Big News

Ok, now I can finally reveal why I have been too busy to update the blog as frequently as I used to...

I had been working on applying to PhD programs, and yesterday I was accepted into the Animal Behavior graduate group at UC Davis!

If I go there, I will be studying dairy cattle behavior and welfare.

I am still interviewing for two other programs, but I am very very excited about being admitted to UC Davis.

Sustainable / conscientious agriculture, along with animals (I have two cats and a horse) are my main passions, and I really look forward to studying issues related to these areas full-time!


Kombucha on Tap!

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about my addiction to GT's Kombucha, a fermented beverage that I stopped consuming because the company seemed to glorify the amount of glass container waste it generated. Customers can return used bottles to Whole Foods instead of their local recycling centers, as Whole Foods returns all glass bottles to their local vendors. Glass milk bottles from local dairies have labels indicating that they sterilize and refill their containers, as all dairies did back in the days of milkmen. Los Angeles-based GT's, however, was shipping their containers back to recycling centers.

Last night I went to the Glendale Whole Foods for a quick chair massage, and decided to treat myself to a bottle of GT's Kombucha afterward. As I was checking out, a Whole Foods employee informed me that as of about two weeks ago, they now have select flavors of GT's Kombucha on tap! At the Kombucha bar, 16 ounces is $3.49 compared to $3.69 for the 16-oz sealed bottle. They also have 12-oz and 24-oz options at the bar, and once you purchase a freshly filled bottle from the bar, you can bring it back for refills. Yesterday, they had the Gingerade, Grape, and Superfruits flavors on tap.

Kombucha is definitely still a splurge, but now that I know that I won't be purchasing a new glass bottle with each drink, I plan to treat myself more often than once every few months. Thank you, GT's and Whole Foods, for creating this option!


Happy Thanksgiving!

Hope everyone is having a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend! :)

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday - a time for family and friends to come together and feast!

The photo above is the beginning of a cranberry-pomegranate sauce - a delicious recipe I found in Sunset magazine (scroll down to see the finished product).

This year, I have a big project going on, so I was unable to return home to the Midwest this weekend. However, my mother came to visit me in Burbank last week, and we celebrated early-Thanksgiving with a few friends.

The five of us had a real feast, complete with a 3.7 lb bone-in turkey breast, pancetta-sourdough-apple stuffing, cranberry-pomegranate sauce, roasted sweet potatoes with apples, green beans with lemon breadcrumbs, roquefort-spinach-leek casserole, mixed rice with cream of mushroom, apple pie, and three types of ice cream...!

The spread:

Some of the leftovers and extra ingredients became these cute little pot pies the next day:

I spent Thanksgiving day with my gardener friend in Altadena, who hosted a party of 13. Many of the dishes utilized homegrown ingredients, including eggs, lemons, and squash from her garden.

I brought a fresh batch of cranberry-pomegranate sauce:

And apple pie from my mother's recipe:

Here are a few tidbits of what I've been up to during my silence the last couple months:
  • I moved next door to a one-bedroom apartment (owned by the same landlord). A whole glorious 450 sq ft to myself - a 50% upgrade over my previous 290 sq ft studio :)
  • The backyard garden at the apartment complex is now all mine, as the neighbor I was working on it with was the one who vacated my now-apartment. Last week I sowed the raised beds with lettuce, spinach, and mixed greens. They are supposed to take 7-10 days to germinate, so I've been eagerly watering and waiting for the seeds to sprout.

  • My new apartment has a private balcony, where the Bokashi bin now lives, as well as...

  • My new worm bin! I am now the proud owner of a full-sized three-tier "Wriggly Wranch", courtesy of the director of Glendale's recycle center. We met at a party for the Altadena Heritage Society over the summer.

  • I'm still helping in the CSA garden in Altadena. The tomatoes, particularly the Yellow Pear variety, did very well in the late summer, especially one week in October when it rained unusually early for SoCal.

  • We've been planting the winter garden now at the CSA with onions, garlic, greens, potatoes, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and more.
More detailed updates and pictures to come... It's going to be a busy next few weeks, so hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season!


Easy Pizza Recipe

For my friend's most recent CSA delivery last weekend, we harvested tomatoes of several varieties, summer and winter squash, basil, bell peppers, and tomatillos.

I took a few baskets of tomatoes and sprigs of basil home, and was inspired to use them as pizza toppings.

If you've ever had Domino's crispy thin-crust pizza, you're aware that it's infinitely tastier than their original recipe. I replicated the crispy crust at home using a shortcut, with delicious results!

