A long time ago the kind folks at Big Tree Farms were kind enough to send me a bunch of samples of their Organic Coconut Palm Sugar. I will admit the items sat in my kitchen untouched for quite a while. Since last November, my husband and I have made it our mission to severely limit our sugar intake. We slip up and/or cheat sometimes, but I haven’t been baking anything or making anything with white sugar. Then I decided to make a few sweetened summer drinks for a get-together I was having, and realized I could replace the white sugar with coconut sugar. I started reading about it and was impressed with coconut sugar’s benefits as a white sugar substitute: Like maple syrup and honey, coconut sugar retains some of the nutrients from the coconut palm, notably iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, along with some short-chain fatty acids, polyphenols and antioxidants. It also contains the fiber inulin, which helps slow glucose absorption and may make coconut sugar have a lower glycemic index than regular table sugar (although thus far there are really no solid studies to back up these claims). I certainly think severely limiting our intake of sugar is a major benefit to our health. However, if I am going to use sweeteners, I prefer to use ones with at least some redeeming health qualities such as honey and maple syrup. I now add coconut sugar to that list.
Consider this blog a sneak peek of the upcoming September/October issue, because I’m already using tips from it in my kitchen. In that issue, we included simple recipe ideas for eating the plethora of veggies our gardens start pumping out at this time of year. Of course no one in my house is complaining about too much fresh, homegrown produce, but sometimes you need ideas for veggie-full meals that are easy to whip up on a weeknight. Enter our brilliant regular contributor Barbara Pleasant. This “recipe” is a jumping-off point for a lot of dishes (I’ve already made a Mexican-style version with oven-roasted Anaheim peppers after making this one, but I digress…).
Polenta with Garden Produce
Start by whipping up a batch of corn grits, also known as polenta (ground corn is the only ingredient). I used Bob’s Red Mill’s White Corn Grits. You simply add the grits to boiling water and stir. It’s done in mere minutes.
These are the veggies sautéing.
Meanwhile, I started on the veggies I wanted to cook: I had on hand onions, garlic, mushrooms and some Swiss chard. I sautéed those together in a pan.
Then I spread a thick layer of the cooked grits into a very well-oiled cake pan and topped it with a layer of marinara. Then I added some veggies I didn’t plan to cook: I had roasted red peppers and a bunch of heirloom tomatoes I roughly chopped.
Finally, added my sautéed veggies, topped with cheese, and put into a 400-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until bubbly. Delicious, incredibly easy and almost entirely veggies!
Here's the finished product!
OK, here is another favorite recipe straight out of the pages of Mother Earth Living.
Spicy Cocktail Nuts for Summer
In last year’s holiday handmade-gift guide, we included two pages of food-based gifts. One of them was a recipe for spiced nuts out of Dorie Greenspan’s book Around My French Table. My dad was coming down for Father’s Day, and I knew it would be the perfect gift for him—he loves nuts and I knew he would enjoy these with a nice craft beer. I whipped up a bunch, following the instructions but replacing the white flour with coconut flour. They were absolutely delicious and addictive—so much so that I made them again a few weeks later for a 4th of July party we had. Again, they were a huge hit! I love this recipe because it yields a snack that satisfies the sweet tooth, yet offers the healthy fats and plant protein from mixed nuts, as well as antioxidant-loaded spices such as cinnamon and cayenne. I highly recommend trying this recipe.
I wanted to share a healthy ingredient I’ve recently been using and very happy with. One is the Organic Spelt Flour from One Degree Organic Foods. Made with nothing but organic spelt, this flour includes the germ and bran, which is removed in processed white flours. This means the flour retains more fiber—3 grams or 13 percent of the daily RDV per serving—and thanks to the spelt, it’s a great source of plant-based protein.
How to Use Spelt Flour
I like whole-wheat flour, but if you’ve ever used it you know that it adds a different flavor and texture to many foods. Many times you only want to replace half the white flour with wheat if you want to retain the texture of a baked item. This spelt flour ends up tasting more similar to regular flour, in my opinion. I first made pancakes with it. I replaced half the flour with spelt, but I couldn’t tell any difference, and neither did the rest of my family. The next time I made pancakes a couple weeks later, I used all spelt flour. They came out fluffy, delicious and without the grainy taste and texture a lot of “alternative” flours can lend. It’s my new favorite flour!
Several weeks ago, I had a small party for a few moms and toddlers I know. We set up a baby pool and had some drinks and snacks. I made a couple of drinks that were well-received and included herbs from our garden.
One was a drink I’ve made before. I highly recommend it. It involves making a strawberry and basil simple syrup. This can then be served with sparkling water or sparkling wine/champagne, which is nice for groups with a mix of drinkers and nondrinkers.
I used this recipe from the blog “The Law Student’s Wife." Rather than white granulated sugar, I used coconut sugar, one of my latest kitchen favorites.
I also made a thyme lemonade using a recipe from Martha Stewart.
