cart to its carrel.

The supermarket: That paragon of efficient, just-on-time delivery which always manages to be out of the item I need the most.

The garden: An organic, pesticide- and chemical- free zone producing mountains of tasty and outrageously nutritious food just steps from my front door, and offering bounteous amounts of fresh air, sunshine and exercise in an environment totally devoid of rude and stupid people.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Ah, Some Good Gluten

Yesterday I baked this loaf:

And I made my first batch of spinach pasta:

I couldn't get a picture of the finished pasta because a storm rolled in and messed up the lighting and then night fell. So I just ate it. Not all of it, mind you--I froze some too.

My recipe was a hybrid of one I found online and one in my pasta cookbook. I used five ounces of fresh spinach, one egg, 4.4 ounces of all-purpose flour, 4.4 ounces of semolina, salt, one tablespoon of olive oil, and then a little water when it wouldn't all pull together for me. (If you don't have a kitchen scale, a cup of each type of flour should be roughly correct, but you may have to make some adjustments.)

First I steamed the spinach until it was completely wilted. Then I squeezed out the excess liquid and pureed the spinach in the food processor. I added the egg and processed until the mixture was smooth. I mixed the dry ingredients, added the spinach mixture and oil, combined it all and added a little bit of water to get it all to come together. Then I kneaded it for ten minutes, wrapped it in plastic wrap and let it relax in the fridge for an hour.

Rolling out pasta dough is always a challenge--this is where a pasta machine would come in very handy--and it takes at least a good ten minutes of hard rolling before it will relax enough to hold its shape. It's a good workout. If you've never made pasta before and try this recipe, don't lose patience. This is normal. Keep going. Once it was rolled out, I rolled it into a log and cut it into narrow strips, hung them to dry for an hour and then cooked up a small batch for a late dinner.

I actually get emotional sometimes cooking, especially when I've got really fresh wholesome and beautiful food. This pasta was the most gorgeous shade of green and I found myself getting a little choked up. Okay, it's a little embarrassing to admit. But I stood there all emotional thinking that here in my little shack, living my simple little life, I really have it better than the wealthiest people on the planet. I've got such abundance here, such incredible richness. The simplest little things, like my ridiculously green pasta, bring such deep satisfaction. Good food nourishes much more than just the body.

Plague of Locusts, Hail, and Wind

Well, I wanted to take some pictures of my beautiful garden this week and post them here, but Mother Nature can be very cruel. Actually, it's not all that awful. The garden will survive. But flattened plants with minced leaves aren't particularly attractive, so I'm going to give it a few days to bounce back before I take some pictures.

The hailstorm produced maybe nickel-diameter hail--not too bad. I hadn't staked my tomatoes so it was bad enough news for them and I'm still not quite sure what I'm going to do about them. My plan originally was to install a horizontal trellis for the vining tomatoes, while just letting the Romas sprawl. But after the phone-line fiasco (see my post "Call Before You Dig...") I got a little nervous about digging anything, and I would have needed to bury the upright supports for the trellis about a foot in the ground--so I just never did it. I still need to call and have the phone company come and mark the lines. Meanwhile, I've got all the supplies for the trellis just sitting around. The beefsteaks and heirlooms have just gone nuts and it would be a challenge to install the trellis at this point. What am I to do?

Then there are the hordes of grasshoppers. I've never seen it so bad. When I first planted out my baby basils the grasshoppers tore through them in a day or two, turning the leaves into lacework. I planted some more basil seeds directly in the garden, assuming that the first crop was a total loss. But now the first crop has mostly recovered and the second crop has sprouted, so the end result of the grasshopper invasion might be more pesto than we can possibly deal with. Last year I just had six basil plants outside for pesto (two more plants indoors for general use). From those six plants with two harvests we got nearly enough pesto to last through the year. This year I planted out twenty-three basil plants and once I thin the new patch to its final spacing there'll be about ten more plants. They're all full of grasshopper holes, so maybe it'll take two munched plants to equal one whole plant, I don't know. Still, that's a heck of a lot of pesto (and think of the olive oil and pine nut bill!). The basil plants aren't the only things the grasshoppers are munching but they've definitely taken the brunt of it. I checked online for an organic control of grasshoppers and there is one, but you have to apply it while the grasshoppers are only 1/4 to 1/2 inch long, so it's already too late for that.

