The first snow has announced the arrival of a seasonal change. For those of us still acclimating to the shorter days, a warm welcome home and loved ones gathered around the dinner table are cherished moments of the season! When the cold brings us inside to friends and family, we are given a special opportunity to share and give back to the people who mean the most to us.
We can even share the bounty of harvest from our own backyard! Pumpkins, apples, cabbage, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and edible gourds are examples of seasonal fare. We see them in decorative motifs and holiday imagery but they make for delicious seasonal treats.
Squash, an edible gourd is a staple of the season. The winter varieties keep longer because of their thicker skin-on average from one to six months, stored in a cool dark place (50-70 F). Winter squash come in a variety of colors, shapes, and flavors including:
• Butternut squash: Shaped like a large pear, this squash has cream-colored skin, deep orange-colored flesh and a sweet flavor.
• Acorn squash: With harvest green skin speckled with orange patches and pale yellow-orange flesh, this squash has a unique flavor that is a combination of sweet, nutty and peppery.
• Hubbard squash: A larger-sized squash that can be dark green, grey-blue or orange-red in color. The Hubbard’s flavor is less sweet than many other varieties.
• Turban squash: Green in color and either speckled or striped, this winter squash has an orange-yellow flesh whose taste is reminiscent of hazelnuts.
• Kabocha squash: A type of Japanese squash that is becoming more and more popular in the U.S., kabocha squash is very sweet in flavor. It has deep green skin and orange flesh.
Squash is native to the Americas, near Guatemala and Mexico, and originally was harvested for its seeds. When the Native Americans began to grow it as a substantial starch, their cultivation allowed a more weighty fruit to emerge. The name also originated from “askutasquash,” translated to mean, “a green thing eaten raw,” from the Nahaiganseck Sovereign Nation who inhabited Rhode Island. Edible gourds have also been used in other parts of the world where they were commonly rendered into bowls, bottles, and percussion instruments.
Their incredibly tough skin and soft inside means preparation can happen in a myriad of ways: raw, sautéed, grilled, steamed, boiled, broiled, baked, fried, and pureed for soups, cakes, pies, and breads. The versatility of this food works well when catering to personal preferences, and allows endless possibilities for creativity in the kitchen!
Winter squash are high in nutrients, vitamin A, 1/3 of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C, fiber, manganese, and potassium. No single food provides more alpha-carotene and beta-carotene, antioxidants that are naturally anti-viral and anti-inflammatory. Squash seeds are high in omega-3s and like pumpkin seeds they can be roasted for a great snack! At 160-170F, for 15-20min, the low temperature and short bake time ensure that healthy oils stay intact.
Steamed or baked, sharing the history and health benefits of winter squash can be fun.
This simple acorn squash recipe will be a favorite for everyone, especially for kids. The star shape of the acorn squash makes for a fun edible bowl!
Acorn Squash with Brown Sugar
Add the following to taste:
Heat oven to 375 F. Wash and slice off squash top or cut into halves. If you are leaving whole, pierce the sides of the squash with a fork or knife. Cook time: 30-45 minutes, or until soft.
You can peel cooked squash easily or grab a spoon and start scooping!
Your vegetable garden can be just as plentiful in November as it is in May, with some careful selection of crops, seed starting, and preparation against the weather. Cold winds can be even more damaging than low temperatures, so protecting your plants against the wind can extend your growing season. A row cover can protect your fall crops and keep you harvesting fresh greens and vegetables long into the winter.
Start cold-season crops from seed in late summer, amend the beds with compost, and transplant your crops before heavy frosts begin. This will give the young plants a chance to get established before the winter freeze.
A row cover will further protect your seedlings from the winter chill. These are more heavy-duty than the floating row covers that can protect your plants against pests in the spring and summer. A row cover is essentially a temporary greenhouse, just high enough to cover the mature crops. Kits are available for purchase online or in stores, or you can assemble the materials yourself. The row cover will consist of clear plastic sheeting to protect against the wind and a framework to anchor the plastic and hold it above the plants. The framework is often made of plastic or heavy wire in a series of half-hoops, forming a tunnel over the plants.
The row cover should be secured against the wind, but removable for watering and harvesting. One method is to weigh down the edges of the plastic with bricks or stones. You can also attach one edge more permanently by lining the edge of the plastic with duct tape and driving sod staples through it into the ground.
With some trial and error, you can lengthen the growing season for your garden and harvest fresh greens even after local produce has gone out of season.
