A world of food: What to do with too many cucumbers!

August 16, 2008 § 2 Comments

Every time I plant cucumbers, I am looking forward to crispy crunchy summer cucumber goodness. Spicey Japanese cucumber saladBut when the summer hits, the cucumbers start growing, and growing, and growing, and I find that my limited number of plants has produced a massive simultaneous bounty of cukes! This year,to avoid such a situation, I planted a single plant. Unfortunately, it met an early demise when my boyfriend was preparing part of the garden to plant beans and got a little carried away, straying into already planted territory with his hoe. We planted a few lemon cucumbers to replace our little slicer, but they won’t be ready until September. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my friend had planted an ambitious amount of slicing cucumbers and was already overwhelmed with the harvest — I now have no fear of missing out on cucumbers this summer.

In years past, I have planted pickling cucumbers and found myself in my kitchen at late hours of the evening making a simple spicy, garlic dill pickle. Pickling cucumbers have a bitter flavor that seems to suck the moisture out of your mouth, and are really only good for pickling (a friend won’t even grow them for pickling, her strategy is to use slicing cucumbers for pickling instead). I find that pickling in the evening is best because cucumbers ripen during the hottest part of the year, and the last thing I want to do on a 100-degree day is stand over a pot of boiling water next to a pot of boiling brine. Luckily, I did so much pickling in the past two years that I get to skip it all this year and instead enjoy the cool evenings without the mess and heat of pickling activities.

Slicing cucumbers tend to come on and ripen in an unabated manner, providing loads of cucumbers to deal with all at once. If you grew your own cukes and are feeling overwhelmed, have no fear, there are some tasty things you can do with them that will help you consume your bounty and maybe even look forward to more.

Peeled cucumbers ready for slicing

One of my favorite options is Japanese cucumber salad. I often order this when I go to a sushi restaurant as a starter, and I discovered that it is extremely simple. To spice mine up a bit, I add about a tablespoon of fresh diced ginger, 2 teaspoons sesame oil, and about 1 tablespoon of sriracha or diced hot chili peppers (last year we had an abundance of hot peppers, so I froze a gallon bag of them and I am just reaching the end of that supply). I slice my cucumbers after peeling them using cheese-grater slicing blade. My boyfriend has warned me that this blade is highly dangerous, so I pass on that wisdom here: watch your fingers! Cucumber salad ingredients It produces evenly thin-sliced cucumbers that are very easily able to absorb the rice-vinegar and seasoning as they marinate (and it’s easier than getting out the food processor).

Another tasty option is tzatziki, a Greek sauce used as an appetizer or in gyros (see Kalyn’s World’s Best Tzatziki Sauce recipe). My variation on tzatziki is to peel the cucumber and then grate it with the fine side of my cheese grater. Instead of chunky sauce, this produces a “stringy” cucumber consistency in the sauce, but I find that it’s easier to neatly get on a piece of pita bread.

A similar dish is cucumber raita, an Indian salad commonly served at my favorite Indian restaurants (in Eugene, Evergreen and Taste of India). With a minty flavor, this dish is refreshing and pairs well with curries and spicy dishes.

One common trick to using cucumbers is to salt them and let them rest and then squeeze the excess moisture out. This is important in the Japanese salad because it allows the cucumbers to better absorb the vinegar mixture. With the tzatziki, the excess moisture would make the sauce significantly more runny.

Another recipe to consider is the Spanish gazpacho. My mom used to make a version of this using about half cucumbers and half tomato. The cold soup is quite tasty on a summer evening, and I’ve heard many describe it as the perfect “summer” dish.

For more ideas, check out this cucumber recipe page, courtesy of Dr. Barbara Cohen, planetary scientist, and apparent cucumber aficionado. I found that Allrecipes.com had 272 cucumber recipes, so there’s certainly no shortage of ideas. Also, you may want to visit this informative site about the different varieties of cucumbers, or this time line of pickle history.


Economics of home-grown veggies

June 9, 2008 § 2 Comments

I heard a story repeated on KOPB this past week about home gardens, and how the resurgence in backyard gardens is occurring in the Pacific Northwest in response to the world food crisis, as well as the higher cost of food at grocery stores.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about this phenomenon, and featured a couple of different families partaking in a “Victory Garden” endeavor: The Vegetable Patch Takes Root.

