Dark Days Dirt to Dinner Week 1

1 Comment

Big Soup from the Garden

The Dark Days of Winter Eat Local Challenge began Sunday, November 15 and goes through March 31, 2010. Basically the idea is to make at least one meal each week with 90% local, sustainable, organic, ethical ingredients. I’m trying to cook as close to home as possible using ingredients that come straight out of the Dirt to Dinner garden.

Chinese CabbageThis weekend, to get warmed up, I took a few small liberties with Alice Water’s “Winter Minestrone with Turnips, Potatoes, and Cabbage” recipe from The Art of Simple Food. But I like to think that Alice would approve. It was fresh, organic and as local as the front yard after all. Some friends came down from San Francisco, and the enthusiastic audience set the tone.

I had to improvise right from the start with the soffritto because I don’t have celery ready yet. Our celery started from last year’s seed is still tiny. What we do have a bit of in the Dirt to Dinner garden is gorgeous ‘Rainbow’ chard. We fought the leaf miners long and hard this year to get that chard, so I’m making the best of it. Not only did we add it to the “Massaged Kale Salad” the last time the group met, I also used it for the soup. I took two long beet-red stalks of chard and chopped them as I would have the celery and tossed them in with one of the last “White Globe” onions and a variety of carrots ranging from ‘Yellowstone’ to ‘Purple Dragon’ which I snuck out of our carrot Fort Knox as thinnings. When the soffritto had colored nicely, I tossed in garlic, a handful of fresh thyme & some dried Italian parsley that we had growing all over in the spring.

Then I added a pound of ‘Tokyo Market’ turnips, with the greens, the leftover chard leaves, a handful of last tomatoes from a volunteer plant out back, a couple handfuls of our ‘All Blue’ potatoes and sliced up rings of two small leeks. The turnips have been growing in a low bed in the front garden for about six weeks now and they are wonderful. Germination rates have been amazing for this variety and they are small, sweet, tender turnips that even the kids eat happily. The leeks are slow growing and much thinner than I had hoped but they still taste good and the kids often prefer them to onions. The ‘All Blues’ are a story all their own!

The night before I had soaked some of the drying beans we grew this summer with kombu and toward the end of cooking, I added in about 3 cups of these along with the softened piece of kombu. All of this was topped off with a head of chopped Chinese Cabbage pulled from the garden and thoroughly rinsed to remove the slugs hiding in many of the leaf folds.

The bowls of soup were finished off with a splash of nice olive oil and a heaping spoonful of, admittedly not local, Parmesan. I could have finished them with homemade/homegrown pesto, but the cheese was a lovely addition. If you know how I can get some made within 100 miles, I’d love to try it.

October 10th, 2009 by Sidney, Kimberly and Marilee

Leave a comment

Opening Circle: Mackenzie shared a beautiful, new song with African lyrics. The English lyrics are as follows:

Welcome to my village
You are part of my village
We are all one village

Today we passed an invisible “talking stick” and shared the name of our favorite veggies. We also shared the progress of our seed jars. Most of the seeds had quickly germinated and in some cases had multiple leaves, or the seeds remained dormant with mold growing on the moist paper towel.

We discussed that the newly emerging plants were initially feeding on the nutrients within the seed and then each new plant grew toward the sunlight. Sidney shared a seed dispersal experience describing how a neighbor’s dog collected and distributed seeds which had caught onto his fur.

Mackenzie introduced our special guest today, Suzanne Mills, her mother from San Diego. Suzanne was busy helping everyone today with the experiments, cooking, clean up and sharing stories about growing up with Mackenzie. Thank you Suzanne!

Garden Chores:

The front yard was cleaned up with old growth tomato plants taken away to the compost pile.

Large Compost Bin

Tomato Plants Become Compost

Science Project:

We talked about the 3 elements; sunlight, water and soil and how they relate to plants.

There were 3 experiments. Mackenzie prompted the investigation with a question about one of the elements and then we created our scientific guess, sometimes referred to as a hypothesis.

Q#1 What happens to roots with various amounts of water?

