Nature’s Nutrients

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Summer squash in varying colors for better nutrition.

Growing things is such a complex interplay of nutrients, water, sunlight, wind, temperature, predatory insects, soil microbes, spacing, companion planting, beneficial insects, pollination, planting times, harvest times and who knows what else, that there is no way a scientist can possibly investigate all of the components that affect the nutritive qualities of foodstuffs. What we can say, with some degree of certainty, is that well-watered, rich soil loaded with nature’s nutrients and plenty of beneficial microbes will produce more nutritious plants than conventionally grown plants.

Isn’t this pretty?

The same applies to animals. If your chickens eat the same high-quality foods you do (as opposed to commercial lay mix) and have an opportunity to scratch around in real dirt or pasture under the sun, they will provide you with more nutrition in their eggs and meat. Cows grown on high-quality grass and hay, who can nibble on weeds, tree leaves and other browse that takes their fancy, will produce more nutritious meat and milk. They will also be healthier and less stressed. Does stress affect how your meat tastes or its nutritional value? Odds are high. When people and animals are stressed, their bodies’ chemicals, enzymes and hormones change. Any hunter will tell you an animal that has been run hard before it is killed doesn’t taste the same as an animal dropped quickly as it grazes quietly in a field.

Oh, goody, it’s the yellow stuff!

After reading Jo Robinson’s book, Eating on the Wild Side, I have finally figured out why our animals don’t like white corn. We sometimes buy screenings or middlings – what’s left after grain is ground – to feed our pigs, chickens, cows and horses. Because screenings are ground, they’re easy on the big animals’ digestive systems, especially for our old stallion, whose teeth are not what they once were. For pigs and chickens, we mix it with excess milk and whey or add water and soak it overnight to decrease phytates, which are hard to digest and affect the absorption of other nutrients. Corn screenings come from white and yellow corn. I could never understand why our animals were reluctant to eat the white stuff, but voraciously inhaled the yellow screenings. Turns out they’re smarter than I am – or than I was. Generally speaking, according to Robinson’s research, fruits and vegetables that are more highly colored are more nutritious (there are a few exceptions, such as white-fleshed peaches and nectarines). The deep color means they have more antioxidants, for example, something we humans need for optimum health. So when the animals expressed a preference for the yellow corn, they were instinctively looking for more nutrients.

I don’t have to do a thing to these grapes but cut them back occasionally and pick them – Easy-Peasy Grape Juice here we come!

Daily attention is one of the keys to gardening success. You’d be amazed at how quickly many vegetables and fruits can grow. A zucchini, for example, can turn into a baseball bat from one watering to the next. Some plants like to play hide-and-seek with you; summer squash and cucumbers are notorious for secreting their offerings in little nooks and crannies or under a leaf. A daily check helps to keep these tendencies from running amok in the garden. It also allows you to find the zucchini that’s about to be useful as a baseball bat (and that’s about how tough it will be, too, if it makes it to that size). I find it helps to take a flashlight to the garden with you, as the shaded areas are often where the zucchini that ate Chicago are hiding. The skins of the summer squash and cucumbers reflect light and are easier to see when hit by the flashlight beam. This tendency is why it’s also a good idea to grow cucumbers on a trellis.

When you’re growing food to fill the pantry, freezer and root cellar, it’s important to protect yourself from disasters, such as a blight or virus that wipes out your entire crop of something. I like to grow at least two different varieties of whatever the plant is, and in some cases, three. That means, for example, that I will grow at least two slicing tomato varieties, two canning varieties and two paste/drying varieties. In some cases, I can get double duty. Rutgers and St. Pierre tomatoes are good fresh and canned, although not quite as good for either purpose as those that are bred specifically to eat, like Mortgage Lifter, or to make sauce with, like Roma. Although, if tomato disaster struck and I had to make do with only one tomato instead of six or seven, it would be St. Pierre. It’s quite good eating and still meaty enough to make good sauce or even ketchup. Amish Paste would also make a good I-can-only-have-one. Tromboncino and Crookneck can be used as both summer squash and as winter squash, depending on when they’re harvested. Because of genetic diversity, what clobbers one variety may leave another one alone. By growing more than one variety, if disease befalls my garden or the weather is finicky, the odds that I get at least half a crop are much improved.

One of the barley varieties I grew this year.

