Growing Food versus Solar Cells… Investing in Sustainable Living

This year’s produce isn’t all in, but it’s really not too shabby:

  • a huge pile of basil, thrown into every pasta dish this season.
  • sprigs of cilantro here and there
  • enough strawberries for a cobbler and one tiny pot of jam
  • a big bag of potatoes (maybe 8 or 9 pounds?)
  • 7 butternut squash of between 2 and 5 pounds each (and some tiny ones that might yet beef up)
  • 15 or 20 pounds of tomatoes, eaten by us constantly while also being given away and frozen for canning experiment.
  • a dozen salads worth of greens.
  • One lonely green bell pepper (we’ve still got green plants, though, so maybe they’ll flower in September. We had some great pepper plants last year in September, the only 2015 crops at the house).

While quite wonderful for my brown-thumb, this isn’t much compared to the total food that I eat, or that Husband and I eat combined. However, I saw a comment the other day on a blog that basically pointed out that the impact of growing your own food, even a little, is much higher than getting solar cells or other alternative fuels for your house. I have often been seduced by the thought of solar cells, wondering if we’d ever have sunny enough days that we’d be “selling back” energy to the grid. But thousands and thousands of dollars have always made me forget that idea, no matter now much subsidy the government might give for such cells.

On the other hand, if I think about how much energy goes into planting, fertilizing, growing, harvesting, and transporting my produce, how much effort and care goes into making sure it isn’t bruised (and how many peppers are bruised and thrown away, or thrown away for not being pretty), I realize that gardening does make a difference: while there was fossil fuel energy to transport the bags of compost that we use to enrich the soil, the lone pepper to emerge from my garden didn’t require nearly as much fossil fuel, total, as the ones in the grocery store. I can’t calculate the difference (and we’re probably talking pennies of worth, really), but every bite is something.

I’m also heartened as I look to a future season, where I’ll learn from my mistakes, and maybe grow more food or be able to harvest it better. It’s an effort to do something fun with my hands and something kind of magical with my backyard, but it’s also just a little more sustainable than buying elsewhere… (or at least it is trying to be!) It’s only little impacts, but those can be really good for one’s mind and heart.

The Little Blogger who Can… Can.

This weekend was when we hit a lot of milestones – I had three ripe butternut squash sitting on the counter and more than 11 pounds of tomatoes in the freezer, so I decided to take the kitchen that Husband so lovingly cleaned and cover it in canning equipment and tomato guts. I also did some cooking and roasting of butternut squash, but I’ll save that for another day.

I knew I was starting at a disadvantage with the whole canning process, because I had too large jars and too small a pot, but I managed to fit 3 jars into my pot at a time, which was good. I cooked down the tomatoes with a little water for hours, maybe 3? because I hadn’t taken the skins off or cut them up much to begin with. I figure, when I want to use the sauce, I can chop up the sauce a little in the food processor if I don’t want it chunky. Then it was the old standby: clean jars and lids, sanitize jars and lids, add sauce, put lids on to finger tight, and process for whatever amount of time multiple blogs say is right (45 minutes was the consensus for mine).

For my first batch, I forgot the lemon juice until I realized they were already processing with the lids on, so I decided those would get used in the next couple of weeks and could live in the fridge. No one said your first canning experiment is perfect. But for the second batch, I mixed in tablespoons of lemon juice to get the acidity up and I think that will be enough. I really recommend following some old-school directions (from a box of mason jars, or from a canning cookbook) on this – there are so many steps in the process that could introduce germs/bacteria/something else into your tomatoes that it’s good to follow to the letter. I would prefer to throw more tomatoes into my next few meals than to save them all winter and find them moldy or full of poisonous substances.

Overall, I see the accomplishment people get from canning, but I also understand the impulse to just give away ripe tomatoes if you have too many, so that others can enjoy the garden flavors. It really isn’t a money saver, at least not this first year, but I liked the sense of accomplishment on what was otherwise a pretty lazy Sunday for me.

