Category Archives: Healthy Cooking

Tips for Getting Your Beets Started Early

Baby beets grown indoors from seed.

Transplant beets started indoors outdoors as soon as you can work the soil.

Want to get a jump start on your garden? Get your beet babies started, indoors!

Beets are known as cool season crops.  They really like cool temperatures and can be seeded as soon as you can work the soil.  They can also be started indoors and February is the month to get going.

My mom raised the absolute best beets I have ever eaten.  Every time I drove to her farm in the far end of Virginia, she would somehow know exactly when I was arriving.  There, on the table, steam rising, butter melting, would be a big bowl of sliced beets, just for me.

But I never planted beets in my own garden, not before she died, not after she died.  Then, one day, while browsing through GrowItalian.com, I saw Chioggia beets.

Beautiful, round and ruby-red on the outside but when you cut them open, there are concentric white bands all the way through each slice. I fell in love with beets, again.

Beets Are Easy Peasy
I’ve had beets in my garden now for the last 5 years and think they are among the easiest plants to grow.  But if you Google “growing beets,” you will literally get more than 1 million entries.

Don’t be scared!

There are only a couple of things you need to know to raise not just 1 but at least 2 crops of beets every year. (That’s how many I can grow in Zone 6a.)  WARNING: if you ignore what you are about to read, you will get red marbles…that will not cook or eat easy.  I know.  My first crop was used in a game of ringer.

The Dirt
This is almost one of the only requirements of beets and it’s one of the most important.  It’s also the bit of information I didn’t have when I raised my first crop of red marbles.  Beets really, really like loose, well-drained soil. They will put up with a wide range of conditions but won’t grow as big or as beautiful.

So do a bit of soil prep if you can. It may take a bit of time and effort but it’s worth it; I know.  And if you get the soil right, it’s smooth sailing to harvest time.

Remove stones since they will hinder growth.  If you’re growing in clay, add compost to loosen the soil and keep the soil from crusting after watering or rainfall.  And make sure your soil is acidic – beets like a pH range of 6.2 to 6.8.

When To Plant
Don’t plant in the middle of your summer season.  Beets won’t like it.  They are a perfect cool weather crop.  Although they can live through the heat (like the rest of us), they prefer a temperatures of 60 to 65 F and bright sunny days but they can also survive cold weather as long as they don’t get caught in a freeze.  So, beets are a great, “long-season” crop.

How To Plant
You can (and I do) start beets indoors but beet seeds are also outdoor babies from the get go.  As soon as your soil can be worked in the spring, you can plant them.  The seeds aren’t really just one seed – each of these little jewels contains a couple of beet seeds.  Sow the seeds 1/2-inch deep and I drop each seed about 3 inches away from the other seeds.  I also plant in rows about 12 inches apart.

Beets seeds are pretty slow to germinate so make sure you keep the bed moist until you see their little heads peeking out of the soil.  I usually water a bit, every day.  Once they start to pop up through the soil, I keep watering but usually every other day.

Once they are established, just make sure that you don’t let them dry out.  But don’t over water either.  Too dry or too wet and your beets will not be happy.

Transplanting
TIP:  I don’t thin; I transplant.
Most advice online and in books says you have to thin beets rather than transplant.  Wrong! Despite what people will tell you, you can transplant beet seedlings and almost double your crop. And it’s easy to do.

I wait until the leaves on the plants are about 2 inches long before I try transplanting.  The night before the big move, I water the bed thoroughly.  Then, early in the morning, armed with a #2 pencil, I head to the raised bed where my beets live.

I look for beet plants that are too close together. Because I’m not be most patient person when dropping seeds in soil, I can usually find 3 or 4 beet babies clumped together.

DON’T PULL THEM OUT ONE BY ONE! Once I’ve found the baby beet clump I want to move, using a tablespoon or serving spoon, I gently dig around the whole clump and bring up a spoon full of soil with the beet roots intact.  Then I push my pencil into the ground, making holes spaced about 3 inches apart, for each of the babies.

Teasing the roots apart, gently, (a trick I learned from my Amish neighbors) I drop each beet baby into its own hole, pack dirt gently around it and move on to the next clump.

