Garden 2022 Wrap-Up

I’ve been working on putting the garden to bed for a few weeks now. With this weekend’s frost, even the monster squash plant that was threatening to vault the fence and eat the house has died back a bit, so it’s more than time. I’m also thrilled that I can see my kitchen table again, out from under the piles of produce waiting to be dried, canned, or otherwise dealt-with.

As the annual vegetable garden winds down, I’m remembering that I had some longer-term garden goals this year, and I’m delighted to find that they chugged along without much attention since I put them in motion this spring.

The first was All The Alliums. I think I’m giving up on bulb onions; they never do well for me, and last year I discovered that I can dry scallions en masse and we will happily use those in most recipes I’d ordinarily start with a chopped onion. And by scallions, I mean the gigantic green onions as big as my thumb and 2-3′ tall that the garden seems happy to throw my way effortlessly. And which also divide themselves readily and seemingly endlessly. And they are supposedly great for orchards, too, befuddling pests and feeding pollinators. So many wins! So this spring, I started three different kinds from seed. I think one of those died entirely, and I don’t really remember which two made it, but they grew quite well. I haven’t harvested them yet, except an individual here and there, but there are probably a couple dozen. I’ll clip them close to the ground and they should resprout and probably divide in the spring. Then I’ll start planting them out and about the garden and orchard.

Three-foot long scallions, thicker than my thumb!

The other allium-of-my-heart is Sacred Forest Garlic. I confess, I originally bought it for the name. But it turns out it is a phenomenal plant: a garlic-like bulb, a leek-like stem, and the flavor of wild ramps. It is divine. I have been working for several years now to propagate it out. It’s been slow going, waiting for the bulb to divide like garlic, but it made a big leap forward this year because two bulbs set seed in 2021. I sprouted those and got maybe 15-20 viable plants this year. Between those and the divided bulbs of the older plants, I’ve now got enough plants that I’ve lost count of how many individuals I have! It’s probably around 3 dozen or so. The only problem is I’ve also got a ton of regular garlic this year, and it might be hard to tell them apart visually. Aroma should help. Oh, and garlic scapes curl, so that will also differentiate. I did harvest enough to make herbes salees with a couple stalks, and it’s really amazing. Just fresh green Sacred Forest Garlic and salt pulverized together in the blender and used to flavor soup stock and the like. Really, really tasty.

The other fun fall surprise is that my winecap mushroom beds finally fruited! Winecaps grow on woodchips, and all my garden paths are covered in woodchips. And mushroom mycelium is good for soil fertility, so it seemed worth a shot. Turns out, winecap mushrooms are my new favorite fungus! Super tasty – I know a lot of mushrooms get called “meaty” but these really live up to the descriptor. I’ve eaten a bunch just sautéed and also dried quite a few. It’s getting cold, so I’m not sure how many more I’ll get, but I’ve harvested about 3 lb so far.

The orchard has had a rough start. Two fruit trees died outright, and I’m not sure why. Pretty much all the tiny plum trees (5/6) never really got started, though the bigger plums are doing OK. Then we had a storm and a giant hickory tree fell on the orchard. It sheared the limbs off 2/4 espaliered apples and knocked down the fence…so the deer came in and ate the leaves off 2 apples and 3/4 hazelnuts. I have some hope they can come back…time will tell. But most of the willow rooted well, the plums are OK, and I added two nannyberries. The hickory tree is on its way to being firewood, and the fence is back up. I still want to fence the individual trees before winter, just in case. So, the orchard is starting to get its feet under it. We’ll see how it goes.

Other milestones:

  • Next spring will be the 3rd year for the asparagus, so we get to start eating it!
  • I had a monarch caterpillar on the milkweed, oodles of hoverflies on the tulsi, and parasitic wasps on a tomato hornworm
  • I learned I can, in fact, grow meaningful quantities of tomatoes…but maybe not peppers

The “I Don’t Have Time to Garden” Garden

Part of my series of pre-planned gardens:

If you’re feeling the need to be growing some of your own food, but aren’t sure you will have enough time to tend a fussy garden, here are some suggestions of what to grow. These don’t take a lot of tending, don’t have a lot of pest problems, and it doesn’t much matter if you harvest them regularly. Cooking and storing of most of these are really easy, too.