 

Food that Feels Like Freedom: Tomato and Olive Oil Toast

No lie, I’ve eaten a lot of tomatoes, greens, potatoes, and squash this season – you’d think I’d get sick of it, but I feel like I cannot get enough. And yesterday afternoon I got home from work so ready to be done for a couple days, I was jonesing for a snack that made me feel free and easy. 

I turned to pan tomate, the Spanish snack I loved so much when I lived in Madrid. Two pieces of toasted bread, slices of garden tomatoes, a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt (sea salt for crunch if you have it!). The result is fresh but rich; I ate mine while chatting with Husband about our weekend plans.

What food makes you feel carefree and like you are unburdened? What do you cook when facing a weekend or just a couple luxurious free hours? 

Basil/Oregano Mashed Butternut Squash

I’ve become a big fan of dips – give me a variety pack of hummus flavors, or a savory baba ganoush, or a pile of guacamole any day and I’ll lay into it. I wasn’t expecting that butternut squash would make such a fantastic dip, though; rather than a recipe, today I present something I affectionately call a “mess-cipe” – something that easily could have turned out terribly as an experiment in the kitchen but which instead turned out delicious!

I was eager to roast up the butternut squash, so I added basil, oregano, and some last sprigs of rosemary that I had handy but after it finished cooking I kinda… left it in the oven to cool? I went about my afternoon, busy, and then came back to cooled-off, gooey squash. It was easy to separate the chunks from their skin, but then I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. My thought was “Pasta sauce,” along the lines of some you might have seen used on “butternut squash mac and cheese.”

I didn’t have a lot of cheese available, but I added cheese and milk, and used the food processor to mix it up. I made Husband a bowl of pasta and covered it in the sauce, which he vouched was sweet but flavorful, a perfectly fine dinner. What I noticed, though, was that since it was all fairly cool, it was really firmer than a sauce… more like a dip.

Instead of serving myself pasta, I dug a tortilla chip into the mixture, and crunched into it… PERFECT. While not a normal dip for tortilla chips, the mixture was too smooth for me to want it on something else soft like pasta, so I got the satisfying crunch and also the yummy flavor of butternut squash. I cannot give you exact measurements, but I definitely recommend that you try something like “mashed butternut squash” and have chips or crackers with it – the flavor is unusual but the texture is perfect for a dip.

Quinoa with sweet tomato, onion, and summer herbs

On Friday, I really traipsed into the thicket of tomatoes in our backyard and emerged with tons – 30 or more cherry and 10 San Marzanos. I want to freeze some to eventually can sauce, but a more pressing need presented itself: my aunt and uncle were coming over for dinner! They are the sweetest folks and one is vegetarian and the other is dairy/gluten free, so quinoa was an obvious option.

I prepared about 1 cup of quinoa according to the directions on the bag, but the long roasting time meant that I did that much later. I started by cutting up the cherry tomatoes and some San Marzanos into the roasting pan pictured. I then sliced and diced one purple onion and 4 cloves of garlic, and added maybe a teaspoon of olive oil to keep it all from sticking. I roasted it at 400 degrees F for 45 minutes.

When they came out, I added cut chives, basil, and oregano – all fresh because I’d gotten packets of fresh herbs from the community garden, and that stuff doesn’t last long! I left the whole roasting pan on the stove to stay toasty while my aunt and uncle got a tour of the house, but then added the hot quinoa to the veggies to mix up together.

We had quite a feast – Husband obviously made a salad, and I whipped up guacamole to make sure that everyone had a hearty enough meal. Afterwards was a gluten-free banana bread that I was pleased with, even though it was drier than I expected; I’ll post about it at some point. But sitting around the table, passing dishes and eating off placemats made me realize how much I missed that. When we’ve had our dinner parties, there have been too many people to sit down to table together, and that makes me think the next dinner “party” will just be, perhaps, 4 other folks. Last night was a less boisterous evening, but I think that the niceness of sharing the bounty of the garden and the chat that we all had about plants and electronic circuits and family history made me miss a regular sit-down dinner with family.

