Saturday, March 21, 2009

What's a Home Garden Worth?

I joined Kitchen Gardener's International when I ran across a link that they were working on getting President Obama to plant an organic garden at the White House. Yesterday, that garden was started with the help of some local elementary school children.

Another recent post addressed how much a home kitchen garden would be worth, and it's pretty impressive so I am reprinting here (the photo is also theirs):

With the global economy spiraling downward and Mother Nature preparing to reach upward, it’s a good question to ask and a good time to ask it.

There isn’t one right answer, of course, but I’ll give you mine: $2149.15. Last year, my wife Jacqueline suggested to me that we calculate the total value of the produce coming out of our garden over the course of the growing season. Initially, the thought of doing that was about as appealing to me as a recreational root canal. I remember replying something like: “OK, so let me get this right: in addition to raising three busy boys, managing two careers, volunteering in a school garden, and growing most of our own produce, you’re proposing that we weigh every item that comes out of our garden, write it down in a log book, and spend a few leisurely evenings doing math?” Jacqueline, an economics major in college and a native French speaker, answered with a simple "oui" and so the project began.

There was a lot of work involved, mostly for Jacqueline, but as with gardening itself, it was work with a purpose. It didn’t take long for our log book to start filling up with dates and figures. Although we started eating our first garden salads in late April, we only began recording our harvests as of May 10th, starting first with greens and asparagus. Our last weighable harvest was two weeks ago in the form of a final cutting of Belgian endives forced from roots in our basement.

By the time we had finished weighing it all, we had grown 834 pounds and over six months worth of organic food (we’re still eating our own winter squash, onions, garlic, and frozen items like strawberries, green beans, and pesto cubes). Once we had the weights of the 35 main crops we grew, we then calculated what it would have cost us to buy the same items using three different sets of prices: conventional grocery store, farmers’ market and organic grocery store (Whole Foods, in our case). The total value came to $2196.50, $2431.15, and $2548.93 respectively. For the other economics majors and number crunchers among you, you can see our crunchy, raw data here.

There are things we didn’t include like the wild dandelion greens which we reaped but did not sow, the six or so carving pumpkins which we ultimately fed to our compost pile, and the countless snacks of strawberries, beans, peas, and tomatoes that never made it as far as our kitchen scale. There were also things we forgot to weigh like several pounds of grapes which turned into about 12 jars of jam. As with any growing season, there were hits and misses. The heaviest and most valuable crop was our tomatoes (158 lb/72 kg for a total value of $524). In terms of misses, our apple tree decided to take the year off and very few of our onions started from seed made it requiring me to buy onion plants.

On the cost side, we had $130 for seeds and supplies, $12 for a soil test, and exceptional costs of $100 for some locally-made organic compost we bought for our “This Lawn is Your Lawn” frontyard garden (normally, we meet most of our soil fertility needs through our own composting). I don't have a scientific calculation for water costs, but we don't need to water much and, when we do, water is relatively cheap in Maine. Also, I mulch my beds pretty heavily to keep moisture in and weeds down. Let's say $40 in water. So, if we consider that our out-of-pocket costs were $282 and the total value generated was $2431, that means we had a return on investment of 862%. The cost of our labor is not included because we enjoy gardening and the physical work involved. If I am to include my labor costs, I feel I should also include the gym membership fees, country club dues, or doctors’ bills I didn’t have.

If you really want to play around with the data, you can calculate how much a home garden like ours produces on a per acre basis. If you use the $2400 figure and consider that our garden is roughly 1/25th of an acre, it means that home gardens like ours can gross $60,000/acre. You can also calculate it on a square foot basis which in our case works out to be roughly $1.50/ft2. That would mean that a smaller garden of say 400ft2 would produce $600 of produce. Keep in mind that these are averages and that certain crops are more profitable and space efficient than others. A small garden planted primarily with salad greens and trellised tomatoes, for example, is going to produce more economic value per square foot more than one planted with potatoes and squash. We plant a bit of everything because that’s the way we like to garden and eat.

