Saturday, December 31, 2011

Toxic Compost? How to tell

Don and I want to pick up some well-aged horse manure to use in our asparagus beds, but I've been unnerved by reports of toxic compost from horse and cattle manure caused by an herbicide called aminopyralid.

Here  is a report on how gardeners can use pea seeds as a simple test to check their composts for toxicity before incorporating them in their gardens. A little checking and planning ahead of time can avoid a garden that could be toxic to plants for two or three years.

Mother Earth News also has an informative article on this topic. Unfortunately, these herbicides are becoming so pervasive, it is getting increasingly difficult, perhaps even impossible, to avoid them.

Update: Don and I later started a group, 4 Chesapeake Hens, that successfully lobbied City Council to allow up to six hens on all single-family lots with certain restrictions.

Don's Low-Sodium Pancake Mix

Don has adapted this recipe from the King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook. He has made it more heart-healthy by increasing the amount of whole wheat flour and reducing the sodium and cholesterol. He has made it fit better into busy lifestyles by making the portions very easy to measure. We keep this mix in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Be sure to keep it refrigerated. One time I accidentally put it in the flour cupboard, and it went rancid quickly. Here is the recipe in Don's words:

  • 6 cups King Arthur Stone Ground Whole Wheat Flour
  • 3 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-purpose Flour
  • 1.5 cups non-fat dry milk
  • .75 cup featherweight baking powder (Hains makes this)
  • 1 cup vegetable shortening (I use the Crisco bricks that come in a three pack)
I use a one cup measure and a one quarter cup measure for all of the dry ingredients.  The shortening comes in a one cup brick, so there is no measuring needed.
In any case, combine all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix thoroughly.
Cut in the shortening.  I use two table knives.
To use the mix, my method is to use:
  • 6 measures of the mix
  • 1 measure of egg substitute
  • 4 measures water
If I measure them in that order, I only get one measure dirty
For two people I use a 1/3 cup measure.  If it is just me, I use a 1/4 cup measure.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Longing for Urban Chickens

I live in Chesapeake, Virginia, which does not currently allow poultry anywhere except in areas zoned for agriculture. There is a national movement to raise "micro-flocks" of laying hens for their eggs in backyard spaces, even in urban centers. New York City even allows hens, and more and more people are keeping them as backyard pets. I have read City Chicks and other publications about responsible chicken keeping, and I could really use the hens' help in my garden. Properly managed, they eat pests and weeds and provide fertilizer to compost  for the garden while providing fresh, nutritious eggs and plenty of entertainment. They are as easy to keep as a cat. Unlike roosters, they are quiet, and they do not need roosters to lay eggs. Any hens I raised would have much happier, healthier lives than the poor animals raised in CAFOs for the mass-produced markets. I've started a Facebook Page for like-minded Chesapeake residents who would like to join forces with me in getting changes made to the law. If a resident and interested, like the page or leave me a comment here.

Update for 2012: We took some advice from City Chicks and actually found and read the animal-related laws in Chesapeake's municipal code. We might be able to have up to four "pet" chickens depending on our zoning, easements, etc. We plan to check on this when we can.

Update for February, 2012. We discovered that to have chickens in Chesapeake one must have at least 3 acres of land, which, alas, we do not. There is a petition to allow urban chickens in nearby Virginia Beach, VA. If Virginia Beach allows them, perhaps Chesapeake could be next? Needless to say, we are supporting the petition.

Update for March, 2012. The Facebook Page has 17 "likes" and some folks besides me posting on it, asking questions, and even a few tentative offers to help. I tend to be a "doer," so I have a hard time understanding the delay in storming City Hall, lol! I got a good suggestion to post flyers at the local feed stores that sell chicks. I am also researching the space requirements for a few chickens. Hint: it's A LOT less than three acres! But that's fodder for another post.

Update for April, 2012. The Facebook page has 30 "likes" and our group's online petition on has 58 signatures in three days as I type this. This video on underground chickens recently shared on the Facebook page shows how clean and well kept the birds can be and how much families can enjoy them. I hope the petition gets enough attention from actual Chesapeake residents. I suspect local voters will have the most clout with city council members.

Update for July, 2012. We have over 130 fans on our Facebook page, and the petition has reached its goal of over 500 signatures. Actually, we have close to 600. We got some positive publicity on Channel 3, WTKR news recently. We have one council member, Robert Ike, who is completely supportive, and there is real hope we can get this thing before the City Council in coming weeks.

