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Pull Up a Chair: Ready or Not, Spring Is Coming

4:55 am in Food by TobyWollin

Life gets in the way sometimes, even for gardeners, so here I am with no seeds started (oh, the horror!), and scrambling around at the last minute (didn’t follow my own advice last fall, but what the heck) trying to figure out what we’re going to do. We’re still snow-covered here, but unless we get some major snow (sorry people in New England who are still digging out from the last snow; in Upstate NY, we didn’t get very much and have since had warm weather and some rain), not for long.

And without snow cover, we know what is going to happen: the soil is going to warm up. What to do…oh, what to do?

OK – if I want to speed things along, I can scrape off the snow off one of the beds and put to work our ‘old window over some lumber’ trick, which warms up the soil PDQ. And I can either order or go through our local seed racks (at this point, the seeds will still be pretty good) for what I can use right away and get started.

So, what can I use ‘right away’ (or what passes for that here)? Well, if I can get the soil temperatures up to 50+ degrees F, I can plant:

  • Anything from the CABBAGE family: broccoli, kale, cabbage, Chinese cabbages and mustards, cauliflower, kohlrabi.
  • Anything from the BEET family: beets, Swiss and other chards
  • Various sorts of lettuces and other greens
  • Spinach

And frankly, I have had just as good (if not better, actually) experience just putting the seeds into the ground rather than starting them and setting out the plants.

This year, for the first time, I am doing the research in terms of ‘who owns/controls/has agreements with who’ in terms of seed suppliers. There is part of me that is considering very seriously going with Seed Savers Exchange or another heritage seed group, just to make sure that the sticky GM fingers of Monsanto, Bayer, Dow et al. are not on there. I might even save seeds at the end of the summer (which is actually not all that hard to do; I’ll be happy to go over that if anyone is interested). Here’s an amazing factoid about ‘germ plasm ownership’: The number 5 organization in terms of who owns/controls seed germ plasm in…the…world… is……. Land o’ Lakes. The butter people. I kid you not. Look it up.

I’m also thinking seriously about trying, for the first time, to grow parsnips, strictly from having a plate with a whack-load of parsnip/apple puree on it. Yummy. Anyone with experience growing parsnips? I figure that since we’ve had some success with carrots, I will be able to grow parsnips (long pointy veggies under the ground? All the same? Or am I wrong?). We’re also going strictly production tomatoes this year: grow what we use, which is plum tomatoes. I might sacrifice some space to one slicing tomato (so that the DH will be able to make his beloved ‘mayo/black pepper/sliced tomatoes on horrible commercial white bread’ sandwiches), plus one cherry tomato, but other than that, I’ve decided not to bother. If I can find a plum tomato that comes from Eastern Europe or Russia, I’m sold.

The big work this spring will be on a bed we started last year with compost from the county landfill, which was compost in the same way that some Democrats in the House are Democrats. I don’t think I’ve seen as high a ‘wood chip to actual organic material’ ratio in anything other than saw dust in a long time. So that bed was as close to a dead loss as you can get. We’ll dump all the real compost out of the bins into there in the spring. I might even do nothing with that area but grow buckwheat 3 or 4 times (if nothing else, it will feed the bees really well) in the summer to put some more stuff into it. Anyone else have any ideas for cover crops that would do improvement there?

So, where is everyone else in their gardening? Any of you folks in southwest or southeast started? Or is it too dry? I’m not feeling all that good up here about that either – we’re having another dry winter like last winter, which does not predict good things.

You know the drill – fill up the coffee cups, pull the scones out of the oven and let’s talk.

Pull Up a Chair: Spring Has Sprung!

3:54 am in Food by TobyWollin

Spring has sprung here at Chez Siberia and I do mean sprung as in “if you stopped to tie your shoes, you missed the transition.’

Usually, we have a good month of 50 degree F. temperatures, give or take 5 degrees and I can take some time to warm up the soil with plastic or an old window lying on one of the old frames we saved from when we tore down the old greenhouse, but literally we went in 10 days time from 40 odd degrees to over 50 degrees F.

Whiplash, I tell you. Whiplash.

