Archive for July, 2009

Food Choices and Food Dollars

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Many of us become interested in growing some of our own vegetables out of a desire to eat food that is both fresh and organic.  If I were to purchase only organic vegetables for my family, I think I would be looking at a very hefty grocery bill.   Without my garden, those beautiful summer salads that we enjoy almost every day would not only be expensive, but would also involve either a drive to the Farmer’s Market in Kingston or a trip to the local grocery store for imported greens that are almost always grossly overpackaged.  With my garden, my vegetable food choices always seem to be easy to make.

But when I look around me as I walk down the aisle of a grocery store, I know that in many ways food choices have not changed much in the past 20 some years.  Kingston still only has a small percentage of health food stores or local and independent groceries.  Local, organic, minimally packaged food is a drop in the commercial food bucket.  As much as many of us would like to see a revolution in food and agriculture, things often appears to be getting worse, and not better.  One must also take a look at government policy if one wants to truly understand the make-up of our food choices.

I think it is very important that we understand the way in which government policy affects the availability and cost of the foods that we buy.  When one talks about buying and eating locally, one must decide what products one wants to focus on finding a local source for.  In my experience this can include vegetables, fruit, eggs, meat, honey, maple syrup, some dairy, and a very limited amount of grains and legumes.  For me, almost all of it is purchased outside of the grocery store, from local farmers, small butchers, a small cheese factory, and one small independent food store.  I see very few local products at Loblaws or Foodland.  Buying policies and government regulations affecting processing facilities make it almost impossible to sell local foods to big stores.  If we look at meat, most large groceries will only buy from federally inspected abbattoirs.  There are fewer and fewer small, provincially inspected abbattoirs in Ontario that process local meats and the regulations for a federally inspected abbattoir are so costly that these facilities must be large in order to be economic.  Similarly, new rules affecting cheese factories will probably spell the end of what few local ones remain in Ontario.

If we go one step further and look at agricultural policy, the picture gets even gloomier.  The U.S. Farm Bill doles out some $25 billion in agricultural subsidies a year.  The bulk of these subsides go to mega farms that grow wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton.  As a result one American food dollar will buy 1200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. It will also buy 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.  If we want those carrots and the orange juice to be organic, well, hopefully you have a very small appetite.  We cannot begin to make large scale changes in our agriculture unless we address government policy.  We also cannot hope to come to terms with issues such as obesity and diabetes,until we insist that the interests of quality of food, versus quantity and centralized profit, are given priority.

The Challenge of Eating Seasonally

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

Sometimes it is really hard to incorporate change into one’s life.  For those of you who would like to begin to eat locally and seasonally, wether for health, community, or environmental reasons, it is often hard to develop new habits within an ongoing busy lifestyle.  After a day at work, it is often easier to cook something familiar and easy than it is to go to garden or search the grocery store for food that is local.  For those of you who are struggling with this, I offer a few suggestions:

  • I have always been a firm believer in the ‘cold turkey’ approach to change.  Many years ago I decided I did not want more plastic grocery bags.  After forgetting to bring my own bags for a few weeks in a row, I told myself that if I forgot the bags, I did not buy the groceries.  Success!!!  This method works very quickly for me.
  • I try to set myself progressive challenges.  I started with trying to grow my own food, this progressed to finding more ways to use my own food, then finally to making a commitment not to buy vegetables that were not local or seasonal.  At first I tried to make 2-3 meals a week with vegetables that were completely from my garden, then I gradually increased this until I would say that 80-90% of my vegetables are either my own or are local and seasonal
  • Realize that with each challenge, you will find answers.  That is the beauty of the challenge.  If you have a garden, forego the grocery store and it doesn’t take long to find ideas.  Tell your friends that this is what you are doing – I have been given some amazing recipes and ideas from so many people.  If you don’t have a garden, make a trip to the farmer’s market or a local food store, buy what is available, and then make the commitment to using it and not buying something else.  For me, necessity is very often the mother of invention, but in our perhaps overabundant society, one must almost artificially create the necessity.
  • Feel the beauty of being creative, enjoy and bask in your success.   Remember that each success makes you feel better about what you are accomplishing and feeds your ability to create and overcome more challenges.  I tell people that I really try to make this whole exercise into a bit of a game. Have fun with it.

So, here is an example of my process.

It is early July. I have snow peas, green onions, lettuce, and green garlic in the garden.  Beans, cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes are not ready yet.  I like trying new grains and one of the ones that I enjoy is quinoa.  I have some pork in the freezer.  So, before I begin this process, I have no idea what I will create, I just have an idea of what I want to use and what I have in the garden.

So, I cut the pork into small pieces and marinated it for several days in tamari, rice vinegar, sesame oil, and finely chopped green garlic.  (I know the condiments are not local, but it is the refrigerated transport of fruits and vegetables that are the huge environmental killer – I decided long ago that I was not going to martyr myself – just do my part!).  After  3 days, I cooked the pork with all of the marinade.  Then I soaked and cooked about 1 1/2 cups of quinoa.  I washed a head of lettuce and cleaned and chopped some green onions.   Snow peas were harvested, washed, and very lightly steamed.  Put the lettuce in the bottom of a large and pretty bowl. Mix the quinoa with the vegies and add the cooked meat and juices.  Taste, add abit more rice vinegar and some salt and spoon on top of the lettuce.  When my daughter asked if I would make this again, I knew that I had succeeded.

