Garden Update: July 2013

Garden as of July 8th, 2013
Garden as of July 8th, 2013

Welcome back to the "Garden Update" segment, I hope you are excited, because we are! A lot has happened in the garden since the middle of June. We went on a vacation and left our garden in the hands of a friend and any folks willing to water over at Vedgewater. There are bright yellow paint sticks with the words "Water if Dry" written on them. This is an indicator that the plotholders are out of town and their water may need some love.  

We've been blessed with a good strong crop of green beans and a delightful team of kale plants. The kale is a Russian variety, and the leaves are coming out to be larger than your hand. The green beans are just getting started, and I'm pretty sure we will see a second flowering from them before they are done. We've eaten at least a couple dozen green beans each and I've been throwing them into stir fries and pastas for extra green crunch.

First picking of green beans!
First picking of green beans!

We have a couple square feet of beets which are not getting terribly large, but we pulled one for tasting last week and it was the sweetest beet you could imagine. It was slightly smaller than a ping pong ball, but totally worth growing for the flavor. I will probably pull the beets in the next week or so to make room for a fall planting. I had planted some little beets in and amongst the spring beets, but they were shaded too much and haven't done a lot. Hopefully, I can make some room for fall beets which will give us a little more sustenance going into the winter times.

Baby beets, almost ready to eat!
Baby beets, almost ready to eat!

Our tomato plants are really coming along, even the ones I thought were goners. We also recently discovered that our broccoli plants, which seemed basically worthless up to this point, are trying to flower. I'm pretty excited about the prospect of broccoli florets, but it's nice to know that if we never get traditional looking broccoli, we can still eat the leaves and the stem. Yum!

We have cucumbers, corn, peppers, and eggplant starting to bloom as well. It's a bit late for many of these plants, but for our first year out, we're pretty proud of what our little plants are doing. The cucumbers have taken quite a hit from the recent heat wave. Even when we water more than once a day, they are looking a bit wilted and sad. We had a couple days last week, when it was really hot, that it was pretty touch and go for a few of our plants. Some things really do not like heat. To help with keeping the ground cool and retaining water, we mulched with cocoa shells. I do not recommend cocoa shells to anyone who has dogs or has a garden frequented by dogs, as they can be dangerous to dogs (It's basically like feeding chocolate to your dog, if the dog tries to eat them off the ground). However, Peterson Garden Project does not allow dogs in their gardens, so we were able to try out cocoa shells for mulch. It seems to be going ok, but even with the mulch, the bed dries out pretty quickly. I'm looking forward to more rain and some slightly cooler weather.

These berries are better than candy.
These berries are better than candy.

The biggest surprise for me in this garden has been our volunteer strawberry plant. It has re-bloomed twice and continues to produce the sweetest and tangiest strawberries I have ever eaten. We were pleased to see that the previous owners of the plot had planted strawberries the year before, because strawberry plants do better after their first year. We have harvested a berry or two every couple days from this plant and the trend seems to be continuing. The heat did get to the strawberry plant a bit too, some of the berries appeared to be almost cooked on the bush, but I think this is mostly a lesson to think about how to provide shade for plants in a shade-less garden. Next year, I will probably add in a bit more infrastructure and plan my planting to have larger plants protect more delicate plants. In the meantime, we will continue to live and learn with the garden, and hopefully I'll be back in August with some gratuitous tomato porn.  Tomatoes are comin'!

Make Strawberry Vinegar

On our quest to prove that you can make basically everything in your own home, we discovered that it is deceptively simple to make your own fermented fruit vinegar. If you have used Braggs Apple Cider vinegar, you know the type of product we are going for here. (If you click through to that site, please note how awesome Patricia Bragg looks.) From start to finish, we used the instructions from Kate over at Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking. We thought, at first, about doing it with peach skins, once peach season comes around, but a friend who was staying with us for a few days bought a five pound bag of strawberry seconds from the Glenwood Sunday Market and left us quite a few of them. (I'm not the world's biggest strawberry fan, but I think I'm starting to come around to them this summer.) So, we had very many strawberries, which we made into all kinds of delicious desserts and snacks, and the scraps we saved for vinegar.