It’s also important to remember that specialization in vegetables – much like specialization in people – isn’t really a good thing. Just because your tomatoes are slicers doesn’t mean you can’t turn them into tomato sauce. You’ll have to cook them a bit longer to make the sauce thick, that’s all. And if you slice and roast them first, they’ll cook off a lot of the excess water in the oven. The other reason to grow several varieties whenever possible is that – unlike our ancestors – we get our nutrition from a relatively limited group of foods. The Uggs probably ate hundreds of different plants, while most of us eat 50 or less including fruits, veggies, herbs and grains (count it up – how many fruits and vegetables do you eat regularly?). We are also subjected to a lot more pollutants, chemicals, toxins and things like microwaves, all of which damage cells. We need all the help we can get. Every variety of plant has some unique qualities that probably translate into unique nutritional advantages. For example, a pole bean is not exactly the same as a bush bean of the same variety, nor is a cherry tomato the same as a beefsteak. Odds are high that yellow summer squash and green summer squash supply some slightly different micronutrients, as do yellow, green and purple bush beans.

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Growing for Nutrition

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Okay, now let’s talk growing for nutrition. In addition to taste, the vegetables, fruits and proteins you grow yourself have more nutrition than anything you can buy, especially if you select the right varieties, feed your soil, take good care of your plants, harvest just before you eat them and store them carefully. Plants are live foods. They don’t stop living once you pluck them from the stem, branch or ground. They continue to “breathe” – shuttling oxygen and carbon dioxide back and forth through their skins – and the enzymatic processes also keep right on trucking. That’s why something such as lettuce wilts if not refrigerated, and why corn converts sugars to starch if you let it sit.

Soon-to-be green beans.

For maximum nutrition, minimize storage time. Lettuce needs a few hours to chill and get crisp, but harvest the rest of your salad ingredients just before dinner. The longer a vegetable sits, the more vitamins it loses. Cooking also destroys the heat-sensitive nutrients such as vitamin C; however, it concentrates others, such as lycopene. A quick stir-fry will spare more vitamins than boiling in water. However, boiling in water means many nutrients move into the cooking water, so a rich soup broth can be very nutritious. I like to save vegetable peelings and things like celery tops in the freezer; when I’m making soup broth, they form the base.

Is organic worth it? When it comes to food safety, what organic foods don’t have is the highly toxic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used in conventional farming. Now, that does not mean organic foods have no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. They have “less toxic” versions. If you grow your own, however, you can eliminate all of them. The research on nutrient qualities when comparing organic versus conventional foods has shown mixed results, so many conventionally-trained doctors and dietitians will tell you there’s no clear advantage to eating organic produce, meat or dairy products. But – and it’s a huge but – there’s a real problem with that sort of research.

Beans of multiple colors mean a wider range of nutrients.

The best soil produces the best nutrition and building soil takes a while. This is why it’s so hard to compare the research results. There are too many variables and too little understanding of the tremendous complexity involved. To really compare the nutrition in something such as a tomato, for example, you need not just organically grown tomatoes, but tomatoes grown in soil that has been managed organically for many years, with crop rotations, humus, minerals, compost and such. The soil should be loaded with worms and microorganisms, full of humus and minerals. Plants grown under these conditions have more phytonutrients – plant compounds such as enzymes, polyphenols, antioxidants and bioflavonoids – as well as more vitamins and minerals.

Consider this scenario: Take a piece of ground that has been conventionally farmed for years, divide it in half and grow organic vegetables on one side and conventional vegetables on the other. Test the results for nutritive qualities. Second Scenario: Divide that same piece of ground and spend 10 or 20 years building soil fertility and tilth on one half using organic methods, planting cover crops, increasing humus, and encouraging beneficial insects and soil microbes. Now plant and test the results from each half. See the difference? That’s why the research has mixed results.

Even though she lost her mama, Violet got raw milk, not milk replacer.

