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Tuesday, September 29th, 2009 | Author: admin

These seedlings were planted 10 days ago

These seedlings were planted 10 days ago

Many of you may already know about hoophouses. They are unheated greenhouses that allow growers to harness the sun’s power during the winter to grow veggies. I live not far from Michigan State University’s Student Organic Farm, which uses hoophouses for research and to extend the growing season for their farm market and CSA sales. (CSA stands for Community-Supported Agriculture where members buy shares of whatever the farmer produces.)

My husband and I were so impressed with what this new technology can do that we put up our own 26 by 36 hoophouse, completed this spring. We enjoyed a bountiful (and early) harvest of warm-weather crops, but now that it is time for our fall planting, I am realizing how complicated this new way of gardening can be.

Our hoophouse out in the field

Our hoophouse out in the field

The first decision is what to plant. Then when to plant. And whether to plant seeds directly or start seedlings indoors for transplanting.

And what do you do with the summer plantings that are still producing? That patty pan squash plant is still reliably giving me a new squash or two every week, so do I rip it out? And what plants can follow other plants without increasing the risk of disease and insect problems?

When in doubt, I rely on two trustworthy sources. First is Eliot Coleman, whose book above on “The Winter Harvest” is my bible. The second is Michigan State University hoophouse specialist Adam Montri. Click here for his free handout on fall plantings for hoophouses in Michigan, adaptable to other cold Midwest states.

Mache, also called corn salad

Mache, also called corn salad

Unheated winter greenhouses can produce abundant harvests of root crops, various greens and onions. The trick is mastering the timing. Growth in winter slows dramatically, so Coleman says that you need to have most of your crops close to harvest stage by the time that the daytime sunlight drops to 10 hours a day. Wunderground tells me that we are down to 11 hours and 49 minutes of daytime today, and the day will be 2 minutes and 51 seconds shorter tomorrow. By my calculation, I have roughly one month more before the big slowdown.

I began starting seeds indoors in August, even though it seemed counter-intuitive to use electricity to start plants indoors when the sunshine outside is free. But the problem is that many of these cool- and cold-weather plants find August temperatures too hot for good germination and early growth.

The other problem, of course, is space. My hoophouse in August was filled to the bring with summer plants that were booming.

The picture above (taken yesterday) shows that the romaine, mache, various lettuces, spinach, chard, kale and beet seedlings started indoors and planted two or three weeks ago are doing great. (Mache, also known as corn salad, is a type of lettuce that Coleman recommends, along with minatura, for winter production. I rely on Johnny’s Seeds for these varieties.)

I also direct-seeded turnips, beets, carrots and lettuce at various times during the last six weeks, but I am worried that many were planted too late to grow big enough to fare well during the winter.

We have not yet had a frost this fall. Those milk jugs painted black are ready to be filled with water, so that they can absorb solar energy during the day and radiate it back at night as an additional temperature boost at night.

My hoophouse does not enjoy a frost-free water hydrant, so it will tricky deciding when to roll up the hoses before they freeze solid. I visited Adam’s hoophouse last January, and he said that he never had to water during the winter. Let’s hope I don’t have to yoke up the dogs like oxen to carry pails of water in January and February.

glass clocheOnce I begin to understand hoophouse dynamics better, I want to explore other possibilities for small-scale, home winter food production. Simple cold frames or “low tunnel” hoophouses two or three feet high offer tremendous promise as a much-lower price.

Coleman writes that the French placed glass cloches over fall plantings in their fields outdoors a century ago, as many as 3,000 on one farm. Like the hoophouse, the glass would allow the sun to come through and heat the plants during the day. Farmers would also cover them with a blanket of ryegrass to insulate them further. But imagine the hard work it took to prop up each of those cloches on days when the sun got so intense they needed to be vented – and then put them back down at night.

Our production dramatically reduced our summer grocery bills. Meijer for me is now the place to buy toilet paper and root beer (and I have a kit to start making my own root beer as well). Let’s hope my winter production feeds us well this winter.

Sunday, September 20th, 2009 | Author: admin
Half of a health Kick tomato
If I offered you a slice of this
Health Kick tomato at a farmstand
in Michigan today, I would be
breaking the law

At a farm marketing meeting in Michigan two years ago, a participant talked movingly about how his mother supported the family during the Depression by selling homemade pies to area restaurants. “If it hadn’t been for those pies, I don’t know how we would have made it,” he said.

