Archive for October, 2010|Monthly archive page

The Ubiquitous Autumn Pumpkin

For the week of Halloween, how could I possibly pass up the chance to write about pumpkins? This symbol of October is so lasting, so cherished, so well loved. When my children were young they used to go crazy with anticipation until it was time to harvest our pumpkins. Then the entire month of October was spent experimenting with different culinary uses for them. Now if your children aren’t great about eating their fruits and veggies, I can promise you this: they will devour foods with pumpkin in them. For some reason, kids don’t seem to even associate pumpkins with the nutritional goodness that they pack. Instead, they are focused on the brilliant orange skin, and the plethora of goop and seeds inside. I suppose that to kids, pumpkins just seem like too much fun to be healthy.

Many people refer to pumpkins as vegetables, which is perhaps because they are closely associated with other types of squash and gourds. Technically, though, pumpkins are a fruit because they contain seeds. I am sure that you commonly hear pumpkins referred to as vegetables, right? Same thing goes for tomatoes. But the thing that makes both pumpkins and tomatoes technically fruits is that they contain seeds. Therefore, bell peppers are technically fruits as well, despite the fact that we very commonly refer to them as vegetables. Pumpkins are part of the cucurbita species of plants, which includes squash, watermelons, and cucumbers- all technically fruits. Here’s where an easy argument comes in, though: The term “vegetable” is actually just a culinary term, and many people argue that its definition is subjective and has no scientific value. So, let’s just say that whether you call a pumpkin a fruit or a vegetable is up to you, shall we? (And next time the conversation goes flat at a dinner party, just bring this up and see which side people take.)

In my garden, I have experimented with different types of heirloom pumpkins over the years. I have harvested pumpkins in blue-grey shades, funky oblong twisty shapes, and even some that are warty. But none of the ones I have grown have looked like your average, run-of-the-mill grocery store pumpkin. Like many other types of fruits and vegetables, what you’re used to seeing in the store is a hybridized pumpkin that has been bred to have smooth skin and a long, broad carving surface. When you open your garden to heirloom pumpkin varieties, you have a huge range of colors, textures, shapes, and sizes to choose from.

My daughter’s favorite has always been the Rouge Vif D’Etampes pumpkin, or what she used to call the Cinderella pumpkin. This pumpkin makes an excellent fall decoration because it is slightly squat and wide, and develops a very deep, rich red orange color. This variety of pumpkin is excellent for cooking and baking as well, since its flesh is firm and sweet. Isn’t it a beauty?

One of my personal favorite types of pumpkin is the Jarrahdale, which originally hails from Australia. Isn’t this just an interesting, unusual looking pumpkin? I love the deeply ridged gray-green exterior. A major plus is that this is a downright delicious pumpkin, too. The flesh on the inside is unique in that it is not stringy at all, and it has a nice bright yellow color and sweet flavor. Another bonus is that Jarrahdales can be stored for quite a long time, as long as they are kept in an environment where they are not at risk of mold and mildew attack.

For the kids, it’s always fun to grow a classic, round and orange variety of pumpkin as well. One type that I have had success with is the Cheyenne Bush Pumpkin. Now if you have a limited amount of space to grow your pumpkins, this is a good option for you. Typically, the fruits will only grow to be about 7 pounds, whereas Jarrahdales will be somewhere in the 10-20 pound range, and Cinderella pumpkins can grow to be as large as 40 pounds. While this is not the first pumpkin I would recommend for taste, it has quite a bit of visual appeal.

For a small pumpkin that actually tastes good, try the New England Pie Pumpkin. You may also hear these called Sugar Pie pumpkins. This should be your #1 choice for canning, and of course for dessert baking. These pumpkins grow to be only about 5-8 pounds, which makes them easy to handle. Of course, the name is not just clever. These pumpkins have a naturally sweet flesh.

Now regardless of which variety you choose to grow, one thing that you will need is a little bit of patience. Most types of heirloom pumpkins take around 100 days from planting to harvest. Some giant varieties take a full 150 days. For jack o’lantern and cooking types of pumpkins, such as those I have listed above, it is best to start your seeds indoors in early May. Your pumpkin plants can then be sown outdoors between May 15 and June 15. If you are still at risk of frost- make sure to provide protecti0n. Young pumpkin plants are very delicate. Later when your plants blossom, and finally your fruits grow, you may need to place a fence around them to protect them. Turns out that not just humans are attracted to pumpkins- your neighborhood critters might try to get to them, too. After approximately 4 months, your patience will be rewarded.