Clearly, this data is just for one family (of five), one yard (.3 acre), one garden (roughly 1600 square feet), and one climate (Maine, zone 5b/6), but it gives you some sense of what’s possible. If you consider that there are about 90 million households in the US that have some sort of yard, factor in the thousands of new community and school gardens we could be planting, this really could add up. Our savings allowed us to do different things including investing in some weatherization work for our house last fall that is making us a greener household in another way. Some might ask what this would mean for farmers to have more people growing their own food. The local farmers I know welcome it because they correctly believe that the more people discover what fresh, real food tastes like, the more they'll want to taste. In our case, part of our savings helped us to buy better quality, sustainably-raised meat from a local CSA farmer.

The economics of home gardening may not be enough to convince President Obama or UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown to plant new gardens at the White House or 10 Downing Street, but the healthy savings their citizens could be making and then reinvesting in their local economies could.

In the end, it might come down to the language we use. Instead of saying "Honey, I'm going out to the garden to turn the compost pile", perhaps we should say "Honey, I'm going outside to do a 'green job' and work on our 'organic stimulus package.'” I bet that would get the attention of a few economists, if not a few psychologists!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Back in Mac: Scallops with Pea Puree, Crispy Pancetta & Gremolata

What a funky week. Finally on Sunday evening my PC locked up and refused to reboot for it's last time. I knew it was coming and you'd have thought I would have been backing up accordingly, but not so much.

I have (had) over 1,200 recipes in Mastercook, which I use regularly for personal chef dates, to print recipes and compile shopping lists. At this point the recipes serve mostly as reminders of what to do with a stray ingredient or two, which is sometimes inevitable when you are cooking the equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner and a small party in a strange kitchen.

I was also on call for jury duty. I didn't have to report on Monday, but you still have to pretty much plan your week around the fact that you might be out of pocket all week. My group was called to report on Tuesday. Of the nearly 100 people crammed in the room, there were three people that by 10:00 hadn't been picked; yes, one of the three was me. I was kind of disappointed actually. I was there, I was ready, I didn't get anything but a $5 parking garage visit for 2 hours.

Plus the time change, while I appreciate more than you know, the extra daylight, takes me awhile to adjust. So I just felt kind of funky all week.

Yesterday I went to the West Side Market and restocked the larder. I really hadn't cooked much in the last week and half after getting a nice little case of food poisoning from eating at a local restaurant. I didn't recall ordering the chicken sushi, but that's how it seemed.

So last night in honor of almost spring, I made a Fine Cooking recipe of Seared Scallops with a Pea Puree, Crispy Pancetta and Gremolata. The pea puree was simply some sweated shallots and garlic, then a little chicken stock and frozen peas cooked til tender. The recipe called for putting it in the blender; I used the stick blender. I found that after I pureed it that I preferred to have a little texture so I ended up throwing the rest of the bag of peas.

The pancetta (Bacon!!!) was sliced thin and baked til crispy. It was crumbled over the top along with the gremolata which was simply some chopped parsley and shallot with some lemon zest.

This one looks fancy, but really is easy enough for a week night.

The Geek Squad managed to back up my data off my old hard drive. I'm learning to use (and loving) the Mac, and I'm almost adjusted to the time change.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

He Went to Jared!...She said Yes!

Last night I cooked one of my favorite dinners for two. The groom-to-be contacted me a few weeks ago to help him plan a special evening for him to 'pop the question'.

They are both seafood lovers, so I made lobster tails with a fabulous Prosecco Vanilla Butter sauce that is to die for. I served it with roasted asparagus and portobello mushrooms drizzled with white truffle oil, and a toasted Israeli couscous with fresh bay leaves, cinnamon, toasted pine nuts and parsley.

To set the mood for the evening, I booked them a couples massage at Whole Earth Massage. This got them out of the way while I slipped in and got dinner preparation under way. It also gave me time to move the dining table into the living room and dress up the area with roses and candles.

I also enlisted the assistance of local musician, Kevin Minster, who did a fantastic job. The groom-to-be provided a list of songs that were special to the couple, and Kevin learned the ones he didn't know during the week. Kevin plays guitar and sings, and he provided a nice distraction when I had to crack those lobster tails open to piggyback the meat for baking.

