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Prevent Weeds in the Garden by Using Mulch

One of the main reasons people shy away from maintaining their own garden is because of the time associated with its care.  Having to continuoulsy weed a garden plot is the biggest time commitment and one of the most labor-intensive chores.  However, for this gardening season I did not (and will not) pluck one single weed.  How did I manage this?  I used straw as mulch around my plants as weed prevention.

The tomato plants

My first banana pepper of the year!

What is mulch you ask?  Mulch is any material applied to the surface of your garden for protection (there are other benefits in mulching other than just weed prevention).  In our community garden, I have seen other gardeners use newspaper, black plastic, old carpet backing, grass clippings, leaves, and wood mulch.  My husband has farming connections, so we always have a way to obtain some straw for our garden!

The best time to put your mulch down is right after you plant your plantings.  As far as reapplying, we didn’t have to add any more straw to our plot this season, but we did last year.  Just keep an eye on things and reapply mulch once you start seeing some bare spots or any weeds popping through.

What is a CSA?

I’m back!  It’s after April 1st, which means SPRING time in Wisconsin.  After this past winter, the warmer weather and sunshine could not come fast enough.

Next winter, I promise to try and post at least a couple of times (more posts during the winter will focus on recipes and during the summer posts will focus on gardening/preserving), but now that spring is here you can expect to hear a lot more from Understanding Food!

Just yesterday, my husband brought a local CSA to my attention.  Although I had heard of CSA’s in the past, I hadn’t really taken the time to learn what they are all about and if it is something that would be right for me and my family.

So, before I took a look at what this specific CSA entailed, I wanted to know what CSA’s were in general.  I am hoping this post will not only help me to understand, but you as well.

The straightforward answer to what CSA stands for is that it stands for “Community Supported Agriculture”.  What that means will take a bit more explanation.

Essentially consumers (like myself) pay a certain amount of money at the beginning of the growing season to the farmer doing the growing.  Think of the payment as a purchase of shares in the farm’s “stock”.  In exchange for your stock funds, you will receive a share of the produce grown for that year.  Just like with stocks, you can never predict how successful (or unsuccessful) a growing season may be.  Mother nature will definitely be the key determinate of how much your stock earns you for the season.

Now, I do not want to make CSA’s sound like a risky investment of your money!  The above was just meant as an anology.  From everything I have read, and now believe, CSA’s are an extremely beneficial thing to participate in.  Each week, as a member of the CSA, you will get a share of the grown bounty. The farmer will determine what is in the share each and every week. 

Both the consumer and the farmer benefit from the CSA in the sense that the consumer is allowed a steady supply of freshly grown, local produce and the farmer has a known outlet (and income) for the produce.  The risk to the consumer is that you do not know exactly what will be in your share each week (and may need to be willing to try new foods) and the farmer’s risk is that they have to back up their guarantee to provide said fresh produce in each week’s share.

The cost to participate in a CSA will vary from region to region, but it can be a significant upfront investment to consider and plan for.  Some CSA’s will offer payment plans, so it may be worth searching out one with this type of option if it will help you to be able to participate.

Each week (or every other week if your CSA offers half shares), you will go to your determined pick-up place and receive your share of produce.

If you live in the Madison, Wisconsin area, the CSA that we are planning on joining is the JenEhr Family Farm CSA.  You can visit their website to read more (and I will be sharing more about them as the CSA starts).

Local Pomegranates?

In Wisconsin, not likely.  Not the full sized ones anyways.

© Melinda Nagy | Dreamstime.com

As I try to incorporate a “locavore” mentality into my grocery shopping, I do still try to keep my health and tastebuds in mind.  What is the most important thing to me when I can’t find something I want via a local source?……making sure I understand where it comes from!

At my local grocery store….which, I would like to add, is family owned and operated and is competing quite nicely against the big “W” and one other national chain store…..whew, ok, back to the story…..at my local grocery store, pomegranates were on sale.  Because they keep for so long (more on this in a future post), I decided to buy a couple.

