Friday, April 24, 2015

The Story of Food Waste

On Earth Day this past week, MSNBC aired Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story. I knew that a lot of food was wasted in our society, but I had no idea about the scope of the problem. According to this documentary, we waste 30%-40% of our food, and that means we also waste 30%-40% of our water, land, pesticides, fertilizers, and energy we use to grow it.

I think what most surprised me was how much fresh produce is wasted before it even gets to the grocery store. It never occurred to me to think of why exactly all those fruits and vegetables look so uniform and perfect at the grocery store, while the ones I grow are much more irregular in shape and size. I guess I assumed that the chemical fertilizers, pesticides, machines, and other industrial growing techniques had something to do with it.

I never realized it was because they just throw away all the fruits and vegetables that don't meet their beauty standards! A banana that doesn't curve just right, a carrot that's not perfectly straight, a peach with a cosmetic blemish, they all get rejected.

I knew there must be some rejects. Bruised fruit, broken vegetables, etc. I assumed they would get processed into things like jams or canned soups, but no. The peach grower said he offers his ugly peaches to jam companies, but he has so many they can only take a small fraction. Another segment had a celery farmer standing on piles of celery that was trimmed off to make the bunches of celery fit in the bags they're packaged in. He said it was perfectly good celery, but nobody wants it, so it gets plowed back under.

Speaking of fresh vegetables, they really gave me a lot of guilt over that moldy bell pepper I threw away last week! The most memorable part of the movie followed a bell pepper from a sprouting plant, to being picked over and getting past the culling stage, to being shipped in a truck cross-country, to being bought in a grocery store, to being put in the drawer of a refrigerator, and then... molding and rotting away.

All to the tune of "Don't You (Forget About Me)" by Simple Minds.

"When you walk on by... will you call my name? Or will you walk away?"

Yes, little bell pepper, I FORGOT ABOUT YOU! I'm so sorry!

But actually, I think I'm pretty good for the most part. One thing I wondered about watching this documentary is, "Is eating leftovers a weird thing that most people don't do?" They talk about restaurant portions, they talk about catering events where you have food left over, they talk about serving too much food at dinner parties, and I kept wondering how that wastes food, unless nobody eats leftovers.

When I take a doggy bag home from a restaurant, that's lunch for the next day. When I throw a party or host a holiday dinner, my husband and I spend the next week eating the leftovers, but they don't get wasted. I sometimes plan for leftovers on purpose by choosing foods I know reheat well or are good to incorporate into new dishes.

Maybe it's just how I was raised, but I was raised to not waste food. My mom might have gone too far with the penny-pinching so that at times it seemed the stress she went through worrying about every little cent wasn't worth the money she saved, but at least she taught me that throwing food away is the same as throwing dollar bills straight in the trash, and that isn't something anyone would do.

I also knew that the dates on containers are "sell by" or "best by" dates, and not "eat this by this date or else it will kill you" dates. I only throw away food that is noticeably spoiled. If it's moldy or has obviously rotten spots, or has a bad smell, then it goes in the compost. Otherwise, I eat it, and I have never gotten sick from eating food from home.

I'm also a compost heretic. Lots of garden books will give you these rules on what you can and can't put in compost. I don't listen to any of them, and put anything organic in the compost. Yes, including cooked foods, dairy products, meats, and moldy bread. ALL food waste goes in the compost. If it's something that smells bad, I bury it in leaves or grass clippings.

So even when I do waste food, like that poor bell pepper, it goes into my garden as compost, not into a landfill.

Speaking of landfills, one thing they didn't mention is when all those containers of food are thrown away, not only are you wasting the food, but you're wasting the containers the food is in. When that guy found that dumpster full of sealed plastic packages of hummus, I was more concerned about all that plastic going into the landfill than the hummus. All that plastic to package the hummus was wasted as well, and plastic doesn't decompose.

Another thing I wish they had covered is food waste by restaurants. When I was a student I had a part time job at Barnes and Noble, and our store had a coffee shop in it. I helped out at the coffee shop sometimes, and got to see how much food they wasted there. They had a big glass case full of all our baked goods: cookies, muffins, scones, etc. They also had panini sandwiches and had a gelato bar.

Nothing was made from scratch, of course. The baked goods came as frozen hockey pucks of dough that you just took out of the box and put in the oven. The sandwiches were pre-assembled as well and just had to be grilled, and the gelato was a liquid that was poured into the machine to churn and freeze.

