Monday, August 29, 2011

Irene makes a bad garden worse

My biggest lessons learned from this year's garden:

Rule #1: Don't try to put too much in too small a space, crowding helps disease and bugs spread and suffocates plants.

Rule #2: Don't be afraid to prop up plants early, even if they don't look like they need it.

Rule #3: Earwigs are gross...still.

Rule #4: There is such a thing as too much rain.

Irene brough a hot muggy day Saturday, a drizzle Saturday night that turned into a downpour until about 3pm Sunday that caused massive flooding in surrounding areas Sunday evening into Monday (today). While I am lucky enough to live in an area protected from the floods, many areas were not so lucky and there has been lots of damage to historic bridges and towns. My garden also didn't fare well in the storm.

Before Irene came to town my garden plants had already begun dropping like flies.

As you'll recall I killed one of my tomato plants trying to transplant it (see rule #1).

Then I developed earwigs in some of my lettuce (rules #1 and #3).

My zucchinis then started to look sort of pathetic and now due to crowding and excessive rain I only have 1 of the original 5 plants (see rules #1 and #4).

Also, on Saturday I discovered I'd lost my 2nd tomato plant due to an infestation of earwigs (see rule #3).

Now I have 1 tomato plant, 1 zucchini plant (which I really hope will give me another squash or 2 before kicking the bucket), and 4 lettuce plants.

My basil is doing well in the pots though the lemon basil should probably be transplanted to a larger pot because it is very top heavy and falls over a lot.

The one remaining tomato plant is my green zebra. It is producing a ton of fruit and thriving while the rest of my garden seems to be collapsing around it. Hopefully the rain didn't make it too miserable. I've yet to investigate the plant that was infested by earwigs. The rain may have killed off the disgusting little creepy crawlers but honestly I hate those things so much it gives me the willies just thinking about it. I may have to make the boyfriend look for me though he hates them as much as I do!

The flooding brought on by the hurricane has caused an interesting debate in my head regarding waterway management and flood plains. Many VT towns are effected by flooding while most of NH, which got the same rain and also has a lot of rivers, brooks and streams, has not suffered the same fate. The 2 major differences: NH seems to have a lot more dams. NH towns tend to be built on hills up away from the water while many VT towns seem to be built in the valleys and flood plains. What was once farm land that benefited from an occassional flood is now small towns and communities. So while one might argue that unnatural control of waterways through dams can cause environmental problems and disrupt wild life, it can also be argued that controlling the waterways helps to avert disaster when unusual weather arrives. On the other hand, filling in a marsh to make useful land may be one of those circumstances where "just because you can doesn't mean you should" applies. There is a rural route that travels along a river in NH. In the 1970s my family owned a large stretch of it as farm land. They sold that land next to the river to developers and now it is home to lots of big box stores like Home Depot, KMart, Kohls, Walmart, etc. Last night this whole area had to be evacuated due to rising flood waters, the river rose more than 10ft and filled the parking lots of this shopping meca. Many people were shocked at the sight of it. I think this stretch of land should have remained as farm land. Unfortunately, when desasters like this only come once every 50 years we become complacent and this makes the damage far worse than it needs to be.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Homemade Ravioli

My first adventure in plastic free gourmet was a complete success. While not completely plastic free, it's pretty darn close and my overall waste was incredibly minimal. The beauty of purchasing items from bulk stores and local farms!
I am going to share with you the recipe(s) I used to create fabulous homemade ravioli with remarkably simple homemade cheese. While this is a bit time consuming the result is well worth it and this is a perfect weekend activity when the weather is less than perfect.

Before I start though, I have my first small harvest from my garden, 6 beautiful green zebra tomatoes and a zucchini! I lightly pan fried the zucchini in a bit of olive oil and garlic to serve with my ravioli last night for dinner. It was fantastic! Now I just have to cross my fingers that I'll see a few more pop up!

