Monday, August 30, 2010

Chlorophyll - definitely not bore-ophyll

Adam Sandler may be a funny guy from the great state of New Hampshire - but I must say that he got it totally wrong in the high school biology class scene in the movie Billy Madison.

Chlorophyll is cool!

I have been neglecting photo-posting lately, an error that I will begin to fix today. Looking through photos taken on July 31, I came to the above realization - call it an "epiphany of botanical revelation."

It's simply amazing. Go away for two weeks in the summer and, provided that your garden doesn't suffer a searing drought, brush fire, plague of locusts or golfball-sized hail, you will return to find a jungle. A lush, green profusion of plant life and all because of a funky little molecule called chlorophyll.

Our raised beds are on either side of the driveway and receive an abundance of sunlight. Our green plants utilize the chlorophyll in their leaves to capture the sun's energy and convert it into sugars to make more plant matter. For several weeks in mid-summer, it's a positive feedback loop - make bigger leaves to catch more sunlight to make bigger leaves. (Note the size of the butternut squash leaves!) However, some of the energy ends up elsewhere, directed to flowering and setting fruit, which makes the wonderful vegetables that make gardening so rewarding. And it's all thanks to chlorophyll.

The butternut squash completely overwhelmed the upper raised bed on the far side of the driveway (in the first photo), but the acorn squash vines were more orderly and stretched out in lovely straight lines across the grass (in the back of the second photo.) The garden looks remarkably different today, but the photos from August will have to wait until another day...

Bonus quiz for the General Botany club - if I had planted corn in my garden, would it photosynthesize more efficiently, less efficiently, or with the same efficiency as the other plants shown in the photos? Leave your answer below.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August - the noble month

In the New England garden, August reigns supreme. Like its Roman emperor namesake, the eighth month of the year bestows upon its lowly subjects a great but infrequent largesse. This August, the largesse is in butternut squash and cucumbers. The squash are far from their harvest date, but the vines are spreading like kudzu over the woodpiles, driveway and stepping area in front of the garden beds.

August is sort of the botanical version of Tax Day, where you find out how much you will receive for your tax return, except that you are paid in zucchini and cucumbers instead of greenbacks. Filing tax returns always involves some.suspense and anticipation, as you never really know what the final balance will be. Similarly, August will produce a bumper crop of green beans one year and volleyball-sized melons the next. There's often no prediicting which plants will produce like crazy and which will shrivel up and die or limp along barely surviving the Japanese beetles. Before we left for vacation in the second half ofJuly, the squash was underperforming,but what a change when we returned two weeks later!

I'll post photos soon -you won't believe it!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"Pickles are more nutritious than fresh cucumbers" - really?

The Internet is full of astounding information, some of which is true, some completely unfactual, and some that seems just a little odd.

Take NC State University's cucumber profile, for example. As quoted in the title of this post, this article includes a statement that pickles have more nutritional value than fresh cucumbers. Really?? Doesn't this fly in the face of raw foods being more healthful than processed ones?? This certainly deserves further examination.

I've always thought of pickles as a sort of junk food condiment - like ketchup, it's made from vegetables, but it isn't actually "good for you." I delved into some literature and online databases to find out more; perhaps my assumptions about fresh produce would be turned on its head.

The USDA has a very cool searchable online nutritional value database. I used this to compare the nutritional content of cucumbers to pickles, as well as the cucumber profile from NC State.

Since I'm not a nutritionist, I can't really interpret precisely how much better or worse pickles are than fresh cucumbers. I'd love to know if the brine makes pickle nutrients more readily absorbed into the bloodstream. But anyway, what I've found from my quick research project is that cucumbers are 95% water and have very few calories, and that pickles are 94% water, have very few calories and a lot of salt. There are some differences in the amounts of vitamins and minerals, but neither have high concentrations (except with sodium in the pickles.) Therefore, as a non-expert, I would conclude that they are about the same nutritionally speaking, except for the salt.

The American Heart Association recommends that we consume less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. According to the USDA database, one 4-oz dill pickle contains over 1,100 milligrams of sodium. That's almost your whole daily allotment - wow!

Why is salt bad?? - Excess sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure and increased risk for heart disease and stroke, two of the top three leading causes of death in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The bottom line: I intend to eat fresh cucumbers and also make pickles. The salt content of pickles will keep them as a tasty condiment to be enjoyed in small quantities, and the watery crunch of fresh cucumbers makes them perfect for main dishes and salads.

This really started off as a post about making pickles, but somehow I found myself in the middle of a huge digression.

Anyway, I made four different kinds of pickles on Sunday night, using up about 10 pounds of cucumbers. Half were from my garden and half from Musterfield Farm (we rode our bikes to the farmstand.) I'll let you know what I think of the results of this recipes as soon as I try them...

Here are the recipes:
Audrey's Refrigerator Pickles
Refrigerator Dill Pickles
Marisa's Garlic Dill Pickles - this is a truly great blog on canning!!

Bread and Butter Pickles (adapted from the Ball Blue Book)
-makes 4 quarts-
4 lbs cucumbers, run through the food processor into 1/8-in slices
2 lbs onions, run through the food processor into 1/8-in slices
1/3 cup salt (non-iodized)
-- Combine cucumber and onion slices in a large kettle, layering with the salt. Cover the top with ice and let stand 1.5 hrs. Drain, rinse, drain again.

2 cups sugar
2 Tbsp mustard seed
2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp celery seed
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp peppercorns
1 tsp allspice berries (at Adam's request - may add an interesting flavor, we'll see)
3 cups vinegar (I used white vinegar this time, but would normally use apple cider vinegar.)
-- Combine ingredients in a medium saucepan to make the brine, bring to a boil.
-- Pour brine on top of cucumbers and onions in the kettle. Bring to a boil.

Boiling water in a canning kettle
Sterilized quart jars with lids and rings
Chopstick, spatula or other wooden or plastic stick
-- Pack hot pickles and liquid into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace.
-- Run a chopstick around the outside of the jar, removing any bubbles.
-- Put on lids and screw on rings.
-- Process quarts in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
-- After the jars have sealed and cooled, put them in a storage area and wait 4-6 weeks for the flavor to develop.