Sunday, January 29, 2012

The "Little Tomato That Could" Again

I should preface my update on "The Little Tomato" with the fact that my fiance and I have three dogs and one cat, and all of them are rescues. This means that nobody else wanted them, and by taking them in, we probably saved their lives. The three dogs came from the SPCA of Northeastern North Carolina, and the cat from a total stranger on the Freecycle Network.

But my fiance has more sympathy for and patience with the underdog than even I do. This year I found a pathetic tomato plant that was sprouting in my fall garden. He wouldn't let me pull it up but has nurtured it. We've had unseasonably warm weather in Southeastern Virginia this year, and the plant was in a container along the North wall of the house, and we'd covered it with a cloche, but we finally had a cold snap about two weeks ago where he had to bring the tomato plant inside the house or lose it to a killing frost.

But I am a worrywart. And I knew that the tomato couldn't live in our dimly-lit living room. I watched the weather forecasts carefully, and when the days were supposed to be relatively warm and sunny, I'd been putting the tomato out on the front lawn to feed on the energy of the sun.

So, there we were, with me lugging the heavy planter onto the front lawn every day and my fiance lugging it back in each afternoon or evening as the temperatures started to drop. But the tomato was unhappy. It was exposed to winter winds, had insufficient light despite our efforts, and was looking increasingly poor.

So Don converted an old garbage can into a house for the tomato. He put a light in the lid and put the light on a timer. He put the tomato plant in its new home in a corner of our bedroom. Then he found a squash plant that had sprouted in the moist darkness of our worm composting-bin and decided to rescue THAT. So now we have a baby squash plant keeping the tomato company. And something else is coming up in the planter; Lord knows what! The plants get 14 hours of compact-fluorescent light a day. A regular plant light would be better, from what I've read, because it gives a broader spectrum of the lights plants need. The fluorescent tends to make plants grow leggy. But we'll have to risk it, because Don likes to conserve energy.

I'll post some pictures below of the tomato plant and its new companions. So far they are looking healthy, and the tomato has certainly turned quite green. The worrywart in me worries that the plants might need better air circulation.  And if Don finds any more plants he wants to rescue, he's going to have to build us a greenhouse!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Vegetarian Wheat-Berry Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

I recently ordered wheat berries from my local online food co-op because I wanted to experiment with them. I am finding them a delight to work with and to eat. I have to plan ahead, though, because they require pre-soaking and then 50 minutes of boiling to cook.

I took two cups of wheat berries, pre-soaked them, and cooked them overnight on low in a slow cooker. They came out a little mushy but delicious. And I have enough wheat berries to freeze some and to cook a couple of meals this week.

But what to cook?

One answer came when I received a big, beautiful cabbage from my CSA. Here it is, stripped of a few of its outer leaves:

I decided to make stuffed cabbage rolls with the outer cabbage leaves, the wheat berries, some fresh radishes, and some other ingredients I had around the house. I had never made stuffed cabbage before, but it was a lot easier than I thought. I thought I'd share the recipe along with some pictures.

First, take some root vegetables and mince them very fine. I used a food-chopper to save time. Suggestions are a small onion, a carrot, two cloves of garlic, and two mild-tasting radishes. Then chop up some unsalted raw almonds, maybe 1/4 cup's worth. Also cut up some fresh dill and oregano with kitchen scissors.  Keep the almonds and fresh herbs separate from the other ingredients.

Next, Heat up some oil and cook up the root vegetables for a few minutes until the onions and carrots begin to soften. Remove from the heat and stir in two cups of wheat berries along with the almonds and herbs, and set aside. Here's a picture of what the filling looks like when done.

Heat up water in a steamer. Strip off the outer leaves of a large cabbage, wash them, and cut the tough stems at the back of the cabbage even with the rest of the leaf so the back of the leaf looks fairly flat and even. If the cabbage leaves are very large, cut them in half. Steam 4 cabbage leaves, or four halves, if they are large, in the steamer until the leaves turn bright green and soft-looking, about 3 minutes. Add more leaves and repeat until you have enough. I found 8 halves filled a 9x9 glass baking dish nicely. Here is a picture of the leaves when steamed.

While the leaves are steaming, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Take some bottled or canned low-sodium tomato sauce (8 oz.) and spread just enough to cover the bottom of a 9x9" baking pan. Take each leaf (or half) and put 2 tablespoons of the filling in the middle and roll up as shown.

