Care for stone countertops

In the last two years, several of the AnswerLine staff members have remodeled their kitchens and bathrooms. During the remodeling process, a big topic is always what sort of countertops are the best for my situation and what kind of maintenance will the countertops require. I have done a bit of research on several of the existing options.

Granite counters are very popular right now. They do not require a lot of maintenance but it is a good idea to wash the counters regularly with a soapy cloth to prevent stains. Blotting spills with paper towels eliminates the possibility that you will spread a stain while swiping it with a cloth. Acidic cleaners like lemon juice, ammonia, and window cleaner may damage granite counters. Instead, you can make your own cleaner with three parts of dish detergent and one part rubbing alcohol.

Granite countertops need to be sealed several times a year. Test yours to see if the previous seal has worn away. Place a few drops of water on the countertop and check for beading. If the water beads up, the counter does not need to be resealed. If it does not bead up, then seal the counter with a granite stone sealer. Follow the directions on the package. If you are sealing kitchen countertops, be sure that the sealing compound is non-toxic. Apply sealer to clean countertops and allow it to rest for a half hour or so. Sealing the countertop will not eliminate the chance of staining but it will help the granite be more resistant to staining.

Quartz countertops are also very popular right now. I chose them for my kitchen because they do not require sealing. Quartz is actually a manufactured product, made of quartz stone and a synthetic polymer. They are very easy to care for and do not require polishing. I clean my countertops with a warm, wet dishcloth. Clean spills and sticky foods as soon as the spill occurs to avoid stains. Glass and surface cleaners will not damage quartz surfaces. However, avoid bleach and harsh, acidic cleaners on quartz as well as granite surfaces. In addition, hot pans set directly on the quartz countertops can cause damage.

Marble countertops are not quite as popular as granite and quartz. Marble is a porous surface even though it is very durable. Remember to use only mild dish soap and warm water to clean marble. Test your marble counter top every couple of months to see if the marble needs to be resealed. Test marble in the same manner you test granite. If needed, apply the sealer over clean countertops and let it sit on the countertop for about 30 minutes.

Soapstone is another choice for stone countertops. This stone is very durable and hard to scratch or etch. Soapstone is a non-porous surface that is hard to stain and is tolerant of hot pans. Remember that soapstone can be damaged by dropping heavy objects on it. Soapstone is more likely to dent than scratch or chip. Soapstone does not need to be sealed, but like a butcher block counter, it does need to regular oiling. Oil the counter by spreading some mineral oil on the surface. Use a towel to rub the oil into the stone. Leave for 30 minutes and the remove excess oil. Not oiling the surface will result in dark spots showing on the surface of the stone—over time. Again, harsh or acidic cleaners are not recommended.

We are lucky to have so many different choices for countertops these days. Stone countertops do not require much more care than my old Formica countertops and I do enjoy the look of stone.

 

Liz Meimann

Liz Meimann

I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Food Science at Iowa State University. I love to quilt, sew, cook, and bake. I spent many years gardening, canning, and preserving food for my family when my children were at home.

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‘Shrooming in the Woods or Supermarket – It’s a Good Thing!

Common morel fungus growing in the forest

As spring creeps in this year, mushroom enthusiasts are just itching to get out into the woods and search for the highly prized, morel mushroom.  This elusive mushroom is prized for its tastiness and can only be wild-crafted as no one has figured out how to grow and farm them as of yet.

Besides being prized for their taste, morels are loaded with all kinds of nutrients.  Because they tend to grow in rich soils they come packed with vitamins and minerals such as iron, copper, manganese, phosphorus, zinc, vitamin D, folate, niacin, riboflavin, potassium, magnesium, calcium selenium, thiamin, vitamin E and vitamin B6.  However, their nutrient value varies with the soil where the moral grows.  Morals are also loaded with antioxidants, help to balance blood sugar, and provide protein and fiber.  Morals can be used in any way that farmed mushrooms would be used.