Since a case brimming with baked goods looks better than having only a few of everything, they kept that case full all the way up until closing time. And then at the end of the day everything was thrown away. I remember looking at that big wheeled restaurant trash can completely full of food, mostly cookies and muffins and scones baked that day, and thought of what a waste it was. I asked if I could have a few, and I was told absolutely not! That would be considered theft, just like if I shoplifted a book off the shelf.

So then I asked if we could donate the food instead, and the manager said we'd get sued.

So it all went into the dumpster. A locking dumpster to make sure no one gets it out later.

I understand why we wouldn't want to sell day-old cookies or muffins, because they really aren't as good the next day. If you're going to spend the crazy prices we were charging for each muffin, you want one that's freshly baked. But the day-old ones weren't bad. Someone would have loved to have them.

I'm glad the documentary mentioned that you actually can't get sued for donating food. There is an actual law that says you can't, in order to encourage people to donate food without having to worry about things like that. They were talking about it in the context of grocery stores donating extra food, but it would apply to the Barnes and Noble coffee shop too.

But most people either don't know about that, or managers may even lie to their employees and say they could get sued, because they just don't want to go to the trouble of taking the muffins to a charity instead of throwing them in the dumpster.

One last thing I think would help is if people has more ideas about how to handle leftovers. Maybe the Food Network should have a show about that. It would certainly be better than most of the shows they have now. Since Good Eats ended, the only show I like on that channel anymore is Chopped, because it actually gives me ideas on how to cook with what I have on hand that needs to get used up. They sometimes have a theme show where all the mystery ingredients are leftovers.

Maybe they could have a show just about using leftovers creatively, and they could throw in information about freezing food and other ways to store it better, meal planning, shopping smart, and so on. I would totally watch that, but I guess all those food competition shows like Guy's Grocery Games and Cutthroat Kitchen are more exciting.

Well, I would say this documentary was worth watching. We're even more spoiled when it comes to food than I thought. It inspired me to clean out the fridge today and make sure I didn't have any more sad vegetables at the bottom of the crisper drawer singing, "Don't you forget about me..."

Saturday, April 11, 2015

This Blog will Return

Wow, I haven't posted since January? I didn't realize it had been that long.

I have a confession to make: Posting to this blog had become boring and tedious for me, so I quit for a while. When I first started this blog, I was unemployed, so I had a lot more time on my hands for blogging. Now that I'm employed full-time, I've been having trouble keeping up with taking care of my vegetable garden (especially during the busy spring planting season), so blogging about it took an even lower priority.

I don't plan on giving up on this blog, but I am rethinking how I approach it. Maybe there are more interesting things I can write about than just monthly garden updates. Perhaps I can talk more about the issues that draw me to gardening to begin with like sustainability, local food, genetic preservation, etc. Oh, and I must not leave out the part about having delicious home-grown food!

I don't know how long this break will be for, but I'll try to not make it too much longer. Maybe once I get all my hot-weather plants planted I'll have more time for writing. Right now I'm still scrambling to get all my tomatoes, tomatillos, and peppers in the ground so they'll have time to mature before the really hot summer weather sets in.

See you then!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

New Year 2015

2014 was a hard year for me because my dad died. Looking back, the garden didn’t do so great either, probably because of neglect at some crucial times. I did manage to get a good crop of garlic, but the potatoes did lousy, the sweet potatoes got eaten by the deer, and the nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and tomatillos) were fairly lousy as well. I didn’t get any Black Futsu squash, so I ended up giving away the rest of that packet of seed. I only got one Charentais melon, and no Moon and Stars Watermelons. All the beans did OK.

I’m still trying to figure out how to plant fall crops in August while it’s still hot and not have them fry in the sun or get eaten by caterpillars before it cools down. This year I used the frost blanket left over from last winter as a shade, draped over wire cages. That seems to have helped, but I'm still having trouble with caterpillars eating my greens. I didn’t get any collards this winter because of caterpillars eating them up, and the deer ate up my lettuce. The only green I’ve been harvesting so far is arugula, which the deer don’t seem to like.

All the fruit trees did OK last winter except the Key Lime, which got killed down to the ground. It sprouted back (I sure hope it’s not grafted), but we dug it up and put it back in a pot, where it will stay so it can stay inside in winter. We replaced it in the ground with a Kumquat tree from Costco, which is supposed to be a hardy breed of citrus. Right now it seems to be doing fine, and is covered in ripe fruit.

The good thing about gardening is there’s always next year. If 2014 wasn’t that great, maybe 2015 will be better. I can look back at the mistakes I made last year and try other things this year.

I did finish the raised beds in the front, but I haven’t put landscape fabric and mulch in the paths yet, and the Bermuda grass is really starting to move in. That’s not such a huge project, so I think it’s a realistic goal to get that done this year.