  1. Toast whole-wheat flour tortillas in a toaster oven or oven until they are firm and dry, like big crackers.

  2. Spread pizza sauce on each tortilla (I love Trader Joe's pizza sauce in the glass jars - tastier than the version sold in tubs in the refrigerated section)

  3. Generously heap on shredded cheese - I recommend something more flavorful and pungent than mozzarella, for instance fontina or parmesan

  4. Sprinkle with herbs, such as oregano, dried red pepper flakes, garlic powder, etc.

  5. Top with fresh garden vegetables, such as sliced tomatoes and basil leaves

  6. Pop back into the oven for a few minutes to melt the cheese

I often like to host pizza-making parties, using either dough made from scratch, or Trader Joe's refrigerated pizza dough. From now on, however, I'm going to switch to using tortillas. The advantages:

  • No hassle rolling out dough, which can be somewhat time-consuming and messy

  • Guaranteed crispy crust! No more soggy or chewy crusts, even with generous amounts of sauce and cheese.

  • The tortillas are 100% whole wheat

  • This recipe so speedy, it makes for a suitable easy weeknight dinner.

A pizza I made, topped with fresh garden tomatoes

A white pizza my mom made, with no sauce, but abundant tomatoes, bell peppers, and hot peppers from her garden in Illinois :)


Vegetable Juice

I just wanted to break my long silence with a quick follow-up to a post from April about juicing vegetables.

As I mentioned in that post, although I am thoroughly enjoying the process of growing vegetables, my palate has been slower to catch up. I just lack a natural "talent" for gnawing on large piles of veggies and finding them delicious. In order to get a sufficient volume vegetables into my diet, I decided to try juicing.

My first experiment with a borrowed Krups juicer produced 40 ounces of juice using:
  • Baby spinach, roughly 1 lb. (< $1.00)
  • 1 cucumber ($0.50)
  • 4 carrots ($0.20)
  • 2 oranges (free)
  • 1 grapefruit (free)

The free citrus came from my gardener friend, and the vegetables were procured cheaply from Golden Farms (an Armenian grocery store in Glendale).

A 64-oz bottle of vegetable juice from Trader Joe's costs $3.79 - the ingredients for my juice would be about $2.70 for the same amount. Granted, it did take time and effort for me to make the juice and clean the juicer. However, the benefits of making it at home include freshness, and the knowledge of exactly what went into it. The first ingredient in Trader Joe's juice is water, used to reconstitute some powdered ingredients. Although vegetables also contain a lot of water, I know that my juice was not further diluted, and everything was fresh.

Adding fruit to my mix was definitely key for flavor. The result was a muddy green beverage that tasted of mild, grassy grapefruit juice. I included a few strawberries in my second batch of juice, which brought it up to the level of downright deliciousness!

I liked using spinach for its nutritional density, but it was the least convenient item to juice, as I had to turn the juicer off while I wadded together small bunches of leaves using both hands (or else little leaves would go flying as I tried to stuff them into the small opening of the machine). Cucumbers and carrots were especially convenient to put through the juicing machine - though these are vegetables that I actually already enjoy nibbling on raw.

I poured the finished juice into empty 16 oz. glass bottles to bring to work. I only made 2.5 days' worth at a time, as there are no preservatives in the juice.

* * *

I'm still helping out in my friend's CSA garden on the weekends. The main job recently has been to wrangle the overgrown tomato plants and lift them off the ground with twine strung between tall stakes.

We have also been busy harvesting for her CSA deliveries! The swiss chard is unfortunately infested with aphids, but we've still got kale and some kohlrabi going, as well as leeks, zucchini, and more peaches!

I have pictures of the garden from June and July, which I will post later.


Sunday PM: Harvesting and Delivering for the CSA

Sunday was a big day of gardening for me! After my neighbor and I built raised beds for the garden we're starting behind our apartment buildings, I went to my friend's house in Altadena to help in her garden.

My first task, as usual, was to clean the chicken coop. It went very smoothly, as we were able to tempt all ten hens to leave the coop for their adjacent enclosure - using stale tortillas. My friend actually has eleven hens, but only ten live in the coop. The little black hen, "Suzie Q," is a different breed, and much smaller than the others. They tend to pick on her, so Suzie Q gets to live outside the coop, truly free-range! I rarely see her, but she was out and about in the garden on Sunday. Here she is below, laughing at her confined would-be-tormentors!

The garden has been growing fast, and we were able to harvest many things on Sunday. Look how far the chard has come since April:

We left the chard to grow a bit longer, but I began pulling up beets. Below, you can see the beet greens, with curly kale leaves in the background. The kale is ready to go, too, but the CSA members don't care for it, so I'll harvest it for personal use next weekend.

Many of the beets were much larger this season than my friend had previously produced. It's hard to tell how big they will be until you pull them out, but some of the tops were already bulging above ground, which gave me a clue! I swished the beets in a bucket of water and pulled off any small, brown, scraggly leaves in order to make them presentable for the CSA customers :)  

I actually found the green plastic laundry bin on the curb a few houses down as I was driving to my friend's house that day.  One side is slightly cracked, but overall it's in good shape.  We hosed it off and scrubbed it a little, and now it's a perfect vegetable-harvesting crate!

