The Backyard

The Backyard

Friday, February 27, 2009

Broccoli Babies

Broccoli is SUCH an easy plant to start from seed. Within three days, the seeds were popping into seedlings and started their trek reaching for light. I’m finding the celery a different story. Sam Bittman wasn’t kidding when he said celery is “difficult, even for experienced gardeners.” The seeds are not yet sprouting and I’m beginning to believe it could have something to do with air temperature/humidity in the house. Even though they are enclosed in a miniature greenhouse-type setting, the room/house temps could still be a factor. At one point years ago, I experimented with starting seeds in my rec room which is about 10 degrees cooler than the upstairs and I had total crop failure – too cold/damp --- mostly the dampness killed them because the soil never dried out between waterings. The bedrooms are the warmest rooms in the house, so I’m definitely going to keep them there, but I’m a slight bit concerned the 5 degrees cooler than other years may be playing a part. I’ll wait and see. Worse comes to worse, I just won’t have celery, and I can live with that!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Eating Local - a Primer

Local Harvest is an organization on-line dedicated to helping folks get in the groove of buying your food local. You can subscribe to their monthly newsletter and checkout their website here. You can also enter your zip code and find locally produced food. Rick and I found our wonderful can't-live-without Schlegel Apples grown with 80% less pesticides. We're up to buying a bushel every two weeks and eat every single one of them. But the real reason for this post and Local Harvest is their latest newsletter. It really hit the head of the nail for me. I initially found buying local daunting -- there's SO much I've grown accustomed to eating that I found it difficult at first to adjust to just local food. And that's the point of the article. You can't expect to eat everything local -- it takes time. And no matter what you do locally, you're one step ahead. Great read. Check it out.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

On a Snowy Winter Day....

Seeds to organize, start, and bread to bake - we're never at a loss for things to do on a cold, snowy, wintry Day in Central PA. First up, my seed "box" was a mess. There were packs of seeds in there from 17 years ago and it was time to clean house. The really old packets that I was unsure where the seeds came from (i.e., a commercial seed producer), were tossed. The remainder was organized by when I'll either start them outside, start them indoors, and whether they are early or warm weather (outside). Next, the timing is about 6 weeks until the broccoli goes in the ground, and 10-12 weeks until the celery would go in, so today is the day to start them both. For those new to seed starting, the starter will need moistened before you put it in the cell packs. After its good and moist (it should hold its shape when you take some and make a fist with it... but it should then crumble easily - it should not be drippy wet), fill the cell packs packing the starter down a bit to pack it in slightly (not too tight or the tiny seedling roots will not be able to grow). Then, sprinkle 2-3 seeds in each cell (you'll pull them later -- a couple extras are going in just in case that one doesn't start), and cover ever-so-slightly with a little starter. Make sure you read the seed packet or a good reference book to make sure the seed should NOT be covered. Some seeds (impatiens, as an example) are not to be covered and need light to germinate. I haven't found that with the vegetables though. Next, slightly level the cell packs with your finger to pack in a little. Then, a seed-starter's required equipment -- the spray bottle. You'll drench the seeds if you use a watering can, so spray each cell with a couple shots with the spray bottle to make sure the seed is wet. You can put water on the bottom of the tray too to make sure the starter gets good and moist on the bottom. Then cover, and sit in a warm spot. Some folks use a heated pad, but we keep our house warm enough (70-72) that I've never had a problem with sprouting. Now we wait. Oh, and I made bread this morning too. Something new -- organic "white" french herb bread. OMG it was good. I don't normally make white bread because it lacks nutrition -- so it was a nice change.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Even With All Those Cookbooks...