As you can see, if you look at the instructions, all you need to make fermented strawberry vinegar is strawberries, sugar, water, a splash of vinegar (with the mother), a vessel, some semipermiable vessel cover, and the patience to basically ignore this slow but profitable process.

The Cliff Notes version of the process is this:

1. Put the strawberries in the water with the sugar, cover, and stir every day for a week.

2. Strain out the strawberries, add a splash of vinegar (like Braggs) to get things started. 

3. Let it sit on your counter for 2-3 weeks until a mother forms and the whole room/house smells like vinegar (it's not that bad).  

4. Strain again, rinse the mother, and package it up because you just made vinegar (in about a month).

Here's what our process was like, in more detail.

Strawberry parts soaking in sugar water
Strawberry parts soaking in sugar water

The first thing to do, obviously, was to put the strawberries in the sugar water and let the natural yeasts in the air do their work.  We had strawberry seconds, so they were not super fresh, and I did have to battle some mold in the first week.  I solved the problem by keeping the strawberries submerged under a plate.  Regardless, a straggler or two would float to the surface, succumb to the effects of oxygen, and start to decompose. Those bits were promptly discarded. Towards the end of the week, when I took the cloth off the top, I would be greeted with a view like the one below.

Now we're cooking with...alcohol?

Now we're cooking with...alcohol?

Delicious, right? Under that weird stuff is a plate and some strawberry bits. We had enough strawberries to have two bowls going at once. When we strained out the strawberry parts and put the substances back in the bowls, they were smelling pretty much like strawberry beer. I'm pretty sure it would not have been pleasant to drink, because it was wild yeast and the process was pretty crude. If you wanted to actually make strawberry beer, you would go about this in a very different manner. It was cool to walk by and catch a waft of beer-y berry scent. Every time I stirred them, also, a lot of vaguely alcoholic bubbles would rise to the surface. Oh, food science.

Anyway, we strained out the chunks, put the liquid back in the bowls, and added a splash of "starter" vinegar to each bowl. We did use Braggs Apple Cider Vinegar for one of the bowls, and for the other we used a locally made blueberry cherry vinegar from CO-Op Sauce. Then we swirled the bowls every 2-3 days, and largely left it alone. Within a week, the beer-y smell had turned to vinegar and a vinegar "mother" was starting to form on top of each bowl. What the heck am I talking about when I say  "mother?"  Well, the mother is where the bacteria live that turn the alcohol into the super acidic vinegar most of us love. So, a little vinegar mother is what you need to get that process started, just like yogurt needs a starter and kombucha needs a SCOBY.  Vinegar will generally start to form its own mother eventually, but a splash of already established vinegar with mother-bacteria totally moves things along. I'm not going to lie, the mother is kind of a snotty, gelatinous goop that sits on/in your vinegar, and it could gross you out. Brace yourselves. However, homemade vinegar is worth touching one goopy thing, for us anyways.

It's just one goopy thing, you'll be fine.

It's just one goopy thing, you'll be fine.

She's so pretty.

She's so pretty.

You can see how dense the mother in the one bowl was in the pictures on the left. The other bowl's mother was more viscous and didn't drape across the hand quite so nicely. It was more snotty. Different starter, different mother, maybe.

After two weeks of sitting and being swirled on occasion, our vinegar was ready to be strained and bottled. Per Kate's instructions, we removed the mother from the top and rinsed it out. Then we poured the vinegar over a strainer with a thin cloth on top and strained out the sediment.

Strain, baby, strain

Strain, baby, strain

We put a little bit of mother back into each container and called it good. The vinegar has a pretty mild flavor, but it definitely tastes like strawberries. The bowl with the Braggs vinegar had the thinner mother and the vinegar was cloudier. Otherwise, there does not seem to be a discernible flavor difference. Basically, the point is, if you want to make your own vinegar, all you have to do is be willing to stir a bowl of water and fruit scraps semi-regularly for three weeks. Delicious!

Final product!
Final product!

June 2013 Food Swap Recap

All set to start swapping!

All set to start swapping!