Herbs are full of potential and provide us with much more than a pretty plant to look at.
Herbs are defined as aromatic leaves from plants of a temperate origin, while spices are defined as aromatic fruits, flowers, bark, seeds or other plant parts from a tropical origin. Commonly, herbs and spices are associated with cooking but have also been used in medicine, as natural dyes, and in perfume and cosmetics. The volatile substances/oils in these plants are what contribute to the essence or aroma. These essential oils are most commonly found in the leaves and flowers and are meant to attract pollinators, but have caught the attention of all who cross their path!
Herbs provide such a natural sensory experience that they are a perfect introduction to plants, especially for children. Some of the sensory herbs recommended for children’s gardens include lemon balm, lavender, lamb’s ear and mint varieties. They provide tools for teaching about plants. One can focus on asking questions regarding how the plant looks, feels, smells and tastes. Other areas that can be explored with children and their families are the pollinators attracted to herbs and their medicinal uses.
The harvest season is coming to a close but there is still time to cut fresh herbs from your garden. All herbs should be harvested before the first hard frost. After harvest, you can either use the fresh herbs or dry your herbs for teas, seasoning, herb butters or potpourri. There is also the option of continuing to grow your herbs indoors. Some herbs can be grown successfully indoors in a pot or herb box. Herbs, especially herbs in the mint family, fare fine in a south-facing windowsill. Growing herbs like basil, oregano, and rosemary provide the opportunity for you to add the fresh-picked flavor to your meals all winter. Some tips for growing herbs indoors include placing the potted herbs in your sunniest window; a room with a ceiling fan is ideal for air circulation and do not overwater. The Herb Society found here http://www.herbsociety.org/ has great resources about herbs.
Gather herbs early in the day, after the dew has dried but before the sun bakes the plant’s essential oils. To prepare leafy stems for use in cooking, strip the leaves off the stems by sliding your thumb and forefinger from top to bottom.
Drying herbs is done in one of two ways; either by gathering small bunches of 10 to 15 stems and hanging them in a warm, airy place to dry or placing herbs on a drying rack (these herbs are often covered with cheese cloth). Drying can take up to three weeks, depending on the plant. Herbs should always be stored away from light and heat.
Once herbs are dry, keep them in an airtight glass or ceramic container. This will protect their flavor and fragrance. Keep the leaves whole until use (crushing the leaves releases their flavor).
Herb butter can be the perfect addition to veggies, as a rub on your Thanksgiving turkey, for corn on the cob, or on your favorite warm bread.
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/4 cup finely chopped mixed herbs, fresh or dried (such as basil, thyme, sage, parsley, dill, chives, tarragon, oregano, marjoram or rosemary)
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
In a small bowl, combine all ingredients. Mix well until herbs are distributed evenly. Place onto a piece of waxed paper, shape into a cylinder or disk and seal ends by twisting. Chill in refrigerator until firm, for at least an hour. The herb butter will keep in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks and in the freezer for a few months.
Also: See our post on herbal tea.
There are a few tomatoes left on the vine, fall and winter are setting in, and you may think that the gardening season is over in western Pennsylvania. But that’s only true if you stop planting your garden with veggies. There are many greens and root veggies that thrive in the fall, and even last into the freezing months. There are also techniques that can extend your gardening season into cold weather.
Some cool-weather gardening requires planning ahead and sowing seeds inside during the summer. Slow-growing or long-season crops, such as leeks or brussel sprouts, will need to be started as early as July. Carrots and turnips can be started at the beginning of September. Allowing these crops a couple of months of above-freezing temperatures and long daylight hours will allow them to get established. However, once they have established, they can continue to grow to maturity as long as the ground does not freeze and the foliage is protected from freezing wind.
Start seeds for cold-hardy greens in September as well, and transplant them in early October – right as you take out your peppers or eggplants. Greens such as spinach, kale, tatsoi, endive, and mache can fill this garden space, grow well in cool weather, and can be continuously harvested as the temperatures drop. Radishes, another fast-growing crop, can be sown directly in place in September and harvested in October.
Protecting your cold-hardy plants from winter temperatures can further extend the growing season. Try investing in a row cover, which is a roll of clear plastic supported by metal or plastic hoops over the plants – like a miniature greenhouse. A row cover or hoop house, which is a more permanent structure, will protect the plants from winter wind and capture heat.
