Monday, May 15, 2017

Growing tomatoes, not tomato plants

I thought I knew tomatoes.
I've been such a sucker.

When it comes to my vegetable garden, I don't have terribly high expectations. My goals are simple:

I don't think that's asking too much. I'm not some kind of urban prepper who is trying to live off the land, avoiding the grocery store as if it were an evil empire. I have no desire to "put up" vegetables, sweating over a canning stove set up in the garage, hoping to line my pantry with gloriously colored jars of goods.

No, I just want to grow a few vegetables, mostly tomatoes. This should be easy, it really should. I know how to do this, I live in Sacra-Tomato for beet's sake. Speaking of winter gardens, I'm not that interested in kale, and collards and massive cabbages. Just give me some nice fat and juicy red tomatoes. Please!

I think this is the year. I don't want to set myself up for too much disappointment, but I think I'm on to something. First, we got rain, and we got lots of it. It rained so much our front yard started to flood one evening, and that is a physically impossible phenomenon. But there I was, staring out the window from our bedroom, yelling at my husband, "The front yard is FLOODING!" Amazing year, that it was. So I'll have no guilt giving my tomatoes the one thing they really love, lots of water, twice a week.

It's now finally warming up, and tomatoes love that too. They don't like it too cold, but they won't "set fruit" when it's ghastly hot either, so we are good on that front. This has been one of the loveliest Springs I ever remember in the Sacramento region. It's halfway through May, and I have not once felt the least bit hot and bothered. It's truly been glorious.

And now, on top of all that water and perfect temperatures, I think I've finally discovered what has been alluding me in my quest to grow tomatoes. 

I've been growing tomato plants, not tomatoes.

Yes, that has been the sad fact for many years now, and I discovered this by typing "How to grow tomatoes in the Sacramento Valley" into YouTube. Trying to work past the many odd people who post badly filmed and blurry tomato videos on the Internet, I came across something amazing and profound about tomatoes.

You have to pick the suckers off them. Tomato plants grow suckers, which to the untrained eye (that would be my eye) look just like they belong. They don't belong, they must go, the sooner the better. Now these suckers are not some random occurrence which comes up once in a blue moon, Oh, no no no. Suckers come up between every single horizontal stem coming off the vertical stalk. They shoot up like the cutest little thing, usually at a 45 degree angle. They used to make me so happy, I thought I was doing everything right as my tomato plants grew to amazing proportions, with these big offshoots growing from the main stalk at 45 degree angles. My what a good urban farmer I am, I would think, as the plants grew and grew, giving me hardly any tomatoes. 

Never again, I'm all over those suckers this year, I'm tearing them off like mad. Take a look again at the photo up top. See the sucker? This one isn't exactly at a 45 degree angle, but no matter, it was a sucker and it is now gone. Once you tear off a sucker, that's not the end of it, it will want to come back, but just keep at it.

My tomato plants don't look as big and full as they usually do by now, with all this hacking away on my part. But another thing the tomato people on YouTube say is that tomato plants need air circulation, and suckers suck air along with water and energy. My plants are putting out the blossoms, and have the cutest little green tomatoes already. This is the year. The Year of the Tomato, not the plant.

Monday, May 1, 2017

SpringCo into Winco!


Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard,
To give the poor dog a bone;
When she came there,
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.



We've been going heavy on the Mother Hubbard cupboards lately, making sure of course that our poor dog has her bones, and her treats and her kibble.

No, it hasn't been the dog's food we've been running completely out of, it has been our food. But it was on purpose, all part of a long delayed plan. In September of 2016 we did a little food experiment. We bought food exclusively from the 99 Cent Store to see what it would be like to eat a whole food plant based diet, if regular stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Raley's were not available to us. We live on the edge of a food desert, but we of course have the luxury of food shopping in a variety of different places.

Our "99 Centember" went very well, I was surprised how much produce they carry. The grand total came to $3.33 a day for each of us. The next month we were ready to go straight into Winco October but my Mom's illness took me back east, and the rest of the year was just foggy and sad.

Spring is now in full swing here in Sacramento after a very long and wet and windy winter. The flowers are blooming, the lizards are leaping and we have frogs croaking in our backyard for the first time in four years. Rain, it's a lovely thing!

April was the month to really start cleaning out the cupboards in preparation for this SpringCo WinCo ThingCo. What's my advice for clearing out your freezer, refrigerator and pantry? Just stop grocery shopping. Period. Don't go. If you think you need to go buy more food, look again, there is still food hiding in your house. Now it may not be that favorite thing you love to have for dinner, there is a reason it's sitting uneaten in your home after all. But try to not imagine it as a box of sadly tasteless quinoa. Think of it as a box of money, the money you spent when you bought it. A can of money here, a box of coins, a carton of dollar bills, our cupboards and freezers are just brimming with cash. The Bank of Bad Food Choices right there, ready for withdrawals if you can stand a few menu withdrawals.

After we'd used up every single possible bit of food we had left, I would find more. There was a box way up high in the cupboard that I assumed was a box of party utensils. It wasn't, it was some of those really fast-to-cook see-through noodles, also known as Box-o-Bills. I found that box and I knew there was a meal in there somewhere. I took a can of coconut milk, a can of tomato paste, some curry powder, a squeeze of ginger in a tube and a spoonful of basil in a jar. I mixed that all up and tossed it with the clear, slightly jellyfish-like noodles and sure enough, it was really good. Like make again good.

Another benefit of going through all the food you have is finally using up those odd bits of condiments you might have lingering in the refrigerator. Because when you're desperate to find things to eat, those little jars of dibs and dabs of this and that suddenly become flavor jewels. Squeezable ginger and basil in a jar? Priceless!

But there did come a time when even I said enough was enough. We were down to garlic, rice, tomato paste, quinoa, mustard and pickled beets. And of course the ginger and the basil, but still. It was time to hit the stores, or shall I say store, the same store for the whole month of May.

Perhaps a squeeze of potato on your lemon?

Is it technically even a veggie bin if it has no veggies?

The Last Mango in Paris?

Mustard! We have mustard!

The really good rice noodle stuff I would have never discovered. 
It's May 1st, 2017 and I finally went shopping again. I grabbed some grocery money and headed over to our local WinCo Foods to load up on whole food plant based vegan foods. It isn't hard at all. They have a great produce section, although I wish their organic selection was much bigger. The bulk section is amazing, they have the best looking mayacoba beans I've ever seen. They have Dave's Killer Bread and the only no salt black beans in a can I've ever seen. 

I tried to buy about one week's worth of food, but it was hard to judge because I was starting from almost zero. The rules of the game are we eat exclusively from WinCo for the whole month of May. We'll tally up the results at the end of the month and see if we go over or under the $3.33 a day we averaged at the 99 Cent Store. I'll keep you posted!


Our shopping bags were brimming with wholesome goodness


We are back in business with some produce.

The veggie bins are veggie bins again.

The mango sorbet has some new dance partners.
What have I learned going from incredible abundance food-wise to next to nothing in our house to eat? Nothing, really. Because at any time I could have hopped in my car and drove down to Trader Joe's and stocked up on all my favorite foods - all washed and chopped and diced and packaged up just like us busy people like them. This was a fun experiment, and one that saved us tons of money by using up those weird bits and bites instead of just tossing them out. But it's not deprivation when it's self-deprivation. The one thing I have learned? Keep tomato paste on hand at all times. It can stretch food like nothing else. That little can of tomato concentrate is worth its weight in gold.