Affordable Organics?

Learning to Double Your Vegetable Dollars Is the Secret

“I’d like to buy organic vegetables, but they’re so expensive.”  Ever catch yourself dreaming of more affordable organics?  Try this on for size:   What if, every time you purchased an organic vegetable, you actually got not just one but two or three vegetables?  No doubt that would make the  economic equation a lot more attractive.

Red Wagon Beets, Golden and Red

Red Wagon Beets, Golden and Red  (Picture Courtesy of Red Wagon)

Here’s how to make that his kind of magic happen:  Waste Not.  For example, in last week’s Farmers’ Market Excursion class, we made beet relish, using a gorgeous bunch of organic red and golden beets from Red Wagon Farm.  The bunch cost $4.00, but

  • we made enough relish for two meals,
  • the next day, the beet greens were the centerpiece for another meal, and
  • the following day the beet stems went into a lentil soup.

In other words, that’s four meals’ worth of vegetables for $4.00, or $1.00 per meal for amazingly delicious, don’t-harm-the-environment, don’t-harm-me, super-nutritious vegetables.

Beets with luch, full beet greens

People in my classes always exclaim, “You really don’t waste anything!” In our food culture which routinely wastes tons and tons of food, I guess my actions do seem odd: Retrieving kale stems when class members mistake them for compost, saving the ends of grated ginger root for tea, stuffing onion ends and skins into a bag to make my own (very cheap) broths. But maybe it’s time for the new, less-wasteful food culture that Every Day Good Eating is bringing about.  (Picture Courtesy of Red Wagon)

Bear in mind, too, that this was no ordinary bunch of limp beets with scraggly tops.  They were firm and dense, the tops lush and huge and the stems plentiful.  Every part of the beet was rich with flavor–leaving the taste buds completely satisfied and providing plenty of vegetable nutrition.  Could anyone really argue that  $1.00 per meal is “too expensive” for this caliber of vegetable?

“You get what you pay for” is a universal law.  Pay little and you get little.  Happily, it works the other way, too, however.  Pay a fair price and you get a fair–often more than fair–product.

Now that you know the magic that makes organic affordable, begin learning how to use all parts of a vegetable.  Join us for our last class on beet relish at Isabelle Farm on Thursday, July 26.  Then check out the next blog for a quick way to use beet greens.  For the stems, just saute and toss them into your favorite lentil soup (which could be a canned variety, too.)

Kitchen Essentials: The Humble Storage Container

Storage Containers

The humble storage container is a kitchen essential–even if it’s not as glamorous as some kitchen hardware.

Food storage containers don’t rank in the A-list of kitchen gadgets like sleek Kitchen Aid stand mixers and shiny All-Clad cookware.  In fact, a lot of us muddle by with a random assortment of  yogurt cups and take out tubs–with dozens of even more random lids that never seem to fit anything.  Hence this article.

If you are interested in meals with any of these attributes–healthy, efficient, affordable, stress-free and/or tasty–then you need decent storage containers.  The yogurt cups and take out tubs can (mostly) be recycled. So recycle them now and get a set of sturdy containers that will last for years.  The rewards are many:

  • Enjoy Efficiency:  Absolutely begin doubling the amount of pasta, sweet potatoes, potatoes, rice, chicken, etc., etc., that you cook.  Extras stored in good containers will last perfectly for days, giving a good head start on later meals.
  • Get Healthy:  The previous trick is especially helpful when it comes to vegetables.  As long as you’re set up for washing and chopping, cut and store extras (vegetables hold up quite nicely in tight-seal containers.)  Then see if you don’t find more vegetables weaving their way into your meals.
  • Save on Stress:  Square containers are the best because they stack conveniently and maximize space in the frig.  They leave the refrigerator organized, with everything easy to view and remove.
  • Save Money:  Americans pitch enormous amounts of food.  Instead of pitching, start capturing leftovers in convenient storage containers and see what affordable (and healthy) snacks and lunches they make.  Plus, when I finally started transporting our foods in actual containers, I no longer lost food that exploded and leaked from unreliable yogurt cups.
  • Please Your Kids:  Homemade lunches ensure that your kids’ mid-day meals are healthful.  Good storage containers ensure that lunch won’t be splattered all over their lunch boxes–and it minimizes waste.

