11/27/2009

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!

9/16/2009

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 :)

7/17/2009

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.

5/18/2009

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!

5/12/2009

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!

5/10/2009

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).

5/09/2009

Burbank Farmer's Market


This morning I went to the Burbank Farmer's Market around 10am, and had trouble finding parking.  I was shocked at how much more congested the area was than last weekend.  The streets surrounding the market were blocked off, and it turned out there was a big street fair that combined the annual Burbank Fire Department's "Fire Service Day" with other events.

My gardener friend is out of town this weekend, and I missed the South Pasadena Farmer's Market, so I picked up a dozen eggs this morning at the Burbank market ($2.50).  The previous sentence reflects my order of preference for where I obtain my eggs.  

The eggs at the Burbank market are from Mike & Son's Eggs in nearby Ontario.  They are simply marketed as being "chemical and hormone free" - suggesting they come from caged hens.  In searching for more information on Mike & Son's Eggs, I found that this fellow local LA blogger shares my preference for free range eggs instead - both in terms of ethics and egg quality.

I also picked up two cucumbers for $0.75 each, a bunch of carrots with tops for $1.00 (for the horse), three small avocados for $1.00, and five large carrots (for me) and three small tomatoes for $2.60 total.  My total spending this morning was $8.60. 
 
This week, I noticed several vendors offering sweet corn for the first time this year.  Many vendors are still carrying asparagus, and broccoli, which are done for the season in my friend's garden.  I also saw a lot of cauliflower, parsley, beets, leeks, artichokes, brussels sprouts, zucchini, potatoes, sweet potatoes, celery, and of course lots of strawberries and citrus.  

I did not do a good job with my menu planning this week.  I had intended to browse around the farmer's market and remind myself of what was in season or coming into season, buy a couple kinds of vegetables, and work out a dish from there - while not buying so much that it would go to waste.  
I went over to a friend's house last week.  She was going out of town the next day, so she loaded me up with things from her fridge that would expire in her absence.  Some of it was already going bad.  I managed to sort the items into things I could still eat, things I would feed to my horse*, things I would freeze and save for my worm bin, and lastly, items that would go in the Bokashi bucket.  When I buy fresh produce, I obviously want to eat as much of it as I can, and let the animals (and microbes) do disposal duty - and not buy so much that it goes directly to compost. 

While I did get fresh veggies for snacking on at work (the carrots and cucumbers), I somehow left the farmer's market this morning without any asparagus, zucchini, or other vegetables I could use in cooking a main dish!  I got too carried away with taking notes, and lost sight of my goal of finding ingredients to cover my week's meals.

I was trying to avoid picking a dish from my cookbooks and going on a scavenger hunt for ingredients that were out of season, imported, or expensive.  But today's (lack of) strategy did not work for me.  Before next week's markets, I need to browse my cookbooks and mark recipes that use ingredients that I know are in season, and make a shopping list.  

While I was browsing the market today, I also took a closer look at the information on the Burbank market's cheese vendor.  Spring Hill Cheese is located in Petaluma, near San Francisco, and about 400 miles from Los Angeles.  I was pleased to be able to find additional information about Spring Hill's farming practices online, at the "Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture" (CUESA)site.  The cheese is produced in-house from the milk of Jersey cows who freely graze on pasture from January - July.  The feed they consume during the dry months is also grown on-site.  I will definitely be buying more cheese from this vendor.

For reviews of farmer's markets in other regions, check out the Farmer's Market Report, too!

* In case anyone needed clarification - my horse gets plenty of his own hay and grains daily.  The things I save for him (like pieces of watermelon rind and apple cores) are just treats! They are never frozen, or kept in the fridge longer than a couple days - unlike the scraps I save for the Bokashi or worm bins.

5/06/2009

Bucket Emptying: 3rd cycle

Last night I finally got my Bokashi cycle moving again, after a temporary backlog. My freezer was about to explode!

My landlord recently gave me permission to start a vegetable garden on the premises. Last Saturday evening, my gardener friend came over and gave me some suggestions for the plot. The ground is very hard and barren (surprisingly, there aren't any weeds), so we watered it before trying to dig in. The water initially pooled up and started flowing downhill, so we turned off the water and let the puddle soak for more than an hour.

When we returned, the water had been absorbed, and we stuck a spading fork in to see whether we could actually break ground. Thankfully, we were relieved to find that it was indeed soil at least a foot deep, and not concrete!

My gardener friend advised that we cover the plot with as much compost as possible, both as a mulch to retain moisture, as well as to attract beneficial worms to come loosen and enrich the soil. She also suggested that we prune back some of the branches from the trees surrounding the plot, to allow the vegetables some sun. Shade-tolerant plants that we're considering growing include greens, cucumbers, and potatoes, but we'd like to give them at least some sunlight.

