Apr 1, 2015

Fermented Jerusalem Artichokes

My family loves Jerusalem artichokes - a lesser-known veggie that looks like the potato's ugly cousin. But my husband finds, as some people do, that they live up to their sometimes-heard nickname: Jerusalem fartichokes. Yes, it's true. Jerusalem artichokes are healthy and nutritious...but they cause gas in some people. There are ways around this; mainly, parboiling the vegetable before fully cooking it and making sure you only eat the vegetable after it's lived through a good, hard frost. The other, however, is through lacto-fermentation. (Not familiar with the health benefits of fermentation? Read this.)

Since my family loves the fermented sauerkraut I make, I'm becoming more confident about trying fermented foods. So when I bumped into this post over at A Gardener's Table, I knew I had to give fermented Jerusalem artichokes a try. I'm so glad I did. They are DEEliscious! We ate a ton of them (so yummy!), and my children and I had no issues with gas. My hubby wasn't sure if he could call these Jerusalem artichokes gas free...but trust me, he was not having issues like he normally does with this vegetable! Any flatulence was, in his wife's opinion, like any other day.

My recipe is slightly adapted from A Gardener's Table. Mainly, I used dried spices, because that's what I had on hand. Also, sadly my husband is not a fan of ginger, so I used a much smaller amount of this ingredient. But the truth is, even though I love this spice combo, you could use whatever spices you want - or no spices at all. To ferment this veggie, all you really need is the salt, sugar, and water brine.

Fermented Jerusalem Artichoke Recipe

1 1/2 lbs. of Jerusalem artichokes
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cumin
8 garlic cloves, chopped
2 teaspoons uniodized salt
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups filtered water (water with chlorine in it inhibits fermentation)

1. Begin by sanitizing everything you'll use, including the fermenting jar, whatever you'll use as a weight, the cutting board, knife, and any utensils. It's fine to just run them through the dishwasher.

2. Cut up the Jerusalem artichokes. I like them best when sliced in thinish circles, like a cucumber pickle. But you'll probably have to do some chunks, too, due to the vegetable's odd-ball shape. Just be sure the pieces are of about the same size, and no larger than 1/2 in.

3. In a bowl, combine the turmeric, nutmeg, cumin, and garlic. Add the prepared Jerusalem artichoke and toss until well coated. Pack into a glass jar with a 6 cup capacity. (I used a gallon sized canning jar.)

4. Measure out the water and add the salt and sugar. Stir until dissolved. Pour this brine over the Jerusalem artichokes.

5. Weigh down the Jerusalem artichokes. I used a jelly jar filled with marbles, but anything that easily fits into the jar and push down hard on the vegetable pieces should work fine. Press down firmly and try to pack the Jerusalem artichoke pieces down as much as possible. Leave the weight in place, and cover the jar with cheesecloth or a cotton dishtowel held in place with a rubber band or string. Leave the jar on the counter in a relatively warm (not hot or cold) place.
6. The following day, the brine should fully cover the vegetable pieces. All the pieces must be underwater, or they will rot instead of ferment. If necessary, make more brine (using the same ratio you used the day before) and add it to the jar.

7. Now it's a waiting game. I found the mixture didn't bubble or burp much. It turns out, some fermenting vegetables do this more than others. But do check at least once a day to be sure the veggies are submerged, that the mixture doesn't smell bad, or that mold isn't growing on it. I tasted the mixture after seven days, and it seemed just right. Depending upon the weather and the atmosphere in your kitchen it could take a little more or less time for the 'chokes to ferment. How do you know it's done? When it tastes good to you! When you're satisfied with the flavor, remove the cover and weight, put a lid on the jar, and transfer to the refrigerator.

Mar 30, 2015

What's The Difference Between Mulch and Compost?

Here's a question I frequently hear: Mulch vs. compost...What's the difference?

Mulch Is...

Mulch is anything that is laid on the ground around plants in order to retain moisture in the soil and prevent weed seeds from seeing the sun. Mulch also helps keep the soil warmer, which is especially useful in the spring, fall, and winter.