No question about it, good storage containers are an essential.  But maybe you’re having a couple nagging questions:

  1. What about plastic containers–are they safe?  Valid concern, with all the press lately about the dangers of plastic.  This is my solution to date:  I use glass for storing hot leftovers and reheating in a microwave; tight-seal plastics for transporting foods and storing vegetables.
  2. How many containers do I need?  If you’re just starting out, 15-20 pieces is not too much, since some will always be in use in the frig and some will be in the wash cycle.  Should it prove too much, pass some along to a friend or child setting up house.  Alternatively, they can be used to store and organize an array of other household items, from batteries and crafting supplies to nails and sprinkler parts.

How to Freeze Cherries for Winter

I know, it’s the middle of summer and we don’t want to think about the dark cold days of winter, but
Cherries Are In–And Almost Gone!

If you’re interested in healthful, seasonal and local eating, thinking ahead is a trait to nurture, assuming you’d also like to eat well from November to March.  Those are pretty dismal months, unless you think ahead and start putting food away in the summer months as it comes into season.

It’s mid-July now, and cherries are in season. But their season is short: from around July 4th to about the third week of July, here in Colorado.  There is no mystery to preserving these gems, so give it a try, even if it’s just a pound or two for a first attempt:

  1.     Stem, then Wash  If possible, wash cherries an hour or two in advance so they can dry before putting in the freezer.  The less water on them, the better.
  2.     Pit  It’s time-consuming, but pitting is an investment you will so appreciate when you pull out the frozen cherries to use.  Plus, you can sit outside on a gorgeous summer night and enjoy the sunset as you pit.  Invite a friend over for more fun.

    Note the small, low-tech and equally low-cost pitter I'm using. I've found the fancier, supposedly faster, and definitely more expensive models don't work nearly as well.

  3.     Spread the cherries in a single layer across a cookie sheet with a rim (so they don’t roll off once frozen.)
  4.     Pop in the freezer for a day or two, until rock hard.
  5.     Bag  Use a metal spatula to scoop cherries from cookie sheet into freezer bags or containers. Allowing them to sit on the counter for just a minute or two will make them easier to remove from the cookie sheet. Once bagged, squeeze out as much air as possible, seal and get them into the freezer quickly

The advantage of pre-freezing fruits individually is that you’ll be able to scoop out small amounts at a time (or just a couple to pop into your mouth as a treat.) Otherwise, the fruit freezes into a large glob.

Apricots can be frozen in the same way. Just slice into halves, remove the pits and lay, skin side down on cookie sheets to freeze. But their season is equally short, so hurry.

Pre-freeze cherries individually on a cookie sheet before bagging, then you'll be able to take them out by handfuls.

What to do with frozen cherries?  There are the usual fruit desserts: pies, cobblers, crisps, etc.  Of course they are also great in breakfast dishes (slow cooker oatmeal, smoothies, on top of granola and yogurt, etc.)  Now I’ve begun experimenting with them in salads (in the middle of winter when it’s financial idiocy to spend money on tomatoes), in sauces (for meats and poultry) and in salad dressings and other savory dishes.

Want the recipe for Thai Kale Salad with Cherries and Coconut?  It’s a dish we prepared at our Farmers Market to rave reviews.  Leave a comment and we’ll send you a .pdf.


Eating Out: Not All That Great?

Going out to eat.  It’s supposed to be so great.  That’s what all the ads sing, over pictures of sizzling steaks, creamy pasta, or tomatoes raining gaily down on cheese smothered nachos.