Last weekend, I put in seeds for broccoli, kale, Chinese cabbage, spinach, chard, lettuces of various colors and kinds, and beets, watering the bed thoroughly before I did so. The winter was so dry and it’s been so warm that the soil was very dry, which makes it definitely tough on a seed to break through that outer coating and germinate. You definitely need a certain level of warmth for seeds (and 50 degrees F Is my minimum for putting in the seeds above), but you also need a certain level of moisture. Since it’s been so warm, I just covered the bed with a double layer of spun polyester to hold in a bit of warmth and moisture (I really had to do that because we’ve used that particular chunk of fabric so many times, there are, shall we say, a lot of rather large perforations). And several days after I’d put in the seeds, I watered it thoroughly again.

This afternoon, I went out and the magic has definitely started to happen – seeds UP! This is an activity which I started to do when I was in elementary school and it has never lost its charm. It’s like buried treasure every time. I always try to grow one new thing, just for the novelty. I’m not sure what that will be this year, since we have a ‘small person’ wandering around the place now and I intend to allow him to pull up whatever he wants on a daily basis for his lunch. A little dirt on the veggies never hurt anyone, I think, and there is nothing for a kid like pulling up a beet, radish or carrot.

When I was little I actually was never impressed with tomatoes or peppers; the plants were too big and the flowers were too small. But beans and there were pretty flowers that turned into something I loved to eat. And we won’t go into the whole ‘zucchini so big you could put a saddle on it and ride it away’.

Now, it’s not that I’m not interested in novelty items, seriously, but we only have 5 beds, 3 feet wide by 15 feet long, to grow in (the only spot we have to garden near the house unfortunately was where the contractor dumped all the basement fill, so these were literally carved out of the landscape by the DH with pick, shovel, leaves, compost, wood chips and manure), so we tend to grow a lot of things that work and that we like to eat. Sometimes they don’t work well – we haven’t had any luck to speak of with Brussels sprouts, though other members of the cabbage family grow really well for us. And the only method of growing peppers that works for us is to put them into grow bags or two-gallon water jugs on the black asphalt driveway in the sun. Certain things I will not bother with whatsoever, no matter how much whining gets applied, corn is one of them. And sometimes I just throw in the towel and go to our local farmers market and order up a bushel of tomatoes just in case.

What are you guys doing in the garden this year? (Oh, and btw, between the mild winter and the horrible acorn crop which crashed the populations of white footed mice in the Northeast, we’ve got one heck of a deer tick issue this spring.)

Food Sunday: Giving up canned goods for the holidays

9:23 am in Food by TobyWollin

Slow! (photo: fiddlechick/flickr)

Slow! (photo: fiddlechick/flickr)

In the Northern Hemisphere, right now is the coldest, darkest, most depressing time of the year, which is why we have people doing everything from lighting bonfires, stringing electric lights, and entertaining anyone who wanders by with food and drink. All in the service of bringing back the sun (or the spring, or whatever belief system you ascribe to). And since most of us do not have time to do much of anything at this time of the year, what with all the bonfire lighting and light stringing and carol singing (who WAS Carol, by the way? Why aren’t these songs called “Barbara” or “Ermentrude” or some other woman’s name?), any ideas which will help in the time saving area are worthy indeed. Here is one.

Slow cooker.

If you don’t have one, get one. If you have one, get one of another size (the damn things come in every size from ‘makes enough dip for a small crowd’ to ‘small turkey’ size). Personally, as a working mom, I think slow cookers are one of the 2oth Century’s great inventions – right up there with electric toothbrushes and vacuum cleaners as far as I’m concerned. You can make literally everything from soups, stews and chili to baked goods, small roasts, and whole chickens in them. The only thing you can’t make in them are items like salads. Seriously. At this time of the year, when we are all running around either entertaining or running out to someone else’s house to BE entertained, being able to throw dinner into a slow cooker and set it on ‘low’ before you go to work is genius. No more ‘what’s for dinner?’ And if you have vast voracious hoards who come home from school in the afternoon before you come home, and you get that “Mom, we’re starving’ phone call at 3:30 – just direct them to the giant pot of all things good on the counter for just a little bit of sustenance until you do get home (of course, if you have a 16 year old boy, you might want to tell him to go outside and catch and eat a couple of ground hogs first, just as an appetizer – the family does want to have dinner when they come home).

But this is not about ‘168 things to do with a slow cooker during the holiday season’ (although I am fairly sure that someone has done a book with that title out there and if they have not, then after reading this last sentence, someone WILL). There are writers out there who are vastly superior in terms of providing that level of information; my favorite is: A Year of Slow Cooking Read the rest of this entry →

Food Sunday: Food News You Can Use

10:49 am in Food by TobyWollin

Actually, this is not so much food news (because like everyone else, I’m tired of dealing with the whole ‘Listeria in the cantaloupes’ thing) as it is a food thought.

