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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mala Insana

Tomatoes.  I think they're the reason that July and August exist.  Not only are they delicious right off the vine, but they are incredibly healthy--full of vitamins and the cancer-fighting substance, lycopene.  Here's a piece I wrote for my August '09 newsletter that gives the history, nutrition and other information about these orbs of happiness.

The heat and humidity of the Dog Days of Summer make our green vegetable friends very happy. Without a doubt, the thing I most look forward to each summer is a fresh, ripe, juicy tomato. In my mind, there’s not much that tastes better than a freshly picked tomato with a little sprinkle of salt. Mmmm…. I know that many of you agree with me. But these fruits (botanically, they really are fruits, not vegetables) haven’t always been favorites.

In the 16th Century, botanists called tomatoes mala insana or “unhealthy apple”. Why? Tomatoes were thought to be poisonous since they are a member of the nightshade family. I suppose that IS unhealthy. This unfortunate belief continued in America long after Italians disproved it by making tomatoes a staple of their cuisine. In fact, it wasn’t until 1848 that the tomato was first mentioned in an American cookbook. And that was only to describe how to temper its taste. Luckily, some brave folks finally started eating and realized that
these gems were far from unhealthy. Today we know that besides great taste, tomatoes are filled with Vitamins C, A, B6 & E among other things. In addition, as many as 72 studies show that the more tomatoes and tomato products people eat, the lower their risk of many different kinds of cancer. Tomatoes contain lycopene, the cancer-fighting chemical that gives them their red color. Cooked tomatoes—including ketchup, tomato sauce, etc—have even more lycopene, since cooking breaks down cell walls and releases the chemical.

Tomatoes come in many different varieties. Salad tomatoes are small to medium in size and are not very juicy—perfect for a salad. Slicing tomatoes are large and are full of juice. Currant tomatoes, the closest we can find to wild tomatoes, are grown in South America and are very tiny and ultrasweet. Cherry and grape tomatoes are plentiful in the U.S. and are delicious in a salad or eaten out of hand. Some of the most popular and versatile tomatoes are the plum varieties, such as the Roma. Plum (or Paste) tomatoes are meaty and firm and are the favorites of sauce makers the world over.

Heritage or Heirloom tomatoes are becoming more available these days—mostly in specialty stores or farmers’ markets. They are grown from non-hybrid plants that have not been grown in large numbers.  These plants have been cultivated from those of the past—before cross pollination spoiled their uniqueness. The result is delicious fruit in a rainbow of colors—red, orange, yellow, purple, green and more. Many have patterns such as stripes or swirls. A colorful platter of heirloom tomatoes looks beautiful on your summer table.

Tomatoes ripen after being picked, but their sugars do not continue to develop, so taste won’t improve after being picked. When choosing fresh tomatoes, pick firm, brightly colored fruits that feel heavy for their size. They should also have a nice “tomatoey” smell to them. You should eat freshly picked tomatoes as soon as possible. Never store tomatoes in the refrigerator—they’ll get mealy and lose their flavor. Store them at room temperature with the stem side down.  This helps to prevent moisture from escaping and mold and bacteria from entering.

This truly is the time to enjoy the wonderful flavor of tomatoes. Did you ever taste a tomato from a supermarket that’s been shipped, artificially ripened and picked out of season? Yuck. These tasteless red balls can be sold as tomatoes, but they sure don’t taste like it. Out of season, use canned tomatoes. They’re
picked and canned at their ripest and have very good flavor.

But now in the heat of the summer fresh tomatoes are everywhere. So grab a salt shaker, sit out in the garden and let the juices flow!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ground Cherries

Ground cherries in their husks.
Back in May when we bought the plants for our veggie garden, we found ground cherry plants.  Neither of us really knew what they were, but it was something different, so we bought a few.

The overwhelming response I get when I mention ground cherries to someone is: "Oh, my mother (or grandmother) used to make pies out of them.  I haven't had those since I was a kid!"  But no one seems to know exactly what they are.

