0709 Garden Update

I could tell you about the horribly disappointing dinner I made tonight while Shane was off at a moped thing in Toledo.  It involved my first attempt at using a fresh ham steak, and resulted in me eating a giant bowl of green beans for dinner.  How’s that for pathetic?  The green beans were good, though, and later in the evening I pumped up the tires on Orange and biked up to Swirlberry for frozen yogurt – my first bike ride since the fall.

What I will tell you about, however, is the garden.

It is SO exciting, you guys! We have the following planted: cucumbers, beets, rapini, chili peppers, bell peppers, curly kale, carrots, French breakfast radishes, zinnias, nasturtiums, yellow squash, sunflowers, onions, Red Norland potatoes, Yukon Gold potatoes, and several kinds of tomatoes. I’d tell you which kinds, but the little tags fell out of the plants somewhere between the farmers’ market and the garden. It’ll be a big surprise.

Seriously, I can’t tell you how happy working in the garden has made me. We made all kinds of novice mistakes, and will probably make many more before the season is over. Our red potatoes are failing to thrive because they’re getting a lot more shade than I expected. All but one of the plants that I started in the basement died when I set them out to harden off. We have some pretty virulent weeds. But you know what? Every time I walk over to the garden, I come home beaming.

Mark and Melissa have been taking videos of their garden and encouraged me to do the same, so here’s a 3 minute video tour I took tonight:

Garden photos:

0702 Ratatouille, kind of

As we enter July, we’re starting to reap the benefits of the community garden plot.  We’re also starting to experience mid-summer gardening woes: mosquitoes, sunburn, weeding, excessive kale.  I’ve taken a few pictures, but I’m not sure if you can really get a sense for what we’re working with – or what our garden neighbors are producing in similar spaces.

And so it happened that we found ourselves facing down a fridge full of produce on the eve of leaving for a weekend trip.  Inspired by this week’s SELMA menu, I decided to use up the zucchini, tomatoes, and rapini in a sort-of ratatouille.  And I have to say, it turned out way better than I expected.

I sauteed a couple of cloves of garlic (minced) and an onion (finely diced) in a tablespoon or so of olive oil over medium heat, then added 3-4 small tomatoes (diced) and let the whole thing go saucey while prepping the rest of the veg.  I chopped a medium-sized zucchini into bite-sized pieces, then added it to the sauce once the tomatoes had cooked down a bit, tossing to combine and to ensure even cooking.  While the zucchini was going golden, I washed, trimmed, and chopped a handful or two of rapini from the garden, and tossed it in to wilt for a few minutes.

We’d picked up a couple of loaves of bread at Plum Market last night –  baked goods go half off or more at 8pm – so I sliced half a ciabatta in half again, then put it in the toaster oven for a few minutes while rounding up Shane for dinner.  I had initially thought about serving the ratatouille over polenta, but that was just too much heat for an already hot night – and the ciabatta turned out to be just right.

The only thing I’d change for next time is the rapini – it was, well, like eating a bunch of rapini-flavored sticks.  After one bite each, we carefully removed the stick-y parts, and proceeded.  We ate this pile of goodness with fork and knife, pulling away bites of toasty bread, sweet red-gold sauce, and tasty veg topped with shaved Parmigano-Reggiano.

Can it!

Shane shared this article on Google Reader tonight and it had what I imagine was the intended effect – getting me thinking about the small canning empire I started last summer.  The author argues that canning – in its current urban incarnation – is less about frugality and more about a bourgeois sense of connection to what we eat.  (Is bourgeois the right word?  I’m never sure if I’m using it correctly.  Anyway.)

There are a couple of things I take issue with in this article.  First, the opening paragraph references the author’s ” $15 per pint, straight-from-the-Greenmarket, homemade and canned in Brooklyn, N.Y., macerated and simmered in unprocessed sugar, spiked with organic chiles and small-batch Kentucky bourbon strawberry jam” in her calculation of a $17 PB&J sandwich.  $15 per pint is a ridiculous figure for jam – I think we can all agree on that – but unless she ate the entire pint, her sandwich probably works out to more like $3 at most.  She makes an important point, though – you’re not saving money by canning when you’re paying more for the raw ingredients than you would the finished product in the quantities produced.

