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All articles here are written by Melinda Briana Epler (that's me!) unless otherwise noted. I'm a documentary filmmaker, writer, and brand experience designer - I've dedicated my life to living a sustainable lifestyle and helping others do the same. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or thoughts for articles. Welcome!

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How To Grow Sweet Potatoes

Sweet Potato Vines

 

They’re truly gorgeous plants, don’t you think?  I’m so happy we tried growing them!  And it’s incredibly easy.

 

1.  Buy Slips or Grow Them At Home:

 

 

2.  Plant The Slips.

 

The slips are basically mini plants.  Plant them after the last frost, in rich soil with some well-aged compost, 12-18″ apart (we planted them far closer, but some of our potatoes were pretty small).

 

3.  Do Virtually Nothing.

 

Water regularly, but otherwise they need almost zero weeding, and we didn’t have any bugs or disease.  You can stop watering them during the last 3 weeks before harvest, so the roots are dry when you pull them out, and so that they don’t develop any molds.

 

To those of us in the northwest US, note that they are related to morning glories, so we can be assured they’ll grow very well!

 

Ready to be Pulled

 

4.  Pull Them Up!

 

They’re basically on the same schedule as Irish potatoes:  when they start to yellow in the fall, it’s about time to pull them. You can also feel them beneath the soil and get a sense of how big they are.

 

Mom Shows Off Sweet Potato Plant

 

Seriously, that’s it.  No excuses now – if you like them, grow them!

 

Our Sweet Potato Loot

 

Any Questions or Tips?

 

In The Oven Or In The Sun: How To Dry Tomatoes, Peppers, and Other Fruits and Vegetables

Dried Cayenne

Cherry Tomatoes

San Marzano Tomatoes

 

Now is the time of year in the northern hemisphere where most gardeners have more tomatoes than they know what to do with.  And likely more of a few other things, too…


One of my favorite ways to preserve fresh foods is to dry them – they will last in a sealed container for months to years, depending on how well you dehydrate them.

 

Ground Cherry Dried in Husk


Sun Drying.


1. Pick your ripe fruits/veggies. 

2. If they’re small, you don’t have to cut them.  If they’re roma tomatoes, I cut them in half.  If they’re round tomatoes, I cut them into slices about 3/4” to 1” thick in the fleshy part, and 1/2” on the top and bottom parts of the tomato (the ends take longer to dry). 

3. Set them side by side on a pastry drying rack, or a screen of some kind – but it must be elevated above the surface so that air can get to both top and bottom.  For sliced tomatoes, it seems to work better to start with the butt end down. Note: several sources say that it’s better to use a non-metal screen, as metal reacts with the acids in the fruit and changes the flavor.  I haven’t noticed this, though.

4. For sliced tomatoes, sprinkle a little salt on each tomato – it makes them dry faster.

5. Bring the rack inside when the sun goes down, or when it begins to get moist in the evening (whichever comes first).

6. Put them outside again the next day when the weather gets warm, and repeat #4 & 5 for as long as it takes – up to 10 days.

7. Store in an air-tight container or bag.

 

Tomatoes and Peppers

 

Oven Drying.


1. Pick your ripe fruits/veggies. 

2. If they’re small, you don’t have to cut them.  If they’re roma tomatoes, I cut them in half.  If they’re round tomatoes, I cut them into slices about 3/4” to 1” thick in the fleshy part, and 1/2” on the top and bottom parts of the tomato (the ends take longer to dry). 

3. Set them on a pastry drying rack, or if you don’t have one I’ve found that you can use a cookie sheet with parchment paper (though this takes a bit longer).  We put our cookie sheet on top of our baking stone, and that seems to speed the drying process a bit.

4. For sliced tomatoes, sprinkle a little salt on each tomato – it makes them dry faster.

5. Put them in the oven, to around 200F (less is ok, but no higher than this!!).  Prop the oven open about 2” with a rolled up cloth, to let steam out – very important.

6. Set the timer – don’t forget this step!  Set it for 1 hour initially, then every 30 to 45 minutes.

7. Each time the timer goes off, take out any fruits that are dry.  They should not be crisp, but you should not see any juice. Anything raisin sized should be the consistency of a raisin. Tomatoes should be leathery.  Chilis should be pretty stiff.

8. Let them cool for an hour or two.

9. Store in an air-tight container or bag.

 


Dried Tomatoes, Peppers, Chiles, and Ground Cherries

Bagged for Storage

 

Experiment, have fun, try new things – your taste buds won’t regret your planning for the winter!

 

What Are Your Favorite Things To Dry?

 

If you already dry your foods, please share your experiences – what do you dry, how do you dry, and what do you like drying most??

 

Recipe: Delicious (& Mild) Red Tomato Salsa

Salsa!