Examples of mulch include landscaping fabric and plastic (usually black, but sometimes other colors; red is popular around peppers and tomatoes, since it warms the soil better than other colors). Organic mulches have the added benefit of feeding the soil and giving it nutrients as it decomposes. Examples of organic mulch include straw, wood chips, grass clippings, leaves, and yes, compost.

Compost Is...

Compost is made from organic matter (such as vegetable and fruit leftovers, leaves, and paper products) that has decomposed. Finished compost looks like black or dark brown soil. It's usually tilled or dug into the soil (or used as a layer in lasagna gardening) in order to add nutrients to the dirt.

When is used as mulch, it may help block sunlight from weed seeds, but it doesn't do a very good job of retaining moisture in the soil. Also, just tossing compost on top of the soil, without working it in or covering it with some other type of mulch, means much of the nutrients in the compost aren't readily available to plants.

How to Mulch

Lay down your choice of mulch (I recommend organic mulch, since it feeds the soil and attracts worms who aerate the soil...and who poop, adding excellent nutrients to the soil) around plants, or on any bare soil. The mulch should not touch plant stems, or the stems become susceptible to rot and disease. The thicker the layer of mulch, the more it helps retain water and prevent weeds.

Sometimes mulch is also used to protect plants that are being overwintered. For example, in many places in the U.S., you can keep carrots, parsnips, and beets in the soil over winter. If you get snow, it's best to cover the crop with a thick layer of straw or other mulch - at least seven inches of it. The tops of the root crops will die, but the mulch prevents the edible root from going bad.

How to Compost

In essence, toss fruit and vegetable scraps, thin layers of grass clippings, thin layers of shredded grass, weeds (that haven't gone to seed), and paper products (large ones shredded) into a pile. Everything will decompose and turn into compost.

For details on the fastest ways to get compost, please read my post "Composting the Easy, Cheap Way."

Mar 28, 2015

Weekend Links

Is it Saturday already? Here I go again, sharing highlights from this blog's Facebook page.

* I hate to start with something so serious, but this is a MUST READ for every American. At first, I thought it couldn't be true. It sounds too much like something out of a dystopian novel...But this is real life. The Feds want to make adult vaccinations mandatory. Even those of us who are not anti-vaccination need to be really concerned about this. This is The United States of America...and the government can't force us to get shots.

* If you didn't winter sow your veggies, be sure to use this handy dandy Excel file to easily calculate when you should start your seeds. (Not sure what your frost dates are? Check here.)

* We don't often eat rice (because it's fairly high on the glycemic index), but here's an easy, healthy way scientists say you can cut rice's calories.

* "As Beef Cattle Become Behemoths, Who Are Animal Scientists Serving?"

* 90% of our cheese has GMO ingredients? Sigh. Yet another reason to learn to make cheese.

* Check out Stacy Makes Cent's If You Don't Work, You Don't Eat. Why did I never think of this simple idea for kids' chore charts??

* "What I Tell My Daughters about Modesty" 

* QUICK TIP: Pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, and marinara are all quite interchangeable. We never buy (expensive) pizza sauce anymore. I just stock lots of spaghetti sauce. Even you make your sauces from scratch, consider making life easier by choosing just one type to can or freeze.


Mar 27, 2015

Free Art History Curriculum: Georgia O'Keeffe

One of O'Keeffe's famous paintings is "Oriental Poppies."
Georgia O'Keeffe: b. November 15, 1887 near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (find it on the map) d. March 6, 1986 in Santa Fey, New Mexico (find it on the map)

Style: American modernism

See some of O'Keeffe's most famous paintings.

Be sure to give your child plenty of time to study each work of art. Ask: What were some of O'Keeffe's favorite things to paint? She is best known for her paintings of flowers, but what else did she paint? How is O'Keeffe's work similar to other artists we've studied? How is her work different? How did O'Keeffe use color? Shapes? Shading? Did she like to see things upclose or from far away?

