Thursday, March 25, 2010

Collared Greens

No, that's not a misspelling. This blog isn't about that leafy green staple of southern cuisine. Not specifically anyway. Today, I'm talking about a simple – and biodegradable – means of defence for bedding plants.

As the growing season begins in our new neighbourhood, hubby and I are thinking of little else but this year's garden. We're both keen on natural gardening techniques, anything which helps us achieve a pest- and disease-resistant garden without the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides. We've bought gardening magazines to supplement our book collection, and are researching these and online sources for new seed varieties and planting techniques.

While we make plans, impatiently waiting for warmer weather, some preparations begin. One, given our gardening zone, is to start certain plants indoors. Many long growing season plants (like most of the cabbage family) benefit from a head start. To save a little money, we grow our own bedding plants downstairs. Our other preparation is to save toilet paper rolls. They'll be the first line of defence for those bedding plants.

Seedlings face many dangers. Eventually they must be transitioned outdoors and, if the shock of the transplant isn't enough to wither them, they'll endure changes of temperature, humidity, sunlight and wind. Then there are pests, like cutworms, who are eager to nibble those succulent sprouts. Cutworms are responsible for the destruction of a variety of seedlings and are the bane of many gardeners (Ontario Govt factsheet on Cutworms).

Years ago, we found a simple and effective safeguard. Those aforementioned toilet paper rolls. For weeks now we've been saving those little tubes, much as I once saved newspapers for a larger garden. Toilet paper rolls make perfect little biodegradable protectors against cutworms and, conveniently, they blunt the effects of wind and cool over-night temperatures seedlings face when first transplanted.

Here's how to use the tubes. When it comes time to plant your seedlings into the garden:

  • Remove bedding plant from its germinating container
  • Carefully feed the sprout, top first, into a tube
  • GENTLY feed leaves out the top as you push the soil ball from the bottom until the top of the root mass is mid-way through the paper roll.
  • Plant tube upright, buried halfway at the soil line. The roots will have some protection from underground pests, and the sprouting vegetation is surrounded by a short wall that deters cutworms.

Or, if you've seeded the garden directly, you can also insert toilet paper rolls into the (loosely-packed) soil around small plants. Wait until the first thinning and then insert tubes around the remaining, heartier plants.

These collars may look a little funny for the first couple weeks, but soon foliage obscures them. Once the plants have grown robust, with strong stems and roots, the tubes are dissolving into the soil. By this time, the worst threats are diminishing.

So, you may just want to collar your collard greens, or any other vulnerable vegetables you plant. Start saving those paper tubes now. It's one way to defend your precious seedlings, give them a fighting chance to grow up and become the healthy crops you envision.

Do you have any home-spun, non-chemical gardening tips and ideas? Please share those suggestions with us!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Leftovers: Waste or Surplus?

Some people toss them. Others don't mind them; they just don't know what to do with them. Me? I plan on them. Leftovers – our favourite "fast food" – also help keep grocery spending on budget.

By planning for and making the most of leftovers, food needn't be sent to the landfill. Meal-planning is easier and preparation faster, simply by using those excess cooked foods. A few extra minutes of preparation on the first day and there's enough for (at least) one more meal. Most leftovers are used as ingredients in dishes which cook rapidly, so cooking processes are reduced for the second meal and that saves on energy costs. Any way you look at it, leftovers provide some thrifty dinners.

And there are so many good things to make with leftovers! Par-boiled and chilled potatoes make the crispiest hash browns. The best stir-fried rice – one that doesn't become sticky – is made with cooked, cold rice. A surplus of pared veggies makes handy snack food. Soups and stews not only stretch for a few meals, their texture and flavours often improve during the chilling process, as natural gelatins are activated and seasonings fuse. Leftover chicken breast or pork chops, julienned, make "topping" enough for two medium pizzas, or a hearty salad, or an excellent addition to stir-fries or ramen-noodle soup. Leftover turkey or roast beef are great in casseroles such as tetrazzini or one-pot pilafs. If you're fortunate to have spare gravy, it can seed a sauce that will convert those leftover roast meats into scrumptious pot pies. Nobody will guess they're eating leftovers!

To make fabulous fare from last night's excess, you'll need to build your own repertoire of recipes, ideally ones which allow ingredient substitutions. Pizza – my favourite use of leftover chicken – always delights. It's both a satisfying and economic meal. Home-made pizza dough requires fore-thought – to allow for rising time – but the smell of fresh-baked dough, and the pleasing texture and taste of the crust, makes it worth the minimal effort. If you like a tomato sauce base, you can make a simple sauce on the stove-top. During winter months, we don't have access to good cooking tomatoes so we use a few tablespoons, per pizza, of a jarred spaghetti sauce. (Each jar, once open, we use within its shelf-life as a condiment or ingredient in other dishes, marinades, and/or sauces – these, too, I plan ahead.) Here's my simple dough recipe for one, medium-sized pizza crust:

  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2-1/4 teaspoon yeast (or one, 2.5 oz. Packet)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1-1/2 cup flour

Dissolve sugar in warm water. Add yeast and allow it to develop (approximately 5 minutes.) Add oil, stir to combine, and pour into a mixing bowl. Add 1/2 cup flour and beat until smooth. Add the salt, stir well to blend, and then add the remaining flour, as much as required. Knead on a lightly floured surface for 5-10 minutes, or until dough is smooth and elastic. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and set aside to rise for 45-50 minutes. Punch down dough, knead until smooth, and allow it to rest for 5 minutes before shaping. Once topped, this 12-inch pizza crust cooks in about 10 minutes in a hot (425-450 degree) oven.

Even the smallest amount of leftover food need not be wasted. You'd be surprised by the delicious meals that can come from a hodgepodge of leftover ingredients. Once you build your collection of recipes, your own family favourites, you'll begin to see these "fast foods" as desirable surplus. Be warned, though. This process is addictive! Soon, you'll be intending leftovers, too. Meal-planning quickly becomes a tag-team activity, featuring first meal and its progeny.

How about you? What's your favourite recipe for leftovers?