Sadly, doing so today in Michigan and many other states is flatly illegal. Why? Concerns about food safety have prompted states to pass laws that require all food for sale must be prepared in a certified kitchen. In states such as Michigan, this not only prevents home cooks and bakers from marketing homemade wares, but it is why a producer at a farm market cannot slice up an apple or melon for you to taste – that, too, requires a certified kitchen, which is typically beyond the budget of many farmers’ markets and farmstands.

Shouldn’t states find a way to regulate Sara Lee effectively without preventing me from buying a slice of a real Mom’s homemade apple pie? So-called “cottage laws” address this conundrum by allowing people to offer consumers relatively small amounts of relatively safe homemade foods for sale without penalty. It doesn’t mean Mom can poison people with impunity, but she could sell homemade jams and jellies without facing a stiff fine if she’s caught. Without naming names, many of Michigan’s successful new food entrepreneurs knowingly or unknowingly broke the existing food safety law when they got started. For many small entrepreneurs, the cost of using a certified kitchen is simply prohibitive until their business grows large enough.

In Michigan, Rep. John Proos (R-St. Joseph) is sponsoring HR 5280 to ease Michigan’s tough food safety laws to allow for this small-scale food production. So if you have a great recipe from Grandma that you want to test market without investing a fortune, call your state representative to urge support for cottage laws.

The counter-argument is that we cannot know whether Mom’s kitchen is safe unless it is state inspected. And I have seen home kitchens that make me wince. But it seems to me that the real scandal is that there are so few food safety regulators keeping an eye on the big food makers. I’ll take my chances on Mom.

If you are thinking of a small food enterprise, take a moment to visit Cooking with Denay for some tips on getting started. (Her site also offers information on nutritional labeling.) Michigan State University’s Product Center also offers assistance. Mark your calendar for their food show at the Lansing Civic Center on November 11.

Monday, September 07th, 2009 | Author: admin

Fresh Michigan peaches
Fresh Michigan peaches on the railing of my deck

Does anything taste better than fresh Michigan peaches? Here’s a great way to enjoy them in a gluten-free dessert that everyone will love.

Serves 8

  • 6 fresh Michigan peaches, sliced (you can peel them, if you like)
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 6 cups GF cereal flakes (corn, millet, etc.)
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 T cinnamon
  • 1 T salt
  • 3/4 cup honey
  • 1 cup melted butter

Preheat oven to 350 and grease 9 by 13 baking dish.

Mix peaches with lemon juice and then mix in a bowl with cereal flakes, pecans, cinnamon and salt. Drizzle with honey and melted butter and mix again, then spread evenly in the baking pan. Cover top loosely with foil. Bake for 26 to 32 minutes, removing foil during the last 5 minutes. Serve in a bowl with ice cream or milk. Many people who suffer from celiac disease are also lactose intolerant, so try topping your dessert with soymilk or rice milk.

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009 | Author: admin

Kale is a dark-green miracle veggie. According to Wikipedia, it is both an anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory, with high levels of beta carotene, vitamins C and K, lutein and zeaxanthin, and it has significant levels of calcium. Of particular note is that kale also contains the anticancer, antidiabetic, and antimicrobial compound called sulforaphane. Apparently the only people who should not eat large amounts of kale are folks on anti-coagulants like coumadin/warfarin, because the high levels of the blood-clotting Vitamin K could counteract the effects of those drugs.

On top of that, kale tastes great. Many mornings this summer, breakfast begins with picking a few curly leaves of kale to saute in olive oil. Then I add a farm-fresh egg or two (I buy mine from a neighbor) and scramble them together. Season with salt and pepper. Add a little fruit to the plate, and nothing could be better to start the day.

My kale seems to love this cool, wet summer weather, so I also have lots to freeze. The good news is that kale freezes well, provided you just let it come back to room temperature before cooking. Cook the frozen kale directly, and it will turn to mush.

Folks with hoophouses, those passive solar greenhouses you see popping up in the Midwest, can grow kale straight through the winter. Again, it may freeze at night, but it you let it thaw during the day, you can pick it without producing mush.