This past Sunday was Chicago Food Swap's June swap. We had an awesome time at our first swap in April, but we had to miss the smaller swap in May because of Mother's Day events. (Read about our first swap here.) We were excited to return to swapping because we had gotten to try so many interesting things the first time around. This time the swap was located in a large gallery space in Goose Island, right near Kendall College. Previous, swaps had been limited to 35-45 swappers because of size limitations at the swap sites, but this time there was no limit. Around 90 people signed up for the swap, which honestly would have been pretty overwhelming, but it didn't seem like that many actually showed up.

L to R: Pineapple-infused Vodka, Cheddar Crackers, Broccoli Stalk Quick Pickles, Biscoff Muddy Buddies, and Salted Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

For our part, we brought five different items: pineapple-infused vodka, broccoli stem quick pickles, cheese crackers (homemade Cheez-Its), salted brown butter chocolate chip cookies, and Biscoff muddy buddies. The vodka was the runaway hit (and, of course, it was the item we had the least of), followed closely by the pickles. Sadly, one of our jars of pickles was taken before the swap officially began. (Before the official swapping happens, everyone goes around to look at everyone else's items, figuring out what they'd like to swap for. Generally during this time people leave their tables unattended. I think because the size of this swap was so large, it was harder to keep on eye on things. In the future, we will be sure to always keep one person at our table while the other one is out perusing the goods.)

There were a lot of great things at this swap. We saw pesto, sandcastle cakes (so cute!) caramels, lots of jams and curds, breads, spice blends, lime ginger beer, fresh strawberries, mulberries, lettuces, and herbs, crackers, sugar cookies, brittle, and a ton of stuff I'm forgetting. We saw some people from the April swap who've been reading our blog (hi Julie and Jo!) and met a lot of new people. It was neat when first-timers asked us questions about how the swap worked. We just love the sense of community the food swap creates!

Food swap bounty
Food swap bounty

Now, on to the bounty. We brought 18 items to trade, and ended up with the amazing bounty below: I do not literally have all these delicious items in front of me, but I will do my best. We have fresh homemade pasta, sea salt caramels, locally foraged mulberries, pickled jalapenos, mustard, mango curd, peach whiskey curd (subtle, yet satisfying), orange gelatin, dehydrated strawberries, rhubarb chutney, pesto (which went home with our friend Erin who was visiting and helping us swap), and a couple more shelf stable jars of goodness which I do not remember because I have not seen them every time I opened the fridge since Sunday. All good stuff. So far we have tried the pasta (delicious), the caramels (there's only one left), the mango and whiskey curd (perfect for a breakfast toast topping), orange gelatin (different than I expected, but it totally grew on us and all of a sudden it was gone!), fresh strawberries(not pictured because they didn't make it home), dehydrated strawberries (so far eaten like so many potato chips, and way more tasty), and the mulberries (which went into a mulberry lime ice cream topping last night). All wins for us so far! It was definitely a different collection of items from last time, which makes me think that every food swap will be vibrant and exciting! The big ticket items were infused alcohols and extracts, canned/pickled items, and jams/chutneys/dips. Fresh fruits and vegetables were a nice touch, and we were lucky to get get some things we could eat right away.

I want to encourage all our readers to seek out food swaps in their area. There were a couple of people from Ames, IA at this swap, but there's no need to go that far. All it takes is about 10+ people with well-made items to make a swap a success. If you are signed up to swap or you are planning to do so, here are some tips from us 2x swap veterans. (These are in no particular order.)

1. Vary your stock: There is literally no minimum or maximum to the number of things you can bring to a food swap. You can totally bring seven heads of lettuce from your garden or two bags of banana chips from your dehydrator. We have found, however, that bringing a few different types of things gets you a variety of items in return. Our first time, we had four different items, this time it was five. We had a few things (like pineapple vodka) that were there to be exchanged for something we really wanted, and a few things that were easy to make (brown butter sea salt chocolate chip cookies) and swapped for items from people with a sweet tooth. If you bring variety, you will receive variety in return.

2. Go as a team: If you have a friend, partner or family member who is also interested in food and is willing to help you barter for delicious items, definitely bring them to this. Even if you have wildly different tastes, you can split up the swap items and go for it on your own. Kristl and I have found it helpful for one of us to stay at our table while the other goes swapping. That way, if anyone comes to us, we can swap with them, and if we want anything in particular, the other person can go directly to that table with items to swap. 