Alright, now on to the ravioli. The first step is to make the cheese. I wanted to use raw milk but our local co-op only sells raw milk in plastic containers, not glass. I went with a local pasturized whole milk in a glass bottle. The small plastic top is the only waste from my whole adventure:

Homemade Farmer's Cheese:
1/2 gallon milk (raw whole milk is ideal. If you use pasturized, don't use "ultra pasturized")
1/4t salt
1/4C lemon juice (or white vinegar)
1T dried italian seasoning
1/2t garlic powder
salt & pepper to taste

Pour milk into a large pot and add salt. Bring to a rapid boil, stirring frequently. If you have a candy thermometer heat the milk to 190 degrees.

Remove from heat and immediately add lemon juice. Stir briefly to incorporate then let sit for 10 minutes.

At this point you should have white curds floating in yellow, noncloudy whey. If the liquid is white or cloudy reheat and add a little more lemon juice.

Line a mesh sive or collinder with cheese cloth or other fine mesh bag or cloth (I just used a nylon nut milk bag). Put the sive or collinder over a large pot or bowl to collect the whey in case you didn't remove all the milk curds. Pour the milk through the cheese cloth to collect the curds. Hang the cheese cloth bag over the sink to let drain for 2-4 hours. Yeilds about 2 cups.

Transfer cheese to a small bowl and mix in Itialian seasoning, garlic powder, and salt and pepper to taste. Refridgerate until ready to use.

This cheese is very creamy and mild in flavor. The consistancy is similar to ricotta but even smoother. It's perfect for ravioli filling but I'd also use it to make a cheese dip or to add interest to a salad.

Now for the pasta dough. The hardest part here is rolling it out. Unless you have a pasta roller you're going to get a good workout!

I buy my eggs from a local farm that has eggs that aren't certified organic but are raised organically, without antibiotics and are free range. They also reuse the cartons.

Basic Pasta Dough:
2 eggs
2C flour
1/2t salt
1-3t olive oil
1-2t water

Mix together salt and flour. Create well in the middle. Gently beat eggs together and pour into well in flour. Mix together. This should form a stiff dough. If too dry add olive oil, 1t at a time, mixing and kneading to incorporate. If still too dry add water 1t at a time. Once dough holds together turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 4 minutes. Put dough in a sealed container and let sit for at least 15 minutes. (Can be stored for several days in the refridgerator.)

Making it all come together is the time consuming part. I had my boyfriend roll the dough out once I'd struggled with it longer than I wanted.

Seperate pasta dough into 2 balls. Roll out 1 ball into a large thin sheet. (As thin as possilbe, use a pasta roller if available.) Trim edges so the sheet is a rectangle. Add scraps to second ball and roll that one out the same way. Cut dough into rectagles about 1.5x3 inches in size. Put water in a small bowl. Put 1T of cheese centered in the lower half of each rectangle. Dip your finger in the water bowl and wet the edges of each regtangle, then across the middle. Fold in half and press edges together with a fork. Set ravioli on a tray to dry for 20-40 minutes.

To cook them I boiled water with a tablespoon of olive oil (to keep the ravioli from sticking together). Reduce the heat so the water isn't boiling and add the ravioli. Since my edges were rather thick the ravioli cooked for about 10 minutes which was just perfect! Top with sauce and enjoy!

Since pasta sauce is readily available in glass jars I didn't make my own but a homemade marinara would have made this dish even more fantastic. Maybe the next time I'm at the farmer's market I'll have to get some extra tomatoes to play with!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Garden News