Freezing kale is easy:

  • Pick dark green, unblemished leaves and rinse under cool water.
  • Blanch the kale for one to two minutes in boiling water – the color will turn bright green.
  • Plunge the kale into ice water and keep it there for the same amount of time as you blanched it.
  • Use a salad spinner to remove excess water. (This helps in freezing so you don’t coat the kale in excess water.)
  • Put the kale into freezer bags. Fill loosely and then lay the bags flat on a tray that you place into the freezer. Once frozen, you can store the bags on top of other items so that they don’t get crushed.
  • To use, remove what you need and let it return to room temperature.
Saturday, August 22nd, 2009 | Author: admin

Our intrepid reporter Henry Brimmer interviewed MSU student Rachel Beyer at the Student Organic Farm about the late blight outbreak. On Thursday, August 20, Rachel expressed concerned that the farm could lose all of its 900 feet of tomato plants by Monday.

bad news at the student organic farm II from Henry Brimmer on Vimeo.

Friday, August 14th, 2009 | Author: admin

White wine with blueberries and peaches - bruschetta with fresh basil and tomatoes

What a glorious time to eat fresh produce in Michigan. The peaches are ripe, as are the blueberries. Here we put them straight into white wine. In this case, the wine is Trillium, a proprietary blend of whites wines from Good Harbor Vineyards in Lake Leelanau. (Thanks to my friend Therese for the idea.)

To go along with the fruit and wine combination, we made a bruschetta with fresh basil and tomatoes. Slice French bread into rounds, then brush the tops with olive oil and bake at 450 degree for 15 to 20 minutes (or long enough to turn the edges brown). Make a chiffonade of fresh basil, top with some chunks of tomato from the garden or a local Farmers’ Market, then grate some pecorino cheese on top.

Does it get any better than this?

Monday, July 27th, 2009 | Author: admin

The Soyabella unit sells for just under $100

Remember to pick out any green or discolored
soybeans before soaking

Perhaps because it is not heated, almond milk
tends to separate in the fridge. Just shake it
before pouring.

The almond milk is white, while the paste is almost
pinkish. The soymilk is golden white, while the okara
is a bit lighter.

Nutmilks such as soymilk and almond milk are great for people who are lactose intolerant, and many people simply prefer nutmilk to cow’s milk. Not only is making your own nutmilk cheaper, but you can control quality. (Click here to read more about the continuing controversy about where the soybeans in Silk now come from and whether they are always organic.)

The Soyabella soymilk maker is a great gizmo, though I wish the company would supply a cover for the exposed plug on the unit to keep water out during washing. (Further proof we need more women engineers.)

The kit provides a plastic cup you use to measure out the proper amount of soybeans or almonds. Put them in a bowl, cover with filtered water, making sure you have at least an inch of water on top and soak overnight. The next morning, place the nuts or almonds into the Soybean basket (the full kit also comes with a basket to make rice paste for tofu) and attach the basket to the grinder head. Add water to the proper fill line and attach the grinder head on top of the unit.

For soybean milk, you press the Milk function on the unit. This setting automatically heats the water to the appropriate temperature and then grinds the soybeans to make the finished milk. Almond milk is not heated, so you use the Mill function, running it three or four times to produce the right consistency.

As you can see in the bottom picture, you not only end up with milk but also with pulp. Soybean pulp is called okara, and this link takes you to a great Fat-Free Vegan recipe for Crab Cakes that will help you use up the protein-rich okara. The Raw Foods Talk Forum offers a recipe for almond cookies that use the fresh almond pulp, and I can verify that it’s delicious. Please also use our Comments section below to leave your ideas, since nut pulps are too good to waste.

The toughest part of the process occurs once the soymilk is made. The finished soymilk is HOT, which makes removing the basket from the grinder head tricky (the heat seems to weld the two pieces together). Fortunately, the Soyabella folks have included a plastic bowl with slots in the bottom that help you twist off the basket. I use some silicone fingertip grippers to wrangle the two pieces apart.

Again, cleaning the unit is a challenge, not just because of the placement of the top plug but because the fine mesh on the Soybean basket usually gets gummed up, especially when making the soymilk. Again, the good news is that the Soyabella folks have provided a special brush for this purpose.

I buy most of my soybeans from the local food coop, though I worry that it is hard to find soybeans that are completely GMO free (Genetically Modified Organisms). I have also purchased Arrowhead Mills organic soybeans from Amazon ($29/95 for a box of 12 one-pound bags). Amazon also sells Good Sense organic raw almonds (three 6-ounce bags for $18.28). However, I usually just buy regular almonds in bulk, because I figure that the shells of the nuts provide more protection against chemicals than the soybeans enjoy.

NOTE: Yes, if you look closely at the Soyabella unit in the top photo, you can see me and the camera reflected on its surface. So much for being a great food photographer.