Step 1:

Step 2:
Step 3:
Step 4:
Step 5, roll the mixture up (away from you) to make a roll. Here is what the finished roll looks like:

 Add the rolls, seam-side down, in the casserole dish:

Take the remaining tomato sauce and mix it with 2 tablespoons of salsa. We used a very spicy tomato salsa that I'd made from my own garden vegetables last summer. Newman's Own makes some nice salsas that are not overly high in sodium, however, if you need to purchase store-bought. Cover the cabbage rolls with the sauce/salsa mixture:

Bake this for 35 minutes or until bubbly and heated through. Let sit for two or three minutes before serving.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Corn Muffin Recipe

My husband, Don, is a cardiac patient. Here is a low-fat, low-sodium, low-cholesterol corn muffin recipe that came out great. I use King Arthur Flours:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease 12 muffin cups.
Dry ingredients:

1/4 cup finely chopped unsalted (raw or roasted) almonds
1/2 cup corn meal
2 tablespoons Featherweight Baking Powder
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons dry rubbed sage (optional)

Wet ingredients:

Egg whites from four separated eggs, or 1/2 cup egg substitute, beaten
1 cup nonfat organic yogurt
1/4 cup oil
1/2 cup honey

In two separate bowls, stir all dry ingredients together. Stir all wet ingredients together. Pour wet ingredients into the bowl of dry ingredients and mix just until all ingredients are moistened. Fill the muffin cups and bake for 20 minutes or until done.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Shiitake Mushroom and Quinoa Soup

I ordered too many mushrooms from my online CSA this week. This recipe uses the caps for about 1/2 lb. of shiitake mushrooms. I threw the leftover peelings, extra celery, mushroom stems, etc., in a slow cooker to make vegetable broth with the trimmings, so there was very little waste.

1 tablespoon oil
2 tablespoons dried minced onion
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
3 cloves minced garlic
21/2 cups sliced shiitake mushroom caps
1/2 cup dry quinoa (pre-rinsed if needed)
1 teaspoon dry crushed rosemary
4 cups low-sodium vegetable stock (I make my own)
2 cups sweet potato, peeled and sliced into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 cup turnip, peeled and sliced into 1/2 inch cubes (optional)
1/2 teaspoon dried lemon peel
2 tablespoons lemon juice
ground pepper to taste

Heat the oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven. Add the celery and garlic and cook until the celery becomes tender. Add the minced onion and mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes. Add a little broth if the mixture becomes too dry. Stir in the other ingredients except the lemon juice and pepper, then increase the heat to high. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cook about 12-15 minutes until the quinoa is done and the sweet potatoes are tender. Remove from heat, stir in the lemon juice, season to taste with the pepper.

Spring Garden Dreams

Don and I--mostly Don--spent some time putting together two new raised beds for vegetable gardening this summer. These will be deep because we plant to plant asparagus, which is a deep-rooted vegetable. Here are some pictures:

These are two shorter beds that will be used for other vegetables:

We are eager to fill all the beds up, but we are still deciding what mixture of soil, nutrients, and organic matter to put in them. Asparagus are heavy feeders, so we will probably add a lot of composted manure. A layer of cardboard will be put across the bottom of the beds to kill the lawn underneath and to attract worms. We are hoping the raised beds will provide drainage, since we get heavy rains here and asparagus will get diseased if it sits in cold, wet soil.

Every article and website about how to plant and care for asparagus has different advice. Most websites recommend planting only the new hybrid varieties, but I am planting a mix of three different kinds, only one of which is a hybrid. The all-male hybrids produce better yields because the female plants produce fewer spears and spend energy trying to reproduce. They also produce berries which produce little asparagus weeds all over the bed. They have to be pulled up. The sites also say to plant 1-year-old crowns, but I ordered 2-year-old crowns before I read all that good advice. The experienced gardener who owns a local garden center recommends the 2-year-old crowns, though, so maybe they will turn out OK. I ordered 10 plants each of Jersey Knight, the all-male hybrid, Purple Passion, a sweet-tasting purple variety that turns green when cooked, and Mary Washington, a traditional heritage variety that is a tried and true favorite. On to sage:

My newly-transplanted sage plant is big and beautiful but stressed. The dogs have been digging all around it and it is losing the soil we have put in its bed. We may very well have to move it. We already plan to put some tall fencing around our other raised beds to keep the dogs out of it. But we are hoping their predatory behavior will dissuade neighborhood critters such as squirrels, raccoons, and possums from getting into our future produce.

We shall see.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Wheat Berry Salad Recipe

This recipe is adapted from The Whole Foods Market Cookbook and is quite good. Be sure to plan the time to pre-soak the wheat berries before you cook, and use a sweet-tart apple. I used Pink Lady apples, but Granny Smith or Gala will do nicely. Once soaked, this takes less time than you think to make, because all the chopping can be done while the water is heating up and the berries are cooking. This recipe  serves six.

