Friday, December 12, 2008

Admission

Back in August, Kevin and I talked about our project at a meeting of the Rockford chapter of the Hollistic Moms Network (http://home.homewebs.com/hmnrockfordil/). I talked about this meeting in an August post. Anyway, one of the chapter members asked if we ever cheated or had "cheater days" like she gave herself every 10 days when she was dieting. We truthfully and proudly said, "no, never!"

Well, we can't say that anymore. Sure, we've had some legitimate, by-the-rules meals out (work, travel, board meetings, etc.), but I also have to admit to a few moments of weakness or acquiescence to my wish for something instant or easy.

It started in September when Kevin was in Chicago on business for over a week. I had spent the first weekend in Chicago with my sister and family (Kevin was already working in another part of the city). That weekend I could legitimately eat non-local foods since I was away from home for an extended period of time. I returned home to my local foods on Sunday but by mid-week of 24-7 childcare duties (and the knowledge that Kevin was feasting on whatever he wanted), I decided to pick up a pizza one night (and of course there was enough for lunch the next day!).

Since that time, I've cheated once or twice a month, usually for the sake of convenience more than craving (although there is a little of that too!). It's pretty funny though, whenever I decide to cheat it's as if I'm on a covert operation, feel a little sheepish and guilty, and hope I won't see anyone I know. I did get caught by a friend a few weeks ago when I ran into a gas station for a caffienated beverage after filling my tank. She was very kind and didn't give me a hard time for my indescretion.

Neva also understands the concept (as she has been the recipient of some of the cheating). She will occassionally ask me if we can "go cheating" when we drive or walk past an ice cream or pizza shop. She understands that none of these places have anything we can buy but, just like us, she occassionally has cravings.

So, we've been very good... but not perfectly good. We do appreciate some of these "cheats" more than we previously would have. My mom baked brownies with walnuts to give to Kevin for his birthday and boy what a treat that was! Since chocolate is one of our exceptions (Kevin is our resident chocolholic) we have had that available to us but cookies/brownies made with honey are just not nearly as satisfying as those made with refined cane sugar (at least I haven't found the magic recipe yet) and the walnuts were a special treat too. -Thanks Mom!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving and Beyond (photos)

So many people have asked us what our plans are/were for Thanksgiving because they were curious about whether we could pull off a local holiday meal or not. Well, we must admit that we didn't eat here in Rockford, we spent the holiday with my family.

It's definitely not that we feared we could not produce a fantastic celebration meal with local food (we can and we will in January!) but it was simply my mother's turn to host and my brother was home from California and my sister and her husband came out from Chicago.

We did have some local fare. I was in charge of mashed potatoes and roasted root vegetables (carrots and sweet potatoes from our CSA boxes which I roasted with some red onion, garlic, oil, and a touch of honey!). The turkey was local too. For the last 20 years, my mother has been getting her holiday turkeys from a local establishment in Waterman, IL. Although HOKA is a local producer, they are also a commercial operation, large-scale and fairly industrial, which only raises one type of bird: Broad-breasted White. I have occasionally had to sacrifice buying organic, etc in order to source things locally.

After two days of eating largely non-local food at my parents' house, we were back in Rockford Saturday morning where we returned to our regular eating pattern. I did (happily) return with the turkey carcass, which we had frozen on Thanksgiving Day, along with the pan drippings and some skin. Saturday afternoon I cooked it down with some vegetables and herbs. After about four hours I had a large amount of really succulent broth (to taste and to smell). I used my largest stock pot, which at 22 quarts, dwarfs my otherwise large pasta pot (far right in photo).

Today I canned 14 quarts of that stock, reserving two or so plus the meat that fell from the bone for a nice turkey soup tomorrow evening. When I cooked down the stock yesterday I thought I'd freeze it (somehow... there is really no more room to be found in the freezers) but I am so glad that I canned it instead. It will be quicker and easier to use and keep in the cellar. I owe a big thanks to my friend, Joe, for indirectly suggesting that I can it and for lending me his pressure canner so I could do it (broth must be processed at a higher temperature than high acid foods).


Somehow, I had one can in each batch not seal properly (I think I may have over-filled them). On the first batch, a ring popped (I have had a few rings that were older and not completely round anymore... two of them popped off in my hand when I was sealing jars and I pitched [recycled] them. This one waited until it was in the canner to pop off). I was able to pour the contents back into my stock pot to boil again before filling the jars in the second batch.

Unfortunately, in the second batch I had one jar not seal either (although the ring stayed intact). I added that one to the stock and meat I had reserved in the fridge to use for soup tomorrow evening.

So, in the end, I have 12 quarts of stock in cans for use in soups throughout the winter! I have been making soups each week either with vegetable stocks that I made last month and froze, or with water and my ingredients. The latter has not been nearly as satisfying as my typical soups so I'm looking forward to having the turkey stock in addition to my frozen vegetable stock (and I may make up a batch of veggie stock and can that before I return the pressure canner to my friend at the end of the week).

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Divine Process

On Saturday I started reading a book that's been sitting on my "to read" shelf for several years; If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska by Heather Lende. It is a series of reprints from her social column for the local (Haines, AK) newspaper and a collection of new essays about her life and those around her. I'm only on page 73 but have already been laughing out loud, moved to tears (more than once), and saying, "hmm, that's fascinating," again and again. Now I must admit that part of my interest and connection with the book is due to the fact that I've actually been to some of the places she talks about. But aside from that, she is just telling good stories.


Today I was reading her essay entitled, "Domestic Goddesses," (p.59) which simultaneously shares her experiences with friends and other women in her community and her (largely) self-taught proficiencies in her somewhat subsistence lifestyle. She is very clear about the definitions for subsistence though, both the act of living from the surroundings in a sustainable way and "the quality of having timeless or abstract exsistence." She ends the essay by observing that "there is more than just a bit of the divine in food gathering and preparation. We are all domestic goddesses."