As you might remember, British chef and school lunch gadfly Jamie Oliver did a program two summers ago where he traveled to West Virginia and tried (with some success) to make some changes in a school district’s lunch program. He also put into place a community cooking school with the help of a local church pastor and the local hospital. One of the most powerful episodes of the series was his meeting and working with a family with severe health issues and a refrigerator full of pre-made snacks and items masquerading as meals.

I’ve been thinking about that family a lot lately. The mom thought she was feeding her family. Not necessarily feeding them really good food, mind you, but something that was quick, easy to prepare and would fill them up. She was not a label reader(which puts her in the same category as 98% of the rest of us). And I have been thinking about all the messages moms have been getting for the past 40+ years from the processed food industry in this country in terms of cooking, getting food on the table, time, working outside the home and so on. Jamie Oliver’s thinking is that people don’t cook because they don’t know how – 40 years of nuking frozen dinners and popcorn basically have taken all the skills out of the general population, since home ec doesn’t exist as we used to know it 40 years ago.

But I also think it’s something else. It’s the mindless drumming into women’s collective ears of ‘cooking takes time and because you are not at home anymore, you don’t have time’ (see, they get a twofer here – make women think cooking is too complicated plus a side order of the guilt of working outside the home). Plus, there is the intimation of ‘and now that you are incompetent in the kitchen (and that’s ok because that is drudge work and you are now working in an office!!), we’re here to rescue you and your poor starving family!” So, there is the assuaging factor of ‘here, little lady – just pick up the frozen enchiladas and fill up all the holes in your family and make yourself feel less guilty about working outside the home.” Read the rest of this entry →

Food Sunday: Apples of my eye

9:45 am in Food by TobyWollin

We tend to take apples pretty much for granted here in the US. We grow a lot of apples here and except for the deep deep South and the southwest, we’ve pretty much got apples covered. And we have our own mythology in terms of the spread of apples in the US – John Chapman, America’s “Johnny Appleseed” (who was literally a legend in his own time) spread nurseries of an apple from Massachusetts called the “Rambo” which probably was brought here from Sweden. Rambo is an ok apple – general purpose, really (which is what would have made it popular in the 18th and 19th century since if you could only afford one apple tree next to your house, you wanted it to be hardy and something you could use to make everything from cider (Colonial America’s #1 drink) to sauce to dried to pies. Which is what Rambo was good for. Not a great shipping apple mind you but when America ate it’s apples, it was not going down to the Safeway(tm) to buy them.

But people have never been able to let well enough alone with apples. The grandfather of all apples is Malus domestica, from Western Asia. And people have been messing around with crosses and selections literally for thousands of years. The US FDA is growing that wild apple at its experimental stations to find disease resistance benefits to help beef up today’s cultivars. There are literally 7,500 different varieties of apples and they all have advantages over other apples. We don’t see most of them in stores for the obvious reasons that growers stick with what they can sell a lot of, some of which are really rather blah apples (I’m talking to you, Washington State Delicious which to my mind tastes and has the texture of papertowels). And some of which I don’t find useful at Chez Siberia at all. Read the rest of this entry →

Food Sunday: Food News You Can Use

9:49 am in Food by TobyWollin

photo: State Library of New South Wales via Flickr

Good afternoon, folks. We’re still cleaning up from the flood up here in Upstate New York (for those concerned, Chez Siberia because of it’s location – several miles north of the rivers and several hundred feet higher than the rivers – came through with a little bit of water in the basement. We feel very very lucky) but the weather has been advantageous this week and looks as if it will be dry next week as well, which helps. On the other hand, we have had three nights of frosts. Accuweather giveth and Accuweather taketh away..