You'll have to admit, sometimes the best recipes are the ones we come up with ourselves. My husband will vouch I was never really a "good" cook. But sometimes some things taste soooooo good, we just have to share. My great Aunt (long passed), used to eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches and yes to this day, I love a peanut butter and banana sandwich on toasted bread. There was a time we were skiing and we stopped in the lodge to have our bring-your-own-lunch with a bunch of other skiers. When I whipped out my bread and wrapped the banana in it, the eyes got wide -- it was fun. Even hubby noticed how I got the glares. Yes, taste is in the eyes of the beholder, but that's what makes it fun:

2 cups mashed organic butternut squash (it was the next to the last one in storage).
1 cup organic soy milk
1 tablespoon vegan cream cheese
2 tablespoons raw organic sugar

Whip together like mashed potatoes. O.M.G.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Why Start Seeds?

After reading my post on growing celery and having to start and grow the seeds indoors for 3 months before planting outside, hubby already started complaining about running the lights and the costs. So I thought this would be the perfect time to do a little explaining as to why I start plants from seeds. Many years ago, I went seed-starting crazy with mostly flowers (I was growing, drying, and creating crafts with dried flowers and herbs for a side business), and had 8 sets of shop-light fixtures running for about 2 months solid - 16 hours a day. Our electric bills shot up $25 bucks a month that year. That's why Rick is complaining now. But, after explaining to him this year's plants will only need two sets of lights going, he seemed to settle down a bit. Why grow from seed? Well, have you ever seen a celery plant at the nursery? Have you ever seen Serrano pepper plants to buy? That's reason number one -- many of the plant varieties I grow are not available at nurseries. I used to make and can salsa and my secret was multiple medium-hot pepper varieties; many of which were not available at the nurseries. The only heirloom tomato I've ever seen was Brandywine. And I can't live without Purple Ruffles Basil which sometimes is at larger urban nurseries, but seldom (its tempermental to grow and commercial growers can't give the TLC purple basil needs). And there's my 2nd reason -- I don't have a decent nursery here in Northern Dauphin, rural county PA. We have a spattering of Amish greenhouses and of course the Farmer's Market has some vegetable seedling plants, but they are almost always the basic varieties and plants -- Beefsteak Tomatoes and California Wonder Peppers. B.O.R.I.N.G. Not to mention, the seeds were likely grown commercially and came from Monsanto (they hold 70% of the tomato seed market), and of course they aren't organic. ( Although I'm not so much a stickler for organic seed since I'm not a certified organic grower. But I AM a fuss-head as to where the seeds come from). Reason number 3 - knowing where the seed comes from is major for me. If I can help it, I cannot and will not support commercially grown seed companies that produce "monster" seeds and crops - I.e., GMO or genetically modified seeds. I cringe when I have to buy produce -- even the local stuff may have been raised from GMO seed companies. Reason #4: Is there a cost savings? If you look at it from the cradle (seed) to grave (preserving) perspective, yes. If I were to buy organic produce all year, I'd be broke. But because I grow the majority of my produce, yes, there's a cost savings but I haven't really figured it out. The lights DO cost about $6 a month for 3 months, so there's $18 bucks in lighting alone (not to mention the initial cost of purchasing the equipment). My seeds and supplies ran me $60 bucks this year (that's potatoes, onions, 100 strawberry plants AND the seeds too). But its definitely still cheaper than buying organic produce. Come to think of it, I have YET to see organic strawberries - I'll bet they are an arm and leg in cost. And the final part of starting seeds is the fun and challenge of it. There's not a whole lot going on in late winter, so why not get your hands a little dirty in some seed starter. And when that first sprout breaks ground, oo-la-la.. what a sight to behold and do a dance over. Us gardener-types get pretty darn excited and start dancing a jig when we see new green life that we helped start. It will never cease to amaze me at how a tiny, tiny little speck of seed produces such bounty. I guess that's the blessing, huh? So there are my reasons: 1) choice of varieties of plants, 2) no local nursery to get those varieties, and 3) knowing where the seed comes from (or NOT comes from) 4) overall cost savings, and 5) something to do in the winter. Is it time for you to get your hands dirty?

A New Recycling Concept?