While the wild moral mushroom is high prized, its’ farmed mushroom cousins—white, shitake, cremini, oyster, maitake–are equally as nutritious and offer delicious and unique flavors, too.  They are also readily available at the supermarket.   Even though there are more than 2000 varieties of edible mushrooms in the world, most people cook with only one or two.  Here is a quick summary of those most commonly found on produce shelves:

White Button Shitake Cremini/Portobello Oyster Maitake
 
Most common mushroom.
Mild flavor, very versatile.
Protein-rich.
Deep woodsy flavor especially if dried and
re-hydrated.
Calcium rich.
Baby bella = Cremini; larger, mature form = Portobello.
Makes dark sauces and great for grilling.
Delicate, mild flavor.
Stays firm when cooked; excellent for stir-fry.
Iron and antioxidant rich.
Also known as hen-of-the-woods.
Earthy flavor.
Excellent for stir-frys.
Antioxidant rich.

The enemy of any mushroom is moisture in its packaging.  Fresh morels will keep about a week in the refrigerator provided they were harvested in good condition.  Place them in paper bags and store them in the refrigerator with plenty of air circulating around them.  Drying is an excellent storage option, too.  A paper bag is also a good way to store purchased mushrooms; this allows them to breathe.  Moisture build up inside the packaging is the fastest way for mushrooms to break down.

Mushrooms need to be cleaned before use. The best way to clean most fresh mushrooms is to wipe them with a clean, barely damp cloth or paper towel. Washing mushrooms is usually not necessary. If you must rinse them, do it lightly and dry them immediately, gently with paper towels. Never soak fresh mushrooms in water, which will cause them to become soggy. Morels need to be cleaned differently.  Begin by cutting a thin slice off the bottom of each stem.  You may also cut the mushrooms in half from stem to tip. Rinse them in cool water to remove dirt and insects. If heavy dirt, bugs and worms are present, it may be necessary to soak them in lightly salted water for a short time to bring out debris. Rinse the morels well and pat dry.

Cleaned mushrooms can be wrapped loosely in damp paper towels or a damp clean cotton cloth, placed in a container, and stored in the refrigerator for up to three days; the mushrooms may darken if stored this way.

Mushroom nutrition can be enhanced by placing them in the sun for 30 minutes prior to use.  Since most mushrooms are grown in the dark, they need sunlight to bring up their vitamin D content.  Exposure to sunlight significantly improves vitamin D.  If the mushrooms are chopped prior to exposure, vitamin D is maximized.  Some packaged mushrooms are marketed as vitamin D enhanced.

For those that do not care for fresh mushrooms, dried mushrooms may be an option.  Dried or powdered mushrooms pack the same nutritional punch as fresh mushrooms.  Mushroom powder can be included in sauces, homemade bread, casseroles, soups, etc., to add nutrition.  There are now a number of mushroom powder “enhanced” products and foods on supermarket shelves.

So whether it is the wild moral mushroom or farmed, store bought mushrooms, mushrooms are an excellent food for both flavor and nutrition.  Take good care of them to maximize both the flavor and nutrition.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Eliminating Ants

Are ants finding their way into your home this Spring/Summer? AnswerLine receives calls on a regular basis from callers looking for ways to get rid of those pesky ants.

Ants are typically trying to get in looking for nutrition and/or shelter so the first thing to do is eliminate any food or water sources the ants would be attracted to including rinsing out recycling containers before putting them in the storage bin.

If there appears to be nothing the ants might be looking for but they are still coming in, clean the infested area with soapy water or an ammonia window cleaner. If you can find the entry point where the ants are getting in you can seal it with petroleum jelly until you can silicon caulk the opening.

There are pesticide-free sprays on the market that can be effective in getting rid of ants. The safest homemade remedy to deter ants is to mix equal parts water and white vinegar and spray on the paths.

