Tag Archives: organic

homemade organic cane syrup

Oh, the sugar dilemma. I don’t want to use the stuff made of genetically-modified corn, but I also kind of resent recipes that use a cup of maple syrup for sweetener. Who can afford a cup of maple syrup? Agave, honey, and brown rice syrup are also pretty spendy, and often change the flavor of what you’re making. The solution? Make your own organic cane syrup at home.

I tested out this cane syrup recipe from The Kitchn. The organic cane sugar we buy in bulk has a little color to it, so our results were a gorgeous golden. There is a very subtle flavor. Upon first taste I immediately thought of cotton candy.

Ours turned out a little too thick, which I am certain was the result of me needing to calibrate my candy thermometer. Click here for a good set of instructions on how to calibrate yours.

We might just own two identical thermometers. Time to finally calibrate and mark which one is which. And yet still I’m dreaming of a perfect digital candy thermometer with a large display that you can set to beep when it reaches the temperature you need. I might still need to calibrate it, but perhaps I wouldn’t have to bend over and squint to read it so much.

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a little garden bounty

My wife may be a “master gardener” but we have a lot of room for improvement and learning in the gardening department. It’s our second year gardening in this yard, and our first year in our community garden plot, and we’ve learned a lot. While I may not be as obsessively photographing everything we eat, our big win is in eating nearly everything we’ve grown. Sometimes that seems like half the battle. Here’s a small taste of what we’ve been harvesting from the yard lately:

Everytime I look at fresh peas from our garden I hear Gordon Ramsay saying (in his nicer Master Chef voice), “THE MOST AMAZING FRESH PEAS!”

I’m pretty sure Ramsay would agree with me that those Chioggia beets are stunning.

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Lettuce In

We still have a garden! I have neglected my garden blogging in lieu of my fascination with the honey-bearing insects in our backyard, but we are spending plenty of time on our garden, too!

We’re growing another mix of heirloom lettuce. The lettuce mixes in our garden this year include the Mesclun Mix from Uprising Organics and the London Springs Mix from Territorial Seeds. I like varied textures, bright colors, and many flavors in my lettuce mix. Last year we grew the Uprising Organics mysterious lettuce mix and I was really pleased with it. It’s hard for me to be displeased with a high quality lettuce mix, you know?

These little guys are just waiting for the perfect spot to open up in one of the big beds.

Is there anything more delicious than old-fashioned organic baby lettuce in your backyard? NO, there is not. It’s just the most simple, perfect food to grow and I encourage everyone to plant some. I prefer the loose-leaf style of lettuce, since I am too impatient to wait for them to form that perfect, classic “head of lettuce.” I know it’s easier to ship a Head of Lettuce than it is to ship a bag of loose leaves, but if you don’t need to ship it, you can grow whatever kind of lettuce your heart desires. You can plant lettuce that’s spicy or sweet, with oak-leaf shapes or frilly ruffled leaves. You can find every color of lettuce from chartreuse to burgundy. Plant a mix of lettuce seeds, and maybe a mesclun mix too. It will be difficult to get bored with salad that comes in so many colors. I believe that a salad of lettuce from your backyard is a both a luxury and a right, and I want nothing but righteous luxury for you.

Here are eleventy hundred reasons why you should grow fancy lettuce:

1. It’s Super Easy.
Lettuce is fast to germinate and quick to start producing. It’s delicious at every stage of its development – unlike all those annoying vegetables that have to ripen, requiring precise water, sun, temperatures and pest protection until the moment the fruit is ready. You can eat lettuce any time before it bolts.

2. It’s, like, so totally and completely simple and easy.
You can grow lettuce just about anywhere. It doesn’t require full sunlight, and actually prefers some shade in the hot summer. They don’t mind window boxes, containers, flower bed edges, or entire beds planted with oceans of lettuce. They have shallow roots, so they are pretty tolerant of absurd planters. You could grow lettuce in a clog.

(photo used with permission from Fion N.)