Well, ground cherries are not cherries at all.  In fact, they're a relative to the tomato, tomatillo and gooseberry.  They're called ground cherries because when ripe, they fall from the plant--onto the ground.  Like tomatillos and gooseberries, the ground cherry grows in a husk that protects the little yellowish-orange berry inside.

They continue to sweeten if you let them sit in their husks for several weeks after harvesting.  They keep very well and can be stored for up to 3 months if left in the husk.

Ground cherries with the husks
pulled back (sorry it's blurry).
Most people do make pies from them, but you can also make jam and marmalade from them, poach them to be eaten over ice cream, put them in salads and muffins or even dip them in chocolate.  They can be dried and eaten like raisins.  And they freeze very well so you can use them year-round.

Their taste is kind of hard to describe: strange, complex, slightly sweet.  There's a bit of a sweet tomato taste there and kind of a tropical flavor--like a papaya.  Some say that they taste pineapple and even a hint of vanilla.

I'll let you know what I make from them and how it turns out.  It's said that they reseed very easily, so I guess I'll have ground cherries next year, too!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Here they Come!

It was bound to happen.  Just when the squash epidemic has slowed, it's time for tomatoes to start ripening.  The other day, I checked for ripe ones and only got a handful of grapes tomatoes.  The next day, MB came in with her arms full of well-ripened fruits. 

We've got a number of varieties--beefsteaks, plums, grapes, yellow, etc.  Here's just a few we picked today. 

OK with me, though.  Unlike the squash, I could eat tomatoes all day, every day.  Gimme a salt shaker and a napkin and I'm good.  Heck, let's live on the edge and skip the napkin!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Spit It Out!

At Jake's request, this year we planted watermelons (we usually do cantaloupes).  And up until now, they've been doing pretty well.  Suddenly, the plants don't look so healthy--not sure if they need water or if something's eating them from inside. 

Here's one of our melons from a week or so ago.  It's now about the size of a volleyball, but according to the variety that we planted--Black Diamond--the fruit gets to be about 30-50 pounds!  We have a quite a way to go.  I hope we get at least one.

Elsewhere, watermelons are starting to appear in markets and farms.  To me, watermelon is so often disappointing, that I don't usually care for it.  How can you find a watermelon that is going to be sweet, juicy and delicious?  Check out my latest post on Bucks County Taste to find out!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Do You Need a Doggie Bag?

In Bar Harbor, Maine, (and in other tourist destinations, I'm sure) many of the stores in town have water dishes for dogs by the door to give thirsty pooches a break after walking around in the hot sun.  And since so many folks have their dogs with them on vacation, I'm sure those bowls have to be filled a lot each day.

More and more you hear about bakeries that bake doggie treats or specialty stores that cater to pets.  For many of us, our pets are truly a part of the family.  And we treat them that way. 

But is this babying of our animals going too far?  An article in USA Today tells about a trend in restaurants around the country where on certain days, patrons are welcome to bring their dogs with them to dine.  Some of the places even offer dishes--steaks, eggs, etc--on a doggie menu. 

Now if you're Mary Beth or some of the people who commented about the article, you're thinking about the germs, the hair, the potential disease and the...uh!...licking.  But I think it's a pretty cool idea.  As long as your dog is well behaved, why not?  These restaurants have designated outdoor areas to bring the canine clientele and, according to the article, there have been no problems with fighting dogs.  Some even have doggie pools for the dogs to play in while "Mom & Dad" are eating.  Besides, you don't have to eat there if you don't want to.  Go somewhere else or eat in the non-dog section.

As one commenter said, I'd rather be in a restaurant with 1000 dogs than one with a few misbehaving kids.  What do you think?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fresh Veggies!

I must smell like vegetables.  After my 2 farmers' market demos this past weekend, yesterday I set up at Blooming Glen Farm to cook while members were stopping by to pick up their shares.  It was a really good time--met a lot of nice people, used a bunch of wonderful produce and got to share some different ways to use their shares (pun intended). 

As I often do when using field-fresh veggies, I tried to make the preparation simple, not cover the flavors with strong sauces so the veggies can shine.  For example, I made one of my favorite dishes again (as I did at the markets)--Salad Caprese.  Tomatoes, basil, fresh mozzarella, salt, pepper, good extra-virgin olive oil.  So simple, but so delicious.  July on a plate.

