Posts tagged food

HOW TO: Create a Seed Bank

As another hurricane bears down on the gulf coast, one has to wonder whether the glass half empty crowd which has been predicting increased damage in upcoming years due to natural disaster is correct. Nature does go in cycles, and we may end up laughing off current pessimism about the planet’s inability to regulate herself. But current data does suggest that we are facing at the least a massive migration of plants and animal species to inhabit new regions of the planet. Global environmental organizations are already seeing plant and animal species move to new elevations of previously frigid territory and dead zones showing up in previously fertile areas.

Perhaps the hardest adjustment we as humans will have to make, provided we don’t all take each other out first, is that of food supply.  When the local soils no longer support the crops to which we’re accustomed, we’ll be faced with two choices: move, or learn to cultivate something new.  This migratory period will be critical to the existence of all life on earth.  By creating and maintaining seed banks, we are helping to sustain the biological diversity of life on earth.  This is the aim of the latest biological depository established in Scandinavia, into which governments from around the world are locking seed samples in preservatory conditions in case of Doomsday.

But while the establishment of such seed banks are admirable, the greatest potential for preserving biological diversity lies with the individual.  After all, your grandmother’s mint patch that grows in your backyard probably isn’t on the seed registry’s radar, and neither are your neighbor’s prize heirloom sunflowers.  For any planet to sustain a wide diversity of genetic material, it is we, the people, who will have to stash away the genetic legacy of our lives thusfar as a gift to the future.  So why not get started now?

Making a seed bank is ridiculously easy.  You could well go from a single set of seeds to more than you could ever plant within the span of a single growing season.  Of course, seeds are most fertile when fresh, but stored under the right conditions, most seeds will last for years.  It is a good practice to plant from your seed bank each year, and replenish the stock with fresh seed over the growing season.  This way, most of your seed stays fresh at any time.

Now, how to get started?  First, buy an pack of little brown paper envelopes, or even just a package of writing envelopes.  Then stash a few in your pocketbook, briefcase, or car, and start hunting!  Every time you see a particularly beautiful tree in fruit, a really nice flower, or healthy looking seed grasses, take a handful of seeds, pat them dry if they are wet (say from being removed from their protective fruit coverings to prevent rot), and place them in the envelope.  Be sure to label the outside of the package with what type of plant (if you don’t know, just describe it as best possible), the date on which you collected it, and ideally, where you found it. Then transfer your sealed envelopes to a cool dry storage place next time you are home, to keep the seeds from germinating and then dying from lack of soil nutrition. Then you simply hit the road again and look for more!  Most people won’t mind you taking a handful of anything from their lawn, but certainly some tact and discretion are in order always.

The next step in a successful seed bank is to increase the diversity through exchange with others. In most towns there are groups of seed savers who get together periodically to have exchanges, in which you give a little to get a little of something else.  This is the true gem of seed collection. You are gaining access to the best of all local areas, all of which should be relatively well suited to cultivation in your area, simply for having an eagle eye in your own neighborhood.

As with all great ventures, the best time to get started is before everyone else catches on. That way, when seeds become more scarce, you’ll already be a practiced veteran of the seed trade.  This is truly a return to the simpler life our parents parents experienced, and is a selfless act of philanthropy you can complete without spending a dime.

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BOOK REVIEW: Fresh! Seeds of the Past and Food for Tomorrow

Fresh! Seeds from the Past and Food for Tomorrow

It’s been a big week of reading, trying to stay ahead of the library due dates.  This was a great book, a bit different from any I’ve read before in the general gardening arena.  Brian Patterson takes a scientific look at human history’s tenuous relationship with the foods we eat and illustrates how cultivation of seeds created the culinary landscape we take for granted today.  Part science, part history, and very interesting, he goes beyond the superficial facts and examines cultivation on a chemical level. How did we learn that potatoes, though poisonous when green, can be eaten when cooked?  Or that by fermenting grape juice and adding it to flour, we can enjoy light, fluffy leavened bread, but only if that grape juice doesn’t turn to vinegar first?  When viewed through the lens of science, even the most mundane of foods take on a magical quality.

It’s not a super long book (160 pages) but it’s surprisingly full of facts to be so easy to read.  I especially enjoyed the sections on the global spread of foods from one culture to the next and the final section which contains his look toward to future of plants and humans.  For those considering gardening as a nutritional endeavor, I can’t recommend this enough. Though not expressly a gardening book, you’ll find plenty of solid tips on how to get the most from your plants in terms of flavor and nutrition.  And who doesn’t want either of those?  You’ll also get a clearer understanding of the miracles that led to the availability of foods in your favorite seed catalog, and it may inspire you to try a few new exotic varieties.