Typical Restaurant Meal of Cheesy Beef Nachos

They look good, but are you bored with the taste of monotone restaurant foods?

So why comments like those I heard last week from some new clients, parents of a 1-year old:  “We eat out way too much,” they both agreed.  What’s going on here?  According to popular culture, we should never tire of eating out.  It’s the epitome of good living!

  • “It’s boring,” said the husband.  Not surprising.  Most restaurants are now chains that can only profit by moving mass volumes of food.  The only way to move masses of food, in turn, is by keeping flavors within a narrow mid-range, so they appeal to masses of people.  So eat at chains long enough and your taste buds will surely get bored.
  • “It’s expensive,” said the wife.  You bet it is.  Nobody cooks food for free.  And when eating in huge chains, you’re paying not just cooks, hostesses, busboys and dishwashers but a lot of corporate upkeep, from marketing to CEO salaries to stockholder communications.
  • Finally, the wife-mother concluded,  “I feel better when I eat at home–and I think that it’s better for my nursing son, too.”  Again, not surprising.  It’s tough to profit off of vegetables (all that labor for chopping and cooking!), whole grains (not produced in quantities that allow for cut rate prices), and moderate portions of clean meat  (where’s my supersized portion?)   Besides, who would actually eat that stuff, and who knows how to cook it and make it taste good without lots of cheese, butter, salt and sugar?

As a child, I remember eating out as an enormous treat, i.e., a special something we got to do on special occasions.  But my mom was always prepared and capable of feeding her family without the helping hand of a restaurant.

In the brave new world occupied by these new parents, however, eating out is no longer an occasional, enjoyable option, but an inescapable trap.  Trapped is what happens when we and our kitchens aren’t set up for manageable meal-making.  We’re left completely vulnerable.  At that point, time pressures, lack of confidence, uncertainty and chaos are all free to gang up and leave us without any option but eating out.

Do you have options?  Are you as bored at home as at the neighborhood chains?  Can you efficiently produce meals that meet your healthy eating ideals?  Can you feed your children the way you want?  There’s help!

  1. Check out the easy mid-winter, boredom busting meal in the next post
  2. Come to a Whole Kitchen cooking series, which is all about acquiring skills to make satisfying meals day in and day out
  3. Call Mary Collette for some one-on-on kitchen coaching
  4. Tell your company or organization to contact Mary Collette for a good eating workshop; reduce health care costs and make employees happy at the same time

Nurture Your Vegetables . . . So They Can Nurture You

Yesterday’s post reviewed the basics of vegetable storage.  Make sense of those rules by understanding how vegetables continue breathing, even after they’re cut or plucked from the earth.

We hear a lot about how vegetables nurture us.  But did you know that it works the other way, too?  Nurture vegetables and they can do a better job of nurturing and nourishing us.

Baby Spinach from Farmers Market

Baby Spinach from Farmers Market Don't let it from cannibalize itself!

This discovery came while researching how to store spinach.  It seemed like a pretty cut and dried topic until I ran across this statement, buried in some technical research document:  “Despite having been detached from the plant, fruits and vegetables remain as living organs after harvest.”

That statement took a minute to wrap my head around.  Subconsciously I’d always lumped vegetables with all the other inanimate objects in my shopping cart.  Being severed from the ground seemed like pretty good evidence that they were dead.  What’s more, in any megamarket vegetables are lined up for sale under bright fluorescent lights right alongside aisles of kid toys, lawn chairs, socks and razors.  So who would think of produce being in a class of its own, one of living organisms as opposed to inanimate objects?

Seeing vegetables in the light of the living put a whole new spin on the topic of storage.  All of a sudden, it didn’t seem quite right to just throw them in my shopping basket and then throw them in the frig at home.  My veggies deserve more.

So back to my technical article I went.  “Like all living tissues,” it continued, “harvested produce continues to respire throughout its postharvest life.”  So quite unlike all the other packaged, bottled and canned food in my shopping basket, the fresh vegetables are still breathing.