The only other solution would be floating row covers, but I'm not sure that's in the budget for this year. Maybe if I just got enough to cover the most vulnerable plants.

The good thing is that while Mother Nature might do a number on parts of the garden I think it would be difficult for everything to be wiped out. Even if there was baseball-sized hail, something would eventually pop its head back up--though I pray I never live to see that day.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Woo-Hoo, Our Own Farmer's Market!

I just learned we finally got a farmer's market. It opened Tuesday night and will run every Tuesday from now through October. It's actually one town over--about seven miles away. My little town isn't big enough to support such a thing (we've got a population of somewhere around 200, whereas the next town over bustles with more than 5000 residents). I'm so excited! I didn't hear about it soon enough to attend the first night, but I'll make a point of getting there next week. I hope it catches on and becomes a permanent thing. Anyone can have a booth for $10/night, so if the garden goes too crazy I'll have a way to get rid of the bounty. I can't wait to see what everyone's growing.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Giving Up Sugar and Refined Flour, Progress Report

I've been on my new "diet" for two weeks now and I've lost two pounds. My reasons for eliminating sugar and refined flour have nothing to do with losing weight, it's just happening. However, I always lose weight in the summer so it may have nothing to do with the diet.

But at this rate--a pound per week--I would quickly lose too much weight. Normally I lose ten pounds every summer and gain it back every winter. It's a good little system for my body. Every summer I get down to what I weighed back in high school and every winter I put on a thin layer of padding for insulation. But losing a pound per week is crazy. That would make me underweight for my height in just another four weeks--not good!

Hopefully this will slow down.

I haven't totally given up flour and sugar and it was not my intention to be really militant about it, but I have cut way back. I haven't baked any sweets since Collin left and that's huge. You have to understand, there's always something sweet here to snack on--banana chocolate chip muffins, chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal cookies, anise cookies, berry muffins, chocolate-dipped almond biscotti, granola bars, occasional doughnuts and puff pastries...etc., etc. I'm always baking sweets. To go two weeks without baking is an accomplishment, to put it mildly.

I did bake one loaf of bread, made of all refined flour--I wasn't supposed to do that--but that's the only doughy food I've eaten so far. I'll probably bake more bread in the next day or two, but I think I'll make it at least partially whole-grain. I'm thinking about making a batch of pasta, too. I want to try to make a spinach pasta with some of the spinach from the garden. I've never tried to do that before. And I just recently got into making homemade pierogies and I'm itching to try some different types of fillings for those, so I may make up a new batch soon. At least those freeze well, so I'm not committed to eating them all at once.

All in all I think I'm doing okay. I'm trying to think of refined flour products as occasional side dishes and I'm trying to keep my added sugar under eight teaspoons per day. I also want to add more whole grains into my diet. I don't think grains are bad, I just think refined grains need to be kept to a minimum.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Wow, Garlic Scapes!

I'm growing garlic for the first time this year--Chilean Silver, a softneck variety, and Chesnok Red, a hardneck. When I went to order the bulbs last fall, I didn't know the difference between the softneck and hardneck varieties. I knew one did better in colder climates, supposedly, but I couldn't tell whether my climate on the desert plains of Colorado was considered a colder climate or not. So, that's why I ordered some of each type.