* Biography of O'Keeffe
* Fun Facts about O'Keeffe
* National Gallery of Art's .PDF on Georgia O'Keeffe
* Coloring pages of miscellaneous O'Keeffe paintings  (more here)
* Coloring page: "Lawrence Tree"
* Video: "My Name is Georgia" (picture book read aloud)
* Activity: Flowers in the style of O'Keeffe (see also)
* Activity: Use color like O'Keeffe
* Activity: 3D Poppies inspired by O'Keeffe
* Activity: Use a viewfinder to create an O'Keeffe inspired piece of artwork
* Activity: How to draw a Calla Lily
* More tips for creating O'Keeffe inspired art

Learn more about this free art history curriculum for kids, plus a list of all artists covered so far, by clicking here.

Mar 25, 2015

Organic Gardening Isn't Just About Ditching Chemicals

More and more people are interested in growing food without chemicals. But true organic growing is much more than just avoiding chemicals - something that seems strange and new to many home gardeners (and even to many farmers).

Commercially Grown Organic

The organic produce you find in grocery stores - and from some farmer's markets - is more like conventionally grown food than truly organic food. As I've written before, certified organic produce may be sprayed with synthetic sprays; the USDA rules allow this under certain circumstances, and some organic farmers do it on the sly, while others are seemingly unaware that their plants were sprayed per-field.

More often, though, commercial organic fields are sprayed with natural ingredient sprays. Automatically. Whether the plants need them or not. And now it's coming to light that these sprays mostly haven't been tested for human safety. Some that have, it turns out, are harmful to humans. (Here's an example. Remember, natural doesn't mean safe. There are plenty of things that are natural that can make you sick or even kill you.) In addition, much of this organic produce is grown in other ways similar to convention produce, with little thought about the most important aspects of organic gardening.


"More than anything else, organic gardening is about building up the soil so it grows healthy plants strong enough to ward off insects and disease."

The True Organic Garden

The true organic garden, however, is much different. More than anything else, organic gardening is about building up the soil so it grows healthy plants strong enough to ward off insects and disease. How is this achieved? By loading the soil with organic matter.

Some organic gardeners dig into the soil, turning it over or tilling it in preparation for planting. These gardeners also dig in aged manure and/or compost to feed the soil and replenish it from previous plantings. Once the plants are several inches high, good organic gardeners add more organic matter to the top of the soil. They might sprinkle aged manure around, or lay down an organic mulch, like straw, that will hold in moisture, keep down weeds, and slowly decompose, further feeding the soil

For those who choose a "no dig" method - meaning they don't dig into the soil, except to make a hole for a plant - the key is to layer organic matter on top of the existing soil. Lasagna gardening (also called sheet mulching) is a great example of this. Layers of anything that's organic and that will decompose and feed the soil - like straw, bits of vegetables and fruits from the kitchen, grass clippings, and shredded black and white newspaper - are piled onto the soil. This creates a rich bed for planting.

With either method - the dig or the no-dig - the soil is constantly receiving nutrients in the form of decaying matter. (Just like in nature, where tree leaves and other organic matter are always falling to the soil and decomposing there.) This not only enriches the soil and encourages beneficial microbes and worms, but it, in turn, fertilizes or feeds the plants growing in that soil.

What About Disease and Pests?

Some argue that if you rotate crops and use the organic methods mentioned above, you'll never have pest or disease problems. This simply isn't true - although organic practices will decrease the likelihood of pest and disease in the garden.

The best organic gardeners take a daily stroll through their garden so they can catch pest and disease problems early - when they are easiest to control. Many pests can be hand picked off plants. Home gardeners can also use things like milk and other natural, completely harmless ingredients, for warding off disease, as well as simple pesticides like ordinary soap.

Is Fertilizer Necessary?

Because the focus of organic gardening is to feed to soil, fertilizer often isn't necessary. However, if your soil hasn't had much chance to build up good nutrients, or if you're growing heavy feeders like tomatoes, spinach, or celery, you will probably want to use fertilizer. But you don't need to go out and buy commercially prepared "organic" fertilizer. Instead, try to use certain types of animal manure, compost tea, comfrey, and other ingredients I discuss here.

Organic Home Grown is Better

I think you can now see why home grown organic food is so far superior to anything you can buy in a grocery store. When you buy supermarket produce, you simply don't know what you're getting. And once you've tasted fresh from the garden vegetables and fruits, it's tough to go back to store bought.