Cold frames function much like row covers. A cold frame is a bottomless box, usually constructed of wood with a hinged glass or plastic lid. The frame is placed over the plant, and the lid can be raised to harvest or water the plants. Row covers and cold frames can have you pulling up turnips and rutabagas even when snow is on the ground.
If you are new to fall and winter gardening, start with some spinach and radishes and see how long they continue to grow. Your fall garden may become as successful as your summer plantings!
Have you ever found yourself throwing out vegetables or fruits because they went bad before you got to using them? Americans throw away an alarming amount of food; according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American wastes 20% of their vegetables and 15% of fruits.
Whether you’re harvesting vegetables from your own garden or picking them up at the farmer’s market or grocery store, you don’t want your veggies going to waste. Knowing how to properly store produce is important to help it stay fresh as long as possible, and reduce its chances of being tossed.
Different vegetables need different storage conditions- they shouldn’t all just be thrown in the fridge! Temperature and humidity are the main storage factors; there are three combinations for long-term storage:
- cool and dry (50-60°F and 60% relative humidity)
- Basements are generally cool and dry. If you store vegetables in your basement, provide them with some ventilation (don’t use plastic bags), and protection from rodents.
- cold and dry (32-40°F and 65% relative humidity)
- Refrigerators are generally cold and dry. Don’t put veggies that require these conditions in plastic- leave them unbagged, or use paper bags or boxes.
- cold and moist (32-40°F and 95% relative humidity)
- Put vegetables in perforated plastic bags in the refrigerator for cold and moist conditions. Unperforated plastic bags often create too humid conditions, which lead to condensation and growth of mold or bacteria
For your reference, specific storage information for some common vegetables is below (expected shelf-life times are only estimates).
|Vegetable||How to Store||Expected Shelf-life||Tips|
|beans, snap||cold and moist||1 week||develop pitting if stored below 40°; don’t wash before storing|
|beets||cold and moist||5 months||store without tops|
|broccoli||cold and moist||2 weeks||-|
|brussels sprouts||cold and moist||1 month||-|
|cabbage||cold and moist||5 months||-|
|carrots||cold and moist||8 months||store without tops|
|chard||cold and moist||3-4 days||wash before using, not before storing|
|collards||cold and moist||4-5 days||wrap leaves in moist paper towels, place in sealed bag. wash thoroughly before using|
|corn, sweet||cold and moist||5 days||-|
|cucumbers||cool spot in kitchen in perforated plastic bags; or in refrigerator for a few days||1 week||develops pitting and water-soaked areas if chilled below 40°F; do not store with apples or tomatoes|
|eggplant||like cucumbers||1 week||develops pitting, bronzing, pulp browning if stored for long period below 50°F|
|herbs||cold and moist||varies||store in plastic bag with paper towel, or upright in a glass of water|
|lettuce||cold and moist||1 week||-|
|onions||cold and dry||4 months||cure at room temperature 2-4 weeks before storage, do not freeze|
|peas||cold and moist||1 week||-|
|peppers||like cucumbers||2 weeks||develops pitting below 45°F|
|radishes||cold and moist||1 month||store without tops|
|rutabagas||cold and moist||4 months||do not wax|
|spinach||cold and moist||10 days||-|
|squash, summer||like cucumbers||1 week||do not store in refrigerator for more than 4 days|
|tomatoes, red||like cucumbers||5 days||loses color, firmness and flavor if stored below 40°F; do not refrigerate!|
When you say pesto, most people think of basil pesto, a wonderful summertime treat. But did you know pesto can be made with more than basil? “Pesto” is an Italian word meaning “to pound, to crush”, referring to the method of preparation, not specific ingredients.
With the chill of fall in the air basil plants are likely slowing down, but this is prime growing weather for your hardy greens like kale and collards. While it has a different flavor, pesto can be made with these greens instead of the traditional basil. You can use your favorite pesto recipe, just substitute the basil for kale or another green!
The greens can be used raw, but if you want you may add a step to soften them: before blending, cook the greens in boiling water until the leaves are just wilted, 30-60 seconds, then remove from the heat and rinse under cold water. You can even use kale stems in pesto, they just need to be boiled longer, about 20 minutes or until tender.
Dark greens are packed with vitamins and minerals with lots of health benefits, so this pesto is also a delicious way to add some nutrients to many dishes or snacks- use as a sandwich spread or pasta sauce, a dip for crackers or veggies, or add a dollop to salads or eggs. Be creative, and enjoy!