Although I think I'm far from a "domestic goddess," I have felt divine in the processes I've undertaken, the knowledge I've gained, and the knowledge that I was able to prepare and preserve so much food from right around here. And here I must throw in my own dictionary definition: "Divine (informal): extremely good, unusually lovely." I have felt that way about the results of our local food source challenge - even if I haven't always felt that way about the process itself.

When people ask us now how our local eating project is going (an especially popular question now that winter is setting in in Northern Illinois), it's fun to say that it's working, we're eating well, the kids are growing strong and healthy, and we've had a great time learning new things and sourcing things locally. This is all true. I do admit, though, to days where I just didn't feel like cooking or weeks where I got behind in my harvesting/freezing/canning/cellaring operations. But we have a fully-stocked freezer, loaded cellar and pantry shelves, and bins and bins of root vegetables, grains, winter squashes, and onions (I know I need to get the allums out of the bins!). I will post again, hopefully this weekend, about our end of summer harvests and the status of our food stores.

What I really want to say right now is: I think the whole thing has been, and continues to be, divine.

Monday, November 24, 2008

I'm back to the blog and STILL bringing in food!

Hello and I'm sorry for such a long absence.
It was getting a little hectic there as I was harvesting in my own garden, processing things from my CSA share boxes, buying all I could at the local farmers' markets before they closed for the season, traveling to Bushel and Peck's in Beloit, WI for local foods of all types, and also living my life. Things are finally slowing down now (although I'm still brining in food - more on that in a future post). So, excluding a few weeks of vacation in December, I should be back to my once weekly posting schedule (more as I'm catching up with the activities of the last two months!).

If you would like me to add your e-mail address to my list, I will send out short e-mail notices with links when I make new posts each week. This would allow those of you who want it to know when I've updated the blog. Just send an e-mail to me at Lenae@connectn.com and I will add you to the list.

Thanks for sticking with us!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

LOCAL FOODS DINNER!!!

What a great opportunity to experience some lovely local food and enjoy an evening of fine food and local wine!

Kiki B's is hosting a local dinner, sponsored by the U of I Extension,
on Saturday, October 18th at 6:00 pm.
We are so looking forward to it.
To sign up or for more details, check out the Extension website: http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/inform/event.cfm?area=0&id=43651&InterestAreaID=.
There you can get all the details and register for the event.
Hope to see you there!
Also - Check out the New Local Foods Directory! It is also available on the extension site: http://web.extension.uiuc.edu/winnebago/. Just click the Local Foods Director link on the first page and be prepared to be amazed at how much is out there, in our area!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Hiatus (Photos)

Hello and I'm sorry for the long (month-long!) delay in posting. I must admit that nearly all of my free time (what is free time, exactly?) has been spent procuring, processing, and storing food for winter and early spring. I basically choose one food item each day/night and work on it until A: it's done or B: I'm exhausted and have to go to sleep.

Of course, with two young children, much of what I do must be done after bedtimes (I'm just not willing to work with a large pot of boiling water with my little one crawling around my feet). So, the late-night hours I previously devoted to blogging (and cleaning, and knitting, and reading, etc.) have been taken up by canning, dehydrating, and freezing.

I will have to continue this haitus from posting for a few more weeks as I'm trying to get all I can put away and prepared before the frosts come (which may be soon?). I will leave you with one, brief update...

Kai turned one in September and we had a family birthday celebration. We had a completely local lunch (creamy potato soup with bacon and vegetables, fresh bread [made with flour we ground], green bean salad, and local wine. My sister did bring a mostly non-local but healthy and homemade appetizer (with my blessing) because she knows my meals never start when I say they will and we'll all be too hungry without a snack! It was a yummy cheat on an otherwise local day.

We also celebrated with a local birthday cake. I made a whole-wheat apple cake in the shape of a number one and frosted it with a French buttercream frosting made with maple syrup, eggs, and butter (no refined sugar). The frosting was rich but fantastic and a nice compliment to the apple cake. You can find the recipe in The Naturally Sweet Baker by Carrie Davis. It's out of print but used copies are available on Amazon.

Here are a few photos of the cake (I don't claim to be a good cake froster or decorator... I can make the stuff but don't put it together well). Kai had obviously been playing with the unlit candle before this shot -



So, Happy Birthday little Kai and we'll get back to you with some catch-up updates in a few weeks! Thanks for sticking with us!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Our Little Trooper (photo)

Neva is SO amazing!
She generally understands what we're doing and what it means for her (and she somewhat understands why we're doing it). I regularly overhear her narrating her play and she'll ask a pretend vendor, "Is it local?" or play-act making her own food. She also asks questions of me about what is and isn't local on a regular basis and when I answer that something is not, she moves on to the next thing.

Well, today we spent a few hours at the Rock River Thresheree and Steam Show in Edgerton, WI (thanks for our friends Joe and Jeff who recommended it!). While there, Neva saw many people walking around with lemonade - definitely off of our list! She has been pretending to make and serve lemonade quite a bit lately as one of the storybook characters she likes sets up a lemonade stand and she pretends to do the same.

When we walked by one of the lemonade booths she asks (very politely) if she may have some lemonade. Kevin and I give each other the same "gee, we really would like to say 'yes' but we don't want to buy citrus AND sugar so what should we do?" look. Kevin tells her that he will let her make the decision but she should know that lemonade is not local. He asked her if she would like some and she said, "no." My heart soared as I thought, "wow, she's really willing to 'take one for the team'." We both affirmed her decision as we moved along. As we walked away I noticed that her head was hung low, really low, and she was silently crying as she walked with us.

I stopped and knelt down to talk to her and asked her why she was feeling sad. She said that she really wanted to try lemonade but it wasn't local so she wouldn't have any. I just gave her a big hug and told her how proud of her I was for her to make that decision and to be willing to go along with our experiment like that. I told her that she was awesome and I loved her and that I wanted to reward her for being so wonderful and not making a fuss and sticking to it. And then I told her that I would reward her by buying her a lemonade... gasp!

