Easy Ways to Improve Your Homemade Coffee

Woman enjoying a cup of black coffee

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Everyone loves coffee, but most people don’t like the price tag that goes along with treating yourself to a fancy coffee from a high-end coffee shop. Instead, many people choose to brew their own at home. In our bleary-eyed morning state, we love the coffee to pull us into a more functional version of ourselves. Unfortunately, there are lots of small mistakes that people make that prevent them from having an incredibly delicious cup of coffee at home instead of a mediocre one.

First, starting of with quality beans will make a difference. The roast is up to you, although it is not common knowledge that light roasts actually contain more caffeine than dark roasts. Not only do quality beans matter, but when you grind them does as well. Beans should be ground just before the coffee is to be made for best flavor. Grinding it too thickly or too thinly can also affect the flavor of your coffee. Bitter coffee means you’re grinding too finely, and weak sour coffee can mean it’s too thick.

Next, finding the proper ratio for your coffee will give you a consistent cup of coffee every time. If you like strong coffee, try a ratio of 1 tablespoon of coffee for every two ounces of water. Pay attention to deviations from this ratio to find your exact preference.

In a coffee shop, the machine gets cleaned every night. At home, how frequently do you clean your equipment? Leftover grounds or dust can add bad flavors to subsequent cups. It’s also not good for your machine to have residue or buildup blocking its function.

Following these steps can improve the taste of your homemade coffee and allow you to appreciate the variety of flavors in a cup of coffee.

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Umami, the Savory Flavor

Umami is a flavor present in the cuisine of all cultures.

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In elementary school we all learn about the basic flavors our tongue can taste: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Recently we have learned about another flavor called umami. This flavor has been translated from Japanese as a yummy savory taste. In Western food, Parmesan cheese is the most umami ingredient in normal usage.

The flavor is particularly strong in stocks and broths. The amino acids that create this flavor have to be released by some sort of cooking, molding or fermentation process. In 1908, chemist Kikunae Ikeda tried to replicate a traditional Japanese soup. In doing so, he was able to isolate the substance that creates this flavor: Glutamate, an amino acid. He also gave it the name “umami,” which is most simply translated as “delicious.” One of the salts of glutamate has been used to create the flavor enhancer called monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG.

The glutamate works in conjunction with ribonucleotides that are also naturally present in foods. This is why certain combinations of foods, such as cooked beef, tomato, and cheese, are so much more delicious than their individual parts. Aside from cooked meats and cheeses, products like soy sauce are high in glutamate. So are mushrooms, sweet corn, and cherry tomatoes. It’s part of the reason why children prefer these foods.

We crave sweetness for calories and energy. Rejecting bitter foods protects us from poisons. Umami tells us we are eating protein. We prefer cooked or preserved food because it detoxifies the food and protects us from illness. MSG has been created to give us this taste, but it is a manufactured flavor. While the debate over whether MSG is a harmful food additive continues to rage on, it is safe to say that ingesting the natural forms of flavors will be better and easier for the body to process.

Whatever the source, human beings naturally crave umami flavors, and each of the world’s cultures has its own ways of adding it to their cuisine.

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East 25th Street in Flatbush Spreads the Garden Love

Flowers and plants on a balcony

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If you walk down East 25th Street, between Clarendon Road and Avenue D in Brooklyn, the first thing you’ll notice is that the streets are lined with a lush array of flowers, shrubs, and gardens.

In August 2016, the block was named the Greenest Block in Brooklyn by the Brooklyn Botanic Group. This is the fourth time in 20 years that the neighborhood has received this prestigious award.

The effort to green East 25th Street was led by a six retirees in the block’s gardening club. They planted, watered, and weeded many plots on the street, aided by a very large group of neighborhood residents. Most of the plants growing in the neighborhood are flowers, a mix of native and non-native species including Echinacea, black-eyed Susans, and marigolds.

Gardens didn’t go unrepresented, though. The community took it upon themselves to green up the yard of a vacant house. Pumpkins and tomatoes are growing there now. We suspect the neighborhood residents have enjoyed lots of fresh tomato salad and will have a very good Halloween indeed, with lots of jack o’lanterns to carve.

The winners of the Greenest Block contest are judged on resident participation, eco-friendliness, plant variety, use of color, and street tree maintenance.

More than 150 blocks in 25 neighborhoods competed for the 2016 Greenest Block in Brooklyn prize.

Congratulations to the East 25th Street neighborhood. Congratulations also to Fulton Street, between South Portland and South Oxford streets, which won the award for greenest commercial block in the borough.