I’ve been getting loads of questions about what to do with all those tomatoes this time of year – so I thought you might enjoy reading this quick and easy salsa recipe from our archives. (Originally published 25 October, 2008)


When I was a child, my grandmother lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the land of amazing red and green chiles and wonderful New Mexican salsas. We went to Albuquerque at least once a year, and I always felt it was my second home, with the red desert, its people, and its cuisine deep in my blood.


I miss it. So sometimes I like to recreate it in the kitchen. The following is a salsa recipe that I made with tomatoes from our garden, chiles preserved from last year’s garden, and the rest of the ingredients from local farmers. Matt says it’s the best salsa he’s ever had. I hope you enjoy it, too!


Tomato From The Garden


Melinda’s Delicious (& Mild) Tomato Salsa


Ingredients.


Note: this is a great recipe to use up some tomatoes that have been sitting on your counter for a little too long at the end of the season! I use several types of tomatoes, whatever we have at the time – orange, canning, beefsteak, whatever you have will work!


  • 2.5 lbs. tomatoes
  • 1 cup cilantro leaves (de-stemmed)
  • 1-2 dried cayenne peppers (or whatever hot peppers you have in your garden – optional)
  • 1 medium to large onion
  • 3 large cloves garlic
  • salt to taste (3-4 teaspoons?)


Steps.


1. Dice the onions and cook them in a large frying pan, with a bit of vegetable oil, until almost translucent.


2. Slice the tomatoes into fairly large chunks.


3. Remove the pepper seeds (unless you want a very hot salsa). Chop the peppers into tiny pieces, or grind into small pieces with a mortar and pestle.


4. Dice the garlic and add the garlic and peppers to the onions, stirring constantly, just until garlic begins to cook (about 2 minutes).


5. Add the tomatoes and salt and stir well. Let simmer for about 5 minutes, until tomatoes just start to cook but still hold most of their shape.


1/2-Cooked Salsa


6. Remove from heat and scoop the mixture into the blender. Pour remaining juice from the pan into the blender as well.


7. Add 1/2 cilantro to the blender.


8. Make sure you have the lid on the blender tight – you may want to also cover the lid with a towel if your lid isn’t very tight. Then pulse the blender quickly, just 3-5 times for one second each, until tomatoes are mixed but still chunky.


9. Pour mixture into a bowl that can be covered. Add the rest of the cilantro and mix. Taste and add more salt if necessary.


10. Loosely cover the bowl, and put it into the fridge to cool and to allow the flavors to set. Once the salsa is cool, you can either eat it, or cover it completely for later use. It will taste even better if left overnight.


Makes 5 cups of salsa. You can freeze some for later use… though in our house it never lasts that long! Served here with local beans, greens, cheese, tortillas, and homemade tomatillo salsa for Taco Night.


Taco Night


Living Sustainably in the City

Our Rooftop

 

There is a notion in the world of sustainability and green, that you must live a country life and make everything – and grow everything – and do everything – yourself.  I believed it.  I read books about moving back to the land, of living self-sufficiently.  I learned how to preserve, how to garden at a large scale, how to make cheese, and bake bread daily using our own homemade starter.  I began to learn how to sew and knit and truly believed I would learn to make everything I needed in my life.


I was not unhappy.  But I was not really happy, either.  There was never enough time in the day.  I worked very hard doing things that accomplished the basic necessities of life, and no more than that.  There is something very pure in that.  In fact it was a good way to purify my body – I lost a fair amount of weight, got my asthma in check, and felt good; and to purify my soul – after a rat race of working in the film industry for ten years, working 12-18 hours/day, I needed to unwind.  But it was not a lifestyle that ultimately made me happy for the long-term.


I felt isolated.  I felt unable to do the things I wanted to do to make the world a better place.  I felt lost within day to day living.


It was then that I realized that sustainability meant more than living self-sufficiently, and that simplifying made a lot of sense to me, but for me there is such a thing as living too simply.  It may be perfect for you, dear reader.  I am in no way saying it is not a good life to lead.  But for my own happiness, I’d gone too far down the simple road.


And so I moved back to a mid-sized city, where sustainability was an everyday word – trains and streetcars are returning, the urban center is being revitalized with built-green mixed-use buildings, and people talk unabashedly about changing the world.


In many ways, my lifestyle here is more sustainable.  While we spend more money on rent and the cost of living is higher overall, the wages are higher, too, and we don’t spend money on gas.  I’m not perfect – I do buy some new clothes to support my professional lifestyle (and try to buy them sustainably), but I also find nice used clothes in local thrift stores.  I don’t make my own meals every day – sometimes I purchase locally- and ready-made foods made from organic ingredients instead.  I don’t grow all of my own food anymore – but I purchase local and organic foods from local farmers.


