Sunday, January 26, 2014

How to use your back yard garden harvest most efficiently

You can't just start growing vegetables in your back yard (or community garden plot) and expect your meal planning to incorporate them automatically.  You have to actively develop ways of making the best use of what you produce, and on the schedule dictated by your garden, not according to your own convenience.  I've made this point in a few previous blog posts, and now I'll show a few additional ideas about how to make it work.

It's late January in greater Houston Texas, which means that the winter gardening cycle is in full swing.  We've been having some crappy weather lately, but we really do have a 12-month vegetable growing season here in the subtropics. 
Here's an obligatory art shot of what my frozen-over fish pond looked like on the morning of January 25, 2014.  Life thrives under all that ice.   
Despite the icing-over and freezes we've been having this month, a winter garden in Houston will usually survive if covered by tarps, sheets, towels, floating row cover, or whatever else is handy on those days when the worst of the weather hits.
Most of this was harvested while my little fish pond was still frozen over.  Freezes in our area are not of long duration, and our soils never freeze, which makes year-round vegetable survival possible. 
That photo above includes the following:
  1. Red leaf lettuce
  2. Celery
  3. Cheddar cauliflower
  4. Green bunching onions
  5. Salad burnet (an herb-like plant that tastes like a cross between cucumber and watermelon)
  6. Kale
Six different vegetable species, all perfectly suitable for a salad.  But not just any salad.  We are partial to those elaborate gourmet-style salads that are common in high-end restaurants.  Here's how I make mine.
I start with a base of chopped organic spinach.  This stuff came from the g-store because I'm not growing spinach right now, and I'm also not growing enough lettuce to fill a whole salad bowl (I mostly grow lettuce for eating in sandwiches). 
Chop and add all ingredients to the spinach.  I used the six home-harvested vegetables shown above, plus I threw in a bit of store-bought tomato and red pepper (peppers and tomatoes are spring and summer crops, not suitable for growing in January).

By the way, this is what real home-grown organic celery is supposed to look like (no color enhancement here).  Not that horrible pale stuff you see in the grocery store.  This has a deep green color and I bet it also has a very different micro-nutrient profile.   
My secret ingredient is essential to the outcome of the salad:
Pederson's bacon.  Their corporate tag line is "Famous for bacon!"  It's not available locally because CLEAR LAKE TEXAS CURRENTLY HAS SUCH CRAPPY GROCERY STORES, but I buy multiple packages every time I go downtown to Whole Foods and keep them in our massive freezer until it is needed, the freezer that is integral to our meal management strategy
So you say that your kids and spouse are NOT spinach salad fans??  Try adding some of this and watch the complaints and the salad disappear.  To a family-sized salad such as this one, I chop and add about three quarters of a 10-oz bacon package, which probably equates to around 3.5 oz of actual bacon because it releases so much fat upon frying.

Mind you, this salad enticement approach might not work with the cheaper, factory-feed-lot bacon found in most mainstream grocery stores.  Pederson's is much, much better tasting, in my opinion.  
I also add high-quality grated Reggiano cheese, as well as dried blueberries and Craisins.
These are my two favorite vinaigrette dressings:
(1) Tessemae's Balsamic, which is my favorite but not available locally because CLEAR LAKE TEXAS CURRENTLY HAS SUCH CRAPPY GROCERY STORES, but I buy it at Whole Foods and store it until it is needed.
(2) The other is Cookwell and Company's Cracked Pepper Vinaigrette, which you might be lucky enough to find at HEB Bay Colony, but probably not HEB Clear Lake Market because the two stores have different product distribution contracts (a manager told me that). 
Now, here is where the larger meal management strategy starts to make itself more apparent:
There's the now-tossed bacon-yummy elaborate salad which is so rich that it almost eats like a complete meal all by itself, with side servings of lower-calorie Texas chili (which DOES contain beans, thank you) and a slice of Whole Foods bread

(BTW, I use Smart Balance Original as the butter-like spread.  It really did help lower my cholesterol as the product marketing claims, but your results may differ.  I don't recommend the "lite" version of the same product because I find that it tastes like crap.)
No working mother has the time to build an elaborate salad like that one AND cook chili (or anything else home-made) for the same meal.  I don't care how much of a Super Mom she is - that's just not going to happen.  Our chili is one of those staple dishes that gets made in massive quantities and stored in our special freezer until it is needed.  And then it is unfrozen bit by bit to complete a variety of different meals, of which this is one. 

And that is a good example of how I both structure our meal plans to minimize the time spent on preparation while efficiently managing what my little organic vegetable garden paradise produces.  I meet so many women who say things like, "Oh, that looks so healthy but I don't have the time to make elaborate salads on top of everything else."  Well, you actually do, if you can find a way to put the rest of the meal prep on auto-pilot.  Pre-cooking and freezing is one such way.  Auto-defrost can be your auto-pilot.

Let me close with one more trick of garden management.  A few weeks ago, I showed a useful recipe which optimizes broccoflower, which is a blissfully easy vegetable to grow in our area.
No freezer used in this example except to stockpile the Pederson's sausage which not available locally because CLEAR LAKE TEXAS CURRENTLY HAS SUCH CRAPPY GROCERY STORES.  This is broccoflower stir-fried with other vegetables and sausage. 
This is what happens when other vegetables are substituted based on what's currently being produced by my micro-garden:
It's basically the same recipe procedure, with a few exceptions. 
This is what went into it.  Relative to the original recipe that was published online, I substituted cheddar cauliflower for the broccoflower, I deleted the parsley, I added some chopped bok choy, a little bit of finely-shredded Reggiano, and some of our harvested frozen cherry tomatoes from last summer.

It's OK to use frozen tomatoes in almost any recipe that will be subsequently cooked.  If you grow cherry tomatoes instead of larger tomatoes, you don't have to worry about chopping them and then having them turn to mush in the freezer.  They freeze whole.    
Tweaking a recipe like that one has the following strategic benefits:
  1. It consumes whatever available vegetables happen to be ready for harvest from your yard. 
  2. Using different vegetables at different times changes the appearance and taste just enough so that your family doesn't feel like you're serving the same dish over and over again.  Deleting the parsley from this one and adding tomatoes, bok choy, and Reggiano gave it a different character, especially given that our tomatoes are out-of-control cross-breed volunteers that have a very gamey taste after several generations of non-selective breeding (they grow wild in our yard during the summer because seeds germinate from my home-made compost). 
Good luck with your own garden management.  You can capitalize on your own harvests and optimize the health of your family's meals.  You just have to incrementally develop a strategy that works best with your own employment- and family-related time limitations.
I took it one step at a time, literally one vegetable plant at a time.  Four and a half years ago, our suburban lot was nothing but scorched earth as the 23 acres that would become Centerpointe Section 9 were razed and re-contoured in their entirety to accommodate streets and houses.  There was a time when I couldn't even find a fire ant on this property.  It's been an enchanting experience to build it up from such a profound ecological rock bottom.

Here I'm standing on top of one of my smaller garden stock tanks looking straight down at a broccoflower.  This tank was installed in a marginal corner of our yard that was heavily encumbered by a utility easement (one of my most popular posts there).  You can see one of the utility boxes by my left foot.  

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