Monday, September 30, 2013

garden update: late september

In September, the garden completely got away from me. We didn't have a normal "harvest time" because everything was ready at different times, and some things didn't survive at all.

Here's what the garden looks like now, waiting to be cleaned out for some fall plantings of cold weather crops.

Believe it or not, this is our tomato patch. Yikes. 

We had a few lessons learned with this patch this year. Our plants were too close together and crowded in. We also didn't properly stake them - the cages we used were too large and as the plants grew and grew, they couldn't support the weight of the fruit. Some of the vines died because they snapped under the weight. So then you have this mess.

It also feels like it happened over night. One day they were all fine the next, they were a jumble. Oh, and at one point, one of the hens made this her secret nesting box for 8 days as evidenced by this:

We also were falling prey to a bit of late blight that arrived in western Pennsylvania. All things considered, as far as harvest, we managed to get a decent amount of tomatoes. Many of them had to come off the vines early, but they ripened pretty well indoors and are part of many freezer batches of Mark's tomato sauce as well as salsa. 

One bumper crop we did have this year was the Beam's Yellow Pear Tomatoes. Holy buckets, we have been drowning in these. The photo below is the last round of tomatoes we brought in. A couple of fat greeny-red ones and a ton of yellows.

The corn plant managed to give us 6 ears this year, which is definitely a success. We're going to use the dried plants as decorations for our front porch for fall. (Now I just need some mums!)

One of the basils went to seed really quickly and spilled over the side of its bed. We let it be, but it was nice to see bees around it constantly.

The bed where the basil was also housed peppers and broccoli. The broccoli got enormous, but didn't produce anything. I don't think we planted it at the right time. The peppers produced well, and we got tons of jalapenos, which were used in salsa or strung up to dry.

I got a few random wildflowers from the mix I planted in a container. I happened to catch a bee having a little nip on one of the flowers.

Besides the basil, the only herb that really produced was sage. We got a lot of herbs from our CSA though, so we were never without. 

Here's a really great shot of what happens when you have random empty pots of previously used soil on your back patio. And then what happens when you don't do anything with them all year. Weed explosion.

The cucumbers did okay - at least better than last year. In particular, the Boothby's Blonde ones produced pretty well and we got to eat them on salads for a few weeks earlier this year. We had planted nasturtiums near them to help with natural pest control. Once the cucumbers were dead and gone, the flowers took over and we just let them do their thing.

The dragon beans produced well this year - much more than last year. We had enough to have a whole meal of lubieh with just our beans! Maybe it was the pentunias that helped keep the pests away (though they mostly escaped out the side of the bed)!

Sadly, there's nothing left to see of the squash/pumpkin/melon patch. We lost most of them to pests - squash bugs in particular. We did get two small kikuza squash - one of which we could eat - and it was tasty. We got a few emerald gem melons too, which are small but adequate. No pumpkins or other melons to speak of though. Mark opened up the netting around the patch and let the chickens go to town. You would have thought they won the lottery with the feast of bugs before them.

Now nothing's left but dirt!

Once all the beds are cleaned out, Mark will be sowing some lettuce that's cold hardy in the bed that housed the peppers and broccoli. The other beds will be mulched with straw to preserve the soil and overwinter. 

Are you planting anything for the fall?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Real Life CSA: week 17, produce

The large weeks of the share will soon come to a close as the main growing season winds down, so this was an especially great one for late fall. So many colors!

The peppers and beans add to our existing stash. According to this week's email from the farm, the havasu pepper is a milder hot pepper. Cilantro will probably make it into salsa, and the broccoli will make a nice side.

This chard looks fantastic and vibrant. I adore the colors of chard - particularly the pink and red stems. It's one of the more beautiful vegetables, in my opinion.

Radishes make a good salad topping, as do the carrots. These carrots are really flavorful. I love that they look craggy and aren't uniform like the carrots you get in the grocery store. 

Got a couple fall favorites too - the first butternut squash of the year, plus some apple cider. The cider we get in our CSA is raw, which means it isn't pasteurized, but they do process it with a UV light to kill pathogens. It's a mix of four different types of apples from their orchards - tastes great and freezes well. I need to commit to drinking more hot cider in the fall and winter this year!

Couldn't resist one last gratuitous tomato shot before we don't see them again for months. Trying to enjoy them while they last!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Next Gen House at Edible Allegheny's Online Dish

Edible Allegheny is a local magazine that, as their tagline says, "celebrates local food, farms and cuisine - season by season." I actually started reading the magazine several years ago, when a free copy was included in a delivery of produce I got through a program at my old job. That was around the time I was becoming a food person anyway, and the recipes and stories were inspiring and educational. I can honestly say that Edible Allegheny is responsible for Mark and I finding a ton of great restaurants and food events in the area. They are a great resource for all things local food - truly covering everything from the farm to the table.