This Sunday, a neighbor and I plan to collect some aged horse manure and stall bedding to mulch the plot. We both board horses in the neighborhood, so we have a convenient, local source for free compost. After we let the plot rest for a while (keeping it moist with periodic watering), we will prune back the trees. I want to keep the shade cover for now, to reduce evaporation - especially since the weather is starting to warm up a lot!

In any event, last night I decided to empty Bokashi Bucket #3 which has been sitting, full, in my kitchen since March 31. This time, instead of transferring it to my terra cotta planter, I decided to bury the waste straight into the ground, as various Bokashi resources have suggested.

I didn't have the liberty to do this before, as I had no access to an empty plot of dirt. Now I do have an empty plot of dirt - and one that desperately needs enrichment from compost!

Breaking ground to bury my compost was very difficult, even though I watered first. I ended up using the same spot where we had tested the ground with the spading fork last weekend. My hole was not quite a foot deep, but we managed to fit the contents of the Bokashi bucket (interspersed with thin layers of dirt), cover it completely, and tamp it down firmly. Hopefully it won't get unearthed by curious neighborhood animals right away!

I'm hoping to continue burying my waste directly in the ground from now on. The plot is large, and I'm sure we can dedicate a section for composting purposes. This will allow me to keep my Bokashi cycle going more continuously, rather than waiting for the material in the planter to finish decomposing before I can empty the next bucket.

Now I can put my planter to good use growing basil. Not only do I use fresh basil frequently for Italian dishes, but my my mother also recently recounted a nice anecdote about my late grandmother's fondness for the herb.  The Sweet Basil variety isn't readily available in Taiwan, where she lived, so my mother brought her seeds to grow her own potted plants. So now when I plant basil, I will think of her :) Happy Mother's Day, everyone!

5/02/2009

Worm Bin Reconsidered

I recently became re-inspired to explore vermicomposting, partially due to reading the Bokashi Slope blog. I had previously ruled out keeping a worm bin in my studio apartment due to space constraints, but I am now planning to build my own worm bin in smaller dimensions than the prefabricated tubs tend to come in.

I am certainly happy with the results of my Bokashi composting so far, but the backlog of food scraps in the freezer (which are waiting to be added to my Bokashi tub, which is waiting to be emptied into my outdoor planter, which is waiting to be taken to the garden)...(phew!)...has been one factor leading me to reexamine other apartment composting options. Another factor is that I just have a natural curiosity about other types of composting, and would like to see how well I could keep a worm bin going.

Today I bought three small nesting tubs (for $4 each) and a matching lid from Target. The tubs are each about 8"W x 12"L x 6"H, with the bottom of each layer resting 1-1/2" above the one below it. The side handles flip up and down, so the lid unlatches easily, which will make it more convenient for adding fresh food scraps frequently. My homemade Bokashi bucket's lid is very difficult to open, which is actually good because that means it has a tight seal, but it also makes it inconvenient to open it frequently to add scraps - which is why I store scraps in the freezer and only add them to the bucket about once a week.

I read through this tutorial on putting together a homemade worm bin for some guidance. It specifies that you should use an opaque container, but all the opaque bins I've seen at both Target and Home Depot are way too large for my apartment. So I'm planning to keep it somewhere dark, like under the kitchen sink.

My next step is to borrow a drill in order to create ventilation holes, shred some bedding, and get some worms!

5/01/2009

LA Farmer's Markets: South Pasadena & Burbank

Thursday evening after work, I made my now-routine stop by the South Pasadena Farmer's Market. This week my mission was very specific, and I did not stop to browse as I had on previous visits, because I planned to check out the Burbank Farmer's Market on Saturday.

The South Pasadena market is laid out in a T-shape, with the cooked-food vendors lining both sides of the base of the "T", and the fresh produce vendors branching out to form the top of the "T". At the intersection is the largest produce tent - the vendor from whom I bought Swiss chard and heirloom tomatoes previously. Their tent has appeal due to both the wide variety of vegetables they offer, and also the way they merchandise their products. Every type of vegetable has its own laminated description card with the price clearly shown - very helpful!

This week I was in search of zucchini to use in making zucchini bread. They had a bin of baby zucchini labeled at $2 per pound, with some much larger zucchini on the side. I asked the vendor to weigh one of the larger zucchinis for me, and to my shock he said that the big ones were only $3 each - even though they were clearly over 1.5 pounds each. I happily bought a humongous one (see photo below - it was the size and weight of an infant), along with two one-dollar bags of basil, and a small red onion, which he threw in for free!

I also made a quick stop by the J&J Grass-Fed Beef tent to pick up a couple one-pound packs of ground beef ($5 per pound). One of the packs was for my gardener friend, who plans to make a goulash. I had also told a co-worker about the beef last week, which he bought to add to a soup. He gave it a big thumbs up for taste and texture! This stand has become one of my favorites, along with Bill's Bees, as both offer a unique and superior product.