She looked at me incredulously, as if she couldn't believe what I was telling her. This was no ploy on her part to get what she wanted, she was truly sad but willing to forgo the treat. I was really serious though and we went and waited in line and she got a "small" lemonade (at least it was real lemonade and not the powered stuff) and was so, so happy.


For the most part, she is unaffected by our fun and challenging project. She still gets great food, lots of variety, and a fair amount of desserts and snacks - as long as it all comes from within 100 miles. She helps me make and prepare many things and is excited about what we can produce and especially enjoys our regular visits to area farms. She is rarely phased when I tell her we can't have something or make something we used to because we don't have all of the ingredients available to us. But it just broke my heart to see her being so good but so sad today and I'm glad we gave in to give her a special treat and reward her for being such a good little trooper.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Minding my P's and Q's

Sorry I’ve been away from the computer for a while but I’ve been using all available time to put up food for the winter. Those who know me know that I am a bit of a wordophile, a student of etymology. No, not the study of insects (although that’s cool too!), but the origins, histories, and meanings of words and phrases. As I’ve been working this weekend, I’ve truly been “minding my p's and q's” because the p's and q's refer to pints and quarts and I’ve been using plenty of those (as well as half-pints).

Last Monday I was invited to a friend’s house to pick black chokeberries for making jam. He is also my official gardening mentor so he showed me what to do and we talked gardens and farmers’ markets while picking berries. He had picked a bowl full and made juice then jelly and had some juice left to give me, in addition to the many ripe berries remaining on the shrub. That night I returned and made juice by cooking down the berries with some water and straining the result. I made enough juice (supplementing his) to make a double batch of jelly and still put a quart in the freezer.

Then Tuesday we were invited to another friend’s house to pick crab apples from her amazingly-productive tree. I brought home a stock pot full of little fushia and gold fruits and a few days later, I cooked those down and strained them in my jelly bag, making enough juice for a dozen jars of jelly and another quart of juice in the freezer. I didn’t make this jelly, however, until the weekend when my parents were keeping Neva to play at their house and Kevin was home to entertain Kai. In addition to the jellies, I tried my hand at more savory canned goods. I spent Sunday making a batch and a half of Kosher dill pickles and a batch of tomato and green chile salsa. Both contained mostly vegetables from my good friend, Joe, who met me at the Roscoe farmers' market with a trunk full of extras from his garden.

The pickles promise to be good (we soaked the leftover cucumbers in the remaining juice for an hour or so and ate them for dinner), once they have a month or so to really meld flavors. I used a variety of spices and put dill, a clove of garlic, a bay leaf, and mustard seed in each jar. The salsa also tasted good right out of the pot (and smelled amazing!). It was a lot of work, time-wise, to make the four-and-a-half quarts I produced but I still think I’ll be happy to have it this winter. I would have made more but ran out of tomatoes. I intend to try a different recipe and make some more in the coming weeks. Once thing I did notice is that the heirloom tomatoes peeled much more easily, making it go a little quicker - I will have to see if I can come up with a quantity more of those for the next batch.

I am learning to be more resourceful as we progress so I squeezed and strained the juice from the bowl of tomato skins, cores, and seeds that I had removed for the salsa and that resulted in a little more than a half-quart of tomato juice which I froze for later use (either to drink or, more likely, in chili or another soup). The few ounces that didn’t fit in the container went into ice cube trays to use later in smaller quantities for sauces or to flavor soups. This morning I re-made the black chokeberry jelly as it didn’t set properly (the first time this has happened to me). I think I underestimated the amount of natural pectin in the berries (which must have been slim to none). I made up a batch of pectin yesterday and did a test jar which set quickly so I am encouraged, however, the jars I reprocessed have not yet set. I may end up freezing them and calling it black chokeberry sauce.

I have also started making corn relish, although Kai woke up and wasn’t very patient with me as I was shucking corn. I’ll have to return to that project when he takes his nap. Later today I hope to make some bread and butter pickles as well.


It Has to Get Hot Before Getting Cold... my exploits in freezing vegetables.

The other thing we’ve been doing with our time these last few weeks is freezing vegetables. We’ve got to get ourselves through the winter and early spring so we figure we can’t possibly put too much away. Three weeks ago we purchased a large freezer. In that time, we have managed to fill all but about ¼ of it. I expect it to be completely full within another week.

A few weeks ago I brought home 72 ears of corn and my parents (who were here for the weekend to help with the kids so we could do yard/garden work) helped Kevin and me process it for freezing. It took the four of us three hours (we also processed and froze some carrots I had picked up at the Edgebrook Farmers’ Market) to get it all done. I was so glad to have their help, without those three it would have taken me 12 hours alone (and proven to be a very long night!). I bought the corn from the Murphys, who sell fresh produce from their farm on Meridian Rd. (first farm on left, just north of Latham Rd.).

I have also prepared, blanched, and frozen copious amounts of green (and other) beans, squash, carrots, and other veggies as well as frozen blueberries, black and red raspberries, blackberries, and more. I have additionally done some experimental freezing (what is it with me and experiments?). I chopped and vacuum-sealed some green onions (I expect they’ll be tough but will nicely flavor soups and the like) and fresh herbs. I tried basil two ways… chopped and vacuum-sealed and chopped and frozen in water in ice cube trays. We’ll see which, if either, is the best way to do that in the future. I will, of course, keep potted herbs in several windows throughout the winter (as I did successfully last year).

If you are planning to buy or pick and freeze vegetables, know that most require a quick blanching first. Not to cook them, per se, but to kill off the enzymes that would otherwise break down their flavor and quality as they are stored (even in the freezer).

