Sunday, August 21, 2011

110821 Garden Report

My garden has done better than I had hoped.  As I've indicated before it is pretty small but I have obtained a lot of organically grown, fresh, tasty, low cost food.  I harvest a portion of lettuce every day and it just continues to grow.  It has been an excellent addition to salads and sandwiches.  My single tomato plant is full of green tomatoes and I have eaten a half dozen ripe ones.  They are delicious.  I still have nothing going on with my two pepper plants so I think those were a wash.  I eat green beans twice a week and the second planting is producing really well.  My third planting of radishes is just now getting ready for picking.  I built a new raised bed with a lot of sharp sand mixed in for a carrot bed.  They took ten days to sprout but now they are growing nicely.

I always try to use a raised bed when I grow carrots.  This is for a couple reasons.  Carrots prefer very loose soil.  I mix in large quantities of sharp sand, which loosens the soil, aids drainage, and seems to reduce carrot maggots.  The sharp sand is uncomfortable for them.  Carrots do not like a lot of humus.  Carrots will get all hairy with lots and lots of little roots if the soil is too rich.  The part you eat is a root and you want it to grow down to seek water and nutrients.  I loosened up the top four inches of soil with added sand and then added another 2-3 inches of sand and potting soil to the top.  The raised bed is simply made by using boards from an old pallet that I picked up for free.  I put a layer of sand on the surface to prevent slugs from attacking the plants; slugs cannot travel across sharp sand.  It is light colored so it also reflects light back up to the plants, which is important in late plantings since there is less and less sunlight each day.  If you ever buy sand for your garden make sure you ask for Horticultural Sharp Sand.  This will be washed and low in salt.

These are three of the tomatoes.  They are a nice size for me, about the size of a racket ball.  Each tomato is big enough for one serving so I don't have to store any leftovers.  These tomatoes are very meaty and a rich, dark red.  I only eat home-grown tomatoes, I never buy tomatoes in a store; they have no flavor.


This is the best book I have ever come across for growing lots of food in a small space.  I have adapted the concepts of Square Foot Gardening over the years based on my own experiences and other gardening practices that also make sense to me.  I highly recommend this book even if you are an experienced gardener.

We are near the end of the traditional gardening season in most places but you can garden well into the Fall and even early Winter using raised beds and Square Foot Gardening techniques.  Since you are only gardening in a small space it is not hard to construct a framework which you can cover with plastic to extend the gardening season.  You can continue to grow non-flowering crops (radishes, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, and other greens) as long as the air around the leafy parts of the plant stays above freezing.

The many flowering plants I have in and around my garden did their job.  They are nice to look at and they brought in all the beneficial insects I wanted.  I had no insect pests in my garden at all and there were plenty of bees to fertilize my beans and tomatoes.

The dense planting pretty much prevents weeds from growing.  I spend, at most, ten to fifteen minutes a week weeding.  And these are just tiny weed sprouts.  Newly planted beds, like my new carrot bed, need the most work.  I will wait a couple more days before I weed the carrot bed because I want the carrots to be firmly anchored in the soil before I start pulling stuff out.

Have any of you tried a garden this year?  Tell me about it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


What do you do with your leftovers?  I'm sure if it is a chunk of steak or a hamburger it gets reheated and eaten for a snack.  Or you might be one of those barbarians that eats cold pizza for breakfast.  But your kitchen generates more leftovers than you think, most of which probably goes in the garbage or down the drain.

Bacon Grease Container
Filter Top
My mother, like most women of her generation and further back, saved all her bacon fat.  She kept it in an aluminum can on top of the stove.  The grease at the bottom of that container was probably 20 years old.  But this is what she used to grease her cast iron skillets whenever she had other foods to fry.  Hamburgers, fish, chicken, pork chops, you name it and she fried it in bacon grease.  It cost nothing except our health I guess.  Because of that I am pretty partial to the bacony flavor and usually cook some (Turkey) bacon just before I fry potatoes. I love real bacon but very rarely eat it anymore.  Maybe a piece or two a year when dinning out.  I got 105,000 hits when I did a Google search using the term "Bacon Grease Container" so obviously this is still being done by many people.