When I returned home, I noticed that this week, the little bags of basil had labels on them that showed the vendor's website, along with a claim that they were "Beyond Organic - 100% Sustainable!" That's certainly quite an assertion! I went to the Jaime Farms website, and while there were some nice blurbs about the qualities of each type of vegetable they grow, there was unfortunately no information on their farming practices, and what makes those methods sustainable...

Saturday morning I went to the Burbank Farmer's Market for the first time! It's held in a parking lot at the intersection of Orange Grove and Third Street, from 8:00am - 12:30pm. Almost all of the tents were produce or flower vendors, in contrast to the cooked-food/street fair focus of the South Pasadena market.

J&J Grass-Fed Beef was there, although the stand was attended by a different man than the one who is always in South Pasadena on Thursdays. There was a larger number of produce tents offering more than one type of crop - a much better selection than South Pasadena. There was also a cheese vendor and an egg seller.

There was a very long line for the eggs, which were $2.10 - $2.50 a dozen, or $3.50 for 20 eggs. This price was better than the $3.00 / dozen for Jaime Farms' eggs at the South Pasadena market. However, there was nothing indicating that the Burbank vendor's eggs were free-range - they were local, but simply labeled as being from chickens fed "natural feed." We bought 40 eggs anyway, since we were preparing for a party, but for my regular needs I will probably be sticking to my gardening friend's truly free-range eggs, or Jaime Farms' eggs, which also claim to be free-range.

I also picked up three types of cheese - white cheddar, goat cheese with sage, and smoked gouda - for $16 total. This vendor's tent had a laminated card indicating the mileage between their farm and Los Angeles, and some information about their practices. Next time I return to the market, I'll be sure to take better notes so I can report back in more detail!

In addition, we picked up a half-flat (6 baskets) of strawberries for only $9, a bunch of carrots for $1.25, potatoes for $1.25 / pound, tomatoes for $2.25 / pound, and a $2 bunch of asparagus. Our haul cost us $39.25 - very reasonable considering half that amount was gourmet cheese!

I definitely plan to return to the Burbank farmer's market. I liked that there was a wide selection of produce, as well as locally produced cheese. However, none of the vendors seemed to offer heirloom tomatoes, and I really like the ones from Jaime Farms. I also like Bill's Bees, which is always at the South Pasadena market, and wasn't in Burbank today. I might not visit both markets every week, but intend to visit each on a regular basis from now on.

For reviews of farmer's markets in other areas, check out the Farmer's Market Report, too!

4/30/2009

Chicken Mayhem!

(Or, may-hen...?)

I often find chicken behavior to be quite amusing and endearing. I can't wait to someday have some space of my own to keep hens!

My horse lives in what is called a pipe stall or pipe corral - his stable has a roof, but each horse's individual space is separated by widely-spaced horizontal metal bars, and not wooden walls. This allows for ventilation as well as social interaction between the horses. A few scrappy hens and roosters live in the barn as well, and at night they roost on the highest bars of the horse stalls.

Last night when I went to visit my horse, I noticed one of the roosters acting funny - examining something on the ground and skirting nervously around it. I took a closer look and saw that it was a little snake! It was about 7" long and as thin as a pencil (maybe one of these?), and writhing in the dirt of the barn aisle. As I was debating whether or not to catch the snake under a bucket, a hen ran up and boldly snatched the snake in her beak!

She then began running around and weaving between the horses' stalls, dropping the snake a few times and picking it up again. Finally, she pecked the snake at the tail end, and slurped the whole thing down like a piece of spaghetti!

I've seen snakes in nature videos and in science class swallowing a whole mouse - but I had never seen a snake swallowed whole before! Very interesting and unexpected. That's probably the most "exotic" wildlife experience I've had so close to home!

On Tuesday evening I actually had another fun hen experience when I was helping my friend in her garden. I was cleaning the chicken coop (my specialty), and had managed to get 8 of the 10 hens out of the coop and into their adjoining wire-enclosed run.

I asked my friend if I should catch the two stragglers and put them in the run as well, but my friend said not to bother. The sun was setting, and chickens are supposed to have a strong instinct to take cover at night. If either of them escaped while I had the roof of the coop open, they should soon return home by themselves anyway.

Supposedly.

One immediately flew out and began having a ball on the big compost heap next to the coop. My friend gets aged horse manure and wood shavings trucked in to use as mulch and compost, and the hen was having the time of her life scratching at the heap and throwing compost everywhere. Occasionally, she would lose her foot-hold and come sliding down the mulch mountain, with an avalanche of compost following her :)

When I was done cleaning the coop, I lifted the door that divides the coop from the run. The eight hens came streaming back into the coop. Instead of joining her sisters back inside the coop, the free hen enticed another four of them to join her party outside!