I have found I have the PERFECT tool for this process… my old pasta pot. I have a large (8 qt) stainless steel stock pot with a pasta insert and lid. I’ve had it for over 10 years but I know the brand still exists in stores (Tramontina). Anyway, using this pot has let me blanch more quickly and efficiently (I’ve tried some other methods for comparison so this is based on results, not just conjecture). I can bring the water to a boil, place the veggies for blanching in the pasta part, dunk and blanch them for the requisite number of minutes, and remove and drain them without pouring off my hot water, thereby allowing me to place the lid to keep in the heat and reuse it several times so as not waste the energy required to heat up a new pot full. Note: I haven’t been letting the used water go to waste down the drain either. After several uses, I take the hot water out the door and pour it over my compost pile. It’s providing moisture (especially good since we’ve had so little rain) as well as heat and nutrients!

Anyway, the pasta pot is the greatest invention (works well for pasta too). The other tool I’ve been relying on is a FoodSaver vacuum sealer. I admit that I’ve always poo-pooed the vacuum sealers in the past. I don’t like to buy and use plastic bags, preferring reusable containers with lids, and the thought of re-sealing my cheese after each use (for example) always struck me as silly. However, I’ve talked to several people who regularly store food in the freezer for a period of time and they swear by the vacuum sealer. So, since I wanted to maintain the high quality of this food for six months or more, I broke down and bought one. The good news is that the plastic bags I cringed to buy are actually reusable. They come on a roll and you make them any length you want. You can make them doubly-long and then wash them after use and have enough bag left to use them over several times. The rolls are pricey but I expect not to have to buy any at all next year. Only time will tell if the food is well-preserved and freezer-burn-free but I’m hopeful.

Talking to Others

Kevin and I were invited to talk about our project at the meeting of the Rockford chapter of the Hollistic Mom’s Network at Just Goods, downtown, last Wednesday night. It was an interesting group of people with some great questions and ideas for us. We enjoyed sharing with them about what we are trying to do and learning about some of the great things they already do.

I think the most important take-away message we had (and continue to hold) is this:
The important thing to realize is that eating locally-produced foods and supporting your local economy is not and all-or-nothing endeavor. Every individual regional food item you purchase is something that makes a difference, no matter how small. Commit to trying to eat one local or even regional item at each meal during the growing season (or at just one meal a day!) and you will reduce your food miles, support a local farmer, and be eating better to boot!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Our "Experiemental" Garden (photos)

I’ve mentioned before that vegetable gardening is new to us. Happily it is working fairly well. We didn’t plant the garden to feed us all year, we had no illusions that we would be so self-sufficient. We planted it to get our hands dirty, so to speak, and start doing something we thought we would find rewarding and interesting. All along I’ve been calling this my experimental garden because I’ve tried some unconventional methods and am focusing on the methodology and learning from experience as much as on reaping a harvest (although I hope to do that too, of course).

The raised beds continue to be the easiest area of the garden to maintain, with the fewest weeds and highest yields. We have had a steady supply of green beans and cucumbers over the past few weeks as well as beets, lettuces, and chard. I have also harvested a few tomatoes, some broccoli, and zucchini from one of our ground-level patches.

The corn looks like we may not see much of it. It was growing tall, over seven feet, and each stalk had two ears that had exposed their silks and seemed to be getting pollinated by bees and other insects, in fact, I pulled one ear just to look inside and at the end of each string of silk was a plump, ripening kernel (which were still immature, of course and the silks were still attached but it was fascinating to study). A week later I noticed that one of the lower ears had been pulled down, exposing the immature kernels from their sheath of husk. I decided it must have been the work of raccoons. Soon after, I noticed more of the same but the upper ears seemed unaffected. Then last weekend a few stalks fell to some shrub trimming that caused branches to knock them over. I stood a few back up and propped them with tomato cages, a pretty funny sight). On Monday night we had some wind with the storms that came through (not nearly the wind they got in the Chicago area) and full one-fourth of the stalks blew over. I’ve left them to see if anything will come of them but I don’t have great expectations for their survival.

I have also noticed that the blasted Japanese beetles seem to like to feast on the silks. As with the one I opened prematurely, the silks were largely severed but the kernels had been pollinated prior to that so I suspect they would be OK. Still, I’m not relying on this garden to be our sole source of food so I purchased six dozen ears of corn from the Murphys who run Murphy’s Market from their house on Meridian Rd (first house north of Latham on the west side of the street). They have some lovely produce including onions, cucumbers, squash, Italian beans, sweet corn, and (soon) tomatoes. Their stand is set up along their drive and is self-service. A sandwich board at the road lists what they have to sell that day. Their prices are very reasonable and they are a very friendly couple!

The cabbages are growing slowly and showing some signs of cabbage moths (last year I had a few cabbages and we just ate them holey). In the other ground-level bed the popcorn is still only about two feet high (it has had a lot of competition from crab grass which I haven’t fully weeded out yet, perhaps this weekend). The zucchini has started to yield but it also was quite overgrown with weeds. The sugar pumpkins are looking happy, with beautiful big blooms but I haven’t lifted aside the leaves to see if they’ve set much fruit yet. The moon and stars watermelon have set fruit, as have the cantaloupe but the cantaloupe fruit looks suspiciously like watermelon (do they start out like that?). The asparagus and strawberries are not producing, of course, but they are doing their things and developing strong root systems.

In addition to experimenting with gardening, I also experimented with storage techniques over winter. I kept one green cabbage, one bag of beets, and one bag of parsnips in the crisper drawer for over six months – just to see how they would fare.

The cabbage paled as we neared spring but did not rot or otherwise look bad. The outer leaves dried a bit but, when peeled away, bared crisp, moist inner ones. Eventually, the cut end of the cabbage sprouted leaves which were also pale yellow and several inches long. I decided at that point to pull the cabbage out of the fridge and set it out at room temperature to see what would happen. Within two days the sprouts tripled in length and turned green. I kept the cabbage on the counter for the better part of a week as the sprouts grew exponentially and soon started to flower. I admit that I wondered if I could plant these shoots but I observed that they were long and narrow and didn’t seem at all like they could produce the typical closed cabbage head. Kevin was reading Four-Season Harvest at the time and happened upon a page that talked about forcing cabbage roots for their small but tasty leaves over winter… this is apparently what I had done. I then harvested the stalks and leaves and chopped them in to some other greens I was sautéing. They were great – we plan to pull all of our cabbage out this fall with roots intact and store them in the root cellar for forcing over winter – I’ll let you know how that works out.