I don’t want to hear any of that “I don’t have any space to garden” crap. Lettuce will grow just fine in an old yogurt container on a window sill. It grows up so fast, you hardly have time to care for it, just a few weeks of benign neglect, and then it’s gone. Don’t forget to water it once in a while.

3. It’s really cost effective.
Lettuce seeds are tiny and light so you get a huge number of seeds for just a few bucks. (Please choose a quality seed provider, like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds or another reputable source.) Have you purchased organic baby lettuce at the grocery store or farmers market lately? It costs more than twice as much to buy 1 lb of baby lettuce as it costs to buy 1 package of seeds. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service reports:

In fall of 2001, Growing for Market reported “spring mix” greens wholesaling for slightly more than $3.80/lb. (2), which translates to roughly $4.95-$5.35 at the retail level.

I think my seeds cost $2? Maybe $3? This is a no brainer.

The greatest enemies of lettuce are:

1. slugs. i hate them! they love lettuce!
If you have slugs, I hope yours are less smart and resilient than mine. Mine won’t drown, don’t like beer, and hide from me when I go out to hand-pick them. I am considering a flock of ducks, but Krista says ducks are messy (she is right, of course, but I really dislike slugs). I have heard that you can have some success with copper wire, copper tape, sluggo, diatomaceous earth, coffee grounds, and ground-up egg shells. Steve Solomon writes about Fertosan Slug Destroyer in his book Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades but it’s not approved for use in the USA and I can’t find a Swiss person to send me some.
(Depending on your garden, you may also have problems with deer, caterpillars, aphids, various beetles and loopers, but I consider slugs to be the primary target.)

2. heat!
Lettuce is generally a cool-season crop, which means it does well in the Pacific Northwest just about year-round. But if you live some place hot, you can build a little umbrella or shade to cover your lettuce from the hottest sun. Or you can plant it in the shady spots of your yard where nothing else will flourish! Once lettuce plants get hot, they bolt. Once they bolt, the good eating is over. Blech. I do not recommend bolted lettuce! If you live someplace that is hella hot (shout out to all my texan & oklahoman friends and all the lovely people suffering an east coast heat wave), you can plant a fall crop of lettuce just as soon as those temperatures dip back below 70. You can eat fresh lettuce until you have a hard freeze that kills it all. You’ll know you had a hard freeze because all your outside lettuce will turn black. I’ve heard of some people raising baby lettuce in cold frames all winter. It sounds reasonable, so I plan to try it this winter.

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If I have not convinced you to grow your own organic salad by now, it’s time to invite you over for dinner and serve a homegrown salad. And if that doesn’t convince you, I will pack up a bag of potting soil and a pinch of lettuce seeds like a goodie bag to carry home. Don’t test me. I have been known to show up to people’s houses with a bag of soil and planting containers. You will not be the first I’ve converted.

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Putting the pups to work

Your garden might seem like it’s all the same climate, and the USDA Hardiness Map doesn’t give any insight on this matter, but there are a lot of factors that affect how a plant will do in a particular spot. Proximity/distance to buildings, foundations, pavement, slopes, types of soil, larger plants (esp trees), fences, and so on can all affect the microclimates of your yard. Some areas are exposed to drafts and breezes. A south-facing wall with a reflecting foundation and an adjacent heat-sinking driveway might be good for an early springtime start, but brutally scorching in the summer. If everyone cuts across the yard at the same point, your soil is going to quickly become brutally compacted. Dryer vents, downspouts, and temperature fluctuations can cause major Life Events for your plants, so it’s important to identify areas where you can get a little boost or avoid something gnarly. Moisture, temperatures and wind can vary wildly within the same small yard. Microclimates are an important idea in permaculture, which is the subject of at least eight books on my bedside table.

Since we haven’t lived here for a year, most of the microclimates of our yard are a mystery. Mostly, we are looking for the least shady areas with maximum heat — because our yard is in Olympia & has some mature trees – so we don’t really have enough sun or heat. What does our yard look like in the summer? The sun will move, the trees will leaf out, there will be a lot less rain, and I have no idea what to expect. This is a year that I anticipate we’ll do a lot of learning. Not to imply that I’m totally a lazy farmer, but if I can get microclimates to reduce my workload at all, it’s worth it to me.

