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Vegan Arugula Pesto with Zucchini Noodles

I’ve been wanting to make something new for dinner for a while now, but I wanted it to have a comfort food feel. When I can’t quite decide what I want to do, I usually look through my photo database that contains years of images from meals (good and bad) long since forgotten. That’s when I saw a photo of an old favorite, and I knew what had to be done.

arugula pesto with zucchini noodles - fork

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It’s Time to Talk About Bees

honey bee

Throughout much of our lives, we are taught to fear, even despise bees. In reality, we owe more to the hardworking bee than most of us realize.

The mystery plague known as Colony Collapse Disorder has been in the news for several years now. For reasons still unknown, CCD occurs when the adult worker bee population of a hive disappears, leaving the queen and even honey behind. This has lead to a decided upswing in the number of backyard beekeepers across North America who are enjoying the benefit of increased pollinator activity in their communities, and some tasty honey to boot.

Keeping honey bees isn’t easy. It requires expensive equipment and quite a bit of monitoring and maintenance that can be daunting and even off-putting for a novice. Now before you think I’m warning you against home beekeeping, I should tell you that I intend on introducing a hive into my back garden a little later in the year. That said, I want to tell you about some other bees that get less of a spotlight, but do just as much work pollinating our food crops. What’s more, they’re not susceptible to Colony Collapse Disorder!

mason bee habitat

Check out those awesome little birdhouses… oh, waitaminute! Those are bee habitats! That’s right, habitats for mason bees, to be exact.

Mason bees are incredibly hard workers, but unlike honey bees, there are over 130 species of mason bees that are native to North America. What’s more, mason bees are homebodies in the strictest sense; they don’t ever travel more than 300 feet from their tiny little home to forage. What does this mean to a home garden?

  • It means that when you have a mason bee habitat in your yard or garden, you’re kinda guaranteed to increase the pollinator activity in your yard, whereas honey bees commonly travel 4 miles away from home to seek out food.
  • It means that you can increase pollinator activity at home without the expense or potential risk of raising honey bees.
  • It means that you can help to alleviate the pressure on the honeybee population by increasing the population of other beneficials, like mason bees.

Added bonus? Mason bees hardly ever sting!

mason bees on hand

Now you’re probably asking yourself why I am telling you about these awesome bees, and I’m glad you asked. I wanted to let you know about masons because I want to introduce you to my friends at Crown Bees and their incredible effort to protect our endangered food supply.

Save The Bees comes at a critical time, when the foods (even beer) we love are at a higher risk than ever before because the number of pollinators is shrinking too fast to keep up with demand. Take a look at this quick video that explains the campaign far better than I could:

 

Bee BoosterNow I want to ask you to join me in supporting the Save The Bees campaign by becoming a Bee Booster. You can do this by donating outright and by adding mason bees to your own back yard or garden. I am planning a big habitat for my own space and I’ll share the entire process with you here, as well as answer any questions you have about the process or the bees. Don’t worry, if I’m ever stumped, Crown Bees are always ready to give you the answers you need.

There’s also a brand new community that I know you’re going to want to take part in. Check it all out by clicking here, or on the Native Bee Booster logo above.

The bees and our beloved food crops need our help, so let’s do it, ya’ll! If you have any questions at all, please leave them in the comments below and I’ll make sure they get answered quickly.

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Time to Spring Ahead with Plants from Longfield Gardens

Longfield Plants

It’s here! It’s here! Tomorrow is the first day of spring 2015 and I’m so excited I can’t stand it! Yesterday I received my order from Longfield Gardens that contains 50 strawberry plants for a special installation surrounding a gazing ball that I picked up from a local friend a couple of weeks ago.

The order also has some ornamental plants that may surprise folks who have been following me for a long time, as I have historically been almost exclusively edible-centric in my plantings. Even though my new garden design is going to be focused on permaculture principles, I wanted to add plenty of color, interest, and diversity to the space, and the gorgeous hostas and cannas will be just the ticket. Here’s what the order contained:

As you can see from the photo above, these plants are shipped bare root, sealed in plastic bags. I have inspected every plant in every bag, and I can say without hesitation that the plant health and quality is top shelf.