  • Potatoes. Plant, water well, and cover with about 9″ of straw. If you get regular rain, you might not need to even water these. Harvest potatoes starting a few weeks after they flower through frost. You’ll get “baby potatoes” at first and end up with ones you can store in a bucket of peat moss in the garage well into the winter. Sweet potatoes are another decent option, though they like more heat and better soil.
  • Butternut squash. Plant on the edge of a bed and let them run out into the yard. Harvest when small and green and eat them like zucchini. As they get bigger, you might need to peel/seed them, but you can still eat them like summer squash. Let some get big and fully ripe. Harvest when the stem is brown and let them cure in a warm place indoors for a couple weeks – then they’ll keep in a cool spot, like a basement, until spring. Butternuts resist squash borers better than most squash and keep the longest.
  • Pole beans. Eat them young as green beans. If they get too tough, let them dry and eat them like dry beans or save them to plant next year.
  • Swiss chard. Grows from early spring through fall, even after some frost. Not bothered by cabbage moths. Regrows like crazy – the more you pick, the more it grows. But, if you don’t harvest it for a few weeks, it won’t go to seed or become unusable, either. If you prefer kale, get a curly variety, which tends to resist cabbage moths better. Green glaze collards are also amazing – tender and less attractive to cabbage moths.
  • Chives. Will come up every year. Use for oniony flavor instead of onions or scallions (add toward the end of cooking). Flowers are edible. Once the blooms start getting papery, cut the whole clump off about 3″ tall to get rid of the woody stems quickly. It’ll regrow in a couple of weeks.
  • Onions. Get onion sets (tiny bulbs) or plants (the size of a pencil). Harvest at any stage, from green onions to fresh knob onions to dry bulb onions.
  • Tomatoes. One cherry tomato plant will keep you in sweet salad fruit for the entire summer. If you want a couple slicing tomatoes every week, get one or two “indeterminate” plants. If you want a pile of tomatoes more or less all at once for canning, get “determinate” plants. Since I don’t really eat fresh tomatoes, I usually prefer to buy half a bushel of tomatoes at the market on the day I’m canning rather than dealing with tomato plants all summer.
  • Garlic. In the fall, shove some garlic cloves in the ground and mulch. Harvest next summer all at once.
  • Spinach. When you plant the garlic, also plant some spinach seed. It’ll be the first greens you harvest next year.

Falling in Love With Plums

Grocery store plums have never excited me. But you know…neither have grocery store tomatoes. I’m starting to see it’s all about the variety and how you eat them.

My love affair starts on the tree. How gorgeous are these? They look like jewels. I almost can’t believe they are a plant.

Black-purple plums with a silver bloom crowding the branches of their tree.
Empress plums on the tree. Photo courtesy of Lesser Farms and Orchard.

The orchard around the corner from me (Lesser Farms and Orchard) has two kinds of plums every fall: the old standard Stanley plums and Empress plums. Both are “European” or “prune” style plums, as distinct from the rounder “Japanese” style plums, which is what you’re most likely to find in the store. Both are oval, black-purple on the outside, and yellow bleeding to red on the inside. The Empress are twice the size of the Stanleys and at least twice as juicy. They are also about 600% better tasting! (I’m pretty sure they grow the Stanleys just to pollinate the Empress plums.)

The flavor and texture of the Empresses change depending on ripeness. The first batch I got were still pretty hard and very tart. But as I let them ripen on the counter, they got softer, jucier, and sweeter. What I love about them is that the skins stay tart, which goes incredibly well with the super-sweet flesh. This sweet-tart combo stays after preservation, whether dried, sauced, or sliced and canned. Every time I eat these, I just marvel at how amazing they taste. It’s a party in my mouth. I probably ate 10 pounds of plums out of hand this year. But I probably bought 30 pounds, so let’s talk about how I preserved these.

Canned slices. I’ve done these in the past, and they almost fell apart in the syrup. They were good, but this year, I tried canning them when they were slightly under-ripe (more firm and tart). This worked much better. The plum-infused syrup is a delicious product in its own right…I’ll have to figure out what to do with that! Adding a lot of gelatin and making “sugar plum gummies” seems like a good place to start…

Sauce. Just like you’d make apple sauce – cook them down, then puree. I just used a stick blender. I think I macerated them with a little sugar before cooking. The result is almost too intense to eat straight, so I mixed it 1:3 with homemade apple sauce. The result is out of this world.