I have not lost one beet baby using this method and I practically double my yield.  Oh, and beets are a twofer in my garden – I also eat beet greens in salads.  Wait until the leaves are 3 to 4 inches high, then cut a couple off each beet plant.  The beets will keep growing and you’ll have some truly delicious greens for lunch or dinner.

Care & Feeding
Like I said, beets are easy peasy.

I have never fertilized my beets and they grow like champions.  It could be because I enrich my raised beds with a bit of compost every spring.  I do put a bit of mulch – straw – down around the plants once I divide and transplant them.  It helps hold moisture during the hotter, summer days.

Keep The Beets Coming
I plant in March, April, May then hold off until early August when I start putting in seeds, again.  I do that to avoid asking the beet seeds to germinate when the daytime temperature is above 80 degrees.  They don’t like it.  Plant in early August and within 55 to 70 days, you should have your next crop.

Nowadays there are so many varieties of beet to choose from — Early Wonder, Detroit Dark Red, and Red Ace.  You can even add some color to your beet dishes with the lovely striped Chioggia (which started me on my life of beet crime) or Burpee Golden and Albino White

No matter how you slice them…beets are a great addition to any garden.

By the way, one of my favorite resources when I am trying to get solid, basic growing information is colleges like Cornell, which posted a nice guide to growing beets.

Buy butter from grass-fed, organic cows and dig in to one of my favorite dishes. Happy Valentine’s Day, every body!

If you want fast access to all my gardening tips and tricks, you will find them in my Kindle book, Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us.

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Top Canning Tips for Harvest Season

It’s almost the end of September but here in Zone 6b, I’ve prepped the

Blackberries ready for next Spring.

Blackberries trimmed and mulched for next Spring.

blackberries for next spring, pruned the blueberries, pulled out the eggplant and sunflowers and planted beets, lettuce and kale.

But I am still harvesting tomatoes, Italian peppers and green beans! The season is ending a whole lot warmer than it began so I am leaving these plants in place so I can get as many of the veggies as possible.

I can only eat so much in a day so I learned how to preserve my harvest early in my gardening life. In fact, I have been preserving my harvest for well over 25 years and have learned a few things the hard way. But I think the folks at Eartheasy have captured some of the best canning tips .

I do have a couple of others to add to the list:

  1. Heat your jars in the oven — at a very low temperature – to sterilize them. I just lay them down on a cookie sheet and put them in at 175 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. This method is easier for me than trying to time the dishwasher to your canning project and safer than pouring boiling water in jars.
  2. Make sure your water bath is boiling before you put the jars in. I always start it a bit early just in case. I can turn the flame down if I’m not ready for it but I know my water bath is there for me when I need it. And I know I won’t over process or under process.
  3. Heat your jar lids. I boil water in a pan then put the lids and rings together and drop them in the hot water. This help to heat up the thin rubber seal on the jar lid and sterilizes the rings – two important factors of successful canning.
  4. If what you’re canning is not acidic, use your pressure cooker! Tomatoes are okay in a water bath; green beans are NOT!
  5. When in doubt — throw it out. If you take a jar off your shelf in the pantry and the color just doesn’t look right or it’s sticky on the outside or the lid is lifted, toss it out! Better to be safe than sorry when it comes to home canning.

I also use my dehydrator to preserve my harvest for everything from cherries and apples to tomatoes and herbs.

And I freeze crops, too. Open my freezer door in January and you will find zucchetti spaghetti, shredded zucchini, sliced and fried eggplant slices, blanched green beans, whole frozen plum tomatoes and fresh frozen pasta sauce mixed in with bags and bags of blueberries, blackberries and cherries.

Think of all the work you put in to get to harvest then think of ways of saving as much as possible. You’ll be happy you did when snow is falling and wind is howling outside and you are sitting down to eggplant parmesan or butternut kale quinoa soup.

Happy harvesting everyone!

ps – please forgive the gap in posting. My husband has been ill and out of work for 6 weeks but is on the mend, now.

The Summer of 2016 Is Ending

Am I crazy? Is summer really ending??

August heat baking my garden

Garden baking in the August sun

Today’s heat index in Southeast Pennsylvania says it will be 114 degrees out. It’s only August 13th. Summer isn’t over. It can’t be!

Bianca Rosa eggplant

Bianca Rosa eggplant enjoying the heat.