One of the biggest hits was also incredibly easy.  If you have been reading recently, you know about our Attack of the Yellow Squash.  Well, after muffins and bakes and stir-fries and sautes, I had to come up with another way to use these golden monsters.  Pickles!  Easy refrigerator pickles using squash instead of cucumbers.  And they're really yummy.  Sweet to start with a little heat at the end.  Here's how you make them:

Zucchini Pickles (or Squash Pickles) (or Zucchini and Squash Pickles)

4 cups zucchini or yellow squash, cut in 1/8" slices
1 cup sweet onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Combine zucchini, onion and garlic in a bowl or jars.
  • Bring vinegar, sugar, red pepper, mustard seeds and salt to a boil in a small saucepan.
  • Pour liquid over veggies, cover and chill for 24 hours.
It's that simple.  Very tasty.

If you're into pickles, you might enjoy this article from the Boston Globe about how the pickles are getting more and more popular.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Take Two Flowers and Call Me in the Morning

We all know that eating well is one of the best--and easiest--ways to make our bodies healthy.  Much has been written about antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, etc. in all sorts of foods.  Still, millions of people take pills to supplement the nutrients they get from their food.  Many of these are herbal remedies.

In fact, the medicinal herb market brings in more than $3 billion a year with more than 60 million Americans taking these pills.  But why take pills when you can eat the real thing?

In an interesting article in philly.com called Medicinally Delicious, Elisa Ludwig writes about a part of the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative called the Lancaster Farmacy--a CSA for medicinal herbs.  Members pay a fee, just like at other CSAs, and each week get their share of herbs, flowers and other curing plants.

At the Farmacy, they promote using these herbs in cooking--getting the benefits of both the food and the herbs.  Not only do they add the health benefits, but they add flavor and texture to the food.  It's a method that's been used for centuries--and, like many "old-time ways" (sustainable farming, local food) it's a trend coming back into vogue. 

The author describes the Farmacy:
The land was nearly in full bloom on a hot late-June day, with purple, white, and orange flowers exploding in great bunches. Weaver pointed out a banquet of plants and their uses: chamomile (calming, digestive aid), hyssop (expectorant), calendula (stomach and skin soothing), three kinds of bergamot (soothing, sleep aid, lowers fevers), yarrow (known as "nature's stitches"). There were descriptively named herbs like boneset and feverfew, and numbing buds of spilanthes, also known as Szechuan buttons, which can be used in place of novocaine.
Most herbs, even common ones like basil, thyme and oregano, have some properties that help to cure certain ills.  But it's the goal of the Farmacy to make these unusual herbs more common to everyone.  A heck of a lot tastier than swallowing another pill!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Hot! Hot! Hot!

Man, it's hot, isn't it?  Actually, as cliche as it sounds, to me, it really isn't the heat--it's the humidity.  How long could this go on?  The weather reports are the same day after day after day.

I was feeling the heat this weekend, as I cooked up some goodies at two farmers' markets.

On Friday, I was cooking at the Ottsville Farmers' Market.  Wow, it was stifling.  And standing next to a grill for 4 hours made it even more toasty.  Still, it was a lot of fun.  Met a lot of nice people and got to use some of the wonderful stuff being sold at the market: eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, melons, pork sausage and much more.  I don't know how the heat affects crops, but there seems to be an abundance of incredible produce. 

On Saturday, I joined the folks at the Plumsteadville Grange Farmers' Market for the first time.  It felt much cooler--maybe because it was earlier in the day and because there was a nice breeze for most of the time.  More friendly people, fun activities, crafts, etc.  And again, a bunch of delicious, fresh produce was available for me to cook with.  It's so easy to cook when you have great tasting ingredients.  You don't have to do much to them--just let their flavors shine.

One of the easy dishes I made at both markets was a simple Caprese salad--tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella, salt, pepper and some good extra-virgin olive oil.  Mix it together and enjoy.  To me, that's what summer tastes like--flavorful tomatoes, sweet basil, creamy cheese.  So refreshing and delicious.

