By Carrie Hargrove, originally aired as Farm Your Yard on KBIA in Sept. of 2016
At the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, we have a great program called the Opportunity Gardens Program. Through the Opportunity Gardens Program, CCUA staff offers gardening supplies and garden mentoring to families living with low incomes. When the original idea for the program was hatched, we were so excited to be able to connect lots of people with gardens that produce delicious and healthy veggies. Fast forward, and we have learned lots of things about gardening with people of all ages, from many countries, and with a wide variety of backgrounds. We have learned gardening tricks from farmers from Burundi; we’ve learned what veggies are great for containers and which aren’t; and we have definitely learned that despite its robust popularity as of late, many people, in fact, do not know what to do with kale.
This last one – the fact that the act of gardening in and of itself does not automatically translate to recipes ideas and culinary skills – has had a big effect on our organization and our educational programming. Personally, I fell into gardening after I learned to cook and to appreciate fresh food, but if you come at gardening from the other way, learning good ways to use leeks, beets, or kohlrabi might not be initially obvious. That’s why we have started doing cooking demonstrations, offering recipe cards, and finding other ways to encourage folks to utilize all of the beautiful bounty of their harvests. A veggie garden is not there just to look pretty, it is purely utilitarian, and you will be doing yourself a favor to put all of those nutrients to good use.
When people think of fall they think of pumpkins and the harvest – Thanksgiving, cornucopias, and apple cider come to mind. When you have a robust vegetable garden the harvest season, though, is really from May through October. A good vegetable gardener is harvesting from their garden all of the time. So that means the real harvest season is about 6 months long. That is a lot of time to try your hand at some new and fun recipes, and possibly get some food preserving in.
In my backyard garden, I grow lots and lots of paste tomatoes. These are the Roma-shaped tomatoes that don’t have a lot of juice, so are good for making sauces. We plant so may because I get a kick out of canning, and the paste tomatoes are the best for canning. Tomatoes are a great food to preserve if you are new to the process. The natural acidity in the fruit is high enough that you don’t need to have fancy kitchen gadgets to safely can them in your home. The library has a bunch of great recipe books for canned tomato sauces, chutneys, pickles, and pastes. My favorite is the Complete Book of Home Preserving – I have been continuously checking it out of the library for about 3 months now. (I should probably just buy a copy.)
Food that is canned can be stored at normal room temperature, preferably in the dark, for many months. My husband and I enjoy canning tomatoes, peaches, berries, peppers, and apples every year. In the wintertime it I find it so satisfying to go into our pantry, pick up some homemade applesauce, and go to town.
Another way to preserve the harvest is to ferment foods. Fermenting is kind of like a very controlled decomposition that makes a lot of veggies taste great and provides your gut with good bacteria. Traditional dill pickles are fermented cucumbers. Same with half sour pickles. Most of the pickles you can buy in the grocery store are not fermented; they are essentially canned in vinegar to give them that tangy crunch. Fermented pickles taste very different than ones bought nowadays in the store, but are delicious in their own way. Cabbage – think sauerkraut and kim chi is another easy vegetable to ferment.
Fermenting is pretty easy, in essence you place the vegetable in a salt water solution- called a brine- along with spices of your choice, inside an air tight glass or ceramic container and let sit at room temperature of anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks depending on what you are making. My husband and I ferment things in glass jars with the screw to lids. Every day, we “burp” the jar, opening up the jar to release pressure from the process of fermentation. And viola, you have sauerkraut. Or traditional dill pickles, or Kim Chi.
The other way my husband and I preserve our harvest for the long grey winter days ahead is by dehydrating things. We mostly do this with herbs from our herb garden, but in years when the two apple trees in our backyard were really pumping them out, we also dried apples. Probably the most exciting thing I have done with our dehydrator is make homemade fruit roll ups. Every other year our apple trees just rain apples – this is one of those years by the way, I am up to 25 quarts and counting of canned apples – and in 2014 we made so much applesauce that we started spreading the sauce on the dehydrator trays. Fast forward several hours and you get this sticky sheet of pure apple heaven. After that, I can understand why those organic fruit leathers are so expensive: it takes a lot of time and fruit to make those. But they sure taste good.
Preserving food and cooking homemade meals from scratch takes time, but for me, that is a way I want to spend my time. Good food brings people together, and coming together over a meal that has personal value – something that came from your own hard work – is special. In a day and age when gathering spaces are more commonly are found in social networks online, I don’t think I am crazy to suggest that sharing a good, home-cooked meal with loved ones would do us a lot of good. Moms, when else do you have your pre-teen cornered to talk about their day but at dinner? What about you, young professional who is newly married? When is a better time to catch up with your spouse than over a good meal? Eating is so much more than food – eating should be connecting with family and friends, the great outdoors, plants, bugs. Everyone eats, and we at CCUA just happen to think that everyone should also eat veggies from their backyard gardens.