Day 93–Gambling With a Garden

Four coloured 6 sided dice arranged in an aest...

Gardening is gambling with dirt.–Mark Twain

I am, typically, not a gambling person. I don’t buy lottery tickets, never been to Vegas, and don’t play bingo. Probably, much of this is because I do not have that “winner’s luck” required to succeed at games of chance. My mother has it. My brother has it in spades. Clearly, it skipped me. But still, I do get “the fever.”

You see, my gambling fever strikes me each year in February (no, not March Madness; my gambling there is with my pride, not with money). In February, we have the onslaught of the commercial seed catalogs. By the late winter months, I have forgotten about the bloodthirsty mosquitoes and the 95% humidity of a North Carolina summer. I have put last year’s gardening behind me and am staring at leafless trees and a brown landscape. Then, I open my mailbox in early February, and see color photos of beautiful, lush gardens, perfect flowers and tomato plants so full of juicy tomatoes that they need heavy-duty staking. It’s seed porn and it has me hooked. I am ready to take the risk. I mean, this could be the year, right? Right?

Betting on the success of our Cinderella garden, we spent the weekend organizing our gardening space to increase the odds of our success. We used the garden planning questions from the Dig In! conference to seriously think about what we have, what we can give and what we need from our little garden. Our garden is not large–just four raised beds–3 are 6′ x 3′ and one is 3′ x 3′. Not so much that we will get overwhelmed, but enough to keep us in the game. Here are some decisions we made using our planning questions.

  1. We know we hate to tote water around the yard. Knowing that watering is a chore in the heat of summer, we moved the raised beds from the scattered patches of sun in the yard to one central area, close to our rain barrels. This was helped greatly by the loss of a huge oak tree last fall. We may be eaten alive by mosquitoes come summer, but at least the sacrifice will be quicker.
  2. We are planting to save money and shopping time. In looking at what fresh items were the most expensive at the store and market, we planted the herbs that we most commonly buy–several kinds of basil, oregano, mint (in pots), lemon balm, rosemary, dill, flat leaf parsley and chives. These are typically pretty expensive and sometimes hard to find. In addition, many of these herbs overwinter here or at least re-seed themselves, so hopefully our investment will be seen over several years.
  3. We know what we want and we want fresh salads. Instead of buying a huge assortment of vegetables that we don’t consume in great quantity, we bought what we like to eat the most–cucumber, several tomato varieties, green peppers and eggplant. I’m betting (!) that we will get out and water in the heat if we know that the goal isn’t just random vegetables, but better salads.
  4. Our garden will be organic. I have never used pesticides other than insecticidal soap and I don’t plan to now. With that in mind, we understand we will need to be extra vigilant for bugs, bunnies and other critters that find our garden as appealing as we do.
  5. We want our garden to look nice. All our beds are now in a side yard that is easily visible to our neighbors. They are terrific neighbors and don’t complain, but we’d like the garden to be attractive for them when they look out their windows. We also want it to be a contemplative space for us. So, we’ll be adding a mulch path, some butterfly friendly flowers and other decorative elements as we go through the spring months.

Maybe our gambling luck is turning in our favor. Hours after filling our beds with compost and planting our initial garden, we had a very scary storm that included hail. “Good grief,” I thought, “you have got to be kidding me.” (Tom can attest that my words were, indeed, stronger than “good grief!”) Lo and behold, the next morning we checked on the garden and not a plant was touched by the hail.

If I were a betting girl, I’d say that was a sign…

20120402-082301.jpg

Two of our raised beds in their early stages!

Day 55–Community Gardens

Austin TX

“It is what it is, but will become what you make of it.”  Pat Summit

Spring is just around the corner here in North Carolina, and we are looking forward to planting our garden. I have mentioned before that we have some challenges (some extreme shade, some hot spots, horse-sized mosquitoes and LOTS of tree roots). I’m not only interested in having a successful gardening year for our family, but I am also interested in expanding access to fresh food. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been rewarding to find new local sources for our food and to post recipes and blog about our journey, but a larger issue is nagging at me. While I’m frolicking at the farmer’s markets, packing organic produce in my “green” Trader Joes bags, other families are having trouble finding any access to healthy, fresh food. Living in “food deserts,” these families, children, elders are often dependent on highly processed, overpriced foods available at local convenience stores. And there are many more folks who might have access to fresh food, but have no idea what they are eating (e.g., me six months ago). Food access and food literacy. Two huge issues affecting the health of many families in my area.