Thursday, June 04th, 2009 | Author: admin
Epsom salts used on pepper plants

I can grow tomatoes that look bigger and better than any in my local supermarket, but my bell peppers – no matter whether they are green, red, yellow, orange or purple – all end up looking puny beside those grown by professionals. What’s the key?

I have learned that sprinkling some Epsom Salts around each pepper plant will add magnesium, which peppers apparently like. Pepper plants can also be susceptible to blossom end rot, so I incorporated some crushed eggshells into the soil around each plant to add extra calcium.

Perhaps the moderating effects of the hoophouse will help. Like Golidlocks, our passive solar greenhouse allows us to keep the environment not too hot, not too cold, but just right. I can control the water and wind as well.

Check back at the end of the summer (or sign up for our RSS feed) for updates.

Friday, May 15th, 2009 | Author: admin

A chilling article in the New York Times called “Food Companies Are Placing the Onus for Safety on Consumers” says that food companies and the government have pretty much given up on figuring out where food-borne illnesses come from. In 2007, an estimated 15,000 people nationwide were sickened by salmonella from Banquet frozen pies, but they never found the veggie, grain or condiment causing the problem.

Reporter Michael Moss writes a sentence that should worry us all – “Increasingly, the corporations that supply Americans with frozen and processed foods are unable to guarantee the safety of their ingredients.” To keep costs low, major food supplies like ConAgra, which owns Banquet, keep changing their recipes and their suppliers for the processed foods they manufacture and distribute.

The corporations argue that it is simply too burdensome for them to keep track of the source of the ingredients in the various foods they produce. Feel reassured? Me neither.

Fortunately, tests on some raw ingredients showed relatively low levels of salmonella in items such as wheat (less than 2% of the samples), but roughly 8% of spices contained this potentially lethal pathogen. Just recently, salmonella in white pepper has resulted in a “widening recall” of spices and eggrolls on the west coast.

The New York Times’ article also notes that companies and consumers often fail to cook foods to a high-enough temperature to kill bacteria. Much to my surprise, since an outbreak of E. coli in their frozen pizzas in 2007, General Mills has been warning people not to use microwaves on their frozen foods, only conventional ovens. Yet the Times also points out that following the package directions is no guarantee. In their testing, the cooking instructions on various products failed to heat the foods hot enough to kill common bacteria.

We are indeed back to an era of caveat emptor (buyer beware). Growing your own food and cooking from scratch help reduce the risk. For those who have the time and opportunity to do so, not only does this make food safer, but the freshness means that you are getting the full benefit of the vitamins and “neutraceuticals” that fresh fruits and vegetables contain.

However, it also pays to invest in a good instant-read cooking thermometer and to make sure your dishes reach 165 degrees and above, the level at which most pathogens are killed. Remember that substances like pepper can cause serious illness, and I don’t know anyone growing their own.

Yet we also undeniably need stronger food regulation enforcement. Many dishes turn to sludge at high temperatures, so that’s not a cure-all. And the E coli that periodically turns up in fresh ingredients like spinach remind us that the first role of government is to keep us safe. Yes, corporations like ConAgra will need to spend more to track and test ingredients, but I suspect that even the poorest consumers will cheerfully spend a few pennies more for food we can trust.

If we are indeed the richest nation on earth, we can afford to invest in finding out where our next meal is coming from – and that it won’t kill us.

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009 | Author: admin
Rice flour from grain grinder
Rice flour from grain grinder
My hand grinder produces
a wonderfully fine rice flour,

perfect for folks with celiac

Both my husband and I have celiac disease, which means we cannot eat gluten, a substance found in wheat, barley and rye. So I now find myself on a quest to find ways to add gluten-free alternative flours to various dishes.

One concern is that I often need just a small amount of flour, to thicken a gravy or to sprinkle on apples for a pie. But alternative flours do not always hold up well. I love expensive almond flour, but the last time I went to use some, it had clumped and spoiled.

I decided it might make better sense to grind my own flour, on demand. But should I invest in an electric grinder or a hand crank? I chose the latter even though I have a damaged arm, not only because it benefits from the exercise (I think of cranking as physical therapy) but because I always worry about dealing with power outages. With my handy hand crank unit, I can grind up just the amount I need and give my circulation a boost at the same time.

There is also something uniquely satisfying about grinding my own grain. The more I find myself getting back to basics, the better I feel about the food I eat.