Soon, we had four hens digging in the compost heap ecstatically, and another running amok in the yard (probably the original ringleader). She took a peck of chard here, a nip of spinach there, and ran over the freshly planted pepper seedlings. The chickens didn't show any sign of wanting to return home, despite the fact that it was getting quite dark. Eventually, we rounded the loose hens up one by one and shut them in the coop for the night.

They will have their chance to spend time in the chicken tractor to uproot weeds and dig up grubs soon, but hopefully we'll be more careful not to let them range quite as freely as they did Tuesday night!

4/29/2009

Kitchen Upgrade

Back in the fall of 2008 when I made a commitment to cook from scratch more regularly, I began upgrading my cookware.

At the time, I owned only 2 teflon-coated frying pans (one with a lid), and 2 teflon-coated pots (a large one for cooking pasta, and a smaller one for sauce). Everything was at least 4 years old, and the larger pot was beginning to peel on the inside. I was also using a dull chef's knife, and a flimsy, plastic-handled paring knife. Cooking was not fun.

I decided to replace my cookware and knives for two main reasons: safety, and pleasure.

I was concerned about safety after noticing the teflon coating flaking off from the inside of my larger pot. I had previously thrown out another cheap set of cookware that had the same problem a few years prior. I was also worried about using dull, cheap knives to cut produce. Not only was I afraid of slipping and cutting my hand, but my paring knife blade was so thin, I was afraid it might actually snap!

I try to be cautious about accumulating too much stuff, particularly after downgrading to a very small apartment. However, if I were truly going to cook more often, I needed better equipment. The second reason for my upgrade - pleasure - factors in here.

I had noticed that at a friend's house, cooking was fun. This was mostly because she is an experienced cook, and whips up a lot of delicious, exciting dishes. But I also noticed that her matching, high-end cookware and knives seemed to make the process easier. I'm sure this was mostly psychological, but nevertheless, I thought that investing in better tools might make cooking more pleasurable for me.

I would not advocate that anyone go out and spend a lot of money on gadgets that are just going to sit around an accumulate dust. I upgraded my kitchen piece by piece, after doing a lot of research.

In particular, I found a few articles from National Geographic's Green Guide to be helpful. Apparently, teflon coatings degrade over time, and flaking is not uncommon. Even if they don't peel visibly, they can give off toxic fumes. I decided that to play it safe - and to avoid having to constantly replace my pans - I would go for a different material that would hopefully last a lifetime.

I decided on Calphalon's tri-ply stainless line, and Lodge cast iron pans, and accumulated pieces one by one.

Calphalon tri-ply is made of aluminum (for heat conductivity) sandwiched between two layers of stainless steel (for lack of reactivity with food), not only on the base, but all the way up the sides as well. It is considered by many to be a more reasonably-priced, but high-quality alternative to the pricey All-Clad brand. In addition, Calphalon's lids are glass instead of the metal lids that come with All-Clad, which is nice so you can see what's going on without lifting the lid.
The set shown below is very affordable compared to buying the pieces separately, but I decided not to get the set. I didn't need all the pieces included, and don't have the space to store the items I wouldn't use very often.

In fact, I didn't end up buying anything that comes in the set. I used 20%-off coupons at Bed Bath & Beyond to buy the 8-quart stock pot (the set comes with a 6-quart pot) and the 3-quart chef's pan. At a Linens 'n Things store closing, I also bought the 5-quart sautee pan. I don't use the sautee pan very often, as it's quite huge, but it comes in very handy for stir fries. The stock pot and chef's pan are used several times a week, and I couldn't be happier.

Except...

Then I bought some Lodge cast iron cookware, which have become my every day pans. I first acquired the "combo cooker" from the Sport Chalet camping department. It includes a deep 10" pan and a shallow pan that also serves as its lid. They were great, but a bit too large for 1-2 eggs, which looked very lonely cooking on just one half of the pan. So I bought the tiny 6-1/2" diameter skillet from amazon.com, also available at Sur la Table. The mini-pan is AMAZING. It gets used almost every single day for eggs - it's perfectly sized to fry one to two.


If anyone doubts that cast iron can really substitute for the ease of teflon-coated pans when cooking eggs, trust me - it really works! I've had my mini-pan for only a couple months, and it's already well-seasoned enough to not only make fried eggs that slide right out of the pan when cooked with only a tiny smear of butter, but can also create omelets that will flip easily without leaving any residue.

I did make a few early mistakes in my experimentation with cast iron cooking. Acidic foods should generally be avoided, as they strip the "seasoning" that forms on the pan that prevents foods from sticking. I cook pasta sauce in my Calphalon stainless steel chef's pan instead. At once point, I did have to re-season the deeper Lodge pan (I found an article in Mother Earth News), but that's the beauty of cast iron - if you mess it up, you can renew it. No more tossing out cheap, busted teflon pans!

Below is a turnip dish I whipped up in the shallow 10" Lodge pan, as I described in another recent post.