2 cups wheat berries
7 cups water
1 cup chopped unsalted almonds
2 medium apples, cored and chopped
1 cup chopped dried apricots
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley or cilantro
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup apple juice
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/8 cup lemon juice

Cover the wheat berries in water that covers by two inches and soak for 6 to 8 hours or more in the refrigerator. Drain the water and set aside the wheat berries. In a large stockpot or Dutch oven bring the water to boil. Add the wheat berries and let them simmer, uncovered, for 50 minutes. They will have a firm, chewy texture. Drain the water and set aside the wheat berries to cool.

Transfer the wheat berries to an extra-large salad bowl and add the other ingredients. Mix everything thoroughly and serve. The lemon will prevent the apples from discoloring, so this can be covered, refrigerated, and served the next day.

If you've forgotten to pre-soak the wheat berries, they can be cooked in about the same amount of time in a pressure cooker if they haven't been soaked.

Online Food Co-Op and Wool Dryer Balls

I belong to a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture program. The idea is to buy fresh, local ingredients from small, local farmers, instead of at big box stores or supermarkets. Consumers make sure farmers are paid fairly for their labor by bypassing the middle man. And by choosing to support farmers who raise animals humanely and who use sustainable growing methods, consumers can "vote with their dollars" for healthier food, a healthier environment, and for practices that align with their own values. Food dollars remain with the local economy, too, which adds value to the purchase. And the food tastes better, in my experience, than what you get in stores.

I belong to an online food co-op that supports several farmers in Virginia, the state where I live. The advantages of the coop are that I have a greater diversity of choices in my purchases, the farmers are already pre-screened for their use of sustainable methods, and I can order what I want each week, rather than have a box of what's available from foods pre-chosen for me.

The downside is, I tend to order a little impulsively because I get excited about all the exquisite offerings.

Sometimes this turns out well. This week I spent $20.00 for three "Eco-Friendly Wool Dryer Balls," for example, from Breeze Hill Farm in Powhatan, Virginia. Made from felted wool, they are fragrance-free and an all-natural way to reduce drying time in my clothes-dryer while softening clothes and reducing static cling. Commercial fabric softeners will reduce the absorbency of towels and diapers, but these felted balls will not.

I do not like fabric softeners or their strong fragrances, so I am happy with the purchase so far. The balls do seem to reduce drying time, but it's still too soon for me to decide about their softening and anti-static properties. I also bought some local honey from a farm in Chesapeake that is wonderful.

On the other hand, I bought a pound of shiitake mushrooms this week as well as three turnips. I have never cooked a turnip, and I'm not even sure I like them. And I have no idea what to do with a pound of fresh mushrooms. I thought they came dried, you see. I do know I will have to come up with some mushroom recipes and cook them up fast, because mushrooms only keep for a short time, and these were expensive for my budget at $9.00/lb. I also bought five pounds of wheat berries just because they seemed like a bargain. And, no, I don't mill my own flour, at least not yet.

But that's part of the fun and adventure of a CSA. I have already come up with a recipe for the wheat berries, one that I'll share in a separate post. And my new Twitter-pal Andy Bellatti shared a mushroom soup recipe with me that I can't wait to scale up and try.

Looking for a CSA or farmers' market near you? Local Harvest can probably hook you up.

**Update for May, 2012: The wool dryer balls are starting to come apart in the dryer. Strings from the insides of them are tying up pieces of laundry, making them harder to dry. And little bits of felt are getting on our darker clothes. They still do a great job softening clothes, even as ratty as they are getting. When my supplier has more, I will buy two packs of 3 balls in hopes they will last me all year.

**Update for February, 2013: I bought some more dryer balls from Gum Tree Farm.  These are smaller than the original ones, but seem to be working fine. The clothes sure seem to dry faster when the balls are in there! I don't think they eliminate static as well as the chemicals do, but otherwise I'm happy with them.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

SPCA of NENC Needs Help

The power of $1.00 bill... have you ever thought about it? The SPCA of Northeastern North Carolina, located in Elizabeth City, says:

Standing alone, it may not seem like much; but dollar bills put together
can add up to do great things! 

The organization has taken a leap of faith and bought property and a new, larger building to house shelter animals, but now needs funds to renovate the much-needed facility. The SPCA invites us all to join the "Power of a Dollar" challenge. Share with everyone you know, and send $1.00 to:

P.O. Box 1772
Elizabeth City, NC 27906-1772
Attn: Capital Building Fund

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Doggy Mystery Solved!

Don and I have three dogs between us: a lab mix, a Treeing Walker Coonhound, and a hound-mix of uncertain heritage. All three are rescues from the SPCA of Northeastern North Carolina. The lab- and the hound-mix both have health problems.  As you can see, the former is a senior gal:

She is starting to have health issues such as hip dysplasia, arthritis, and, most disturbingly, liver trouble. So she is on a special diet to help manage all three issues.