If you can identify the type of ant  you are trying to get rid of you can be more specific in what you use. There are hundreds of different species of ants found in the United States but only a fraction of those are actually found in or around homes and buildings. Observation and baiting with sticky traps can be important steps in the beginning to help determine where the ants might be coming from or where they are most active.

Terro is a commercial product you can purchase that typically has good results. Be sure to read the instructions for storage and usage if you have children and/or pets in the house. Terro makes products to treat ants both inside and outside the home.

Ants are Springtime house guests that are never welcome. With a little bit of diligence we should all be able to keep our homes ant free.

 

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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Passports, Global Entry, and TSA Pre-Check

There are several people in our building planning to do some international travel in the near future. As we were all discussing the various trips we are planning we began forming a list of questions about what needed to be completed before leaving on those trips. For some of us we needed to apply for our first passport. When applying for your first passport you need to appear in person. You will need to go somewhere that takes passport photos as well to attach to your application. Be sure to allow plenty of turn-around time to receive your passport well before you plan to travel. We discovered you can go to the Recorder’s Office at many of your local County Courthouses to appear in person to apply for your first passport AND they are also able to take your photos. Some Post Offices also do that saving you time from going to more than one place.

Some countries require that your passport be valid for six months beyond the completion of your trip. You will want to check the requirements of the countries you are planning to visit and you may need to renew your passport before you leave. You will still need new photos but you can renew by mail and not have to appear in person. Again, make sure to allow for plenty of turn-around time.

Once you have your passport you may want to consider enrolling in a Global Entry program which expedites your entry back into the United States. If you are planning to do quite a bit of international travel it may be worth looking into. You would start by enrolling in the Trusted Traveler Program (TTP) through U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

There is also TSA Pre-Check  to consider. It allows you to enter a separate security line and you do not have to remove your shoes, laptops, 3-1-1 liquids, belts, or light jackets. There is an option to add that to Global Entry.

I wish you all safe travels ahead whether you are traveling internationally or domestically!

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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Asparagus Tips

After weeks of anticipation, asparagus spears have finally appeared in my garden!  The spears are about two to three weeks late this year due to our late spring and cold ground temperatures.  But they are here now and ready to enjoy!

Whether asparagus is home grown in the garden or purchased at the supermarket or Farmer’s Market, fresh asparagus season is short.  Here are some tips to help you select, store, and prepare asparagus to maximize the season.

Green is the most common color of asparagus.  However, it can also be purple or white.  White asparagus is the same as green asparagus; it just hasn’t been allowed to see light so photosynthesis hasn’t taken place.  The green shoots are covered to prevent light getting to them.   White asparagus has a very mild flavor and because of the extra effort to blanch it, it is usually more costly.

Peak season is usually mid-April to early/mid-June in the Midwest depending upon the season.  When the temperatures warm in June, the spears begin to get spindly indicating it is time to stop harvesting and let the plants mature into their fern-like foliage.

Select stalks that are smooth, uniform in color, and have compact tips.  Avoid stalks that are shriveled, limp, or have open, seedy tips.  These are signs of age.  Do a sniff test; old asparagus gets smelly fast.

Asparagus is best used fresh.  Store asparagus spears in the refrigerator with the ends wrapped in a damp paper towel or with the stalk ends in shallow water. Loosely cover with plastic.  If the asparagus has been purchased at the market, cut the stalk ends about an inch back before wrapping or placing in shallow water.  Don’t allow the water to get cloudy.   Asparagus will keep well in the refrig for a week using one of these methods.

Wash and remove the woody stems prior to cooking or fresh use by gently bending the stalk until the woody part snaps away naturally.  Peeling is a personal option; some people like to peel the lower stalk if they are 1/2 -in or larger as they lower stems may be a little tougher.

Asparagus can be prepared in any number of ways–broiled, steamed, grilled, roasted, sautéed–or used fresh in salads.  Asparagus can also be par-cooked and quickly cooled for use in salads.  Whatever cooking method is used, the cooking time is short.