I was happy to see that the beets and parsnips all made it through their long storage and were fully edible come spring (I waited until we had a steady supply of other fresh foods to best replicate what I thought I would need to do this year). I am pulling the rest of our beets from the garden now as they are quite large, but plan to plant another set (hopefully this weekend) for a late season harvest. Of course I don't have room in my refrigerator to store the quantities of root vegetables we will need but we have identified a crawlspace area below our garage addition to use as a root cellar. I have also been freezing copious amounts of local produce... more on that in another post.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Desperately Seeking Rolled Oats (photos and video)

Oats have been an important part of our diets for years. We all just love a bowl of thick, uncooked oats with milk or yogurt and nuts or fruit for breakfast, especially Neva. We use oats in our pancakes, our muffins, our breads, and many of our desserts - and that’s just the rolled form, I also grind oats for flour (and of course we cook them in winter for a hot breakfast as well). We knew all along that we would want to find local oats.

Back in March, we were returning by bus from O’Hare when we met another couple and struck up a conversation about our respective trips. Small talk with strangers inevitably leads to the “so where do you live?” and “what do you do?” questions. We learned that they own a farm outside of Paw Paw and grow, among other things, oats and wheat. Although we were still a few months away from beginning our year of eating locally, we were already trying to source the things we knew we would need. So we were excited to learn about the oats.

Then at the end of June, we were going to central Illinois for a wedding and would be driving right past Paw Paw. Of course, Paw Paw is within 100 miles of our home but we wanted to be efficient. So I talked with the farmer, Johnnie, about picking up some oats. I learned that a bushel of oats weighs 32 pounds, and that he charges 50 cents extra to gather them from the top of the grain bin. All-told, we paid $3.50 a bushel for four bushels and also bought some bails of straw to use a garden mulch. Johnnie was friendly and helpful and his kindness was extended further when he insisted on giving us a bouquet of wheat for our table and a bucket of lime to amend the soil in our garden (which I haven’t tested the ph of yet so I don’t know if it needs to be amended for next year!).

Neva enjoyed looking at the freshly-washed combine and walking up to the edge of the wheat and oat fields. I loved standing at the edge of that field of almost-ripe grains and listening to the wind whip it around and watching the waves work their way back and forth across the expanse.

If you watch the video below of the windy wheat field, turn the volume down... the wind makes a terrible racket against the microphone of our little camera.

We brought back our oats and then set about figuring out how to process them. We decided that even if it didn’t work, we were out less than $15 and we could give the oats to someone we know who boards horses. But, if we were successful… we would happily have oats all year!

We had a small hand-operated mill that we could use to grind oats into flour and Kevin’s parents have another one with two metal rollers that would allow us to roll the oats. The first thing we tried was to run the oats through the mill as they were. This created rolled oats with flattened hulls pressed firmly into the groats… not so appetizing. So we needed a method to remove hull from groat. Kevin began researching methods and found that it’s not as easy as removing wheat chaff. Apparently, the process is best done with a spinning stone wheel and the oats dropped from a height or with two stone wheels rotating at a distance from each other. To further complicate matters, oats contain more fat than other grains and so are not shelf stable unless they’ve been heated in a kiln (or steamed in the process of hull removal). If left untreated by heat, the oat groats will turn rancid within four days once the hulls are removed. Here is a link to Wikipedia that describes how it works: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oat

Then a few weeks ago I met someone at Angelic Organics who was picking up her vegetable share and she told me that she once had oats in hulls and had had some success with soaking the grains overnight and then having her kids agitate them underwater. She said the hulls just floated up to the top of the water. I tried that too, even soaking and agitating in turns for 48 hours and far fewer than 50% of the hulls came off, making this method less-than-successful for me.

Now Kevin is looking into mills in the area to try to learn if any process oats. Some, like Graue Mill in Oakbrook, IL, used to process oats back when you couldn’t buy Bob’s Red Mill or Quaker off the shelf but don’t seem to do so anymore. Incidentally, Graue Mill does still grind corn and they make the freshest, finest (in coarse or fine grind) corn meal I’ve ever tasted. I haven’t talked with them yet to determine if the corn they use is local but I intend to do so. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and fondly remember a class field trip to the mill when I was in the fifth grade… my mom has been buying their corn meal ever since.

Back to the oats… we’re still seeking a good way to process them as we look forlornly upon the four large bags in the corner of our kitchen. We haven’t given up yet but I guess we can always do what our friend did when she came to visit last weekend, she just snacked on the grains, hulls and all, and spit out the hull like a sunflower kernel hull. It’s just not the same.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wine Update

I learned from one of the farmers at Tomorrow's Harvest CSA that there is a winery in Woodstock that produces wine from estate-grown grapes! It is called Saluté! Farm (which also has a CSA for those of you in that area). I haven't tasted the wine yet but I placed their link in the web links column. The wine they sell is from their first production year. I will have to save it for a special ocassion, however, as it is a little pricey for an everyday wine (for me, anyway). But I will be sure to try it.

Also, "vi" commented about the previous wine post with some names of regional producers of spirits. Two are outside of our 100-mile radius so won't work for this year and the third is closer but I have yet to contact them to learn about the sources of their raw grains and such... I suspect therein will lie the problem. Here are the names/URLs for each though, so you can check them out!

Death's Door Spirits (Washington Island, WI)
They source their grain and ingredients right on the island from small-scale farmers. Their website does state that they buy things they can't get on the island "as locally as possible." They produce gin and vodka.
http://www.deathsdoorspirits.com/

Templeton Rye (Templeton, IA)
Originally created and distributed during Prohibition (or so their marketing claims), they make whisky from high-quality rye.
http://www.templetonrye.com/

North Shore Distillery (Lake Bluff, IL)
Small batch spirits including gins, vodkas, and specialty "artisan collections" including absinthe and aquivit. I doubt the ingredients are local (with flavors like mango and vanilla) but it looks like some interesting stuff!
http://www.northshoredistillery.com/

There is just such cool stuff in our region!