I am still harvesting like mad. My Bianca Rosa eggplant have given me 15 beautiful globes and there are more than that still on the plants. The Fox Cherry tomatoes are coming in so fast it’s hard to pick them (especially when you were silly enough to plant 10 of them!).

Growing giant Zucchini

Sicilian zucchini gone rogue.

The Sicilian Zucchetta are downright frightening in their productivity and sheer size.

I’ve been giving them away, cooking with them, jousting in the back yard and leaving them on neighbor’s doorsteps in the dark of night (too big for their mailboxes).

Green beans are producing about a pint a day and my Frigatello Sweet Italian peppers are just warming up, throwing off 5 or 6 peppers a day.

And I’m still getting beets, inter-planted among the tomatoes, keeping cool and waiting for me to harvest them.

Fox Cherries protect beets

Fox Cherry tomatoes shade my beets.

IMG_2568

So how can it possibly be summer’s end?

It happens every year, I wake up and step outside before the dawn light and something has changed.

The feel of the breeze on my skin. The smell of the air. A tiny change in the song of the insects. Every year, there is a single moment when I know that summer is ending.

2016 Perseid meteor showers

Perseid meteor cuts across the night sky (courtesy AMS, Ltd)

This morning, sitting on my patio watching the Perseid meteor shower (image courtesy of the American Meteor Society, Ltd.), I knew as any long time gardener whose blood runs to soil and whose bare feet crave time connecting to the earth knows.

Summer into Autumn is always bittersweet for me. My garden, this garden, will never come again. Next year, the war with Japanese Beetles and the ongoing struggle with Mexican Bean Beetles will begin again. Triumphs and defeats will eddy and swirl across my back yard.

Sunflowers grace my garden

Sunflowers tower over my garden…and me!

But then there will be all that glorious, organic food flowing from my garden to my kitchen table and the tables of friends, relatives and neighbors, again.

And sunflowers, bachelor buttons, chamomile, marigolds and lemon verbena will open for the bees. Lemon balm, milkweed and borage will offer food and nectar to butterflies, wasps and beneficials.

Blueberries and blackberries will be joined by elderberries and goji berries, adding to the delicious, healthy treasures growing just steps from my back door.

And I will once again know why I garden.

Note: the image of the meteor, above, was taken by Eddie Popovits and used with the express permission of the American Meteor Society, a non-profit, scientific organization founded in 1911 and established to inform, encourage, and support the research activities of both amateur and professional astronomers

Tasty Zucchini Fritters

Sicilian Zucchini on the vine.

Sicilian Zucchetta on the vine

It’s that time of year. Zucchini are starting to come in.

This year, I planted Sicilian Zucchetta. And these babies are amazing! For one thing, they bloom at night! So during the day, all the flowers are closed.

For another, the zucchini themselves are not very wide but they are very, very long.  I picked one yesterday that was over 48 inches long.

Sicilian Zucchetta grow long and thin.

Zucchetta grow long and thin.

Zucchini Lasagna Roll Ups

Zucchini Lasagna Roll Ups!

Today, I made a new recipe — Zucchini Lasagna Roll Ups.

I shredded the rest of this mega-zuke and, tomorrow, I will make Zucchini Fritters. These are the best! Make sure you make the avocado lemon sauce with them. The flavors are so complimentary.

Here’s the recipe for Zucchini Fritters!

INGREDIENTS:
2 c shredded zuke
2 cloves minced garlic
½ small red onion finely chopped
¼ c fresh Basil
¼ c fresh Oregano
1 T lemon zest
2 eggs
¼ coconut or almond flour
1 tsp salt
Fresh ground pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:
Put grated zucchini in a colander and sprinkle with ½ tsp salt.  Allow to drain.  You can press it to push water out and, before putting in bowl, wrap in dish towel and twist to get extra water out.

Prep and place all other ingredients in a small bowl while zucchini drains.

Add ingredients to zucchini and mix thoroughly.

Heat 2 T coconut oil in large heavy (I use cast iron) skillet.

While skillet heats to medium/high, shape small fritters out of zucchini mix – using about 2 T batter.

Cook about 4 minutes (until brown) on one side, flip and cook the same on the other side.