I'm glad that I don't have the space for a big garden. Since it's been such a long time since I've had a garden it's nice to start small. Even my 4x8 patch is proving challenging at times!
My most recent challenge occured when one of my zucchini plants started to grow in the direction of my romaine plants. A large zucchini leaf cast a shadow over a struggling romaine plant. When I was out gathering romaine leaves for a salad I made a startling and revolting discovery. The shade provided by the zucchini leaf not only stunted the growth of the romaine plant, it also created a perfect living space for earwigs. Ugh. I hate earwigs. They really creep me out. I attempted to redirect the zucchini plant so that it's leaves weren't shadowing the romaine but when I checked the next afternoon the zucchini plant had repositioned itself over the romaine plant and the earwigs continued to thrive. Since the plant was being attacked by both shade and pests I decided to cut my losses and dig up the romaine plant. I carefully (with my hand as far back on the handle of my spade as possible) dug out the plant and was able to balance it on the spade and transplant the earwigs to their new home in my compost pile. I'm sure they'll thrive there too but at least it has some benefit for me instead of grossing me out!
Luckily, the rest of my red romaine plants are thriving, check out my awesome romaine jungle!

In an earlier post I talked about how my Belgian Giant tomato plant was taking over the tomato area of my garden and so I attempted to transplant it to save my other tomatoes. After a week of touch and go and then another week of hope it became apparent that my tansplanted tomato plant wasn't going to make it. The limbs were hanging lifeless and the 2 tomatoes it had produced were being eaten by bugs. I pulled it up and added it to the compost pile. Luckily my Green Zebra is thriving now that it has the room. It must have 30 or more tomatoes and 1 is starting to ripen. My other plant, I can't remember the variety of herloom, is doing well and has produced about half a dozen VERY large tomatoes. One is about 5 inches in diameter.
Check out all the greenies on my Zebra:

I was worried that I'd never see a single zucchini from my plants. Zucchini plants are strange. A lot of the under leaves have died as the plants have gotten larger, making me worry that the plant would dry up and die. I've had tons of blossoms and I keep thinking that the next time I peak under the leaves I'll see a baby zucchini but every time I've been disappointed. Until last night. Behold, my first zucchini. It's already pretty much big enough to pick now but I have some zucchini from the co-op that I need to use first.

I also have a lot of basil that I need to pick (pesto!!) and a TON of lemon basil (that plant is gonna turn into a basil tree if I don't stop it!) but I'm not sure what to do with it. I'm thinking a lemon basil cream sauce for pasta with grilled chicken, and tomato.

I am going to be doing some kitchen experimentation tomorrow. I am going to try to make homemade cheese to use in homemade ravioli. I will probably be buying the tomato sauce in a jar because I still need more glass jars! If all goes well I'll post the recipe and some pictures here next week!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

My Not So Green Car

I have a 2001 Toyota Corolla. I got it used in 2005 after my 1990 Dodge Colt was proving far more expensive and unreliable than it was worth. My Corolla has just over 108,000 miles on it and it has been an impressively low maintainance car up until now. I have recently discovered that my car has a slow oil leak. After nearly seizing my engine for lack of oil I went to the local auto parts shop and purchased a 5 quart container of the stuff. Then I felt super guilty. A 5 quart container surely uses less plastic than 5 1 quart containers. But isn't what's in the plastic even worse than the plastic itself? I mean...what do we even do with this stuff after we "properly dispose" of it? According to the American Petrolium Institute recycled motor oil can be re-refined into usable motor oil or used by power plants to produce energy. Their oil recycling website makes this all sound very environmentally friendly. It should also be noted that the API website is giving "Hyrdraulic Fracturing", also known as Fracking, a lot of positive attention. So I'm feeling just a little skeptical that we can have our cake and eat it too in this situation. Once the evening rains stop my lovely boyfriend is going to take a look under my hood. We're hoping that it's just a loose oil filter combined with long trips in hot weather that made all my oil disappear.
The oil leak is also making me feel guilty as that oil, distributed all along my driving routes, is probably mucking up wetlands and streams on its way to the ocean right now...I know it's not much oil in the grand scheme but every small amount adds up!
I need a car. Where I live it's just not practical to not have one. The buses only run once an hour and the trip to work, while only a few miles, is very hilly and the roads aren't bike friendly. In the winter it's too cold to wait around outside for a bus or even consider riding a bike anywhere.
I'm hoping that the oil issue is an easily solved one and that it doesn't cost me a fortune. I'd like this car to live at least until 15, like the other one did. If I'm going to own a car I'd like to be as environmentally responsible about it as possible and part of that means not getting a new car unless it's absolutely neccesary. I am lucky that this car hasn't needed lots of new parts and that it is relatively fuel efficient.
Maybe one day I'll live somewhere where cars aren't a neccessity. But probably not, I do love country life.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Disposable Free Backyard BBQ