My mom is a produce manager back in my hometown area, so I get the low-down on any upcoming produce shortages and changes in regulations.  Did you know that all fresh produce needs to be clearly marked with its origin for the consumers?  I did.  Therefore, I knew I could find out right then and there, in the produce aisle, where my pomegranates came from.

However, that wasn’t enough….just knowing it was from California didn’t satisfy my urge to know more.  I wanted to know where in Cali, how it was grown, and on and on.

In doing a little net surfing, I learned that there are about 250 pomegranate growers in California supplying almost all of our US pomegranate purchasing needs.  These growers use approximately 14,000 acres to grow the supply and most of the acres are located in the central and southern San Joaquin Valley [data sourced from the California Farm Bureau website referencing the San Francisco based Pomegranate Council].

Pomegranates are in season/harvested from October through January in California.

This got me to thinking.  How does the pomegranate grow and could I grow it here in Wisconsin myself?  I learned that the pomegranate grows on a large bush/tree and prefers warm weather (pomegranates originate from the Middle East and they grow best in areas where the temperature do not dip below 40 degrees). 

© Elad Nussbaum | Dreamstime.com

Wisconsin does not fit the bill.

HOWEVER, upon further research, I discovered a variety of pomegranates that can be grown in a container.  Therefore, during the winter when Wisconsin hits that low average February temperature of just barely twenty degrees, my pomegranate tree will be safely indoors.

What type of pomegranate you ask?  A dwarf pom, of course!  It is a type of bonsai plant.  Pretty much everything is the same as its full sized counterpart, but the tree and fruit is just smaller in scale.

I will be on a quest someday soon to purchase a dwarf pom tree……..now, to find a cute container to grow it in!

Baking Chicken Breasts

One of the biggest time savers, for me, is pre-cooking a bunch of chicken breasts for the work week.  Cooked, cubed, or shredded chicken can be incorporated into so many other recipes and meals.  Or, you can simply just enjoy the chicken itself!

Also, baking chicken is a MUCH healthier alternative to pan frying and the end result of this method is so much more juicy.  Plus, it is so easy that I wish I could prepare all my food like this!

Here is how I bake chicken breasts:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Pour about 1/2 tbsp of lemon juice over each breast.  Season with salt (I use seasoned salt), pepper, and garlic salt.  I would say about 1/2 tsp per breast (in total seasoning), but I never measure.  I just sprinkle the seasonings on until the breasts are lightly covered.

Bake for 42-45 minutes (or until inner juices run clear).

Enjoy!

Before baking

After baking......yum!

Tangy Garlic Cheese Tortellini Salad

Recently, I had the pleasure of hosting my mom and sister for a weekend.  They came down primarily to see my house (my mom’s first visit since my husband and I bought it).  However, they also agreed to help us with our fall yard work.

In return I wanted to make something special for my mom to eat.  She LOVES cheese torellini…..especially in a creamy salad.  She always makes the infamous Italian tortellini salad whenever I come home for a visit. 

I wanted to make a tortellini dish for her that was a bit different, yet still familiar (she doesn’t even keep olive oil on hand, so she is not very adventurous when it comes to food).  I had just the cookbook to refer to!

A long, long time ago [insert music mantra here] I received a cookbook titled “Favorite Brand Name Classic Recipe Collection”

It definitely provides exactly what you think…..classic dishes using those classic canned foods that I am now trying to avoid (errrrr).  But, this did not stop me! 

In fact, after looking through the cookbook for a recipe, I am now inspired with a new challenge — I am going to try and make all the recipes in this cookbook but use only fresh, local, organic, or at least origin-known foods (for only those recipes I know I will like….I dislike anything with mushrooms).  Their “Tangy Garlic Tortellini Salad” recipe was my first attempt.