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July Was Hot, But Things Are Going to Get Hotter

July was the hottest month on record, and it's only getting hotter

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Everybody noticed how hot July was. According to NASA, it was the hottest July ever recorded, going back as far as we’ve been recording temperatures and other weather data (about 200 years or so). Not only that, but this year is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded—which is par for the course of late, as 14 of the 15 hottest years recorded have happened since 2000. That’s an obvious trend, and one which we need to keep an eye on, because it isn’t going to get better.

At least, it won’t get better if we don’t step up and start taking better care of the Earth.

Any guesses why it’s been so hot? Yup: climate change, caused primarily by greenhouse gas emissions caused, of course, by human activity. The world is getting hotter and it’s going to have a lot of negative affects on us.

What does this have to do with gardening? A lot.

Firstly, the number of days that will break 95 degrees in the United States, which was pretty low between 1991 and 2010, will be going up precipitously over the rest of the century. A couple of key American cities illustrate this point. Between 1991 and 2010, Boston averaged 1 day over 100 degrees per year, as did Chicago, while Washington D.C had 4, Atlanta 7, and Dallas 44. By 2060, those numbers should jump to Boston: 9, Chicago: 23, Washington D.C.: 32, Atlanta: 47, and Dallas: 97. By 2100, we’re looking at Boston: 28, Chicago: 54, Washington D.C.: 74, Atlanta: 94, and Dallas: 133 days a year. Dallas should be spending about four months a year over 95 degrees.

It’s going to be more difficult to work or play outside in the summer, but that’s just the beginning. Those temperatures are also going to affect water supplies, stifle the growth of certain crops (and move whole parts of the country and the world into new hardiness zones), and lead to even more forest and brush fires in the American West.

The continuing warming trend isn’t just bad for us as urban gardeners; it’s bad for the world at large. It’s up to us to add our voices to the chorus demanding action on climate change, before it’s too late.

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Pickling: An Easy Way to Preserve Your Favorite Veggies

Pickled vegetables. Pickling is an easy way to preserve your fresh veggies.

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We’re all familiar with pickles—cucumbers preserved in brine with dill and some other spices. But you can pickle almost any vegetable, from asparagus to zucchini, and make the most of the work you did in your garden or the veggies you bought at your local farmers’ market.

Before we get going on the how-tos, though, let’s briefly define pickling. Pickling is the art of adding an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice to low-acid vegetables, in order to lower their pH (acid-alkaline balance) to an acidic 4.6 or lower. This preserves the vegetables and can add some really delightful taste.

You’ll need a little bit of hardware to pickle your veggies: A boiling-water canner (a large lidded pot with a jar rack) designed to hold seven quart-size jars or eight to nine pint-size jars in boiling water.

You’ll also need canning jars with new lids. Do not use recycled household jars; they may break or the seals may not seal properly, thus ruining all your hard work.

Before you start your pickling, buy canning or pickling salt. The difference between pickling salt and table salt is that pickling salt has no additives. Iodized table salt could change the color and/or texture of your veggies and could make the brine cloudy.

Another crucial part of the brine is white distilled or cider vinegar with 5 percent acidity. We recommend using white vinegar for lighter-colored veggies like cauliflower or golden beets, as cider vinegar could lend the final product a brownish color.

When you choose vegetables to pickle, be sure to use fresh vegetables. Wax-coated veggies will not take the brine as well and will probably taste odd when you go to eat them.

For more very important tips on pickling vegetables and great pickle recipes, visit The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

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Is “Vertical Farming” the Next Big Urban Innovation?

This "green wall" could be the next innovation in urban farming.

“Green wall.” Photo: Shutterstock

It’s already a thing in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and the Midwest, but will it catch on in America’s cities? Vertical farming, the art of growing crops on the sides of roofs or buildings, or even inside buildings in large cities, is the newest idea in growing local foods for urban dwellers.

There’s a long way to go before vertical farming really takes off. The amount of energy required to grow plants in indoor settings is pretty high.

“It’s such an appealing idea…that people picked up on it right away,” says Utah State University professor Bruce Bugbee. “The fundamental problem is that plants need a lot of light. If we’re going to do it inside, it will require burning a lot of fossil fuels.”

However, people who support the idea say that technology is improving to the point where vertical farming will soon be as common as flat-earth farming, especially as climate change and water supply problems make traditional farming more difficult.

