Friday, July 27, 2012

An August Challenge: Reverse "Meatless Monday"

While we were laying around in paradise last week, eating lots of bad-for-you food and drinking way to many daquiris, the Hubs and I were talking about how we needed to "crack down" once we got back and get back into shape. I make this statement a little too frequently, actually: "Monday, I'm gonna crack down again. I'm gonna start hitting the gym and eating right again."

The Hubs surprised me. He does this from time to time. He suggested we eat vegetarian all week except one day for the month of August. I couldn't believe my ears.
The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. With so much vegetable garden bounty from both our garden and my father-in-law's, you can be a vegetarian several days in a row almost by accident. We both really like grilled vegetables and fresh tomato salads, so I'm sure it won't be hard to come up with enough variations to keep up satisfied and not missing meat six days a week. The August Reverse Meatless Monday Challenge is born!

A "minature white" cucumber from my vine

Freshly dug new potatoes from my garden and beans.
This project couldn't be more timely, either.

This week, I read that the USDA has retracted an informal endorsement of the Meatless Monday campaign after meat industry outcry and some snarky tweets by a few Congressmen hailing from meat industry states. Which makes sense, afterall. The USDA is the agency charged with making sure Americans have healthy food to eat and the agriculture industry remains sustainable... (insert internet sarcasm here.)

Over the years, very few things that go on in Washington actually get me mad enough to fire back. But I talked myself down from my own snarky reply to the Congressmens' tweets. Now, I am just baffled at the remarks. The two most alarming tweets are below:

        @SteveKingIA "USDA HQ meatless Mondays!! At the Dept. of Agriculture? Heresy! I’m not grazing there. I will have the double rib-eye Mondays instead.” (Rep. Steven King, R-IA)

I'm sure his cardiologist is thrilled.

       "Who at USDA thought 'Meatless Mondays' was a good idea? Anti-[agriculture] agenda at USDA is irresponsible, even for a day." (Sen. John Thune, R-SD)

Last time I checked, the cultivation and production of vegetables was also considered "agriculture."

No one can argue with the fact that the cost of healthcare is ballooning year after year, mostly because of treatment of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. While the statement from the USDA seemed to go the way of environmental concerns for eliminating meat one day a week, the plain and simple fact is that the "Western" diet is just not that healthy. Almost all Americans exceed the recommended daily and weekly amounts of meat in their diets. It wouldn't hurt anyone's waistline to go meatless one day a week. Shame on the industry and a few members of Congress for bullying the USDA to retract a gentle suggestion to it's employees to choose a vegetarian option one day a week when dining in the company cafeteria! It makes me loose hope that our food system will never completely and fundamentally be changed when our decision makers subscribe to this type of thinking.

Which only motivates me to follow through with this project even more now. There are a few caveats, though, that I should disclose up front. Even the Eat Local Challenge has a few rules. I need to travel for work in August and some meals will be provided. So, here is my rule, we will eat vegetarian six days a week when we are cooking food at home or eating out in our local area. This rule should catch everything except when I, or Jeremy (there's a slight chance he'll have some work-related travel, also) , have to travel for work. And, when I do travel, I am going to try to do my best eat vegetarian, if there are meatless options. I still get meat one day a week, so even with the travel, I think this is totally doable. And, it's supposed to be a challenge, so it's not supposed to be a breeze. Here we go!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The first "big" summer harvest.

I could barely contain my anticipation while on vacation as to what my garden might have in it when I got back home. I was like a kid on Christmas morning.

Before we left, a picked a few cucumbers and they were just starting to come in. There were also a handful of beans and some tiny squash, as well as dozens of little green tomatoes. Luckily, we got plenty of rain while we were away, so I didn't have to worry about anything being withered and dying.

Sunday evening, I picked five cucumbers and two pounds of beans. Later, Jeremy picked two baby squash when we decided we wanted to grill them for dinner. I also grabbed three green tomatoes that had fallen on the ground before they rotted. I can make some quick refridgerator pickles out of them.

The cucumbers are "minature white" (the short yellow ones) and marketmore 76 varieties. The minature white has a more mild flavor than the marketmores do. I had never even heard of the minature white variety before, but I'm always interrested in experimenting with exotic heirloom varieties. Although, the minature white seems to be a more compact plant with more cukes on the vine than the marketmore, I don't think I would plant them again because they are a little more seedy than I like, but they certainly are striking in the garden. The beans are Kentucky Wonder pole beans. I like the flavor of them better than any other variety. Some people go for stringless beans because they don't care for stringing beans, but it has never bothered me. It actually reminds me of when I was little, and my mom and Paw Paw sitting around stringing beans at my grandparents house.

For dinner, we had the green beans, and a foil pouch of squash, new potatoes and sweet onions with some olive oil and garlic.