Happily, organic gardening isn't difficult, but it is a different mind-set from conventional vegetable and fruit gardening - one that is much closer to nature.

Mar 23, 2015

15 Bean Stew Recipe - With or Without the Crock Pot

15 Bean Soup is a classic that's inexpensive, filling, and tasty. But when you want to up your ante, 15 Bean Stew is what you really need to cook. It's so much more tasty!

This recipe is based on one I found over at 365 Days of Slow Cooking. My version has slightly different ingredients and I actually prefer to make it on the stove top. But you definitely can make it in a crock pot - and I've included instructions for doing so at the bottom of this post.

15 Bean Stew Recipe

1 (20 oz) package of 15 Bean Soup (you'll find it in the dried beans aisle)
2 tablespoons dried minced onion (or 1 onion, diced)
1 tablespoon dried garlic (or 3 garlic cloves, minced)
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoon chili powder
1 (6 oz.) can of tomato paste
1 (14.5 oz.) can diced tomatoes
Juice from one lemon (or 2 - 3 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice; fresh tastes better!)
1 lb. sausage

1. The day before you want to serve the stew, open the package of beans and set aside the flavor packet for later. Pour the beans into a pot and cover with 8 cups of water. Allow to stand overnight.

2. The next morning, drain the beans and return them to the pot. Add 8 cups of fresh water, the onion, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, and chili powder. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 2 hours, or until beans are tender.

3. Add the 15 Bean Soup seasoning packet*, tomato paste, tomatoes, and juice. Season with a little salt and pepper. Place over low heat.

4. In the meantime, cook up the sausage in a separate pan. I like to crumble it (like ground beef), but if you prefer to slice and brown it, that's fine, too. Once cooked through, strain off the fat and add the meat to the stew. Cover the stew pot and continue to cook on low.

5. Allow the pot to just barely simmer for about 2 hours. The longer it sits in the pot, the better it will taste. In fact, sometimes after barely simmering for a few hours, I put the whole pot in the refrigerator, reheat the following afternoon, and serve that night. This is when the flavor is at it's best!  

Crock Pot 15 Bean Stew Recipe

There are a couple of reasons I prefer to make this stew on the stove top. One is that this recipe overfills my crock pot, making some of the liquid sputter out while cooking. Those of you with larger crock pots won't have this difficulty. Also, this recipe takes quite a while to cook in a crock pot; for me, it's not practical, unless I soak the beans one night, cook the beans in the crock pot the next day, refrigerate them, then finish the stew in the crock pot the following day. Finally, I prefer to cook the sausage in a separate pan because this allows me to drain off the fat before adding the sausage to the stew.

1. The day before you want to serve the stew, open the package of beans and set aside the flavor packet for later use. Pour the beans into a pot and cover with 8 cups of water. Allow to stand overnight.

2. The next morning, drain the beans. Pour them into the crock pot and add 8 cups of fresh water. Add the onion, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, and chili powder. Cover. Cook on Low for 12 - 14 hours, or on High for 8 hours, or until beans are tender.

3. Add the 15 Bean Soup seasoning packet*, tomato paste, tomatoes, juice, sausage, and some salt and pepper. Cook on high for 30 - 60 minutes, or until the sausage is heated through.

* Yep, I know this seasoning mix has non-whole food ingredients. Anyone got a from-scratch equivalent?

Mar 21, 2015

Weekend Links

In which in which I offer highlights from this blog's Facebook page.

* How to Parent Like a German. Lots of studies support these simple, historically embraced ideas, so why are Americans stuck going the opposite direction?

* In case you haven't heard, Kraft has recalled 242,000 cases of macaroni and cheese.

* Please read ingredient lists on food, or you'll be stuck thinking processed, fake cheese is "health food."

* Here's an article every person on the planet should read: A former GMO food scientist explains the problems with GMOs - and the problems scientists face (but shouldn't!) when they speak out against it.

* I've been saying for years that grocery store - and sometimes even farmer's market - organic isn't all it's cracked up to be. Now it's coming to light that the natural sprays frequently used on organic produce may be harmful to human health. Don't Waste the Crumbs explains more stuff that will make you weep.