I also upgraded my knives after finding a killer deal on a set of Wusthof "Culinar" knives. Unlike pots and pans, knives don't take up much space, so even though I don't use every single knife in the set very often, it made sense to buy the set. I think amazon made some kind of pricing error, because I bought it for only $250 in December. After shopping around a bit, I realized that this price was way too cheap to be believed, so I bought it immediately! Good thing - now it's at a more realistic (though beyond my price range) $500.

The two main brands in this price range are Wusthof and J. A. Henckels. After reading reviews, I haven't determined that there is much of a difference in quality - it's mainly personal preference for the feel. A female friend of mine told me that when she tried out some Henckels while building her wedding registry, the handles felt too large for her hands, so she went for Wusthof. Based on that assessment, Wusthof seemed like it might be a better fit for me, too.

I am very pleased with my new knives, and my boyfriend agreed that I had made a sound purchase. Everything is easier to cut now, including onions. And the set even has a bread knife, which many knife block sets do not include.

I have no complaints about any of the cookware I've acquired in the last few months. Everything works well, and seems to be of solid quality. I think investing in better equipment was well worth the cost. I didn't spend an insane amount - about $540 total - which would have been $890 if I hadn't searched for the cheapeast retailers and used coupons. Hopefully these pieces will last me a lifetime. Plus, I did end up cooking much more frequently after upgrading my tools, so the per-use cost will soon be next to nothing!

What about Bokashi??

You may be wondering, "what's up with all of these non-Bokashi posts lately?"

I hope you have found my posts on topics such as gardening and cooking interesting, and at least somewhat related to composting.

My Bokashi cycle is currently in limbo, and will hopefully be back in action by this weekend.

Two weekends ago, I went to attend to Bokashi batch #2 that has been decomposing in my planter. I noticed then that the Rubbermaid tub that I use to transport completed compost to my gardener friend's house had gone missing, along with the trowel I keep inside! I had been storing my equipment outdoors, hidden (I thought) behind the bushes, because my apartment is so tiny. I'm hoping it was a simple misunderstanding with the apartment building's gardener, because I don't like the idea of a thief poking around under my window...

In any case, I just bought a new trowel and tub (which will have to take residence in my car or in my horse's tack locker to avoid another theft), and intend to empty the batch that's in the planter very soon. In fact, now that I have a yard, I will likely use the completed compost on-site! My gardener friend is coming over on Saturday to help me evaluate the plot.

Then I can finally empty the full kitchen bucket (my third batch, which has been resting since 3/31) mix it with soil in the planter, and start adding scraps to the bucket again. My freezer is getting full!

Path to Freedom film screening: Food Matters

On Sunday evening, I attended a local film screening and potluck hosted by Path to Freedom. They host these events in Pasadena monthly, and the previous one I attended was in December.

Now that it's spring, the potluck portion of the evening was held outdoors. Participants were asked to bring a vegetarian dish that is as "local" as possible.

I made deviled eggs using free-range brown and white eggs from the South Pasadena farmer's market, nested on a bed of fresh lettuce from my friend's organic backyard garden. The lettuce helped improve the presentation, and also kept the eggs from sliding around the serving dish while I transported them :)

The hosts provide compostable plates and utensils, but encourage participants to bring their own reusable dinnerware. One handy idea that I learned by observing veteran attendees at the last event was to bring a container with a lid, so that after you're done eating, food scraps won't soil the inside of your bag. I brought my 7-cup pyrex storage container, which worked perfectly!

This month's documentary was called Food Matters. In a nutshell, the film's point was to illustrate that proper nutrition is key to preventing health problems, and even for curing many degenerative diseases. Many of the experts interviewed for the film believe that while modern medicine is extremely adept at treating acute injuries, it is less competent when it comes to chronic illnesses. A diet heavy in raw foods and vitamins was promoted by the film, and drug treatments (as well as cancer therapies such as radiation) were criticized.

I found the film very interesting, but as with my reading of Nina Planck's book, Real Food, I tried to take a step back instead of immediately buying into everything it was suggesting. I always have to ask myself, "are they rightfully exposing a truth that has been obscured from popular knowledge, or might this also be propaganda?"

One of the recurring themes in the documentary was that cooking foods destroys a lot of the beneficial enzymes, and that a diet should be predominantly raw - at least 51% of every meal. I wasn't sure if this was by volume or weight - definitely not the same thing. Picture a big fluffy ball of sprouts vs. a cantaloupe...

I am already consuming raw milk, raw honey, and fresh fruits. However, I know that I personally couldn't be happy as a 100% raw-foods vegan. I haven't tried it before, but cheese and milk are huge staples of my diet, along with whole wheat pasta. These food items add an enormous amount of happiness to my daily life, and I can't give them up entirely.