I also pulled up a bunch of medium-sized carrots, swished them in a bucket, and cut off the tops. While they look gorgeous with the lush leaves, the CSA members never actually eat them - so I saved them (along with any particularly gnarly-looking carrots) as a treat for my grateful horse!

There are plenty more carrots ready for harvesting, but the afternoon was wearing on, and we already had a lot of other fruits and vegetables ready to deliver. We picked every last orange lingering on the tree, as well as a few lemons.

The biggest part of the afternoon was spent harvesting peaches! The little tree out front was heavy with small fruit. Although they were not ripe by normal standards, they needed to be picked before they were too soft, or else they would rupture while being transported.

We harvested the peaches in "upcycled" wire baskets that my boyfriend had donated to the garden from a broken shelving system:

In all, we delivered almost 30 kilograms (more than 60 pounds) of peaches to the CSA members! That's not counting the basket of "rejects" that we kept for ourselves.

Here's a shot of the beets, oranges, lemons, and some fava beans, ready for the CSA members to come pick up. There were also a few heads of lettuce, artichokes and kohlrabi, not shown.

The CSA consists of 8 families that all live in the same neighborhood of Pasadena. My friend leaves a list so that they each know how much of each type of item to grab when they come to pick up their produce. There is a scale for bulk items like the fava beans, while larger fruits and vegetables like the lettuce are indicated by number of units.

This was only her second CSA delivery of the season - but there will be many more to come. Hopefully I'll be there to document and take photos :)

Sunday AM: Raised Beds

On Sunday morning, my neighbor and I got to work on the vegetable garden we're starting in the yard of the vacant guest house behind our buildings' shared parking lot.

Two weekends ago, we had intended to start covering the empty plot with aged horse manure and wood shavings to begin enriching the hard soil. It turns out that the reason the ground was so hard was because our landlord had filled it with decomposed granite (the same material used in horse riding arenas in our area). We decided that we would make life easier by building small raised beds. Since we have free access to aged compost, we'll continue to add it to the garden to use as mulch and ground covering, but building raised beds would allow us to get started planting right away.

We used Mel Bartholomew's All New Square Foot Gardening book as a reference, and built two 4' x 4' raised beds out of wood. The beds will be only 6" deep, which Mel claims will be sufficient for all but long carrots. The potting mixture is equal parts peat moss, vermiculite, and compost. We used our free compost, but purchased the peat moss and vermiculite. Vermiculite, like Perlite, is a mineral used to improve soil drainage. It's more expensive, but not as lightweight, so it won't float away as easily as Perlite (which for a long time I thought was actually styrofoam!).

Here are some photos of our new raised beds, at around 1pm. They do get some sun in the hours surrounding noon, and we plan to prune back the tree branches soon to allow our future garden more sunlight.

Over Memorial Day weekend, we plan to add grids so that we can easily visualize each square foot. Mel recommends using thin strips of wood or even old venetian blind slats for durability, but we plan to scavenge plastic twine from our horses' hay bales.

We are also going to make a simple compost enclosure using chicken wire. Now I'll have three types of composting operations at home - Bokashi, vermicomposting, and traditional yard waste composting!

For our first planting, we plan to purchase seedlings. Meanwhile, we'll start the cooler season's plants from seed indoors.

I use Smartpak supplements for my horse*, and recently saw a neat idea for reusing the empty plastic wells to start seedlings. I wish I could find the photo!

*Since I have only one horse, it's actually not more economical to buy bulk containers of supplements, since they lose effectiveness after being exposed to air over time, and I can't use them up fast enough. Also, the Smartpaks are made of recycled plastic. I would prefer to reduce and reuse rather than simply recycling my empty containers, and now I have a good use for them!


Worm Bin: Take 2

I now have not one, but two mini-vermicomposting bins ready to house worms!  

After my initial failed attempt to construct a small worm bin from some clear Sterilite containers, I took a trip to my local OSH and found the small Rubbermaid Roughneck tubs I was looking for.  They were relatively pricey ($5.99 each for the 3-gallon size, while the huge 18-gallon size was only $8.99), but they were the perfect dimensions (16"L x 10.75"W x 7"H), and opaque as well.  

I picked up three tubs and lids - the worm bin only needs one lid, but I got spares in case I messed up while drilling again!  The Rubbermaid material is soft and easy to drill.  I successfully made 1/4" holes in the bottom of two tubs (the third has no holes, as it goes on the bottom to collect liquids), and 1/8" holes on the sides and lid.

My new worm bin fits perfectly under the kitchen sink.  I filled the top layer with shredded newspaper - and now I'm ready to bring in some worms!