Update for November, 2012: City Council voted on November 20 for TA-Z-12-07 with changes to allow up to six hens and with the removal of the privacy fencing requirement. Now all Hubby has to do is build us a coop! The ordinance comes with a one-year sunset clause. Council must vote by December 20, 2013 to keep the ordinance, or residents' rights will lapse. Those who already have them will be "grandfathered," however.

Update for November, 2013: City Council voted on November 26, 2013, to make the ordinance permanent. The vote was 6-3, with Council Members Debbie Ritter, Rick West, and Vice Mayor John De Triquet voting against the ordinance.

Oh, and our Facebook page has over 1,000 fans! Wow!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Kitchen Composting

I have a confession to make: I have pet worms that live under my kitchen table.

They are not just any kind of worms. They are a specific kind of "red wriggler," or composting worms. Depending on the temperature and their living conditions, they eat up to their weight in food a day, mostly shredded paper and kitchen scraps. Their worm-castings (a nice way of saying "worm poop") is an organic fertilizer and soil amendment that is absolutely the best of anything available for your garden.  I've read that worm castings are up to eleven times more potent in their effect on plants and soil than any other type of compost.

And any excess moisture that drains from the bin can be watered down into "compost tea" that not only fertilizes your garden but protects plants against diseases, too, as a foliar spray. Since I try to garden organically, it makes sense for me to keep these quiet, easy-to-keep pets around. Why buy expensive organic fertilizers when the worms are so happy to convert your kitchen scraps for you?

I did make mistakes with them when I first brought them home. First of all, I made the mistake of buying "red wrigglers" at a local bait shop to get started. I later learned that this may have been a mistake. There are thousands of species of worms, and if you don't get just the right kind, Eisenia foetida, you can have problems.

What kind of problems? Well, the "right" kind of red wrigglers hate light, which helps keep them at home in their cozy little worm bin. Instead, I initially brought to my kitchen "Lewis and Clark" worms that were bent (pun intended) on exploring the brave, new world of my kitchen at all times of the day and night. I'd wake up in the morning to find them all over my floors, exploring my cabinets, you name it. And the only thing worse than stepping on a worm when you're blundering around bare-foot is finding your pet worms dead and drying up all over your floors, etc. After all, I like the little guys, and I feel responsible for them.

Perhaps they didn't like their initial housing arrangement. Since my wonderful fiance, Don, bought me a vermiculture bin with detailed instructions on how to get started, including advice not to buy worms at a bait store, my worms have stayed happily at home. Perhaps it's the new bin, perhaps it's changes to the bedding, perhaps my "Lewis and Clark" worms have removed themselves from the gene pool, leaving the stay-at-home types behind, or perhaps  a mix of the above. Now that they've settled in, I couldn't be happier with them. They are making some wonderful looking soil that I can't wait to add to my plantings in the spring.

For more information on vermiculture, try this Eek! website, this website from the University of Illinois, or this link I found through "Mother Earth News," which is the publication that got me into vermicomposting (worm-farming) in the first place. The composter Don bought me is called a Worm Factory. It looks just like this one:

Update for January, 2013. Our original worms went to a backyard compost pile. We had overfed them, and not fed them carefully enough, and we got vinegar flies that began to invade our whole kitchen. I wish I had remembered to try DE in the compost bin! That probably would have taken care of the problem without hurting the worms.

Don and I missed our worms, though, so I bought more a few ago from an online company that sells them. This batch of worms is doing GREAT! Whenever Don feeds them, he chops up their food into very tiny bits, and then either microwaves or freezes it first, or both. Either process kill any fly larvae that may be present in the food, thus preventing the vinegar flies. So far it's worked great, and the worms are thriving.

Don even bought a dedicated little food processor just for chopping up worm food. People tell me that my husband and I are two peas in a pod. They don't know the half of it!

The Little Tomato That Could

Yesterday we checked up on "The Little Tomato That Could" again. It seems not to know its seasons very well and started coming up in the fall. At my fiance's insistence, we have been nurturing the little thing now and then, when we think of it, to see how it will grow and how long it will live. While I cannot report that the tomato is going strong, I CAN report that the tomato is still going. The cloche has been a big help since the night temperatures here have occasionally dropped below freezing. The tomato is up against a wall, and we have a jar of water sitting next to it. Since it is in a sunny location, the thermal mass helps. I suspect it would be growing even better if we paid it better attention than we do. We did bury its stem deeper when it started to show its first true leaves to encourage growth in its root structure. Here are a couple of pictures, taken December 28, 2011.