Following these stories, today, I read a blog from Huffington Post contributor Laura Vanderkam, entitled “The Case Against the Victory Garden.” Vanderkam has been writing about the new “home economy” and has taken the examples given in the WSJ article and conducted her own economic critique of home-grown vegetables. She argues that time is money, and that your backyard garden may not be a financial boon when the amount of time to tend the plot is considered. Vanderkam says:

“In Barbara Kingsolver’s best-selling memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she calculated that the value of the vegetables, chickens and turkeys her family harvested during a year of labor on their small farm was $4,410. That’s a fair chunk of change. But it comes out to $85 a week – including meat. If a part-time farm contributes $85 a week in meat and produce, it’s unlikely that a 10-by-12-foot vegetable patch is going to produce more than $25 of weekly savings. At 10 hours a week, that comes out to less than minimum wage – which explains why gardening remains a hobby for most people.”

I agree with the premise: Time is money. And scale is important — a small plot may not produce enough food to really be a financial help to a family, but as plots size is scaled up so is productivity, and thus the dollar value of the food produced.

One of the figures cited in the WSJ article and Vanderkam’s post, was that it takes about 10 man hours for a 10 x 12 foot plot. My thought is that seems incredibly high. I usually tend my garden, a 15 x 30 foot plot two to three times per week for no more than two hours each time. Once the garden is in, this is reduced to 30-minute visits and an occasional intense-weeding session of about 1-hour. If I was an ultra-busy mother with children to tend to, this would be more inconvenient, certainly. But at this point the alternative activities I would be participating in could hardly be considered “work,” (like watching TV or reading blogs). But as a result of this article, I will try to more accurately track the amount of time we spend on our plot and try to provide an economics perspective on the value of produce harvested.

Let me know if you have anything to share on this economics front. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has started gardening for economics reasons, or anyone who stopped growing their own produce because of the amount of time and relatively small proceeds from a home-garden.


Are organic veggies are more nutritious than conventional?

May 29, 2008 § 1 Comment

Well if you’re addicted to your local public radio station, then this is “old news,” but if you missed the story on NPR this morning about Stephen Kaffka’s research at UC Davis, have no fear, NPR has audio archives and you can listen at your leisure.

The story was interesting to me because it discussed what aspects of organic produce makes them more nutritious, and the biological processes that impact the nutritional value of the veggies (specifically tomatoes). When I was at the Food and Medicine Culture at the Neighborhood Level meeting, both Charlotte Anthony and Nick Routledge both spoke about their personal experiences helping people who were ill to heal using organic, local, seasonal food.

Harry McCormick of the Ten Rivers Food Web also spoke briefly about the higher nutritional value of food in an interview on OPB’s new weekly radio show, Think Out Loud (which is also archived for audio streaming). Also, the Organic trade association has published more information on the nutritional superiority of organic produce.

The science behind all of this is, again, the most interesting part to me. Flavanoids are the key, with their antioxidant activities… and well, we should all be aware by now that antioxidants have anticancer properties. In the NPR story, Kaffka explained how the flavanoids can exist in an organically-grown tomato that might not exist in a conventionally-grown plant:

On Kaffka’s plot, the conventionally grown tomatoes get commercial fertilizer made with soluble inorganic nitrogen, a form of nitrogen the plants can take up very quickly. The organic tomatoes get nitrogen from manure and composted cover crops. These organic materials have to be broken down by the microbes in the soil before the nitrogen is released to the plants.

“It takes time,” Kaffka says, and the nitrogen is “not instantaneously available.”

With limited nitrogen, the organic plants may grow slower, says Alyson Mitchell, a food chemist at UC Davis. When this happens, she says, the plant “has more time to allocate its resources toward making secondary plant metabolites” such as flavonoids.

Something so seemingly simple as how the plant processes the fertilizer can make a big difference in what the ultimate food product provides to us for our consumption. Beyond the simple lack of petroleum-based chemical residues on our food, the food itself may just be healthier.

Food and Medicine Culture at the Neighborhood Level

May 15, 2008 § 3 Comments

On Tuesday night I came home to find a flyer on my front porch from the Whiteaker Community Council announcing a special presentation at their May general meeting: “Food and Medicine Culture at the Neighborhood Level.” The speakers were Charlotte Anthony of the Victory Gardens Project, and Tobias Policha and Nick Routledge, co-Founders of the Food Not Lawns collective. With the relevant topic being presented, I attended my first Whiteaker Community Council meeting (after living in the Whit for five years).