Half-dried. I like prunes, and I figured these would make good ones. Wash, cut in half, remove pit, “pop the backs” (i.e., press your thumb into the round back and sorta turn the half inside out) and if needed, slash the tops so they lay flat. Put them in the dehydrator, skin side down, and then…magic happened. After about 4 hours, they were warm throughout, starting to dry on top and caramelize on the thin edges, and had produced their own syrup in the “cup” of the skin. I had to exert a lot of self-control to not eat ten plums at one sitting. They were possibly the best food I’ve ever eaten. And there’s absolutely no way you could store them at that stage. If you visit me during plum season, and I have thought ahead to ripen the plums before you arrive, and if we can wait 4 hours for dessert, I will make them for you. And that will show you just how much I love you. If I only really, really like you, or the timing is wrong, I may share with you the stored version, which is dried around 10 hours and which I keep in the fridge or freezer because they are too sticky to be shelf-stable.

/
These were by far the best ways I preserved them. I’ve also made various kinds of savory sauces, and I tried trying the Stanleys until they were shelf-stable dry. The grilling sauce was pretty good, as was adding plums to green tomato chutney, but the dried Stanleys are not good out of hand. I’ll have to stew them like Nannie did…and even then, they won’t be amazing because the Stanleys don’t have that tartness that makes the Empresses so flavorful.

I’ve only seen Empress plums at one place besides Lesser’s farm – Hale Groves will send you 5 lbs (12 plums!) for $36 plus shipping. Or, you can stop by Lesser’s in early October and get a bushel (~50lb) for that price, and no shipping fee. Unless I’ve bought them all first!

Plum prices at Lesser Farms
I’m so lucky to be able to get amazing fruit at these prices.

Dried Onion Comparison

I dehydrated two kinds of onions this year, and I’m pleasantly surprised with the results!

Two half-gallon mason jars of dried green onions and a pint of dried chopped yellow onions
The final haul: a gallon of green and a pint of yellow onions
Close-up of dehydrated yellow onions.
The yellow onions were slightly chewy and sweet

This summer, I diced several large onions (I forget if they were yellow or white) and dehydrated them. I’m forgetting the details; I think it was three huge onions (about 3 pounds) and it filled 6 dehydrator trays, which dried down to a pint of dried diced onions. These are fine; they are fairly equivalent to the dried onions you get in the spice aisle of the grocery store. They’re a little bigger, chewier, and more flavorful (sweeter). Since I paid for the onions, this was not a huge cost savings. I’m not sure I’d do them again.

This fall, I harvested all the scallions in my garden just before the first snow. It was an ENORMOUS pile of onions, and I used the whole thing from stem to about 2″ above the root ends. I replanted the roots (or just left them in place in the garden) so those should all come back next year with no fuss. IIRC these were Nabechan scallions, but they could be Welsh Onions or another variety. I’ve planted several kinds but didn’t keep track of what survived. These have been pumping out onions for years and I rarely remember to use them. They grow about 30″ tall from root to tip and are about as big around as my thumb.

About 20 cups of sliced fresh green onions in a clear glass bowl.
I don’t actually know how big this bowl is. 20 cups, maybe? Pint glass and quart jar for scale.

Because these are so light, I just piled them onto trays. I think they took about 8 hours all told, stirring a couple times. The giant bowl (20 cups?) didn’t shrink much because of the shape of the “scallion rings,” and I ended up with two half-gallon mason jars of dried green onions.

These are actually much more aromatic than the white ones! And they add a very nice pop of green to dull winter meals. So far, I’ve used them in soup, rice pilaf, and some one-pan dishes. They are obviously not as good as fresh, but they are way better than any other dried onion product I’ve used. On weeknights, my decision is often “fuss with an onion vs. skip onion altogether,” so at least this makes adding onion easy.

Best of all, scallions grow robustly, overwinter for years on end, divide themselves readily, and produce vastly more than any bulb onion I’ve every tried to grow, yielding piles of free alliums that I can now use all winter! This is a total win – I’ll definitely be doing these again.

Non-Dairy Block Cheese – Improved Recipe

Soy-based cheese
Non-dairy cheese made with soy milk and coconut oil

Skye Michael Conroy is a vegan food scientist who analyzed what it is about cheese that tastes good and makes us happy, then did a ton of experimentation until settling on a group of recipes and a method for making soy- and almond-based cheeses (and some cashew-based ones, too). I highly recommend buying The Non-Dairy Evolution Cookbook for the full set of recipes, and to credit a very hardworking author who spent a LOT of time figuring out how to make nondairy cheeses taste good. (Note that though the recipe itself is not subject to copyright, I still encourage you to support the originator of these recipes.)