So while it may be too late this year for you to grow your own heirloom pumpkins, it’s never too early to start planting next spring’s garden. I am confident that you will enjoy moving the tradition of pumpkin picking from your farmers’ market to your own backyard.

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Blog Action Day 2010 = Water

Last Friday, October 15th was official Blog Action Day, as recognized by Change.org. All over the world, thousands of bloggers typed away about this year’s designated topic: water.

Why water, you may ask? Well, here’s what I think is the interesting thing about this topic. When it comes to writing an action-oriented blog about the topic of water, there are so many angles one could take. Greenpeace wrote about the threat that nuclear power poses to clean water sources. John Sauer of the Huffington Post wrote about the severe lack of clean water, sanitation, and hygiene for students attending school in developing countries. Melanie Nayer wrote on the Gadling blog about how crucial clean water has been to rebuilding an earthquake-ravaged Haiti. If you Google “blog action day,” you can find thousands of blogs that  were written last Friday, all about water. The fascinating thing to me is that, from what I can tell, these blogs really lack redundancy. There are so many avenues one can choose when writing about water, because it is of course, quite simply, our life force.

The sad thing about the topic of water is that it is one that is largely related to crisis. In some areas of the world, clean water is in terrifyingly short supply. As Nayer discusses in her article, about one-third of all children in Haiti die before they reach the age of five, and 60% of these deaths are directly related to diarrheal disease and malnutrition. There’s currently an area in the Pacific Ocean called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is filled with 100 million tons of plastic litter. There is so much plastic in the water that it outnumbers zooplankton six to one. Millions of sea mammals, birds, and fish die every year because of ingestion of or entanglement in plastic.

Unfortunately, the problems that we as a planet face with our water supply are numerous. It may be easy for people like me, in my cozy home in Virginia, to not realize the enormity of the global water problem. It really is quite closely related to the global food crisis. Because we can shop at a fully stocked grocery store, we assume there is no food crisis. Because we can turn on the tap, we assume there is no water crisis. But indeed both of these problems are factual and not tall tales. The misconceptions surrounding the planet’s water crisis are many.

Here are my top five misconceptions about water:

(1) Bottled water is healthier and cleaner than tap water. In reality, tap water is about as nutritious as water gets. You may think that bottled water smells or tastes better, but unless you have a well with contaminated water, there is nothing wrong with your tap water. For a detailed list of myths about bottled water, check out this list on WebMD. Bottled water is a HUGE industry here in America, but my opinion is that those precious bottles should only be sent to where they are really needed. It’s not really water scarcity that is a problem in many areas of the world, but access to clean water. In fact, the ancient Romans had better access to clean water than half the people alive in the world today. Here we are sipping water from plastic bottles, then tossing the bottle to let it sit for eternity in a landfill, when thousands of people are dying every day after falling ill from water-borne contaminants. Shame on us.

(2) Everyone should drink eight, eight-ounce glasses of water a day. This is a general rule of thumb for the TOTAL amount of fluids you should consume in a day, and this includes the water you get from food. This quiz calculates the amount of water you should drink per day based on your weight, whether you exercise and for how long, whether you are pregnant or breastfeeding, whether you live at a high altitude or in a dry climate, whether the climate has extreme temperatures, whether you consume alcoholic beverages, or have a fever or diarrhea. So obviously, there are really many factors to take into account.

(3) Drinking extra water every day will help you lose weight and give you healthier skin. Unfortunately, neither one of these is true. Water is not magical. Just because you drink it does not mean you will lose weight. Now if you keep your mouth busy by drinking water rather than consuming caloric food or beverages, perhaps this will help. But water in does not equal weight off. As far as your skin is concerned, there is very little evidence that extra water every day is good for your skin. If you drink water instead of sugar-laden soda, then yes, this is better for your skin, as well as your overall health. But drinking extra water every day to clear or moisturize your skin is likely to be ineffective.

(4) Because water is a renewable resource, it is in no short supply. About one out of every six people in the world today lack access to safe drinking water. As the global population grows, it is reasonable for us to expect this problem to worsen. It is quite similar to the impending food crisis; as the population continues to boom, there will just not be enough clean water on earth for all those people. The amount of waste water we generate and disperse will exceed the amount of clean water we can produce.

(5) The water crisis is a problem to worry about tomorrow. If you read my blog, then you know my mantra by now: Don’t panic, be prepared. I am forever writing about the reality of the food crisis, and the fact of the matter is that food would not exist without water. These two are so closely intertwined that they are practically inseparable. Today, as much as 70% of the world’s clean water supply goes to agriculture. So what do you think will happen when that clean water supply starts to run dry?