3. Say no if you want to: It's bartering, so you really don't have to agree to every swap. If you aren't seeing a resolution of an offer where all parties involved will go away happy, say no and see if the person is willing to switch things up to get what you have. There are no rules other than be respectful and be kind. Your swapping strategy is up to you.

4. Bring samples: It goes without saying that folks are going to want to know what they are getting themselves into with a swap item. If you are canning a batch of jam, make a half pint jar just for folks to sample. If you are bringing a baked good, chop some of it up and having it sitting on your swap table. Samples are the key to good swapping, because if you are bringing good food to swap, people will know when they taste it.

5. List ingredients: We are in the age of allergies and sensitivities, so it is vital that people know what is in the items you are giving to them. You do not need to go so far as to list ingredients on each container, but on your swap sheet for each item, everything should be fully disclosed.

6. Tag your stuff: We haven't gone so far as to put our website on our swap items (mostly because we are awesome at putting things together at the last minute), but that will be our next step. If you want to be an established swapper, put your name on your stuff. If you have an email or a website, slap it on there. If people really like your items, they may ask you for the recipe or want to see more. At the very least, they will remember that Amy's hot pickled peppers belonged to you, Amy, and then they will want to see what you come up with next.

7. Have fun and be nice:  It's a fun thing. It's not supposed to be stressful or dramatic. You don't need to make people feel bad if you are allergic to their bacon peanut butter. You don't need to make people feel bad if they are allergic to your tomato sauce. Be honest, be kind, and have fun! It's a magical thing to leave the house with stuff you made, and come home with a basket full of items you never even expected. Embrace the magic and we'll see you at the next Chicago food swap.

If you are totally geeking out and want to hear other accounts of how the swap went down, find another account of the June swap here.

And for those of you eager to swap, the dates and locations for the next three swaps have already been posted:

  • August 4 at Green Home Experts in Oak Park. We will return to the site of last August's swap. At this time of year, expect lots of homegrown produce as well as the usual array of prepared foods. Registration for the August swap will open on July 7.
  • September 15 at The Savory Spice Shop in Lincoln Square. This soon-to-be-opened spice store in the bustling Lincoln Sqaure neighborhood will be host for the September swap. We can't wait to check out their new space!
  • October 6 at Peterson Garden Project in Ravenswood Manor. Let us hope for a nice day so we can use both the indoor and outdoor space at Peterson Garden Project's education center, site of last December's swap.

Good luck and we'll hopefully see you swapping in August!

P.S. We didn't link to a recipe for pineapple-infused vodka, but the basic idea is get candied pineapple, chop it up, cover it with mid-grade vodka, let it sit in the fridge for at least a week, but up to a month or more, shaking it every couple days. Drain the pineapple out, taste to see if it needs more sugar, otherwise it's ready for mixing. I like it with ginger syrup and sparkling water. (I do not recommend using bottom shelf vodka for infusing, as it still tastes like bottom shelf vodka after you've infused it.) 

Garden Update: The Setup!

If you have been following us on Instagram, you know we have a lovely 4’x8’ garden plot in Peterson Garden Project’s Vedgewater garden. Vedgewater is at the corner of Broadway and Magnolia and has ~180 plots. The land is on rent from Loyola, and this is their second year in operation. I’m hoping--pretty securely because I’ve seen several groups from Loyola working in the garden--that PGP’s lease on the space will be renewed. This is the closest community garden to our house and it’s almost like having a backyard garden. I started my garden planning back in March. I knew I would be growing things this year, because it was the first time in four years I would not be picking up and moving somewhere else. I got a huge stack of urban/small space/container gardening books out of the library. My favorite of all was definitely Grow Great Grub by Gayla Trail. Briefly, because this was not meant to be a book review post, this book is great because it goes through prepping a raised bed or container garden, the pests you might encounter, and the natural fertilizers you can use. Plus, it has plant-by-plant breakdowns of what you need to know to raise them. It’s super informative, and while I read it cover to cover once, I wanted to reference it so many times after returning it to the library that I just went and bought it.

Check out our seedlings!

Check out our seedlings!

