Last year, feeling disheartened by the ever-increasing amounts of cash I was shelling out on garden supplies, I decided to attempt to track the value of food I produced. I consider gardening both a hobby and an act of political protest, so I wasn’t exactly expecting it to pay its own way, but I was curious. Urban gardening is supposed to make fresh food more affordable and accessible to city residents, right? Then shouldn’t we expect it to at least break even?
To my surprise, my garden did more than break even. My approximately $90 investment produced at least $350 in organic produce, and I’m fairly sure we forgot to write some things down. What really blew my mind was the quantity of “stuff” produced. When you pick 2 ounces of beans here, 4 ounces there, you don’t notice that by the end of the season you have actually picked 7.75 pounds of beans. My seemingly meager harvest suddenly felt more impressive, all the more so considering that it came out of two community garden plots and included a hurricane.
But there are some caveats in these numbers. Since I was growing organic produce, it seemed fair to base its value on farmers’ market/Whole Foods prices—for instance, $3.00 lb. for tomatoes, or $2.50/bunch for chard. If I were really living on a tight budget (let’s be honest here: I’m not), would I really be paying these prices? Hard to say. I also noticed that at least 25 lbs. of the haul (and therefore $44 of the total) came from the peach tree. Fruit trees are one of the best gardening investments you can make, but they require owning land to grow them in. And gardening, especially urban gardening, does require a sizeable upfront investment. Unless you’ve inherited a well-maintained plot in a community garden, you’re most likely looking at purchasing lumber, screws, brackets, and up to 100 lbs. of soil and compost, not to mention the vehicle to transport all this stuff in, before you can put a single seed in the ground.
Still, I’m intrigued with this experiment. This is the first year that I have the entire season in both of my plots, and I’m hopeful. I’ve already spent well over $100, including community garden fees, a new raised bed, seeds, and conduit pipe for a new homemade trellis (that’s another story). My goal is to produce at least 200 pounds of produce on my approximately 200 square feet of gardening space. This year, I’ll be keeping a log from the beginning, and weighing everything, including herbs and lettuces. I’ll be keeping a spreadsheet with farmers’ market rates so I can see a running total of the value. We’re already off to a good start: I’ve already harvested 1.5 lbs. of overwintered leeks, spinach, and carrots.
So much for my own obsessive garden tracking habits. Readers, tell me: do you attempt to track your garden’s cost effectiveness? And if so, how?
Update: By request, I’ve uploaded my spreadsheet here, goofy notes-to-self and all. Feel free to download and make it your own.
Asparagus needs three years in the ground before its first harvest, and we’re not quite there yet. Next year, we’ll finally get to taste the amazing spears that poke their heads right out of our yard. In the meantime, they serve as a welcome reminder that winter is almost over.
We probably should have given the rhubarb several years’ reprieve, too, but too late. In another month, this rhubarb will be finding its way into jars, rounded out with some of last year’s cherries from the freezer.
And then there’s the horseradish. I love how its first leaves resemble ferns. Next it looks like dockweed; eventually it puts out little white flowers, looking like nothing so much as arugula’s crazy tough cousin.
Here I was, minding my own business, and suddenly fall happened. Or, more accurately, a string of tropical storms has turned the East Coast into a limp, soggy mess. Either way, my gardens are protesting—summer’s definitely over. But yet I feel like I’ve just gotten started on filling up the freezer for winter. The good news is that many of the best vegetables for freezing are either currently at their peak or are just starting to come in. I’m talking about the basics here, folks: green beans, corn, and fresh lima beans right now; kale, collards, spinach, and broccoli about a month or two from now.
You can imagine, then, how thrilled I was when I got a call from Therese Madden, a reporter for WHYY in Philadelphia, who wanted to do a radio piece on freezing vegetables. The piece aired this morning, but you can also catch a listen here. What excites me about freezing vegetables is how utterly easy is it. In most cases, you blanch the vegetables, cool them off, stick them in a bag, and toss them in the freezer. Some vegetables, like peppers and corn, don’t even really need to be blanched. If you’re feeling fastidious (and I encourage this), you’ll keep a list of what you’ve got in there so you’ll remember to eat it later. And that’s it.
There are only so many ways to say “blanch, cool, bag, freeze,” so rather than repeat myself, I’ll link back to some older posts where I give this same advice, but with pictures. (oooh! ahhh! Oh, wait. They’re just pictures of freezer bags. Still: Illustrations!)
At first, my cutting back on the blog was intentional. My husband and I had taken a fantabulous vacation to Costa Rica at the end of January. It was one of those times where having a chance to really and truly relax helps you realize how much of our stress is self-imposed. Between my editorial business, my book contract (not a food preservation book, alas), and a research grant, I was over-extended, and I needed to just take a little break.