Ginger Root’s Good For Just About Everything

Ginger ale is a well known stomach soother when you are home sick with the flu. And it’s not just the fizzy bubbles that help you to feel better. Ginger root is a powerful remedy for various ailments. Over the years, my family and I have used ginger root for:

  • muscle aches and strains from exercise
  • motion sickness
  • morning sickness
  • upset stomachs
  • colds
  • flu
  • indigestion
  • migraines
  • menstrual cramps
  • heachaches
  • cough
  • chest congestion

So as you can see, ginger root is good for just about anything that ails you.

One thing that you may notice is that ginger root itself can be rather expensive at the grocery store. Of course you know already what I am going to say here- why are you buying it at the store? You can grow ginger yourself rather easily, so there’s no reason to rely on a supermarket for your ginger supply. Ginger root can be harvested about 5 months after you plant it, and can be cultivated all year.

I do use my ginger root for culinary purposes, but more frequently and regularly for medicinal purposes. So, I grow my ginger in my medicinal herb garden alongside the items from my Survival Herb Bank. Once you plant your ginger, you’ll find that it is a plant that does not really need a lot of tending. You can basically harvest it, replant it, and then not do much for another year. You’ll have plenty of ginger root for yourself and some to give away, too.

How to grow ginger root at home:

The first time you plant ginger root, you’ll need to begin with a piece of ginger root, which technically is a piece of the ginger rhizome. When you uproot your first ginger plant to harvest it, you’ll see that there is foliage above the earth, a bulbous piece that is the rhizome and the part that we consume, and then small roots coming off the rhizome. So even though we call the part we eat “ginger root”, it is technically “ginger rhizome.” I know that is a bit confusing, as you can see pictured below, there is a difference between the rhizome and the root. The rhizome is the part that we use. For the sake of this blog, I’ll refer to the edible part that we use just as “ginger root” rather than “ginger rhizome” just because it is less confusing that way.

The best time to plant your ginger root is in the early spring, after the threat of frost has passed. So begin with a piece of ginger root, preferably one that has come from a trusted source, such as a friend’s organic garden. Select a nice plump piece of root, preferably one that already has some little eyes, or growth buds, in it. Soak this piece of ginger root in a glass of water overnight.

As when planting any fruit, vegetable, or herb, your soil should be adequately prepared ahead of time. Ginger prefers a spot with filtered sunlight, and moist but not swampy soil. Since the part of the ginger that we consume develops below the earth, it is very important that the soil drains well. Ginger is a tropical plant and prefers a nice warm spot. If you live in a cold climate, you can successfully grow ginger indoors in a 14 inch pot. You can plant up to 3 rhizomes in a pot this size.

After soaking your piece of ginger root overnight, and finding and preparing the ideal growing spot, you are ready to transplant your ginger root. Place it in a hole 4 inches deep with the growth buds facing upwards. If you wish to plant rows of ginger, space your plants about 6-8 inches apart from each other. In order to retain moisture, make sure to lay a thick layer of mulch around your plants.

After a few months, you’ll find that your ginger plant really doesn’t take up that much room at all. Above the ground you will see the stem with a few leaves, but that is about it. If you leave the plant for a long time, it will become a dense bushy clump about 2-3 feet in height, but your plants will probably never reach this point, quite simply because you must uproot them to harvest your rhizomes.

As your ginger plants grow, keep the soil moist, but make sure it does not get swampy. Towards the end of the summer when temperatures start to cool down, you will notice that your ginger plants start to wither. At this time, stop watering them. Allow all of the foliage to die back and the soil to dry out. Once this process is complete, you are ready to uproot your plants and harvest your ginger root!

The process of planting to harvest may take as few as 5 months, or as many as 8 or 9. The best way to tell when it is ready for harvest is by using the method above- wait until the foliage dies back. After about 4 months you may see the tops of the rhizomes sticking up out of the earth. Although you can harvest it at this time, I would not recommend it, as this tends to be less flavorful and not yet fully matured.

Once you have harvested your rhizomes, save a few to replant. The others can be stored in your refrigerator or even frozen. When it is needed for culinary purposes, peel it, chop it, and add it to your dish. When it is needed for medicinal purposes, you can eat or chew on a chunk straight up. As ginger root tends to be extremely strong in flavor, you may prefer to pour boiling water over a chunk of ginger to create a tea. Stir in a bit of honey for some sweetness. For muscle aches, burns, or abrasions, you can create a compress by soaking chunks of ginger in warm or cool water, immersing a cloth in the water, then applying this compress to the skin.

You’ll soon find that ginger root can replace many of the medicinal items in your bathroom cabinet- I promise! It’s healthy, safe, and self sustaining, making it a perfect cure.