I'm really excited to be one of the featured blogs in the Online Dish column this issue, along with two other great local sites: food blog Life and Kitchen and agricultural blog Write to Farm.

The fine avian ladies of Next Gen House even made the column header, hanging out in our compost area, as you can see from this screen shot. (And check out that pumpkin pie on the cover of the magazine to the left. If that doesn't scream fall, I don't know what does.)

Head over to this month's column to read about this blog and its roots, as well as the other great local links - the website is a wealth of information and the Online Dish archives can lead you to some great local blogs as well!

I wasn't paid or perked to promote Edible Allegheny - they are just a great magazine.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Chipotle's imagination - how pure is it?

You might have seen this haunting and beautiful new viral commercial from Chipotle (complete with a Fiona Apple cover of 'Pure Imagination'). If not, check it out below.

The first time I saw it, I thought, YES! Beautiful animation, great music, down with Big Food! Hooray! 

And then I saw this response from Funny or Die.

So which one is right? Should we see Chipotle as a corporation trying to educate the public and make a real change in how industrial food is sourced and produced? Or are they trying to manipulate us into purchasing their "better" burritos?

I'd say both. 

When it comes to sourcing ingredients, Chipotle does set itself apart from virtually all other quick-service restaurant chains (with the possible exception of Moe's, which sources their meat with more discretion than say, McDonald's). They use the tag "food with integrity." Most of their meats are produced without giving the animals added hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics. They claim to source their produce locally and organically "when practical" and use dairy products from cows raised without added hormones. 

The fact that this information is even available on their website sets them apart from other restaurants, who make claims about the "quality" of their food and its "freshness" but not about where it came from. No matter what, Chipotle deserves credit for even acknowledging that it matters where your food comes from and in the case of meat and dairy, how the animal was raised. I don't see Ronald McDonald giving kids lectures on the CAFO feedlots where Mayor McCheese sources his beef.


Chipotle is still a huge corporation. In 2012, they made $2.7 BILLION in sales revenue. They have corporate interests, with shareholders to please. And they spend an enormous amount of money on marketing, including this commercial and its accompanying games. This commercial was designed with the intent to (as the Funny or Die parody points out) tug at your heart strings and make you feel something. Yes, it is telling you that industrial agriculture is fundamentally not "right." But it's also telling you to buy Chipotle burritos. Don't make the burrito at home with whole, clean foods. Buy Chipotle and let them do the worrying about where the food comes from. You can TRUST them.

The last time I was in a Chipotle, there was a sign saying the beef was conventionally raised. While I respect that they bothered to even inform people of that, it's true that they would rather purchase and serve conventional beef than say "we're out of beef today, please choose pork, vegetables or chicken." To me that says that profit (and the satisfaction of customers who want their beef, no matter what) comes first.

Let's not forget that Chipotle also admits that GMOs are present in most of their menu items (save for salad fixings and the pork carnitas). While they have labeled the items and claim to be working toward eliminating them, they still are reliant on GMO soy and corn, including the soybean oil used to cook their rice (which is also why the rice is so high-cal). So while they are taking steps toward moving beyond some industrial agriculture practices, they are fully entrenched in others. 

Does this mean you should stop eating at Chipotle? Not necessarily. I don't lump them in the same category as McDonald's, since of quick-service restaurants they have shown the most transparency with their ingredients and a willingness to respond to increasing consumer demand for more sustainable, humanely raised food. But you should know what you're eating - and when you see something like the Scarecrow, recognize it for what it is - beautiful, haunting marketing - and let it inspire you to make your own burrito.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Real Life CSA: week 16, produce

The end of the fourth month already and we've got another new fall item peeking in.

We've been eating a lot of apples lately, as they are in season and abundant. I love different varietals of apples - makes you realize not all apples are waxy and hard.

Really excited to see mixed greens this week, since we haven't had them for awhile and they are hands down the best salad greens you will find anywhere.

We're trying to hold the line against tomatoes and finding more and more ways to preserve them. With this week's basil, these will probably be made into tomato sauce and frozen. We are also knee-deep in yellow globe tomatoes from our own garden, which seem to be the only varietal we grew this year that thrived.

Our farm has had a bumper crop of eggplant this year, so we still had more this week (albeit one with a funky nub, which gives it some character). The email from the farm had a few recipes for eggplant, so we might try one of those.

These red peppers look similar, but the large one is sweet and the small one is a Hungarian hot wax, so it will be more spicy.

Probably my favorite part this week is the carnival acorn squash, (1) because I love squash and (2) it just screams fall. Which I am definitely ready for.