In the simplest of terms, vegetable breathing is a process where “oxygen is consumed and water, carbon dioxide, and energy are released.”  The point of this process is to break down carbohydrates into “their constituent parts to produce energy to run cellular processes.”

Here’s the kicker, though:  When we’re talking about harvested produce, the carbohydrates being broken down to run a plant’s cellular processes are its own carbohydrates! You could say that a harvested vegetable is essentially cannibalizing itself in a valiant attempt to remain as alive as it can be.   Hour by hour, day by day, with each breath, “compounds that affect plant flavor, sweetness, weight, turgor (water content), and nutritional value are lost.”

What does all this mean for ordinary vegetable shoppers? It means that to reap the amazing flavor and essential nutrients that vegetables offer, we must handle them as depleting assets.  In other words, our job as vegetable purchasers is one of emergency triage:  What can we do to staunch the flood of flavor, sweetness, water content and nutrients streaming from our carefully selected produce?

Buying at Farmers Markets is a good first step.  It automatically puts you ahead in the depleting assets game, since produce is generally harvested either the night before or morning of the market.  (Many thanks to the farmers who are up picking at 4:00 a.m. to get us the freshest produce possible.)  This means you have at least a two to three day flavor advantage over produce picked a thousand miles away, shipped to a warehouse, delivered to the grocery store, then displayed for a while in the produce aisle.

This kind of flavor and nutrition advantage is not something you want to squander:

  1. Get your produce home as quickly as possible (skip the temptation to run errands on the way home, especially as the weather turns hot.)
  2. On hot days, bring a cooler and icepack so your veggies can ride home in air conditioned comfort.  If you forget, buy something frozen (e.g., meat)  to pack with your most delicate greens and keep them in the shadiest part of the car.  Scrounge up a cardboard box and you’ll even get a little insulative benefit.
  3. Finally, once home,  get your veggies into plastic bags, close loosely and pop into the frig immediately.

How can such simple steps be so important?  Each helps slow the respiration process, either by chilling or limiting exposure to air, so your veggies don’t expire any more of their flavor and nutrition than they have to.  It’s easy to take our incredible produce for granted, but it deserves better!

Find out more about how to reap delicious delight from vegetables with Vegetable a Month online magazine.

Don’t Blame the Vegetables!

They’re Not at Fault for Rotting in the Frig

‘Tis the season of vegetable abundance, and with it comes worry about refrigerator rot as we begin loading up  (and over-loading ) on the fabulous produce coming to market.  As some people joke, don’t let your produce become expensive compost.

Anytime I talk about buying and eating more vegetables, the subject of refrigerator rot surfaces.  Seems there are a lot of dollars going down the garbage disposal, right along with the vegetables they bought.

While people always ask for tips on how to prevent this, one participant at a recent Whole Kitchen class worded the question in a way that got me stirred up.  “How do I keep vegetables from going bad in my frig?” she asked.

Do your vegetables end up as expensive compost?

The good side of me acknowledged this as a completely reasonable question and gave a considered response about the fundamentals of vegetable storage.  Meanwhile,  however, my devilish side was jockeying for a chance to mouth off:  “What?  Are vegetables supposed to last forever?” it fumed.  ” They’re called ‘fresh’ for a reason!  Maybe the problem isn’t that vegetables don’t last long enough.  Maybe the problem is that people don’t eat them up fast enough!”

While I kept that inconsiderate imp in check at the time, I had to admit there was something to its rants.  People faced with a case of vegetable rot are often taken aback.  In a world where most foods have shelf lives measured in half-lives, it can seem surprising if not rude that vegetables would go bad on us.   Surely there must be something wrong with the vegetables or the way they are packaged, right?

No, there is nothing wrong with the vegetables.  They are living, breathing life forms, not processed and packaged products from factories.  As life forms, they experience both a beginning and an end of life, and on the way to the end, they undergo a transformation from vibrant to rotted, just like all living things, including those on the top of the food chain.  (More on this in tomorrow’s post.)

