What are Phytonutrients?

imagesSpend enough time reading health blogs and you’ll probably come across the word, ‘phytonutrients’. It’s a term that’s often used in conjunction with physical fitness and nutritional health. But what are phytonutrients? How do they work? And why should you care?

Phytonutrients are actually a little difficult to pin down. Google defines them as ‘a substance found in certain plants which is believed to be beneficial to human health and help prevent various diseases.’  Other websites describe them merely as nutrients that have been scientifically proven to provide health benefits. What is known about phytonutrients is that they are not related to fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, or minerals, and they provide huge health benefits.

Plant foods can contain more than 25,000 phytonutrients. Carotenoids, ellagic acid, flavonoids, resveratrol, glucosinolates, and phytoestrogens are just a few of the better known ones. Some act as antioxidants, some aid in immunity and eye health, some protect against cancer, some reduce risk of asthma and heart disease, and some have anti-inflammatory and neuro-protective properties.

Nearly all plant foods contain phytonutrients, but some contain more than others. Fruits and veggies that have a deep, rich color—blueberries, blackberries, red cabbage, collards, and spinach—are good sources. But so too are certain off-white vegetables: garlic, onions, and leeks have loads of phytonutrients. As do red and pink fruits and veggies—tomatoes, guava, and watermelon.

images (1)To increase your uptake of these important nutrients, add extra fruits and vegetables to your salads, stews, pot roasts, and chili. Drinking a green smoothie with kale, cherries, spinach and almond milk also helps. As does the regular consumption of plant-based protein shakes mixed with blueberries.

The bottom line is this: the more phytonutrients you consume, the healthier you’ll be and feel!

By |May 8th, 2015|News|0 Comments

How to Grow Better-Tasting Vegetables!

fruit 2Everybody’s had that one piece of fruit or vegetable whose taste just knocked their socks off. Mine was a blackberry given to me by Chef Jess at Triumph Brewery New Hope: it was at the peak of ripeness, perfectly sweet, utterly memorable.

But how do you grow tasty fruits and vegetables yourself? What’s the secret?

Turns out there are a variety of factors.

The first deals with climate. Make sure the plants you intend to grow are appropriate for your particular climate, microclimate, and growing season. This sounds obvious, but can make a huge difference where taste is concerned. Root crops and leafy vegetables prefer moist, cool conditions; and melons and most nightshade prefer sunny and warm weather. Planting your fruits and veggies in ill-suited microclimates will inevitably lead to an inferior-tasting crop.

Another consideration is the age at which you harvest.  Harvesting immediately after maturation—especially true of root crops—tends to provide a fresher, ‘brighter’ tasting crop. This window is generally narrow, so make sure you’re checking your garden daily!

Of course, the plant’s genetic background also makes a huge difference. Seed brands chosen for outstanding taste often make an enormous difference. However, while selecting for taste, breeders have often inadvertently bred out essential nutrients in the process.

The most important determinant of taste, however, is soil. In short, the better one cares for one’s soil, the better tasting one’s fruits and veggies.  A crop grown in healthy soil will have consistently higher sugar levels, and will also have higher diffusion levels. (Diffusion is a measurement of the dissolved solids within a particular plant, including flavor, nutrients, and aromas.)  To improve your soil health, follow the tips in our blog: It’s the Soil Stupid.

veggie 2Growing excellent-tasting fruits and vegetables does involve a little extra work, but is well worth the effort!

By |April 24th, 2015|News|0 Comments

What is Permaculture?

downloadPermaculture is one of those words that gets tossed around almost as often as ‘sustainable’—and is perhaps just as misunderstood. But just what is Permaculture? It sounds intimidating, as if it were some complicated growing practice that only someone with a doctorate in horticulture could understand. But the basic tenants of Permaculture are surprisingly simple, if not downright obvious.

Permaculture is defined as “an agricultural system or method that seeks to integrate human activity with natural surroundings so as to create highly efficient self-sustaining ecosystems.” The term was first coined by Bill Millisons and David Holmgren, the originators of the modern Permaculture movement. Basically, Permaculture is the practice of a.) working with nature to avoid unnecessary labor, and b.) incorporating one’s crops within the existing environmental backdrop. Where agriculture requires the destruction of the landbase to accomplish its ends, Permaculture works within that landbase.

Like nature, Permaculture works in layers. That is, different species that grow to different heights are planted together, creating special ‘microclimates’ which are optimal for each particular plant. These layers include the canopy, understory, shrubs, herbaceous (plants that die each winter), soil surface and ground cover, and the rhizosphere (the root layers). By arranging plants within appropriate layers, you can diminish the need for watering, irrigation, and pest- and disease-control.