I like these cheeses and make them regularly. They are cheaper than store bought, taste good, and melt well in the microwave (not so much in the oven, though). My only quibble with the cookbook is the methods – which seem far too complicated – and the way the recipes are written out. For example, the vinegar is listed at the beginning of the recipe, but is added at the last step. Also, most of the block cheeses follow the same basic pattern, but they are spread out over a dozen or more pages. Also, her recipes make just a bit more than 2 cups, and all my glass containers hold 2 cups max.

So, for my own use, I rewrote the ingredient list and instructions like this:

 QtyJackBrieMozzarella
Soy milkCup111
Tapioca flour/starchTbl333
Kappa carageenanTsp.313
SaltTsp.10.751
Nutr. yeastTbl.1.50.750
Mellow white misoTbl.00.750
Coconut oil (refined)Cup0.51/30.5
Lemon juiceTsp.0.7502.25
VinegarTsp.1.51.50
  1. Add tapioca and carageenan to pan of cold soymilk. Heat and whisk until dissolved.
  2. Add salt, yeast, and miso. (Thin miso with 1 Tbl. soy milk first.)
  3. Add melted coconut oil. It will be very separated at first.
  4. Heat and stir until temp reaches 175F or pulls away from sides.
  5. Add lemon juice and/or vinegar. Stir briskly – you might need to switch to a rubber spatula.
  6. Immediately pour into 2c mold and chill.

Notes:

  • Make sure your soy milk is made from just soy beans and water. Eden brand (unsweetened) is great; so is homemade. I’ve not tried it with other non-dairy milks and am not sure it would work – let me know if it works for you.
  • Use kappa carageenan, available online. There are other types; be sure you use kappa type.
  • Tapioca flour and tapioca starch are the same thing.
  • You can add 1/4 tsp brewer’s gypsum to add some calcium.

Zucchini Relish

Ingredients

Mason jar half full of shredded zucchini, onions, and peppers in vinegar brine.

To make about a quart for fresh eating:

  • 4 cups of shredded zucchini
  • 1 large onion, shredded
  • 1 red bell pepper, shredded
  • 1.5 Tbl salt
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1.5 c. vinegar – I usually do half white vinegar and half red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar

Method:

Put all the shredded vegetables in a non-reactive bowl and sprinkle with salt. Mix thoroughly. Let stand about an hour to draw out the moisture. Drain, rinse, and drain again, pressing out the moisture. This is an important step – it keeps the relish crisp.

Mix the vinegar(s) and sugar and mix until the sugar dissolves. Pack the vegetables into a large jar and cover with the brine. Store in the fridge. Tastes best after it marinates overnight.

Optional: Canning

This recipe can be canned in a water bath. To preserve the best texture, I recommend cooking the veg as little as possible.

  • Heat the vinegar and sugar to boiling.
  • Drop in the vegetables and return to the boil.
  • Pack immediately into hot jars.
  • Process in a steam canner (atmospheric, not pressure) for 10 minutes.

This recipe riffs off relishes from the Ball Blue Book and the Joy of Pickling, but uses a lot less sugar. It’s very tangy and savory.

Using zucchini relish

This might be the most important part, because unless you are a vinegar fiend (like the person I married), this is too tart to eat straight. Here’s how we use it:

  • Mix with equal parts shredded beets, carrots, and cabbage for an amazing vinegar slaw. Even just plain cabbage would be great. This is probably our favorite “salad,” and it can be made all winter long with canned relish and root cellar veggies.
  • Mix a few heaping tablespoons with a can of tuna (drained), a cup of thawed cauliflower rice, and mayo to taste.
  • Drain about 2 cups of relish and add 1/4-1/2 tsp baking soda. When it stops foaming, it should be only mildly tangy. Add a bit of olive oil, prepared artichoke bruschetta, olives, and/or capers and use as pizza topping.
  • Add to rice-and-meat pan dishes like Sausage, Greens, and Rice.
  • Use instead of sauerkraut.

Growing Greens Indoors

Indoor greens: I think I’ve finally figured out to do it (at my house, anyway)

I’ve puttered around trying to grow things indoors over the winter for years, but I’ve only managed “worth-it” harvests in the last 12 months or so. This could get long…but here’s what I can now harvest about once a week or ten days:

TL; DR – What do you recommend?

I suggest you get two, 2′ wide three-bulb light setups, each with an 8.5 gallon underbed tote underneath. Fill the tote about 6″ deep with the best potting soil you can afford. Sow thickly with a mix of brassica greens (kale, mustard, red cabbage, tatsoi). After about a month, you can harvest by the handful with scissors, leaving the stalks to regrow. They’ll be ready to harvest again in about 10 days. If you plan it right, you can harvest each tub every ten days for a continuous harvest. Each time you harvest, fertilize with your choice of fertilizer.

