A public service announcement from my mom the food scientist: How to preserve foods so they won’t kill you later.

“Do you like the taste of C. botulinum spores?  I didn’t think so! Read this article – it could save your life!”- Run Run Rhubarb

Acidity of foods helps determine the type of heat processing or home canning required for safe preservation. The term “pH” is an index of acidity. The lower its value, the more acid in the food. Low-acid foods have pH values higher than 4.6. They include red meats, seafood, poultry, milk, and all fresh vegetables except for most tomatoes.
There are two safe ways of processing food: 

  • The boiling water bath method is safe for acid foods that have a pH of 4.6 or lower. They include fruits, pickles, sauerkraut, jams, jellies, marmalades, and fruit butters.  In this method, jars of food are heated completely covered with boiling water (212°F at sea level) and cooked for a specified amount of time (consult your Blue Book).  Processing acid foods at boiling water temperatures will destroy yeast and molds, the most common forms of spoilage microorganisms in these foods. Heat-sensitive bacteria are also killed. Those that are heat resistant, such as C. botulinum spores, are prevented from multiplying because of the high acid conditions of the food.  Although tomatoes usually are considered an acid food, some varieties are now known to have pH values slightly above 4.6. Therefore, if they are to be canned as acid foods, these products with unknown pH must be acidified to a pH of below 4.6 with lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar. Properly acidified tomatoes are acid foods and can be safely processed in a boiling-water bath.
  • Pressure canning is the only safe method of preserving vegetables and other low acid foods such as (shudder) meats, poultry and seafood.  Jars of food are placed in 2 to 3 inches of water in a special pressure cooker which is heated to a temperature of at least 240° F. This temperature can only be reached using the pressure method. The spores of C. botulinum grow well in low acid foods, in the absence of air, such as in canned low acid foods like meats and vegetables. When the spores begin to grow, they produce the deadly botulinum toxins.  Botulism spores are very heat resistant. They may be destroyed at boiling water temperatures, but extremely long times are required. By the time you water bath-processed jars of green beans sufficiently to destroy these spores, you’d have a gray-green mush of nutrient-free fibers.  You might as well eat grass clippings.

And, finally….

Don’t even consider any other so-called “traditional” methods you may have heard of:  “Open Kettle” method or the “Oven Canning” method (don’t even ask!).  How about processing filled canning jars in the dishwasher?  Adding aspirin to your jars?  No, no, no, and no!


Runnin for nothin and plants for free

Admit it – you love the Dire Straits reference.

I love free stuff.

I love free samples (as long as they’re not a strange sausage item from Sam’s Club).

I love buy one get one free deals (especially involving UDF scoops of ice cream)

I love free-stylin (I just free styled some meatloaf tonight – No recipe!  What’s up!)

I love free plants.  Especially if these free plants come with an athletic endurance challenge.

In my “off-season” running with my gal pal Meghan, we stumbled across two curbside grocery bags. Two bags contained full hosta plants – yes please! There was also a bag of pansies – pass! We each grabbed a bag and started on our run home.  Hauling the weight of your own butt is tough enough – but add a bag of dirt and plants!  We huffed and puffed, dripped with sweat, and cursed our new-found treasures.We made it the 2 miles home and basked in the glory of having free plants, banging biceps, and the secret urge to start dumpster diving.

Do you ever wonder why runners are always finding the bodies on Law and Order?  It’s probably because they’ve found some sweet free stuff on the side of the road during 4 milers and they have their eyes peeled.

Plants are prettier when they're free

On the Sense and Science of Rhubarb…from my mom, the food scientist.

My mom loves rhubarb as much, if not more than I do.  I asked her to use her food science expertise to write about the wonders of rhubarb. 

Rhubarb pie is notorious for running over

Fruits, perching precariously on the second tier of the food pyramid (hovering with vegetables above the cereal and grain group), are enjoying improved status on the new food plate nutritional model.  We say it’s high time.  Fruits have always been our favorite food group, contributing that valuable juicy/crunchy, sweet/tart, pleasant smelling, attractive looking component to our diet.  The distinction between a fruit and a vegetable can often be a fine one.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash are botanically fruits, but are looked upon as vegetables.  Rhubarb, actually a stem, is considered a fruit.

And in spring, when our thoughts turn to pie, we traditionally think of this “pie plant” stem, steaming through a lattice crust, juices flowing freely over the side and onto the oven floor, smoke alarm blaring, dog howling….it’s all worth it.  Alone or in combination with fresh strawberries, peaches, blueberries, raspberries, or any other sweet fruit, rhubarb in pie is a classic!

The nutritional make-up of rhubarb is actually very interesting.  Containing only 16 calories per 100-gram (3/4 to 1 cup) raw, cubed pieces, rhubarb is a pretty decent source of vitamin A, potassium, and calcium.  As its tart taste implies, rhubarb has a high acid content – malic and oxalic acids mostly.  The oxalic acid has the distinction of cancelling out much of the calcium contribution of rhubarb, as it combines to form a less soluble salt, calcium oxalate.  Although the tartness of rhubarb is part of its charm, most normal people add too much sugar, making it tastier and higher in calories.  The addition of other sweet fruits and berries, as mentioned before, allows us to add a bit less sugar.  Some individuals have been observed crunching away on a stalk of raw rhubarb with only a sprinkling of salt to cut the tartness!  In fact, scientists have studied this interaction of salt with acids and have additionally observed that small concentrations of salt also increase the apparent sweetness of sucrose.  This explains why some people sprinkle salt on grapefruit and why a small amount of salt improves the flavor of fruit pies.