Here are pictures of the cloche, from my November 16 post:

I should also report that our Corno di Toro pepper plant is still producing peppers, although the plant itself is looking quite yellow and very sorry for itself. If the peppers grow, by some miracle, into a ripened state, we will save some seeds, because this plant has been an amazing producer under extreme hot and cold conditions.

Update on January 6, 2012: I am sad to report that our pepper plant has succumbed to the hard frost we had earlier this week. We will have to pull it up and compost it. The "Little Tomato That Could" is still alive, because we brought it inside for a couple of days. I have put it back outside under its cloche to help it get enough sun, now that the weather has warmed back up, but will have to watch the weather reports carefully.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Spring Garden Plans

I used an Online Garden Planner at Mother Earth News today to plan out four 4x8 foot raised beds. We have 30 Asparagus plants coming in March. I have many seeds in my refrigerator that I have saved from past years or bought on sale. I have a garlic collection arriving in the fall, too, for when most of this garden has gone by. I also want to add kale, mustard greens, and some cover crops for the fall, but I will wait to plan out the successive plantings.

This planner is free for the first 30 days. So far I am impressed enough with the planner that I am considering paying to subscribe. There are online tutorials that explain how the planner works. I do not plant in rows, so I was happy that there is a "Square Foot Garden" intensive-gardening mode. I plan to try to trellis my squash crops, but the planner doesn't seem to allow for this.

I had wanted to grow potatoes and sweet potatoes. I had also wanted to grow Hubbard squash as a "trap crop" this year, but the potatoes and trap crops will have to wait until we have time to add more beds. This is already double the growing area that Don wanted to commit to installing this season. The asparagus takes up more room than I'd expected, too.

I especially like how the planner has a list mode that tells me how many plants of each type or even variety I will need to install my beds as planned. It will send me emails when it is time to consider starting plants indoors or direct-sowing them outside. It works with the average first and last frost dates for my zip code. These can be adjusted for personal preference, too.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Save Money: Dry Beans vs. Canned

In recent years I have come to appreciate homemade beans cooked from scratch. Beans are high-protein, high-fiber, inexpensive, and nutritious. Canned beans are convenient, but they are relatively pricey and often high in sodium compared to dry beans. There are an amazing array of varieties of dried beans to try, too. While cooking dry beans saves money, it takes a little planning. There are several options, but most cooks start with step 1:

Step 1: Pre-soak the beans. About 8-12 hours before you plan to cook the dry beans, put them in a colander, inspect, and rinse them. "Inspect" mostly means to check them over to be sure there are no pebbles mixed in with the beans. Any funny-looking beans can also be thrown away at this point. Put the rinsed beans in a large bowl or pot and cover with lots of water. Put the bowl in the refrigerator and allow the beans to soak.

 I put beans in to soak before going to work in the morning if I plan to cook them for supper. I'll soak them overnight if I plan to start cooking them in the morning. If pre-soaking beans seems like too much time or trouble, you will need to use a pressure cooker to make your beans. Go to "Option C," below.

Step 2: Drain the beans in the colander again and rinse them again. Discarding the soaking water is important because you will discard most of the sugars that make the beans "gassy" when you discard the soaking water. Now the beans are ready to cook, and at this point you have choices for Step 3:

Option A: Cook the beans. Put them in a large pot, cover with at least two or three inches of water and add one or two bay leaves. Bring to a boil. Then boil the beans, uncovered, until they are tender. How long this takes depends on the variety of beans and other factors. You'll need to research cooking times for the type of beans you are making, but the longest-cooking beans take up to 1 hour and 30 minutes to cook. Remove the bay leaves.

Option B: My favorite, and the reason I often start beans before work. Bring the beans to a boil as in "Option A," but only boil for 15 minutes. Transfer the contents to a slow-cooker and set the slow-cooker on low. Let the beans cook for several hours (about 8) or overnight. The advantage of the slow-cooker over the next method is that you can make more beans at once this way. Use some right away and store the rest in their own broth or soaked in water in the freezer to use later. The reason for boiling the beans before transferring to the slow-cooker is that some beans can be toxic if they are cooked insufficiently. The 15 minutes at a boil will ensure your beans won't make you or your family sick, so don't skip this step, even if it's a little more time and trouble. Remove the bay leaves.