Armed with knowledge, I set about the process of buying seeds and starting seedlings. I got seeds from three sources. First, I found organic heirloom seeds from Kenyon Organics on Etsy. I bought eggplant, cucumber, kale, chard, peppers, broccoli, basil, and three different types of tomatoes. Around the last week of March, I planted tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and broccoli from seed indoors. I used toilet paper rolls as seedling packs, and filled them with organic seeding soil. I had also purchased a seedling pot maker from Burpee, and used that when I ran out of toilet paper rolls. The toilet paper rolls seemed like an awesome idea; it was re-purposing, biodegradable, and about the right size. However, all the toilet paper rolls developed mold on the outside. They also started to unwind, which made watering difficult because the water would just pour out the top. I recommend the pot maker or just saving the containers from store bought seedlings, which is what I will mostly use next year. Kristl has an Ott lamp for crafting which I used as a makeshift grow light. I wasn’t growing that much, so it was the perfect size.

Back to the story... The peppers and eggplants never came up. The tomatoes all sprouted and grew pretty well, as did the broccoli. We went to the orientation before April 22, when the gardens opened. We got a garden plot assigned to us. We were ready. Peterson Garden Project had a giant plant sale the weekend of Mother’s Day. We bought two more tomatoes, four cucumbers, two eggplants, and three pepper plants. I also got two kinds of lettuce and arugula for our porch plant boxes.

Look at that fresh garden

Look at that fresh garden

It was starting to get warm, so I began to get antsy about planting, even though most of my sources were saying to wait until after Memorial day for transplants. I got Kristl and all the seedlings outside to the garden one evening mid May, and we put everything we had in the ground. Later that evening, there was a huge storm, and it really knocked our plants around. Only two tomatoes and two peppers survived from that initial planting. Our plot belonged to someone else last year, so there were strawberries, oregano, and parsley which were wholly unfazed, but it was back to the start for almost everything we planted. Lesson learned.

Luckily, the farm we have our CSA through--Angelic Organics--sent us an email offering free seedlings out at the farm. I also learned that the Bonnie plants sold at Home Depot are raised organically and they have heirloom varieties. I purchased some organic bush bean, beet, and lettuce seeds from Burpee, and calendula (a flower used to speed healing for burns and cuts) from Seed Savers Exchange. We came home from the CSA farm with beets, corn, green onions, and a couple small tomatoes. We grabbed some kale seedlings from Whole Foods, broccoli from Matty K's on Lincoln, and eggplant, tomatoes, and a jalapeno from Home Depot.

By the first of June, we had planted almost everything except the hot weather plants (peppers, eggplant, tomatoes). I took a beginner class from PGP, and they said to try not to plant those types of plants until it’s good and hot or they won’t thrive. So, I didn't put them in until June 10th.  At the moment, I feel like things are going pretty well. All the plants look relatively healthy and all the seeds I have planted have come up. The strawberries have already given us six impossibly delicious, plump berries. We have had enough kale to serve as a vegetable at dinner, and we've been sprinkling fresh oregano into lots of things.

Our little deck garden really grows

Our little deck garden really grows

The lettuces on the porch are going wild! Kristl had a poached egg and arugula sandwich on her sourdough bread and it looked delicious. The real question now is how these hot weather plants will deal with the persistently cool temperatures. We have had some really discouraging moments so far in this growing season, but the best advice I probably got at my beginner’s class was not to get emotionally attached to the vegetables. If they die because of weather or some hungry critter, that is out of my hands. My job is to make sure they are fed, watered and protected from weeds. If they don't make it, I can always plow them under and start over with something new.

Going forward, I will try to give you a garden update every 2-3 weeks. I want you to keep up with the mistakes and victories I am having on the agricultural front. I’m trying to be conscious of mistakes I may be making. I’m not trying to come off as a master gardener (although I would very much like to become one someday). I’m just an amateur trying to grow some food to fill my kitchen. Hopefully, I will learn some tricks to make the produce produced outweigh the cost of seeds, seedlings, and supplies. And hopefully, it will get into the 80's for a couple months so our big yield, hot weather crops will have a fighting chance!

Until next time, happy growing! And eating!

Everything's lookin' good!

Everything's lookin' good!