I picked all the beans on the plants, even the ones that could have been left to get bigger. A deer ate the tops of all the bean plants at some point last week, and I wasn't sure if they would bear anymore. It's okay, though. I need a place to plant some kale for the fall and winter, and that's probably what will occupy that row of my garden next.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Learning from a fellow gardening nerd

I mean "gardening nerd" in the most inspired way, of course.

A few weeks back, we took a weekend trip to Charlottesville. It had been on my list of places to visit for quite some time. (And while, I do still have a sore spot for the University of Virginia's pep band for a certain incident I'd like to forget, I loved the hometown of the historic university.) The highlight of the trip of course, was a tour of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, specifically the garden.

You can take a guided tour of the garden, or do it on your own. I recommend the guided tour, if you're buying a ticket to tour the inside of the house anyway. The guide was exceptional on both the history of the home and it's most famous owner, and gardening knowledge. I believe her name was Elaine.

She knew all about why Thomas Jefferson, planted what he did. He was a scholar of horticulture and gardens, throughout his time in the United States, and especially while in Europe. He believed that gardening was art--that the land was essentially a blank canvas and what we planted and cultivated was the paint. Both vegetable gardeners and flower gardeners can appreciate the grounds.

Me with a foxglove. One of my favorite flowers.

His vegetable beds were my favorite part, obviously. He experimented with hundreds of varieties over the years--more than two dozen varieties of lettuce.

I think Thomas Jefferson was our country's first "foodie." He understood that although we need food to fuel our bodies, it was something to be thoroughly enjoyed, and he was very thoughtful about it. He enjoyed many of the foods he had in Europe, and brought back seeds and ideas to try in his own garden. Here are some artichokes, one of the things he ate in Europe and later grew at Monticello.

The cabbage and kale were ready for harvest. Everything grown in the vegetable garden today is something he tried over the years he lived at Monticello. Thankfully, he kept meticulous notes about his garden. He noted weather patterns, every variety he tried, plant and harvest dates and yields. They have been published into a book, which is sold in the gift shop. I didn't opt for it, although I think it would be fantastic. I did buy a couple packs of lettuce seeds, though.

He tried unsuccessfully to cultivate grapes at Monticello for wine making. After his death, however, this part of Virginia became a hugely successful wine region. No trip would be complete without visiting a few wineries. We visited two nearby. Jefferson enjoyed wine with his evening meals, a habbit he picked up in Europe. He also made his own beer, and grew hops on his property, although he was more partial to wine.

I think it is safe to say that Thomas Jefferson is best know as a Founding Father of our country, and part of the fascinating thing to me was to see that something else altogether was definitely his truest passion. I think he was probably happiest at Monticello in his garden. It is clear he thoroughly enjoyed gardening, both its successes and failures, which is a lesson we can all take away from our own gardens.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Lunch with an abundance of squash

I love summer squash. It's so versatile. And since my father-in-law's patty pan plant basically started shooting ripe squash off in all directions, I've made it a dozen ways. We've had it breaded and fried, we've had it sauted, we've had squash fritters and squash casserole two ways. And I still have a handful in my fridge.

I wanted to make something I could take in my lunch that was fairly light and easy and I'm looking at that refridgerator drawer full of squash. I knew I had some orzo left in the pantry, so I thought I could throw together some easy pasta salad. This is what I came up with:

Summer Squash with Orzo and Goat Cheese
(Makes 2 servings)

1 medium to large summer squash, seeded and sliced (you can use yellow or zucchini--I used patty pan)
1 + 1 Tb extra virgin olive oil
2 oz. white wine
1 or 2 gloves garlic, minced
1 tsp dried dill
4 oz. (by weight) of orzo
3 oz. goat cheese
1 Tb fresh basil, chopped
kosher salt and pepper to taste

Heat 1 Tb olive oil in a skillet and add squash and garlic. Stir to coat and saute until squash begins to get tender and golden. Add dill and white wine. Place a lid on the skillet and turn heat up to medium high. Let squash cook for a few minutes and check. Once squash is tender, remove lid and cook a bit longer to evaporate any leftover wine, then remove from heat. Meanwhile, heat a pot of salted water to boiling and add orzo. Cook according to package directions. Drain and add squash to orzo. Add 1 Tb olive oil and cut or tear goat cheese into small cubes and add to orzo mixture and stir well so that goat cheese melts and coats orzo mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add chopped basil before serving. Can be eaten at room temperature.

(508 calories per serving according to LoseIt!)

Not too shabby for a brown bag lunch at the office, and another way to use up all that squash.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Peaches come from a jar, packed by two ladies in South Hills...

Sing along to the song, Peaches. You know you want to.

Last week, I fired up my canner for the first time this year and put up some blackberries from our Fourth of July haul. It's that time of year to start restocking the larder and the freezer (particularly after my freezer got wiped out by the derecho on June 29th) with the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables available now.