The long version: What worked

I finally figured out that all of these things are absolutely necessary to grow meaningful food indoors.

  • Growing the right things
  • Lots of light
  • Deep soil
  • Fertilizer

What to grow indoors

For me, it’s all greens. Microgreens (grown just until they have their seed leaves), baby greens (a few true leaves), full-sized lettuce, and some almost full-sized chard and kale. I’ve given up growing anything that fruits or sets a large root (like carrots) – they just need more light and space than I can give them. Those things also would produce a fraction of the food per square foot compared to greens. For my mini-greens setup, it takes them about a month to come to size – then I can harvest about half a pound a week per 2’x1.5′ box. Cut-and-come-again, they just keep cranking out leaves until the soil fertility runs out. Good varieties:

  • Kale
  • Tatsoi
  • Mustard greens
  • Lettuce
  • Red cabbage
  • Collards
  • Chard and beets (takes longer)
  • Spinach (takes much longer)
  • Cilantro

You can go nuts over at Johnny’s Seeds microgreens area (definitely try the Mild Micro Mix), or you can just dump all your old seeds into a jar and spread the seeds thickly. Also check your local feed store for seeds sold by the ounce. You can usually get most of the things on the list above for a dollar or two per ounce. Just don’t buy by the standard garden packet or you’ll go broke.

How much seed do you need? Hmm…maybe a tablespoon of seed per square foot? I confess, I have a hard time restraining myself on these seeds so I don’t really measure. I also use more seed for microgreens and less if I’m letting the plants get a little bigger. But I can say I’ve bought maybe 8 ounces of seed over the last couple years and I haven’t run out yet.

Lots of light

I have a sunroom with a wall of windows on the south side of my house that is designed to capture sun in the winter and shade from the sun in the summer. I’d been assuming that once the leaves fell, this would get enough light to grow things. This year I realized that’s not really true, especially when it’s cloudy. And it’s Michigan, so it’s cloudy a lot in the winter. I’ve tried both T5 fluorescent setups and a couple kinds of LEDs. What seems to matter the most is not the kind of bulb, but the number of bulbs and the kind of fixture they are in.

This two-tier cart setup (plus a similar one-tier version; 24″ wide and 2 bulbs per fixture) from Gardener’s Supply has been my workhorse for years now. I bought it to start seedlings, but now I use it year-round for microgreens, mini greens, and full-sized lettuce. In addition to great bulbs and reflectors, it has a wicking mat setup that the THE BEST for keeping things watered perfectly from beneath. It’s the only “self-watering” setup I’ve ever owned that has actually worked. I pour about a gallon of water into the tray once a week, and everything stays really, really happy.

This Agrobrite T5 (24″, 4 bulbs) with great built-in reflection is probably the best light I own. (Shop around; prices vary a lot). Greens absolutely thrive under this light. It uses the same bulbs as the fixtures above, so I only have to keep one kind of replacement bulb on hand. Bulbs last a couple years, but not “10,000 hours” as advertised.

The Agrobrite has an amazingly reflective fixture. This planter is close to 20 years old but you can still find find similar things.
Monios T8 LEDs. There are many brands of this style light; I don’t see much difference among them.

I’ve started adding in much cheaper LED lights (Monios T8 LEDs, both 2′ and 4′ in full-spectrum and cool 6500K versions). These are very convenient and modular. You can hang them horizontally or vertically; you can screw their clips into wood or use the attached hooks; you can daisy-chain them in lots of configurations. They are sufficient as supplemental light, or as primary lights if you put them close enough together (like, 6″ apart).

Whatever you buy, BE SURE it includes reflectors. Having some sort of reflection increases their light output by at least 5x (as measured by my light meter phone app – “Korona”). Since mine didn’t come with reflectors, I’ve been improvising with aluminum foil, aluminum flashing, and mylar reflective sheeting. It’s more expensive and uglier, but it really helps. The really wild thing is that I learned this reflection setup (below) actually reflects more sunlight around to the back of this vertical planter than the LED lights produce. Mind. Blown.

Greenstalk planter, Monios T8 LED lights, Mylar reflective sheeting, and curved wire trellis. The Mylar reflects more light (sun coming through the windows) than the LEDs produce!