Option C: The pressure cooker. Be sure to follow the directions on your pressure cooker. Do not overfill the pressure cooker. Generally you need to put a little oil in the water with the beans and the water to keep the beans from getting too frothy while in the cooker. Using a pressure cooker, you can cook pre-soaked beans in under 10 minutes and even cook unsoaked beans in under 30 minutes. If you choose not to presoak, I would discard the water the beans were cooked in and give them a good rinse to avoid a "gassy" product. Remove the bay leaves.

With pre-planning there is no reason to buy more expensive canned beans when you can cook up tasty, low-fat, low-sodium dry beans for your dinner. Use the cooked beans in chili, soups, salads, and all your favorite recipes in place of canned beans. One of my goals for my garden this summer is to grow some of my own beans to can or to dry for use next winter. Beans are not only good in your kitchen, they are good for your garden, too, because they help to fix nitrogen in the soil.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Slow-Rise Batter Bread (Yeast Bread)

Those of you who are regular readers know that my husband, Don, is a cardiac patient. He is on an low-fat, low-cholesterol, ultra-low-sodium diet to protect his heart and to keep his blood pressure low. Most commercial breads, even whole-wheat breads, carry a higher sodium content per slice that he should consume. He also tries to keep his overall carbohydrate intake down. He especially avoids the high-glycemic carbohydrates from the likes of white flour or potatoes, because these most reduce the effectiveness of some of his medications.

For all these reasons we have learned to make our own bread. Some readers may be surprised to read that bread does not need added salt, but it's true. In fact, yeast works better without sodium in its environment, so making unsalted bread is a snap. We have also learned how to work making home-made bread into our busy lifestyles on a regular basis. We both have jobs and many other projects and commitments in our lives. 

The answer for us has been to make a slow-rise batter-bread. Advantages are that the loaves do not have to be kneaded, a time-saver, and the dough can be left to rise on any cool spot in the house, which is great because warm spots are in short supply in our home at this time of year. Most of these ideas come from King Arthur Flour's 200th Anniversary Cookbook, my absolute favorite cookbook for basic baking, ever. (I know I plug King Arthur products a lot, but it's due to genuine love for the company's products). 

Making the bread is actually quite fast, the rising time is quite long, so by planning ahead and making the bread on a routine basis, I spend very little time on the bread, can get all kinds of other things done while it rises, yet have fresh, hot loaves available almost whenever we need them. Side-benefits are terrific flavor from the slow rise of the regular (NOT fast-rising) yeast and the delightful smell of bread rising and baking in the house. The resulting bread has a rich, almost sourdough-like flavor, too. 

This method uses less than the usual amounts of yeast and flour found in regular bread recipes. Before you start, you should know how to measure flour accurately, an essential part of baking bread. Visit this link for details and even a video on how this is properly done. I also recommend you know how to proof yeast. Search online for all kinds of how-to articles and videos, or read up in the King Arthur Flour cookbook or some other resource. 

You will also need two bread-loaf pans as well as the ingredients mentioned in boldface below.

When I wake up in the morning, I start the bread before I go to work. But if I want bread in the morning, I start it in the evening before bed. There are all kinds of variations on this recipe, but the basics are like this: take two cups of lukewarm water (about 80°F), one or two tablespoons sugar, and mix them together in a pre-warmed large glass or ceramic bowl. I add 1 teaspoon REGULAR yeast and proof the yeast. Once I am satisfied that the yeast is active, I add two cups of flour, usually 1 3/4 cup whole wheat and 1/4 cup all-purpose flour. I make all kinds of substitutions and variations at this point; I am quite a creative baker. For ideas on how to do this, I suggest consulting the King Arthur Flour cookbook, or leave comments below and I will respond as best I can. 

After you've stirred the flour(s) into the water,cover the top of the bowl with plastic wrap and leave the dough, called a "sponge" at this point, in a cool spot to rise. The ideal temperature is between 50 and 60°F. For even slower rising times and an even more flavorful bread, the sponge can be covered and left to rise in the refrigerator, but I rarely have room in the 'fridge for this.