Hypothesis: Plants need water

Method: 5 cups of soil were given varying amount of water and ability to drain water.

C1 – no water

C2 Water once with cup drainage holes

C3 Water once with no drainage holes

C4 Water several times with cup drainage holes

C5 Water several times with no drainage holes

Q#2 What does soil do for plants?

H: Quality soil gives us bigger leaves

M: 3 pea seeds using 3 methods were planted in the garden

P1 Peas with water and sun

P2 Peas with poor soil with water

P3 Peas with good soil, sun and water

Q#3 How does light affect plantʼs growth?

H: Plants donʼt need light but they grow better with light

M: Put 3 cups filled with seeds and soil into 3 areas of varying light

C1 Inside without light (closet)

C2 Create a collar of foil around the cup to maximize light capture

C3 Put cup outside with no foil collar

Garden Senses Exercise

How Does the Garden Feel?

Senses in the Garden:

Everyone had fun searching the garden and acting like a detective finding 18 different

textures, smell, sounds, colors, tastes. The “brightness” of each individual piece was


Cooking Project:

Cooking 3 different dishes using Polenta; Polenta crust pizza, soft polenta with olive oil, soft polenta with tomatoes, olive oil and mozzarella cheese, and apple upside down cake.

Polenta is a dish made from boiled cornmeal. When boiled, polenta has a smooth, creamy texture due to the gelatinization of starch in the grain.

Polenta Pizza

Let's Eat!

We watched Talia finish up cooking a pot of soft polenta. After adding the polenta to boiling water she stirred the mixture for over an hour. Her patience paid off as the batch passed the thickening test with her mixing spoon standing straight up from the mixture.

Owen, Kevin, Kimberly and others sliced and diced tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil to decorate the top of the polenta crust.

Everything was delicious.

New Level of Vermiculture

Leave a comment
Worm Relocation

Worm Relocation

Worms have to eat too. As we discovered in Open Garden Thursday at Dirt to Dinner, it’s not hard to make a new lunch level for the worms to call home. First we removed the amazing compost the worms had finished with in the bottom layer of their home. (We saved that for our next project in the garden.) And we carefully placed all the worms that we could into the working bins of the worm house. It’s OK if some of the worms end up in the garden–they’ll survive–but we want to keep as many worms working in the bin as we can.

Worm Lunch

Worm Lunch

Then we took a collection of kitchen scraps that included several melons we had tried earlier in the day and other bits we knew the worms would enjoy.

Worms Can Work with Small Bits of Food Faster

Worms Can Work with Small Bits of Food Faster

And we chopped the large pieces into more manageable bits to make them easier for the worms to use.

Mix Well with Damp Browns

Mix Well with Damp Browns

Next we added some “browns” to the compost we had chopped. Worms need a good mix of food scraps and other “greens” and paper towels, napkins, egg cartons and other “browns” just like you would mix in a regular compost heap. Moisten the browns so they don’t drawn moisture out of the foods and cause the layer to be too dry for the worms to move around comfortably.

From Bottom to Top

From Bottom to Top

Next we lay the newly empty layer on the top of the vermiculture stack and empty the compost bucket into it. The worms will work their way up through the stack. As they finish the compost in the bottom layer they will move up into the next bin searching for new food and bedding and leaving behind beautiful fertile “castings.”

Mix Well with Damp Browns to Fill

Mix Well with Damp Browns to Fill

The worms need to have a mix in the layer of about three parts dampened brown material to one part food scraps or green material. We filled in the layer with torn strips of newspaper to give the worms plenty of new material to work with.

Something to Read While They Work

Something to Read While They Work

The whole layer needs to stay moist, so we finished it off with several sections of newspaper on top that we then sprayed with the hose to keep damp.




Voila! Our worms are ready to move into their new home and start making more fertilizer for the garden.

Thanks, worms! Enjoy your lunch!

