Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Will Work For Food

Have you ever seen those people who stand under stop lights, bearing a cardboard sign that reads, "Will work for food"? I've often wondered why we don't use all that wasted land between freeway ramps and freeways, empty lots, and other unused patches of earth to cultivate food crops. Gasoline suppliers supposedly have removed the lead from their formulae, which makes exhaust safer for roadside plants, as well as for people; why aren't we raising sheep, or carrots, or lettuce or any number of things on that waste land? As long as there is one hungry person in this or any other country, can we really afford to waste one square foot of arable land--or even land that could be made arable? It's something to think about.

Okay, y'all, let's get down to growing! Here's today's post:


When you want to insure your family a supply of nice fresh veggies, look no farther than your own back yard or terrace. It’s very easy to grow many of the vegetables you enjoy most, and fun, too!

Start in your kitchen. Okay, let’s say you’re going to cut up some tomatoes and green peppers for a salad. Roma tomatoes are best for salad, because their flesh-to-seed ratio is higher than the big sandwich tomatoes, which can be a little watery sometimes. The Roma’s are also good for sun-drying, roasting, and using in a Pasta Primavera.

So you go ahead and cut up the tomatoes and green peppers. There will be lots of tomato-and green-pepper-seeds remaining on the cutting board. Separate out the green pepper seeds and put them on a saucer, a piece of waxed paper, or a paper towel. Reserve them for now. For what to do with green pepper seeds, and a great green pepper recipe, see my next post, “It is Easy Being Green—Peppers!”

Here’s what you will do with the tomatoes:

 Collect the seeds while you are cutting the tomatoes, and reserve them.
 Scoop up the tomato seeds and plop them into a clear glass container (a drinking glass or clean jelly jar will do just fine).
 Fill it with water, leaving ½” --1” space at the top of the glass.

What you are doing here is what’s called ‘retting’ the seeds. It’s actually a ‘wet-rotting’ process (Get it? Retting--rotting?) that will erode and destroy the jelly-like orange-red gel that surrounds each seed and prevents them from starting to grow while inside the tomato. It also will prevent their growing in your garden, which is why we’re retting them.

 Several times daily, check the tomato seeds. Stir briskly, then carefully pour off the water, including any floating seeds, loose pulp, gel, or bits of other material. Floating seeds float because they don’t have the elements inside that will let them grow and produce a plant. So it’s okay to dump them. (Note: if the seed has a lot of pulp or gel surrounding it, separate it from the pulp before deciding to toss it; it may be one of your better ‘growers’ that just got trapped.)

 Pour off the water and the floaters, stir briskly, and fill with fresh cool water.

 When the seeds seem to have no more gel left on them, pour them through a strainer, let dry and tap out onto a paper towel.

 When completely dry, save them in a paper ‘pocket’ or a folded, marked paper towel. Do not save seeds in plastic or waxed paper, as they are alive and need to breathe.

 I like to plant my seeds right away, since I have a veggie garden, but I like to start them first in a flat, half a milk carton with holes in the bottom, or a in a plastic box—the kind you buy cinnamon buns or strawberries in at the store. Line it with pieces of coffee filter cut to size, fill the box with good garden or potting soil and just pour your tomato seeds all over the top.

Do this over the sink, since you’ll probably have sort of a flood, or at least a lot of drips. Put up the cover and set them on a sunny windowsill, if you have one. Mine is in the kitchen, and I can watch over my ‘babies’ as they sprout and grow. I like to sprinkle about a 1/4” of soil over them. Either way, they’ll grow; the soil just helps them stay moist, which is absolutely REALLY important.

Pretty soon you’ll have lots of little tomato plants sticking their heads up. When they have four real leaves (cotyledons don’t count), transplant them to foam- plastic cups or clean canned veggie cans or whatever you have, with three holes cut into the bottoms with a “church-key” (a can-opener that makes a triangular hole.) Cover the holes with bits of coffee filter before you fill the cups halfway with good potting soil. Make a 1” hole in the center of the soil. One inch both ways.

Prick the tomato plants out carefully—I use a clean popsicle stick—and never, never, NEVER pick up a plant by its stem. Always pick it up by a leaf, tugging gently at it until it comes free. You can use a bit of water to get it out of the soil without damaging the roots. That usually helps.

Place your baby tomato plant in the hole (in the cup) and tuck it in gently. Fill up the cup until the plant has only its leaves above the soil. Doing this gives the plant a chance to build roots all along the stem, and makes for a stronger and healthier plant. It will just stand there for about a week, and then start growing so fast you’ll think you traded your cow for these seeds.

When the plant outgrows the cup, and the weather is warm enough, transplant your tomatoes into your veggie or flower garden. Provide a stake, a wire cage or something of the sort for each one, so it can hold on and remain upright. You don’t want all those luscious tomatoes lying on the ground, rotting away. Keep the plant straight and tall, and you’ll be eating sweet, fresh, organic tomatoes in no time.

If you grow too many tomatoes to eat right off the vine, you've brought lots and lots to the soup kitchen or food bank, and your neighbors and friends have been given all they will take, here’s something fun to do with the excess:


6-8 fresh tomatoes
1 can refrigerated pizza dough
1 really large (not giant, but big) onion
4--6 cloves (the individual pieces, not the whole head) garlic
About ½ c fresh basil
2 Tbsps fresh oregano*
2 cups , home-made sugo, good tomato sauce or pizza sauce*
Olive oil as needed
A sprinkle of red pepper flakes, if you like*
1-1 ½ c grated Italian cheese-Parmesan,
Peccorino-Romano, Parmigiano/Reggiano,
or if you don’t have any of that, just use
Mozzerella or Monterey Jack. Cheddar is
good, too, unless you’re Italian or Sicilian.


Grease a jellyroll pan or cookie sheet with some of the olive oil. Don’t go crazy, you don’t want greasy old pizza. Just enough. Lay out your dough, spreading it as evenly as you can. Slice your tomatoes into ½” slices and lay them on the dough like shingles on a roof. Chop the washed basil and sprinkle liberally over the tomatoes. Smash, peel and mince the garlic. Peel and slice your onions into ¼” slices like onion rings, and fry them and the garlic in a bit of the oil until they sweat and smell wonderful. Lay them over the basil and the oregano, if you’re using it.

Now this is where you use the sauce, if you’re going to use it. I usually don’t, unless I have made some sugo and have some left over. Famous last word, “left over.” (One time one of my kids came to me and said, “Mom, what’s a leftover?” Poor kid thought it was a baseball pitch. He had big brothers and sisters with insatiable appetites, so he never met a leftover. At least, none that he recognized. More on that later.)

Sometimes I use the 2 Tbsps oregano*, sometimes less. People should cook according to their moods that day. Use the oregano, don’t use the oregano… 'Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday'... Do whatever you like about that. You know what you like.

Cover everything with grated cheese and bake at 350--400 F (oven heats vary) until the crust is golden and the family is rushing the kitchen salivating, armed with paper plates, and forks at the ready. Hold them off until you cool the pizza a little bit, and then let them at it. Be sure you grab a couple of slices, too, before it disappears. Enjoy!

PS: This is really good on a hot day with an ice-cold soda, and beer for the men.

*optional, but try it sometime.

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