Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Canning and Balcony Gardening

Now that I'm not writing weekly posts, I've had time to do some more long-term and or involved projects with local food. This weekend was a banner one for such endeavors: not only did I purchase and plant some organic herbs and tomatoes on my balcony, I also tried my hand at making and canning strawberry jam. This is my first real attempt at both after a half-hearted and failed stab at herb gardening last summer. I know I have some tweaking to do but here's my start and I shall update you on my progress throughout the summer:

Balcony Gardening
Contrary to popular belief, us urbanites have lots of options for growing our own food in small places. As long as you have a balcony (or a very understanding management company or HOA), you can plant in large pots or balcony planters. I have a second story unit which faces southeast and thus gets a moderate amount of morning sun then a lot of afternoon sun. With this in mind, I headed to the Atherton Market on Saturday morning to see what would grow well on my balcony.

I split my buying into two sections: herbs which I think will love the partial sun on the eastern-facing part of my balcony and tomatoes that can handle the full afternoon sun on the south side. I selected Thyme, Rosemary, Oregano, a small Basil and Parsley, one Roma tomato and one Early Girl tomato.

I planted the herbs in a long hanging balcony planter and the tomatoes in larger pots. The Oregano was ready to be replanted by itself so it got its own pot as well. I filled in the pots with Black Kow potting soil, a brand made from cow manure and compost using minimal petroleum products and watered the whole set. Fingers crossed my new wards survive the unpredictable May weather!

Even our cat was excited about the new garden!

Strawberry Jam Canning for Dummies
If you haven't heard of or read The Pioneer Woman's blog, you must do so immediately. She has tons of no fuss, simple recipes that use minimal special tools or equipment. I've made and tried several of her desserts (her Blackberry Cobbler and Cinnamon Buns are always huge hits) and she has great practical tips for the non-professional cook. So it's only fitting that when I Googled "easy strawberry jam canning", her site was the top of the hit list.

I have always been scared of canning because I thought it took fancy pots and secret, ancient knowledge that only grandmothers still possess. Boy was I wrong. All you need is a huge pot, some sturdy tongs, and fresh (or overripe) fruit. I won't recount the whole recipe because you can find it on her website here but suffice to say it only took an hour or so to make 7 jars of delicious strawberry jam. This method would work for other berries as well and I will continue to experiment as our local options become available in the market.

It may seem like I spent my whole weekend with my hands in the dirt or slaving over a boiling pot of strawberry goodness. The reality is that I didn't - I ran a 5K, attended a baby shower, volunteered for several hours, coached a swim lesson and did a 10 mile bike ride and still had the energy to do all of this in one weekend. With just an hour here and there, I put up enough jam to carry me through several months of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and planted herbs and tomatoes to boot!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Like many liberal arts undergraduates mildly if not avidly interested in the environment, I read some of Barbara Kingsolver's work in college. I even had the great honor of getting to hear her speak on campus my senior year in support of a ground breaking (no pun intended) organization, Rails to Trails. Little did I know that she and I are actually kindred spirits.

In her hugely popular book, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Kingsolver chronicles a year spent growing and finding food for her and her family with one limitation: it must be available  either on their farm or within the county. With few exceptions, they worked on their farm full time, growing all the food they would need for the whole year supplementing with produce and protein purchased from their local farmers market.

The book is literally full of amazing facts, ideas and thoughts on eating locally and how it helps not only your body but your community and the environment. Many of these thoughts and facts I've shared with you before and here are some others that jumped out at me while reading:
  1. Transporting food is invariably the biggest energy-consuming part of the farm to fork process. If every American replaced just one meal on one day with locally-grown and produced ingredients, the US would save millions of barrels of oil.
  2. The average ingredient in a grocery store has traveled further than the average American family does on summer vacation (including flights)
  3. For products grown in third world countries like coffee and bananas, the actual farmers often make less than $1 per day. The rest of the profits go the farming conglomerates and transportation companies that support the practice of monoculture that can strip land of its necessary minerals.
But the book isn't just facts about where food comes from. It's an emotional journey being told by a mom who is trying to feed her family while supporting her local farmers, create minimal impact on the land, and also provide nourishing, wholesome and interesting meals. The book is interspersed with sidebars by her husband regarding the politics and big business aspects of industrial farming and insights and recipes from her teenage daughter on a local living lifestyle.

For anyone wondering about where their food comes from and whether that matters, this is the book for you. You'll come away with a renewed appreciation for the work that goes into our food. I also closed this book emboldened by the sense that I can grow some of my own food (even in my limited space) and that this whole local food mission I've been on for a year and a half really does matter.