Several hours later, after getting home from work, for example, you will find that the sponge has risen considerably or "doubled." Mix two more cups of whole wheat flour into the sponge to form the batter for your bread. If you like and can eat (optional) salt in your bread, this is the time to add it in (no more than a tablespoon at most; Don and I skip this step for the sake of our health). Another option, whether you add salt or not, is to add a tablespoon or two of (optional) vegetable oil. The benefit of the oil, besides its flavor, is that the bread will keep a little better after it is baked. The disadvantage is the added fat and calories, so the decision is up to you. The bread should come out fine whether you add the oil or not. Stir them in with the flour just until they are well mixed and no more. 

The batter will be quite wet compared to a regular bread at this point. This is what makes it a batter bread. It does not require kneading and will come out quite moist, but its texture will be much coarser than a kneaded bread. Let the batter rest for a few minutes while you grease the two bread pans.

Divide the batter evenly between the two pans, cover the top of the pans with plastic wrap or a damp towel, and leave to rise again. Since your yeast have multiplied and are hopefully very active at this point, your dough should rise a little faster. How long will mostly depend on the temperature. When I am cooking supper in the evening, for example, I will often put the loaf pans on the counter near the stove or oven to benefit from the added warmth. Let the dough rise until it is about an inch or so from the top of the pans. 

Toward the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and put the pans on a rack in the middle. Bake for 35 minutes, then remove and turn out on to a rack to cool. 

My final recommendation is to allow the loaves to cool completely before eating or storing them. This is the hardest part, because the bread will smell so wonderful, you won't want to wait to cut into the loaves. They will keep better and be moister if you do not allow the steam to escape from them by cutting into them too soon, however. 

Sometimes I care; sometimes I can't resist temptation.

Wrap the uneaten portion of your loaves tightly and store on the counter at room temperature. Use within the next two to three days. Other options are to store them in the refrigerator or freezer, but this will rob your loaves of moisture. 


Home-Made Organic Fertilizer

Here's a great article from "The Mother:" . I am dreaming about my spring  garden beds, which Don is getting ready to build soon. In Southeastern Virginia, my gardening season begins with peas planted in mid- to late-January, so we need to get going.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Easiest Hard-Boiled Eggs

I used to like to buy fresh, free-range eggs from local farms. Now I have a few backyard hens that supply us with fresh eggs.

My main reason is to avoid the cruelty of supporting the raising laying hens in the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that produce the cheap eggs mostly found in big box stores. For more about this issue, visit and a host of other websites. The details are hard to stomach.

But a side-benefit of eggs from free-range hens that eat grass and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air is that the eggs are healthier. Again, a quick search will find websites such as that explain that these eggs have a better nutritional content and less "bad" cholesterol than CAFO eggs. It just stands to reason that less-stressed hens that eat a better diet will produce a better product. Since there are no federal standards about what "free range" means, however, I prefer to buy from local farmers whose hens and coops I can see with my own eyes, to be sure they are being well cared for. These farmers will be proud to share their feeding and husbandry practices and obviously love their "girls."

Having said that, one doesn't want to go overboard with eating the egg yolks. One egg supplies on average almost a day's supply of cholesterol. And cardiac patients should follow their doctors' and nutritionists' advice about eating eggs. But for healthy individuals, whole eggs supply a terrific nutritional punch.

Enough of that! On to my favorite recipe for hard-boiled eggs! I purchased this Nordic Ware Egg Cooker:

I am thrilled with the results. Since my free-range eggs are not USDA-graded, they come in all different sizes. I tend to pick the largest ones to make hard-boiled eggs. These eggs are HUGE compared to the eggs  bought in stores, so I added 1 minute to the microwave cooking time that come with the directions. These are the easiest eggs to peel I have ever made, too. If you like hard-boiled eggs and have a busy lifestyle, I heartily recommend this product.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Heart-Healthy Poached Eggs

I usually eat eggs from local, free-range laying hens, and I'll often separate the whites from the yolks to bake for Don. I'll just use about twice the number of egg whites as eggs called for in the recipe. But Don likes this recipe for poached eggs using a commercial egg substitute such as Egg Beaters. You'll need a microwave egg poacher. Don like the Nordic Ware Two Cavity Egg Poacher, This recipe is for a 1250 watt microwave oven, so cooking times will vary depending upon the power of your own.

Put 1 tablespoon of water in each cavity of the egg poacher.