So I can let it nag at me, or I can see this as an opportunity for another part of our journey. Maybe I just have the zeal of the newly converted or maybe this is where I’m meant to go. Hard to tell at this point 🙂 In any case, an opportunity came our way and we are seizing it and we will see where it takes us.

Advocates for Health in Action is hosting a “Dig In” workshop focusing on building, maintaining and sustaining community gardens in our area. Topics for the 1/2 day program include garden planning, school gardening, legal issues, fundraising, organic gardening, bee keeping and more. The program looks like so much fun that our whole family is going! I feel fortunate to have this level of enthusiasm for not only improving our garden, but helping with a larger community gardening initiative. The event is in March and we will definitely blog about what we learned!

Taking this locavore journey is shaping us in ways we never expected (but I guess that’s why it’s a journey!). And taking up Lady Vols coach Pat Summit’s challenge, we will see what we can make of it.

 

Day 48–Pasta Con Sarde

Sardines

I am still perplexed as to why Eat Italian Food Day is not Eat Italian Food Month, but whatevs. We are not beholden to whoever makes those decisions. So in open rebellion of the “food of the day” policy makers, here is another recipe that we will be making this weekend. It takes advantage of Italy’s coastal waters as well as its love of the tomato. I am planning to buy fresh pasta at the farmer’s market tomorrow and I’m excited about that, but when left to my own devices, I like whole wheat angel hair pasta for this dish. Pasta con sarde is high in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids and relatively low in fat. Basically, this is a fast, healthy and very inexpensive dish that is perfect for weeknights when you really don’t feel like cooking.

What? You don’t like sardines? My suggestion would be to have an open mind and try sardines that are packaged boneless and skinless as they have a milder taste to them. Trader Joes carries these for about $2 a can. And indeed, this dish would be better with fresh sardines rather than canned, but until global warming really kicks in, I don’t know that sardines will be swimming off the shores of North Carolina. If you are (like my child) absolutely resolute in your dislike of sardines, you could use cooked salmon or tuna and you would need very little (6 oz), just increase the amount of olive oil you use or the sauce will be dry. This is a great dish for stretching out what you have. And who doesn’t want to do that these days?

  • 1 package whole wheat angel hair pasta (16 oz.)
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 (4 oz) cans sardines packed in olive oil
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs (about 3-5 slices bread toasted and run through food processor)
  • 1/2 cup tomato sauce
  • freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 lemon, juiced + 1 Tbsp. grated zest
  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook according to directions for al dente pasta.
  2. While pasta is cooking, heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook about 2 minutes until soft. Add the minced garlic and cook about 1 minute more.
  3. Stir in sardines with their olive oil and tomato sauce and stir to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  4. When sardines are heated through, add bread crumbs and stir. Remove from heat.
  5. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup of the pasta water for the sauce.
  6. Add drained pasta to the sauce in the skillet and combine. If the sauce is too dry, add pasta water 1/2 cup at a time until you get the consistency you like. The sauce should cling to the pasta.
  7. Add lemon juice and lemon zest to the pasta, stir and serve with parmesan cheese.

Buon appetito!

Day 38–Fresh Fish Tacos

Fish taco stand

It took me years to wrap my brain around the concept of a fish taco. First, the control freak in me despises crunchy taco shells–they shatter and make a mess. In my mind, if I’m going to eat a taco with a fork, it may as well be a salad. Second, the tacos of my childhood were pretty typical 70s fare: seasoned ground beef in an El Paso taco shell topped with Kraft cheese and maybe some baked beans on the side. Yes, Boston baked beans. Hey, don’t judge–that was “ethnic” food in 1970s suburbia. So in my mind, taco = ground beef. NOT fish. That was just unnatural.

Then, on one particularly inspired day, I visited a local restaurant and threw caution to the wind. I ordered the fish tacos. They were amazing. Warm, soft (soft!) tortillas filled with grilled catfish and a spicy cabbage slaw, they were delicious and (at least for me) revolutionary. I have been hooked ever since.