The best liquid base for any gravy or sauce is the water from whatever starch (potatoes, noodles, rice) you are going to eat with your meat.  Cook your starch before you make your gravy and use that water stirred in to your pan drippings, butter, and flour.  The starch in the water helps to bind and thicken the gravy and you get whatever nutrients cooked out of your starch, especially potato water, added to your gravy.  If you like to make sauces from scratch get in the habit of freezing your starch water in one cup increments to use later.

When you boil vegetables, like most people do, first thing to remember is to just use the bare minimum amount of water.  Then save that water to use when you cook starches later.  When you boil foods you boil out most of the water soluble vitamins and minerals.  What you are left with is some fiber, sugars, and residual starches/proteins/trace nutrients.  The only way to recover the vitamins and minerals you THINK you are eating to reuse the water to cook something that absorbs water such as rice, beans, instant potatoes, or noodles.  It adds a nice flavor and you recover what would otherwise be thrown away nutrients.

I save all the liquids left when I cook meats in a covered dish in the oven (roasts and chicken mainly).  I also save the gravy left in those convenient frozen meat entres. I only buy these when they are on sale and I have a coupon but I often find pretty good deals on them.  Normally I advocate cooking whole foods mostly from scratch but these products are really convenient and flexible.  Anyway, I save the gravy that I don't use and store it in a never ending container in the freezer.  The plasticware looks like a parfait with all the different layers of gravy and broth.

If you have been a college student, military member, hiker, or just really down on your luck it is highly likely that you have eaten some version of Ramen noodles.  I can tell you that Soldiers never seem to tire of them.  At 15-20 cents a pack they have been the basis of many fine meals in my house.  But what do you do with all the broth left over?  Some of you drink it but I find it a bit too salty for that.  So it too goes in a container and in the freezer.  I'll use it later as the water in my instant potatoes or noodles and get a second helping of the flavor.  Truthfully there isn't too much nutrition in the water (trace amounts of a lot of different things so it is not an empty food) but it tastes good in potatoes and noodles.

Garbage Soup/Stew.  Living by myself I don't actually have too many leftovers.  I cook single servings or I'll cook enough to split up into containers for two or three meals.  But when my wjole family was together we always had some leftover vegetables and small pieces of meat.  I would save these in the freezer until the cold weather came and then make a big batch of what some people call Garbage Soup.  To make my soup I only
need to buy two things, a can of beef broth w/onions and a can of diceed tomatoes with garlic.  Since I could buy these anytime and store them on the self until it was soup day I generally got these for less than 65-75 cents a can.  I put my big soup pot on the stove on low heat and poured in the diced tomatoes and beef broth.  To these I added the contents of all my never ending plastic containers of leftovers; vegetables, meat scraps, beans, and gravies.  Sometimes it was necessary to add more of something (potatoes, onions, etc.) to get the balance right but not usually too much.  I let it cook for hours, added some gumbo file` powder  (a seasoning/thinkener made from sassafrass).  My wife will tell you that the secret to a good soup is the file' and you generally can only find it in the south.  She always knows when I have forgotten the file`. (My dad, who grew up in Tennessee, clued us in to this stuff.  He also makes outstanding soup.) We were almost out of it and searched high and low.  Finally, when we visited our son stationed at Fort Campbell, I was able to buy two jars at the local Piggly Wiggly store.

I am sure there are many other things that fall under this heading but as always, I only talk about things I have actually done (unless otherwise noted).

Cook Cheap!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Eating on the Road

Well, it's August, the tail end of the travel season in summer.  So this might be a little late for some of you but my wife and I do most of our traveling before and after the heavy tourist season.  We do this for a couple reasons:
  1. It is generally cooler.  Neither of us like hot weather and April-May and September-October are much more pleasent times to travel.
  2. It is generally cheaper. The heavy tourist season brings with it higher prices for everything.
  3. It is generally less crowded.  Who enjoys crowds and long lines?
I just came back from a one-week TDY (Temporary Duty) in Heidelberg, Germany.  It is only a four-hour drive under normal conditions but accidents and construction always add to that.  Many years ago when we lived in Stuttgart, Germany (1988-1992), we looked forward to driving the Autobahn because the  roadside Reststop restaurants were a great place to get good, cheap food.  At that time, these snack shops and restaurants were family owned and run.  They took great pride in offering local specialities, competative prices, and good customer service (like feeding and watering your dog).  Now these restaurants are all franchised; they serve the same stuff, no variety, and there is no competition so the prices are much higher. The food is still good, Germany has strict food laws, but I cannot justify the price of a meal there.  I can get that same meal off the Autobahn for at least 25-30 percent less.  So while it is tempting I have to take a pass.