AeroFarms, for example, operates a vertical farming operation in a warehouse in Newark, New Jersey, producing leafy greens and herbs. The company uses a closed-loop irrigation system and light-emitting diodes to minimize energy and water consumption. According to AeroFarms marketing director and co-founder Marc Oshima, using LEDs instead of sunlight means the growing season takes about two weeks rather than a couple of months, allowing for up to 30 harvests a year.

He also pointed out that the absence of pests helps to maximize growing and that the LEDs can emit colors that maximize growth, taste and nutrition.

Other vertical farms are taking a different approach, building structures specifically for their gardens. Swedish firm Plantagon International is working with real estate developers to construct purpose-built facilities. Plantagon plans to reduce energy costs by using heat thrown off by the artificial lighting to keep the buildings warm.

It’s hard to know for sure how much food comes from vertical farms, but the local-food movement seems to offer a market for this new business model. At this time it looks like the best bet for vertical farming is in the arena of crops like those AeroFarms is growing, since leafy greens are highly perishable and generally don’t do well when transported for long distances.

What do you think? Is vertical farming poised to be the next big thing, or is it more of a flash in the pan that is not sustainable in the long term? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Five Less Obvious Benefits of Shopping at Farmers’ Markets

Farmers' markets have lots of benefits beyond getting fresh, local food.

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There are lots of great reasons for buying food at a farmers’ market, first and foremost of which is that you’re going to get local, seasonal food picked at the peak of freshness. That adds up to great taste and great nutrition.

But did you know there are some less tangible reasons why it’s great to go to your local farmers’ market? Here are a few to think about.

You can eat humane. Even if you eat meat, dairy, fish or eggs, local is best. Generally speaking, meat and other animal products you find at farmers’ markets are raised on small farms and get to enjoy a life of grazing outdoors instead of the typical cages and feedlots of factory farms.

You can learn to cook the food you buy. Many farmers will happily give you tips on how to prepare the food they grow. They’ll also have some great ideas about drinks and other foods to pair with their products. Some farmers’ markets even have cooking classes or demonstrations.

You can connect with your community. Most urban dwellers don’t even know the people in the apartment next door, let alone people who live down the street or across the way. Farmers’ markets bring together people who share an instant potential bond based on a common interest in local, sustainable food.

You can learn where your food comes from. Ever wanted to know what goes into making cheese? Ask a cheese vendor at the farmers’ market. This goes for any other food you’re curious about. Not only are farmers happy to tell you how to cook the food they sell, they’ll be delighted to tell you how the food they sell is produced.

You can be eco-friendly. Most food in U.S. grocery stores travels huge distances before it finds its way onto shelves. The cost of this transportation in fossil fuels and carbon emissions is immense. Farmers’ markets support a local food economy and decrease the environmental impact of our eating choices.

What other less obvious benefits do you get from going to farmers’ markets? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Easy Tips for Slow-Cooker Meals

A slow-cooker filled with vegetables. A slow cooker is a great way to make a nutritious meal with minimal attention.

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There’s nothing like coming home from your garden patch with lots of potatoes, carrots, broccoli and other veggies. But what do you do with them? Sure, there’s the standard baking or boiling, but in the summer heat, maybe you don’t want to turn on the oven. So how are you going to cook your delightful harvest without turning your apartment into a sauna?

How about using a slow-cooker?

A slow-cooker is an amazing thing. You throw some ingredients in, turn it on, and you have a meal several hours later. It’s an easy way for busy people to make nutritious and delicious meals. Follow these tips and your recipes will turn out better than ever.
There are a variety of slow-cooker sizes. Make sure you are making a recipe that is appropriate for your crock pot’s size. An overfilled slow-cooker requires more time to cook. Slow-cookers should not be filled more than two-thirds full.

The best way to save flavor is to brown meat and or veggies in a skillet directly before adding them to the slow cooker. Make sure you also include all the brown caramelized bits that are stuck to the pan.

Temperatures between 40° and 140°F are the “Danger Zone,” where harmful bacteria grow quickly. It’s important that foods never sit in the danger zone for very long. Don’t add refrigerated or frozen ingredients directly to the slow cooker. It won’t be able to heat up to cooking temperature quickly enough.

Fattier cuts of meat like short ribs, lamb shanks or dark meat chicken handle the low heat better than leaner cuts. The leaner cuts will dry out and become tough, while the fattier cuts become moist and tender.

Each time you open the lid, you let out heat and add 15 to 20 minutes to the cooking process.