To the News!
Eatcher Broccoli! A new study shows that what you eat WITH cooked broccoli can make a huge difference not only in how much cancer fighting stuff you get out of it but also WHERE your body digests it (who knew it’s also location, location, location when it comes to digestion?). “Teaming fresh broccoli with a spicy food that contains the enzyme myrosinase significantly enhances each food’s individual cancer-fighting power and ensures that absorption takes place in the upper part of the digestive system where you’ll get the maximum health benefit, suggests a new University of Illinois study. To get this effect, spice up your broccoli with broccoli sprouts, mustard, horseradish, or wasabi. The spicier, the better; that means it’s being effective,” said Elizabeth Jeffery, a U of I professor of nutrition.” Broccoli

Infected melons for over a decade and consumers still don’t know what to do.
“Purchase cantaloupes that are not bruised or damaged. If buying fresh-cut cantaloupe, be sure it is refrigerated or surrounded by ice. After purchase, refrigerate cantaloupes promptly. Wash hands with hot, soapy water before and after handling fresh cantaloupes. Read the rest of this entry →

Food Sunday: Food News You Can Use

11:51 am in Food by TobyWollin

photo: State Library of New South Wales via Flickr

Happy Sunday, peoples. To the news!
Gut it out: We’ve discussed this before, but the types of bacteria people have in their lower intestines have implications for health and chronic disease. A recent study looked at whether or not changing diet could change the relative bacterial environment. “The enterotypes [of the gut bacteria]were strongly associated with diet, particularly protein and animal fat (Bacteroides genus) versus carbohydrates (Prevotella genus). Both Bacteroides and Prevotella are broad genera of bacteria species that typically live in the human gut. Humans tend to have mostly a species from one bacterial group but not both. Vegetarians were more likely to be in the Prevotella group, the enterotype associated with diets enriched in carbohydrates and lacking meat, and the one vegan was also in the Prevotella group.
Subsequently, 10 healthy volunteers were enrolled in a controlled feeding experiment in which their diets were fixed for a 10-day period. All ten subjects in the controlled-feeding experiment were in the Bacteroides group at the start, during, and at the end of the experiment. Their gut microbiomes changed within one day but stayed within the same broad Bacteroides group, even if they ate a diet high in carbohydrates over the 10-day period, emphasizing the short-term stability of the enterotypes.” Gut flora change with diet, but not quickly


No thanks; I’ll have the potatoes, please. Potatoes are America’s favorite veggie but are broadly maligned mostly because of what they get served WITH. A recently study shows that plain microwaved potatoes can be a healthy part of a diet, even for people who are overweight and have other weight-related health issues. “In the new study, 18 patients who were primarily overweight/obese with high blood pressure ate 6-8 purple potatoes (each about the size of a golf ball) with skins twice daily for a month. They used purple potatoes because the pigment, or coloring material, in fruits and vegetables is especially rich in beneficial phytochemicals. Scientists monitored the patients’ blood pressure, both systolic (the higher number in a blood pressure reading like 120/80) and diastolic. The average diastolic blood pressure dropped by 4.3 percent and the systolic pressure decreased by 3.5 percent, said Vinson, who is with the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and has done extensive research on healthful components in foods. The majority of subjects took anti-hypertensive drugs and still had a reduction in blood pressure. None of the study participants gained weight…” Again, these potatoes were not served with any of the usual potato accompaniments – no frying, no butter, no mayo…just plain nuked potatoes. Plain potatoes best

Farmers in flooded areas need to destroy crops meant for human consumption. Read the rest of this entry →

Food News You Can Use – and a recipe

6:08 am in Food by TobyWollin

photo: State Library of New South Wales via Flickr

From “Is Four Too Many? Are Three Not Enough?” Research: Prunes are really really good for you – for your bones, actually. Apparently, in older folks, they suppress the rate at which bone breaks down, which is good news for people concerned with osteoporosis. And of course, ahem, there is that…other…digestive…effect, too. “Arjmandi and a group of researchers from Florida State and Oklahoma State University tested two groups of postmenopausal women. Over a 12-month period, the first group, consisting of 55 women, was instructed to consume 100 grams of dried plums (about 10 prunes) each day, while the second — a comparative control group of 45 women — was told to consume 100 grams of dried apples. All of the study’s participants also received daily doses of calcium (500 milligrams) and vitamin D (400 international units).
The group that consumed dried plums had significantly higher bone mineral density in the ulna (one of two long bones in the forearm) and spine, in comparison with the group that ate dried apples. This, according to Arjmandi, was due in part to the ability of dried plums to suppress the rate of bone resorption, or the breakdown of bone, which tends to exceed the rate of new bone growth as people age.” Prunes