Armed with a pound of freshly caught NC catfish, I took the next culinary step this week and made fish tacos for my family. I had a recipe for a great sounding marinade that involved a lot of spices, but arrived home too late and too tired to put a great deal of effort into it. So, I ditched the recipe and made a few substitutions. In the end, it was still delicious, although I wish I had taken the time to make a chipotle cabbage slaw. The ‘tween in my house loved the tacos and I liked it a lot. My husband, who is way too nice to criticize my cooking, probably would have preferred more stuff in the taco than just fish (not a fan of avocado), but said it was good. Note to self: pack more yummy stuff in the tacos.

Here is my after-work-get-dinner-on-the-table-quick version of fish tacos. I’m including the chipotle slaw recipe, too. Next time, I’ll make this the night before so it’s ready quickly, because I think it would really be delicious.

Chipotle Cabbage Slaw

  • 3 c. chopped or shredded red cabbage
  • 1/2 c. organic mayonnaise
  • 1 Tbsp. (or more to taste) of chipotle adobo sauce

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate until ready to use.

Quick Fish Tacos

  • 12 small corn tortillas (about 3 per person)
  • 1 lb. locally caught mild white fish (cod, tilapia, catfish)
  • 1/4 cup olive or canola oil
  • 1 packet taco seasoning mix (we used Trader Joe’s taco seasoning packet)
  • 1 lime
  • 1 avocado
  • 1 cup queso fresco or organic sour cream
  1. In a glass bowl, mix canola oil and taco seasoning together. Add fish, turn several times to coat, and let marinade for about 20 minutes.
  2. While fish is marinading, cube avocado and reserve in a bowl.
  3. Heat a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Put some olive oil on a paper towel and wipe the pan with oil. Add tortillas, one at a time, and warm them in the pan, turning once. Keep the tortillas warm in a piece of foil or wrapped in a warm tea towel. You could also microwave them, but I think they taste better warmed in a pan.
  4. When tortillas are warmed, increase the heat to the pan a bit. When pan is hot, add fish fillets to the pan. The marinade on the fish will serve as the oil, so you will not need to add more.
  5. Pan sear  fish until browned, about 3-4 minutes on each side. Fish is done when it flakes easily. Flake fish in the pan with the remaining marinade.
  6. Plate the dish by filling each tortilla with a few pieces of fish and cabbage slaw. Serve with avocado and queso fresco.

Day 21–Changing Diets, Changing Bodies

Caffeine

Three weeks into our journey, we’re taking time to assess how our dietary changes have influenced our bodies. We’ve already seen several benefits from our reduced caffeine and soda intake.

My husband says he feels great and has added both speed and distance to his daily runs on the treadmill. He doesn’t miss diet soda like he thought he might and he’s doing really well without coffee. So far, he also likes the different meals we’ve been cooking and really liked trying his hand at pizza making last week!

My seemingly chronic insomnia has abated and I’m sleeping better than I have in a long time. I can’t tell you how awesome that is. I’m even dreaming, which I don’t remember doing for months. I had attributed my sleeping problems (I could fall asleep, but not stay asleep) with pre menapause, but clearly, caffeine had a major role in that problem. I don’t miss diet soda either and drinking more water has definitely helped me feel more energized during the day. Either that or I just have to take more bathroom breaks and that’s making me get up from my desk 🙂

Our pre-teen weighed in with her opinions of the change. She feels like she has more energy and she said she feels happier with fewer mood swings during the day. With the exception of the bison chili we made, she has enjoyed everything we’ve been eating so far and really liked our pizza challenge.

The only challenge I’ve had so far has been a small weight gain, which seems to be reversing itself nicely. I think it’s taken my body a while to adjust to “real” food during the day instead of Lean Cuisine and Diet Coke. Since I’m still going to the gym and working out regularly, I’m not concerned about this, but it was a surprise at first.

All in all at week 3, we are happy with the changes we have made and all three of us see positive benefits. So, onward we go!

Day 15–Starting Week 3–Budget and Menu

Pizza with corn and za'atar at Pizza B'Riboa i...