Deep Dirt

Unless you are growing microgreens, you really need a lot of dirt to grow food in pots. One head of lettuce needs a pot at least 4″x4″x6″. I really like growing lettuce in clear plastic “shoe boxes” – two or three heads per box. Three boxes fix perfectly under a 2′ grow light. I’ve also just discovered, thanks to my neighbor’s excellent discard pile, that these Hefty 8.5 gallon under-bed boxes are absolutely perfect for growing baby greens. Again, they fit perfectly under the 2′ grow lights, and they are sturdy enough to move when full. I didn’t even drill drainage in these – I can see the water level and not over-water them. And at about $10 each, they are a steal compared to most flower pots. Whatever you get, make sure it’s at least 6″ deep.

Check out that root system!

I’ve also been trying the original Greenstalk vertical planter. There are lots of planters in this stackable style; I picked this one because it holds a whole cubic foot of dirt per tier. You really want that root space. They have a new version called the “Leaf,” which has shallower tiers. This might work for indoor greens just fine. If you get one, definitely get the “mover” wheeled base – you are going to want to rotate this frequently. I had mixed luck with it over the summer, but I think I had too little light and was trying to grow the wrong things – beans and carrots, which didn’t take off as I’d hoped. I’m trying it this fall with kale, tatsoi, lettuce, and chard; we’ll see how it does now that I have lights added to the setup.

What else? Random planters I originally bought for outdoor use, each of which holds maybe 3 cubic feet of soil. They all purport to be self-watering; that’s bunk. The rolling cedar ones I ended up lining with plastic (heavy-duty garbage bags) because they had huge gaps and they leaked when I watered them. But that’s working fine now, and I was able to set up a second tier underneath by suspending two of the LED lights from the bottom and putting a 13 gallon under-bed box on the floor. That bit is new, but it seems to be doing well.

I’ve rigged several LED lights around this setup: two 2′ lights hanging underneath and 4′ lights above and resting on the edge facing in toward the plants to balance the light from the window. The top lights use shower curtain clips on a curtain rod. Note the homemade reflectors.

I also have some random plant pots, window boxes, and such. My rule of thumb is “at least 6″ deep” or “at least 2 gallons.” One or two chard or kale plants can grow to full size in a 2-3 gallon pot.

Chard that I brought in from the garden at the end of the season. The yellow one is going into its second winter.

What kind of soil do you use o grow greens indoors? Something with good drainage and lots of fertility. I tend to go with bagged stuff rather than homemade compost to try to keep the bugs out of my house. Happy Frog is pricey, but good. You can mix your own, but the price ends up being about the same in the end. You’ll want to tend that soil well, because it’s your big recurring expense. To that end…

Yes, you actually need fertilizer

I’m so accustomed to how I handle soil fertility in the garden, it’s been a long time coming around to accepting that I need to buy something called fertilizer and use it regularly. When confined to pots, plants just eat up all the nutrients in soil really fast, and then they just…stop growing. They don’t die, but they don’t thrive, either.

Worm castings are good, but pretty low-powered. I bought some kind of organic granules at a hydroponic shop, but I’m wishing now I’d gotten liquid fertilizer (especially for the Greenstalk). But I have a big bag of it, so I just put it in a shaker bottle and shake some on and water it in each time I harvest greens. I’m not an expert on fertilizer, so I went by what the knowledgeable folks at the store said was good for growing leafies. When I take plants out (e.g., the lettuce goes bitter after about 3 pickings), I do a heavy rejuvenation of the soil by adding vitamins (worm castings and the powdered fertilizer) and minerals (green sand and/or bone meal). After 2-3 rounds, or if the soil seems to be tiring out, I dump it in my garden and start with fresh dirt. That’s really a pain (and expensive), so I’m trying to get better about rebuilding the indoor soil.

Wow, that sounds expensive

Um, yeah. You’re not going to save any money by growing greens indoors. You can cut corners on containers for sure, and on lights if you rig your own stands and reflectors. You might be able to come up with a cheaper way to do the soil, too. Microgreens need almost nothing in the way of soil and light, so start there if you’re looking to economize. I did my setup this way because this is my hobby, and looks were moderately important (most of my lights are in my living room most of the year), and I was willing to pay for that. I don’t expect to make my money back in cash saved at the grocery store – though I’m ramping up enough this year that may be a factor. And, with Covid, access could be an issue. But this setup pays me back in joy every day, and that ain’t nothing.

2020 Joy: CSA Share

As an avid gardener, I’ve never done a CSA share (community supported agriculture – basically you get a box of whatever’s in season on the farm, usually weekly). However, this fall, I decided to give Tantre Farm’s fall CSA a try. It was four weeks in October, right when I was pulling out the last of my garden crops. It also leans heavily to squash, potatoes, and other “good keepers,” so I thought this would be a good way to try a CSA – less pressure to eat everything within one week.