Final note of caution:  Only the stems of the rhubarb plant are edible!  The leaves and roots (should you be so inclined) are toxic with high concentrations of oxalates.  Remove the leaves immediately upon harvesting and supervise your children and pets!


Thanks Mom!

X file

Call Fox Mulder.

There has been an alien implantation of some sort of cucumber/squash/zucchini/pumpkin plant in several of my containers.  How did they get there?

Squirrels? No, they would have just eaten the seeds.

Birds? Not their style.

Sugar the Cat? She doesn’t have thumbs.

I am the obvious first suspect. In all fairness, that accusation is not unjustified. I have been known to secretly bury Halloween pumpkins in the front flower bed in hopes that it will sprout next year. (I have made that work with gourds).  Unfortunately, my husband is wise to my tricks and generally finds the mushy pumpkin and moves it.  Some people believe the front flower bed is no place for a pumpkin. I know that’s hard to believe.

Although sticking a cucumber plant into my flower-pot is not really out of character – I truthfully didn’t do it. View exhibit A. (little green sprout at the bottom of the picture.)

 Before you start creating your helmet out of tin foil to protect your head from possible alien brain waves or abduction – my mom cracked the case.  Last year my compost bin was in the shade.  After my pumpkin left the hiding spot in the flower bed, it moved to the winter time hideout in the compost bin.  Usually compost gets warm enough to kill most seeds.  The theory: Something I put in the bin didn’t die (insert evil laugh).  What you see in front of you is not an alien – but a zombie! So, what do we do?  We let them grow and see what happens.

The truth is out there.

The off-season: a blessing and a curse

I am officially in the marathon training “off-season”. Training for the Marine Corps marathon officially begins the first week in July. I will have had half of May and all of June to “rest.”  Rest, schmest – lets face the facts. The facts are:

a. I’m still eating like I’m in marathon training

b. I’m still running because I’m eating like I’m in training

c. No one wants to play tennis (my official off-season plan that hasn’t panned out)

d. I have a reputation to maintain (although I’m not sure what that reputation is exactly)

Being in the off-season is a necessary evil in the running world. If you continuously train, you will probably injure yourself and curse the day you ever purchased a pair of running shoes. The idea of the off-season during the last few weeks of marathon training is like looking forward to a Disney vacation when you’re a little kid. I dream of the Saturday mornings when I can sleep in instead of jamming down a peanut butter sandwich and a diet coke at 7:00am on the way to the running trail. What happens when the off-season arrives? I wake up early on Saturdays anyway because I’m use to it. I question the fit of my jeans. I start to worry about my pie intake.  Where is the sweet relaxation that the off-season promises? This is no way to live! The off-season is never really an off-season.  It is probably better named the “everything but the super long weekend run” season. My gal pal, Megan, and I hit the steamy streets of Columbus tonight and celebrated our 4 miler with a glass of wine and some North Star dinner.

I’m thinking that I must run forever.

Squirrels are jerks

Well…they are! I don’t care that they’re cute. The fact is, they break into your house and garage, dig up your garden, chew holes in things, and leave droppings just about everywhere. Don’t even get me started about the bird feeders!

The following story is 100% true and free from any exaggeration.

Last year I had a hanging  basket that was ruthlessly killed because a squirrel decided to dig a hole in the center and insert  a chunk of a french baguette.

This past Christmas, they chewed through 2 strings of brand new LED Christmas lights and defiantly spread the detached bulbs around the yard. They clearly care nothing about the environment or holiday joy.

To top it all off…they pooped on someone I love while they were innocently sitting on the deck drinking a beer. The victim shall remain nameless to protect him from squirrel retaliation. I could go on for days about the delinquent behavior of squirrels.

My mom's sunflower seedlings have to be protected with fencing

So – what do we do about these little jerks?

Mom has had run-ins already this year. This is her 3rd planting of sunflower seeds and has fenced in each little seedling to protect from their inevitable dig up and consumption. I spread blood meal around my garden boxes and on top of my containers every week. Don’t worry – blood meal is organic, but don’t think too hard about what it’s made of. This works pretty well, but it has to be applied again after a hard rain. After the spring we’ve had so far – you have to know that I’ve been through a ton of this stuff. Mom spread cayenne pepper around the parameter of her containers. Before you get too excited about this idea – it totally didn’t work. She ended up covering her pot with more fencing.

Cayenne pepper apparently only makes digging in the soft dirt more appealing. (mmm..spicy)

Just to ease your mind, the squirrels that took up residence in the attic (once) and in the garage (twice) were evicted humanly with a “one way door.” I don’t love squirrels but I like that they feed the neighborhood hawk. That’s right! I said it! I told you I would tell the truth.

The battle continues. Hide your kids. Hide your wife.