Check out my previous post to find out when I'll be doing more farmers' market demos.  Hope to see you there!

To change topics quickly, Mary Beth and I went to see a great (and hilarious) production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Muhlenberg Summer Music Theater.  They always do excellent professional shows and this one is no exception.  And, like I said, it is a riot.  Try to catch it if you can. 

We stopped at Carrabba's Italian Grille in Allentown for dinner before the show and was pretty impressed.  I've heard that, for a chain, they have good food and it's true.  We both had a very fresh salad with our meals.  MB got a Caesar and I had a Mediterranean (with olives, fennel, etc).  She had seafood cannelloni and I had 2 chicken dishes (together as a sampler).  Well done, tasty and pretty reasonable.  Our service was good, too.  After MB debated about (and then decided against) getting some of their garlic mashed potatoes--they didn't come with her meal since she had pasta--our server brought us a big bowl of them to share, free of charge.  They were tasty, too! 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


On Monday, I met a college friend, Chip, for lunch.  He lives in Arizona now, but was back east visiting his parents ("Why is everyone complaining about the weather?  This is nothing!").  We were supposed to meet at Pistachio Bar & Grille in Allentown at 11:30.  I got there a few minutes late, but knowing Chip, figured I'd be waiting a while.  So I hung outside waiting for him to show up.  Long story short, after a half-hour of bad cell phone connections, I figured out that he was sitting inside waiting for me.  Jeez.  Decent lunch there--he got some sort of chicken sandwich.  I got a Cuban Pressed Sandwich.  Fairly tasty.  A good place for a casual meal.  They have good hummus for an appetizer.

We walked around our alma mater, Muhlenberg, to see what's changed.  A lot has.  Someone's giving to them--they're not doing all that renovation on my $25 a year!

Boy, the fields must be celebrating with the rain we've been getting.  Pretty humid for us, but for the veggies, it's great.

Went to the Caboose Grille in Souderton yesterday with MB & Jake for lunch.  The menu was pretty nice--sandwiches, wraps, salads & burgers.  The food was fine--nothing exceptional, but good.  MB got a buffalo burger.  I got a special--turkey, sun-dried tomato, fresh mozzarella on a rosemary foccacia.  Jake got a burger & fries--nice size for a children's portion.  The restaurant is housed in an old train station and that gives a neat feel to the place.  It's one of those places that's good, but if they did a few little things food-wise, it would be very good. 

The other night I made a stir-fry with Jake's Chinese long beans.  Pretty much like regular green beans except they do taste a little different.  You can taste the difference more raw than when they're cooked.  I'd say they have a little more "herbal" taste to them as opposed to the "grassy" taste of a raw green bean.  They're pretty cool, though.  We've been eating a lot from our garden: squash (of course), eggplant, beans, broccoli.  A few grape tomatoes have ripened, but we're waiting for the loads of other tomatoes to do the same.  They're going to hit all at the same time.  There are a few watermelons growing bigger and bigger.  Peppers aren't doing so well this year for some reason.

Getting ready for my cooking demo at the Ottsville Farmers' Market on Friday from 3-7PM and the Plumsteadville Grange Farmers' Market on Saturday from 9AM-12PM.  I'll be cooking up some nice dishes using the great things offered by the vendors at the markets.  Stop in, say hi and try some samples!

I'll also be cooking at Blooming Glen Farm on Tuesday afternoon.  So if you're a member there and pick up your shares that day, check out some of the dishes I'll be making using the things you'll be taking home.

Friday, July 9, 2010


As you may know, part of our garden this year is a "Jacob Garden" where Jake is growing some of his favorites--mint, beans, broccoli, some flowers that he started at school, a cactus that he got from somewhere (I forget where).  Things are doing well, except the beans, which were climbing like crazy up the bunch of sticks that we set up for them.  But there weren't any beans on them...or so we thought.