 Fill the rest of the cavity with egg substitute and secure the top half.

Put in the microwave at Power 6 for 4 minutes and 22 seconds. Let it sit for about 2 minutes before removing from the microwave oven.

You can use the poached "eggs" to complete the Kale Pie recipe, posted below.

Heart-Healthy Kale Pie

This savory vegetable pie recipe was adapted from Mark Bittman's cookbook, "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian" but I reduced its sodium, fat, and cholesterol content. I used locally-grown kale, but "collards, spinach (squeezed and chopped),  broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and mushrooms" can be substituted, instead. Other variations for fillings are mentioned in his cookbook.

  • 2 tablespoons heart-healthy margarine such as Smart Balance, plus more as needed
  • About 5 cups shredded kale leaves, stems removed
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • Black pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped mixed herbs, such as thyme, parsley, chives, and chervil; I used garlic scapes, cilantro, thyme, and finely chopped radishes and radish greens from my garden
  • 5 egg whites
  • egg substitute equivalent to 4 eggs, poached in the microwave as explained in my previous blog post
  • 1 cup non-fat plain yogurt (we like Stonyfield Farm)
  • 3 tablespoons grapeseed Vegenaise (Vegan mayonnaise)
  • 1 teaspoon Featherweight Baking Powder, a low-sodium baking powder; it is available online if you cannot find it in local grocery- or health-food stores
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
We like King Arthur brand flours or a similar high-quality flour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Heat the margarine in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the kale and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the leaves are quite tender but not brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the herbs, and season with pepper to taste. Coarsely chop the poached eggs and add them to the kale mixture. Let cool while you make the batter.

Combine the yogurt, Vegenaise, and egg whites. Add the baking powder and flours and mix until smooth. Lightly grease a 9x12 glass baking dish. Spread half the batter over the bottom, then top with the kale filling, then smear the remaining batter over the kale using a rubber spatula to spread the batter so there are no gaps.

Bake for 45 minutes. The top crust will be shiny and brown. Let the pie cool for 15 minutes or more before slicing it into squares or rectangles to serve. Serve warm or at room temperature. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Heart-Healthy Pumpkin Pie

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

1 unbaked deep-dish pie shell ( I used store-bought, frozen, but you can make your own to control sodium- and fat-content even more).

1 1/4 cups canned pumpkin (NOT a mix, just the pumpkin)
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. unbleached flour
3 egg whites, lightly beaten
1 cup non-fat evaporated milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Mix the pumpkin, sugar, spices, flour, egg whites, evaporated milk, and vanilla extract well. Pour into the pie shell and bake in the preheated oven for 45 to 50 minutes or until a knife inserted near the middle comes out clean. Serves 10.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Winter Garden Activities and Confetti Quinoa Recipe

It is now the first week in December, and the "Little Tomato That Could" is still going strong. Lows are supposed to be in the 40s and 50s this week, so I have high hopes that it will survive for the next few days. I picked a pepper off of my "Corno del Toro" pepper plant to use in a salad today, too. It was small, but tasty. I am receiving gardening catalogs in the mail and continuing to dream about what I most want to grow. I've looked into growing celery, but I am not sure how easy that is to do in Zone 7. Celery has a long growing season, dislikes hot weather, and needs cool weather, but not too cold or it will bolt. If I try it at all, it will be in the fall.

I joined an online food co-op that features local foods from Virginia, .  Reasons to join are similar to reasons to shop at farmers' markets: for more information. I've ordered fresh Virginia apples, kale, butternut squash. I also ordered two kinds of sweet potato: "Beauregard," which is the kind most commonly served in supermarkets, and "Hayman," a white sweet potato you won't find in supermarkets because it is "an heirloom white sweet potato reputed to be the sweetest of all varieties. But with a dirt-ugly appearance, short shelf life and low crop yield, it's rarely planted these days" ( 

I am planning to make a vegan lasagna with the kale. I'm not sure what I'll do with the other ingredients yet. Today I made a black bean/quinoa salad with that pepper mentioned above plus other ingredients. Here is the recipe:

3/4 cup quinoa (or: 1 rice cup measure)

1 red onion, minced
1 small carrot, sliced very thing
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1 small corno del toro or 1/4 green sweet pepper, chopped