I walk nearly everywhere.  I’m becoming a part of my community in many ways I could never have done in the country.  And I have time to do the things I set out to do in my life:  to change the world for the better in a large way.  I write this blog (and others), I work with amazing world-changing organizations and corporations in my company, I see my family regularly, and I participate in my community in numerous ways.


These things I could not do in the country, nor could I do them if I lived a totally self-sufficient life.  So I am happy with the places I have been, the things I have done, and the lifestyles I have lived.  And I am very happy to be living sustainably in the city.


I hope you have found such happiness as well.  Have you?


Recipe: Mom’s Homemade Chiles Rellenos


Ingredients


  • 6 Ancho, Pasilla, or Anaheim Chiles
  • ¼ C Flour
  • 6 Eggs
  • ½ pound Monterrey Jack Cheese or Mexican Queso Blanco
  • Salt
  • Shredded cooked Chicken, Beef, or Pork if desired
  • 1 C  Canola oil (if you are using the frying method)
  • Your favorite Salsa 


Roasted Green Chiles by QueenieVonSugarpants on Flickr


Preparing the Chiles


  1. Rinse chiles and dry.
  2. Place chiles on baking sheet and broil until the skins turn brown (charred).  Turn and char the other side.
  3. Place the chiles in a plastic zip bag immediately after removing from oven.  Wrap the bag in a towel to keep heat in.  Allow the chiles to steam in the bag for 10-15 minutes or until skin start to loosen.
  4. Peel chiles under cold water.  If you have sensitive skin  where gloves for this step and for step 5.
  5. Remove stem end of chiles and make a slit down the sides.  Open chiles and remove seeds and membranes (this is where most of the heat is in chiles.  If you like things extra hot, you can leave the seeds in.
  6. Put a strip on cheese inside each chile.  Add some shredded meat to each if you are using meat.


Egg whites are beaten to soft peaks by QueenieVonSugarpants on Flickr


Making the Batter


  1. Separate the eggs.
  2. Beat whites into medium peaks.
  3. Mix yolks with 1T flour and about ¼t salt.
  4. Gently fold the yolks into the whites.


Cooking


There are two methods for cooking the chiles: 


Coating the Stuffed Chiles with flour by QueenieVonSugarpants on Flickr


Frying


  1. Put half the remaining flour on a plate.  Put the prepared chiles on the flour and sprinkle the remaining flour over the top.  Coating the chiles with flour will help the egg batter to stick.
  2. Heat the oil in a frying pan.  It is hot enough when a drop of water doesn’t sink to the bottom, but dances on top of the oil.
  3. Dip each chile in the egg mixture and coat thoroughly.
  4. When coated, place in hot oil and fry until golden brown.  Turn and cook other side until golden and cheese is completely melted.

 

Baking


If you don’t want to fry them, they can also be made as a casserole:


  1. Put half the egg batter in a greased baking pan.
  2. Add the stuffed chiles in a single layer.
  3. Then add the remainder of the batter.
  4. Bake at probably 375F for +/- 20 minutes or until it is golden brown and eggs are completely set.


In either case, serve covered in your favorite salsa:  Red Tomato Salsa or Roasted Tomatillo Salsa.  Quick and easy sides for this dish are black or pinto beans and rice.


Eating Sustainably When You Need Quick Meals

“Why No Recipe Postings Lately?”

 

Ah, this is a question I’ve been asked several times in the last few weeks. The tasty soups, the yummy squash recipes, the pancrack… they were popular posts! Why have the recipes been lagging?

 

It boils down to my living a more active, busy lifestyle. The truth is: I have not had much time to experiment in the kitchen. In fact, I have not had much time to make much of anything!

 

There was a while there where I even fell off the wagon, and ate out several days a week. I admit it: when I work ten to twelve hours a day, sometimes I just don’t have the energy to cook. And I’ll admit also that I ate out for lunch several times a week. Gasp! Generally I ate sustainably-sourced foods, but still – not so sustainable for the bank account, nor my figure.

 

Now I am coming back into equilibrium. I’ve come to terms with my new lifestyle, and I’m finding ways to reconcile it with my own beliefs of simplicity and sustainability.  Several readers have expressed similar needs to live sustainably while living actively as well, so I’ve compiled some of my favorite quick and easy local meals.

 

5 Quick Lunches

 

1. Grill some veggies the night before, and then boil some pasta or rice while you’re eating breakfast in the morning. Then throw it in a reusable container, and you’re off.

 

Quick Seasonal Salad


2.  Quick salad. Rip up some lettuce and/or mixed greens into a reusable container, pour in several beans (I like garbanzos or favas), add some seasonal raw veggies (carrots, tomatoes, snow peas, etc), and top with a quickly made salad dressing. You can bring a couple slices of whole wheat bread for some added protein and grains if you like. For the dressing, I make it with 2-3 parts olive oil, 2/3 parts balsamic vinegar, 1/3 parts lemon juice, and a bit of salt and pepper. Alternatively, you can add a mustard instead of the lemon juice, or soy sauce instead of the vinegar.