Asparagus is nutritious.  It is high in fiber, folate, potassium, and vitamins K, E, A, and C.  Because it is a good source of vitamin K, the amount eaten may need to be monitored by those who are on blood thinning medications.  Asparagus does not contain fat or cholesterol and is very low in calories–just 4 calories per spear.

Make the most of asparagus season while it’s here!

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Edible Landscaping – Landscaping with Taste

Creative landscape made with assorted organic vegetables.

The modern trend is to no longer banish the vegetable garden to the far corner of the back yard.  Rather, homeowners are now putting vegetables and fruit trees or bushes on display as part of an elegant, edible, landscape design.  So while this is a modern trend, an edible landscape is really an ancient practice dating back to medieval monks and ancient Persians growing a rich array of vegetables, flowers, fruits, and herbs for edible, medicinal, and ornamental virtues.  It was also a long practice of English gardens which was reinstated in 2009 by Queen Elizabeth when she had an organic edible landscape installed within the Buckingham Palace Garden which includes heirloom species of beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and other edibles.

While an edible landscape doesn’t need to be as elaborate as the Queen’s, an edible landscape does use attractive, food-producing plants in a well-designed garden plan around the home and/or living area in the same way that ornamental plants are used.  It may also incorporate ornamental plants. As a result, the edible landscape offers fresh, affordable food, a variety of foliage and colors, and sustenance for bees, butterflies, and birds.  As this trend grows, there are a growing number of professional landscape companies getting into the business of helping homeowners plan their landscape to include edibles, courses for certification as agriscaping educators and professionals, and any number of books and online articles providing information.  Interestingly enough, some subdivision developers now offer buyers a choice of either traditional landscaping or agriscaping for their new home.

Design is what separates edible landscaping from traditional vegetable gardening.  Whether ornamental or edible, design should be pleasing to the eye and draw one into the garden to experience it.  Instead of rows of vegetables which lead one away like a highway, the same space can be made very attractive (and edible) by incorporating basic landscaping principles  starting with a center of interest and then curving other plants around it—the same way one would plan an ornamental garden.  Add a few flowers, a trellis for beans/peas or cucumbers, an arbor for grapes, a bench, a bird bath, a fruit or nut tree, garden ornaments and voila!  It’s an ornamental edible landscape!

Planning an edible landscape incorporates the same design values of traditional landscapes. Carol Venolia writing for Mother Earth Living, says start small, choose plants appropriate for your climate zone, and offers the following design tips:

  • Create primary and secondary focal points.
  • Use plantings and hardscaping (such as paths and patios) to define spaces for various uses and experiences.
  • Work consciously with color, texture and seasons of blooming and fruiting when choosing your garden’s palette.
  • Pay attention to how you lead the eye from one part of the garden to another.
  • Except for featured specimen plants, create groupings of plants to avoid a busy, random appearance.
  • Explore the aesthetic potential of plants: Grow vines on arbors; create edible landscape walls with vines and shrubs; espalier fruit trees; use containers as accents; grow decorative borders of edibles.
  • Make plants do double duty by shading your house in summer and admitting sunshine in winter, reducing your home’s energy use.

For inspiration, one need not look far.  Following recent trends, many public gardens have incorporated edible gardens into their landscapes.  One of the best can be found at the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanical Garden.

So whether to save money, provide better-quality food for the family, know what you eat, reduce carbon footprint, involve family, or simply to try something different, edible landscaping is a trend that provides environmental benefits and returns a bit of sanity and security to chaotic times.  However you do it, Happy Gardening!

A few resources for further reading or to help get you started:

Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally by Robert Kourik

Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn by Fritz Haeg et al.

Edible Landscaping: Now You Can Have Your Gorgeous Garden and Eat it Too by Rosalind Creasy

Edible Landscapes (The Seed) by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension et al.

