Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why I Love My Dehydrator

I love my dehydrator. It is right up there with my blender as my favorite kitchen appliance. It really helps to reduce food waste and increases the shelf life of many foods. Here's how I use it to save money:

When I find an amazing deal on produce, I dehydrate some of the bounty. Sometimes I find packages of peppers for $.40/lb, and I'll buy 10 pounds. Some are used fresh or frozen, but I dehydrate a lot of them to toss into soups or to add to casseroles.

Sometimes foods I enjoy come in packages that aren't practical for my family size, and nothing is worse than having fresh berries go bad before you can eat them. I enjoy mushrooms, but Trucker is allergic to them. When I buy a package of mushrooms, I leave out just enough for me to use in a couple days, and dehydrate the rest to use for later. Dehydrated berries make a delicious snack, or an excellent addition to trail mix or granola.

I make my own tea. When I find wild plants such as red clover or violets that make excellent tea, I dehydrate them to use to make my own tea blends. I also dehydrate some herbal teas such as dandelion leaf.

I dehydrate surplus garden produce when I get a glut. When a big harvest comes in, I try to freeze as much of it as I can (and this year I'm learning to can!), but there's only so much room in the freezer. Dehydrating is a great way to store some of the surplus to use in winter.

 I use dehydrated fruit as an alternative to candy. We used to buy boxes of candy (such as Gobstoppers or nerds) to snack on, especially for road trips. But once we tried home-dehydrated apples, we kicked the candy habit. I get free apples (from family trees), and save the money I would have otherwise spent on candy. It's also better for the teeth and waistline.

It's super convenient. When I use dehydrated items, they are already cut up and ready to use (other than rehydrating for some recipes). When I have to work but want dinner ready as soon as I get home, I put stock, shredded meat and an assortment of dehydrated veggies into the slow cooker, put it on low and go. It's quicker than canned soup, and it's cheaper and tastier!

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Food Production with Limited Space

I love gardening. I grew up in a semi-rural area, and have been gardening for as long as I can remember. My parents used to send me to an elderly couple's house to help them with their tomato garden, and to this day, the scent of tomato leaves brings up wonderful memories. When I moved out on my own, I found myself in apartments without yards. For a few years I ached for a yard to grow a garden and thought I'd never be able to unless I could move out of the city. Fortunately, I began experimenting with small-scale gardening.

Here are some tips for those of you in apartments, cities, shaded yards, suburbs with restrictive landscaping expectations or other challenges to your green thumb.

This shaded patch by the front door provided an entire
season's worth of salads. I planted endive, landcress, and
lettuce. Some dandelion poked through, but I let it grow
since it was edible too.
If all you have is a partial shaded spot, focus on lettuce. Lettuce likes cooler weather, so the shade keeps it from overheating and bolting. At my old apartment, there was a patch of dirt by the front door. It got only a couple hours of sun each day. I was tired of it looking so trashy, so I asked the landlord if I could plant it and he said yes! I scattered a few varieties of lettuce seed over the area and hoped for the best. Soon I was enjoying microgreens to supplement my salads, then I was getting all of the lettuce we could eat in salads and sandwiches. Since the area was shaded, it didn't bolt in the hot weather. That little 2x3 foot patch kept us in salad from late May til October. Other plants that may do well in partial shade: broccoli, peas, beets, radishes, beans, carrots, turnips and bok choi.

Plan to keep your garden plot working all season long. Early in the season, get some radishes, lettuce and spinach in. Once that's ready, it will be time for summer crops like tomatoes and peppers. Then as you take out the spent plants, get more lettuce, radishes, spinach and perhaps some kale in. Look for varieties that can withstand snow so you can go out in early winter, brush away the snow and dig out dinner.

By the time the harvest came in, the bean plants were 15 feet
tall and grew to the top of the branches behind the trellis.
The trellis is just a planted headboard I curb-shopped.
Use your space wisely. When planting lettuce, alternate lettuce seeds with radish seeds. Radishes will mature while the lettuce is still tiny and will be harvested before the lettuce needs the space. Plant lettuce, radishes, basil or carrots in between tomato plants to use otherwise wasted space. Grow vertical when you can to make the most of your square footage.

Grow multi-purpose plants. Everyone knows you eat radish bulbs, but the leaves are also edible. Beet and carrot leaves are also edible. When choosing a bean variety, look for one that you can eat immature as a pod,
or as a dry bean (Scarlet runner beans are good for this, and they're beautiful!)

Who can say Romanesco Broccoli isn't beautiful?
If you live in an area with strict rules about landscaping and gardening, mix edibles in with flower beds. Edible flowers are beautiful and add a bit to salads or can be used for fritters. Ornamental kale, swiss chard, or red-leaf lettuces hold their own in a flower bed.

Salad made from thinnings from the
outdoor radish and carrot beds and
from the indoor lettuce pots.

Eat your thinnings. If you have to thin radish, carrot, beat or lettuce, make a salad out of the tiny veggies.

A sunny window is the perfect place to grow
some lettuce for winter salads.
Grow some edibles indoors. I've had mixed success with indoor food gardening, but my failures were really because I was stupid. For example, my first indoor food garden, I used all tiny containers and tried to grow tomatoes and onions in containers that were in no way appropriate. However, even being stupid, I still got lots of green onions, some lettuce and exactly one pea-pod. In later years, I had better luck by choosing appropriate plants and containers. Lettuce, radishes and herbs will grow in smaller containers. If you have the space for larger containers, you can grow a lot of other things, such as tomatoes. Look for "container" or "patio" varieties. Put in a south facing window with lots of sun or get a grow light. Don't forget to water once or twice a day.