Before we got him, the hound-mix was found wandering the streets of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, with both right legs broken and bound up with Duck Tape. Luckily, Animal Control found him and took him to the SPCA, which patched him up and found him a good home, namely us. But his back right leg will probably never be completely right. He walks funny and he sits oddly due to his injury:

If there is trouble, he is going to find it, so he is the boy who started the mystery. 

Don and I watch what we feed all our dogs. We feed Blue Buffalo Dog Food,  we feed them on a schedule, and we ration their feedings carefully. Despite this, and despite their near-manic activity levels, both hounds were gaining weight. This guy was starting to have some trouble moving around, so we cut back his rations a little bit, but he kept gaining.

The mystery began to unravel when he came in the house and threw up one day. There seemed to be a hot dog in the vomit. I am a vegetarian and Don is a cardiac patient, so it has been years since we have had wieners in the house. 

Could somebody else be feeding our animals?

Two days ago, Don came home from work to see that the dogs had lapped up all the water he left out for them that morning, which is A LOT, and on a cool day, to boot. Intrigued, he inspected the yard. This is what he found, in a corner of the fence:

Our next-door neighbor works as a deliveryman of chips, crackers, cookies, etc. Yesterday Don found sugar cookies in the backyard, and this morning I found another kind of cookie that I had difficulty taking away from our Walker Hound, who looks terribly pleased with himself:

This morning I finally spoke to the neighbor who, after some hemming and hawing, admitted that her sister has been feeding all three dogs through the fence. Apparently, our canines are outstanding beggars, and she couldn't resist the eyes they were making at her. We have communicated our dogs' health needs and received a solemn promise that the illicit feedings will stop. Mischief managed!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

David vs. Monsanto

Don and I just finished watching a documentary, "David vs. Monsanto," on Youtube. Here is the trailer. This has all the makings of a great documentary: an important social and environmental cause, conflict, and the personal side of a current and compelling issue.

A Canadian farmer named Percy Schmeiser used to grow canola. He spent over 50 years developing his own strain of seed using careful breeding and saving his seeds from year to year. Monsanto, a corporate giant, polluted his land with GM (genetically modified) canola that is resistant to Roundup, a product Schmeiser, an environmentalist, does not use. The GM plants ruined Schmeiser's breeding stock. To make matters worse, Monsanto then sued Schmeiser for patent infringement for growing plants that contained their patented gene. This is apparently a common tactic for Monsanto, which refers to seed-savers like Schmeiser as "pirates," according to the movie.

Schmeiser fought back through the Canadian legal system, a long, difficult, and expensive process. If you care about the environment, your health, freedom of speech, or just like to root for the little guy, you need to watch this movie.

I, for one, will never buy or use Roundup again.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Ballroom Dancing on New Year's and All Year

When I met my fiance, Don, I wasn't looking for a life partner. I was mostly looking for a dance partner. I had been taking ballroom lessons without one for 8 months or so, and I felt I needed someone to practice with. We met, we fell in love, and soon we will be tying a lifelong knot.

What is the appeal of ballroom dancing? According to one website:

  1. Dancing is an excellent cardiovascular exercise that will use all your major muscle groups.
  2. It encourages good posture and body alignment, and will strengthen your body’s core abdominal muscles.
  3. You will become more flexible, more agile, and more graceful both on and off the dance floor.
  4. You’ll burn calories while you’re having fun. It’s invigorating!
  5. Ballroom dancing will also benefit your mental and emotional health.
  6. You’ll spend your evenings on the dance floor instead of alone in front of the TV.
  7. You can discover a new passion and joy in your life at any age.
  8. You’ll learn to dance with a variety of partners, many of whom will become your friends. It’s a terrific way to meet new people who share your same interests.
  9. Dancing will make you smarter. Researchers have found that ballroom dancing improves mental acuity throughout a dancer’s life and can even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease in senior citizens! It’s like two swords sharpening one another – the body helps the mind work, and the mind takes care of the body.
  10. You’ll become more musical and learn to appreciate musical timing and phrasing.
  11. You will discover a rhythm and grace in your own body you didn’t know you had.
  12. Ballroom dancing will make you stronger, happier, healthier, and smarter. It will bring you joy.

All these claims are true, I believe, but there's also a social aspect only hinted about above. In a world where we increasingly interact with or through technology, the physical proximity and positive social interaction of ballroom dancing is just what homo sapiens needs. Certainly, several of our friends in our regular dance group met their future spouses at a lesson. And while there's no guarantee you'll meet your life's love, your odds will be better than if you sit at home, and you'll at least have fun. 

Ready to start but don't know where to turn? Look for a chapter of USA Dance  where you live. This non-profit organization promotes the spread of ballroom dancing, both for social dancing and for competitions called Dancesport. Don and I just attended a national event hosted by the Tidewater Chapter and had a great time, even if our muscles are sore. The grace and style of ballroom dancing make it great fun, even to watch. We hope you take some lessons and attend next year's event!