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February 2012

Food for Thought

Great Food Begins with Great Ingredients
By Lorinda

Food for Thought archive

Click here for this month's printable recipes


The best salad is made with your own garden produce.


Great food begins with great ingredients, and the very best ingredients are those you grow yourself. I am stepping up onto my "grow organic" soapbox now, so if gardening is not—and never will be—your thing, skip down to the recipes and buy the freshest ingredients you can find at your local farmers market or health food store.

When I was growing up, we ate a lot of canned and frozen vegetables. I remember eating fresh corn, broccoli, and salads but didn't really know what quality vegetables should taste like until I grew them myself. Asparagus from a can is barely recognizable as a vegetable compared to gently steamed asparagus fresh from a garden.

I tried to choose fresh vegetables whenever possible for my growing family. Though fresh green beans from the grocery store were a big improvement from those out of a can, I know now that they weren't even close to the texture and flavor (and nutritional value) of those picked and cooked the same day.

When my children were young, I still managed to find the time to read voraciously. I also found the time to take long, hot baths. I definitely found the time to bake cookies. Now I really wish that I had found the time to plant a garden and grow fresh foods, too.

With only five years of experience, I'm still new to gardening and am learning through trial and error, so though I am happy to pass on what I've learned, I urge you to get a good book on gardening, or make use of the incredible gardening resources online.

If you've read any of my past articles, you know why I'm committed to gardening without pesticides or herbicides. This means that some of my leafy greens will have tiny nibbles out of them. It also means that I have to pick lots of bad bugs off of the plants, and squish (which is really, really gross) lots of grubs. My harvest would probably be larger if I sprayed the heck out of my garden, but I'm all about quality over quantity. Last year I surrendered my Brussels sprouts to the aphids, and ultimately fed them, bugs and all, to the chickens. Imagine a big shoulder shrug here; I'm not a huge fan of Brussels sprouts.


Grow only what you really like


Which brings me to a rule that I have finally accepted and put into practice: Only plant what you like to eat! It sounds so simple, doesn't it? And yet each year I plant things that I think I might (or should) like. Beets grow very well here. Abundantly! I like beets, but my husband doesn't. I don't, however, love beets. So when we would go to the freezer to pick a vegetable for dinner, the beets got pushed to the back and we would choose the beans or peas or corn.

Planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, and processing are all lots of hard work. Don't waste your time, money, and energy planting what you simply won't use.

This is the month I plan my gardens. I have two: a 50' x 50' kitchen garden with a small greenhouse, right behind the house, and an 80' x 120' garden in front, a little farther away. Actually, I can tell you exactly how far away it is: 92 steps from my porch to the hydrant at the lower end. I know this because in the summer, when it is miserably hot and I have to trudge back and forth moving sprinklers, I distract myself by either counting the steps back to the house or by singing old camp marching songs.

If that isn't obsessive-compulsive enough for you, I also plan my gardens on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Page one is the kitchen garden (.pdf file) and page two is the lower garden (.pdf file) . I guarantee both plots will be changed many times between now and planting day! I move things around on my spreadsheets the way some people move furniture in their living room.

In the lower garden, half of the area is permanently planted. It's my berry garden, with rows of raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries. My beloved asparagus patch also resides there, as does a very enthusiastic gooseberry bush. In the other half I try to plant the crops that get harvested at the end of the season, like grains, dry corn, dry beans, squash, carrots, storage onions, and garlic.

In my kitchen garden, I plant items I use frequently: lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, peppers, peas, green beans, and herbs. I also plant my potatoes there because they seem to like the soil better and produce much more attractive potatoes. Sweet corn takes up too much of my garden space, so it is planted outside of the fence, with surprisingly little damage from deer. Marauding cows decimated my crop once, but now we prevent this by keeping our front gate closed in the summer.

This year we are adding a couple of cold frames to try to encourage larger sweet potatoes. Our season is short and our nights are cold, which sweet potatoes and eggplants don't like, so hopefully the cold frames will make a difference. I hope to have a bounty to show you next fall!


