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Heirloom tomatoes are a delicious treat and provide a market niche for small growers

Heirloom tomatoes are a farm-to-fork favorite.
In recent years, heirloom tomatoes have become a farm-to-table favorite.

Some consumers are willing to pay a hefty price at trendy restaurants, farmers markets, roadside stands, and even local grocery stores for tomatoes with irregular shapes, vivid colors and rich tomato flavor.

The consumer demand presents an opportunity for small-scale farmers, and a challenge.

“It's not easy to grow heirloom varieties,” said Margaret Lloyd, the UC Cooperative Extension small-scale farm advisor for Yolo, Solano and Sacramento counties. “They often have less disease resistance, are lower yielding and cannot tolerate as much stress as improved modern varieties.”

When Lloyd joined UCCE last summer, she began visiting small-scale producers in the counties she serves.

“I realized very quickly how important fresh market tomatoes are to these growers,” Lloyd said.

Because she holds a doctorate degree in plant pathology from UC Davis, Lloyd is well-positioned to begin her research program with a small tomato grafting project on UC Davis farmland. Her idea is grafting the particularly delicious heirloom varieties onto tomato roots that are resistant to soil-borne diseases.

“Grafting is an old technology,” Lloyd said.  “It works in the same way we graft fruit trees and grapevines onto favorable rootstocks. Vegetable grafting has also been done for years.”

Lloyd said the process is simple and an individual can easily learn to graft tomatoes. But to do so cost effectively with the quality and success rate necessary for economically viable production, it may make most sense to work with a commercial nursery.

Lloyd is conducting a quarter-acre field trial with the three most common heirloom varieties – Brandywine, Cherokee purple and Marvel stripe – plus the yellow-hued Sun Gold cherry tomato and a non-heirloom salad tomato, Charger.  Several growers in the area have also planted them in their commercial operations.

In addition to collecting data from the trial that will help small farmers decide whether grafted tomatoes make sense for their operations, Lloyd and her research associates will harvest many bushels of fresh tomatoes from the plots. Some will be sold at the UC Davis farm store to help support the research, and as for the rest, “We're definitely going to eat them,” Lloyd said.

“I enjoy them raw with olive oil, salt, vinegar and a little basil,” she said.

Posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2016 at 10:33 AM

Three step salsa

Tomatoes, garlic, and peppers are three key ingredients in most salsa recipes. (Photo: UnSplash)
May is typically a month filled with family gatherings and festive celebrations. With Cinco de Mayo at your heels, maybe your appetite for salsa has been whetted and you're craving more. Or perhaps you're planning ahead for Memorial Day and want the perfect snack for that social gathering. No matter what holiday is on your mind, isn't it nice to crack open a jar of home-preserved salsa for any snacking occasion?

Here are three simple steps to having homemade salsa any time of the year.

Step 1 (optional): Grow the ingredients

Take the process from tomato trellises to taste buds by planting a salsa garden this time of year. Get started with a salsa staple like tomatoes. There are great published references for growing tomatoes, but if you have further questions, ask a UC Master Gardener volunteer in your county.

Step 2: Can the salsa 

There are many research tested recipes, allowing you to choose one that suits your taste best. Tomatoes: Safe Methods to Store, Preserver, and Enjoy contains two to start, including the recipe provided. Dig around on the UC Master Food Preserver Resources page to find more. 

Tomato/Tomato Paste Salsa
Makes 7 pint jars

Ingredients

3 quarts tomatoes (about 12 medium tomatoes), washed, peeled, cored, and chopped
3 cups onions (about 3 medium onions), chopped
1 ½ cups long green sweet peppers (about 4 Anaheim peppers), washed, seeded and chopped. Note: Sweet bell peppers may be substituted for long green peppers
6 tablespoons small hot red peppers (about 6 Jalapeno peppers), washed, seeded, and finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 12-oz cans tomato paste
2 cups commercially bottled lemon juice
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon ground cumin (optional)
2 tablespoons oregano leaves (optional)
1 teaspoon black pepper

Preparation

  1. Wash hands and work surfaces, and then prepare ingredients.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan.
  3. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently.
  4. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. Ladle hot salsa into pint jars, leaving a 1/2–inch headspace.
  6. Wipe rims of jars with a dampened clean paper towel and apply two-piece metal canning lids.
  7. Process 15 minutes in a water bath canner at altitudes up to 1000 feet. Above 1000 feet, increase processing time by 1 minute for every additional 1000-foot increase in altitude.
  8. Let jars cool undisturbed for 12 to 24 hours, then check seals.