 

Quick Tacos

 

3.  Eggs, salsa, and veggies with corn tortillas. This is one of my favorites. I scramble some eggs with zucchini, asparagus, onions, or greens. Then put them in a reusable container with a dollop of salsa on top, and some fresh cilantro if I have it. Then wrap up some tortillas that I can quickly throw in the microwave later at work. Viola, yummy tacos. You can also substitute beans for the eggs, and tortilla chips for the tortillas if you like.

 

4.  Raw fruits and veggies, with some cheese or meat. Now is the perfect season to cut up (or throw in whole) some raw veggies and fruit. Slice a bit of cheese or meat for protein, and you have a wonderfully balanced and tasty meal.

 

Pasta with Red Sauce


5.  Pasta with red sauce and grated parmesan cheese. You can make the sauce in large batches and freeze it. You can make extra sauce the night before. Or you can do what we often do, which is to buy locally-made sauce. Then boil the pasta while you’re eating breakfast in the morning, throw it in a reusable container, top it with cold sauce (you’re going to refrigerate it until lunch time anyway), grate a bit of cheese on top, and you’re off.

 

 

5 Quick Dinners

 

Aside from the same five meals above, which are equally good as dinners, here are some of my favorites:

 

Whole Wheat Pasta with Sauteed Tomatoes, Garlic, and Basil

 

1.  Sauteed veggies with whole wheat pasta. Boil the pasta as you saute the veggies (our favorites are asparagus and onions, or beans and garlic). Preserve a cup (or two if you’re making it for 4 people) of the pasta water before you strain the pasta. Then add the pasta water to the veggies, add extra salt and pepper to taste, and mix with the pasta. This gives it a nice pasta sauce flavor without having to make a sauce too. When tomatoes are in season, you can saute tomatoes, basil, and garlic for a quick sauce.

 

Grilled Eggplant and Mozzarella Sandwiches

 

2.  Grilled sandwiches. Roast veggies using this easy recipe, but slice them length-wise and fairly thinly. Roasted vegetables will keep for several days in the fridge. When you’re in need of a quick dinner, pull them out, put them on top of sliced whole wheat bread (you can spread the bread with mustard, mayo, pesto, or tomato sauce), top them with some mozzarella or other local cheese, and stick in the toaster oven for several minutes (on 400F or so) until the veggies are warm and the cheese is melted. Yum!

 

Raviolis

 

3.  Raviolis. We buy locally-made raviolis, usually filled with squash or mushrooms. While the raviolis are boiling, saute some mushrooms, garlic, and sage. When you strain the raviolis, reserve a bit of the pasta water and stir it into the mushrooms. Then mix the ingredients together and top with a bit of parmesan cheese. When tomato season starts, we saute tomatoes and basil with it. We usually eat raviolis with a simple salad (see #2 under lunches).

 

Grilled Veggies with Couscous

 

4.  Grilled vegetables with couscous. Roasting takes VERY little time, but you do have to put the veggies in the oven about an hour ahead of meal time – that is the only catch. Roast the veggies using this easy recipe adding some thyme or other fresh spices if you have them, and five minutes before they’re done, make a pot of couscous (follow the recipe on the package or bulk bin). Fluff the couscous, mix the veggies in, and voila.

 

Fresh Mozzarella, Tomatoes, Basil, and Bread


5.  Fresh Mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and fresh bread. YUM. You can make your own mozzarella, but we usually buy locally-made mozzarella (from the farmer’s market, local deli, or spud.com). You can drizzle it with a bit of olive oil if you like. This only works when tomatoes and basil are fresh and in season, either from the garden or from the market.

 

All of these quick meals can be made easily with local, seasonal ingredients. Enjoy!


In addition to these homecooked meals, we often eat simple pre-made foods from local companies that source their ingredients locally and/or organically. Our favorites include frozen pizza, red pepper and tomato soup, and hummus and pita bread. Check around your local grocery store or market – you may be surprised at how easy it is to find quick pre-made meals from local, sustainable companies.


What Else Would You Add?

Belated Holidays

Mother's Day 2009

 

As I get older, I realize more and more that holidays and birthdays aren’t about the day itself, they are about the celebration, the traditions, and the company.  Do you feel this way as well?  It became particularly clear for me on Christmas 2008, when the snows made traveling particularly dicey, and many people chose to celebrate Christmas a couple of days after the official day.


On Mother’s Day this year, my parents went to a soccer match.  The following weekend, I had a lovely work weekend retreat of sorts.  So two weeks later, we celebrated Mother’s Day.  And it was lovely.


One of the traditions we started last year was to have Matt’s currant scones, yogurt, and fresh fruit.  Yum.


Mother's Day Breakfast 2009


I hope you’re having a lovely weekend.