I got to check out the ring today when I went back to collect my table items - he went to Jared - and he did good! It was one of the prettiest rings I've seen.

I gave the bride-to-be a gift certificate towards her shower. I hope to see this lovely couple again soon.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Gone to the Dogs...and Kitties, too.

I sell a lot of personal chef gift certificates to family members who want to pamper someone for their birthday, anniversary, holiday, or because they are under the weather.

Many of my lucky recipients are loving pet parents who treat their pet like one of the family. The proverbial light bulb went off, so I decided to do some research on preparing organic pet food and treats.

For folks who want to share their personal chef package, I've now got a menu of pet goodies that clients can choose from when creating their personal chef meal packages. Substitute a pet meal or treat for any human meal in any size meal package.

My talented graphics guru, Crafty Chef Graphics, designed this fabulous post card for this service.

This is the one time that I'll let the client jump on me and lick my face.....

FYI - The photo is of our neighborhood cat, Cootie. He's been roaming the 'hood for over two years and I started feeding him the Christmas before last. Last spring I live trapped him and took him to the One of a Kind Pets Clinic , to be neutered, and they clipped his ear - a marking to indicate that as a feral cat, he's be neutered.

He didn't really have a name until I picked him up from the clinic. The cage was covered in an old blanket and the girls were holding it at arms length like he had the plague. While I waited in the crowded waiting room, one of the clerks announced loudly "This one's got lice." Everyone kind of looked at me like I was neglecting my third grader; he's a feral cat, I don't control who he hangs out with.

He was none to thrilled with his trip to the clinic and bolted the minute I opened the cage. But he came back for dinner a few minutes later. I worry about him in the winter, but he's fat and apparently happy, as long as you don't make any kind of move towards him. I think most of the neighborhood is feeding him, and he's a pretty good chipmunk hunter.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Bean There, Done That

I first read about using black beans in brownies in this post on 101 cookbooks . I was intrigued enough to not only buy the book referenced, because I have some gluten free, sugar sensitive clients, but at one point I had all the ingredients and planned to make the recipe. Didn't happen.

Well yesterday, my weekly Weight Watchers e-mail arrived and it had links to several brownie recipes, including their version of the black bean.

My mom was getting released from the hospital yesterday and asked me to make her some diabetic friendly brownies or cookies.

So I adapted the Weight Watchers version by using Splenda Blend, Smart Balance sticks, and EggBeaters. The recipe only called for 1/2 cup of the rinsed, canned beans blended in the mini food processor with some coffee; you could probably sneak more in with no problem.

I tasted the batter (figured Egg Beaters are likely to be pasteurized) and it basically tasted like fudgy, brownie batter. They baked fine, but certainly didn't get as thick as the photo in the WW version.

Not sure if my substitutions accounted for any of the height variance, but I suspect the Smart Balance may have contributed.

Black Bean Brownies

-------- ------------ --------------------------------
2 spray cooking spray -- (s) flour-variety recommended
1/2 cup(s) canned black beans -- rinsed and drained
1/4 cup(s) black coffee -- strong
1/2 cup(s) Smart Balance Stick
4 oz bittersweet chocolate
1 c egg substitute
1/2 c plus 2 T Splenda Blend
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp table salt
1 cup(s) all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Coat a 9- X 13-inch pan with cooking spray; line with aluminum foil and coat foil with cooking spray.

Inmini food processor, process beans with coffee until smooth; set aside.

In a double boiler over very low heat, melt butter and chocolate.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. With mixer on low speed, add melted chocolate to eggs; incorporate well. Add black bean mixture, vanilla and salt; mix well. Add flour; combine thoroughly on low speed.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake until a tester inserted in center of brownies comes out clean, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove pan to a cooling rack. After 10 minutes, remove brownies from pan by pulling up on foil and placing brownies on cooling rack to cool more. Cut into 24 pieces and serve. Yields 1 piece per serving.

Spicy Orange Chicken Stir-Fry

Looking for a recipe that makes a whole lotta dinner? I adapted this chicken stir-fry recipe from one in Everyday Food. If you don't need the entire eight servings, you can freeze the extra in individual sized serving containers for later.