Rather than serving it with gin, as the recipe called for, I served it plain or had some craft beer to mix and make a shandy. I also used coconut sugar in this recipe. It was really tasty, and a great cool drink for a hot summer day.
Here are the ingredients for the strawberry-basil syrup.
Here are my two simple syrups cooking on the stove simultaneously.
This is the finished lemonade.
I’ve been experimenting with a hydroponic growing system donated to our office by Worm’s Way. I’ve enjoyed the experience, and I thought I’d get some additional information from Worm’s Way Director of Consumer Operations Richard Florey. He shared some of his advice on growing hydroponically, ways to save money and more.
Photo by Fotolia/photokanok_1984
1. What are some of the key reasons someone might consider hydroponic gardening?
In my mind, the main reasons someone would want to move in the direction of hydroponic gardening is: increase yield, garden year round, the ability to regulate your environment (i.e. air, temperature, nutrients, ph), as well as full control over what is going into your plants from seed to harvest.
2. Hydroponic setups are kind of expensive. How soon can that expense be recouped?
There are many types of hydroponic setups: ebb-and-flow, drip, aeroponic, nutrient film technique (NFT), wick, etc. Depending on what system you’re going to go with, the intricacy and ability to DIY fluctuates. So with that in mind, the price and investment is scalable with how you’re going to grow, the size of your setup, and how much DIY you want to do. You could easily purchase a very nice 2’x2’ pre-fabricated hydroponic system for less than $250 that you could keep running all year round to grow different vegetables and herbs. A lot of growing media is reusable too, so even with a nutrient investment you’re looking at a relatively low buy-in.
Think about how much you spend at the grocery store; if you were even able to grow a small amount of your veggies and herbs, you make your money back relatively quickly. Instead of thinking about the cost of getting into hydroponics, which really can be reasonable, think about the cost of the produce at your grocer! Again, you’re in full control of everything in these setups.
3. What are three key things to consider before starting a hydroponic garden?
Ask: What are my goals?
Ask: What is my budget?
Be ready to learn (through continued research, failures, as well as input from local experts)
4. What are the minimal items one needs to start a hydro system?
Hydroponics can range from the simplest thing in the world, to the most intricate—such a breadth of possibility! That’s what is so great about it, and so very interesting. At its core, hydroponics is just growing without soil. Simple.
In starting a “real” hydroponic growing system at a basic, minimal, but functional, level you’ll want to have: some growing media, pots, a pump and an airstone, a raft/tray, and a reservoir…just add water! From there you need to work out how your system will flow, what nutrients you want to feed your plants, and (the fun part) what you want to grow!
The hydroponics system really exploded over the past week. It’s quite amazing how fast everything grows—speed and efficiency are indeed among the biggest benefits of hydroponics growing, and it’s shocking to see these plants just explode every week! I continue to add nutrients to the water every week, and every Monday I’m amazed at the growth the plants make over the weekend.
Here's the garden on week 2. Note how much it's grown since the pics of week 1! (You might also notice that my husband's office wall was painted in the interim... we didn't move the system!) The water looks murky because of the nutrients you add.
Doing this experiment made me interested in learning more about the differences between hydroponic gardening and conventional gardening, so I started looking into it. From what I’ve researched, here are some key differences I’ve found.
This infographic shares some pros and cons of hydroponics.
Among the pros: Hydroponics uses as little as 1/10th the water as conventional farming; the average yield of hydroponic tomato gardening is 18 times more per acre than conventional; and hydroponics require zero chemical fertilizers and encounter zero pest problems. Hydroponic growing is also not dependent on the seasons—I can assure you that, although our office grows a community garden each year—I’m the only one who was eating fresh greens in February.
Among the cons: Hydroponics systems cost more to set up than a conventional garden; they are reliant on nutrients added to the system weekly; they often require specialty fertilizers; and they require more attention and care than conventional gardens. I have heard that, instead of the nutrients you have to buy, one can use worm castings for the nutrients, which could save money in the maintenance costs of a hydroponics system.
In this SF Gate article on the pros and cons of hydroponics, similar issues are discussed: Hydroponics is incredibly efficient, using only what the plants absolutely need to grow and thrive. Hydroponics minimizes water waste and completely eliminates the need for pesticides or herbicides—potentially very good for commercial operations.
I also found this article discussing the pros and cons—written by a master gardener—interesting. She added the point that hydroponics systems are reliant on electricity, so that’s a con.
Often it seems people are looking at hydroponics and—fairly or not—criticizing the growing method as inferior to regular gardening in the ground. However, I see hydroponics as more useful for people who don’t have the option: Urban dwellers who want to grow their own food but have no access to land (or, for herbs and greens that are best harvested and eaten daily, want something at home instead of or in addition to a remote community garden plot), or those who live where the growing season is very short. It might also be good for those without arable soil or highly polluted soil.
I’ve heard some questions about the nutrient levels in hydroponics, and found people online claiming both that hydroponics are more and less nutritious. There is also some controversy surrounding organics and hydroponics. I’ll discuss all of that in the next blog on hydroponic growing!