There’s also plenty here for those interested in botany or cultural anthropology. After all, seeing what detailed culinary data we can glean from Egyptian society based upon their meticulous burial practices, one can draw some interesting conclusions about how we might preserve our own history for future generations.  For the general reader, and especially for those interested in going off-grid, knowing more about locally grown foods and their health properties can only be helpful in today’s 1500 mile to plate global food culture. And it might make you befriend a local farmer or two for their floral insights.  Strawberries never tasted so sweet as when you know that the farmer used sustainable scientifically sound growing practices to deliver them to your kitchen.

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Nurturing My Weed: A Fable

Okay, to go along with my previous post about foraging, let me tell you a brief story.  A few years back, when I had access to a place to plant flowers, I used to spend a lot of time in the garden watering, pruning, even just looking at my plants as they grew.  It was meditation of the best sort.  Well, one year, after the daffodils had bloomed, I planted a few overstock seeds in a planter and started watering, waiting to see what emerged.  When a plant did poke its head out of the soil, I was surprised (they were old seeds, and I didn’t know if any were still viable) and pleased.  I kept looking after it daily, watching it grow and wondering what sort of mystery seed I was raising. 

Still being relatively new to SoCal at the time, I didn’t recognize the leaves of the plant, and when buds formed, I was so excited.  Now I’d finally know what this lovely little planty was!  And so it bloomed.  A tiny little yellow flower, and then another.  Hmm, I thought kind of disappointing for a cultivated flower, but hey, maybe I didn’t give it enough love.  I kept on watering and hoped for the best. 

Now shortly after that, I was walking down the road one day, and I saw my plant, or rather dozens of them, growing on the side of the road.  My little plant, the object of all that devotion, was a weed!  I was not happy to make this discovery at all, especially since it was only days after I’d let the seeds from my plant scatter wantonly across all of my flower beds, and I was therefore looking at the prospect of having hundreds of them growing in my garden.  I went home, pulled the “weed” and did my best to collect the seeds I could see on the rest of the soil. 

Fast forward to this year, as I’m reading all the foraging books, and lo and behold, there is my “Weed” on the pages of the wild foods guide, listed as a particularly nutritious foodstuff for hikers.  What?  I killed a plant that would have fed me if I’d known better, and spurned it daily as I passed its brethren on the the roadsides of CA?  Never again!

The moral of the story is this: the things we think we “know” about the world are often just perceptions we’ve been taught that have little to do with the reality of a situation.  My disappointment in finding that the plant I loved was a common weed didn’t even compare to the disappointment I felt when I realized that I’d allowed myself to be swayed by common opinion into killing a useful plant.  I guess in the end, it’s all about making sure you learn from reliable sources, and educate yourself on all sides of an issue before you feel comfortable saying you “know” what you’re talking about. 

Wild Lettuce

For more information about wild lettuce, see PlanetBotanic.ca

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Solar Panel Installation (and Eating Your Neighbor’s Lawn)

Great news!  It’s been a while since I posted, but there are a slew of recipes that you’ll be seeing added over the next few days.  As few things in life turn out perfectly the first time, I have been refining the previous recipes and trying a few new ones, side dishes mostly.  Most have been successful, but more on that later.  Great news, you ask?  Yes!  I’ve just signed up to get certified as a solar panel installer.  This means that for the next eight months, I’ll be working toward completing the necessary coursework and study hours for the National certification exam, and hopefully getting some practical experience working with panels along the way.  You might be asking why this should interest you in any way… well, since I love to share, and since writing about things helps me to learn, I mean really LEARN things, I’ll be keeping a sort of study diary on this site.  So if you’re wondering where to start on that whole “watts vs. volts” issue, or if you need a little brush up on your high school physics or electronics (and who doesn’t?), keep checking back often to see if I’ve covered the topic here.  I’ll be using the SEI’s textbook on photovoltaic installation and repair, which is pretty much the best on out there as far as I can tell.  Class starts Wednesday, so more about that then!

In the meantime, I’ve been reading a lot about urban foraging.  It’s a huge topic with relatively few available references.   But starting with Christopher Nyerges’ excellent Wild Foods and Useful Plants guides and also covering specific guides to my local SoCal area, I’ve been out every morning hunting for food.  And it’s everywhere!  Did you know that most of the plants in your garden, never mind those that professional landscapers use in public places, are edible in one way or another?  Geraniums, pansies, daylilies, lavender, nasturtium, chrysanthemums, marigolds, roses and more all make tasty snacks alone or blended into recipes.  You can even replace some of the gourmet items in your pantry with wild alternatives, adding an exotic flair to your cooking.  For example, nasturtium seeds make an excellent caper substitute when pickled, and you can make jellies straight from your yard instead of store-bought marmalades. 