I arranged my schedule so that I can spend the majority of 3/20/15 – The First Day of Spring – in the garden as it should be. The cultivator will be breaking the ground, plants will be introduced to their new home, and there will be much dirt under my fingernails when the day is done. I do all of this knowing full well the distinct probability of another frost in the new 2-3 weeks, but I have everything in place to protect my new babies should it become necessary. Until then, it’s time to spring ahead.

Are you planting anything new this year? Leave a comment and tell me about it!

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Hey Spring! Let’s Get Going!

bonnie plants

Just like that, without any fanfare, the spring 2015 planting season has begun in my new garden space. Four days before the official beginning of spring, the sun is shining, temperatures are tipping the 80 degree mark and I just can’t help myself – I’ve got to plant something!

Lucky for me, there are several retailers within a few miles that carry the wonderful products from my friends at Bonnie Plants, so all that was left was to exercise a bit of restraint when choosing what I would do today. Because I will be purchasing seedlings from a local source in support of neighborhood gardening projects, I decided on two tomatoes today: Super Sweet 100 and German Johnson. I also grabbed a bundle of Georgia Sweet onions, as I didn’t manage to plant any last fall.

For the first time all year, I have dirt under my fingernails again, and a new back garden space to build out this season. It will be largely permaculture-inspired, with the overwhelming majority of plantings being edible.

potatoes

After quite a few years without them, I plan to include potatoes in this year’s garden lineup, though I am still on the fence about which variety to grow. I love fingerlings and Yukon Gold and have had great success with both in zone 7, but I’m open to other options if someone can convince me that they will be a better choice.

What kind of potatoes are you growing this year? Leave a comment below and tell me about your experience!

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Cheezy Mexican Chili Mac (It’s Vegan!)

While convenience foods are often not good for us, there’s something about them that draws us in time and time again. Not only are they easy to prepare, they often trigger fond and comforting memories of childhood. I have wanted to create a meat and dairy-free version of my Homemade Cheeseburger Macaroni for a while now, but the recent discovery of an impressive nacho cheese replacement recipe told me that last night was the night.

Cheezy Chili Mac

The brilliance of this meal was absolutely found in the Nacho Cheese recipe from a blog called Hot for Food. It comes together in minutes and has a brilliant flavor. I really can’t recommend it highly enough. If you look at the recipe and it intimidates you, just replace the arrowroot starch it calls for with non-GMO corn starch and you’ll never know the difference.

Simple Truth CrumblesIn place of the ground meat, I am using a soy-based product from Kroger’s Simple Truth line called Meatless Crumbles. The texture and flavor is impressive, and it is as flexible as the meat it replaces. I have to admit that I have been really impressed with the extensive organic and health-forward offerings I have seen in many of the Kroger stores in my area.

 

Cheezy Mexican Chili Mac (It's Vegan!)
 
Author:
Recipe type: Entree
Cuisine: Mexican
Ingredients
  • 2 cups macaroni noodles
  • 2 cups Simple Truth Meatless Crumbles (or other similar product)
  • 2 Tablespoons Homemade Taco Seasoning
  • ⅛ cup water
  • Nacho Cheese from Hot for Food Blog (link above)
  • Olive oil
Instructions
  1. Cook macaroni according to package instructions and drain.
  2. Saute crumbles over medium high heat in a little oil for 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add taco seasoning and water, stir, and continue to cook over medium heat until the liquid reduces.
  4. Add cooked macaroni and nacho cheese and stir. Cover and allow to sit for 5 minutes before serving.

 

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Winter Sowing 2015: Update 1

At long last, I have finally found the time to start winter sowing the seeds for this spring’s garden. Using reclaimed jugs from a local organic juicer, the first of the seeds are now nestled into their outdoor nurseries, anxiously awaiting their time in the sun.