Both are actually thriving in my garden and from what I've learned since last fall, it seems that many gardeners around the country do well with both types. The softneck variety is what you will find almost exclusively in the grocery stores because it keeps much longer than the hardneck variety. It also has a softer neck (imagine that) so you can create a garlic braid with this type. The hardneck variety doesn't keep as well, but unlike the softnecks it sends up a cool flower stalk, called a scape, several weeks before the bulbs mature. Though there's some controversy, most gardeners believe it's best to remove the scapes, as that generally results in larger bulbs. (Others say that by doing so you reduce the storage life of the bulbs.)

The plus side of removing the scapes is that they are edible and delicious. I ate my first scapes two nights ago, quickly stir-fried in a little butter with a dash of pepper-based seasoning salt and some toasted sesame seeds. I was blown away! The flavor was garlicky, but mild--without the bite and aftertaste of garlic cloves. The bulbils were soft and sweet, melting in the mouth. They reminded me of garlic that has been slow-roasted in the oven but these cooked in two or three minutes. I cut the stems into two or three inch long pieces and they had the consistency of something between asparagus stalks and green beans, but with a flavor all their own. As I ate my stir-fry I detected a wonderful smokey flavor but I finally figured out it was coming from the sesame seeds. The sesame seeds really paired well with the scapes and it seemed that the whole dish was crying out to be served alongside a juicy steak or another fattier type of meat--lamb or salmon maybe.

Last night John invited me over for--guess what?--grilled steaks, so needless to say I contributed a scape side dish. It was perfect. I still have a few scapes left and I think I'm going to make a small batch of pesto with those. There are a lot of recipes online for scape pesto. I haven't figured out which one I'll try, but they all sound delicious.

Next year I want to plant a lot more of the hardneck variety just so I can enjoy more scapes!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Homemade Brown Rice Syrup Blues, Part 2

I tried making another batch of brown rice syrup last night, changing up a few things. The result? Another jar of mud.

It was not a total failure. The fact that I got eight ounces this time, rather than two, means that homemade brown rice syrup will be economical when all is said and done. By rough calculations I figured that this eight ounce jar cost me $1.21 to make (not counting labor and electricity). So a full sized jar (16 ounces) would cost $2.42. I still haven't been successful at converting all of the starches so when I do, the yield will go up even more and the cost will come down.

Even though this turned out muddier than the last one, it is sweeter and less bitter. The reason it's muddier is because I ground the rice into flour and so some of the unconverted starches were small enough to slip through during the straining process.

Here's what I did this time. I ground a cup and a half of rice into flour with my coffee grinder, then cooked it in nine cups of water for about twenty minutes. I let it cool until the temperature in the center of the pot was below 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Then I added the sprouted barley.

This time I also did something different with the barley. On various websites that talk about how to malt barley, they say that once the barley is sprouted it's dried in order to halt the process at the right point. I haven't been doing this, since I was using the barley immediately and didn't think it mattered. But this time I dried the barley in the oven for several hours (keeping the temp below 150F at all times). Whether this is a critical step or not, I don't know. But it did have one obvious benefit--when it was dried I could grind it into a fine powder in the coffee grinder. That made it possible to disperse it more uniformly in the rice mixture.

So I mixed the barley powder ( 1/4 of a cup) into the rice mixture and put it in the oven, where I kept the temperature somewhere in between 140 and 150 degrees. I let it cook for seven hours then turned the oven off and left it there overnight. (The only reason I didn't cook it longer is because I was heading to bed). In the morning I strained it. This time instead of using cheesecloth I strained twice through my regular mesh sieve and twice more through a really fine sieve (one of my little two-inch diameter tea strainers--a little tedious!). Still, some of the starches were fine enough to get through. This yielded six cups of liquid, which seemed like a promising amount to start out with. From that I was hoping to yield at least twelve ounces of syrup.

It took about forty-five minutes to boil it down and in the end, as I said, I got eight ounces. It's the sweetest batch so far and also the least bitter, so I know I'm on the right track. I really think the bitterness is coming from the unconverted starches rather than the barley. There still was quite a lot of rice sludge that I filtered out--at least a cup, maybe a cup and a half.