My college friend has an 18 month old, a new house, a husband that works over an hour away, and a very busy social calander. She is taking part in a CSA, purchased half a cow direct from the farm, and purchases a lot of items organic when she can. She doesn't use paper plates, paper towels, paper napkins, or disposable cups and plasticware. She had a BBQ this weekend, and with 7 siblings, in-laws, cousins, great aunts, work friends, and long time friends there were a lot of people there. She relented and used paper plates, plastic cups, paper napkins, and plasticware.
Which made me think...if I were hosting a BBQ for 40+ people, would I be able to avoid the disposables?
The answer is yes, you can avoid disposables without spending a lot more or worrying that the kids are going to break all of your plates trying to balance them on their laps while swinging on the hammock.
Since BBQs are not intended to be a fine dining experience in most cases (especially when you've invited just about everyone you know) you don't have to worry about matching plates or cups. Usually I'm against the use of hard plastics but for an occassional BBQ they are better than the landfill ones. But I'm not suggesting going to your local walmart and stocking up on all of their outragous summer plastic junk. You don't need to buy it new. And you don't neccessarily need plastic unless you are worried about children (or klutzy/inebriated adults) breaking dishes.
The best way to go disposable free is to ask a relatives/friends to bring plates, cups, and silverware that they aren't too fond of. Lots of people have some old kitchen stuff around that they wouldn't worry about if it did accidentally get broken or lost.
If your friends and relatives don't have what you need, or enough of it, the next best option is to hit up the thrift store. There are usually some great retro (read hideous) pieces that will add some conversation pieces to your BBQ. You can get mismatched plates, bowls, mugs, and glasses and you can probably find way more than you'll need. You can also get some pretty ecclectic silverware. Baby spoons anyone? (They're great for serving condiments out of jars!) Many of these items sell for less than $1 a piece. Silverware is usually less than a quarter an item so you can stock up without breaking the bank! You could also try Freecycle, Craigslist, and yard sales. Chances are there are lots of people in your area looking to get rid of some unattractive kitchenware they were gifted long ago.
Once your BBQ is ended and all of the dishes are cleaned you can keep them for next year's BBQ or other big event at your house or redonate them if you don't have the storage space.
The paper free napkin option is easy, cloth napkins are easy to make out of old sheets, t-shirts, or kitchen towels. It's also a good idea to have some larger rags around incase of spills. If you're feeling extra crafty you could make all of the napkins out of the same old sheet and then stamp them with a logo to represent your family or the BBQ theme. If you take the time to hem them you can give them as gifts to your guests so they can take them home and remember your BBQ. Or just keep them yourself so you have lots of napkins for next time!
As always if your guests are bringing food to share ask them to bring it in a reusable container. Be sure to have plenty of jars on hand for storing leftovers. I made myself a fabulous layered leftover jar from my friend's BBQ, it looked really neat and tasted great later that evening when I got hungry again, that's a really fun way to share leftovers with guests if they don't want to take them home on a pasley plate!

Since we've moved into our new apartment my boyfriend has managed to break 2 bowls, 1 glass, and a small plate. He never used to break dishes, apparently the cabinets don't like him. Since we didn't have many dishes to begin with I have been visiting out local thrift store regularly to hunt for not so hideous pieces to add to our dwindling collection. Every once in a while there is a not so excessively decorated item to be found. For some reason the only time I see a full set of dishes is when they are a color somewhere between brown and yellow or decorated with some kind of animal motif. Now when I see these I'll be thinking of them as great party-ware...and maybe snatch up some of the esecially ecclectic ones just in case.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Why you should PYO berries this summer

When summer is in full swing I develop a major love affair with local agriculture. My favorite of all the fabulous local foods are the berries. I feel like Sal in the classic children's book. I want to sit and gorge myself on the fabulous berries warm from the sun fresh off the plant.