Building a deer proof fence around the front garden is a bigger project that might take more time. Especially since I’ll need my husband’s help with that, and he’s got a lot on his plate too. We also don’t have a new shed yet, but I think that’s higher on my husband’s priority list. In the meantime I’ll just have to keep using wire and deer repellant spray to protect my plants.

Also the To Do List is getting rainwater tanks and installing a greywater system of some sort.

We’ve lived in this house for almost two years now, and it’s become clear that the soil here is just not as good as it was at the house we were renting when I started this blog. I did get soil tests done to get hard data, and they showed the soil here isn’t as good, but also the plant growth shows it. I’ve now grown several of the exact same varieties of plants here as I grew there, and they just don’t do as well. 2010 was a bumper crop of a lot of things, and that was the one year I was gardening there that wasn’t a drought. The main variable here really seems to be location. It’s a shame, really. I think about whatever college students must be living in that rent house now that probably don’t appreciate how fertile that back yard is at all!

The only thing for me to do is just slowly work at improving the soil here. It’s better to have naturally good soil, but soil can also be improved. It just takes time. My husband recently found out about some kind of horse stable around here that is offering free manure to anyone willing to do all the work of hauling it away. That sounds tempting.

Other than that, I need to figure out what I'm going to grow this year, which I think I'll save for another post. I've been spending my break looking over seed catalogs again and again wondering what I should plant and trying to not go overboard ordering more seeds than I need.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Cedar Moon and First Hard Freeze of this Winter

Last night it got down to 29 degrees, the first hard freeze of the winter. It's been a very mild winter so far, since we usually get our first killing freeze around Thanksgiving, not at the beginning of January.

I had one tomato plant survive the summer, and as you can see it is now mush, meaning last night really was our first "real" freeze, not like some of there other nights where it was maybe 31 or 30 degrees for a little while.

The peppers (and citrus trees) are tucked snugly under frost blanket. I've had peppers survive the winter before, so I'm confident I can get these to make it through as well.

The root crops (radishes, carrots, beets, parsnips, and turnips) are doing just fine. Before the cold front we got a good rain that I think really helped.

The Dwarf Grey Sugar peas are even starting to flower, while the Tall Telephone peas are looking good too.

The collards got badly eaten up, but they seem to have missed the kale. The kale is still growing really slowly, but is showing no signs of bug damage.

And I'm getting lots of seed catalogs! I intend to write a post soon about my New Year's plans for my garden in 2015.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Meyer Lemon Chess Pie

On finals week, my department at work has a potluck Christmas party, and I usually bring some type of dessert. This year our Meyer lemon tree was doing so well, that I thought about bringing a lemon meringue pie, but after reading about how meringue pies can be a bit tricky to make, I ended up going with a chess pie instead.

Chess pie is basically a custard pie with cornmeal in it, which gives it an interesting texture. Plain chess pie is extremely sweet, but lemon chess pie sounded good because the tartness should balance the sweetness. The problem was that when I searched for recipes, I found a lot of recipes that varied widely. Recipes varied between using only 1 Tbsp. of lemon juice all the way up to a quarter cup, a quarter cup of buttermilk to a full cup, 1 Tbsp. of cornmeal to 3 Tbsp, 4 or 5 eggs, 1 and a half cups of sugar or maybe two whole cups, half a stick of butter or maybe two sticks. I had no idea which one to choose. They even varied on how long you bake it, at what temperature, and whether you pre-bake the crust or not.

I finally printed out four different recipes and decided to combine them into my very own recipe! It was risky, but I think I've made enough other custard-type pies that I had a general idea how they work.

Turns out it worked great! It's a good thing I cut myself a sliver right away at the potluck, because when I came back later to collect my pie plate, it was CLEAN. My coworkers completely devoured it and didn't leave anything leftover for me to take home to my husband.

Glad I wrote everything down so I can make it again!

Meyer Lemon Chess Pie

  • Pastry for a single-crust pie
  • Juice of 2 Meyer lemons (about 1/4 cup of juice)
  • Zest from 2 Meyer lemons
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. cornmeal
  • 4 eggs
  • 2/3 cup buttermilk
  • 1/2 stick of butter, melted
  • 1/8 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Beat lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar, cornmeal, eggs, buttermilk, melted butter, and salt together until smooth. Place pastry into regular pie plate (not deep dish) and trim. Pour in filling.

Lay some aluminum foil over the top and bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 30 minutes.

Let cool on a wire rack, and then chill in fridge before serving.