I long ago got in the habit of throwing an ice chest in the car with a good selection of energy drinks (I don't like coffee and I need something to keep me awake), snacks like peanutbutter crackers and fruit, and stuff to make a sandwich if I really get hungry.  When we lived at Fort Belvoir, VA and Fort Meade, MD we used to drive home at least one weekend a month.  This required at least one meal on the road.  Feeding five (six once our future daughter in law became part of the family) at a restaurant near a highway was just too expensive.  We did it in the winter out of necessity but in the warmer months we packed an ice chest and had a picnic on the way.  Would the kids rather have a McDonalds hamberger?  Yeah, probably.  But they also enjoyed the break from driving, walking the dogs, and sitting together to eat a picnic lunch out in the open.  And dad wasn't grumpy from wasting money on crap food.

My wife would put together snack bags of pretzels, those chedder cheese fish, or something using sandwich bags.  This is far cheaper than buying single serving snacks.  Drinks were usually Capri Sun drinks, which we could buy fairly cheap at the commissary from time to time and when they were empty the package didn't take much room in the trash bag.  You will pay a minimum of $1.50  and it is more common to pay up to $2.50 for a drink out of a roadside rest vending machine.  No room for a cooler?  Ok, put your drinks in the coldest part of your refridge and just before you leave wrap them all together in a towel and stick them under the seat.  They will stay cold for at least an hour (if your floor isn't a hot spot from the exhaust); longer it you put a "Blu-ice" block in with them.

On my trip last week I made my own ice blocks in large tupperware type containers so I would have cold drinks during my week-long trip.  As it turned out I had a refrigerator in my room but you never know.  I packed enough drinks for a week, stuff for sandwiches, and apples.  I always put a towel on the top of the food to keep the cool air low in the cooler.  I stopped once after 90 minutes for a bathroom/leg stretch break and got a drink and stopped again for lunch at a scenic roadside parking area.  I ate my large meal at lunch most days on the trip and had a sandwich or leftovers for supper.  I bought some food items in Germany to bring home and packed them in the cooler.  My ice blocks were still good after five day.  I bought a Subway sandwich for the ride home and had another cheap lunch on the road by supplying my own drink, chips, and dessert left over from a previous meal.  Sitting out in the sun and enjoying the view, solitude, and meal makes for a pleasent and refreshing stop.

Something I used to do on long trips, mostly before I got married, and even more often while in the field on training exercises was engine block cooking. This was far easier with pre-1990s cars and trucks than modern vehicles but you could probably still do it with certain models.  Internal combustion engines are only about 18-20 percent efficient.  The vast majority of the energy is wasted as heat.  You can use this wasted heat to cook or reheat food.  This was a huge fad at one time in the early years of cars.  I won't go into this in any great detail because there is so much out there on the internet and some books.  I'll just add some key points:

  1. Never attempt to heat canned food of any kind.  The can will explode if if gets hot enough.
  2. Use only Heavy Duty aluminum foil.
  3. Cook dry foods like meats, vegetables, etc.  Don't try to seal foods with lots of liquids like stew, soup, chilli.  The steam will open up your package.
  4. Reheating is far easier than cooking from scratch.
  5. The old Boy Scout foil pack meals work great.  Just do a search for "Boy Scout Foil Dinner"
  6. Make sure all seams are well sealed when you foil pack a meal.
  7. Be careful, the engine and your meal will be REALLY hot.
  8. Always turn off your engine and be careful around thermostat controlled fans.

This does take some preparation of course but once you do it a few times it is pretty easy.  You can cut your travel food costs by close to 75% doing this. Wrap a couple low-fat hotdogs and chopped onions in foil, place them on the engine, start driving and two hours later you can enjoy delicious steamed hotdogs at a roadside rest. Add your own chips, sliced raw carrots, drinks, etc. and you have a fine meal.