Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Homemade Fast Food

"Mise en place" is the french term for "putting in place."
Setting up all your pre-measured ingredients helps you stay
organized in the kitchen (and feels like a cooking show!)

Make ahead meals is the topic for our March cooking workshop here at The Hub. Soups, stews, pies and baked dishes work well to make ahead in large batches, and freeze for later use. Our workshop utilizes a set of core ingredients to build 3 dishes that differ in flavor, texture and presentation. Participants helped prepare the dishes, then packaged them up for freezing at home. Spending a few hours cooking ahead allows for convenient "fast food" meals, without sacrificing quality, nutrition and taste.

From a big pot of chickpeas (garbanzo beans) a batch of brown rice, plus a few other basic ingredients like fresh spinach, vegetable stock and canned tomatoes, we made Vegetarian Shepherd's Pie, Chickpea Spinach Soup and Chana Masala (served with Brown Rice). Each of these affordable dishes can serve as a complete meal, and they all taste great. 

Homemade vegetable broth is simple to make with veggie scraps
and lend rich flavor to soups and other dishes. photo credit: Ayana Brown

You could do something similar with another type of bean or meat, and different grain and vegetable choices. Another approach is to make several pans of one dish, such as enchiladas or lasagna, and freeze enough for several meals. 

Some things to consider for Make Ahead Freezer Meals:

·       Suitability There are a few items that don’t freeze well: lettuce, cucumbers, bean sprouts, raw potatoes and hard-boiled eggs. Egg based sauces like mayonnaise will separate and curdle when thawed. And many dairy products such as cream, yogurt, cream cheese, sour cream and cottage cheese will sometimes go watery when thawed. However sour cream or cottage cheese in a dish that will be baked is usually fine.
·      Appeal. Will you want to eat this meal again? If you didn’t like the food the first time, you probably still won’t like it a few weeks later.

·       Timing. Make sure you set aside enough time to prepare the food, let it cool, and package it for the freezer. A few hours (or less) are all you need for most meals. Some people like to make a day out of it, and cook several different dishes, for a variety of choices.

photo credit: Ayana Brown

·      Space. How much space do you have in your freezer? This will determine how much food you can make ahead and store, and what kind of packaging you choose.
·       Containers.
Ziploc-type plastic bags bags Make sure and get out as much air as possible, and seal it tightly to avoid any spills or freezer burn (double bag for extra protection).  
Aluminum Foil Baking Pans or your own baking dishes. Look for these at dollar stores where you can often get a 3 pack for $1.
Plastic Tupperware or other plastic containers with sealed lids. These work well for soups. They can take up a lot of room in the freezer so consider space when using them.
photo credit: Ayana Brown

·      Serving Size. Unless you are freezing large portions for a family meal (for example, a lasagna or a pan of enchiladas), small serving sizes are usually easier to thaw and reheat.
·     Ease of Reheating. Choose meals that are easy to defrost and reheat. Pans that can go directly in the oven are perfect. For soups, let it thaw a bit in the container, then you can transfer it to a pot to heat up.
·       Label. Make sure to label and date all meals in the freezer. Place older frozen foods towards the front of the freezer so you are more likely to see them and eat them. Another idea is to make a list of all frozen meals and place this list on the outside of the freezer so you always know exactly what you have without having to search.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Early Spring Gardening

Early spring is a beautiful time for getting the garden started!While sunny days provide a chance for soil to warm up, chilly temperatures mean cold-loving crops are happy as can be!

These vegetables love cold weather, and can either be started inside and then transplanted, 
or directly seeded as soon as the soil isn't frozen: 

Spinach, Lettuce, Endive, Arugula, Collards, Kale, Brussels Sprouts
Turnips, Rutabaga, Radish, Parsnips, Carrots, Peas

Kale and peas grow in one of our raised beds outside the pantry

While cold weather crops can be directly seeded into the dirt, spring is also a great time to start warm-weather plants inside. For seed starting instructions, click here!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Low Tunnels and Cold Frames

Last week we were bested by the weather, when an unexpected, last minute winter storm covered our garden in a beautiful, but unworkable, blanket of snow. 

Rather than be put out, however, by this burst of cold and the unpredictability of the season's end, we're utilizing some of our finest "who knows what the weather will bring today?" tools! 

So what are these tools you ask? 
Low tunnels and cold frames!

These two handy structures are useful all winter, and into the spring as well. The general idea is that by enclosing a space under clear plastic or glass, the sun's light will pass through, become trapped, and warm the area underneath. This simple process brings many benefits, including...
  • Solarizing the soil! At the end of winter, soils may remain frozen from cold temperatures. This can make it difficult to begin planting. Solarizing the soil with a low tunnel creates warmth that will help avoid both these problems by making the soil workable enough to transplant and warm enough for germination to occur.  
  • Creating livable temperatures for your plants! Even if the soil isn't frozen solid, it may still be too cold outside for plants to survive - particularly at night. Low tunnels and cold frames raise the temperature underneath their coverings - by as much as 30-50 degrees on a very sunny day! - which can make a huge difference for crops. In fact, it's advisable to vent both structures on very sunny days, to avoid overheating your plants.
  • Protect plants from surprise frosts! We've all been there, when you think the cold weather is finally finished, and then one last frost surprises you! Don't let bad weather sneak up on you and harm your plants - low tunnels and cold frames provide frost protection.
  • Enjoy cold weather crops! Some plants actually prefer the cold - spinach, kale, radishes, arugula and lettuce for example. In fact, they taste better if they've been hit by a bit of chilly weather. Utilizing cold frames or low tunnels gives you the chance to start them early so that they get a little of that cold weather that makes them deliciously sweet, but avoid withering during a frost. 
So how do you build these systems?
  • Low tunnel kits with all the necessary components and building instructions are available in the MHC Tool Share, and come in multiple sizes to fit any garden. 
  • Building a cold frame can be as simple as placing four straw bales in a rectangular shape, and placing a glass window pane over the top. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

From Garden Intern to Farmer: the Jennie Rasmussen Story

Over the years Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard has hosted a number of incredible Community Garden Interns. Some move on to programs like FoodCorps, while others go on to farm, teach, enroll in Food Studies programs, or work in the non-profit sector.

This winter I had the delight of visiting former Community Garden Intern Jennie Rasmussen, who now farms with Alex and Betsy Hitt at Peregrine Farm in North Carolina’s Alamance County. I took a beautiful walk around the farm, marveling at the mild North Carolina winter and tasting spinach and chickweed from one of the many hoophouses.
I then visited with Jennie at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market. It was a wet and chilly day, but the market was bustling. Peregrine Farm was clearly a favorite stall, and I had to fight the crowd to offer Jennie a taste of my homemade apple cider doughnut. After seeing Jennie learn the basics of vegetable gardening in the Banneker Garden years ago, it was fabulous to see how her knowledge has expanded and added to the food security of her North Carolina community.  Learn more about Peregrine Farm here, apply to be an MHC 2015 Garden Intern here.