So, next time... (while I was working on this last night my friend John called and I told him there wasn't going to be a next time, but he launched into the "What if Thomas Edison had given up after a few tries, what if Albert Einstein had given up after a few tries" spiel. I told him it's not quite the same--this thing has already been invented. There's really no need for anyone to do it again. But, sigh, I am quite a persistent little bugger so I will probably keep at it until I figure it out.) Anyway, I was saying, next time I'm going to up the amount of barley maybe to as much as half a cup and I will also let it cook indefinitely. The worst thing that will happen if it goes too long is that the sugars will start to convert to alcohol. If I keep tasting it as I go, I should be able to tell when that starts to happen. Then I'll know for the next time to stop just short of that.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Homemade Brown Rice Syrup Blues, Part 1

A few years ago I decided to try to figure out how to make brown rice syrup. I didn't find a whole lot of information to go on, but I went with what little information I had and did some experimenting. The result was a syrup of the right consistency but muddy looking (kind of like beef gravy) rather than translucent. Worse than that, while it had a degree of sweetness to it, it also had an unbearably bitter aftertaste. So bad that when I finished the experiment I never wanted to see brown rice syrup again nor even a single grain of brown rice. Bleck!

The problem was probably one of three things: either some of the starches hadn't converted to sugar, or I used too much barley which itself may have been bitter, or I let the barley sprout for too long and that caused it to be bitter.

These seem to be the three most important variables: how long to sprout the barley, how much barley to use, and how long to heat the mixture in order to get all the starches to convert.

The basic process, I believe, is this. You sprout some barley. The sprouting process releases enzymes in the barley, which is what will digest the starches in the rice, turning them into sugars. You cook the rice, then cool it to a temperature below which the enzymes won't be destroyed. (I've seen conflicting information on just what that temperature is, but 140 degrees Fahrenheit works.) Once cooled you add the sprouted barley (crushed, or chopped in a food processor) and then let the enzymes go to work. You have to keep the mixture heated to the 140 degree range the whole time (the oven on its lowest setting is the best bet for me) and it will take many hours. Once you've let it digest long enough strain off the liquid through several layers of cheesecloth and boil the resulting liquid down to the desired consistency.

The first time I experimented I tried to control for the amount of barley used. I divided the cooked rice into four different containers. At that point I didn't know whether I should leave the barley whole or chop it up. I thought chopping might help, but I also worried that it might damage the enzymes somehow (shows how clueless I was). So in one bowl I put a tablespoon of whole barley, in another bowl a tablespoon of chopped barley, in a third bowl I put a quarter cup of whole barley and in a fourth bowl I put a quarter cup of chopped barley. Within five minutes, the two bowls with the chopped barley were bubbly, just like when you proof yeast, so I knew that chopping the barley was beneficial. The other bowls followed along shortly thereafter, but at a slower pace. As the enzymes continued their work, the mixtures began to thin considerably. I could tell that the starches were breaking down. The bowl with a quarter cup of chopped barley did the best, so it would seem that more barley is better (sounds logical). However, I don't know if the barley is contributing to the bitter taste, so it might be the case that more is not actually better. It might be faster, but not better.

This week I decided to take another stab at it. Since the last time I experimented I'd come across a recipe in a 1975 issue of Mother Earth News magazine for what they called "Grain Honey" . It sounded similar to everything I'd tried and so I hoped that they had all the kinks ironed out for me, as to amounts and timing and all of that. The only thing I did differently was to use four tablespoons of sprouted barley instead of three. That was because my sprouts were only two days old and I was afraid they wouldn't be potent enough. So after hours of baking, then boiling it all down, I had another syrup of the perfect consistency. It was not quite translucent but at least it didn't look like beef gravy this time. I took a lick. Definitely far sweeter than the last batch...getting close...but wait, ugh, there it was again--that horrendous aftertaste!