If you have a small patio or balcony that gets a bit of sunlight, you are in luck. A lot of great vegetables and fruits can be grown in containers. I've grown tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, radishes, cucumbers, and more in containers in the patio at my old apartment. The south-facing patio got just enough sunlight. I salvaged food-grade buckets from my job at a restaurant for many of the plantings, and used small trash cans that I bought for less than a dollar at a thrift store.

If you have no yard, no balcony/patio/porch, and no sunny windows, you can still grow a bit of food: sprouts. Get lentils, mung beans, or other beans/seeds, soak for 8 hours in water, then drain, rinse and place in a cupboard. Once or twice a day, rinse and drain well. Soon you'll have delicious sprouts to add to sandwiches, salads or stir-fry. It's an easy and cheap way to grow a little food.

Pick wild foods in your area. Dandelion leaves are a deliciously bitter green for salads or steamed to use like spinach, the flowers make incredible fritters or jelly and the roots make a delicious coffee substitute. Violet flowers and leaves are great additions to salads. Red clover flowers make a nice tea. I find lots of edibles growing in the heart of the city, and I take full advantage of them. Fruit trees left over from a more self-reliant time are still dotting the city landscape. Look for mulberries, crab apples (use in jelly or add to other apples when juicing for a bit of zing), and pears growing along parking lot edges or hanging over sidewalks.

Guerilla garden. If you cannot find a place that you are allowed to grow some food, look for a place that you can grow food without anyone noticing. Abandoned lots and empty planters (such a depressing sight!) beg for some green beauty. Take over the flower beds that your landlord has long since stopped planting. A sprinkling of lettuce seeds are easy enough to plant without anyone noticing.

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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

How to Avoid Produce Waste

If you are trying to cut your grocery bill, reducing waste is a great place to start. We waste between 14-25% of the food we buy. Produce is commonly wasted since it seems to go bad in the blink of an eye. Planning ahead can help you to stop wasting the produce you pay good money for.

* If you buy produce in bulk, have a plan to use it. Plan the week's meals around that item, or preserve some of it so none goes to waste. If you buy a huge bag of potatoes, use some to make mashed potatoes, then the leftovers can be made into mashed potato soup or potato pancakes. You can also dehydrate apples for a wonderful snack with a long shelf-life.

* If your garden gives you a surplus, preserve it for later. Can, freeze or dehydrate as much as possible to stretch the harvest. A glut of tomatoes can be made into tomato sauce, salsa and sun-dried tomatoes. Zucchini can be shredded and frozen to use in baking later. Peppers freeze well, although the texture will be slightly different.

* For 1-2 person households, go small when you buy lettuce. At my local grocery store, all types of lettuce sell for $1.99/lb. I buy "little gem" lettuce instead of larger heads of lettuce. It costs the same amount per pound, but since I can easily get through the smaller head, I don't waste any.

* Use the dehydrator to avoid waste. If I buy several tomatoes and they start to get a tad overripe before I get to use them fresh, I slice them thin and dehydrate for mock sun-dried tomatoes that I can use on pizza or sandwiches. If bananas turn black, I sl
ice thin and dehydrate for a delicious snack. When celery starts to get a bit limp, I dehydrate it to use in soups. If there is only 1-2 in your household, it can be hard to eat an entire package of produce before it goes bad (3lb bags of oranges/apples, 1 lb containers strawberries, etc). Dehydrate half of the produce as soon as you get home to use later.

* Dehydrate celery leaves or any vegetables that would otherwise go to waste to make veggie powder. Simply crumble or grind in a clean coffee grinder. Use this powder to add flavor to omelets or bread or to make vegetable soup.

*Zest lemons, oranges or limes and dry them on a tray in a dry, dark place. Use to add flavor to baked goods.

* When bananas turn black, toss them whole into the freezer. Use to make smoothies or banana bread. Just microwave for 30 seconds and peel easily.

* When apples start to get soft, core and chop them. Simmer in a small amount of water with cinnamon and sugar (optional) until soft. Blend for wonderful applesauce.

* Use leftover bits of vegetables or parts of vegetables that would usually be thrown away to make stock. Celery leaves, carrot peels and onion skins can be simmered in water with or without chicken bones for practically-free stock.

* Sometimes you can cut out bad parts and still have a decent amount left, for example, cut out eyes from potatoes. Our grandparents commonly did this and lived to tell the tale.

* Get creative. Make watermelon rind pickles. Make tea from cherry stems. Eat watermelon or squash seeds, roasted with salt.

* Regrow it. While I haven't tried this yet, some people have had good luck regrowing produce such as green onions, celery, pineapple, avocado, romaine lettuce or onions from scraps. Here are some links for more info: How to Regrow Foods, Regrowing Your Produce.

* Bake potato peels with cheese and seasonings for a great appetizer.

* If you are ever making a monster batch of applesauce like I do on my family's Apple Processing Day, you can use the peels and cores to make apple cider/juice.

* Pulp leftover from juicing can be added to muffins for extra fiber. This works especially well if you add chocolate chips or nuts.

* Have a vegetable soup container in the freezer. Whenever you have leftover veggies such as tomatoes, celery, onions, green beans, carrots, potatoes, peas, corn, etc you can toss it in. Once it's full thaw and add veggie broth or tomato sauce and seasonings for an almost-free soup.

* Excess produce can be added to baked goods such as muffins, brownies or breads. Zucchini, squash, pumpkins, apples, berries, carrots, or even potatoes can be mixed in.

* Feed kitchen scraps to chickens, ducks, rabbits, hogs or goats. Get it back as eggs, milk, meat and compost.

* Feed to worms for supreme fertilizer for the garden. If you don't have a worm bin, start a compost bin in a trash can with drainage holes drilled into it.

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