Which brings me back to the snippy conclusion reached by my devilish side :  What if the problem isn’t with vegetables, but with vegetable buyers who neglect their veggies?”

Statistically, only one in ten of us come close to achieving the daily produce recommendations, and that’s only because potatoes are counted as a vegetable!  So it’s not hard to imagine vegetables rotting in vegetable drawers due to simple neglect.  That’s why my vegetable rot prevention advice begins here:  Plan ahead.

  1. Plan Grab a piece of paper, sketch a rough weekly plan and then plop one (or two or three!) vegetables on each day.  At a minimum, simply steam or saute them as side dishes.  For more fun, weave them into pasta dishes, soups, salads or entrees.  Either way, planning makes it 85% more likely that those vegetables will actually make their way out of the frig and onto your plate.
  2. Store Right With that said, we can move on to storage, which is also important.  As a general rule, leave vegetables unwashed, place in loosely closed plastic bags and get them into the frig as soon as possible.  For different vegetables, there are variations on this general rule which can be found in Vegetable a Month online magazine.
  3. Don’t Cave in to Throw Away Mentality After a few days in the frig, you might assume a vegetable is no longer fresh and must be pitched.  Not so fast.  It’s easy to get sucked into our “throw away” mentality, but vegetables last a lot longer than you’d think, especially when purchased very fresh (an automatic advantage of buying local.)  Even though I routinely overbuy vegetables, I rarely pitch anything since they generally last a week to ten days.*  With just a little planning, that’s plenty of time to use them all up.
  4. Stage Usage from Less to More Sturdy Improve your chances of success even more by planning to use the less sturdy  vegetables in your crisper drawers (e.g., spinach, lettuce, zucchini, green beans and eggplant) before the sturdier ones (e.g., cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and peppers.)
  5. Dig Deep for Vegetable Beauty Finally, even if a vegetable escapes notice until past its prime, no need to pitch it.  Simply cut off any bad spots or pull away any wilted leaves and wash well.  Taste to make sure the vegetable hasn’t gone bitter before adding to a dish.  Cooking thoroughly can generally eliminate any possible contamination, but if you have any concern, go ahead and pitch a vegetable.  Health and safety  always trump vegetable conservation.

But what do I make with all those vegetables? Lack of vegetable comfort may be the real culprit to blame for refrigerator rot.  We tend to lack the basic vegetable knowledge that will have us reaching into the vegetable drawer each day with confidence.  That’s where Vegetable A Month comes in.  Each month, learn about a different, seasonal vegetable so you can weave it seamlessly into your everyday life–with all the good energy and wellness that comes with a vegetable rich diet.

Tomorrow:  More on vegetable storage. . .

The Cabbage Core Challenge

4 Tricks for Taking the Sting Out of Bitter Vegetables

There’s a reason grocery store displays of broccoli rabe, rutabagas and turnips go

Cabbage Core

Does my "waste not-want not" motto really extend to cabbage cores?

untouched for hours at a time.  Some members of the vegetable kingdom are just a little harder to like than others.  But we still want the flavor and nutrient diversity they offer.  Happily, there are ways of preparing these difficult specimens that make them more palatable.  Although the following article focuses on cabbage cores, a particularly challenging vegetable, its tricks can be used to form a good working relationship with any of the harsher vegetables.

Here’s an honest admission:  I have a “waste-not-want-not” thing going on. My Twitter column is filled with vegetable dishes fast enough for breakfast and lunch—a good many made with stems, stalks, cores and leaves that normal cooks would pitch.  But not me.  I have this thing about waste, so I set myself a personal goal of starving my compost pile as much as possible.