This week, my mom and I canned peaches. I know I wrote about it on this blog before, but I love to can with my mom. I am so glad she passed the tradtion down to me. Not only is canning is 100% easier when you have an extra set of hands, but I appreciate my mom's expertise, and it just gives me a bit of nostalgia. I have been jonesin' for some peaches to can after I canned them for the first time a couple years ago. I love, love, love peach jam, especially cooked with a sprig of rosemary in it. It is absolutely heavenly on hot biscuits. I also canned some peach slices in light syrup for peach crisp and peach pie. Both were better than anything you could get at the grocery store.

This must've been a good year for peaches, because my "source," one of my mom's good friends' tree was absolutely loaded.

I was especially lucky because my mom got to my house around 1:30 and got a head start on peeling and slicing this five-gallon bucket. By the time I got home from work, all the hard part was done. We just packed the slices into jars and made a light syrup to pour over them. The trick is to really pack those jars full. The peaches will shrink when they are processed, so you don't want to end up with half full jars of peaches. Not only are you wasting jar space, but successful canning depends on a good bit of science. Having the precise ratio of air to contents, as well as a proper ph, not only aids the the preservation of the contents, but in the safety of it. So, always follow the directions for canning. When it says leave 1/4 inch head space, rest assured it's for a reason. This is also the same reason directions always say to remove air bubbles, which I'm doing below with the tool that came in my Ball canning kit.

We got five quarts and one pint of peach slices, and I reserved the rest for jam. Oh, that peach jam I made a few years ago. Did I mention how amazing it was? I was so dissappointed with this year's version. The jam didn't set all the way. I think it is because I used flex batch pectin, in the canister. I like this because you don't have to make a whole batch, you can half the batch and just measure how much pectin you need. I made a whole batch in this case, but when you buy the boxes of pectin, directions are always included, and I always follow them. No worries, I thought, I can use my Ball Blue Book Guide to Home Preserving. However, I noticed that the recipe for peach jam said to put the peaches and sugar together in a large pot and bring to a boil before adding the pectin. Every other time I've made jam, I've brought the fruit and pectin to a boil before adding the sugar. But alas, I followed the recipe, and my jam is a little runny. Don't think that will keep me from enjoying it. It will still taste divine on hot biscuits and toast. I did add a sprig of rosemary this year will I was cooking the fruit and sugar, and I fished it out before I ladled the jam into the jars.

Now, I've got my peach fix to last me all year!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My garden babies

This is almost my favorite time of the year for my garden. I've got little teeny tiny vegetables coming in. My favorite time of year would be when I actually get to pick them. Hopefully by the end of this week or next, depending on how much rain we get between now and then.

It's particularly exciting, because I've tried some varieties that I've never grown, or even heard of, before.

This is a baby minature white cucumber. There are a handful of these and the vines are COVERED in blooms. I'm hoping I have so many of these this year, I don't know what to do with them. I don't know what they taste like. I ordered these seeds from Seed Savers Exchange, which describes them as having a sweet, mild flavor. I can't wait to try them. They're interresting, if nothing else.

Check out these stunning purple blooms on this Black Hungarian Pepper plant! This is another variety that I'd never heard of before, that I also got from Seed Savers Exchange. It's a long, medium hot pepper. If they produce well, I'll definitely grow these again, because they are just so pretty in the garden. You can't see it in any of the leaves in the picture, but the the leaves have dark purple veins, and when they were seedlings, the whole plant was dark purple.

And, of course I had to plant some of the old stand-bys. What is a garden without summer squash and beans?

I love summer squash. And winter squash for that matter. My father in law is already over run with patty pan squash, which is the only variety he grows. He likes them particularly. We've already been enjoying the bounty from his garden. Once squash start coming in, it seems like you are flooded with them. This little guy should be ready in the next week or so.

The best surprise of my garden this summer were the two volunteer tomatoes that came up in my root vegetable bed. The soil has sand mixed in since that's where I grow my carrots, and carrots need fine soil. But earlier this spring, I noticed two funny looking "weeds" growing in that bed. Since they sorta resembed a tomato seedling, I thought I'd wait and see if they were. The bigger they got, the more they looked like a tomato plant, until there was no question. They most likely came from seeds in my compost, although, I don't remember putting compost in that bed. The real mystery was what type of tomato they were. I found two small tomatoes on them, and now I know they are romas! Which is awesome, since the roma seedlings I started aren't doing so well. I cannot believe how well these plants are doing despite being volunteers in a sandy soil bed. I staked them up, and planted my next crop of carrots around them.

I also experimented with potatoes this year and planted a row of old potatoes that had gotten soft and sprouted vigorous eyes. I also gave some to my father in law. He's planted them like this before, famously on a particularly warm Christmas day a few years ago, and he had the best new potatoes of anyone I knew. Anyway, he told me to wait until the plants get tiny white blooms on them to check on the potatoes. My plants haven't made it there yet, but I did plant them later than the first recommended time.