Nevertheless, I have long suspected that I need to add more fresh produce to my diet anyway. I am recovering from a lifelong aversion to most vegetables - as a child, fresh carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes were about all I would eat, along with the occasional cooked broccoli, cauliflower, peas, or corn on the cob.

A couple years ago, I actually made a new year's resolution to eat at least ONE legitimately green thing every day. Otherwise, days would go by without any vegetables being consumed at all - let alone the 3-5 servings typically recommended. I was in fact able to stick to my resolution that year, and vegetables have become part of my daily diet - in limited quantities. My taste for veggies is finally expanding, perhaps due to a maturing palate. However, I am still nowhere near eating the quantity I should be. I eat very little meat, so my meals are heavy in whole grains and dairy or eggs. Unless I'm eating a salad, vegetables are merely a small side dish.

Upon viewing Food Matters, I renewed my commitment to consuming a higher proportion of fresh veggies. One expert that was interviewed for the film - Andrew Saul - particularly caught my attention. He was very likable, and his sense of humor really showed in his interviews, and on his website as well. His recommendation of juicing vegetables particularly appealed to me.

Since I still find masticating a large quantity of vegetables each day to be fairly daunting, juicing seems like it might be a good solution for me.  There will be a lot of pulp leftover, but I'm not worried about losing fiber in my diet, as these are vegetables I wouldn't be consuming otherwise.  I plan to save the pulp in the fridge to give to my friend's hens.  I have a juicing machine on loan, and will report back on my progress!

I almost forgot to mention - each Path to Freedom film screening is followed by a brief quiz.  I remembered this from last time, and took notes throughout the film, because there is a prize for answering all 10 questions correctly!  Winners receive either free admission to the next event, or $10-off at the Peddler's Wagon store.  

At December's event, I used my $10 prize toward a set of glass food storage canisters.  On Sunday, as I approached the Peddler's Wagon table, something immediately caught my eye, and I knew exactly what to get...

Bokashi bran!  

I am almost done with the last of the Bokashi mix I had purchased from Gaiam back in October to get my composting process started.  Fortuitously, Peddler's Wagon had a tub right there at the event for... $10!  I paid only tax, and walked home with a fresh batch of Bokashi bran to continue my kitchen composting.  Excellent!

Book Review: Real Food

Over the past few months, I've read two popular books about the way modern Americans eat: Real Food, by Nina Planck, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. I'm now in the middle of a third well-known book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.

I have enjoyed all three books, and found that reading them in the order listed above was a good strategy, as each book goes into successively greater detail and analysis.

Below are my thoughts on the first book I read, Real Food: What to Eat and Why, by Nina Planck, 2007:

I rate this book 3.5 stars out of 5. It's a good starting point to spark your thinking about what we as a culture tend to eat, what we used to eat, and what we should eat.

Planck's reasoning is framed mainly from a nutritional perspective. She references medical and anthropological research to support her claim that "real" foods - i.e. produced and prepared using primitive or traditional methods - are the most healthful, whereas modern, processed foods are more dangerous to our health.

She argues that humans have evolved to eat certain types of foods, including meat, but that modern food technology has created foods that are bodies are not built to use in the right manner. According to Planck, modern foods are the root of modern health problems such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Planck seeks to debunk what she sees as a myth, pervasive in American culture, that low-cholesterol and low-fat foods are the healthiest. She believes that animal products - and the fat and cholesterol contained within them - are not inherently bad for us. Instead, it's conventional factory-farming practices, as well as refined foods such as processed sugar, that threaten our health.

According to Planck's food philosophy, we should eat eggs from pastured chickens, grass-fed beef, and plenty of wild-caught fish, but should avoid refined foods - including isolated soy protein - which she considers a health-food impostor.

Planck is a one-time vegan who has come to firmly believe that eating animal products, including meat, is natural and healthful. However, she is adamant that the consumer should make every effort to obtain animal products raised using the most stringent, ethical methods possible. Interestingly, she argues this primarily for reasons of nutrition, with environmental and animal-rights concerns being secondary.

Conventionally-grown vegetables and fruits may contain harmful residues of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. However, Planck argues, compared to eating a small amount of meat from an animal who consumes non-organically grown plants, you would have to consume a massive quantity of chemically-sprayed plant products directly to accumulate the same amount of toxins in your body.

I liken it to thinking about how mainstream it has become to worry about consuming mercury when eating fish. Fish who eat other fish develop higher concentrations of mercury in their flesh, so those highest up on the food chain should be consumed very sparingly. The Monterey Bay Aquarium publishes a seafood guide that outlines the recommended frequency for consuming different types of fish. The guide is based on the risk of different types of fish to our health, as well as on the different fishing or farming practices used to acquire each type of fish.

Planck advocates consuming organic, free-range, grass-fed, wild-caught, etc. as much as possible when eating animal products, but feels that it is less necessary to buy organic when consuming plants.