So, I have to admit, this was a pretty easy recipe to start the challenge on.  For the most part, it called for a lot of fresh vegetables!  The only item I had a hard time on was the tortellini……I do not have enough courage [yet] to make my own cheese-filled tortellini and I do not know of any local place where I could buy this fresh from, so I had to settle on the store brand frozen tortellini.  To make myself feel at least a little bit better about this small defeat, I made sure to check all of the different options to find out where they were manufactured and purchased the one closest to home!

Otherwise, the outcome for this challenge was pretty much a success.  I will be keeping this recipe in my collection to use up fresh garden veggies come summer time.  I may try substituting in plain spiral pasta as well. 

I loved the peppery bite and garlic zing the salad had….it was right up my mom’s alley as well….success!

Tangy Garlic Cheese Tortellini Salad

Ingredients:

1/4 cup mayo

1/4 cup plain yogurt

1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup chopped green onion

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon garlic salt

9 ounces frozen cheese-filled tortellini (cooked and drained)

2 red bell pepper, chopped

1 cucumber (or zucchini), seeded and chopped

4 carrots, chopped

Directions:

In a small bowl, combine all ingredients except for pasta and vegetables (but do include the chopped green onion).

In a large bowl, combine pasta and vegetables then mix lightly.

Add dressing and toss lightly to coat. 

Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before serving.

Nutritional Value Per Serving (6 servings total):  205 calories, 11.1g fat, 21.7g carbs, 3.8g fiber, 6.7g sugar, 4.9g protein

Making Socially Responsible Food Choices

When I decided to try to make a conscious decision to choose “socially responsible” foods to feed my family, I became overwhelmed and began wondering a few things. 

Should I just purchase all organic?  What is considered local?  What am I supposed to eat in January?

For me, I have been asking myself three things when I purchase my food:

1.  How far did this food have to travel? 

The farther the food had to travel to allow me to purchase it, the more fuel that was consumed (for commercially grown food, such as produce, the average is around 1,500 miles).  Think about this:

A lot of fruits (think watermelons and the like) are more than 90% water.  I do not really want to pay for the transportation of this water when I may be able to find that same watermelon at a local farmer’s market (if watermelon is not in season, I ask myself if I really need watermelon — or if I could enjoy a fruit that is more in season — or I try a new fruit that may have travelled a lesser distance).

Photo Courtesty of Olga Vasilkova via Dreamstime

Also, when thinking about how far food had to travel (when it comes to processed, manufactured, and packaged foods), I take a look at the ingredient list.  The fewer ingredients in the food, the better it is when it comes to fuel use. 

Every single one of the ingredients listed not only had to travel to the plant where the final product was manufactured, but then the final product had to travel from the plant to my store. 

That could be a lot of fuel use — in the end, I tend to make things from “scratch” as much as possible to help cut down on fuel consumption. 

(I put “scratch” in quotations because I actually hate using this word — whenever used, people automatically think whatever you are making from “scratch” will take a long time, be tedious, and not be very easy.  Most of the time, that is incorrect — also, the added benefit is that I know EXACTLY what I am putting into my mouth!)

Here’s a fun tidbit for you — if everyone ate one meal per week from a local source, over 50 million barrels of oil a year would be saved!

2.  How were the farmers that produced this food treated?

Let’s face it, the bottom line of a business is THE bottom line of the financials.  Without a good bottom line, the business would cease to exist!  Therefore, a manufacturing company is not only looking for the best ingredients for their product but also at the best price.

If you have ever seen the movie “King Corn” you were able to watch as a couple of guys try a year long experiment growing an acre of corn (an acre of corn grown specifically for corn syrup and process manufacturing).  In the end, without government assistance and subsidies, they would have LOST money!

By shopping at a local farmer’s market (as one option), my food is not only utilizing less fuel for travel, I am helping that farmer support his family.  Hopefully, in turn, that farmer makes local purchases as well.  This cycle could continue inevitably making my community a more prosperous place to live!