The plan was to return to the blog in, say, late April, when the growing cycle would start again. I was going to regale you all with tales of my gardening and freezer organization prowess. Rhubarb! Spring peas! Bean sprouts!
But then life intervened. My mother-in-law’s cancer came back, and it came back fast. In late March, we still thought she’d be doing chemo and radiation this summer. We were looking forward to spending at least a few days with her in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the site of her beloved summer cottage. Instead, she died May 22. There’s nothing like the death of a close relative to remind you that some stress is not, in fact, self-imposed. I’m finally back to my garden, but I’m finding that I need to do everything—cooking, eating, weeding, thinking, writing—very slowly. I need to concentrate on the task at hand without thinking about whether or not the activity is something that might be interesting to write about later.
There’s not much that I really want to say about this on my blog. I know that some people find blogging about personal loss useful or cathartic; I don’t particularly. But I do want to say that I haven’t completely abandoned ship. Hopefully one of these days I’ll blog again. Meanwhile I’m very, very happy that the sun is out, the seedlings are in, and there’s rhubarb to be had.
Last weekend I pulled up the carrots I had left to overwinter at my community garden. The boards on the raised bed were rotten, and my billy goat had offered to build me a new frame so I could put in my spring seeds. While I was grateful, that meant that I had to rip out everything still in the ground, ready or not. The carrots were a pleasant surprise. When I last checked on them a few weeks ago, they looked small, sad, lonely, and frozen. Turns out a few days of sunshine and warmer weather perked them right up.
We’ve eaten about half of the big ones already, in a slaw, a roasted carrot and beet salad, and as aromatics in yet another lentil stew. The little guys, being too delicate to cook, have found their way into a kimchi. We’re still finding daikon radish at our local farmer’s market, and carrots and radish are a natural pair. This is a quick kimchi that needs only a couple of days instead of the usual three or four to get just the right amount of tang. It’s tasty, too—I’m tempted to buy up all the daikon I can find to have enough to enjoy all summer.
Carrot Daikon Kimchi
Approx. 1/2 lb. carrots, cut into matchsticks (quartered lengthwise if small)
Approx. 1/2 lb. daikon radish, sliced thin (I used the 4 mm blade on my food processor)
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2″ quarter ginger root, shredded
1 dried hot pepper
Scallions, if you have them
4 1/2 T kosher salt
6 c. water
1) Dissolve the salt in the water to make a brine.
2) Combine all the vegetables in a quart-sized, wide-mouthed sterilized jar. You may think they won’t fit, but push.
3) Pour the brine over the vegetables. Remove the air bubbles and convince the vegetables to stay submerged using whatever technique you’d like (I find that a jelly jar filled with brine makes an excellent weight).
4) Put your jar on a saucer (to catch spillover) and let it ferment for 2 to 4 days, depending on your preference, in cool, dark place. You should start seeing bubbles (indicating fermentation) within 12 to 24 hours. Kimchis are happiest when fermenting at 50 to 60°F, but note that the cooler your room, the longer the fermentation will take. Stored in the refrigerator, this will keep at least a month, possibly much longer.
C’mon. Surely I can figure out what to do with homemade bacon. I mean, it’s bacon. It’s salty, fatty, and comes from a pig. What’s not to like?
A lot, it turns out. I’ve been trying to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t thrilled about my homemade bacon since mid-February, the Charcutepalooza deadline. (You’ll have to take my word for it that the bacon itself was completed on time). Having both missed the deadline and made lackluster meat, I just about threw in the towel, but since then, I’ve taken comfort in the bacon befuddlement of my fellow Charcutepaloozers.
Oh, my bacon, my bacon! What went wrong? For starters, the pork belly had nipples. Now, seeing as how I grew up around hogs, I don’t know why this came as such as shock, but it did. And then there was the sheer quantity of salt. Then I skipped the nitrites. And last but not least, the fat.
Now, this wasn’t just your everyday fatty bacon. Look closely at that picture up top. Do you see any meat on that fat, whatsoever? No. I didn’t think so. It’s one thing to eat pre-sliced strips of bacon. Somehow, when it’s in pieces, you don’t necessarily notice that most bacon is at least two-thirds fat. When you’re looking at an 10″ x 6″ slab of pork belly with an inch of fat on top, on the other hand, it’s pretty hard to miss.
And guess what? Fatty bacon is salty bacon, as I learned from Grow and Resist‘s post about her nearly identical challenges with the project. And since she explained her disappointment in nitrite-free bacon so well, I’ll spare you my version. Let’s just say that it doesn’t taste like bacon.
What it does taste like is salty, roasted, pork belly. Once I wrapped my head around that, I was in a better position to figure out what to do with it. I hacked it into about a dozen 4-ounce chunks, tossed them into a Ziplock, and threw the whole thing in the freezer. Because it’s so, so, so fatty, there’s no need to thaw it before cutting it up—if anything, it’s easier to cut when it’s frozen. Since then, I’ve used some in baked beans, some in a Spanish rice pilaf, and some in a lentil stew. It’s surprisingly good in stir-fried Asian noodles. Since it’s nearly unadulterated fat, it makes a great addition to venison sausage.