The Disappearing Tomatoes

Leave a comment

07 03 09_0069We love fresh tomatoes. Sliced onto a plate with a little salt over them; with mozzarella, a little basil and some balsamic vinegar (Yum!); with crushed crackers and some more balsamic vinegar—also delicious; sliced onto a grilled cheese sandwich before the grilling part—another treat.

But there are limits. And when we cannot face another heaping bowl of lovely, fresh tomatoes calling out to be eaten, we dig out the stock pot and make some catsup.

You can make 24 pounds of fresh tomatoes fit into three or maybe four pint jars this way! It may be an even better tomato disappearing trick than drying. (We’ll have to do an experiment to see how they really compare…hmmm…good thing the kids are back starting in September.)

After several batches and many opinions, here is the recipe we have settled on for delicious, homemade catsup. Or ketchup. Or however you spell it where you’re from.

Let us know how you like it!

Tomato Ketchup
(about 3 or 4 pint jars)

24 pounds ripe tomatoes
3 cups chopped onions
1 or 2 red peppers, on the hot side 
4 teaspoons whole cloves
2 sticks cinnamon, broken in pieces
1½ teaspoons whole allspice
3 tablespoons celery seeds
3 cups cider vinegar
1½ cups sugar
¼ cup pickling or kosher salt

Wash tomatoes. Quarter tomatoes into 4-gallon pot. Add onions and red peppers. Bring to boil and simmer 20 minutes, uncovered.

Combine spices in a spice bag. Place spices and vinegar in a 2-quart saucepan. Bring to boil. Cover, turn off heat and let stand for 20 minutes. Remove spice bag from the vinegar and add the vinegar to the tomato mixture. Boil about 30 minutes. Press boiled mixture through a food mill or sieve. Return to pot. Add sugar and salt and boil gently, stirring frequently until volume is reduced by one-half or until mixture rounds up on spoon without separation. Pour into hot pint jars, leaving 1/8-inch headspace. Wipe jar rims. Adjust lids. Process half-pints in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.

End of the Season

Leave a comment

Ready-to-GrowThe garden is quiet now that the last session of the Spring 09 Dirt to Dinner project is done.

Real-World Wide Web

Real-World Wide Web

We explored the interconnectedness of the food webs we participate in every day. Latecomers spent part of the afternoon asking why we all had on nametages that said things like “Flowers,” “Oak Tree,” “Earthworms” and “Cougar.”

We also dug the potatoes that have been growing in the black nursery cloth circles since the start of the program. The plants had long ago bloomed and were mostly ready for us.

Washing the Dirt Off Dinner

Washing the Dirt Off Dinner

There were lots of the red-skinned potatoes with a blush color inside. I hope the folks at Common Ground know what they were because we liked them and they might work for next year’s Red White and Blue Potato Salad. They kept their color and held up nicely when we cooked them for the Balsamic Green Beans and Potatoes.

Some of the kids chose to pull the plants with their *many* green tomatoes and take them home to hang for ripening.

Roma Tomato Prepped for Dry Hanging

Roma Tomato Prepped for Dry Hanging

We are experimenting with three or four different ways to ripen green tomatoes and I’m curious to see what works best. Right now my favorite is to put them into a paper bag with a ripe apple or tomato and to let them redden that way. We are testing the plant hanging method, sunny window sills, newspaper wrapping and apple-in-a-bag. We’ll let you know how it comes out!

We also stabilized the gourd trellis and planted the gourds, picked the Principe Borghese and Costaluto Genovese tomatoes that were ready and explored the Ice Box watermelon ripening that has happened so far. (Not there yet, but close and already quite tasty!)

Everyone Loves the Eating Part!

Everyone Loves the Eating Part!

Today’s lunch included Balsamic Green Beans and Potaotes, Red White and Blue Potato Salad, Spinach Salad with Goat Cheese, Egg Salad, Tomato Basil Mozzarella, Roasted Tomatillo and Avocado Salsa.

Thank you to everyone who made this year’s program possible, including our generous donors at Seeds of Change, The National Gardening Association Seed Donation Program, the generous and helpful folks at Bauer Lumber and Mark Lassen at Lassen Construction.