If you haven't canned before (or even if you have), turn to a local UC Master Food Preserver Program near you as a friendly resource.

Step 3: Eat the contents

Well, you are probably already very familiar with carrying out this step! Do it with confidence knowing that you followed a safe, home preservation process.

Whether you grow or buy, it is always fun to make and share your own jar. Are you craving salsa yet?

Posted on Tuesday, May 10, 2016 at 8:24 AM

Teens put their food smarts to the test

Grocery shopping can be the most anticipated or the most dreaded necessity of daily life. A trip to the market can end with a smile over the thrill of victory from finding great bargains or end with a frown from the agony of defeat over budget anxieties. For most of us, budget is the primary factor in our food experiences. Low budget or no budget is often the culprit that leads to unhealthy food choices.

A healthy snack.
Armed with nutrition knowledge acquired through the University of California 4-H Food Smart Families program with the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, teens from Parlier High School in Fresno County are teaching Parlier youth ages 8-12 how to get around budget roadblocks on the path to healthy eating. The program uses a “Teens as Teachers” approach, with teens educating younger youth through a series of hands-on, interactive nutrition lessons after school.

Food connections to local agriculture are highlighted through the partnership with the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center. The center will host agriculture tours and family nutrition education activities at a Wellness Fair later this month to wrap up the program.

According to recent United States Department of Agriculture studies, nearly 16 million children live in households where they do not have consistent access to food throughout the year.

UC 4-H Food Smart Families empowers families through food knowledge and education to build sustainable solutions that confront food insecurity and improve health. Youth are engaged at a critical age for growing skills and establishing behaviors today that become sustainable, healthy habits for their families and communities tomorrow. Youth learn they can prepare food themselves and parents learn about working together as a family to plan healthy meals.

Grocery store shopping is part of training.
Teen teachers put their new skills to the test on a recent field trip to the local grocery store. After a store tour and 4-H training on perimeter shopping, unit pricing and the downfalls of impulse buying, they were given a shopping challenge. The goal was to purchase, within the assigned budget, three items from each of the vegetable, fruit, grain, dairy and protein food groups to create healthy meals at home. As the teens had been learning while teaching their younger counterparts, eating healthy on a budget is achievable with a little nutrition education and careful planning.

Thoughtful discussions, and sometimes passionate debates, ranging from whole grain pasta versus whole wheat pasta to the tasty virtues of hummus, mixed with youthful laughter. The teens were pleasantly surprised to discover they had additional budget to spare. Return trips were made to the produce department for more fruit, vegetables and even hummus.

Comments from the teens told the story of their success. “Now I know what my mom has to go through when she's shopping for food,” and “Look at my cart. Food Smart Families is really influencing me!” Who knew grocery shopping could be so much fun?

The USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion offers these 10 tips for affordable vegetables and fruits:

• Use fresh vegetables and fruits that are in season.
• Check your local newspaper, online and at the store for sales, coupons and specials.
• Plan out your meals ahead of time and make a grocery list.
• Compare the price and number of servings from fresh, canned and frozen forms of the same vegetable or fruit.
• Buy small amounts more often to ensure you can eat the foods without throwing any away.
• For fresh vegetables or fruits you use often, a large size bag is the better buy.
• Opt for store brands when possible.
• Buy vegetables and fruits in their simplest form.
• Start a garden for fresh, inexpensive, flavorful additions to meals.
• Prepare and freeze vegetable soups, stews or other dishes in advance.

Posted on Monday, May 9, 2016 at 8:58 AM

Can you serve up a safe barbecue?

Check foods with a thermometer to be sure they are fully cooked.
April showers bring May flowers, along with barbecue season! The season's warmer weather makes it a great time to be outdoors, but it also means there are increased food safety risks with the higher temperatures. Follow these tips to prepare, cook, and serve up a healthy barbecue:

  1. At the store, buy raw meat, poultry, and fish last. Refrigerate or freeze within 2 hours (within 1 hour when it is 90°F or warmer outside).

  2. Follow the thaw law. Always thaw frozen foods, especially meat, in the refrigerator. 

  3. Marinate foods in the refrigerator. Reserve some of the marinade before adding meat for later use. Do not taste or reuse the marinade after raw meat has been added. 