• 2 cups packed fresh leaves, herbs or greens
• 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided (basil, parsley, chard, kale, or any combo will work)
• salt and black pepper, to taste
• 2 cloves garlic
• 1/2 cup grated Pecorino chees
• 1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts
• optional: 2 T lemon juice
If using greens, boil water and cook the leaves until they are just wilted, 30-60 seconds. Remove from heat, rinse under cold water. If using herbs, use them fresh.
Combine the leaves, garlic, and nuts in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 1/2 cup of the oil and process until fully incorporated and smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add all the remaining oil and pulse until smooth. Transfer to a serving bowl and mix in the cheese.
September brings many things, the changing of season, fall festivals and of course the start of school.
School time traditions often spur back to school shopping and making the decision to pack lunch or buy lunch. Do you remember what you would eat in school? Did you pack your lunch or did you eat the school’s lunch? Yet, often the thought of school lunches gives us reason for pause. In a world of snack machines, fast food and devastating budget cuts to schools, the quality of school lunches can be affected.
Luckily, movements toward healthier school lunches and healthy eating in general have been taking root with thanks in part to local awareness by parents, community connections to food resources and farmer’s markets. Noteworthy is the national Let’s Move movement, Michelle Obama’s campaign to bring awareness to and promote the benefits of healthy eating in order to fight childhood obesity. Right here in Pittsburgh, Phipps has spearheaded Let’s Move Pittsburgh, a model based on Michele Obama’s campaign to raise awareness about the benefits of healthy foods, increased exercise and decreased screen time for children in the Southwestern Pennsylvania region. http://www.letsmovepittsburgh.org/
In an effort to raise awareness of the importance of preparing and eating meals together, Let’s Move Pittsburgh the 10,000 Tables Pledge, is challenging local families to cook at least one meal from scratch per week. To date, 3,000 families have taken the pledge, and Let’s Move Pittsburgh provides support and recipe ideas through workshops, cooking demonstrations, community events and email newsletters. These pledges represent a commitment to improving personal eating habits and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Will you join us and take the pledge? http://letsmovepittsburgh.org/10000_tables.php
Also worth checking out is the Food, Family and Farming Foundation or F3, whose mission is to empower schools nationally to serve more nutritious meals. Lunch Box, a web portal of resources, includes information on connecting local farmers with schools, grant opportunities for schools, curriculum about healthy eating, the Let’s Move salad bar option in schools and healthy recipes. http://www.foodfamilyfarming.org/html/programs.html
As with many things in life preparation and habits really set the stage for choices, this is no different with food choices. Growing food at home is a great way to connect children to the fruits and vegetables you want them to eat. The seed to plate practice is a practical and fun way to introduce new foods to children. Involving children in the garden, having them help you to seed, care for, harvest and prepare these meals all have proven to be hugely successful at improving healthy eating and expanding children’s pallets. Children feel more invested in their “project” and want to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Good edible gardening options for families are containers and raised beds, especially since you do not need to have a large yard. Keeping these containers close to the house allows for easy access. Cherry tomatoes, basil, Swiss chard, peppers even carrots are just a few examples of what can be grown in containers and harvested easily. These fruits and veggies can be nice, fresh additions to a meal or packed lunch.
So whether your child eats school lunches or packed lunches, general tips for guiding your family to healthy eating can be helpful. Just a little advance planning makes it possible to provide a nutrient-packed meal for your child. These tips are provided by Phipps and Let’s Move Pittsburgh:
- Serve/pack ice water instead of juice to cut down on added sugar.
- Variety is important, try not to serve/pack the same thing every day.
- Include at least one fruit and one veggie in every lunch.
- Skip the salty snacks and chips; they have the potential to create a preference for processed foods.
- Keep it simple, including too many food items can sometimes have the unwanted effect of making children eat less.
- Include your child in decisions about what goes into the meal, use fruits and vegetables that you grew or prepared together, if possible.
Great child-friendly recipes can be found here: http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2012/04/19/school-lunch-roundup/
Sandwich Sushi – Flatten 2 slices of bread with a rolling pin. Mix together 3 tablespoons of cream cheese and 1 1/2 tablespoons of sour cream; spread over slices. Lay two carrot and two cucumber matchsticks (6 inches long) at the bottom of each slice, let veggies hang over the edges if desired. Roll up the bread, pressing gently to seal, then cut each roll in four equal pieces.