1 teaspoon sunflower oil

3 tablespoons coarsely-chopped garlic scapes
1 cup frozen corn
fresh thyme leaves from two sprigs of thyme
2 tablespoons fresh parsley
1/4 cup dry white wine

1.5 cups cooked black beans
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
white pepper to taste

Cook the quinoa like you would white rice in a rice cooker or follow package directions. In the meantime, heat the sunflower oil in a cast iron frying pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add the onion, carrot, green pepper, and garlic, and saute for 3-5 minutes until the onion looks tender. Stir in the garlic scapes, corn, thyme, parsley, and wine, and cook, stirring, for 3-5 minutes more. Remove from heat. When the quinoa is done, mix it with the onion mixture and remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Serve warm. Leftovers can be refrigerated and served warm or cold. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Butternut Sage Risotto Recipe

What is a garden blog without occasional recipes? I am vegetarian. My fiance is a cardiac patient, so he eats a low-fat, low-sodium, low-cholesterol diet. The result is he eats about what I eat, along with some fish. I've adjusted my cooking to take his needs into account, and I'll share some of my more successful recipes for others who are interested.

This Thanksgiving, I made a risotto Don liked a lot. Here is the recipe. If I were to make this again, I'd cut back on the nutritional yeast, which might be too strong for some tastes. I used the yeast instead of the traditional cheese to cut back on sodium, fat, and cholesterol. The sage was from my garden, of course!

Risotto with Mushrooms, Butternut Squash, and Sage


  • 6 Cups Vegetable Stock (I make my own, to keep the sodium as low as possible)
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons Smart Balance margarine, divided
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 4 oz. fresh button or other mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 6 large fresh sage leaves, minced
  • 1 lb. butternut squash, stringy pulp and seeds discarded, peeled and cut into 1/2" cubes
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine 
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (Arborio is a MUST for risotto!)
  • 1/2 cup nutritional yeast (= brewers yeast)
  • white pepper to taste

1. Warm the stock up in a medium saucepan and keep it warm over low heat.
2. Heat the oil and 2 tablespoons of the margarine in a heavy-bottomed medium pot. Add the onion and saute over medium heat about 3 minutes, until it begins to soften. Add the mushrooms and cook 8 minutes more. Stir in the minced sage and cook for about 30 seconds to release the flavor. Stir in the squash and cook for 2 minutes, stirring often to coat the pieces.
3. Add the wine and 1 cup of the warm stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the squash is very tender, about 25 minutes. Uncover the pot near the end of the cooking time to cook off most of the extra liquid.
4. Using a spatula or wooden spoon, stir in the rice and cook for 1 minute. Add 1/2 of the warm stock and cook, stirring frequently, until the rice absorbs the liquid. Continue adding stock, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring, until the rice is creamy and soft but still a bit al dente, about 25 minutes. Add water if you run out of stock early.
5. Remove the pot from the heat and vigorously stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon of margarine and the nutritional yeast. Add pepper to taste. Divide the risotto into soup bowls and serve warm, immediately.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Weekend Chores, Recent Purchases, and Plans

I decided I want some fresh sage for our upcoming Thanksgiving feast, so Don dug up a sage plant at my old house to move to our new one. He dug up a little hazelnut shrub we'd like to try to save while we are at it. It was one of three we planted as part of a research project for the National Arbor Day Foundation. Two of these special hybrid shrubs died, but this one lived, although it hardly thrived in its old location. We hope it will fare better when we move it up here where the soil is a little better than at the old house. I'll attach a link that shows us originally planting the three shrubs. Personally, I think the compost may have been overdone/too fresh/part of the problem for the shrubs, but the hard-packed clay at my old location was NOT the place to plant them, according to materials I received with the shrubs. Visit Hazelnut Shrub Project for those who want to see how we planted them at the old location.

So far the tomato plant and pepper plant are still alive despite the first hard frost the night before last. The cloche is protecting the tomato. Don also put a water jar in the cloche to absorb the sun's rays and provide some thermal mass to keep the plant warm at night. The sunny location against the warm bricks at the side of the house seems to help, too.

I planted some peas a few weeks ago in an empty planter to provide some green manure and protect against erosion this winter. The peas are coming up vigorously. They are a cold-hardy pea and should make it all through the winter, by my guess. I didn't inoculate them, so I hope they will actually fix nitrogen in the planter. A type of bacteria has to be present in the soil for the pea plants to do their job of transferring nitrogen from the air to the soil.