Phot Courtesy of Byron Moore via Dreamstime

3.  How was the land and the animals treated to produce this food?

Photo courtesy of Martina Meyer via Dreamstime

I am not going to get into all the hub-bub about animal cruelty, land preservation and pollution — but for me, when I shop at a local farmer’s market (where more often than not I can actually get to know the farmer himself), I feel more confident that the animals raised and the land that was tilled were treated fairly.

When I have to purchase food or ingredients somewhere other than a local farmer’s market, or a local dairy, or a local manufacturer (where I know how the ingredients were purchased), I do look for a couple of things:

a.  Certified organic food; then I know there were no harmful pesticides that went onto the land (or into my tummy).

b.  For meat, eggs, and the like, I look for “grass fed” items.

c.  I simply look at where it was produced! 

I was surprised to discover that a lot of local grocery stores will carry locally produced items (it cost less to get to them, so it is cheaper for them to sell!).  I have learned that instead of automatically reaching for the mainstream, popular brand of an item, if I just take a second to search for something a little less familiar brand-wise, more often than not I discover an item that was made by a business less than 100 miles from me!

In the end, not every single purchase I make would fit into the “socially responsible” category, but as long as I know I made the most “socially responsible” choice that I could, I am happy!

P.S. (What will I eat in January?  Preserving local, fresh food is key!  Freezing, canning, and gardening are my new hobbies……when summer comes rolling around I will be posting all of my preservation ideas……)

Finally got “the” cornbread recipe

I set out on a quest to find what would become “the” cornbread recipe for my cooking arsenal.  I wanted something I could always rely on and use fresh/local ingredients……I find cornbread to be very versatile (to top off casseroles or make a good casserole in itself) and plan on using this base recipe in other recipes quite often.

In any case, for just this test, I decided to make cornbread muffins.  I had quite a bit of buttermilk left, so I made 20 total muffins! 

When they cooled, I wrapped each one up individually in saran wrap, put them all in a gallon sized freezer ziploc bag (two actually), and froze them.  My husband and I can quickly pop one of these bad boys in the microwave for about 45 seconds and have warm cornbread for breakfast or with a delicious bowl of chili.

You should probably only keep these frozen for about 3-4 months, but I do not expect them to last that long!

BUTTERMILK CORNBREAD

Ingredients:

1/2 cup butter (my butter now comes from a local creamery!)

2/3 cup white sugar (have yet to find a local source, but have decided to purchase the most organic source I can find that is as local to me as possible)

2 eggs (farm fresh!)

1 cup buttermilk (also from a local farm) — can substitute in one cup of milk mixed with 1 tblsp lemon juice (just let the mixture sit for about 10 minutes to let it begin to “curdle”)

1/2 teaspoon baking soda (have yet to find either local or organic)

1 cup cornmeal (manufactured very close to me in Iowa!)

1 cup all-purpose flour (I now buy organic)

1/2 teaspoon salt or kosher salt

The mixture in the pan…..next to the very necessary Pam….make sure to grease the pan or muffin tin (and reapply on the muffin tin if you are reusing it for the secondary batches)

Directions:

1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Grease either an 8 inch square pan (if you want blocks of cornbread) or a muffin tin.

2.  Melt the butter in a large sauce pan.  Remove from heat and stir in sugar.

3.  Temper the eggs (by adding some of the hot butter mixture to the eggs to gradually warm them up) then quickly whisk the eggs into the pan.  Beat until well blended.

4.  Combine the buttermilk with the baking soda then stir the mixture into the pan.

5.  Stir in cornmeal, flour, and salt until well blended and few lumps remain.

6.  Pour batter into 8 inch square pan or put about 1/4 cups worth of the batter into each muffin tin.

7.  Bake in the preheated oven for 21 minutes (this was perfect time for my oven, but basically bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean).

I took a sneek peak of the muffins in the oven while baking!

Each muffin is about 250 calories (or square when cutting the pan into 9 total pieces).

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