So: all in all, not a bacon disaster, but not a runaway success. I may yet try again with nitrites. We’ll see.
Ask the Goats is an occasional Monday feature in which we attempt to answer your questions about growing, making, eating, and preserving food. Got a question for the goats? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. Fresh green beans are out of season and are very expensive at the moment. Have you ever heard of using frozen for something like canned four-bean salad? They would already have been blanched. I’m guessing they would need to be dried well after thawing first but other than that would they work?—Natalia
Q. Just a question…can pickled three-bean salad then be frozen?—Shana
A. The answer to both questions is yes. But why would you?
Let’s take Shana first. I’m not entirely sure whether you wanted to freeze a fresh or canned four-bean salad, but neither strikes me as a particularly good idea. Fresh vegetables with vinegar in them do not, in general, freeze well. And if you’re talking about freezing a jar of pickled three-bean salad that you’ve opened, the resulting texture is going to be very sad. Remember, you’ve already simmered these beans in a vinegar solution and subjected them to 15 minutes in a boiling-water bath. Any remaining crispness is going to be obliterated by freezing. If you can’t finish your jar of three-bean salad in one sitting, rest assured that it will keep open in your refrigerator for at least a week. After all, it’s pickled.
On to Natalia. It’s the same problem, only in reverse. The texture of frozen green beans is not great to begin with. Although I haven’t personally tried it, I would guess that a canned four-bean salad that included frozen green beans would be very limp indeed. But I’m still having a hard time imagining why you would want to do this, since frozen green beans are already preserved. As Natalia herself points out, green beans are out of season. If you’re already buying frozen green beans anyway, why not just thaw out as much as you can consume at any given time? Why go through the time and effort of preserving something that’s already preserved?
I actually went back to Natalia on this very issue, and her answer made me reconsider. First, she cited cost—but that doesn’t answer the “why-bother-canning-them” question. More to the point, she said, “It’d be something I could can off season, not in the rush and heat of summer, and have available to eat from a jar this winter.” And that’s when I realized that I have, of course, done this very thing with frozen fruits, and even blogged about it here, and that it was more than a little hypocritical of me to chastise Natalia for canning green beans off-season. On more than one occasion, faced with a counter full of freshly picked strawberries, blueberries, or cherries, I’ve decided to stash the extras in the freezer and deal with them in the winter. Other people have told me that they enjoy off-season canning as a way to sharpen their food preservation skills, the better to face the onslaught of summer produce.
So, Natalia, you have my apologies. That being said, I still wouldn’t can a four-bean salad from frozen green beans, unless they’re your own. I think the texture will be disappointing, and if you end up tossing the results, you’ve negated the cost savings from buying frozen in the first place. If you find it more convenient to can a four-bean salad in winter than in summer, at least go with fresh green beans. And if you just want off-season canning practice, I recommend working with something where the texture is less critical, like a jam made with frozen fruit. Better yet, explore what you can do with the remaining produce that’s still available. You could make applesauce, or any number of pickled carrot thingies, or lemon curd.
How do you feel about off-season canning? Do you oppose it in principle? Endorse it only for things that come out of your own food preservation stash (root cellaring, freezing, etc.)? Love it for time management?
Yesterday—in case you missed it—the Dining and Wine section featured a “D.I.Y. Cooking Handbook.” For most of the day, at least until nuclear fears and March Madness pushed it down the page, the story held a coveted spot just to the left of the videos. Click through, and you encountered an invitation to make your own mustard, vinegar, kimchi, and even Nutella. But do not fear, apartment dwellers! The author assured readers that the recipes are not seasonal and that they would require neither canning nor freezing. “Before getting underway,” Julia Moskin writes, ” it’s not necessary to understand lactic fermentation, or to learn the difference between bacon and pancetta.”
ARRRRGH. Where to begin. Let’s start with this. Has the author tried freezing kale, which she mentions as a particularly terrifying activity? I’m wondering which part of blanching vegetables and sticking them in plastic bags is so complicated, especially compared to, say, making tesa, a kind of cold-cured pork belly? And how do you reconcile the line that “You can’t get more local than your own kitchen” (from the introduction) with recipes that involve hazelnuts and chocolate? Are there secret cocoa plantations hidden in the wilds of Long Island? And what’s with the random swipe at Charcutepalooza’s February challenge?
I recognize that I’m partially annoyed that the New York Times does not recognize the brilliance of my hard-working canning friends, without whom there would be no canning phenomenon to merit a backlash against. I’m biased. Fair enough.