Gardening has played a huge part in keeping me sane through this incomprehensible year, and I’m missing more than just the vegetables. This share delivers on that, too. Each Saturday, I am giddy with anticipation to “play the vegetable lottery” and see what’s in store this week. It’s 2020. ANYTHING pleasant to look forward to is great for my soul.

So on Saturdays, I sleep as long as I’d like, get up and stretch, grab my mask, and head to the market. I grab my box o’veg, and usually one or two other things, too. The fall produce is astonishing. Not sure if it’s just a particularly good year, or if I’ve just never bothered with the market this late in the year but WOW. It’s like piles of edible jewels. I really have to restrain myself because once I grab that Tantre box, I have plenty of vegetables. I do often stop off at Agricole on the way home, though, and pick up some local meat to support the “soup” part of the week’s ritual.

Once I get home, the kitchen dance begins. First, all the cool storage veg (squash, potatoes, onions, garlic) get put away. I have a root cellar for cold storage and a cool basement for the squash and onions, so that’s easy to do. Then I kinda spread everything out all over the kitchen. Trim the carrots off their tops, wash, and put in the fridge. Rinse and fridge the peppers. Cut the radishes and salad turnips off their tops, wash the roots, and put the tops in to soak (they’re pretty sandy). Chop up a bunch of veg for raw eating through the week: radishes, carrots, peppers.

Then the cooking begins. I cook the bunch of kale, radish or turnip tops, and other cooking greens in a couple cups of water for about 5 minutes. This yields about 3-4 cups of cooked greens and a cup or two of mineral-rich “pot likker”. This stuff has changed my diet drastically. I’ve been eating cooked greens every day, and either adding the broth to soup, or just drinking it cold out of the greens container. I’d say I knock back about 1/4c at a time, and I can feel the minerals going straight to my bloodstream. Have you ever eaten something so nutritious that your cells sing? This stuff feels like magic. So, greens enough for the week.

The last two weeks, I’ve then started making stock. Last week was poultry, this week is mixed red meat. I keep a bag in the freezer with bones for stock (separated into “birds” and “not-birds”), and also leek tops and other misc veggie discards. I’ve made bone broth for a long time, but my experience with the kale cooking liquid has me convinced my broths need more vegetables. The hard thing is that brassicas (e.g., kale stems) and sweet veg like carrots and beets make broths that don’t taste right in most of my soups. So I’m still experimenting. Any alliums are great; small amounts of beets and carrots are OK; some carrot tops are OK, too. I make 6-7 quarts at a time, then can it, so now there are many meals’ worth of super-nutritious stock ready for soupmaking.

As that’s simmering, I have some lunch and flip through the Joy of Pickling, because each week, something pretty much begs to be pickled. This week is Middle Eastern Pink Turnip Pickles – like you get in your falafel sandwich. Last week was soy/ginger pickled radishes (mixed reviews), and the week before, a lactofermented kohlrabi curtido that I’m definitely doing again.

This week, I also baked a squash (and its seeds, separately) that I…ahem…found in the parking lot next to my car. I mean…if the market gods offer, who am I to decline? It was a little bruised, so I knew it wouldn’t keep, so into the toaster oven it went. And I think I’ve finally figured out how to roast pumpkin/squash seeds in a way that’s manageable and tasty. 1) Don’t wash off the goop – just scoop the seeds out with as little goop as possible, and spread on the pan. The strings that remain will cook to a crisp. 2) Salt well and bake them until they are threatening to burn. I did actually burn about half a batch, and that’s when I discovered I’d rather eat them burned than undercooked. And given that my sweetie loves them, and they serve the same snacking purpose as almonds ($10+/lb), it’s totally worth it to fuss with the seeds. Also means the only parts of the share we haven’t eaten in the four weeks is one totally unripe watermelon and 3.5 bunches of carrot tops.

Now I’ll take a couple hours off while the stock cooks, and then bottle that up. Minus actually canning, this has taken about three hours from pickup to dishes-washed. I don’t think I could do this in “normal” times, but right now, weekends are sort of daunting stretches of unplanned time. And when there’s nothing to do, I start doomscrolling, which isn’t good for anybody. I’m sure if I had plans (are we ever going to have those again?), this would just be way too much work – but right now, it’s one of my favorite things to do.