While fritters brown, make your dipping sauce by mixing together:

2 avocados, mashed
1 c mayonnaise
¼ c capers
Juice of 1 lemon

Mix these together and serve with the hot fritters. FYI – because of the lemon juice, this dipping sauce does not turn brown. And it is super delicious when it is chilled.

 

Home Brewing Kombucha from Two Soldiers!

Kombucha is easy to make.

Making kombucha is easy!

I LOVE making my own kombucha; and I am finding more and more people who love making it to.

So here, without further ado, is the blog of two kombucha loving ex-soldiers that I discovered, this morning.

Enjoy! Then brew a batch of your own. A perfect (and very healthy) summer drink!

 

Kombucha Recipes

Kombucha is one beverage with many uses.  It is a tasty, “healthy” soda – effervescent and probiotic. Kombucha can also be used in cooking and baking, adding a dollop of flavor to hot cereals, pancakes and even steamed vegetables.

Home-brewed kombucha is easy and inexpensive to make

Probiotic kombucha tastes great.

If you make your own kombucha, you’ll probably find a few more ways to use this healthful sparkling beverage.

I like kombucha without any flavoring, at all but I also like kombucha with everything from blueberries to juniper berries added during the final fermentation.

Combinations of herbs, spices, fruits, and juices that can add flavor to your kombucha are almost endless.  Here are some of my favorite blends, but feel free to be creative and add whatever flavors you enjoy!

Easy combinations include:

  1. Blueberry/Vanilla – whole blueberries and vanilla to tast
  2. Tart Cherry Vanilla – organic tart cherry juice and vanilla
  3. Sweet Beet – organic beet juice
  4. Pomegranate – organic pomegranate juice
  5. Hibiscus flower – dried red hibiscus flowers (which I get from Mountain Rose Herbs)

Here are some more ideas for giving your kombucha that extra bit of flavor:

Elderberry, Rosehip, & Cinnamon
A standby, this is the blend that I make really enjoy. Sometimes, I’ll add Hibiscus flowers or use ginger root instead of cinnamon.

1/3 cup organic dried elderberries
1/4 cup organic dried rosehips
1 tsp organic cinnamon chips

Sparkling Ginger Pear
This recipe is simple, yet delicious.   It’s a light, refreshing, and reminiscent of champagne.  Use whichever fruit is in season: raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, apricots, and peaches are all tasty substitutes for pears.

1 Asian apple or regular pear
1 TBSP dried or fresh organic ginger root

Refreshing Herbal Medley
A perfect blend for the summertime!  This medley is cooling, refreshing, and the addition of Yerba Mate offers a little energy boost.

½ cup organic dried hibiscus flowers
2 TBSP dried organic holy basil (Tulsi)
2 TBSP dried organic peppermint
1 TBSP dried organic ginger root
1 TBSP dried organic Yerba Mate

Flavorings your home brew are only limited by your imagination. Experiment, play and enjoy this wonderful fermented beverage for pennies on the dollar.

How To Make Your Own Kombucha!

Kombucha is one of the hottest probiotic beverages on the market today. You can buy kombucha in just about every health food store and co-op in the country. But you’re going to pay a pretty penny for each 8 ounce glass you drink.

Home-brewed kombucha is easy and inexpensive to make

Probiotic kombucha tastes great.

At a local food exchange, where kombucha is on tap, one glass is $4.00.

All kombucha is is a fermented black tea flavored with organic juices or fruits of your choice and maybe even a few spices. So, when I recovered from sticker shock, I decided to calculate how much a glass of home-brewed kombucha would run.

Would you believe home-brewed kombucha costs about $.31 a glass? Yep, I said 31 cents a glass and that’s using pure cane sugar and premium Sada Chai from the Tao of Tea company.

You can make 8 glasses of kombucha, at home, for the cost of a single glass at the store. That’s why I started making my own kombucha!

Once you have your SCOBY (Symbiotic Combination of Bacteria and Yeast that you see here) all you need to buy again will be tea and sugar. SCOBYs look a bit like you might imagine the blob looked like in the 1950’s sci-fi thriller. But don’t let the SCOBY’s looks put you off.

This healthy SCOBY is making kombucha.

Healthy SCOBYs look a bit like jelly fish.

This is a powerful and living organism that eats the sugar you put in your black tea, fermenting it and giving you 8 glasses of kombucha for about $2.50.