Hubby and I have stacks and stacks of holiday, birthday, and special occassion cards we gave to each other over the past 20, almost 21 years. So this year, we both dug out some of our favorite years-of-past valentines day cards and re-gave them to each other. It saved us both a couple bucks. This card was $4.99! That's too much for a card. We both got a kick our of this little card-recycling antic.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Early Prep - The Celery Strip

Celery will be a new experience for me. Everything I've read claims celery is "difficult -- even for the experienced gardener" to grow. But I really wanted to dry some organic celery for soups next fall/winter and not have to depend on shipped celery, so I decided I'm up for the challenge. Since its a long-season grower (100 days,PLUS a 3 month indoor growing period -- talk about fussy!) it needs a spot all of its own to do its thing. The strip next to our garage was perfect -- complete with afternoon shade to keep the soil moist for moisture loving celery. I hadn't planned on it, but the strip is ready. I love it when I make no plans, and end up getting a major project done. This was a job. First, I had to get rid of the way-too-tall-and-fat Eglantine antique rose which outgrew its space and really wasn't serving a useful purpose. It took an ax to chop enough away to level the ground. Then, I turned over the soil fairly deep, digging in horse manure to let it "cure" for the next three months. The final touch was the brick edge. Celery likes moist, rich, soil with good drainage and this should be the perfect spot for it. This type of celery, Safir Celery, is called a "cutting celery" which means it can be cut just like greens all summer. So I'm hopeful for a successful crop. If anyone ever grew it, please share your story!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Mother Nature Doing Her Thing

The past day or two have been WINDY in central PA - so much so, our grape arbor is history. The three poles on the eastern side all broke off at the ground. It's obvious they were rotted through after 15 years. But I'm none too disappointed, except for losing a nice perch for the bluebirds, Baltimore orioles, mockingbirds, and my mother's peacocks. I believe the birds loved the arbor more than myself. I've been growing, well, trying to grow, 5 grape vines for the past 15 years. Its not an easy task to grow organic grapes without any dormant oil spray or fungicides. The seedless grapes were never much success and the seeded grapes were ok, but they have seeds which is a huge pain in the you-know-what. One year I made and froze grape juice and grape jelly which was nice, but yet another pain-in-the-you-know-what and I vowed it wasn't worth the trouble. (If you've never harvested and used grapes, the pain-in-the-you-know-what is the grape juice spritzed all over your kitchen, and the messy grape pulp/seed mess you get as a result). This winter, I toyed with the idea of tearing out the grapes to expand the garden and I decided I'll just let mother nature takes its course on the grapes -- and she came through! The only other disappointment is a place for the hops to grow. Our annual hops vine would twine up and out the wire put in place for the grapes (yes, it consumed one of the grape vines and choked it to death!). I'll have to figure that one out. Ding Dong, the grapes are dead!


Feeling the Guilt - Watching What We Eat

Someone at work put out a tray of bagels left over from a breakfast meeting. I joked with a co-worker, since they aren't giving us raises, we'll have to take advantage of things like leftover food and eat up. So I took a half of a plain white, processed bagel with some "margarine". It was awful! What was worse was the guilt trip I went on the entire time I was eating it. I couldn't help but think about what the ingredients were, what was in it, how much nutrition it lacked, and what kind of processing did it go through to make it to this tray. When I slathered on the "margarine" my brain cells were calculating -- calories, ingredients, fat, hydrogenation, GMO beans that went into it, what brand was it. That half a bagel and processed goop confirmed I'm officially a food snob. Last week I felt the snobbishness coming on when I looked at a recipe someone shared with me. It was for vegan lasagna which contained the ultimate processed vegan foods - sausage, cream cheese, and mozzarella cheese. I made it, and it WAS good, but oh the processed foods the recipe contained. And spending a bunch of time in the kitchen the past six months using whole, natural foods in most of my meals, I now look at a "package" of food with disgust. Even a bag of organic tortilla chips -- what's the ingredient list? 6 ingredients and something unprounceable? Back on the shelf it goes. But I'll admit I'm a hippocrat too -- I'm guilty of drinking soy milk, but don't get that feel sick guilty feeling for doing so. Its organic, made with non-GMO beans, and a key food staple in a vegetarian diet. So its ok to watch what we eat 90% of the time? I believe as long as folks are aware of food sources and make some sort of effort in changing eating and buying habits, you're a step ahead of the average person and doing a good thing. Michael Pollan, thank you for making me a food "substance" snob.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