If you’d like to find out more about the plants of your area, I’d highly recommend you check out a book that specializes in your area and start looking for wild foods every time you go out the front door.  I have to admit that though I’d never even noticed what was edible before, now I’m finding myself distracted trying to walk down any street, looking at the possibilities.  And the fruit you pick is SO much sweeter than the one you buy, even if just in principle.  The book I just finished Edible and Useful Plants of California (can’t remember off-hand who wrote it) also included many great anecdotes about the Native American food and medicinal uses of various plants.  When moving away from reliance on the grid, you’d do well to know a bit about the native flora of your community.  And I hardly need to spell out its importance after grid-crash, except to point out that it will be the few months following immediate aid and before people’s sowed crops mature that will be hardest for individuals to survive.  If you know about edible plants, then you can sit happily munching on your neighbors’ lawns while they sit inside their houses panicking.  You might even get an “I told you so” out between bites.  How’s that for sweet justice!  Until next time, happy foraging!

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Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Making Cheese

“Hi, my name is Solarious, and I am addicted to cheese.”

Why does cheese have to taste so good? And why is it in every processed food on the planet? Even the “healthy” foods are dusted with sharp, yummy cheeses to bring out their gourmet flavors. Of all the things I’m attempting to give up after reading that book, cheese manages to creep back in with scary regularity. Sometimes, it’s a slice here or a sprinkle there, but as often as not, I’m not even particularly aware of it until I’ve already eaten. Ever try to find an economic frozen dinner without meat? Even brands like Healthy Choices and Lean Cuisine basically only offer meat dishes. Add cheese to the list, and you’ve just blackballed yourself from the freezer section. And though I’m sure that awesome cheese alternatives exist (someone keeps telling me great things about some walnut “cheese”), I haven’t yet discovered them.

Homemade Cheese

So it’s time to rethink the paradigm. Sure, processed cheeses are bad, but like any other food, the homemade variety should be more healthy and fulfilling, right? While I attempt to figure out what yummy types of “cheeze” alternatives exist out there (please, share!), I found this great tutorial on making hard cheeses to try out. He’s got a PhD in chemistry – so I figure he’s got the cheese making thing down, too. Of course, he recommends starting with the beginning cheese making tutorial, and indeed, there’s a lot of great information and recipe/tutorials to get you started. There’s even a link to a DIY cheese press for all you super handy types.  Here’s another great site, sorted by type of cheese, with lots of recipes.

Cheese and yogurt making are great projects to try with kids, too. There are a lot of projects that can be completed in a day. It teaches them about long-term care and food making all at once, while teaching proper food handling safety. And of course, getting to eat the spoils of your devotion is always a great motivator!

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The World is My Table: Edible Flowers

Flowers are so lovely, keeping the world in near-perpetual color, and providing us in time with our fruits and vegetables. But flowers can be nutritious, too. So if you’re garnishing a plate in the near future, consider using a locally available edible garnish that looks great, encourages awareness of wild foods, and probably comes for free! Of course, be sure to wash well, and avoid picking flowers from along busy roadways.

If you’re looking for a few suggestions, check out this edible flower list from HomeCooking.com, and also this separate list of poisonous plants to avoid on your forage. Then check out this article from About.com on the tastes and uses of different common wild flowers. Well educated, you’re ready to hit the trail and spice up your evening cuisine.

Chive Blossom Borage Flower Rose Blossom

Of course, in these days of manicured lawns and ornamental gardening, you probably won’t even have to hit the trail to find what you seek. Roses, pansies, and nasturtiums are all edible, so you can plant your beds with produce that’s extra easy on the eyes. Never mind the possibilities of fruit trees, marigolds, lavender, day-lilies, hibiscus, chamomile, and chives. It’s a bloomin’ cornucopia out there, so grab a basket and head for the backyard.

Here’s an excellent list of edible flowers with pictures.

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Eating Locally: A nationwide movement

If you’re trying to cut down on the number of food items you import into your life from great distances, you’re certainly not alone. People across the globe are realizing the social and environmental costs of the “distance to plate” factor of their diets. Of course, in such an individual sport as buying food, it’s easy to think you are going it alone, or to get a little sidetracked by the seeming lack of options available to you in your particular region. But no more!

Locavore Nation

Locavore Nation is a year-long project housed at The Splendid Table (a great recipe resource), in which fifteen individuals from every region of the country attempt to live for a year on at least 80% local foodstuffs, buying organic whenever possible. Each participant keeps a blog, which can be accessed at the link above, about their particular experience. So there’s at least one blogger participating from your area for you to check in on.

What a great idea! Even if you have no interest in eating local, you should check out this innovative way in which the Splendid Table had brought together a community that serves both local and international appetites for practical information. Maybe you could organize a similar project for your topic of choice. After all, real-world reviews offer learners a chance to glean information never found in textbooks, which is the true learning revolution that spurs practical change.

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