The book was certainly eye-opening for me, as I was only beginning to consider factors apart from convenience and price when determining what to eat.

However, I was a bit disappointed by the book's lack of structure. The author seemed to bounce around and circle back a lot instead of thoroughly exploring each topic she introduced. For me, this diluted the message of her book. Others may not find the somewhat disorganized format to be as distracting, but for me the lack of cohesion made it harder to distill the take-away points.

Also, although Planck provides citations for many studies to form the basis of her theories, I felt that I should take her assertions with a grain of salt. The anthropological observations she described were interesting, but not as persuasive to me as the empirical medical studies she referenced.

Still, if you have the time, Planck's book is certainly worth a read. After finishing Real Food, I re-evaluated my own diet as follows:
  • As I described in another recent post, I've adopted Planck's strategy of spending more on animal products to ensure that they were raised in a fashion that imparts the greatest nutritional benefits - along with doing less damage to the environment and the animals' welfare.

  • I also try to obtain local or organic produce as often as possible, but am not willing to pay quite as much of a premium as I do with animal products. I generally avoid cheap milk, eggs, and meat.

  • I no longer feel guilty about eating whole eggs, rather than just the whites. Even as a child, I liked the yolks the best! I have tried buying cartons of liquid eggs whites before, and found them to be an unsatisfactory substitution for eggs. Many people consider egg whites to be a health food, but Planck believes whole eggs to be much more beneficial.

  • I verified with a friend who is completing a joint MD-MPH program, with a focus in nutrition, that eating egg yolks will not directly lead to high cholesterol and heart disease. She said I should feel free to eat whole eggs, as long as I don't consume an insane quantity every day. :)

  • I began drinking whole-fat, un-homogenized milk (Trader Joe's sells cream-top organic milk by the half-gallon). As a child, I always drank whole or 2% milk - skim tasted like glorified grey water to me. I switched to skim from 2004-2008 because that seemed like the "adult" thing to do. Now I'm back to enjoying a daily glass of sweet, rich, creamy real milk - and the switch has not caused me to gain weight.

  • I recently took it one step further and tried raw milk (which is un-pasteurized as well as un-homogenized), as Planck recommended. I've had absolutely no digestive issues with the change. Whole Foods carries raw milk options.

  • When cooking, I use olive oil and real butter, never margarine. Vegetable oils are made solid through hydrogenation. Therefore, margarine = trans fats!

  • Soy: I still love tofu, but instead of using vanilla soy milk in my coffee, I now use organic half-and-half or whole milk. I never use non-dairy "creamer" - which is actually made with both high-fructose corn syrup and partially-hydrogenated oils!

  • I still consume some refined and processed foods. Old habits die hard, and there are certain processed foods that still make me salivate! I want to live life and enjoy different kinds of flavors - but I am more selective and try to practice moderation.

  • Although I switched to brown rice and whole wheat bread and pasta several years ago for everyday consumption, I still bake with some white all-purpose flour and white sugar.

  • I also still indulge in store-bought cereal along with occasional snacks and desserts, but always examine the ingredients.

I'm still trying to establish and maintain a healthy diet that works for me. I want to feel healthy and like I am making ethical food choices. However, I am still recovering from being a lifelong picky eater, and taste is very important to me. I've made a lot of improvements in eating nutritiously over the last couple years, particularly in the last few months since I started cooking from scratch and getting involved in gardening.

However, a typical meal for me is heavy in pasta (whole wheat, at least!) and dairy, with some vegetables and fruit on the side. I think the balance on my plate needs to be reversed - so that is my next goal.

4/25/2009

A Garden of My Own! (?)

I found my current apartment in Burbank because my landlord is also my horseback riding instructor.  She owns a few adjacent rental properties near the stables, including my building, and a guest cottage behind my apartment building's parking lot.  

Today we were chatting at the stables, and I mentioned that on Sunday night I'm going to another one of the film screening and potlucks hosted by Path to Freedom.  When she heard that I was interested in vegetable gardening, she encouraged me to convert the yard of the guesthouse into a garden!  Apparently anything that is currently dirt and not grass is fair game - how exciting!

I went to scope out the current state of the yard, and the available area for vegetable gardening is quite sizable:

There is also a small area abutting the cottage where I would like to set up a composter and maybe some planters with herbs:

I have a few concerns - namely my own lack of experience - but also the abundance of shade.  The entire garden area is lined with beautiful, mature trees, shown below.  While I personally prefer shade to sunlight, I'm not sure that most vegetables would feel the same way.  Also, while there aren't very many weeds on the ground right now, I suspect it's because the soil is thin and hard.  Putting in raised beds might be a good solution, but I will have to do some research on where to get low-cost building materials and soil.  I have seen ads for free dirt on craigslist before.  Now my Bokashi will be put to use right at my own home!