So, it's back to the drawing board. Did that one extra tablespoon of barley ruin it? Or did the starches not completely convert? It's frustrating with all these variables to manipulate--the ratio of rice to barley, the time you let the barley sprout, and how long to let the rice cook.

I suspect there's another variable. When I experimented the first time, I chopped my rice in a coffee grinder and made it into a flour of sorts. I figured that the finer it was, the more effectively the enzymes could go to work on it. The Grain Honey recipe leaves the rice whole. So using the Grain Honey recipe, when the rice was done cooking with the barley I had rice in a watery fluid. I put that all in a cheesecloth-lined strainer and squeezed the liquid through. But afterwards I thought, if there are still rice kernels left behind, aren't those kernels still unconverted starches? And as I squeezed, wasn't I maybe squeezing out starch as well as sugar?

It seems that ideally you'd want to convert it all. Using the Grain Honey recipe I ended up with only about 2 fluid ounces of brown rice syrup. If that's all you get, then it would be totally uneconomical to make this at home. The store-bought stuff is cheaper. Yet, I was left with a massive glob of sticky rice. There has to be a way to get it all to convert.

So, it's back to the drawing board yet again. This time I think I'll try the Mother Earth News recipe again, but I'll grind the rice before I cook it, and let it cook much longer.

There are some other possible variables that I'll look into after I try this, but if this works then Hooray! I'll let you know.

[See my follow-up post The Homemade Brown Rice Syrup Blues, Part 2.]

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Corn Syrup Blues

This post is a response to the propaganda--er, comment--I received yesterday from the Corn Refiners Association on my post about giving up sugar and refined flour. I've been aware that the Corn Refiners Association launched a huge campaign awhile back, but I don't watch t.v. or or read newspapers or magazines, so this is the first time I actually saw one of their ads.

That they have someone actually sitting there every day (the poor sap), watching for every little blog post that mentions corn syrup--it boggles the mind. They are obviously spending millions and millions on a campaign that I can only imagine looks absolutely ridiculous to most people. That's how it looks to me anyway.

Before I really launch into this, here's the blurb they sent:

High fructose corn syrup, sugar, and several fruit juices are all nutritionally the same.

High fructose corn syrup is simply a kind of corn sugar. It has the same number of calories as sugar and is handled similarly by the body. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that high fructose corn syrup is responsible for diabetes. It is especially important to understand that Americans are consuming more calories from all types of foods today than what was consumed 30 years ago. And we expend less energy to burn the extra calories. Consider the numbers reported in the February 2009 Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Data by the USDA. Total caloric intake on a per capita basis for Americans increased from 2,172 calories per day in 1970 to 2,775 calories per day in 2007 – an additional 603 calories. Where are all these calories coming from? Major contributors to this 603-calorie increase include 299 calories from added fats and 194 calories from flour and cereal products. Added sugars account for 57 calories of the daily increase.

The American Medical Association in June 2008 helped put to rest misunderstandings about this sweetener and obesity, stating that “high fructose syrup does not appear to contribute to obesity more than other caloric sweeteners.”

Even former critics of high fructose corn syrup dispel long-held myths and distance themselves from earlier speculation about the sweetener’s link to obesity as the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition releases its 2008 Vol. 88 supplement's comprehensive scientific review.Consumers can see the latest research and learn more about high fructose corn syrup at

Audrae Erickson


Corn Refiners Association

So, is corn syrup really no different than sugar?

Well, aside from the fact that it's laced with mercury and made from mostly genetically modified corn (okay, sugar beets are now genetically modified, too) are there any other distinctions?

High fructose consumption leads to what is called fructose malabsorption or dietary fructose intolerance. Everyone who consumes more than about 25 to 50 grams of fructose in one sitting suffers fructose intolerance, as the intestines are only able to absorb that much at one time. But some people are truly intolerant in that they are only able to absorb much smaller quantities of fructose. It's the unabsorbed fructose which causes problems by passing on from the small intestine to the large intestine where it begins to ferment.