Off to the Mother Earth News Fair this weekend, so you can expect a lot of Twitter updates and some recaps next week. Lots to see and do and learn!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Next Gen House gets a makeover

Next Gen House is about more than eggs and chickens, though my previous design wouldn't have made that clear. In need of a facelift, I hired my friend Jessica Wysocki Valesky, the artist behind Fox Bear Designs

I asked her to draw me a header that included our house, cat, chickens, and Star Trek. A tall and ridiculous order. Which is how the lovely header above came to be - Maggie watching over the flock outside of our house. Delta shields on canning jars. I'm dying of happiness.

Jess has an Etsy shop where she features her illustrations on various media, including prints, greeting cards, magnets and perhaps most creatively, brooches and earrings.

Particularly fitting for this blog are her illustrations of various herbs. 

I particularly love the borage (starflower) design.

Don't they make you want to garnish a dish? Or muddle some mint for a mojito?

If you're looking for a unique gift idea or just a print for your wall at home, check out Jess's shop and her website.

Thanks for drawing our brood and our humble but adored abode, Jess!

I was not paid or perked to promote Fox Bear Designs. Jess is a talented small business owner here in Pittsburgh that I am proud to support! 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

natural nonsense: why 'natural' is meaningless marketing

When you see or hear the word “natural,” what comes to mind? Something connected to the earth, unadulterated and in its ‘default’ state of being? Images of nature? Thoughts about health and wellness? Do you get an innate sense that “natural” is a good thing, in opposition to “unnatural”?

You do? Congratulations, you’re a marketer’s dream come true.

The federal government, through the USDA, certifies the term “organic” and regulates its usage. To label something “organic,” complex standards have to be met. Primarily this includes the method of production (no GMOs, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge), the items used in production (only those on the nationally approved list, e.g. no chemical pesticides) and inspection by a USDA certifying agent. You can read more about it here.  

There currently exists no standardized, legally enforceable definition of “natural.” Several agencies have tried over the years to define it, but industry push-back has succeeded in squashing those attempts. Why? Because if consumers equate “natural” with “organic” anyway, why would Big Food go to the expense of certification and paperwork and better sourcing of ingredients? They can make a better profit margin by calling something “natural” and getting the consumer to buy it because they think it’s a superior product, when in fact, it’s not at all.

Recently lawsuits have been brought against the companies that produce Naked Juice, 7Up, Vitamin Water charging them with misleading or false advertising for claiming their products are “all-natural” when they included additives. Naked Juice just agreed to settle their large class action this month. On the surface, this is great for consumers because it’s bringing awareness to the use of the term “natural” on products. But it doesn’t stop other companies from using it or work toward a legally enforceable definition. A suit ending in settlement doesn’t create any legal precedent. This article from Salon further explains these lawsuits.

So we’ll keep seeing products like this on the market:

Yes, those are Natural Cheetos. Just think about that for a second. Natural. Cheetos.

You don’t have to turn away all products that claim to be “natural,” though. Instead of signaling you to walk away, read the label. Do the ingredients listed seem appropriate and recognizable to you? Do you see corn or soy as one of the ingredients? If so, it’s probably GMO, unless the label says it is certified non-GMO. Common sense is your ally – call it the natural Cheetos test.

Another movement is happening to bring meaning to the term “natural” outside of government regulating – called Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). Primarily for the produce and livestock industries, it’s a grassroots effort designed to help small farms and producers who sell their products locally get credit for the ways they produce without having to go to the expense of the national organic program. 

According to their website, to be Certified Naturally Grown, “farmers don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.”

CNG farms are inspected by other farmers and all records are available for public viewing.

I’ve started to see CNG products more and more in this area. In particular, Marty’s Market in the Strip District carries produce from local farms that are CNG. (And they have a rockin’ brunch too. Check them out.)

All consumer products, particularly those purchased from a grocery stores and not directly from a producer, have a level of marketing. Big Food spends millions upon millions of dollars every year trying to manipulate your behavior through advertising and marketing – not just on the TV but in the stores and on the packages.
Some of the things they tell you are true, but others are only true by the best possible legal stretch of the imagination. (For a fascinating book about this, read Sugar Salt Fat by Michael Moss which I reviewed here.)

By reading the labels of the foods you buy and consume, you’re taking the control back from those companies and not buying blindly. Don’t be a sucker for “health washing” – the trend of making items appear to be more healthy than they are. Remember that the healthiest foods – the clean, whole foods – don’t need marketing to convince you they are healthy. 

Or a creepy cartoon cheetah.

Monday, September 16, 2013

canning and preserving: salsa

We found ourselves with an abundance of tomatoes and peppers at the same time - particularly hot peppers - and decided to see if we could can a batch of salsa, one of our favorite canned tomato items. We used the zesty salsa recipe from Ball this year, with our abundance of hot peppers.

This recipe takes more time to prep than it does to process! You start with skinned, chopped tomatoes.