A couple of upcoming events were announced in the general meeting including, “Eat Here Now,” at the First United Methodist Church on Saturday May 17th from 6:30-9:00 PM. Cost is $5, and it’s a potluck. The other announced event for this month is Perma Jam II (directions at link) on Saturday, May 24th from noon to 4:00 PM. Cost is $10, and bike commuting to the event is encouraged.

Victory Gardens Seeing Success

Charlotte Anthony shared the success of the Victory Gardens project in Eugene and surrounding areas, with 75 gardens established within Eugene proper thus far.

“We want to help anybody put a garden in,” she explained. For a $50 donation to the group, the Victory Garden team will help you dig up your lawn and turn it into a productive garden space, and soil is not a problem.

“We are seeing amazing results from microbes in clay,” said Anthony. The group uses effective microorganisms (EM) to inoculate the soil which causes mycorrhizal fungi to attach to roots and these “till” the soil, making the soil nutrients in the clay available for plants.

And if the thought of digging up your yard and planting things seems overwhelming, that’s exactly what the Victory Gardens team is prepared to help you overcome. They bring in a team of teens from Network Charter School to help dig up the yard, and then provide a mentor that can help you determine what to plant, when to water, and how to keep your garden productive.

Their web site provides gardening tips and tricks to help anyone interested in gardening along the way. With the potential closing of the Lane County OSU Extension Office due to lack of Federal timber revenue and associated county funding for the agency, the Victory Gardens team is looking at the possibility of filing the void that the loss of the Master Gardener’s program would cause.

Food Not Lawns

Nick Routledge shared his enthusiasm and passion for growing locally-adapted seasonal foods. After starting the Food Not Lawns Collective, Routledge has been a suburban farmer in the Eugene area, and has done a lot of work with local growers on seed improvement. Routledge speaks the gospel of food ecology.

“In our efforts to steward the crops in an ecological manner, we step into the ecological territory that economics can’t get to. People in the business of making money can’t get to where we’re getting with our local germplasm,” shared Routledge. And the benefits of this local ecology is not isolated to the plants and crops they produce, but includes our larger community and culture and how we behave.

Tobias Policha responded to audience questions regarding the saving of hybridized seeds, explaining that if you want to save seed it’s best to grown open-pollinated or self-pollinating crops. This also gets you away from the “commercial interests” involved in growing seeds (some audience members raised concerns over Monsanto’s seed practices in the Willamette Valley: [1], [2], [3]). Other options include raising native “wild foods.” Policha suggested that instead of planting a pretty, nice shrub like daphne; and instead planting a currant, which has both edible and medicinal uses. He posited that in the event of a food crisis, these “subversive” food plants could be a boon to gardeners, as food scavengers wouldn’t recognize the plants in your yard as “food.” Big leaf maple is also quite edible, as are dandelions, and nany other plants (see books like Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in the Wild and Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape).

Another recommended read was Gaia’s Garden, which discusses homescale permaculture.

More information about permaculture and seed saving, and a chance to meet up with like-minded inviduals will occur at “Winter Gardening” workshop on May 31st at the Food For Lane County Youth Farm, starting at 3 PM. Seeds for winter gardens will be available, and you can learn what you can grow in this bioregion during the winter.

Other topics were discussed, and to keep this brief, I will endeavor to cover those in detail later.

Spring garden in the ground!

April 26, 2008 § Leave a comment

After a few cold weeks and a lot of prep work on the beds, the spring garden is in the ground. Right now I have planted:

  • Three plots of onion starts, two heirloom cipollini onion sets and a set of red onion.
  • Six Russian Kale plants, six brussel sprouts starts, six scraggly mixed greens things I can’t remember what they’re called.
  • Some remnant celery, chard and lettuce from last year’s garden (previous owners)
  • Four large artichoke plants
  • About a dozen shell pea starts.

    Yard Party

    They’ve managed to survive the unseasonably cold spring so far, and I have to assume we’re through the worst of it. I’m expecting a late June harvest on some of this stuff. This is my first “spring” garden ever — so we’ll see how it goes.

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