Giddy Satisfaction (photos and video)

I finally had a chance to return to my work in the garden Tuesday morning. I actually hired a babysitter in order to have a few uninterrupted hours – we don’t hire babysitters to go out, only to get work done! Hmmm. Anyway, the raised beds are looking quite good, very few weeds, happy and healthy plants. However, the ground-level beds are a mess, growing a fine crop of crab grass along with our vegetables. Still, I spent most of my time on the raised beds which have not had our attention for weeks.

The cucumbers must truly like the amount of rain and humidity we’ve had over the past weeks because they have all grown together and are slowly infringing upon the space of the other plants in that section of the garden. I think I need to nickname the cucumber Audrey II. Not that it’s craving blood but it’s definitely growing fast and taking over; it’s even trying to fill the walkway between two raised beds!

I had to be a bit brutal with it, first tying up what I could to the tripods I had placed for this purpose when I seeded, and then trimming off a large section that had no good place to go (good compost, right?!). I swear that when I looked at the cucumber vines last week I saw only a few very immature fruits. Well, yesterday I harvested ELEVEN good-sized cukes! I didn’t even realize they were there until I started to sort out the vines that were escaping the side of the bed and realized they were hanging below that mess. My analogy comparing myself to the kid watching seeds sprout for the first time continues as I squealed with laughter when I realized my new bounty.

We have given a few cucumbers away, to the family of the babysitter and some friends of ours, but we’ve already eaten six or seven ourselves. Neva polished off one by herself while we were making dinner! Does anyone know a good way to preserve cucumbers (besides pickling)?

When I loosed the twisty cucumber runners from the top of the bush bean supports I also found that I had more than a quart of green beans awaiting picking. Yummy! We eat green beans raw as a snack around here so I sampled as I was working and then Neva dove in when I brought the basket into the house. The cucumbers and green beans were SO GOOD! Each sweet and flavorful in their own way and so crisp and juicy – I don’t know that I’ve ever had them so fresh from the plant.

I moved a few bell pepper plants that were being encroached upon by the beans (since they were being encroached upon by the cucumbers) and did a little weeding in the beds (less than a dozen weeds in each). I harvested a few more beets (I’ve been taking a few each week) and then moved on to the tomato bed.

Ahh, the tomato bed… a scary situation. When I planted the seedlings I planted them quite close together. I had read about a method for producing tomatoes where they are grown more like a vine than a bushy plant. So I had intended to construct a frame and string the tomatoes up, trained as vines. My first design for a frame and string system was not going to work, I had planned to string twine between two tripods but I set it up and realized there would not be enough strength to carry the weight of the plants and fruit. Kevin had another idea which utilized some old posts, still set in concrete, that were lying around in the barn (gotta love repurposed stuff!). He planted the concrete bases on either side of the bed and then devised a sturdy wooden frame to mount on top and go the length of the bed. Unfortunately, he has been so busy (and had some technical difficulties with tools) that he just finished this frame on Monday night, many weeks after we had planned to rig something up.

So, when I went out Tuesday morning to string up my tomatoes, the inevitable had happened… they had grown! They look like a solid four-foot by twelve-foot shrub that stands about three-and-a-half feet high. I started to prune and place my strings but felt like I was fighting hopelessly. The main stems are thick and water-filled and, as such, not very flexible and I’m having trouble making out which branches belong to which plant. I think I need to thin the plants and then work to train them as well as I can at this late date. To further frustrate matters, as I was working with them, unripe fruit fell off. I guess I’m back to where I started in my garden in the woods so many years ago… to my green tomato recipes.

I also discovered that the tomato hornworms have already found my tomato bed. I had rather hoped we wouldn’t be seeing them this year, figuring it would take them a while to find the new planting. Not so! They sure are cool looking caterpillars though; I almost hate to kill something so beautiful… almost. Two of them were covered with oblong, white, egg-looking things which I took to be hornworm eggs. I stepped on them even more ferociously. After a brief internet search, I’ve since found that they are actually another insect parasite! They are the eggs of a parasitic wasp which will eventually kill the hornworm. I also learned that I should not have killed those with the eggs… oops. My knowledge grows by leaps and bounds!

I did see evidence of many helpful insects in the garden. The bumblebees were noisily pollinating the cucumbers and tomatoes (didn’t see my honeybees though) and each cabbage was happily inhabited by a helpful spider, presumably gobbling up any white cabbage moths that try to feast on my food.


So, the learning continues, the plants keep growing, and I spent some time feeling the giddy satisfaction of knowing that I am producing something terrifically yummy out of practically nothing.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Garden Progress (photos)

It seems I can't help but be two weeks behind reality with the photos. Here are a few taken June 29th. I keep sharing the raised bed photos for comparisson and progress. As you can see, we harvested all the rest of the radishes that day, although I admit that I waited about a week too long, they were better the week before. We enjoyed both the radish and the greens in various dishes for several weeks! I will have to go out and take a few more recent photos again soon!


W(h)ine Shopping

A friend of mine was relaying to me her dismay with her own experiences when trying to source local food while making dinner last week. She had gone to a local meat seller and asked the salesperson where the pork came from. I think the first answer was something like, “a pig,” so she switched tack and asked which of the meats available that day came from local animals. Not only could the woman not tell her (which could be understandable, I suppose) but she got rather snippy with my friend, acting exsapserated that she would even ask such a question.

I must admit that I, too, have experienced such poor customer service/human interaction. Of course, most of the producers and local storekeepers I deal with are fantastic, friendly, helpful, and thoughtful. However, some just don’t fit any of those descriptions!