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway

The Incredible Edible Landscape by Carrie Wolfe, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

Landscaping with Fruit: Strawberry ground covers, blueberry hedges, grape arbors, and 39 other luscious fruits to make your yard an edible paradise by Lee Reich

Landscaping with Fruits and Vegetables by Fred Hagy

 

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Garnishes

Since Spring has officially arrived, I am already looking forward to warmer weather and Summer! Smoothies are a favorite at our house in the Summer. They are something we, along with our children and grandchildren, all enjoy.

One of the fun things about smoothies is the many fun ways you can garnish them. There are the usual little umbrellas, plastic animals, and fancy straws. Flavored salt is another pretty common garnish. You can use your food processor or a mortar and pestle to grind coarse salt. Moisten the rim of the glass with lemon, lime, or orange juice, or even water, and dip it in the flavored salt. This works with flavored or colored sugar as well. Or try powdered drink mixes or finely chopped coconut for something different.

The idea behind garnishes is to complement or contrast flavors to hint at what’s in the recipe or bring out the flavor. If you use ice as part of your garnish you can freeze colored juices or sodas in cubes which will not dilute your drink. Or freeze berries or slices of fruit in ice cubes. You can also purchase spherical ice cube molds which look unique and attractive in the glass.

Other popular garnishes for fruity drinks are maraschino cherries, pineapple wedges, fruit kabobs, shaved coconut, and candied strips or wheels of zest. It is fun to experiment using a few different citrus zests and twisting or tieing them together.

If you are serving a vegetable smoothie, you can use a mandolin or vegetable peeler to make long, thin strips of cucumber, carrot, or radish to garnish with. Fresh herb leaves or sprigs also add a nice touch. Or try threading sprigs of hardy herbs (rosemary or thyme) through cranberries, blueberries, and raspberries. My favorite vegetable smoothie uses fresh spinach, frozen bananas, avocado, protein powder, and almond milk. I like to garnish it with fresh fruit such as blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries.

Sometimes in place of smoothies my granddaughter likes a “mocktail” which we often like to make layered. To accomplish this you need to use ingredients with contrasting colors and different weights. For a Layered Shirley Temple, mix together 1/2 cup orange juice and 1/2 cup lemon-lime flavored carbonated beverage. Pour the mixture into a tall glass then pour 1 Tablespoon grenadine in and let it sink to the bottom. Maraschino cherries make a nice garnish for this drink. Another layered drink that looks pretty is the Italian Cream Soda. To make this one, mix the fruit flavored syrups you are using with the soda water and pour into a glass. Float half-and-half on top for the layered look and top with whipped cream.

Homemade lollipops are a fun activity to do with children and the lollipops can serve as a stirrer in their smoothies and a snack.

Happy Summer! I hope it will be a long one after the extended Winter we have had!

 

 

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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Time to test canner gauges

Weighted gauge canners do not require testing.

This is the time of year that we send out inquiries to all of our county Extension and Outreach offices to see which counties are offering canner gauge testing for dial gauge pressure canners. We have a fairly complete list of which counties in Iowa are planning to test canner lids this summer. We also have a short list of places in Minnesota and South Dakota that will test canner lids for home canners in those states.

Sometimes we get questions from callers wondering about the accuracy of their dial gauge pressure canners. We explain that canner lids/gauges tested yearly ensure accuracy and safety in home processed foods. If the gauge on the canner registers higher than the pressure actually is inside the canner, the food will be under processed. Resulting in an increasing risk of botulism poisoning.

Even if you do not think the gauge was dropped or damaged, moisture can cause a malfunction in the gauge. Call your local county office to set up a time to drop off your canner lid. You can also mail your gauge to the pressure canner manufacturer and they will test the gauge for you. They may or may not guarantee the results.

You may be wondering if you have a weighted gauge canner, what testing is necessary for it. Good news, those canners never need testing for accuracy. The weight never changes. You will need to make adjustments for altitude if you live at an altitude above 1000’. If the altitude at your home is above 1000’ you will need to change a 5 pound weight to the 10 pound weight or the 10 pound weight to the 15 pound position.