New Post Coming Friday, Sat, Sun, Mon

Sorry for no new posts...ultra busy at work with Fed Stimulus (how will it impact my area of programs in state government) and other work-related issues (budget...economy...small business...etc.) make me too tired to think about looking at a computer at night! I have off the next 4 days.... so I'll have some time to post. Thanks for your patience!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Book Review - This Crazy Vegan Life

From Publishers Weekly

Dairy products should be illegal, proclaims leukemia survivor and Emmy Award–winner Pirello (Cooking the Whole Foods Way), giving readers a good idea of this crusader's uncompromising stance on the current state of the food industry, our environment and the need for change. Host of the public television series Christina Cooks and a noted authority on vegetarian cooking, Pirello studied with macrobiotic diet pioneer Michio Kushi and has eaten vegan for more than 20 years. The first section of the book grounds readers in vegan principles, arguing the case from a variety of perspectives (health, humanitarian, economic, environmental). Her plan for making the transition from standard American fat- and sugar-laden convenience foods to regularly scheduled whole-food meals consists of a 21-day, two-phase detoxification and weight-loss program, with tips on stress reduction and living more consciously, and a whole-body fitness regime (cardio, strength training and flexibility). Having beat leukemia and completed her first triathlon at age 51, Pirello is strong on setting intentions and achieving goals. With her, readers have a tireless, reliable guide to going vegan, and the many recipes she offers for delicious vegan meals will make foregoing meat easy.

What attracted me to this one was her 20+ years as a vegan and the fact she bases her health and healing from leukemia on her food lifestyle. I also liked the idea of following the 21-day detox/weight-loss program because it takes 20 days to change habits, and I'm thinking if I followed her plan, I'd be total vegan in 21 days! Well... when I got the book and saw her plan involves cooking up some exotic foods that I don't think can be found anywhere but in her hometown of NYC, I nixed the 21-day diet idea. She also recommends a vegetable drink that I'm not sure I could drink -- daikon (I had to look that one up -- its a japanese, long white radish), carrots, and some other exotic plum and mushrooms that she claims (and I don't doubt her) WILL detox your system and help fat loss. But the rest of the book was good and helped me understand the vegan life much more. Her section on meat, eggs, dairy and why we shouldn't eat/drink those products I found informative and believeable (dairy especially - oh the processing and fats!). And eggs? Well, I love my free-range chicken eggs, but it IS an egg of a species and every species has an egg -- a life. If I were to get chickens, I don't think I could eat the eggs -- I'd be taking their babies -- and couldn't do it. So I may be cured of the need to eat eggs too at this point. I haven't had dairy in just about 2 months and no desire to do so. For the number of exotic ingredient-recipes, there are equal "normal" local foods too cook up. But they are indexed oddly -- by the name of the recipe, not the ingredient. So its difficult to find a recipe to use up your oatmeal. (BTW, she calls oatmeal, porridge. That took me a while to figure out too!). Would I recommend? Maybe -- if you are looking for unsual recipes and learn more about vegan cooking, yes. If you want local vegan foods and cooking, no.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

More Seeds?