Unfortunately, even though I have immediate access to an abundant supply of horse manure and bedding - a highly compostable mix - I don't intend to use it for garden compost at this time.  Stabled horses take medications, supplements, and anti-parasitic boosters that would linger in the manure, and possibly also in the the vegetables that grow in the compost.  

4/24/2009

Grocery Stores

I try to get the bulk of my fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as free-range beef and raw honey from the local farmer's markets and my friend's garden. However, that doesn't cover all the food groups. Where do I get the rest of my food?

The answer is that for me, there is no one-stop solution in Los Angeles. In any given week, I visit a combination of Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and "ethnic" grocery stores. Below are my recommendations of what to find at each, and the reasoning behind my preferences.

Trader Joe's: I used to live one block from the original Trader Joe's on Mission St. in South Pasadena. I never stocked up on groceries for the week, and instead relished my daily walk to the neighborhood market to pick up frozen dinners. I still visit TJ's on a weekly basis, but now skirt the packaged meals in favor of ingredients for dishes that I make from scratch (or nearly from scratch).

Produce is more reasonably priced than at "conventional" grocers such as Ralph's or Vons, but Trader Joe's is a packaging nightmare. There is very little produce that isn't presented in plastic bags or boxes, and the prices are not lower than at the farmer's market.

However, Trader Joe's does have very good prices on the following:
  • Whole wheat pasta: about $1.29 for a 1 lb. bag
  • Whole wheat bread: the cheapest bagged, pre-sliced loaf is $1.99
  • Recycled toilet paper and paper towels
  • Pine nuts and Flax seeds: surprisingly cheaper than from the bulk bins at other stores
  • Water crackers: the price just dropped to $0.99 per box, down from $1.29!
  • Bananas: $0.19 each for regular, $0.29 each for organic; yes, they are imported tropical fruits, but if you're going to eat them, this is the place to get them.
  • Free-range eggs: roughly the same price ($3/dozen) as the farmer's market, though more likely to be "factory organic" than farmer's market eggs
  • Fair-trade coffee
  • Gourmet cheese: priced by weight, and labels indicate whether the milk was hormone free, and whether they were made with animal rennet or microbial rennet (my preference).
  • Baking needs (chocolate chips, flour, organic sugar)

Whole Foods: Shopping at Whole Foods is kind of like reading a fashion or design magazine - inspiring, drool-worthy, but I can barely afford many of their offerings. They have decent prices for a few items if you look carefully, but most items are quite expensive. I only buy things there that I can't find easily elsewhere within a few-mile radius, such as:

  • Raw, whole milk: the Glendale location offers 2 brands of unpasteurized milk; one is about $6 for a quart in a glass bottle, and the other is $10 for a half-gallon plastic jug. I bought the plastic one because the label gave a lot of information about the farm, and I liked what I read.
  • Gourmet cheese: fancier than the Trader Joe's selection, offering some of the same speciality varieties as cheese boutiques such as the Cheese Store and Say Cheese, such as the popular California goat cheese brand Cypress Grove Chevre.
  • "Natural" beauty products: my favorite brands such as Earth Science, Desert Essence Organics, and Kiss My Face have wide selections at Whole Foods. These types of companies tend to use non-irritating ingredients, recycled packaging, and don't test their products on animals.

"Ethnic" grocery stores: These range from small, family-owned neighborhood shops to big-box stores, but what they have in common is exceptionally low prices on some types of items, and less-flashy real-estate and merchandising. Examples include:

I shop at these stores purely for low prices, because that's the advantage these stores offer. "Food ethics," particularly with relation to animal products, is not what concerns their main customer base the most - low prices and ingredients specific to cultural cuisines is what they provide. I recommend visiting these stores for the following:

  • Bulk spices, dried herbs, and nuts (with the exception of flax seeds and pine nuts, which are cheaper at Trader Joe's): They generally come in crinkly plastic bags, but there are some bulk bins as well. You will never buy a little bottle of dried thyme from a regular grocery store ever again after seeing the pries at one of these stores.
  • Cheap produce: I try to get my produce from my friend's garden or the farmer's market, but in a pinch, I stop by an ethnic grocery. There is no reason to spend an exorbitant amount at a Ralph's, or accumulate lots of plastic packaging at Trader Joe's.
  • Bulk Mediterranean goods: Imported olive oil, canned chickpeas, and tahini (sesame paste) are by far cheaper at these stores than anywhere else. TJ's has reasonable prices on California olive oils, but for Italian or other European oils, you can get 2L for $14 or so at an ethnic grocery store.
  • Meat, eggs, and milk are all very cheap at these stores - but I do NOT buy these products. I prefer to spend more money in order to get better nutritional quality and flavor, and also to know that the animal was not raised in a factory environment (both for animal ethics and environmental concerns). I am a little more flexible on whether my fruits and vegetables were raised on pesticides and chemical fertilizers, but I do not like to compromise with animal products.