I started canning last year in the midst of an eating-local mania.  Over the course of the summer and fall, I canned around 2 dozen pints of tomatoes, 8-10 pints of peaches, and a lot of applesauce.  In addition, I froze zucchini, asparagus, roasted tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, green beans, and roasted red peppers.  We’re still working our way through all the frozen stuff, though we exhausted the peaches earlier in the summer, and are on our last (I can’t believe it!) jar of canned tomatoes.

Has it been worthwhile?  Taste-wise, mostly.  The frozen vegetables didn’t hold up as well as I’d hoped, but the fruit was all great.  Always having tomatoes on hand is excellent, and the peaches were a treat long before they’d returned to the market.  Has it been financially worthwhile?  Not sure.

We buy most of our produce from the assorted DC FreshFarm markets.  It’s always a toss-up as to whether the market produce is cheaper than what’s at the grocery store.  Much of the time it’s comparable, and the primary gains from shopping at market are being able to select the specific quantity you need from higher quality products – in addition to the warm fuzzies that come from dealing with people who have first-hand experience with the produce, rather than a stockboy who doesn’t know what you’re talking about.

When I started thinking about canning, I realized right away that it was only going to be financially worthwhile if we could get the stuff to be canned very cheaply.  The author refers to putting up the bounty from a home garden – which is what my grandma did for years.  With no home garden to plunder, the only financially feasible option was buying 2nds produce – or going the you-pick route.  Whenever possible, we buy 2nds produce – things like tomatoes, apples, peaches, and pears that are still edible when less than perfect.  2nds produce is generally at least $1 cheaper per pound than the unblemished stuff, so by my calculations, it works out something like this:

10 pounds of tomatoes at $2 per pound produced 8 pints of tomatoes plus 3 pints tomato sauce.
Total expenditure on raw materials: $20

Cost of comparable store-bought items:
8 14 oz cans Giant-brand whole tomatoes @ $1.39 each: $11.12
3 14 oz jars Giant-brand Thick & Rich spaghetti sauce @ 1.25 each: $3.75
Total expenditure: $14.87

Does it work out to be financially worthwhile?  No.  Or at least not really.  This also doesn’t calculate in the cost of the jars and lids – a one-time investment in infrastructure – or the electricity used in the process.  At the same time, the oft-extolled “satisfaction of a job well done” is worth $5 to me.  I felt immensely proud to have done the dirty, sweaty work of canning.  I have continued to feel proud every time I open the cabinet to grab a jar of tomatoes at the last minute.  In the last 12 months, I can count on one hand the number of jars of tomatoes we’ve purchased – 3 at most, and those were because we were cooking in bulk for Obama volunteers.

Canning is not financially worthwhile at $16 for two quarts of strawberries, which is what the author paid – but then I guess if you can afford to pay $16 for two quarts of strawberries, the financials don’t really matter all that much.  Taking a $5 loss on something you enjoy doing is much more reasonable.  $5 would get you (maybe) two games of bowling or a skein of yarn or a single ticket in the bleachers at a baseball game.  Depending on where you live, $5 covers a beer or a Value Meal.

Last weekend I made 9 pints of Lodi applesauce – $16 for a peck of apples + $.07 for 1/4 C sugar = $1.78 per pint.  A 25 oz jar of Giant-brand Apple Sauce (Natural) is $1.69.  The price difference is about $.05 per ounce – except that Lodi apples aren’t usually available in the store.  They’re early apples, with a very short production season and a limited shelf-life.  They’re also the apples my grandparents grew in their backyard, so I grew up with Lodi applesauce, rather than the overly sweet or cinnamony stuff most kids had.  The extra $.05 per ounce is worth it for taste and – for me – nostalgia.

Will I be canning this year?  It depends on what’s available, and how much it will cost.  I’m volunteering at the  market this year, and as a result I get half-price produce.  Half price might be worthwhile.