Permaculture also makes use of guilds. In Permaculture, guilds are groups of species where each individual plant provides a unique set of diverse functions that work in conjunction with the whole. These can include more than just plants—insects and animals too. In the same way that a traditional ‘guild’ involves individuals working toward a common goal, so too do Permaculture guilds involve a synergistic collaboration with the goal of mutual betterment.

download (1)Another feature of Permaculture is zones. Zones are ways of organizing design elements on the basis of the frequency of human use, as well as plant or animal needs. Basically what this means is those plants that need the most attention—or that would be used the most—are planted closest to your house.  This is Zone 1. (Zone 0 is your house). The zones continue spiraling outward, until Zone 5 is reached, which is a wilderness area.

For thousands of years, Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest made use of Permaculture principals to great effect. With traditional agriculture saddled with so many problems, a mass switch to Permaculture might just be what our ailing planet needs.

By |April 10th, 2015|News|0 Comments

All About Lettuce!

babyheadsWhenever I think about Blue Moon’s baby lettuce heads I think about Alex Levine, Whole Earth Center’s beloved deli manager. Last year when I delivered the seasons’ first baby lettuce harvest, Alex pulled a glistening head from the box, tore off a leaf, and began feasting—right there in the walk-in cooler. It was the first, fresh greenery he’d had since the previous autumn, and judging by the ecstatic look of satiety that filled his eyes, it was much needed. Like Alex, I’ll often eat lettuce straight from the head—greedily, luxuriating in the texture, the taste, the privilege of eating local lettuce so early in the season. And after a winter like this year’s, it’s just what the doctor ordered.

Lettuce is so ubiquitous we rarely stop to think about its origins. It was the Egyptians who first cultivated the plant, turning it from an oil-producing weed into a crop grown exclusively for its leaves. They used lettuce to honor their reproduction god, Min, whose stamina was purportedly benefited by copious consumption of the crop. These early lettuce strains resembled a large version of romaine, and later spread to the Greeks, and then the Romans, and finally to Europe. It was the barbaric Christopher Columbus who brought lettuce, along with pestilence and disease, to the Americas.

Originally, lettuce had to be sold close to where it was grown, thanks in part to its short life span and delicate nature. But with the advent of new packing, storage and shipping technologies in the early 1900s, lettuce began to proliferate. The later development of ‘vacuum cooling’, which allowed for the crop to be cooled and packed in the field, only added to its popularity.

Blue Moon Acres Baby Head Lettuce - SaladAt Blue Moon, we grow five varieties of baby lettuce heads. Red “Little Gem”, Green “Sucrine”,  Green “Oakleaf,” Green “Sweet Crisp”,  and red “Incised”. The first harvest of these beauties is always a special occasion—they are the very first crop of the season, and, as such, mark the arrival of spring. And whether you choose to enjoy them in a salad, on a wrap or sandwich, or, like Alex and I, straight from the head, they’re delicious.

By |March 27th, 2015|News|0 Comments

A Brief (and Mouthwatering!) History of Risotto

imagesI was never a Risotto fan. In fact, before we started growing Italian rice here at Blue Moon, I can’t even say that I’d ever had the dish. But then one day, resident rice connoisseur Jim Lyons brought some freshly-cooked risotto into our office. I was hooked. Within a week, I was using our Arborio to make my own Risotto, a ritual I’ve repeated a half-dozen times since.

Risotto’s history is an interesting one. The shorter-grain rice varieties that would later be the dish’s foundation made their way into Sicily and Spain by way of Arab merchants. From there, they spread throughout Italy, consumed mainly by the upper class. But it was not till these varieties caught the attention of elites in Spanish-occupied Milan that the techniques we now associate with modern Risotto—slow-cooking; the use of stock, onions, butter, wine, parmesan, and saffron—were developed. Today, the dish remains largely unchanged.

Almost without exception, Risotto is made from one or more of the following varieties: Arborio, Baldo, Carnaroli, Maratelli, and Vialone Nano. It is because of their ability to absorb liquids and release starch that these are used. Generally speaking, the higher the starch content (amylopectins), the more creamy and textured the final product. That’s why long grain rice—very low in amylopectins, flakier and dryer— makes for a poor Risotto.

As a vegetarian, I’ve never made classic Risotto. Instead of chicken broth, I use vegetable broth, adding spinach and tomatoes, or sometimes even—yes—kale. Their version incorporated our own organic Maratelli rice, and contained, among other delicious ingredients, morel mushrooms. Morels are to Risotto what peanut-butter is to jelly: it’s an amazing combination, one I highly recommend you try ASAP!

pumpkin-zucca-risotto-14-1000Of course, there are a number of traditional variations on Risotto. There’s Risotto alla Milanese, made with beef stock, bone marrow, lard, and cheese. And Risotto al nero di sepia, prepared with the black ink sacs of cuttlefish. And then there’s Risotto alla zucca, made with pumpkin, nutmeg, and grated cheese.

But no matter how you prepare your Risotto, one thing is certain: With so many varieties of Italian rice available at Blue Moon, it’s hard to go wrong!

By |March 13th, 2015|News|0 Comments