Plan carefully


When planning my garden, I consider the following:

  • What we like to eat.
  • What quantity we will need to get us through the year.
  • How much I can reasonably process without throwing temper tantrums.
  • Which items should or should not be planted near each other. Allelopathy (companion planting) is the science of planting things together that will benefit each other and putting distance between plants that can actually cause problems for each other.
  • Where each plant family was grown the year before, so I can rotate crops.
  • Water needs. For instance, I plant my wheat and camelina together because they don't need much water. Peas and beans are planted near each other because they both like lots of water.

Choosing just the right seeds can be a pleasurable pastime.

Next, I go through the catalogs and buy an obscene amount of seeds. A crazy, stupid amount of seeds. Enough seeds to feed the Duggar family.

If seed companies sold tomato and pepper seeds in packets with five or six seeds in them, I'd be very happy. I want the variety, but certainly don't need 25 of each type! I start four plants of each kind, give a couple of plants away, and have a packet full of seeds left. I know I could save them for the next year (many seeds are viable for years if they are stored correctly), but I love rifling through my new seed packets each year, and can't resist purchasing new ones. I try to share my extras with friends and family.

My favorite seed sources are Territorial Seed Company, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, and Vermont Bean Seed Company. You can shop for seeds online, but definitely request a catalog for next year. They're so exciting to receive in the dead of winter, and a joy to thumb through.


Start some vegetables indoors


So . . . the garden is planned and seeds are ordered from catalogs that are now dog-eared and memorized. By the end of the month, I will start some of the vegetables indoors. By the end of March, my house will look like a nursery, with every window ledge filled with seedlings. By May, I will be frantic to get the whole mess OUT of my house!

As soon as we can work the soil (usually in April), the cold-weather seeds will go in. Peas, spinach, lettuce, and onions all like to be planted in cool weather. By late spring, we are harvesting salad greens, early peas, and green onions. (I plant my onions a little closer together than most gardeners and use the thinnings as green onions.) We are also cutting the first tender little spears poking through the dirt in the asparagus patch. If you commit to a garden, I urge you to plant asparagus. It will be a few years before you get a decent harvest, but once it is established, you will be amazed at the quantity of spears you'll get. Crispy, tender, sweet, nutritious asparagus! For inspirational recipes, go to Asparagus Recipes.


Websites to help with your garden planning


This site has a wonderful week-by-week planting calendar for your ZIP Code. You don't have to subscribe to their seed service, though it sounds like a great idea.
Sprout Robot

A simple explanation of crop rotation.
Crop Rotation Made Easy

For a very basic list of companion plants, see this site.
List of Companion Plants

For a more in-depth explanation of companion planting, this is an excellent source.
Companion Planting

If you've never planted a garden before, my advice is to start small, limit your varieties, and know your physical limits. And . . . good luck with that!

To celebrate your spring harvest, here is a recipe for a simple but addictive salad.



Click here to print these recipes.


Spring Salad

8 cups chopped lettuce (any kind), rinsed and drained
1 cup peas, cooked until tender and chilled
1 cup chopped green onion
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1 cup chopped dry salami
1 cooked chicken breast, chopped

Combine ingredients in a large bowl.

Just before serving, toss with dressing.

Note: All ingredients should be chopped into small bite-size pieces. As always, feel free to improvise! I like to add sliced olives and shredded Asiago cheese. I also love it with a little fresh basil chopped up in it.

Serves 8.


Creamy Italian Dressing

1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese
2/3 cup olive oil

In a blender, combine mayonnaise, vinegar, mustards, garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, sugar, and lemon juice. Blend on low briefly to mix. Add Parmesan cheese and blend. With blender on low, very slowly pour in the olive oil, continuing to process until mixture is thoroughly emulsified. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.


Contact Lorinda at lorindamckinnon@gmail.com

Lorinda resides in Eastern Washington, where she joyously combines her love of cooking and gardening. Baking is her passion, and licking the batter off the spoon after making a cake is her reward. When she's not in the kitchen, she's out in the garden pulling weeds and snacking on young peas. Enjoy Lorinda's blog, The Rowdy Baker.


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