Fish Oil is great stuff, too in terms of its connection with maintaining brain volume. This seems to work only for people who are still cognitively ok and who are negative for genetic Alzheimer’s risk factor. “Daiello reports that compared to non-users, use of fish oil supplements was associated with better cognitive functioning during the study. However, this association was significant only in those individuals who had a normal baseline cognitive function and in individuals who tested negative for a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s Disease known as APOE4…Daiello says, “In the imaging analyses for the entire study population, we found a significant positive association between fish oil supplement use and average brain volumes in two critical areas utilized in memory and thinking (cerebral cortex and hippocampus), as well as smaller brain ventricular volumes compared to non-users at any given time in the study. In other words, fish oil use was associated with less brain shrinkage in patients taking these supplements during the ADNI study compared to those who didn’t report using them.” Considering the other benefits attributed to the ingestion of fish oil in such areas as cardiac disease, this is just one more reason to swallow it down. Fish Oil and Cognitive Function Read the rest of this entry →

Food Sunday: Food News You Can Use

6:06 am in Food by TobyWollin

photo: State Library of New South Wales via Flickr

OK, my little chickadees, back to food!

Good news for Jamie Oliver: Kids will eat all the veggies you can give them…as long as they can’t actually SEE them. “We incorporated several vegetables into the dishes, including broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, tomatoes and squash,” said Maureen Spill, a post-doctoral fellow in nutritional sciences and the study’s lead author. “We were pleased to find that the children found the vegetable-enhanced versions to be equally acceptable to the standard recipes.”
According to Spill, the children ate the same weight of food regardless of the vegetable content of the entrées. And when they ate the vegetable-enhanced entrées as opposed to the standard-recipe entrées, their daily vegetable intake nearly doubled while their calorie intake decreased by 11 percent. The team’s findings are online July 25 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” Hiding Veggies Works

Spices are not just for taste – they are actually good for you. “Normally, when you eat a high-fat meal, you end up with high levels of triglycerides, a type of fat, in your blood,” said Sheila West, associate professor of biobehavioral health, Penn State, who led the study. “If this happens too frequently, or if triglyceride levels are raised too much, your risk of heart disease is increased. We found that adding spices to a high-fat meal reduced triglyceride response by about 30 percent, compared to a similar meal with no spices added.”
West and her colleagues prepared meals on two separate days for six men between the ages of 30 and 65 who were overweight, but otherwise healthy. The researchers added two tablespoons of culinary spices to each serving of the test meal, which consisted of chicken curry, Italian herb bread, and a cinnamon biscuit. The control meal was identical, except that spices were not included. The team drew blood from the participants every 30 minutes for three hours. They reported their findings in the current issue of the Journal of Nutrition.
“In the spiced meal, we used rosemary, oregano, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, cloves, garlic powder and paprika,” said Ann Skulas-Ray, postdoctoral fellow. “We selected these spices because they had potent antioxidant activity previously under controlled conditions in the lab.”
When the meal contained a blend of antioxidant spices, antioxidant activity in the blood was increased by 13 percent and insulin response decreased by about 20 percent.”
Spices and Blood Response After High Fat meals Read the rest of this entry →

Food Sunday: Food News You Can Use

7:05 am in Food by TobyWollin

photo: State Library of New South Wales via Flickr

And good morning, food lovers!


Since this week, we’ve seen ANOTHER recall of Cargill processed meat (in this case, ground turkey) due to e. coli contamination, Aunt Toby felt that a single topic piece might be in order.

What is e.coli? E.coli stands for Escherichia coli, which technically is a ‘gram negative rod shaped bacteria commonly found in the lower gut of warm-blooded animals’. Gram negative just means that when they are exposed to the dye that is commonly used in laboratories for bacteria staining purposes, the part of the dye that e.coli will take up is the red part.

There are many strains of this bacteria and the ones that are in human beings’ intestines actually have a function in terms of producing Vitamin K2, which is actually pretty important stuff as far as helping us not bleed to death and all that. The other thing is that we need to think of e.coli (which now has been demonized because of the other, more virulent and deadly forms that are around and which have gotten into the food chain) as sort of ‘the bad guys who run the protection racket in your intestines.”

As problematic as they can get under certain conditions, the ones we have had in our guts for millions of years actually perform the useful function of holding back the proliferation of bacteria that are even worse. Which is why sometimes, when people have a big course of antibiotics, they end up with huge diarrhea problems – the antibiotics have wiped out everything, including the protection racket guys. (and the answer to that problem is eating yoghurt with live cultures which promotes the growth of the good guys who will then fight off the bad guys)

Why are we hearing so much about e.coli recalls on meat and vegetables? Read the rest of this entry →