That same issue holds true in research on any kind of foodstuff. Research results from pasteurized milk cannot be extrapolated to raw milk. Research on raw milk from conventionally-raised and fed cows cannot be extrapolated to raw milk from grass-fed cows. Here’s another example: In most dairies, calves are removed from their mothers immediately after birth. They may be fed colostrum – the first milk a mammal produces after birth, which is loaded with antibodies and other important substances for the baby – for a few days. After that, many are fed milk replacer (think baby formula for cows) in a bottle or bucket. Cows are ruminants, and they get their gut microbes, which they need to digest their food, from their mamas. Many people may know that cows chew their cud, but what they might not know is that unlike humans – who chew their food, store it in the stomach for a while and then get most of the actual digestion done in the intestines – cows do most of the digesting in the four chambers of their stomachs. A nursing calf is populating her gut. If she drinks milk from a bucket the microbes often go into the wrong stomach chamber, and she will not be as healthy as a calf raised naturally and allowed to suckle from Mom. If she gets milk replacer, the problem is even worse, because – like human baby formula – milk replacer just isn’t the same in terms of quality as the real thing. I’m willing to bet that (all other things being equal) if you took raw milk from dairy cows separated from their mothers at birth and fed milk replacer, and compared it to raw milk from dairy cows raised naturally, the latter would have more nutrition.

Unlike calves in a commercial dairy, ours nurse from mama.
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The Pantry

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Staples such as those on the top shelf (beans, rice, pasta) will store for years.

No ranch wife worth her salt would try to get by without a pantry. Back in the day that was because she was filling the pantry (and the cellar and the attic and the smokehouse and the spring house) with the food that would see her family through the winter. Sometimes the ranch family wouldn’t see another soul until spring. What they had in the pantry was what they lived on. No quick trips to the corner grocery. A pantry is still a good idea, because if you’re buying food it allows you stock up when it’s on sale. If you’re raising food, you need somewhere to put it so you can eat over the winter. My pantry is relatively small, so I need to make all available space count. I include some other storage spots besides the actual pantry. As far as I’m concerned, the term “pantry” also includes the refrigerator and freezers. I like to buy in bulk when I can, so my pantry tends to have, for example:

  1. Half-gallon glass jars full of macaroni, spaghetti and dry beans.
  2. A 2-pound bag of baking soda.
  3. A restaurant-size jar of cream of tartar. I use this and the baking soda to make my own aluminum-free baking powder.
  4. A couple of pounds of cornstarch.
  5. Around 25 pounds of sea salt.
  6. Anywhere from a few to well over 100 pounds of storage onions – depends on the time of year.
  7. Several dozen heads of garlic.
  8. Canned tomato sauce and tomato paste.
  9. Olives.
  10. Spices and herbs, a mixture of store-bought and home-grown.
  11. A 5-pound bag of cocoa powder.
  12. About 20 pounds each of white and whole wheat flour.
  13. About 20 pounds of pastry flour.
  14. About 25-50 pounds of granulated white sugar.
  15. About 20-50 pounds of dried beans.
  16. One gallon of molasses.
  17. About 5 pounds of corn meal.
  18. About 15 pounds of assorted nuts.
  19. Around five pounds of popcorn.
  20. At least a gallon of coconut oil.
  21. At the moment, a 5-gallon bucket of honey plus 10 quart jars. It’s way more than I need, but honey will literally keep just about forever, although it will crystalize. Just warm it slowly in a pan of hot water to make it flow easily.
  22. A pound of yeast granules, in the freezer, where it will keep indefinitely.
  23. A couple of quarts of olive oil.
  24. A quart of home-made chocolate sauce.
  25. Assorted frozen and canned fruits.
  26. Ditto vegetables.
  27. Frozen beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, venison, duck, pheasant and goose.
  28. Anywhere from four to 10 dozen eggs, depending on the time of the year and how many chickens I have at the moment.
  29. Up to eight gallons of raw milk when the cow is in milk.
  30. Ten or 15 pounds of frozen butter.
  31. We may also have various amounts of sour cream, sweet cream, cottage cheese, cream cheese and whatever other dairy products I’ve been messing around with. Not ice cream, usually, because home-made ice cream lasts about five minutes around here.
  32. Various fresh vegetables or fruits, depending on the time of year – more in the prime growing season, obviously.
  33. Jams, jellies, fruit butters, relishes, condiments and such.
  34. Frozen convenience foods. Before you say “Aha, I knew she used that sort of thing,” let me tell you what I mean. These are things I have made ahead so I can put a meal on the table quickly. Some examples are Sour Cream Coffeecake batter, Breakfast Muffins in paper cups ready to drop into a muffin pan and bake, Cream Biscuits, soups, chili, casseroles, stew, New York Cheesecake, Refrigerator Cookie Dough, several loaves of Sandwich Bread, Breakfast Burritos, Cornish Pasties and Southern Cornbread. Yes, you’ll find recipes for most of these in the book.
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