The week prior to Independence Day I knew I would need to find some local wine to serve to our guests. We had consumed the two bottles from Wollersheim in June so I thought I might set about finding some more. I learned from their website (see web links) that it could be purchased at Woodman’s in Wisconsin. The site only listed Wisconsin locations though so I thought I might try Woodman’s here in Rockford. I called the morning of July 3rd to see if I might have any luck and talked to a very friendly gentleman who sounded knowledgeable enough to have been a manager (unfortunately, I did not ask his name). He knew the Wollersheim name and immediately explained that only the Wisconsin stores carried that label.

He asked if there was anything else I was looking for and I thought I would pose my question to him… "Are there any wine producers within 100 miles who grow and use their own local grapes?" He was able to immediately list off some Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin wineries, as well as a few in Iowa, but he was unsure about who grew their own grapes and who did not. I took the list he gave me to the Web to do a little research and here is what I found (in relation of our local eating project):

Fox Valley Winery - Tasting rooms in Oswego and Sandwich, IL. Much of their grapes are grown by R.A. Faltz Vineyard, just south of Sandwich. However, they purchase many of their grapes, although quite a few come from southern Illinois and those that do are clearly marked "Illinois Wine."
Illinois Cellars – too far, southern Illinois
Oliver Winery – too far, Bloomington, Indiana
MassBach Ridge Winery – quite close! It’s outside of Elizabeth, IL (near Stockton). Their website states that they make wines “primarily” from grapes grown in Jo Davies County. Unfortunately, we haven’t tried any of their wines yet because I failed to ask the Woodman’s manager for a spelling and didn’t find it when I searched incorrectly. I see that their Reserve just took a silver medal in the Illinois State Wine Tasting competition and will look forward to trying it in the future.
Prairie State Winery – they seem to purchase all or most of their grapes so I did not try them. This is definitely also the case with Galena Cellars, they do so much volume that they must purchase grapes (they call their Galena-area vineyard “experimental.”

I had looked at one grocery store (Logli’s) a few weeks prior to this and found no wine local enough to count for our project (although they did have some Illinois and Indiana wines).

Going to Woodman’s

I used to shop Woodman’s when I lived in Wisconsin and go occasionally here in Rockford, although more often when I worked in that part of town. I was a little surprised to see how busy they were when I arrived late in the morning on July 3rd. I made my way to the liquor department and started looking in the areas where I expected there to be Illinois wine. I found some, but not what I was looking for (Fox Valley Winery). As I came to the end of an aisle I could hear something heavy rolling toward me from the cross-aisle at the back so I stopped and waited for it to pass. When it didn’t, I made my way into the other aisle and saw a woman stocking from a heavily laden cart. Going past her proved impossible (I had Kai in the stroller and Neva in tow) as she had parked smack-dab in the middle of the narrow aisle. I said, “Excuse me” and she pulled the cart out of my way while saying, “You have to watch it around here.” Her comment was not so much kind advice as accusing, as if I had been in her way. I decided not to ask her for assistance. I made my way up the next aisle, looking at all of the California wines that were now forbidden fruit. At the far end of the aisle was a younger man pulling a dolly with boxes of wine bottles. I asked him where I might find the Illinois wines and he answered that he was unsure but did I try this section (walking me to a rack). Yes, I had tried that section, merely Illinois and Indiana fruit wines from farther away.

He asked me to wait a moment; that he would ask someone else. Much to my chaigrin, he returned with the grumpy woman from the back of the store, now without her cart. I explained what I was looking for and she told me it would be near the front on either side of the registers. I had looked there and would look again with her but to no avail. She asked for the vintners I was trying to find and I showed her the list. She looked at it and said they probably don’t carry any of those. I patiently explained to her that I had spoken with someone who sounded like an older gentleman that morning who... “Did you read him this list?” she snapped back, before I could finish my sentence. “He gave me this list,” I explained. “Well, they would be with the fruit wines here,” she said. I told her that these were more traditional grape varieties and could there be a section of actual Illinois wines made from grapes? “No,” she said, clearly getting frustrated, “any Illinois wine would be with the fruit wines, not the grape wines.”

At this point, I said what I shouldn’t have: I joked that “technically, aren’t grape wines made of fruit as well?” She shot me a look and stalked off, muttering, “I’ve looked everywhere I think they could be. If they aren’t here then we don’t have them!” The younger guy who had brought her to me, apologized and told me that he didn’t even work there (he was from a distributer) but he was sorry he couldn’t help me more. I thanked him and said I would take another look around.

Two aisles later: jackpot – a whole section of Illinois grape wine (I believe it was aisle 4). I studied my options and made a few selections. I only purchased wines that indicated Illinois-grown grapes, even though I knew that this would likely mean that some of them had been grown beyond my 100-mile radius. I figured that Illinois is pretty close for wine. I selected 7 different varieties (I wanted to offer my guests a wide selection on the Fourth of July) and made my way to the register. I never saw the grumpy sales woman again but was pleased to see that the checker in my aisle who had just assisted a man with his $700, two-cart order, was happy, polite, and pleasing. She reminded that not everyone has to be grumpy. My hope for myself (and all of you): May your week have no whine.

Post Script: Sadly, I can’t say that any of the Fox Valley Winery wines we’ve tried have been anything fantastic. They were all drinkable but not to the point where we’d necessarily buy them again. We did think that Faltz Vintner’s Reserve varieties (red) were pretty good and these we would purchase again.

Post Post-Script: If you are going to Beloit (or to Prairie du Sac, home of Wollersheim Winery), here are the Wollersheim wines that are made from estate-grown grapes:

  • Prairie Red
  • Domaine du Sac
  • Domaine Reserve
  • Eagle White
  • Prairie Blush
  • Ice Wine
  • Ruby Nouveau (the first taste of harvest, intended to be drunk the fall it is produced, look for it in time for Thanksgiving)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Strawberry Fields are Fleeting (photos)


The last week in June was strawberry week around our house. We had been eating strawberries purchased at local farmers’ markets for the previous two weeks, a few quarts a week (and the few handfuls we’ve had from out own new plants), but I decided that I wanted to go into mass strawberry-saving mode. As has been mentioned in a comment to a previous post, eating locally could be a whole lot harder in the winter. So, to give us variety this winter, I’m working to put up some yummy things for those dark, cold days.