This ‘recipe’ might work with pasta or rice, other kinds of meat, tofu, shell peas or sugar snap peas, beans later in the summer.  Much of what I cook are variations on a theme, after all the garden is somewhat limited – especially when it is very small as mine is.  But it is good, nutritious, pretty economical, and fun to come up with.

Last kick at the can for fall vegetables

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

I start my last major flat of transplants before the middle of July.  These are planted in the garden in early August and mature towards the end of September.  Many of these vegetables will keep their quality, without growing bigger, through into November.  This timing works for me in Southern Ontario at around 45 latitude.  The big factor in the timing is the way in which growth rates are affected by the decreasing light levels.  You want your plants to mature to full size but not to grow past full size and begin to bolt – if I plant one week earlier or later, then either of these scenarios are what happens.  If I plant between the 10-15 of July, I generally find that they grow to be just right (said the little bear!)

I like to start lettuce, endive, kale, beets, and green onions.  Often I will try a few broccoli as well.  Sometimes I have wonderful luck with fall broccoli – with nice heads and side shoots into December.  Multi-plant tranpslants are desribed in detail in the March chapter of my book – for green onions each transplant cell holds 8-10 green onions and is planted out as 1 bunch.  Try to do 1-2 dozen transplant cells of green onions as these will grow into the fall and easily survive the winter.  They are then up and growing in early April and ready to harvest in May – far earlier than any that are seeded indoors in spring.

Other plants that will often survive the winter and provide some early greens are spinach and kale.  I like to direct seed spinach into my garden in early August, again going for a large planting.  The area that my peas occupied is now open and so there is ample room for a second crop of something here.  Try putting a light mulch of straw on half of the spinach plants in late fall and see if these survive better than those that are not mulched.  Kale does not need any special care, it is always a dependable early spring plant in my garden.  If you let it, will go to seed in its second year. sometime in early June.  I have two plants in seed in my garden this year, the seed pods are fully formed right now and will dry over the next month or so.  They can then be harvested and stored – one or two plants allowed to go to seed with provide you with enough seed to last many years – it is one of the easiest seeds to harvest and will maybe get you wanting to learn more.

Garlic Scapes and other gardening stuff

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

One of the wonderful things that can be harvested this time of year are garlic scapes.  The idea of eating garlic scapes is perhaps new to many gardeners, but they are becoming popular and can even be found for sale at many farmer’s markets.  For those of you who are new to them, garlic scapes are those curly tops that shoot up from the center of hard necked varieties of garlic plants.  They are quite slender with a small round section which is where little bulblets form – that part is not good eating.   The scapes can be broken off from the main plant – some people say this encourages a bigger bulb of garlic but I am not sure.  At any rate, it does not harm the bulb.

There are several different ways to use garlic scapes:

  • they can be lightly steamed and served with butter
  • they can be coated lightly with oil and roasted in the oven
  • they can be made into a pesto – take either fresh or roasted garlic scapes and puree them with olive oil and ground almonds.  Serve with pasta and parmesan cheese – fantastic!
  • garlic scapes can be frozen, simply chop into 1-2 inch sections and place in a freezer bag – no preparation necessary.  They can be defrosted and used in soups or stews throughout the winter
  • Pickled Garlic Scapes – parboil the scapes for about 2 minutes. Drain and place in sterilized Mason jars.   Add some fresh dill and a few hot pepper flakes to the jars.  Make a pickle with 1 cup white vinegar, 3 cups water and 1 tbsp pickling salt (or multiple thereof, depending on how big a batch you are making).  Bring to a boil and pour over the scapes.  Add lids, rings and process as desired.

A few other things to think about at this time of year are

  • getting some mulch down in your garden.  I like to use straw to mulch around most of my plants, the straw helps to keep the moisture in the soil and also works to keep the weeds down.  It looks like we are going to have another very wet summer here in Southern Ontario so moisture conservation is probably not a big issue, but the straw does help to prevent the soil from splashing up onto your plants – especially important for tomatoes which can get a fungicidal blight from the soil.
  • I like to do a thorough weeding at this time of year, the soil is still damp and the weeds are easy to pull.  It is also the time of year when many weeds begin to go to seed – this is something you really want to avoid!
  • do some pruning on your tomato plants.  If you are growing heirloom varieties they are usually what are called indeterminate – meaning they will grow very big and sprawl with many stems coming out from the base of the plant.  Really you do not want so many stems – in fact many people train their tomatoes up a string and prune the plants so there is only one main stem.  At the very least, try to keep the plant to less than five stems – this opens up space so that light can get to the fruit and it can ripen.  The larger your plant, the more fruit you will have but they will be smaller.  A pruned plant will give a very nice harvest of larger sized tomatoes.  It is also much more likely that the stake you use will be able to support the plant!