Winter Sowing 2015 - 1The first to be sown are four tomato varieties from my vintage library. I planted nine each of:

Winter Sowing 2015 - 2

Winter sowing is the perfect solution for anyone who doesn’t have the indoor space or the time required to start seeds indoors. The entire process is very simple and doesn’t require special equipment or lighting.

Winter Sowing 2015 - 3

In fact, once you have planted your winter sown seeds and watered them in, all you need to do is check them every week or so to see if they need water. Then just let nature take its course and in a few weeks you will have beautiful garden-ready seedlings that don’t have to be hardened off before going into the ground!

Winter Sowing 2015 - 4

I’ll keep you update as to everything I’m winter sowing this year, and if you have any questions, please ask them in the comments below.

Are you growing tomatoes this year? If so, which ones?

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Vegan General Tso’s Chicken

When I went vegan a few months ago, one of the goals I set was to create delicious meat and dairy-free versions of all of my favorite recipes. Recently I accomplished my goal with one of my all-time faves, General Tso’s Chicken. This makeover was one of the easiest yet, and it comes together quickly without much effort.

Vegan General Tso Chicken

The key to the recipe is the sauce, of course. The original version calls for two cups of chicken broth, so I wanted to come up with an alternative that was just as flavorful. Vegetable broth wasn’t an option because that’s not the flavor profile of the dish. I ended up using a combination of water, red wine, and bouillon and couldn’t have been happier with the result.

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Slow Cooker Lentil Soup

Slow Cooker Lentil Soup Ingredients

Who doesn’t love a good slow cooker recipe? This is a modification of my Red Split Lentil “Crack Soup” recipe, made even easier and with less fuss thanks to the magic that is the slow cooker. You can modify the ingredients to suit your taste, so I have included just the basic framework here. The seasonings are there to create a well-rounded flavor base, so if you don’t want to change anything, you don’t have to. This soup is delicious exactly as it is.

For example: You need a total of three quarts of liquid for this recipe. If you don’t have a quart of vegetable stock, you can substitute it with any stock you do have on hand, or with more water. Want a more substantial flavor? Replace some or all of the water with more stock. More carrots? Love celery? Go for it.

You are the captain of this ship, my friend. Go forth and make this soup your own.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 quart (4 cups) vegetable stock
  • 2 quarts (8 cups) water
  • 2 cups dried red split lentils
  • 2 cups carrots, cut into coins
  • 1-2 cups celery, sliced
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 Tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 Tablespoon herbs de Provence
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • pinch of red chili flakes (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Place all ingredients in a large slow cooker and stir to combine.
  2. Set slow cooker to LOW and allow to cook for 7-8 hours.
  3. Serve

NOTE: If you like a creamier soup, you can puree using a stick blender to your desired consistency.

Slow Cooker Lentil Soup

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Mongolian Beef and Broccoli

 

Mongolian Beef

I am, was, and always will be a fan of Mongolian Beef & Broccoli. That perfect marriage of tangy, sweet, salty, chewy… it’s just a wonderful thing. Sure, I know it isn’t “health food” by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s delicious and satisfying, and making it at home you can be sure of everything that goes into it.

Mongolian Beef Ingredients

It took me years to mimic the flavor of P.F. Chang’s Mongolian Beef sauce recipe, but once I got the sauce right, it was right. For this recipe though, I’m changing things up just a bit from the norm. Usually I would present a recipe and offer up options for vegetarians or vegans. This time, I’m giving you a complete recipe that is ready for vegans, and then giving the options for meat eaters.

gardein beefThe miracle that made this plant-based recipe possible was a product by the gardein company. In this case, it was their Sizzling Szechuan Beefless Strips. It comes with a premade sauce packet inside, but I wanted to stir things up and see just how well this particular product was going to work in a recipe that I worked long and hard to get just perfect. To be honest, I was skeptical.

I am very happy to report that the gardein product not only worked well in this dish, it was convincingly meaty, with a texture and appearance that would satisfy anyone.