A can of soda contains about 15 or 16 grams of fructose, so you can see how easy it would be for a person with even a normal tolerance for fructose to have problems if they drink more than one soda in a sitting.

Once the excess fructose ferments in the gut, people will experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as gas, bloating, cramps, constipation, and diarrhea. Beyond that, according to wikipedia, malabsorption of fructose causes reduced levels of tryptophan, folic acid and zinc in the bloodstream.

The University of Iowa did a study on fructose malabsorption and has a nice page summarizing their findings. One interesting thing they note is that when they tested people with unexplained IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) they found that 30% of the subjects were fructose intolerant. So, a significant number of IBS cases may simply be a result of fructose intolerance or pure overconsumption of fructose. Imagine that.

What is disappointing in the Iowa report is their suggestion that the next step should involve a search for ways to make fructose more absorbable. Sure, that will keep it out of the large intestine, but dumping it into the bloodstream is not the answer. Don't these researchers ever consider that there might be a reason the body limits the amount of fructose it can absorb?? Why would you want to override that system? Instead of that, how about counseling your patients to restrict their intake of fructose.

But moving on. Once the fructose is in the bloodstream is it really true, as the Corn Refiners Association asserts, that the body handles it like it handles sugar, and that there is no evidence linking it to diabetes and obesity?

Before diving into the medical studies, it would be helpful to read this excellent article on insulin, leptin and blood sugar. It does an excellent job of explaining the complicated processes involved in metabolizing sugar. The key piece in the article that will help us understand the research on high fructose corn syrup concerns the role of leptin in regulating appetite:

When leptin levels get high enough, meaning you have eaten enough, then leptin permeates into your brain and tells your subconscious brain you are full. At the same time the higher levels of leptin are also telling your pancreas that you are full, which turns off the beta cell production of insulin, as no more taxis are needed.

If you ate the right amount of food for your physical activity level then blood sugar always has some place healthy to go, insulin rises and falls in a controlled manner, as does leptin.

When insulin has too many blood sugar passengers and cells don't need any sugar, then insulin stimulates the production of triglycerides (which can become stored fat). This is how you gain weight. Unfortunately, as triglycerides elevate in your blood they get in the way of leptin getting into your brain. This keeps you eating more than you need to because you don't have a full signal yet, a problem called leptin resistance. This encourages even further insulin-driven triglyceride formation, making it more likely you will gain weight.

Now let's look at the research. This article in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that consumption of high levels of fructose resulted in lower concentrations of circulating insulin and leptin and concluded:

Because insulin and leptin, and possibly ghrelin, function as key signals to the central nervous system in the long-term regulation of energy balance, decreases of circulating insulin and leptin and increased ghrelin concentrations, as demonstrated in this study, could lead to increased caloric intake and ultimately contribute to weight gain and obesity during chronic consumption of diets high in fructose.

Another study, in the journal Diabetes, concluded that a high fructose diet led to increased insulin resistance in both liver and adipose tissues, and dyslipidemia (which usually means increased triglycerides and/or increased cholesterol levels).

Here's another study, out just last month: Consuming fructose-sweetened, not glucose-sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point. Even a layperson such as myself can quickly find evidence to refute the statements made by the Corn Refiner's Association. It's not hard to do. They make such a point about how the use of caloric sweeteners hasn't gone up dramatically and that fats and flour consumption have gone up far more dramatically. They fail to mention the astounding increase in HFCS consumption over sugar consumption, and ignore the research that shows that HFCS consumption disrupts the signalling of leptin in the brain that tells you you're full. So, of course people are eating more of all things, but that doesn't mean that corn syrup isn't a major culprit.

Eat corn syrup, never feel full, eat more of everything.

To close, here's one of Dr. Mercola's (many) cogent discussions on this issue:
Dramatic Example of How the Food Industry Lies to You About Corn