Last night I was watering and noticed something hanging on the plant--sort of hidden in the leaves.  Then I realized what they were--beans.  But not just regular old green beans.  These were Chinese long beans (also known as yard-long beans, asparagus beans and snake beans among other things).  We had no idea that was the kind of beans we bought.  I had seen them used before, but never saw them "in person". 

As you can see from the pictures, they're really long (thus the name).  That's a regular sized yellow wax bean in the picture below for comparison.  They're used in much the same way that a green bean is used.  They're from Asia, so they're often used in stir-fry or fried slowly as a side dish.  They're also sometimes eaten raw.

They are incredibly nutritious, too.  According to the USDA, they are a good source of protein, vitamin A, thiamin, riboflavin, iron, phosphorus, and potassium, and a very good source for vitamin C, folate, magnesium, and manganese.  In fact, one serving gives you 31% of your recommended daily amount of vitamin C.  Pretty amazing.

Supposedly, they are vigorous climbers (which we have seen) and should be harvested daily because the beans grow so quickly.  Hmmm...I wonder what long bean/squash recipes I can come up with!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Picky, Picky

The other night, Jake threw a fit when we tried to have him taste some squash (yes, the squash again).  We usually don't force him to try things because he's usually very good with trying things--and once he tries something, he usually likes it.  For some reason, that night we really wanted him to try it and he really didn't want to.  It could be worse.

I know that even though Jake doesn't eat things like sauces (plain pasta is one of his favorite things), cheese and potatoes (I swear he's the only kid in America who doesn't like cheese & potatoes), he's far from being a picky eater.  He loves virtually every fruit and many veggies.  He's a huge carnivore and really enjoys fish--tilapia, salmon, tuna, etc. 

Picky eating in kids is kind of expected and accepted.  They'll grow out of it, right?  Well, according to a very interesting Wall Street Journal article, No Age Limit on Picky Eating, there are more adult picky eaters than you may think.

Jeremy M. Lange for the Wall Street Journal

Heather Hill says her sons, Andrew, 3, center, and Nicholas, 2,
are less fussy than she is about the foods they eat.

The article talks about new studies that pretty much label picky eating as an eating disorder.  But it isn't as easy to label as things such as anorexia and bulimia.
Unlike people with anorexia or bulimia, picky eaters don't seem to make food choices based on calorie content. They aren't necessarily skinny or obsessed with looking a certain way. Researchers don't know yet what drives the behavior, but they say textures and smell can account for a picky eater's limited diet. Some will only eat foods with one consistent texture or one taste, leading some medical experts to speculate that picky eaters have some obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Doctors worry that over the long term such eating habits could lead to nutritional deficiencies linked to health concerns, including bone and heart problems.

Picky eaters tend to gravitate to certain foods, including blander products that are often white or pale colored, like plain pasta or cheese pizza. For reasons that aren't clear, almost all adult picky eaters like French fries and often chicken fingers, health experts say.

The article profiles some people who are adult picky eaters.  Most find any way to avoid social eating situations, work lunches, etc.  They don't eat meals with their kids for fear that their pickiness will rub off on them.  One 29 year-old woman claims that she's only eaten about 10 different foods since she was 3 years old.  A support website, PickyEatingAdults.com has about 1400 members.

As someone who eats pretty much anything, it's hard for me to imagine eating only a few things over and over.  But apparently, for many, it's a way of life.  A way of life that often comes with stress, embarrassment and anxiety.  Luckily for those people, more is being learned about their situation and there are ways for them to get help and support.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Chocolate Zucchini Bread

In an effort to stem our seemingly never-ending squash overpopulation problem, Mary Beth made some really delicious Chocolate Zucchini Muffins the other day.  She got the recipe from my sister, Stef (not sure where she got it).  The recipe is for loaf bread, but MB made it into muffins with no change to the recipe except the baking time (see the recipe for that change).  She did use half all-purpose flour and half whole-wheat flour to make them a little more healthy.