I promised myself I would start gardening here at Don's slowly and methodically as we have time to build beds. But I caught a sale of 2011 seeds at 50% off at Seed Savers Exchange, and already I can see that we are going to have to start thinking about putting in several beds to keep up with all the gardening I want to do. I bought tomatillos, three kinds of tomatoes, two kinds of pepper plants, cucumbers, nasturtiums (which are edible), and I can't remember what else. I also saved seeds from last year's garden, and I want to plant onion sets, different kinds of garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pole beans, zucchini, and possibly Hubbard squash as a trap crop. Whew! I may have to invest in one of those online garden planners to keep up with planning out what goes where, crop rotations, etc. Even if I grow just a select few of each kind of plant I want to grow, this is going to take up some space. And we want LOTS of tomatoes...

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Little Tomato-Plant That Could?

I should have mentioned where I live in my earlier post. Climate and gardening go together so location is important. I live in Southeastern Virginia. The property I am moving to has better soil than the hard-packed clay of my last home, but the trees block a lot of sunlight, so that will be a challenge. I also have NO vegetable beds here at all, just one small flower-bed planted with peonies and day-lillies.

The tomatoes I planted this past summer were hybrids. This gave them superior disease resistance but means they are not supposed to be able to reproduce, or at least not very well. One little tomato seed didn't get the message, because it is growing fairly vigorously along the South wall of our house in a container. I have no idea where this little volunteer came from, or why it decided to give life a try in November.

I don't have much hope for it, but my fiance refuses to give up on the little guy. We have put a cloche over the plant. A cloche is just a jar placed over the plant to protect it from the cold. We should be covering the tomato at night but pulling the cloche off during warm, sunny days to let it get some air, but both my fiance and I work, so the plant has been getting random attention at best. Don (my fiance) plans to cut the bottom off of a bigger jar to give the little plant room to grow if it so desires. We'll see what happens.

Getting Started

When gas prices spiked to $4.00 per gallon a couple of summers ago, I started to ramp up my garden. I didn't even feel like I could afford to drive to the local Walmart, no less pay the rising prices for food. I've been reading  both online and in print about the local-foods movement, and I've been increasingly concerned about the effects of GMOs, pesticide use, and factory-farming on human health and the environment. So, like many others, I have tried my hand at gardening, and I like it. As a vegetarian, it makes sense, too, since I can grow most of what I need close to home. I subscribe to Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News. I've read Fast Food Nation, the Omnivore's Dilemma, and watched Food, Inc. I've really started focusing on improving soil with organic inputs.

This past summer was pretty successful. Most of my tomatoes thrived, I had as many garlic bulbs and shallot bulbs as I cared to eat, the herbs like mint and oregano did great, as did my basil. In early spring I grew peas; I even grew carrots successfully for the first time. I grew some "Corno del Toro" peppers in planters, and they were prolific producers. In fact, as I write this on November 14, one of the plants is flowering and producing more little peppers. I don't know if it will survive the coming frosts. I put it up next to the house against a wall. Butternut squash started as a "volunteer" in one of my flower beds, and I had enough squash to eat for weeks after harvest, although I disliked squishing all the squash-bugs that arrived along with the plants. My bush beans didn't fare as well, but they were an experiment.  Radishes, another experiment, did MUCH better, especially the heritage variety I bought at Monticello. The special connection with Thomas Jefferson's mountaintop garden was exciting to me, too.

I started some new flower beds using the "lasagna layering" technique and was happy with the results. It was a learning process, too. I learned, for example, that seeds don't compost well and tend to sprout... this is where my volunteer squash started, to my pleasant surprise. I had intended those beds to be fallow until fall.

I am starting this blog because I want to be better about recording exactly what I am doing in my gardens and when. I am in the process of moving, and so I am starting over with building garden beds, etc., in a new location. Yesterday my fiance and I visited a friend's farm and cleaned out their chicken coops. That farmer is always happy to see us, lol! I have a ComposTumbler, but it's getting too cool in the evenings to hot compost, so we are storing the manure mixed with wood shavings and shredded leaves in a couple of plastic garbage containers and in a flower bed underneath a large oak tree in front of the house, waiting for spring. That, some garlic bulbs I tucked into a flower bed in front of my house, and my potted containers with mint, etc., are all that I have of my old gardens, which I miss already.