Two more seed orders arrived since my initial mother-lode order with Fedco - I'm obsessed! I was concerned FEDCO wouldn't come through with my back orders, so I ordered a few "extras" from other companies. But FEDCO since has sent the back orders (except the corn) so now I have a couple doubles - that's cool, they'll grow! The extras came from High Mowing Seeds and Gardens Alive - both organic. Actually, I had forgotten Jalepeno peppers and decided to add just a few more other vegetables (yellow wax beans and some extra parsley and fennel). I think I'm getting some quinoa from Seeds of Change yet (only place that carries Quinoa), then I'll be ready. After that, everything's ready... seeds, seed starter, a couple more jiffy greenhouses (yes, I'm sorry to say I still use the little plastic, petroleum based cell packs - drat!). I may start the broccoli next weekend.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Survival Cooking -- Saving Money Info!

Relating to my below post on how to save some money as the economy worsens, I found this cool blog on survival cooking which is all about growing your own food, storing it, making things you normally would buy like soy yogurt or cheese, and money-saving menu meals like rice and chicken. Its not vegetarian, healthy, or local, but it has some good tips that you can apply to your local vegetarian meals. One thing you will definitely notice as you delve into this world of growing your own food and saving money -- you'll have little time for anything else! If I'm not planning the garden and thinking about what to grow/store, I'm perusing cookbooks to finding recipes - not to mention the time in the kitchen. Tomorrow (Saturday) will be a day of food.... bread baking, beans and rice making (cooking dried beans which are inexpensive, take some time to prepare), squash roasting, and making something with tofu -- not sure what just yet. Oh, and the local free-range chickens will be getting a visit from me too tomorrow. I need eggs! And I may stop for some local baking apples to cook up something appley. Yum. Nothing like home cooked meals -- and they are cheap!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

No More Pay Raises -- But Do We Need Them??

The official letter came this morning that my pay is frozen for the remainder of my working years - yes, the REMAINDER OF MY WORKING YEARS. Pennsylvania's Governor Rendell froze all management and non-represented (union) employees until 2010, and since my planned retirement is early 2011, in essence my raises are over. Yes, first thoughts are @*()@!&*#*$^, but my next thought was do we really need those raises? Many of you will say ABSOLUTELY! But isn't this the opportunity to think through our spending and lifestyles a little more? Us "affluent Americans," as Sharon Astyk writes, live way, way, way beyond our means and I'm going to try to look at a frozen pay raise as blessing in disguise -- a way to really crack down, think spending through, be more resourceful, etc. Cut the heat more, think about NOT using as much electricity (we stopped using the dishwasher a long time ago -- a drying rack was set up to cut dryer usage, etc), darn those damn holes in my socks for a change. And the food -- BIG savings in the food department if you really, really think it through and plan meals. Sharon Astyk has great ideas here on eating cheap. Need more help on cost savings? Check Sharon's website or read her book, Depletion and Abundance -- its an eye opener!

February 4, 2009

Dear Commonwealth Managers and Non-represented Employees,

On December 3, I informed you of a freeze on all management and non-represented employees’ salaries. The longevity and salary increases that were anticipated in January did not occur, saving the commonwealth $14.3 million this fiscal year. In that letter, I also said that I could not predict whether future anticipated raises would be affected.

I understand your need to closely manage your household finances in this challenging economy so I will share information about decisions that may impact your compensation as swiftly as possible.

Today, as part of my budget address, I announced that the salary freeze will be extended and that anticipated increases for managers and non-represented employees in July 2009 and January 2010 will not take place. I am sorry; I regret that the current $2.3 billion anticipated budget shortfall requires such a far-reaching measure. Please know that freezing salaries is one of many actions being taken so that we can preserve as many commonwealth jobs for as long as possible.

Thank you for your continued dedication and service to the commonwealth’s citizens, many of whom are relying on us to get through these difficult times.


Edward G. Rendell

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What's For Dinner?