5.0 from 1 reviews
Mongolian Beef and Broccoli
 
A copycat version of P.F. Chang's Mongolian Beef
Author:
Recipe type: Entree
Cuisine: Asian
Ingredients
  • ½ cup soy sauce
  • ½ cup water
  • ¾ cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
  • 2 Tablespoon corn starch, dissolved in ¼ cup cool water
  • 2 large green onions, chopped
  • 1 package Gardein Sizzling Szechuan Beefless Strips (sauce packet removed)
  • 1 pound broccoli crowns
Instructions
  1. Cook the Beefless Strips according to package instructions.
  2. To make the sauce, heat vegetable oil and saute garlic in a small pan for 60 seconds over medium heat.
  3. Add soy sauce, water, and brown sugar and stir to combine fully. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium low. Allow to reduce for 2-3 minutes, then turn off the heat and stir in the corn starch to thicken.
  4. Steam broccoli crowns for 8-9 minutes until just tender.
  5. When Beefless Strips are cooked, toss them in sauce, and and pour the remainder over the broccoli, tossing to coat.
  6. Plate broccoli topped with Beefless Strips, a add a handful of chopped green onion just before serving.
Notes
For a beef version of this dish, you will need 1 lb flank steak (thinly sliced), about ¼ cup cornstarch in a zipper bag, and vegetable oil to fry it in.

Add the steak slices to the bag and shake to fully coat. Allow to remain in the corn starch until you are ready to fry them. Fry for a couple of minutes until brown, stirring to cook evenly. Drain on paper towels.

 

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Poverty In My Back Yard

Being poor sucks, and I’m not just talking about the “oh crap, I partied too hard last weekend and now I can’t pay my light bill” poor. I’m talking about the people who have next to nothing, live on next to nothing, and eat next to nothing.

Mapping Poverty in America

Using the interactive Mapping Poverty in America map provided by the New York Times, I learned that the neighborhood I call home has a poverty rate of 23.2%. That’s a fraction under 1/4 of the population. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I am less than a 2-minute walk from an area with a poverty rate of 47.7%, and areas that are lower than 23% are the exception in my area. In 2012, to qualify as being impoverished, a family of four could make no more than $23,283, while any individual under the age of 65 could make no more than $11,945.

NOTE: The map link above refers to 2012, but this 2013 report verifies that the number of people in poverty did not change between 2012 and 2013.

USDA Food Access Research Atlas

This map from the USDA Food Access Research Atlas using census data shows two things: tracts with over 100 households without vehicles (purple) and tracts with over 33% of households that are 1/2 mile or more from a grocery store (green). For clarification, everything that is marked purple is also green.

“Food deserts are defined as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in
impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores,
farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.”
–USDA

mass transit timeThe nearest grocery store is 2 miles away from my address and it lacks decent fresh produce on a good day. The nearest food options that are 1 mile or less are fast food chains, neither of which would be classified as a grocery store, farmers’ market, or healthy food provider. If I didn’t have a car, I would be limited to the use of mass transit. As you can see from the image above, that trip via bus would take about 30 minutes, not including the time it took to walk to the bus and wait on the bus (both ways). Don’t forget that you’re riding the bus, so you can only buy what you can carry. And if the weather is bad or the bus is just late? Sucks to be you.

I share this information so that people will have a better understanding as to why I am a gardening and healthy food advocate. You don’t have to go to third world countries to see people starving to death. Right in our back yard children are suffering from obesity and malnutrition at the same time because they are surviving on a diet of prepackaged and drive-thru meals that are more filler than actual food.

In 2015 I will return often to these topics because as a society we need to know what is causing the issues of the day. Without many exceptions, it can be traced back to poverty and food insecurity. This year I promise to work harder than ever to research and offer solutions to these issues while teaching a new generation the many benefits of growing your own food. I promise to bring that information not just to the readers of this website, but also to my neighbors – the people in my back yard who are living in poverty.

There is something I can do, and I’m not going to stop until I feel as though I have done it.

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