As we end week 2 of our family challenge, I think we did really well. We met our 75% locally produced/sustainable meal challenge! Some things worked better than others. We made good use of the food we had purchased and had much less food waste than usual. The bison chili with lentils and pumpkin was great to us adults (really more like a stew than a chili), but a flop for our pre-teen, who likes mom’s regular chili. The recipe made a HUGE batch, so we had lots of bison chili lunches to pack last week. We are anxiously awaiting the reopening of Earp’s Seafood Market in downtown Raleigh so we can get some locally caught seafood (Earps was destroyed in the tornado last April). That is one part of our diet we are missing, but hope to get it back in swing in the next couple of weeks.

My recent lack of success with using a pre-established grocery list at the farmer’s market prompted some interesting suggestions on how to use the ingredients I brought home. One, from our pre-teen, is a pizza Iron Chef competition for our family using ingredients from the farmer’s market (well, mostly). We will make our own pizza dough and that should be fun, interesting, and maybe hilarious. Family members are already working on their ideas! Another idea was having breakfast for dinner. We recently won some TN country ham at a family Christmas party, so we will share some and eat some for dinner/breakfast.

So, how did we do on this week’s budget? Here is a breakdown:

  • Lowe’s Food (yeast, a pizza’s worth of artisan pepperoni): $1.83
  • Farmer’s Market (bok choi, greenhouse strawberries, kale, local apples, onions, carrots): $20.00
  • Mae Farm Meats (pork chops, ground pork, Maple View Farm milk, farm eggs): $39.95
  • Trader Joes (frozen organic fruit, peppers, rice, cheese, organic chicken, organic butter): $51.96

Our total this week is: $113.74 Over a bit, but we should have some carryover into next week (esp. pizza cheese!). I splurged on a couple of impulse items (like greenhouse strawberries and bell peppers) and we replaced grocery store milk with milk produced in Chapel Hill by Maple View Farms, but we will use them all in the mix.

What is the menu this week? Here it goes:

  • Sunday–organic chicken, bok choi and pepper stir fry w/organic brown rice
  • Monday–pizza Iron Chef competition w/homemade pizza dough and local veggies
  • Tuesday–Tortiere (French Canadian meat pie w/Mae Farm pork), sautéed greens and sweet potatoes
  • Wednesday–leftovers
  • Thursday–Breakfast for dinner (farm eggs, country ham we won at family Christmas party, homemade biscuits)
  • Friday–date night 🙂
  • Saturday–Mae Farm pork chops, sautéed apples, sweet potatoes, greens

We’re heavy on the pork this week (see my post about grocery shopping with a specific list from Friday), so that isn’t good, although no one in my house is complaining. Will definitely need to do better next week and have more meatless or chicken options. And a better shopping strategy 🙂

So, here we go with week 3!

Day 8–Starting Week 2–Budget and Menu

English: Green, yellow and red bell peppers fr...

I am terrible with budgets. But, our family needs to budget for necessities and yours probably does, too. Our goal is to eat sustainable and/or locally produced food for 75% of our meals on $100 per week. We went over last week (darn you, New Years Eve :-)), but I rationalized that with a holiday dinner. So, how about this week? Here is how we spent our food budget in preparation for week 2:

  • Mae Farm meats (chicken, bacon, eggs):          $20.64
  • Heaven on Earth organics (turnips w/greens, dino kale, green peppers, tomatoes, onions):          $20.00
  • Trader Joes (tortillas, sour cream, cheese, oranges, frozen fruit):          $26.61
  • Lowes Foods (yogurt, green split peas, Kosher salt, can of pumpkin): 10.18
  • Whole Foods (ground bison, green lentils): $24.67

Total:  $102.10 (we are almost there!)

So, what are we eating for that? Here is our menu for the week:

  • Sunday–Roast chicken, turnips 2 ways (mashed and greens w/bacon)
  • Monday–Bison, green lentil and pumpkin chili, sour cream corn muffins (local corn meal left from last week)
  • Tuesday–chicken quesadillas (using leftover roast chicken), quinoa
  • Wednesday–leftover chili and corn muffins
  • Thursday–green split pea soup, homemade biscuits
  • Friday–leftovers
  • Saturday–out; extended family holiday dinner @ restaurant

Breakfasts are oatmeal or pumpkin muffins with fruit smoothies.

Lunches are either leftovers or sandwiches and fruit

I’m proud of how we have done so far and look forward to trying out a few new recipes (the bison chili especially!). At this point, we are eating at approximately 60% organic or local/sustainable food. This next week should increase that a bit. Now, can we keep this up? That is a challenge!