But I think this is about something deeper. For me, this article highlighted the fundamental divide in the DIY food community between artisan production and resourcefulness. On the one hand, you’ve got what I would call the Artisanal Brooklyn Movement (or perhaps Moment)? These are the folks bringing you $9 pickles. It’s a movement fueled by a desire to achieve freedom from corporate producers and industrial food. (These are values I share, by the way.) It is not, however, a movement that’s about simplicity or locality. As the Artisanal Brooklyn Movement moves toward self-parody, it seems more and more like its proponents are suggesting that you continue to eat the stuff that you get at high-end restaurants and specialty groceries—but instead of purchasing them, they suggest that you learn to make them yourself. And this, my friends, is how you end up making your own maple vinegar.
The most avid proponents of local food preservation, on the other hand, push austerity and making do. How long can you push the harvest? What’s the maximum distance of your food shed? Do you find that blueberries in March are better dehydrated, frozen, or canned? Sometimes you sacrifice quality for the satisfaction of knowing where your food comes from. Rather than something to be worked around, seasonality is the point. In spring you plan and plant; in summer you eat from your garden; in fall you harvest and preserve; in winter you eat from your stores. It’s alternatively exhausting, exhilarating, and monotonous. And this, my friends, is how you end up eating frozen kale salads in March.
Don’t confuse DIY with food preservation. There’s something to be said for each. While I happen to find frozen kale delicious, I wouldn’t eat nearly so much of it if it didn’t keep so well. It’s not very exciting, and I doubt that I’m going to see it offered up in my local boutique grocery anytime soon. It is, however, extraordinarily dependable, and cheap. So, I’ll stick with it. At the same time, I recognize the joys to be had from homemade artisanal products made with specialty or imported ingredients. As I type this, I’m sipping organic coffee imported from Costa Rica, sweetened with sugar from God-only-knows where. My coffee would be even better accompanied by a fancy homemade cracker topped with homemade Nutella—maybe I’ll try my hand at it next week.
All of which is to say that maybe the DIY Cooking Handbook isn’t necessarily so awful. It’s just not talking to me. I’m trying to take this as a reminder that I want my own posts to be as inviting to those of you coming at this from the artisanal side as this piece was originally off-putting to me. And I offer my solemn promise that knowing how lactofermentation works won’t make your kimchi taste any more sour (unless you like it that way).
It’s the time of year when the days get longer, the crocuses start to bloom, and intrepid gardeners put in their peas. And as our larders from last year grow thin, we start to think about how, what, and how much to preserve from the coming year’s harvest. This projecting business is the hardest part—how many jars of pickled beets do I really need? Why on earth didn’t we can twice as many tomatoes as we did? How is it possible that we ran out of frozen kale? And who knew that the dried zucchini would hold up so well?
Learning strategies for putting up food is more fun in a group. I know I’m still learning—never more so than when I teach. On June 10–12, I’ll once again be teaching a three-day food preservation workshop on the peaceful grounds of the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. We’ll cover not only the basic techniques of water bath canning, pressure canning, dehydrating, and fermenting, but the ever-so-important questions of how to decide which technique to apply to which foods. We’ll talk about finding reasonable ways to integrate food preservation into our lives and share strategies for estimating amounts.
Ask the Goats is a semi-regular Monday feature in which we attempt to answer your questions about growing, making, eating, and preserving food. Got a question for the goats? Drop us a line at email@example.com.
Q. Can tangerine marmalade be made with Stevia and/or Splenda for people like me who have diabetes?—Deborah
A. You can absolutely make a fruit spread from Stevia, Splenda, or other sugar substitutes. You can also go sugar free. If you want a consistency that in any way resembles a traditional jam or marmalade, however, you’ll need to add some form of pectin. Sugar is essential to the gelling process, so when you reduce or eliminate it, you have to add some other means of structural support. Although I haven’t had much experience with it myself, many low-sugar canners swear by Pomona’s Pectin. Laura at Squirrel it Away! recently posted an extremely helpful piece about her experiences converting her high-sugar recipes to low-sugar jams with the help of Pomona’s Pectin. (Note, though, that hers still include 1/2 c. of honey, which may be too much for you.)
Depending on what sort of artificial sweetener you’d like to use, you’ll probably need to experiment to locate just the right amount. You should also be aware that some artificial sweeteners (I don’t have enough experience with them to know which ones) produce an off-flavor when heated, so you’ll probably want to add your sweetener at the last possible minute before transferring the marmalade to the jars. For ideas, a good place to start would be Norma McRae’s Canning and Preserving Without Sugar.
Finally, remember that sugar is a preservative. While it’s safe to can reduced-sugar or sugar-free fruit products, be aware that they won’t last as long as traditional jams once you open them. You should plan on eating the contents of your jars within a week or two. If you can’t finish them that quickly, you might want to consider smaller jars.
Good luck, and please report back on your results!