Remember, slow-cookers are not hot enough to cook the alcohol out of a sauce. Go easy on the wine or leave it out entirely. If you want the taste of wine in your recipe, add it to the pan while while browning the meat. This will cook the alcohol out and give you a liquid to collect the caramelized left-behinds in.

Dairy will tend to break down so don’t add dairy products until the last 20 minutes of cooking.

There are tons of delicious slow-cooker recipes available on the internet. If you have dietary restrictions, check out these lists of delightful vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free crock-pot meals.

Do you have a favorite slow-cooker recipe? Please share it in the comments.

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Want Low-Maintenance Plants for Your Balcony Garden? Try Herbs!

A balcony herb garden.

A balcony herb garden. Photo: Shutterstock

Being an urban gardener can be a challenge. It’s hard to find space to plant unless you’re fortunate enough to live in a city with public gardens in which you can rent a lot. Not only that, but the idea of a balcony garden can be intimidating for gardening beginners. But herbs can be a good place to start.

Most herbs are simple to grow and do well in containers. Some can also tolerate mistakes, such as forgetting to water frequently. As a bonus, you usually don’t have to grow them from seed, since you can buy seedlings at your local greenhouse or garden center.

Herbs generally prefer full sun, but there are some that will tolerate partial shade as well.

Here are three herbs you can use to get your balcony garden started.

Basil. This herb prefers full sun and needs to wait for warmer temperatures to be outside. It transplants very well from seedlings, but unlike some herbs, it does need to be watered regularly. Fresh basil is delightful with in-season tomatoes from your local farmers’ market and fresh mozzarella cheese. Dress this super summer salad with a little olive oil, salt, and lemon juice or red wine vinegar.

Dill. This herb should be started from seed, but it will grow easily if you place it in full sun and plant it in moist, well-drained soil. Dill will get pretty “leggy” if you don’t harvest it when it’s young. Add fresh dill from your balcony garden to thinly sliced cucumbers and marinate the mixture for a little while in olive oil and vinegar. This can be a great topping for sandwiches or eaten on its own as “cucumber salad.”

Mint. There are many varieties of mint with an array of different flavors from classic mint to lemon mint and “chocolate mint,” which really does have a subtle chocolate taste. Mint tolerates partial shade, likes moist soil, and is best started as a seedling in your container garden. Fresh mint can be a refreshing addition to summer iced tea or mint juleps for Sunday brunch. Dry your mint for hot or iced mint tea.

All three of these herbs smell lovely, too.

For more great ideas about herbs to grow in your balcony garden, visit My Balcony Jungle.

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Tips for Gardening on the Prairie

Wildflowers grow on a sunset prairie.

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The prairie: wide open, grassy spaces that aren’t just for Laura Ingalls Wilder! Over the past 150 years, prairie land was converted into homesteads, agricultural fields, highways, cities, and other usable land. It’s beautiful territory that’s now getting a much-needed renewed focus: now more than ever, people appreciate the sparse beauty of the prairie. Naturally, the need to garden follows! Prairie land no longer covers the vast amount of territory it used to, so if you plan to be gardening there, make sure to use native plants that will help nurture and conserve prairies.

“Prairie” refers to grasslands that stretch from Ontario all the way to Texas, and from Colorado to Indiana. These areas typically receive a limited amount of rainfall, with cold winters and hot summers. The grasses often see summer fires, so be on the lookout for those. Get a good understanding of the kind of land you’ll be working with before you ever take shovel to soil.

To start, it’s essential that you not use pesticides. While pesticides do kill pests and keep your garden relatively safe, they also deter the development of natural diversity like butterflies and native plants. Part of prairie gardening needs to be a focus on getting native plants to grow, so don’t keep them away!

On that note, make sure you’re planting native plants! Prairies are characterized by tallgrass, mixed grass, and shortgrass. Wildflowers grow prevalently, as well as coneflowers, prairie phlox, false indigo, and orchids. These plants will fill out your garden the best, and they’re the most likely to stay happy. Grasses are a must. Seeds or plants or fine, but know that seeds will take two to five years to reach their full size.

Plants are best sown or planted just after the frost but before the summer. In Minnesota, for example, seeds are most happy to be planted between May 20th June 20th.  Seeds should be spread thinly to make sure they get enough space to grow. Seeds should be watered after they’re planted, and a good rule of (green) thumb is to use half a pound of grass seed per thousand square feet.

Once everything is planted, your biggest concern will be weather and weed control. Watch for fires and hope for rain! If it all falls into place, you’ll be able to enjoy your own prairie wildflowers in the summer.

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