Day 6–The Winter Farmer’s Market, Part 1

The winter farmer's market still has plenty to offer!

Assumptions. I know better than to make them, yet I still do. In my mind, the winter farmer’s market was a place of leftover collard greens, cabbage and sweet potatoes. Sad. Lonely. Bereft of good eats. I should just give up and head to the grocery store, right? Wrong!

I decided to check my assumptions at the door and visit the State Farmer’s Market on my lunch hour yesterday. I am so glad I did!

Not only was the State Farmer’s Market busy, but I was really amazed at the variety of fresh vegetables and fruit (apples) that were still available. Thanks to a very mild winter (at least in NC), farmers are still growing and harvesting white potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes (mostly locally grown hothouse), salad greens, turnips, kale, spinach, green peppers, apples, fresh beans, broccoli, collard greens, beets and more. And the prices were definitely lower than the grocery stores on just about everything.

Wilmington-based Scott Smith of Heaven On Earth Organics

I was glad to find Scott Smith of Heaven On Earth organic farm at the market. He was awesome! He and his wife have a farm outside of Wilmington and they love organic farming. Farmer Scott let me taste test my way though his vegetable stand so I could discover the difference between dino kale and curly kale (dino kale is thicker and spicier), how turnip greens with a little bit of yellow (from frost) are sweeter than the bright green leaves (the frost brings the sugar to the tips of the leaves) and more.

In the end, I did buy vegetables, including the dino kale (the name alone makes it interesting). Scott suggested that the dino kale makes terrific kale chips, something I had heard of, but hadn’t tried before. OH. MY. GOODNESS. They were devoured by my family and my pre-teen daughter (who eats vegetables grudgingly) decided they were amazing. Light, crispy and salty, these are the perfect antitode to potato chips. The recipe is below.

Kale Chips! Crunchy little antioxidant chips--howgreatisthat?

  • 1 bunch fresh kale (we used dino kale, but any kind would work)
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp. vinegar (we used balsamic)
  • Kosher salt to taste (we used about 1 Tbsp.)
  1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
  2. Wash and dry the kale.
  3. Cut off the lower woody stems and compost.
  4. Cut the kale into pieces about the size of potato chips (2-4″ or so).
  5. In a bowl (or a plastic bag, if you don’t want your hands oily) put the chopped kale and add 1 Tbsp of the olive oil.
  6. Toss the greens with the oil until leaves are covered. (If you use the bag, massage the bag until the leaves are covered).
  7. Add the vinegar and toss again to coat.
  8. If needed, add the remaining Tbsp. olive oil (depending on the thickness of the leaves, you might not need this).
  9. Carefull place leaves on an oven safe baking rack or on a cookie sheet (I used a rack). Don’t overlap leaves.
  10. Sprinkle leaves with salt.
  11. Put rack/baking sheet in the oven and roast leaves for 20-30 minutes (this will depend on how thick your leaves are, so check on them after 20 min.)
  12. Remove from oven and enjoy immediately!

Next post, local meat producers at the farmer’s market!

 

Day 4–The Coffee Question

Afrikaans: Geroosterde pitte van die koffiepla...

It all started with Splenda. I suggested to my truly wonderful (and remarkably vice-free) husband that eliminating toxins from our diets included the Splenda he used in his morning coffee. He thought about this. He did some research on his own. He agreed. And he very patiently–very carefully–suggested that maybe we needed to rethink the whole issue of coffee itself.

You would need to understand my coffee habits to understand the brave nature of this conversation. One of my worst vices is coffee. I drink lots of coffee. I could drink it all day. My morning coffee mug is a sturdy piece of NC pottery that could easily double as a vase. For reals.

But, if we are looking at improving our overall health and eating/drinking sustainably, everything should come up for discussion. Even coffee. While coffee does have some antioxidants and research indicates that small amounts of coffee can benefit the heart, I don’t think the patients in those studies were drinking out of small vases. And coffee, even fair trade coffee, does have a pretty big carbon footprint since the coffee we buy isn’t grown anywhere near here. So, my husband has decided to give up coffee altogether and I am working toward drinking one normal size cup of coffee AFTER drinking a glass of water in the morning. Maybe I’ll switch to organic green tea instead, but one step at a time.

In the meantime, I have two new vases with handles 🙂