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I actually have two homemade worm bins now.  My mother read my recent blog post about how the Sterilite containers I initially bought to construct the bins cracked while I was drilling them.  I hadn't thrown them out yet, and she encouraged me to just patch them up with duct tape.  

Moms do know best!  I bandaged the more broken tub, and carefully finished drilling holes.  The sides and lid were actually pretty easy to drill - it's the bottoms of the tubs that were the most brittle. 

I would still recommend going for opaque Rubbermaid Roughneck containers instead of clear Sterilite tubs if you have the choice.  The Roughnecks are a lot easier to drill, plus the opaque material will protect the worms from light, so if you wish, you can store your worm bin somewhere out in the open rather than under the sink.

I know I'll be able to make use of both bins.  Maybe I'll put some worms in each and see if I notice any difference between how they perform!


More on How Bokashi Works

I just did some more quick digging online to follow up on my post from a few months ago on how Bokashi composting works.  

It's still an issue of constant confusion for my friends when I try to describe why I bother to buy Bokashi bran to help dispose of my kitchen waste.  Why not just bury it directly?  Why do I have to buy a product to help me pickle it first?

As I mentioned in my older post, my understanding is that two-stage composting using this method of fermenting, then burying waste, is a lot faster than traditional outdoor aerobic composting.  Additionally, this system allows you to compost all kitchen scraps, and not just vegetable matter.

Below are a couple of explanations that I find helpful.  The first, from the Seattle Post-Intellgiencer, basically reiterates what I said above - but with one important addition, which I've underlined:

"EM bokashi is a lot faster than traditional composting and works in an entirely different way.  Instead of rotting, bokashi ferments food waste, then breaks it down into enzymes and amino acids directly usable by plant roots.  The fermentation stage takes about two weeks, and the composting phase takes between two to four weeks."

I also found a comment thread from a blog post by author Amy Stewart, where a representative of EM America (a Bokashi bran and bucket producer) said the following:

"Materials actually break down faster when they are pre-treated with bokashi. The fermentation breaks down the lignin in the vegetables. Added benefits are that during the fermentation vitamins, minerals, and amino acids are produced and secreted in forms that plants will readily suck up. You can see growth spurts when plant roots hit the bokashi buried in the soil!"

To me, these quotes clarify that Bokashi composting is advantageous to simply burying food scraps in that the decomposition is much faster, and the presence of beneficial nutrients for plants is increased by the fermentation stage of two-stage Bokashi  composting.

DIY Worm Bin: Failure to Launch!

Today, tragedy struck my attempt at making my own mini vermicomposting bin.

I had excitedly shredded newspaper into strips to use as bedding material, and had cleaned out an area under my kitchen sink where the worm bin could stay away from sunlight, and have a bit of airflow around it.

Then, I borrowed a drill from my neighbor so that I could create 1/4" drainage holes in the bottom of the top two nested tubs, and 1/8" air holes on the sides and lid as well (as suggested by this DIY tutorial). 

I had a very hard time with the first three drainage holes, and had to apply a lot more pressure than I expected.  Upon trying to make a fourth hole, the bottom of the tub cracked, and a little piece of plastic even came out entirely!  The difficulty turned out to be because I had the drill set to "reverse" :-P 

I decided not to worry too much about it, since I only needed two tubs to start with anyway - one for the worms, and one under it to collect the drained worm juice.  The third tub only comes into play when all the bedding and scraps have been converted to castings in the original worm layer.  I figured I would just go to Target later and get another tub.

I corrected the direction of rotation on the drill, and began drilling drainage holes in another tub. I quickly learned that I didn't need as much pressure now that the drill was working in the proper direction, but I guess I weakened the plastic with the force I used in making the first hole, and this tub cracked as well!

I decided to just save the third tub and its intact lid for some other purpose around the house.  

Back in the fall when I made my own Bokashi bucket, the plastic buckets I used held up just fine to drilling.

If you're trying to make your own worm bin, I would NOT recommend the Sterilite "RE-organize ShowOffs" for this purpose!  I had high hopes for these Target tubs due to their modest shoebox-like size, but the plastic seems too brittle to withstand drilling.

Now I am back to square one, and in search of small containers I can use to build my worm bin.  I know that people have had success with Rubbermaid brand tubs, which are made of a different plastic than the Sterilite containers - with the added benefit of being opaque.

I found this 3-gallon Rubbermaid tub online that would probably be small enough, and is marketed as "shatter-resistant."  Does anyone know where these are available for purchase?  I haven't seen this size at either Target or Home Depot around here. (Oddly, one of the top Google hits for the 3-gallon roughneck tub is for Blain's Farm & Fleet, which we have in my hometown in Illinois.  Unfortunately, I'm now 2000 miles from there).