If you find any of this confusing or need further explanation, do not hesitate to contact us directly.

Iowa 1-800-262-3804

Minnesota 1-800-854-1678

South Dakota 1-888-393-6336

Or use our local phone number, 515-296-5883, if the area code on your phone is not from one of these states.

Happy Canning

Liz Meimann

Liz Meimann

I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Food Science at Iowa State University. I love to quilt, sew, cook, and bake. I spent many years gardening, canning, and preserving food for my family when my children were at home.

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Exploring Iowa via Adult Learning Vacations

Recently I learned about a learning adventure/vacation opportunity for adults offered by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach designed to experience and explore Iowa in unique ways through a travel course.  Little did I know that this opportunity existed.  The courses are arranged by Diane Van Wyngarden, tourism specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach, and are part of the Road Scholar Program.  Each learning adventure has a theme of study.  For a week, a limited number of participants travel together following the theme and learning insights and history from experts about the various communities involved in the study.  Transportation is by motorcoach or boat.

This year, the adventure is one that really intrigues me–the Mississippi River, the Great River Road, and other fascinating points of interest along the way.  If this also intrigues you, check out Iowa Road Scholar or contact Diane Van Wyngarden at dvw@iastate.edu for more information about this adventure and other Iowa learning adventures.

Road Scholar programs are open to adults of all ages with most participants 50+ years of age who enjoy learning experiences rather than touring.  For more information about Road Scholars see www.roadscholar.org.

 

 

 

 

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Lettuce!

 

This year, it seems like winter has a grip on us and just will not let go. One thing that does make me feel like spring is coming is looking at the lettuce at the grocery store and dreaming about planting some out in my garden.

When I look at the variety of lettuce available at the store, it seems like there must be almost endless number of different types. Actually, there are really only five different types of lettuce.

    • Leaf lettuce (sometimes called loose-leaf lettuce)
    • Romaine (sometimes called Cos lettuce)
    • Crisphead lettuce
    • Butterhead Lettuce
    • Stem lettuce (sometimes called Asparagus lettuce)

Leaf lettuce has crisp leaves arranged loosely on a stalk.   Most home gardeners that grow lettuce have leaf lettuce in their gardens. It is the most widely planted salad vegetable.

Cos or Romaine

Cos or Romaine lettuce can be easily recognized as it has an upright rather elongated head. It is great as an addition to tossed salads.

Butterhead lettuce

Butterhead lettuce may be less familiar but are typically smaller, loose headed, and have soft and tender leaves. This too makes an excellent addition to tossed salads.

Stem lettuce is not always available at our local grocery stores. It is actually an enlarged seed stalk often used in Chinese dishes. Sometimes it is stewed or creamed.

The lettuce that everyone seems to be familiar with is the Crisphead lettuce. This type is found in nearly every grocery store—think iceberg lettuce. It seems odd to me that this most common lettuce is actually one of the most difficult to grow. Start this in the garden very early in the spring, as it is very sensitive to heat. If the lettuce is not mature before the hot weather arrives, the lettuce will often die.

Sometimes callers want to know why the lettuce they grew in the garden is bitter. This often happens when the weather turns warmer and stalks for seeds begin to grow. If you wash the lettuce and store it in the refrigerator for a couple of days, the bitterness will dissipate.

Store your lettuce in the coolest part of your refrigerator. The first shelf near the back wall of the refrigerator is usually the coolest spot. Avoid placing the lettuce near pears, bananas, or apples. These fruits give off ethylene gas, which can cause the lettuce to develop brown spots and decay. Discard any lettuce that has black spots or seems slimy.

Due to the composition of lettuce, (94.9% water) there is no way to successfully preserve it. Enjoy lettuce fresh and often.  And remember that spring will be here eventually.

 

Liz Meimann

Liz Meimann

I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Food Science at Iowa State University. I love to quilt, sew, cook, and bake. I spent many years gardening, canning, and preserving food for my family when my children were at home.

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