Cooking with Canned Salmon

Canned salmon has a lot going for it! Wild-caught Alaskan Salmon is…

  • high in protein, omega-3 fats, and calcium
  • low in mercury
  • sustainably harvested (gets a “good” rating from Seafood Watch)
  • shelf-stable and lasts 4+ years unopened
  • shipped sustainably (unrefrigerated cargo containers on trains/ships)
  • currently half the price of grass-fed ground beef per pound
  • tasty hot or cold (you can eat it like canned tuna)

It does have one drawback, however: it’s canned with the bones and skin (unless you get boneless/skinless, which is far more expensive, and shipped first to China to be deboned by people working in questionable work conditions, and then packaged and shipped back). So I wanted to share some tips that got me past the initial squick factor and into loving this fish.

First of all, know that after going through the canning process, the bones are very soft and totally edible. The long, thin bones are so fragile at that point that you don’t even notice them. The vertebrae are larger and more noticeable. The skin is very fragile and disintegrates when you stir it in. So here are some ways of coping with them all.

  • Expend a little effort and take out the biggest bones and the skin. If you empty the can onto a plate (drain the liquid off first), you should be able to get the majority of the skin and large bones out in a couple minutes.
  • Stir the salmon thoroughly. If you’re making salmon burgers, you’ll do this in the course of cooking, anyway.
  • Mix it with ingredients that have some “bite” to them, like diced carrots and onions. If you bite into something a little firm, it’s probably just a carrot, right?

Ready to cook with canned salmon? Here are some recipe ideas:

Do I need to buy a canner?

When crisis looms, a lot of us look to securing our food supply. I’m hearing a lot of people saying they want to get into canning these days, but are concerned about the cost of equipment, storage space, and availability of materials. And frankly, just buying “one more thing” for an endeavor that might not be lasting.

So this week, I’m bringing you information on “canning with found objects.” You may be able to can with equipment you already have on hand. This is water bath canning, suitable for jam, pickles, tomatoes, and some salsa recipes. Please don’t use this method for any low-acid foods like vegetables, meat, or beans.

Improvising a canner

First off, NO, you don’t need the classic black-with-white-speckles graniteware canner to do canning. Though if you decide to buy, it is probably the most straightforward and least expensive way to go. What you DO need:

A deep pot with a lid. It must be deep enough to hold your jars, a rack, an inch of water over the top of your jars, and at least an inch of space so it doesn’t boil over when it’s full.

Three canning jars in a large pot
This is an 8-qt soup pot. It’s fine for canning half-pints (small jar in top left) and definitely too small to can quart jars (top right). If I’m really careful, I could probably can pints (lower left) without overflowing the pot…but I’d be pushing my luck.

A rack, or “something to keep your jars from touching the bottom of the pot.” This is usually a metal rack, but I’ve had success with canning rings, silicone potholders, and even folded kitchen towels. Look around; there is likely something in your kitchen you can use. This is really important, because without something between the jars and the pot’s bottom, jars will break in the canner.

A jar lifter. Some people manage without them, but this is non-negotiable for me.

A ladle and canning funnel are not 100% required, but they make life a LOT easier.

Bonus: Canning instructions. There are newer books out there, but for straightforward and cheap, it’s hard to beat the Ball Blue Book ($10). It’s refreshed a bit every year, but as long as it was printed this millenium, the info is still good, so check for it used, too. The other definitive guide is the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, which is available as a PDF download.

Canning kits

So you’ve determined you don’t really have the tools you need. What’s the easiest way to get started? Sadly, most “canning starter kits” are drastically overpriced. I just saw the Ball starter kit selling for $150…absolutely ridiculous. Try this instead:

  • Check Freecycle, Facebook Marketplace, and Craigslist.com and just ask if anyone has equipment to give away or sell cheap.
  • Buy a 21-qt graniteware canner with rack. Check “farm and fleet” type stores – they should run about $20-25. Here’s one you can order (not an affiliate link). A full kit like this is OK, too – has pieces you won’t need, but it’s $35…if you can find it in stock.
  • Buy a funnel ($2), a jar lifter ($8), and a good ladle ($5).

You should be able to get set up for around $35, plus your jars. And while we’re talking about jars, I often get asked if you can can in glass jars that held food you bought at the store (mayo, jam, salsa, etc.). The official answer is “no.” However, I know the Amish in my area regularly reuse commercial “lug-top” jars (like salsa or jelly jars, with a pop-up button on top) for water bath canning. As jars will be scarce this year, it’s worth keeping in mind. Be sure the pair the jar with its correct lid and don’t store anything that hasn’t resealed and popped the button “in.”

%d bloggers like this: