December 31, 2010

Photo Friday

The Christmas tree topper at my parent's house is a banjo playing angel. This has been a family tradition the past few years (thanks to my brother).

December 30, 2010

Best Ever Alfredo Sauce

My parents absolutely love fettuccine alfredo. We usually only have it during the holidays since it is so rich. It's an incredibly easy recipe and very inexpensive to make at home compared to what restaurants charge. Furthermore, I think this recipe beats any restaurant alfredo I've ever had!

Alfredo sauce can vary widely. Often I find that restaurant alfredo sauce taste exactly like regular white sauce (having zero garlic or cheese flavor whatsoever). I have made both traditional alfredo sauce and this cream cheese version a number of times. The cream cheese recipe is so much more flavorful and really doesn't add that many more calories (although if you're eating fettuccine alfredo, you're probably not overly worried about calories anyway).

*This recipe makes plenty of sauce for 1 pound of fettuccine noodles

½ cup butter
2-4 T of real cream cheese
1 pint heavy cream
2/3-1c parmesan cheese (the cheap, powdery canned stuff is fine)
garlic powder, salt, and pepper to taste

Melt the butter, then add cream cheese and soften. The cream cheese may take some time to completely incorporate. Add heavy cream at low heat, stirring often. Add parmesan and seasonings. Heat until thickened.

*Depending on how rich you want the sauce, adjust the amount of cream cheese within the 2-4 T range. More cream cheese is not necessarily better in this recipe, so do not be tempted to add more than 4T (I know this from experience).

I forgot to take any photos before we started eating...

December 28, 2010

Big Fat Pretzels

I've been making this pretzel recipe for years and years. I usually end up making pretzels a couple times over the holidays (when I'm not busy making bread flavored paper weights). This recipe is a particular favorite of my family and is very quick and simple. You don't have to wait for the dough to rise and there isn't any crazy soda or lye dipping involved. These pretzels turn out crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. They don't keep very well because the salt will make the pretzels wet, but these usually don't last long enough for that to be an issue.

*Makes 12 pretzels

1 pkg. Active dry yeast
1 1/3 C warm water
1 T sugar
½ t salt
3 ½ - 4 C unsifted all-purpose flour
1 egg white
1 T water
2 T Kosher or Sea salt

Preheat oven to 425ºF. Grease 2 baking sheets. In a large bowl dissolve yeast in water. Add sugar, salt, and 3 ½ C flour. Knead dough on floured board, adding up to ½ C additional flour as needed, until dough is smooth and elastic. Cut dough in half, then cut halves into 6 equal pieces. Roll out each piece into dough rope, about 15 inches long. Fold into pretzel shape. Place on baking sheets about 3 inches apart. Combine egg white and water and brush onto pretzels. Sprinkle with course salt. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Serve plain or with mustard or butter.

* I have found that this very elastic dough is much easier to roll out into ropes if you let the cut pieces rest for about 5 minutes first.

December 27, 2010

Green Zebras for Christmas dinner

Can you believe we actually had green zebra tomatoes from my garden in our Christmas salad? I picked these months ago and they finally ripened. I was doubtful that they would taste very good, but they were just fine. Some of them had a few mealy spots, but overall they were still tastier than store bought tomatoes.

December 26, 2010

The Miraculous Fruits and Vegetables of Online Farming Games

Whether it's Farmville, Frontierville, Farmtown, or any of the many other permutation of the farming-themed online game, these highly popular games are giving people the wrong ideas about how food is produced.

I cringe when I see how the maturity rates, morphology, and developmental stages of certain plants are portrayed. Yes, I realize these are just games and not real life, but sometimes I wonder if the game developers even consulted a farmer or gardener before making their cucumbers as big as a horse and making fruit trees that are harvestable several times in the same amount of time it takes to grow a single crop of carrots.

For example, according to many of these “Farmgames”, potatoes grow on top of or just partially submerged in the soil. Actual farmers and gardeners know that potatoes grow underground, and you usually avoid eating the ones that pop up to the surface and start photosynthesizing (they are likely to contain poisonous compounds, so don't eat green potatoes).

The harvestable size of pattypan squash in “Farmgame” is about dinner plate or frisbee-sized. In reality these squashes are prized as baby vegetables. Similarly, bell peppers are the size of watermelons. The watermelons, by the way, are the size of a sheep!

“Farmgame” apple trees are harvestable every single “farm day”, yet corn takes three “farm days” to grow. In real life, an apple tree takes a full year to produce a crop, so according to “Farmgame” corn would take about three years!

Twelve crops of “Farmgame” strawberries can be grown back-to-back in the same amount of time it takes to collect milk once from a dairy cow. In real life cows are milked once or twice a day, so that means strawberries would grow from seed to fruit in an hour or two!

I also don't appreciate how the actual growing cycle is portrayed. In “Farmgame” you simply plow a plot, sow the seed, and wait until harvest. Watering, weeding, pruning, fertilizing, and pest management doesn't seem to exist.

I guess I wouldn't mind being able to grow crop after crop of fifteen-minute giant mutant blueberries, but it just doesn't work that way.

December 24, 2010

Photo Friday

The year's end is coming up quickly. That means it's about time I start organizing the annual ornamental grass fundraiser that my registered student organization puts on each year. We start growing the grasses in the greenhouse very early in the year so they are ready in time for our April plant sale.

2009 Ornamental Grass Sale

2009 Ornamental Grass Sale

Now it's time to watch the 24-hour Christmas Story marathon on TBS!

December 22, 2010

Egg Recipes

My oldest brother visited recently and we got to chatting about my impending (although not for another ~7 months) egg overload. Being quite a foodie and having taken culinary school classes, he had all kinds of suggestions for using up eggs: aioli, mayonnaise, crème brulee, merengue, etc. Surprisingly, I never made any of these things before. I'll have to start researching good egg recipes.

Aioli must be gaining in popularity, because I've eaten at a couple of restaurants lately that have both featured garlic lime aioli in their dishes. One of them even had garlic lime sriracha aioli.  From what I can tell, aioli is kind of halfway between hummus and mayonnaise.

I got a double-yolker from the grocery store this summer (this was the first one of my life).

It's kind of silly that I'm getting some chickens because I'm not particularly fond of fried eggs or scrambled eggs. However I have found a number of uses for eggs that I do enjoy. I often cook raw scrambled egg into soups such as noodle soup or tomato soup to add a little protein (plus it's delicious). I'm also a huge fan of bibimbap, which is a Korean dish of rice, hot and cold vegetables, sometimes meat, and a fried egg on top.  Eggs are always useful for baking, either for cakes, cookies, biscotti, or for brushing on top of pretzels or bread.

December 20, 2010

2011 Seed Wishlist

I realize that it's only December, but I've already been browsing my seed catalogues and I have a general idea of what I will be ordering for next summer. I usually end up ordering most of my seeds from Pinetree Garden Seeds, so I am basing my order off of their catalogue. 

I generally try 4-6 new heirloom tomatoes each year.  I've gotten so carried away with heirlooms that I grew 15-18 different varieties and about 57 plants total in 2010! Luckily I had my farmer's market stand to find homes for most of them. I also usually try a new bean or pea each year, a couple new lettuces, a couple new gourds, a new pumpkin, maybe 5 new annual flowers, and then a few new oddballs (like ground cherries).

Here is my tentative list of new varieties for 2011:

Cinderella (aka Rouge Vif D-Etampes) 
Or Long Island Cheese

Edamame- Beer Friend or Envy. I tried to grow edamame a couple years ago, but they were completely obliterated by groundhogs
Fava Bean-Windsor. I've never even eaten favas before, so I'm not sure why I want to grow them. Plus, I remember learning in a biology class a while back that some people are allergic to favas (a condition called favism).

Boothby's blonde
Or Miniature white
West India Gherkin (Anybody know if this is different from Mexican Sour Gherkin?)

Bushel gourd
Corsican gourd. I tried these last year and not a single seed germinated.
Egg gourd
Martinhouse gourd. Pinetree doesn't offer these, so I'll have to find another source.

Dinosaur Kale

Pinetree mix
Beleah Rose


Kohlrabi- Early White Vienna or Early Purple Vienna

Daikon Radish


Zucchini. I've been growing pattypan-type squash the last two years and I'd like to try the regular long green zucchini again (I have a great stuffed zucchini recipe that doesn't really work with the pattypans).

Aunt Ruby's German Green
Black Cherry
Principe Borghese (for making sun dried tomatoes)
Big Rainbow
Zapotec Pleated
Paul Robeson
Great White
Cherokee Purple
I'm positive I'll try the first three tomatoes on my list. I'll pick a couple from the rest of the list to go along with the other 15+ varieties I grow every year.

Pony yellow
Or Golden crown

What new things are you growing for 2011?

December 17, 2010

Photo Friday

Tulips 2010
On snowy days like today I sometimes think about all the bulbs out in the front yard sleeping under a foot of soil and snow. I put in several hundred bulbs last fall. I'm looking forward to seeing if they have grown and multiplied in the last year.

December 16, 2010

Bread Disaster

I attempted to make a couple different bread recipes the other day while at my parent's house. I'm usually a pretty good cook and baker, but I somehow managed to screw up both recipes.

My oldest brother introduced a very tasty tomato basil bread recipe to my family long ago. I've probably made the recipe ten times throughout the years and it always turns out fine. Similarly, I've also made a recipe called “Simple Crusty Bread” a couple times with decent results.

This time, both doughs failed to rise. I eventually came to the conclusion that this happened due to my impatience. The faucet in my parent's kitchen takes about 5 minutes to get hot water. Trying to save time, I just microwaved the water until hot (scorching hot, I realized later). This must have killed off all the yeast, because the bread didn't rise one bit.

Hoping that the dough would magically rise in the oven, I baked the loaves anyway. Nothing happened. The white bread loaf ended up looking very similar to a vanilla cow-pie, was super dense, and almost completely raw on the inside. That is how the Simple Crusty Bread loaf quickly became Simple Bird Food Bread loaf. The tomato basil loaf wasn't much better, although it had somehow cooked most of the way through. My mom, hoping to salvage one of her favorite bread recipes, had the idea to slice the bread and re-bake the individual slices. Ultimately, we ended up making tomato basil biscotti and it wasn't actually half bad!

Tomato basil biscotti

The moral of the story is:
Don't rush when baking (that's how I also managed to swap powdered sugar for flour when trying to make pretzels years ago) and use water between 110 and 120ºwith yeast.

December 14, 2010

Thrifty Pots and Canning Jars

I had some great finds at the local thrift store the other day. Who can pass up great clay pots like these ones for less that $1 each? These happen to be orchid pots, which are especially nice. They are short and squat and less prone to tipping over than standard pots.

Terra cotta orchid pots (with spider plants)

I also picked up an entire box of canning jars in various sizes, again for about 30¢ to 60¢ a piece. New canning jars cost $1+ each, depending on the size, so this was quite a good deal. A few of these jars were unusually tall and thin. I’ve never seen this shape for sale before. Perhaps these particular jars are older than the others (and have gone out of production)?

Box full of thrift store canning jars.

Since canning jars are made to be reused, I am not at all wary about buying them at garage sales and thrift stores. Make sure you only buy jars without cracks or chips and check that the rim is smooth to the touch. Chips in the rim will prevent the lid from sealing properly. Wash and disinfect the jars thoroughly before using, even if they appear to be clean. You can’t know for sure what was stored in the jars in their past life and they may have been visited by bugs or mice while in storage…so give them a good washing.

Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving

P.S. I bought the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving a couple months ago. It's a great reference book for canners.

December 12, 2010

Best Paste Tomato?

Last year I tried Martino's Roma for the first time. This is an heirloom paste tomato and it did really well!  The fruit on Martino's Roma had zero blossom end rot and the yield was very high. The other 3 varieties of paste tomato I grew last year (San Marzano, Amish Paste, and Polish Linguisa) suffered pretty badly from blossom end rot and the yields just couldn't compare. I may very well forget about the other varieties and grow solely Martino's Roma next year.

Martino's Roma
That said, I get nervous when I rely on a single variety to produce all my tomatoes of a certain kind (cherry, beefsteak, paste, etc.). Maybe I should try out a hybrid paste variety in 2011 and compare the flavor, yield, and disease resistance among the heirlooms and hybrids.

Any hybrid paste tomato suggestions for my 2011 seed order?

December 10, 2010

Photo Friday

Here's a bit of color for this gray wintery Friday.

Eggplant and Goldrush Currant Tomato

December 9, 2010

Fall leaves for chicken bedding

 I’ve been doing some research on affordable options for chicken coop bedding. I was intrigued by the idea of using dry leaves. They are readily available this time of year, free, and according to my sources will be pooped on, broken down, mixed up, and essentially composted by the chickens themselves. I have already raked a large pile of leaves directly into the garage for storage over the winter (I wonder what my neighbors were thinking when they saw me doing this). If leaf bedding ends up being a chicken disaster, I can always add the leftovers to my regular (outdoor) compost pile.   
Leaves I'm storing in the garage for chicken bedding.

December 7, 2010

Goodwill Hunting

I am a huge fan of thrift stores, antique shops, and junk stores. I’m lucky to have four thrift stores within a mile of my house. I try to visit them often, so I can keep tabs on the new arrivals. Thrift stores are a great source for inexpensive pots, canning jars, vases, gardening tools, baskets, books, kitchen supplies, and furniture. You may have to sift through a lot of sofas with mysterious stains before finding a gem, but there is often a lot of nice looking stuff. If you are creative and willing to do a little work, some of the more “weathered” thrift store furniture can be refurbished for fairly cheap.

My latest find is this four-tined rake. I picked this up for $2.02! It will be great for getting into tight spots for weeding and cultivating. It must be fairly old because they don’t make garden tools with wooden handles anymore (which is a shame because they so much easier to grip than the newer fiberglass tools).  

December 5, 2010

What's in my compost bin

I have several composting areas in my yard. I have a large area for leaves and twigs and two smaller bins for kitchen waste, weeds, paper, and pet bedding (and the associated manure). This compost bin is right outside the backdoor of my house.  It's very convenient for disposing of vegetable scraps and other kitchen waste.

Frostbitten nasturtium plants, tomatoes, romaine, potting soil, and leaves are a few of the things at the top of my compost pile right now. 

December 3, 2010

Photo Friday

Swiss Chard 'Bright Lights'

Christmas Cactus in Bloom

I have a fairly large Christmas cactus in my living room that is currently covered in flowers. This plant used to belong to my grandmother, but it was passed on to me when she could no longer take care of it.  I've had the plant for several years already, but this is the best bloom ever!

Christmas cacti bloom in response to photoperiod (specifically due to shortening photoperiod associated with the transition from summer to winter).  If you want your Christmas cactus to bloom, make sure it is not near an artificial light source. If you put your plant under a lamp that is often turned on at night, the plant will perceive this as a lengthened photoperiod and either delay or prevent flowering.

December 1, 2010

Seed Catalogues Are Arriving!

My first seed catalogues arrived recently. On the same day I received the Stokes catalogue and Pinetree Garden Seeds catalogue. It is kind of ironic that these showed up on the same day because these two catalogues couldn't be more different! In my opinion, Stokes seems to be more oriented towards large scale and commercial operations. Their seeds are sold in larger quantities and they sell mostly hybrid varieties. Pinetree Garden Seeds on the other hand sell small quantities of seeds (better for most home growers who don't need 50 plants of the same tomato variety) and sell many heirloom varieties (which I prefer).

Although I receive catalogues from probably 10+ seed companies, I always end up ordering from Pinetree. Their seeds are very affordable, with most regular sized packets costing less than $1.50. Although you get fewer seeds than some other companies (which is reflected in the reduced price), I have never found myself needing more than one packet of anything. I generally only grow a few plants of any one tomato or pepper variety and a packet of lettuce or carrots seeds stretches surprisingly far. Since the seeds are so inexpensive, I can try more varieties each year. In addition, since I only buy heirlooms, I can save the seeds. This means I'll never have to buy that variety again...for the rest of my life!
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