2 c flour
3/4 c cocoa
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3 eggs
2 c sugar
3/4 c vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 c grated zucchini
1 c chopped nuts (optional)
1 c chocolate chips

  • Combine first 4 ingredients and set aside.
  • Beat eggs; add sugar, oil & vanilla.  Mix well.
  • Add flour mixture to egg mixture and mix well.
  • Add zucchini, nuts (if using) and chips.  Once again, mix well.
  • Pour into greased pans (makes 3 8x4 or 2 9x5 loaves or about 18-20 muffins)
  • Bake 45-60 minutes for loaves, 20-25 minutes for muffins or until bread or muffins spring back when pressed with your finger.  Don't over bake or they'll dry out.  It's better to err on the side of underdone than overdone.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pigging Out

Yesterday, MB, Jake & I went to Bushkill Falls for some hiking.  It's sort of hiking--mostly climbing wooden steps, but still nice.  We thought we might be crazy since the forecast high for Bushkill was 95, but in the woods it was much cooler and the falls, although not rushing as they probably usually are because we haven't had rain in what seems like 6 weeks, gave off a nice cool breeze.  (How 'bout that for a run-on sentence!)

Jake is quite the hiker.  After a brief "I can't walk any more" incident, he traipsed up and down all those steps.  A long way for those little legs to go in that heat.  He was a real sweatball, but he loves it.

When we got home, I grilled up some slices of stuffed tenderloin from Blooming Glen Pork as a quick dinner.  Have you ever had that?  Mmmm....pork tenderloin stuffed with sausage (we had country, but you can get sweet or hot Italian) and all covered in bacon.  Pork stuffed with pork wrapped in pork.  Oh yeah.  You may notice that we're once again eating squash--we're still overrun with them.  MB made some really tasty chocolate zucchini muffins, but that's for another time.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Down on the Farm, Part II

Back at the end of May, we planted our garden.  You may remember my previous post about it.  Well, not much more than a month later, things are looking pretty good!  In fact, it's the best our garden has done in a long time--maybe ever!

A mix of nice garden weather--hot and humid--and our using mushroom soil this year are the causes of our green success.  Already, we've picked more zucchini and squash than we can use--there are about 7 or 8 in our fridge and we've made muffins and fried & grilled squash.  Gotta be creative.  Our tomatoes aren't getting red yet, but they will.  We've had a nice dinner with our beans and there are eggplants, peppers and watermelons starting.  And there will be loads of ground cherries.  If I only knew what to do with them.  Hello, Google!

As you can see from the pictures, the plants are growing like gangbusters--almost growing too much.  The squash plants that ate Blooming Glen!  I'm worried that the plants in the middle won't get enough sun, but I'm sure they'll be OK.

Mary Beth deserves pretty much all of the credit for our gardening success.  She's the one who spent so much time pulling weeds and getting the beds ready.  The least I can do it make her some dinner.  Something with squash, perhaps.

Have a great holiday weekend!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Locavores are Thriving!

I have local food on the brain--from promoting and enjoying a successful screening of Fresh: The Movie to planning for my cooking demos at local farmers' markets to seeing roadside produce stands coming to life all over the place. 

As I've said before, I find it kind of funny that it's so trendy to eat like folks did 150 years ago.  But it's a good trend--one that benefits our health, our environment, our communities and our taste buds. 

It isn't just here in our area, the locavore trend is nation-wide, which bodes well for the future.  Changing the food culture in our country is something that has to happen if we are going to return to a healthy, sustainable way of producing the food we put in our bodies. 

An article in the Napa Valley Register On-line tells of author Janet Fletcher's new book, Eating Locally, A Cookbook Inspired by America's Farmers.  In researching the book, she visited 10 different CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) all over the country and found them thriving.  

CSAs not only give local farmers a way to earn much-needed income, but gives those who are members fresh, healthy produce that they probably would not otherwise get to enjoy.  There are heirloom vegetables that are too perishable to ship across the country like those in the grocery stores.  There are veggies like kohlrabi or collard greens that are new to many people.  And it just makes you feel better to know where your food is from, to talk to the farmer who grew it and to be confident about what you're putting in your mouth--and the mouths of your kids.

That's what buying local food is all about.  Food that's better for you, better for the community, better for our world and, best of all, better tasting.  Let's keep this trend going!