Most of my tomato plants are getting big and bushy and covered in blooms. I have one bed that's a problem. The plants aren't dying, but they're not thriving either. I think I may dig up the tomatoes in them since they won't likely produce any fruit, and put in some fall and winter vegetables. I was reading last week, that now is the time to start planning and planting for fall and winter, which is hard to believe since I'm not even harvesting my summer crops yet. I definitely want to try kale this year, which can last well into the winter, and I may even try some covered rows with other types of greens and cool weather crops.

Friday, July 6, 2012

DIY Date Night :Crostini, Lamb Chops and Swiss Chard

A couple fridays ago, the Hubs and I had a DIY Date Night at home. Sometimes these are the best date nights. For some reason, we tend to get a little fancier when we are eating in for date night than when we go out.

These DIY Date Nights are especially nice, because I had everything on hand and just kinda threw it all together. And, I always enjoy when we cook together. The Hubs grilled the lamb chops. The rest of the meal, goat cheese and sundried tomato crostini and wilted swiss chard, was super easy.

I love grilling lamb chops because they have this layer of fat around the outside of them that gets crispy on the outside and makes the inside so juicy. The only problem is that they aren't big enough... Or maybe we just needed more of them. At any rate, I highly recommend lamb. Especially if it's grilled. It's evey better when  you can find the rack of ribs whole--not already cut into pieces. Don't be intimidated by lamb. I think it's easier than steak on the grill because it cooks faster and there's not as much uncertainty about whether you got the middle to the correct temperature or not (depending on how you like your steak). I made a quick balsamic glaze for the lamb chops.

I had some leftover crostini, so I found a quick recipe for sundried tomato and goat cheese crostini since I had those on hand. I also made the swiss chard the way that I make almost all spring vegetables. It's absolutely no-fail. Put a bit of olive oil in a skillet and get it hot. Add the chopped up greens with a little bit of kosher salt and pepper and a splash of white wine (or water or stock). Stir the greens and put a lid on the skillet tight. Check them after a few mintues and stir. Cook longer if needed. Finish with a tsp or so of bacon grease and a dash of red pepper flakes.

Add a bottle of our favorite wine--a nice big spicy red plus dining al fresco on the patio, and I'll take this date night any time over a fancy restaurant.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Celebrating the Fourth

The Hubs and I celebrated the 4th of July in true American fashion, I think. They're weren't fireworks or hot dogs (for me anyway), but I wouldn't have changed a thing.

We're still in the throws of what is being called "Stormpacalypse 2012", on Twitter at least. There's still no electric at my house and an empty fridge and freezer. However, we have gracious friends and family that have offered up their homes for us a place to cool down, do laundry and cook. Speaking of cooking, I spent all day on Monday cooking meat that had thawed in my deep freezer. I would have broken my heart to throw it out since it was the "good stuff" from Monroe Farm Market mostly. We also had some deer burger and deer roasts from the Hubs's kills last fall. I did throw out a lot of what was in the fridge because it wasn't even cold. But luckily, I had put off going grocery shopping, so there wasn't much in there to begin with.

Even though our week has been seriously disrrupted because of the power outage, we did exactly what we would have done yesterday if we'd had power. We went "jeepin", picked blackberries and visited with my in-laws.

We didn't pick berries that long, maybe an hour or so total, but we got about 4 gallons! We have a great spot with huge berries that you could spend all day and pretty much get as many berries as you would like. The Hubs and I both really enjoy picking them, even though it's hot, the blackberry vines are covered in briars and the bugs were terrible. Today I am paying for it with tiny burs still buried in my fingers. Still, it was worth it. I am planning on canning some of these whole. I tried that last year, and it really worked out well. I'll freeze some for cobbler-making, too. I may make a small batch of jam, but I still have some from last year, so maybe not.

Cobbler on the vine...

Of course, the jeepin was awesome. We don't get the chance to take our jeep out in the mud nearly enough. We need to do this more often.

The scenery in Clay County is devastatingly beautiful. Even with quite a bit of damage from the derecho. My in laws don't have electricity either and probably won't for a while. Extended family and a number of friends had congregated between my in laws home and my husband's uncle, who lives next door--mostly to share in the amenities of a generator that was able to power a couple refridgerators and several fans. But, the atmosphere was festive and everyone was pitching in to make a celebration for the 4th of July. Hamburgers and hot dogs were grilled, kids were playing in the yard and we all seemed to be brought together by our collective misery without electric in the heat. The icing on the cake at my in-laws is the pool. It's not huge, but it's enough to keep everyone cooled off in the heat. And boy, did it feel good after berry pickin in the heat all day.