While I often exclaim about the relative worthlessness of our pets, I have occasionally found a use for the dogs in the garden. Last summer, they did a remarkably good job of chasing the birds, squirrels and wildlife that would try to steal our garden’s bounty. This year, so far, they have dug up some plants I probably didn’t want to keep anyway, and helped me identify some of the most important microclimates in our backyard.

You see, we have two small, shivering, heat-seeking, under-the-blankets, “Get me a sweater PLEASE” kind of dogs. If you need to find the warmest spot in the house, unleash the hounds. The same principle applies to the backyard. From about 10am to 2pm, this corner is THE place to be.

Surrounded on two sides by heat-reflecting fences, this corner is sheltered from the wind, gets a lot of light and warmth, and would be a really great place to grow heat-loving plants…. if the dogs weren’t likely to kill anything I plant there by sleeping on top of them.

Clementine is giving me the look that says, “Yes, I HAVE always dreamed of napping on top of a watermelon vine, thank you for asking.”

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if life is a game, i win

I know everyone probably (hopefully) loves their spouse, but it’s hard to believe that I’m not the most spoiled, pampered, indulged person. First, when we were discussing the garden, Krista said to me, “Just buy whatever seeds you want. We can grow whatever you want. It’s better to have too many seeds.” Do you know what that sounds like to a person who reads seed catalogs for fun? All I could say was, I totally agree and I totally love you.

Then, Krista took it upon herself to learn how to use power tools – table saws, circular saws, drills and other tools I probably don’t even know about – to make a raised bed for our garden. I came home from work and found it in the driveway. And she still had 10 fingers! Then, she built some more.

Isn’t it beautiful?? And you should see how cute she looks in her safety goggles. The beds are all 8′ long, and today Krista measured out all of my seed packets on top of one bed. Seed packages, asparagus crowns, rhubarb roots, and seed potatoes. It’s a little ridiculous that there are more than 8 feet of seed packets in my house, but I’m so thrilled by the seeds we chose.

So, these are the first photos of our 2010 garden. Baby photos, or, like, embryo photos of the garden. I really hope I’m done buying seeds and stuff now. Well, mostly done. You know how it goes.

While Krista may have been a little surprised at the volume of seeds we own now, she didn’t miss a beat. Her reaction was to build a muppet face out of the rhubarb root, an asparagus crown, and a few seed potatoes. This is the sort of thing that affirms your belief in the awesomeness of your marriage. It’s like always being on the winningest team.

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backyard bounty

we’re in the position of eating tomatoes with nearly every meal. a few days ago, levi ate them instead of dessert. (don’t tell him, he might think they are dessert!) this is a bowl of a couple different kinds of tomatoes, maybe a cherokee purple and a mysterious red tomato. we have about 5 different kinds of red tomatoes, and i can’t tell them apart. Moskovitz, Rose, Nepal, Pruden’s Purple, Eva Purple Ball, all kinds of red tomatoes we never stop to identify. in addition, we have black, green, red, orange, and yellow tomatoes. i even found a giant Great White buried in the jungle, but it had some unfortunate rot.

then, the most exciting thing happened today — i saw a wonder light beginning to ripen! the wonder light tomato is yellow and shaped like a lemon. it has a very distinctive look. it’s supposed to be good in salsa. i haven’t seen any green zebras, and i really expected to get some. maybe The Stick that we gave up on back in May was actually the green zebra. the brandywines are starting to ripen, too, thankfully. they are so gigantic and heavy, they are dragging down the entire plant. yes, we caged it, but they often grow over a pound PER TOMATO. completely absurd.

we are starting to get ground cherries, too, finally. we’re growing Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherries (aka Husk Tomatoes) at first i found one ground cherry every other day, but i found 5 or 6 today. maybe tomorrow we’ll get 10. these precious gems are related to the tomatillo, but they’re smaller, about the size of a marble. they taste like a tomato had a baby with a pineapple, with a little bit of vanilla. they are an heirloom – recorded in horticultural literature as early as 1837 in Pennsylvania. you can read more about ground cherries on wikipedia. i’d like to offer to share our harvest, but we have eaten every one of them as soon as they have fallen. we have about 6 of the plants, and i was hoping to get enough to make jam or pie, but the plants can’t even keep up with our snacking needs. we have to grow more next year, no question about it.