A Day of Plenty: Harvesting Squash and Tomatoes

Husband has been pushing patience at me, because online I read that for butternut squash to be ready to harvest, you have to wait until the stem had died a little; that’s the only time when it’s truly done with nutrients. He said to wait to harvest ours until that ripeness level.

However… they’ve been that creamy orange color that indicates ripeness for more than a week now! I harvested our first two, one that weighed 2 pounds and one that topped out at almost 5, and I set about preparing the first for roasting. As soon as I cut into it, a sweet smell and a bunch of water came out – it was the juiciest butternut squash ever! I was quite sticky-fingered by the time I finished cleaning it out, cutting it up and getting it into the oven, but so happy. And glad that, this time anyway, my haste was alright. I’ll wait longer for the other, because it will take me a while to process the 5 pound squash.

Also, our tomato jungle is so dense that it’s hard to reach the back rows, which are up against the neighbor’s fence. Yesterday, I braved the spiders and the mosquitos to get in and get all the hard-t0-reach tomatoes, yielding me about 25 cherry tomatoes and 15 of the San Marzanos. I’ve found that my friends J, S, and B love cherry tomatoes so I’m not freezing any more of those, but for now, my plan is to keep freezing San Marzanos until I have enough pounds to merit a day of canning. I know I don’t need to try canning, but I think it’ll be fun. I’ll bug a friend or two to help me, and we’ll make sure we have the tools we need, and everyone will go home with jars of tomato sauce (simple sauce, with plenty of lemon juice to keep it acidified against botulism!). I’m rather excited.

Finally, I had given up entirely on our pepper plants, but two lovely things happened: the only pepper plant I knew of now has 3 teeny tiny peppers on it, so I’m hoping for lots of sun and rain to get those swelled up and beautiful, and there are at least another 10 flowers that I can dream about turning into bell peppers. Also, I noticed a very small plant with the same kind of leaves as the pepper, which I hope means we’ve got another, late-bloomer pepper emerging. Last year, Husband moved into the house in September and was pulling peppers into early October, so I am hopeful that we’ll have a long, luxurious harvest. It’s not orderly and perfect, but just dragging in the bowl of tomatoes every day gives me more joy than I ever thought raising a little bit of food could.

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Community Supported Agriculture

Lately, I’ve been ordering online from a very small urban garden about a mile from my house. They can’t have everything a grocery store has, so I often look through their website and think, “How will I find enough produce to spend at least 10 bucks, making it feel okay to have them deliver it to my door?” I don’t want to waste food, so I have to get creative.

In this last shipment, I felt pretty proud. I purchase fresh herbs – thai basil and rosemary – which I’ve used in a lot of my cooking lately, including the mac and cheese from a couple of nights ago. I also got yellow squash which featured in a potato dish I haven’t written about yet, and four jalapeños in a cute green  bag that I need to use for something but don’t really know for what yet. Husband is the spicy food person, and I’ve been told that chopping jalapeños can be hazardous to your health… or at least to your eyes!

Our local bakery has also partnered with them, so I got the rest of my way to 13 dollars of produce by adding in a lemon rosemary bread, which was consistent and delicious in all the ways that my bread never is, and made great toast for breakfasts; it replaced buying store-bought bagels that we usually use for breakfast, which I count as a win. Lastly was a new bag of kale, which got put straight in for more kale chips.

The fun part, of course, is the community of it. The woman who runs the boxes from her mini van up to my front door is now becoming a friend of mine; I give her back the cardboard box from the previous week and take the one she has in her hands. We chat about the day and how the tomatoes are coming in, both in her garden and in mine. If you have ever felt happy to see a full fridge or a pile of groceries, I assure you, the feeling of a box of local produce is even better, and it really isn’t expensive. I feel like I’m healthier for it after only two weeks, and I’m looking forward to the cooking challenge of using what’s in season.