To date, things have been going pretty well.  I’ve been turning kale stems, cauliflower leaves, broccoli stalks and other such “refuse” into tasty dishes—boosting my vegetable intake and stretching my vegetable dollars.  But then came yesterday’s cabbage core.  Couldn’t I safely pitch that without violating my self-inflicted waste code?

Tasting a piece of it triggered deep, gastronomic memories of everything bad about cabbage.  I now knew why the cabbage itself was unbelievably sweet and light:  Every bit of the head’s strong, musky, sour and harsh taste had been sucked into the core!  And that foul taste is what I got upon testing a bite.

I immediately started to scrape the whole thing towards the compost bin.  Not until the last

Cabbage Core Headed to the Compost Bin

The compost bin got the moldy end of the core, but the rest got chopped for a higher purpose.

second did my better self rise to the occasion.  The compost bin got the moldy end of the core (I do have some limits!), but the rest got chopped as I decided how to transform it into something I could stomach.  Working with vegetable parts that are frequently discarded, I’ve learned a few tricks to render them not only palatable but pretty decent-tasting.  This core was about to be my biggest challenge to date.

Trick 1:  Cook It Cooking is the best way to extract the bitterness from a vegetable.  In this case, I didn’t even consider steaming or sauteing but went straight to boiling, which is the preferred cooking method for really tough vegetable characters.

I know that boiling has lost favor over the years, probably because we get vegetables shipped in year round that are tender enough for just a light steaming or sautéing, which is generally better taste wise and nutritionally.  But imagine a pioneer farm wife faced with some garden remnant in November—it may be tough and gnarly, but it’s the closest thing to fresh that she will have for four months.  She is going to make those stalks or stems taste good no matter what, and boiling is the tool for the job.

Note, however, that boiling isn’t limited to throwing vegetables in a huge pot of water, cooking the vegetables to death and then pitching the water.  On the contrary, I simmer rather than boil my vegetables in a tiny, not a potful, of liquid.  This means any leached out vitamins and minerals get concentrated in an amount of liquid small enough that it can be fully incorporated into the finished dish, minimizing nutrient and flavor loss.  Also, I only simmer until the vegetables have lost their bitter or harsh taste, which is often when they are still crisp-tender.  My cabbage core had to be cooked beyond crisp-tender, but still far short of mush, before losing its harsh taste.

Trick 2:  Inject Flavor While water certainly works as a cooking liquid, experiment with

Simmer in Imagine's Vegetable Broth

This broth has plenty of flavor, so little additional salt was needed.

different broths.  They can inject flavor into the spaces left by the extraction of the vegetable’s bitterness.  I used Imagine’s Vegetable Broth, which has plenty of flavor to spare.

Third:  Salt Salt is also good at both drawing out bitterness and imparting flavor.  Your broth might be salty enough as is, but if using a low-sodium variety or water, try adding a little (maybe 1/4 tsp. to 1/2 tsp.) of good sea salt.  I used about 1/4 tsp. of Celtic salt in my simmer water.

Fourth:  Combine with Other Flavorful Ingredients.

I always say that sausage is a miracle ingredient.  Add just a little and the entire dish tastes great—no work, little cost and no cooking knowledge required.  Sausage was the primary tastemaker I added to my simmered cabbage core.

Sausage and Onion are Great Taste Makers

We just received a shipment of sausage from pasture-fed pigs. It I had no fat, so I had to add olive oil to saute the onion. Less than 1/4 lb. is all I needed for a great-flavored dish.

I also added sweetly browned onions and sweet snap pea shoots (I rescued a few from thegarden before last week’s snow.)  Their sweetness balanced the trace amounts of bitterness left in the cooked core pieces, as would other sweet vegetables (red peppers, corn, etc.) or sautéed fruits (like pears and apples), or just rice, chicken, tofu or some kind of sauce with a little sweetness.

The end result?  I think I met the challenge with a delicious for lunch that wasn’t just another sandwich–not by a long shot!

Cabbage Core with Sausage and Onions

For a little color, I added vivid green pea shoots at the end.

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