* There's a huge drought going on in California that's really not being well reported. I'm a native of that state, so I can tell you that California tends to have droughts now and then; this is really nothing new. But about half our produce (conservatively) comes from California - and many fields are currently bare because there's just not enough water to plant them. Yep, this is a great year to start a garden - or expand the one you already have!

* A lot of people are fed up with Facebook not showing all the posts they signed up for, so I just joined Tsu (pronounced "sue"). It allows users to see ALL the posts they want to...and it even pays you for posting. Check it out: https://www.tsu.co/ProverbsThirtyOneWoman

* Do you know what the most germ infested thing is in your kitchen? Happily, it's an easy fix. Just wash it more often!

Mar 20, 2015

Avoiding GMO Seeds & Finding Organic Seeds

A few days ago, a local gardener came to me with questions: "How do I avoid GMO seeds? Are all seeds organic? Do I have to buy seed potatoes or can I just use grocery store potatoes? I'm so confused!" These are all great questions - so let's take them one by one.

How Do I Avoid GMO Seeds?

Currently, GMO (genetically modified) seeds are not sold directly to home gardeners.  So the packets of seeds you see everywhere at this time of year are all GMO-free. (Farmer's who wish to grow GMO crops must purchase them in bulk from special outlets.)

However, if you are growing wheat or corn, you may wish to take some extra precautions; there's evidence that farmer-grown GMO wheat and corn have cross-pollinated (mated with) non-GMO varieties.

GMO wheat has mysteriously been found growing in Oregon. GMO wheat has not been approved by the government and should only be growing in labs - but if it's growing in Oregon, it's likely it's growing elsewhere, too.

As for corn, Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, claims that "over fifty percent of the heirloom corn varieties we have tested appear to be contaminated with GMO crops." I have not seen anyone else make a similar claim, but I'm also not aware of any other seed source that tests its seed for GMO contamination. Baker Creek makes it a point to only sell corn seed that has tested GMO-free.

So if avoiding GMOs is important to you, buy your corn and wheat seed from Baker Creek. Personally, I also wouldn't save my own corn seed, since it could easily cross-pollinate with a farmer's GMO seed, even if its growing miles away.

In addition, Monsanto, the giant corporation that's created most GMO seed, has bought up many seed sources and is patenting the names of many heirloom varieties. If you wish to avoid lining their pockets, you'll want to buy your seed elsewhere. Here's a list of a few companies not affiliated with Monsanto.

Are All Seeds Organic?

No. Most seed is grown on plants that are sprayed with chemicals. How much of that chemical enters the seed, we don't really know. How much the chemicals in the seed transfer to our soil, or to the vegetable or fruit the seed produces, we don't know - although the amounts must be very, very tiny.

That said, for those who are hard-core organic, organically grown seed is available. Bear in mind, they, too, have likely been sprayed with chemicals - it's just that those chemicals are made from natural ingredients (which is not the same as saying they aren't harmful to humans). One good source of organic seed is Territorial Seed Company. (Not all of their seed is organic, so be sure to pay attention to whether or not Territorial gives it that label.)

Do I Have to Buy Seed Potatoes or Can I Just Use Grocery Store Potatoes? 

You can grow potatoes from grocery store potatoes - but it's not a good idea. Grocery store potatoes are one of the foods most laden with pesticides. And both conventionally grown and organic grocery store potatoes are sprayed with chemical inhibitors that delay or prevent stems from popping up and creating a healthy new plant. Conventionally grown grocery store potatoes are sprayed with synthetic or natural inhibitors, and organic potatoes are sprayed with natural (but again, not necessarily unharmful) inhibitors.

So if you plant grocery store potatoes, they are going to grow more slowly and not be as prolific as if you'd planted seed potatoes, meant for growing in the garden.

Seed potatoes, by the way, aren't seeds. They are small potatoes with lots of eyes on them. (Potato eyes are the bumps or divits where stems eventually sprout.) Unless the seed potatoes you buy are marked "organic," they are grown conventionally, with synthetic chemicals.

Do you have more questions about seeds? Email me! Or, read "How to Buy Vegetable Seeds" and my free ebook Starting Seeds.