  4. Don't cross-contaminate. Use specific plates and utensils for raw foods, and use separate, clean plates and utensils for cooked foods. Do not place cooked meat or vegetables on the same plate as uncooked foods. 

  5. Cook foods to a safe minimum internal temperature. Check with a food thermometer to ensure foods are fully cooked to the temperatures in the table below.

  6. Refrigerate leftovers in shallow containers within 2 hours. If it has been longer than 2 hours (1 hour when it is 90°F or warmer outside), throw it out!

 

  Poultry 165°F
Ground beef 160°F
Steak/roasts 145°F
Fish 145°F
Pork 145°F

 

Need a side dish to accompany your spring barbecue? Try this low-cost, healthy potato salad.

Potato Salad

Makes 6 servings
Total cost: $2.42
Cost per serving: $0.40

 

 

 

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound potatoes (4 medium potatoes)
  • 1 cup onion, diced
  • 1/2 cup celery, chopped
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise, low-fat
  • 1/4 cup sweet pickle relish
  • Veggie up your potato salad with 1/2 cup crunchy bell peppers and/or 1/2 cup halved cherry or grape tomatoes.

Directions:

  1. Scrub the potatoes, and peel them. 
  2. Cut the potatoes unto 1-inch cubes. 
  3. Put the potatoes into a saucepan. Cover with water.
  4. Bring the potatoes to a boil in on medium heat. 
  5. Let the potatoes simmer for 15 minutes until they're soft. 
  6. Drain the hot water, and let the potatoes cool.
  7. While the potatoes are cooling, peel and chop some onions until you have 1 cup of chopped onions. 
  8. Chop the celery until you have 1/2 cup chopped celery.
  9. Put the chopped onion and celery in a medium mixing bowl. 
  10. Add the mayonnaise and pickle relish. Stir together. 
  11. Add the cooled potatoes. Stir again. 
  12. Add you favorite veggies (optional). Stir again. 
  13. Cover the bowl. Put in the fridge for at least 2 hours before serving. 

Sources:

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
Recipe adapted from What's Cooking? USDA Mixing Bowl

Posted on Friday, April 29, 2016 at 10:51 AM

UC’s My Healthy Plate article named 'paper of the year'

The USDA's colorful MyPlate icon clearly shows many Americans how to formulate healthy meals for their families with the proper proportions of fruits and vegetables, protein foods, grains and dairy products. However, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition educators in Central California discovered that the infographic was too abstract for local low-literate families. They embarked on a years-long effort to translate the shapes and colors into a series pictures showing plates filled with healthful, real food.

The concept clicked, so county and campus-based researchers joined together to document the effectiveness of a new curriculum shaped around pictures of properly portioned plates of food to share with nutrition educators around the nation and world. They wrote an article, A Picture is worth a thousand words: Customizing MyPlate for low-literate, low-income families in 4 steps, which was published in the July-August 2015 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. In 2016, the article was named the “paper of the year” in a category of articles and research programs called “great educational material” (GEM).

In the paper, the researchers shared a four-step process for creating a set of meal photographs that will resonate with families in different communities.

The four steps are:

  1. Review food patterns and determine meal combinations – This is done by asking clientele what foods they recently fed their families. Once the foods are identified, they can be modified to meet MyPlate recommendations.
  2. Test meals and take final photographs – Prepare the meals, take photos and test the photos with the target audience.
  3. Develop and test education messages to accompany photos – Messages should have few words, use family vocabulary and be written for a low-literacy audience.
  4. Create and test education materials – After the suggested materials are created, they should be tested with the target audience.

The UC Cooperative Extension Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) is using the “My Healthy Plate” materials in reaching out to low-literacy and low-income families in California.

The authors of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior paper of the year are Mical Shilts researcher at UC Davis; Margaret Johns, nutrition, family and consumer science advisor in Kern County; Cathi Lamp, emeritus nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor in Tulare County; Connie Schneider, emeritus Youth, Families and Communities director for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources; and Marilyn Townsend, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition education specialist in the Department of Nutrition at UC Davis.

My Healthy Plate education materials are available at http://townsendlab.ucdavis.edu.

USDA’s MyPlate graphic (left) was too abstract for some audiences, prompting UC ANR nutrition educators to take photos of healthy meals, like the one on the right, for a nutrition curriculum called My Healthy Plate.
 
Posted on Wednesday, April 27, 2016 at 2:46 PM

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