Food life in the Brown/Wiest household has changed dramatically in past 6 months having read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; In Defense of Food, Deep Economy, and Depletion and Abundance. Not to mention the dozen or so blogs I peruse, taking the Eat Local Challenge, and becoming an adoptive parent of Mr. Pickles the rescued chicken. All of these things combined have me thinking FOOD all the time. When I told someone at work I don't watch or care much about football, he says, "what do you do for entertainment?" Part of that answer is read cookbooks, think about what to make, prepare meals/snacks, and plan the garden for this season. And when it gets nice, I'll BE in that garden - a lot. Not only do we consume food, it's consuming me! The turning point was the Eat Local Challenge and forcing me to really think about the source of food. From October 2008, we've been hitting the local farmer's market every week and I now buy as much locally produced food as I can, although I'm finding there isn't a whole lot -- especially staples like tofu and soymilk, and tempeh. And of course the winter months are near impossible -- at least this one is because I didn't start the local thing until late in the year last year. Next winter will be different with my plans of a big garden and canning/freezing bunches of foods. Hubby even got on the bandwagon and is eating local eggs and meat (thank you honey!). His milk comes from a nearby dairy too. Reading food labels has now become a full-time job (IF it has a label): Who's the manufacturer? What's in it - can I pronounce the ingredients? Are there more than 5 ingredients if the first 5 aren't whole foods? And the big one - what is the nutrition content? Is there adequate protein? calcium? Fiber? Fat? Carbs (both)? etc. Geez... no wonder most folks don't think too much about their food! And my dear hubby continues to enjoy his meat... so I try to include meat products in the meal planning too. The Flexitarian cookbook helped me with this... prepare a vegan meal with meat on the side. It works fairly well. I never thought in a million years I'd be spending THIS much time fretting over food! But its a good fret. The biggest food dilemma I'm having and plan to research this one a little more is the vegan thing. I'm finding many vegan staples are processed (i.e., tofu, soy milk, nutritional yeast flakes, tempeh). And then there's the "fake" meat which I've already resolved not to eat because there are WAY too many unpronounceable ingredients in those products -- although they are tasty - just way, way too processed. But how does a vegan get sufficient nutrition if they 1) don't eat processed, 2) keep it local, and 3) not eat TOO much trying to get sufficient nutrition.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The White House Agenda for Rural Farming

A news bulletin hit my in-box last week from the PA Association for Sustainable Agriculture which included the White House agenda for rural farming. And one of the priorities is:

Encourage Organic and Local Agriculture: Help organic farmers afford to certify their crops and reform crop insurance to not penalize organic farmers. Promote regional food systems.
How exciting is that! Check out the remainder. It appears they want to get it more local and smaller. This meshes nicely with the Obama eating habits of local and fresh. I understand former President Bush and his wife preferred organic and her chef stayed on for the Obamas... so the organic and local thought is certainly in their mouths everyday. Here's hoping for more local, smaller farms and less corporate agribusiness subsidies.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Too Much Time in the Kitchen? Too Many Cookbooks?

Since attempting to cook more vegan meals and keeping it local, and staying away from anything "processed" or in a package, I feel like I'm spending way too much time perusing cookbooks and cooking. Is that possible? Can one be in the kitchen too much and have too many cookbooks? Can one try too many recipes? Can one's husband be subjected to too many failed attempts? Can one really eat butternut squash every week from August through February? I have to thank my meat-eating husband a gazillion times over for putting up with my (failed) attempts. He so kindly will try things, but not really say if its good or bad... his answer is usually "ok" when asked how he likes it. He even tried vegan lasagna - Ricky you're the bestest! I'm really glad he likes squash as much as me because we've eaten it every possible way for the past 5 months and I still have about a month to go yet until its gone. Oh, but there's some in the freezer too -- yeh! I picked up an Amish cookbook yesterday and most of the recipes were laced with sugar and butter and when I mentioned this to Rick, he commented,"that's what makes it taste good." That's his read-between-the-lines way of saying most of my stuff I try sucks, at least in the sweets department. While digging in my cookbook drawer, I surprised myself at how this I-hate-to-cook gal in her teens turned out to be a kitchen dweller trying new things and experimenting. I'm truly still not a "cook", but maybe someday!