And she does it in 7 to 10 days!

How do you get started?

It looks a bit daunting but if you follow the directions, it is easy and your kombucha will be delicious!

  1. Bring a gallon of water to a boil, then turn off the heat and immediately add 4 Tablespoons of loose tea and 1 cup of organic cane sugar.  Cover the pot with a lid and let the tea cool to room temperature. If it’s too warm (anything approaching 90°) it will kill the SCOBY.
  2. When the tea is room temperature (check this with a thermometer) strain out the tea leaves, and pour the liquid into your glass or ceramic gallon container. Add your SCOBY and 1-2 cups of kombucha starter liquid it shipped in. NOTE: this is for the first batch you make.  The batches thereafter, just pour off and bottle all but 2 cups of kombucha then pour the fresh tea right into the gallon jar with your SCOBY .

    SCOBY fermenting tea to make kombucha.

    Leave room at the top for your SCOBY to grow.

  3. Cover the container with a clean cloth, kitchen towel, or handkerchief kept in place with a rubber band.  Place the jar in a warm spot (I put mine in the oven with the oven light on) that is out of direct sunlight and where it won’t be disturbed or moved.Make sure that the cloth or towel is breathable but the weave is tight enough to keep out fruit flies, gnats, and other undesirables.Your SCOBY may sink or float on the top, both are okay.  In 2-3 days, you may see a translucent jelly like mass floating on the top of your tea.  This is a baby SCOBY beginning to form.  Leave it undisturbed so that it can grow properly.
  4. Taste your kombucha 7 or 8 days after starting it using a straw inserted down the side of the SCOBY, not through it. Ideally, kombucha should have a slightly sharp and acidic bite. How long it takes to make a batch depends on the temperature of your home and how sweet or sour you’d like it to be.  Most batches will be ready in 7-10 days.  The longer it brews, the sharper it gets.
  5. Just before you think you will be bottling your kombucha, brew another batch of sweetened black tea so it will be cooled to room temperature and ready for you to use to start the next batch using the mother or baby SCOBY and the reserved kombucha.
  6. When your kombucha is ready, pour all but the last 2 cups into clean bottles or jars, straining it as you pour to catch any tiny SCOBYs that may be starting.  Leave the mother SCOBY in the original jar while you bottle your batch. NOTE:  keeping the mother SCOBY in the original jar minimizes contact and automatically reserves the 1-2 cups of starter liquid you need for your next batch.
  7. If you have a baby SCOBY growing with the mother and you want to separate them, now is the time.  You can start a second gallon of kombucha going with the new baby or give it to a friend so they can home-brew.
  8. Start your next batch by just pouring the room temperature black tea and sugar mixture you’ve already prepared over the SCOBY and starter tea you left in the gallon jar, cover and start the brewing cycle again.

Kombucha will naturally have a slight fizziness.  To increase the carbonation and level of tartness, leave the bottled kombucha on a counter top for several days after bottling.  BURP the bottles to keep the pressure from building up and the brew from spurting out of the bottle when opened.  Keep bottles stored in a refrigerator once the brew is finished fermenting.

Once you get the rhythm – brew tea and cool it down, strain and drain kombucha into bottles for finishing, add tea to your SCOBY and start again – you’ll understand why I say it’s easy to home brew your own kombucha.

Important notes:
Always clean your hands, utensils, and anything that might touch your kombucha with hot water and distilled vinegar. Do not use soap, (especially antibacterial soap) as it may harm or kill the kombucha culture. Your kombucha is alive!  Make sure to handle it with care.

Only use lead-free glass and ceramic for fermenting. Kombucha will absorb toxins out of the container that it’s brewed in (much like how it pulls toxins out of our bodies).

SCOBYs have an unusual appearance, scent, and feel, but don’t let this discourage you! You’ll quickly grow accustomed to their odd appearance and will get used to handling them.

If the SCOBY grows mold, throw the liquid and SCOBY into the compost and begin with fresh materials.

One thing I didn’t mention is flavoring your home brew. There are any number of tasty additions including organic juice, fresh or dried fruit, berries, herbs, and spices for whatever flavor suits your mood.

And, next week, I will share some of my favorite kombucha recipes!