Spicy Orange Chicken Stir-Fry

1/3 cup cornstarch
2 cups orange juice, freshly squeezed -about 4 oranges
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup honey
4 cloves garlic -- minced
2 t. teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
coarse salt
4 tablespoons grapeseed oil
3 pounds boneless, skinless, chicken breasts -- cut crosswise in 1/2" strips
1 head broccoli -- cut into florets, stalks peeled and thinly sliced
1 pound carrots (about 5) -- peeled & thinly slice on diagonal
1 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced
cooked rice, for serving

Place cornstarch in a med bowl. Gradually whisk in oj til smooth. Whisk in soy, vinegar, honey, garlic, and red pepper; season with salt. Set aside.

In wok, heat oil over med high. working in batches, stir-fry chicken til slightly browned, 2-4 min. transfer to plant (chicken will cook more later)

Add broccoli, carrots, and red pepper with 1/2 c water to large dutch oven heated with a little oil. Cook, partially covered, til water evaporates and broccoli is bright green, about 3 min. Add reserved chicken and cornstarch mix; bring to boil. Cook til chicken is opaque throughout and sauce has thickened, 2-3 min. Serve over rice.

To freeze: Prepare thru step 3, omitting rice. cool to room temp. Freeze in 1 1/2 c servings in airtight containers.

To cook from frozen: Run containers under hot water to release frozen stirfry. Place in med saucepan with 1/2 c water per serving. Cover and heat over med high heat, stirring ocasionally, til heated through, 10-12 minutes.

All six of my burners are reversible to hold a wok, so I got to test that out. Works great!

Next time I would probably put in more vegetables and kick up the spices a bit more.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Hungarian Penicillin - My Great Grandmother's Beef Soup

My mom is under the weather and requested that I make this soup for her. The recipe is my great grandmother's, and I ate a lot of it in the winter growing up.

When I first moved out on my own, I didn't know how to boil water, let alone cook. I would often call home and ask my mom how to make something. She had a regular rotation of basic dishes, and she rarely cooked from a recipe, so I'd get instructions like "add flour 'til it sticks together and feels right'. Uh, ok, how do I know when that is? That's when I figured it was time to start teaching myself how to cook.

She was kind enough one year to sit down at the typewriter and type a bunch of family recipes on large index cards and tuck them into a photo album. Some of them are just as perplexing to me now, but this one I've made enough that I can do it without the recipe. The first time I looked for it in the photo album was a little challenging, because we always called it Rivule Soup, yet the card is called Beef Soup.

She never made rivules, which are basically tiny, rough, little egg noodles, from scratch, but I'm sure my great grandmother did. For years we've used Mrs. Weiss's Egg Farvels, but alas, they are nowhere to be found this winter. I usually keep a stash, but there were none in the pantry, and a couple of supermarket scouts with no luck.

My friends at Mediterranean Imported Foods at West Side Market saved me with these noodles, which look pretty much like the egg farvels/rivules with maybe a touch more egg yolk.

Of course, the rest of the ingredients came from West Side Market: celery, carrots, onion, tomatoes, cabbage, parsley - still using that $1 bargain one from last week, and a big beef shank from Larry Vistein's - aka Meat Man.

The secret ingredient, and key to the soup, is pickling spice. And it has to be McCormick's. We've tried other brands, and it just isn't the same. I use most of jar in a muslin bag, but a big tea strainer works as well.

I can't tell you how nice it is to make a big pot of soup on a REAL stove. The pot-filler faucet is just a bonus - the fact that the pot came to a boil before noon was the real thrill.

I remember the first time I made it and was confronted with the instruction to skim off the scum. Had no clue how that was supposed to work. Now I have a nice stainless skimmer I picked up at the All-Clad sale. A few swipes and it's history.

So it's simmering away on the stove. There is nothing quite like the aroma of this one cooking; the pickling spice is distinctive. Four or five hours, strain out the solids and you have one sinus clearing beef broth. The rivules get cooked and added separately.

The perplexing instruction: Add the vegetables you want to eat, also needed explanation. At most some carrot chunks get back in, but mostly it's beef stock with the noodles.