Aside from the joy of eating berries fresh from the bush, there are lots of great reason to PYO this season. BYO container and pick to your heart's content! Here's why I love PYO berries:

* Save money. ~ This is a big one for lots of people. If spending $5 or more for a pint of blueberries makes you feel queezy, you're not alone. Luckily, PYO berries are a LOT less expensive than those found in grocery stores and farmer's markets.

* Plastic free. ~ Bring your own container (Shallow cardboard boxes, collanders, sturdy hemp or burlap bags all make great options) and skip the plastic. Many farms offer several options for containers to carry your berries in but bringing your own reusable container is best.

* Support local agriculture. ~ Local agriculture is great for the local economy and for the environment. Find PYO farms that use sustainable practices (just becuase they aren't certified organic doesn't mean they don't use organic practices, so ask!) and have a commitment to the local econonomy.

* Fresh frozen fruit, plastic free! ~ If you've ever frozen your own berries then you know that there is no comparison between these sweet, fresh tasting berries and the rubbery, unripe tasting varieties from the grocery store. Freeze your berries on a cookie sheet and then store them in glass containers (for strawberries, be sure to de-stem and slice prior to freezing).

* The best possible berries. ~ I can't even begin to count the number of times I've spent a small fortune on a package of raspberries only to open it and find that mold has ruined many of them. When you PYO, you get to select only the freshest, most perfectly ripe berries. You won't be wasting your money on moldy or underripe berries.

* Fabulous jams. ~ Canning is a lot easier than you might think. It takes some time to do it right but you don't have to be a dedicated suzy-homemaker to pull off some fabulous jams. Fresh ingredients make all the difference. Use your PYO berries to make jellies and jams and your finished product is guarenteed to be even better than the gourmet jams at the grocery store.

* It's fun and rewarding! ~ Seriously, picking berries is exciting: behind every leaf, under every bush, there is a bounty waiting to be found. When you've filled your containers and paid for your haul, you'll be impressed by what you've accomplished.

So grab your container and a friend or two, and head to your local PYO farm. And unlike Sal, try to bring a few berries home!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Plastic Free Cooking

I'm a foodie. Seriously. I love food. I love making it, eating it, and going out to restaurants to enjoy it. If there's one place in my budget that I am willing to splurge, it's food. Forget shoes, clothes, make-up and techno gadgets. Give me high quality food and I will pay the price. I am not one of those people who does not see value in a $3 locally grown organic apple. Organic, locally grown food tastes better and is better for the environment and the local economy. It's worth the price.
If you're a foodie like me then you've probably discovered that it can be a serious challenge to avoid plastic when purchasing some common gourmet ingredients. Is it possible to balance our love of the planet and our love of decadent gourmet foods? With a little creativity, a little extra work (only a little, I promise!) and a whole lot of love, I think it is more than possible to have great food with (almost) no plastic.
With that in mind I am going to start dedicating a weekly column in this blog to a plastic-free recipe complete with advice on how to get your ingredients without plastic. While a certain amount of consideration will be made for convenience there will be some recipes given that take a more complete home made approach which may require a little extra time and effort but will surely result in a more fantastic eating experience. This is going to be a learning experience for me too. (Is it possible to purchase local goat's milk cheese without the plastic? What other items that usually come in plastic can I discover in plastic free form? Is it possible to make my own glass noodles?) I'll be scouring some food blogs and Googling my heart out as well as connecting with some foodie friends who can probably help even though they've never thought to worry about whether an ingredient is plastic free.