Getting Caught Up

Hey there.  Long time no post.  How’ve you been?  Busy?  Yeah, us too.  We unpacked the last of the boxes today, so we’re looking forward to a whole lot of the following:

Sunshine Sleepies

Two weeks ago, we made the move from highrise hell to a cute condo north of Old Town Alexandria.  We’re right off the George Washington Parkway, just a hop skip and a jump from the Potomac on one side, and Buzz and Rustico on the other.  The new place certainly has its challenges, including a tiny kitchen (at least when compared to our last two):

New Kitchen

but it makes up for it with sunlight and a washer and dryer and no elevator and trees and quiet neighbors and lots of things for Mina to climb:

Nobody puts Mina in a corner

This weekend I was supposed to be in class Friday night and all day Saturday, but due to a registration snafu, we unexpectedly had an entirely free weekend ahead of us at 5pm on Friday night.  We took advantage of it and went on a date, watched a lot of football, and found farmers’ market treasures on a very hot Saturday:

How much does $4 get you?

8 pounds of peppers for $4!  I roasted most of them while SB relaxed after lugging them (and lots of other stuff) around the market for too long in the sun.  They’ll make for fantastic eating in a few months.

In other news, a frittata miracle occured Thursday night:

Fritatta in the panFrittata out of the pan!

The secret? Amply coating the bottom of the pan with butter, then spraying the sides with non-stick spray. Genius.  Now that things are a bit more settled, I’m hoping that we can get back to more regular adventures – and also more regular blogging – around these parts.  Until then, please make sure you’re registered to vote, and keep cool and out of harm’s way.

Eating and Growing Locally: End of Summer Report (week 18)

It’s the end of our local summer, and our entire apartment is up in boxes, waiting for tomorrow’s move.  Our garden is mostly gone, just waiting for a clear path out of the apartment so that the dirt can be dumped and the boxes and pots packed up.  I transplanted the herbs yesterday, and dug up our one and only onion – it’s about the size of a large pea.  The tomatoes are mostly dead, but whatever’s left will be going home with friends tomorrow.  It’s been a good summer.

Meatloaf and roasted veg

At this point, our meals are mostly local, and the non-local stuff feels alternately decadent and weird.  Last week we had macaroni and cheese and frozen vegetables, and it was kind of magical.  We also had homemade meatloaf made from local bison and really lovely roasted vegetables from the market (see my paean to vegetables to understand the depth of my vegetable love).  This morning we made breakfast sandwiches with fried eggs, rye toast, and aged cheddar, all from the market.

I could wax poetic about how eating locally has changed our lives, but enough people have done that already.  I think I can speak for both of us that we’re both cooking and eating better now – and that’s an awfully good thing.

Eating and growing locally: week 17

Eating:

Sunday night we made amazing UHmazing bison burgers on rosemary rolls with my homemade freezer pickles and also something else that I can’t remember – corn, maybe?  The burgers were SO good and made enough that I repeated the meal for lunch twice during the week.  Nom nom nom.  Did I mention that I’ve started seriously considering beef again?  It’s been 12 years, but I figure that if I can do bison, I should at least try beef.  How’s that for news?

At the moment I’m too tired from my workout to really remember much else about our cooking this week, but SB did make some amazing breakfast sandwiches this morning with farmers’ market eggs and rosemary rolls, and one night I made an excellent green bean salad-type dish from Jamie’s Dinners.  This week I think we’re making meatloaf.

I had intended to share the recipe for the pickles, but as the cookbook from whence it originates is currently packed – along with basically all the other books in our apartment – I can’t this week.  Remind me, though.

Growing:

Not much this week, but then I also forgot to water a bit.  Our basil (and also Basil, of course) is still going strong, oh miracle of miracles.  I’m disappointed with the yield from the tomatoes, but maybe they’ll do nice things in Mark or Mike’s gardens later in the summer.  I did pick a delicious-looking chili today, though.

Eating and Growing Locally: Week 16

Eating:

OMG local meal

Grilled bourbon bison sausage and roasted veg – purple cauliflower, pattypan squash, red onions, and whatever else we had around.

The roasted veg is our new killer meal option – just toss whatever veg you have in the crisper with some herbs, salt & pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil, then place it all in a roasting pan in one layer.  Roast at 375 for about 45 minutes, or until everything’s cooked through and getting golden.  Really, really good with grilled meat of some sort, and also a really excellent way to use up the last bits of whatever.

Growing:

Nothing new to report, really.  Next weekend I plan on potting the herbs.  We have some chive blossoms hanging out.  Yum.