And then a million peppers. We wear rubber gloves when doing salsa since we don't know when and how much we'll be touching the hot peppers and don't really want to spread capsaicin all over the kitchen and ourselves. I've had to throw out too many pairs of contacts over the years from hot peppers in the eye. 

After cups and cups of peppers, chop onions until you cry.

We make salsa in our dutch oven, so since we don't have enough measuring cups to hold everything during the prep, we start piling it in the dutch oven right away.

This salsa uses garlic and apple cider vinegar as well as the peppers, onions and tomatoes. Thank goodness for a garlic press because my hands were done chopping.

Mark is the master herb chopper of the household, so he handled the cilantro while I got everything mixed up to cook. 

Hot salsa gets ladled into hot jars. We managed to get 7 pints in to process, but had an extra pint we saved out to eat fresh, so the recipe made more than the 6 pints promised. 

I like how you can see Captain America's foot peeking out above the canning pot from his spot on our fridge. Geek house!

A short processing time later, 7 sealed pints. Nothing broken, thanks to making sure the temperature of the jars and food stayed consistent. We let the canner come to boiling with the jars submerged this time, so no replay of the tomato canning breakage from last week. (Salsa is hot pack anyway, but we weren't taking any chances.) 

We've got some more catching up to do on grape juice/jelly canning this week, and we hope to fit that in before we head off to Seven Springs for the Mother Earth News Fair this coming weekend. Can't wait to see what kind of ideas and tips we bring home!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Real Life CSA: week 15, produce

Lots of end-of-summer staples this week, as well as a few surprises!

Not being big fans of beets in this house, those were immediately set aside to donate to a beet-tolerant friend. Green beans will make it as a side dish, or possibly combined with beans and tomatoes we already have for loubieh.

Check out that bell pepper in the middle. So big, and perfect for stuffing! If only we had a second one of that size.

The potatoes we've had this year have been delicious as a quick side. If you've never tried it before, throw a bit of lemon zest and some parmesan cheese in your mashed potatoes.   

Tomatoes out the wazoo means we might try to can salsa this weekend. We have an abundance of hot peppers from our own garden right now and nothing beats opening up a pint of salsa in the middle of January and having it feel like it came straight from the garden. 

Any extra tomatoes will be made with the basil into freezer tomato sauce. It's Mark's specialty, and he uses Cooks Illustrated's recipe.

Happy to have some corn this week, especially because it works equally well as an ingredient in a larger dish or by itself. The apples will be nice too - we had Kretschmann apples with honey on Rosh Hashanah this year and it was delicious! (The apple and honey are sweet foods that signify a sweet new year.)

As for our garden, we haven't seen the tomato explosion that we really wanted with all the varietals of red tomatoes. But are few are doing okay ripening off the vine, and the yellow globe tomatoes? We're buried in them.

At least the slightly blighted tomatoes don't go to waste - the chickens go nuts for tomatoes. (Probably why one of them made a nest in the patch like a ninja.) They are walking, produce garbage disposals! 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Real Life CSA: meat, month 4

I can't believe we're already on our fourth month of the meat CSA from Clarion River Organics. It snuck up on us to the point where we had to "emergency can" two batches of grape jelly from juice we had in our chest freezer to make room for the meat delivery. We did it, and now we have some more room for this month's meat share. 

The three chickens were all roasters this time. We also found out from the farm's update email that last month's share had three roasters as well. The last share will be three stewing chickens, but that's good as we'll be getting into chili and stew season anyway! 

Pretty excited about the beef share too, seeing that we got my favorites: burgers and steaks.

We got four premium steaks this time - beef loin rib steaks, and beef loin T-bones, as well as 20 quarter pound burger patties. We always make our own patties from ground beef, but Mark and I both are happy to have some of the convenience of pre-formed patties in the freezer (without having to worry they will end up recalled for e.coli!).

While the steaks and burgers were pretty exciting, the greatest discovery (and biggest preparation challenge) this time was in the pork share. 

We've got our regular sausages, ground pork, and pork chops, plus some country style ribs. But take a look up at the top right. What have we here?

Pork jowels.(Cheeks.)

Oh yeah, and a pork heart.

I felt like a zombie, reaching into the box and pulling this baby out in particular. I mean, look at it. It actually kind of looks fake, like a Halloween prop!

This is when you start practicing what you preach with eating farm raised meats - everyone loves steaks and chops and Christmas hams, but what about the other parts of the animal that are perfectly edible, but that can make us shudder at the thought of consuming?

I'll admit. I don't know the first thing about how to prepare pork jowels or pork heart. Mark thinks from the look of the jowels it's something that will be cooked low and slow. As for the heart, I've had beef heart before, so I'm wondering if it will be similar in texture, if not taste.

We're going to do some research on preparation, and I'll report back. I'm looking forward to the challenge!