This pie had the gooey texture of a pecan pie, and a nice sweet-tart flavor. I used homemade pie crust with butter and lard, but you can use whatever your favorite pie dough recipe is, or store-bought. Regular milk might work instead of buttermilk, but I had buttermilk in the fridge already, and I think it's more traditional for chess pie. Regular lemon juice would work if you don't have Meyer lemons, but you might want to increase the sugar to 2 cups and/or use regular milk instead of buttermilk, because Meyer lemons are not as sour as regular lemons.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sweet Potato Pie

I'm the pie maker for our family's Thanksgiving at my in-law's house. Each year I bring two pies. This year I made an apple pie, and a sweet potato pie from homegrown sweet potatoes.

It was a good opportunity to use up the Garnet sweet potatoes that had split (like the one in the picture) or been damaged during harvest (a few of them got broken in half or stabbed with the digging fork). The damaged sweet potatoes weren't going to last very long in storage and needed to be used up soon. I ended up having enough damaged Garnets to get the 2 cups mashed sweet potato needed for the pie. I considered using the Molokai purple sweet potatoes, but decided to save those for something else. I wasn't sure how a purple sweet potato pie would look.

One of my sweet potatoes was a bit confused about whether it was an orange or purple sweet potato, but once I had them cooked and mashed up, the purple streaks didn't show. I cooked the sweet potatoes in the microwave and then mashed them with a fork.

Sweet potato pie is similar to pumpkin pie, but not exactly. Sweet potatoes have a denser texture than pumpkin, with more starch. I used a recipe from my Better Homes and Gardens red and white checkered cookbook, so I'm not sure if it's legal for me to reprint it here.

One difference from a pumpkin pie is it used a prebaked pie crust, which I made myself. With pumpkin pies, you use a raw crust, and the crust and filling cook together. It also needed 3 eggs, while a pumpkin pie needs 4 (maybe because sweet potatoes are denser) and a cup of buttermilk. The buttermilk seemed weird, but it gave the pie a nice tangy flavor. The spices were allspice and nutmeg. No cinnamon or ginger like pumpkin pie.

The recipe also called for only half a cup of sugar. It probably depends on how sweet your sweet potatoes are to begin with, and I was afraid mine weren't sweet enough, so I increased the sugar to 3/4 a cup. I'm glad I did too, because the pie still ended up being not especially sweet and probably could have been OK with a full cup of sugar. It was fine the way it was, though, and probably healthier than a sweeter dessert. Next time I think I'll use brown sugar instead of white.

And here is the finished pie. A lot of the time my pumpkin pies end up too soft and the slices don't stay together, but we had no problem with this pie holding together because of the density of the sweet potatoes. It looked like a pumpkin pie but had a distinctly different flavor because of the different spices and buttermilk.

Oh, and of course it was served with plenty of whipped cream.

The only problem I think needs improvement is the pie filling was a little bit lumpy. Next time I'm going to try mashing the sweet potatoes in the food processor or stand mixer to get a perfectly smooth puree.

But overall both pies were a big hit, judging by how we only had one piece leftover from each for us to take home.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Mistletoe Moon

It's been a strange winter so far, if you can even call it a winter. It got down to 30 degrees one night on the week before Thanksgiving, which is when I harvested my sweet potatoes. It hasn't gotten anywhere near freezing again since. Some days it even got into the high 70's during the day.

The light frost we had wasn't even enough to kill the eggplants and tomatoes, and now the eggplants have started to grow new leaves back. They're in for a disappointment once we do get a killing freeze.

The peppers are also still going strong. I've been harvesting a lot of Serranos, which I think I'll make more fermented hot sauce out of.

The garlic and multiplier onions are also doing well. The wire has prevented the chickens from digging in them any more.

The root crops are doing well. I've started harvesting radishes. I've also got carrots, beets, parsnips, and turnips growing.

It's gotten cold enough to get rid of the bugs that were eating the greens, but now the deer have found them. They don't like the arugula, but ate the tops off of most of the red lettuce I had mixed in with it.

The kumquats (in the picture above) and Meyer lemons in the front are almost ripe. I'm thinking of making a Meyer lemon meringue pie for Yule, even though it's not that traditional. But they should be ripe by then.

I planted a lot of Tuscan kale in the back to save seed, and it's doing OK but growing very slowly. There's also a lot of weeds coming up back there.

The peas are starting to climb their trellises in the back. I planted two varieties: Tall Telephone and Dwarf Grey Sugar.

And I have some more winter crops in trays to plant later: fennel, cauliflower, and more kale and collards.

I already started my pepper plants for next year. I wonder when I should start my other nightshades. I usually start my tomato seeds around Christmas, but I'm feeling impatient with how warm it's been lately.