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State of the Garden: August

We’ve been doing our best to eat something from our garden every day. Some days we fail, but mostly we’re doing alright. It is easy to incorporate something everyday because we tried to plan the garden for things we actually eat – not entirely plants I just wanted to grow for the hell of it, although there are definitely some of those in there. We have had massive crops of basil, and we’ve been eating pesto, tofu pesto spread, basil on our sandwiches, and i don’t know what else. If i were a slightly better person, I might have put some basil or pesto in the freezer for the winter, but alas, I have not.

We have grown some show-stopping carrots in a variety of squiggly shapes. I asked Levi one night if he knew we were eating carrots we grew ourselves, and he said, “Of course. They don’t sell carrots that ugly at the store.” He’s totally right. Produce at the grocery store has to meet a beauty contest standard, or people won’t buy it. When you grow it yourself, you get so much insight into all the diversity of our natural world. Here are some astoudningly ugly (or beautiful, depends on your perspective) carrots. We grew organic Scarlet Nantes carrots this year.

Our heirloom tomatoes are doing absurdly well by Pacific Northwest standards. We did use tomato cages to support them, but they grew much, much larger than the cages. As a result, we have ended up with many broken branches from the weight of the fruit. What do you do with green tomatoes? You can make green tomato relish, which I have never made or eaten. Or you can bread them and fry them. We all love fried green tomatoes. However, it is a RIDICULOUS level of deliciousness to fry green Valencia tomatoes on the cusp of ripening, especially if you use blue cornmeal batter with jalapeños. Yes, we know we are ridiculous.

We have eaten some deliciously ripe mysterious heirloom tomatoes. Some of them have been identifiable (Valencia, Black Prince) and some were more obscure (“Maybe this is a Moskovitch?”)

We’re pretty sure that yellow one is a Valencia. I hope so, because I keep calling it a Valencia. This is the fruit of MONSTRO, one of the tomato plants Krista named.

These are two different kinds of red tomatoes. I can’t remember what varieties we guessed they were, but they were lip-smacking good. Have you ever seen such a beautiful tomato? I didn’t think so. They are like the super models of tomatoes.

We have been harvesting potatoes and eating so many of them. I grew one Yukon Gold, which hasn’t been harvested yet, and a half-dozen Cal Red potatoes. These cal reds are glorious potatoes. They are the best tasting tubers I’ve ever laid my tastebuds on. We have mostly been roasting them, eating them for breakfast or in tacos, or making oven fries out of them. The consistency is perfectly smooth and buttery, and the flavor is so delicate. I would definitely grow these again! We have gotten about 7 lbs of them so far, all from 1 tire. I think dollar/pound, potatoes are one of the cheapest and most rewarding things to grow. I spent about 65 cents on seed potatoes.

We have about 100,000 scarlet runner beans hanging on the vine, but no one has been inclined to eat them, so we haven’t harvested them yet. We did pick off 1 or 2 pods and snack on them while we were working in the garden. They are amazing because the pod is bright green and the beans are pink. It’s very colorful. The scarlet runner beans are the one plant I grew just because I wanted to, not because I knew we would eat them. I might grow them again because they are so pretty, but I am more inclined to try my hand at black, pinto or soy beans next year. Or maybe chickpeas!

The leeks are pretty much victims of tomato sprawl. They don’t look so good. None of our peppers are quite ripe yet, although some of them are starting to turn. The shallots are hanging in there, but not getting too big yet. The ground cherries are getting closer to harvest every day! It’s a very exciting time in the summer garden. I have no idea if/how we are going to pull off a fall/winter garden, since we’re moving smack in the middle of it all.

The state of the garden is strong.

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