Some great friends of ours graciously volunteered their morning to come with me (and the kids) to Susie’s Garden Patch in Garden Prairie (just east of Belvidere) to pick strawberries. It was much-needed help as their youngest entertained Neva after she (Neva) tired of picking berries and the two older kids, along with my friend/their mother were able to pick about 22 quarts with me! In one hour I was able to pick about 6 quarts. Our friends only took four quarts home for themselves so I was left with a whopping 18 quarts to process. (yay!)

Freezing

I started by washing and sorting, drying and hulling. I then began freezing whole berries spread out on cookie sheets (the same way I did with our own fresh raspberries last year). After they were frozen I loaded them into freezer bags and placed them in our chest freezer (which is now full… I really need to decide on a larger one so I can get that ordered).

I had done a lot of reading on the proper ways to preserve strawberries and I realize that the technique I chose is not supposed to be the best… I just think it is the best for me. Freezing them in water or sugar syrup did not sound like it would work well for me and canning was definitely out (except as jam, keep reading). So, we’ll see how long they last and what quality we find when we thaw them this winter. I suspect that we will be so happy for strawberries that we won’t mind if they aren’t perfect.

I did use two additional techniques to preserve the strawberry harvest. I dehydrated enough to fill a half-gallon jar, and them some (after they were dried, of course), and I made jam.

Drying

Dehydrating was not difficult but it was more time-consuming than freezing the berries. I still had to wash, dry, and hull but I also needed to cut them (in half for the small ones and slices for the larger ones). Then I laid them out on the grates of our two food dehydrators and let them dry over night and then a bit in the morning. I had read that you should only use a dehydrator with a temperature control because otherwise they can get too hot for strawberries but, alas, neither of ours has that feature so I took my chances and it worked out fine. There were two racks that got a bit over-dried which is apparent in their taste but I’ll take what I can get.

I did have to flip the jucier berries on some racks to encourage thorough drying and I reordered the racks in the stack a few times during the drying process. It took 10-12 hours to complete a batch. After letting the dried berries cool, I placed them in glass mason jars and set them in the dark pantry. I am now just a little nervous that there might be a berry that retained too much moisture that will mold and spoil all that effort (and my planned winter snacks!) but I check the jars every so often and they seem to be OK. I touched each berry and didn’t pull them from the dehydrator until they were firm and dry to the touch, but not crispy (except the few I accidentally over-dried).

Making Jam

I had made strawberry freezer jam on several occasions; it was the jam I grew up with my mom making. However, I had never experienced cooked and canned jam/jelly-making until last fall. Our good friends came over to help us gather the wild grapes that grow on some of our fences. Mind you, we needed a little help with the picking as the grapes were fairly abundant and Kai was born just two days later so my belly was pretty unwieldy! Later that day we went to their house with buckets of grapes and my father-in-law’s wine press.

There we met another couple and their son; friends from work who hailed from Italy. They had not made jelly before either so it was to be a fun learning experience for us all (followed by a yummy spaghetti supper made by one of the Italians!). The first order of business was for me to sew up a few jelly bags from cloth our friends had bought for that purpose. We then placed the grapes (stems, seeds, and all) into a bag and squashed the dickens out of it with the wine press. The juice ran a deeply regal purple and stained anything it touched, especially our hands. After pressing we made jelly the traditional way and tossed the skins, seeds, and stems (is it called “must” when you’re not making wine?) into the compost.

That jelly was delicious… so flavorful. I am usually not a fan of grape jelly but I have to say I really enjoy this one. Each couple ended up with about a dozen jars so we still have a few left. I’m allowing them this year (even though the sugar wasn’t local) because they’re pretty close to local, the grapes having been planted by birds in our yard!

Anyway, so now I was ready to make some jam on my own. I had been searching the Internet for proven recipes for jam made with honey instead of sugar. I don’t know what I would do without the Internet… I think it’s just a terrific tool! So, I found some recipes from Mother Earth News that used only honey to make jam. (see web links at right).

Neva wanted to help so one day during Kai’s afternoon nap we set about making our jam. She was my expert fruit masher (as was the neighbor boy who came by to play while we were working only to have Neva tell him she didn’t want to play until she finished making jam). It took seven cups of honey per about two quarts of strawberries so that makes it more expensive than traditional jam but it’s still cheaper than can be had in the store.

I did buy powered pectin, as strawberries are a low-pectin fruit. For anyone crying foul at my non-local pectin, I did look into making my own but that would require either citrus (definitely not local!) or apples (which won’t be ready to harvest for several more months).

The recipe says to boil the jam longer than the sugar recipes, which I did, but I wonder if it would have set without the additional minute because the jam I sampled (what little didn’t go into jars) was a little stiffer and more gelled than I might have liked. Also, the flavor of the honey does come through somewhat. I used a fairly mild honey but you can still taste it in the finished product – it’s not bad, it’s just different from the expected.

In the end I purchased an additional eight quarts of strawberries from a sweet family at the Edgebrook Farmers’ Market to supplement what remained from our picked berries after I had frozen and dried more than a dozen quarts. I made two batches of strawberry and one batch of strawberry-rhubarb jam (from our own rhubarb). We currently don’t eat much jam, just a little on pancakes or in desserts, but I suspect that come winter, when we are eating fresh bread most mornings for breakfast, we will appreciate a little sweet taste of summertime.

I hope to make more jams in coming weeks including raspberries (our bramble is just starting to produce!) and, perhaps, mulberries as we have several trees fruiting and each mulberry I pick and eat is one less sapling I will have to weed out of my garden!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Garden Progress (photos)


Hello again,
I have three more posts of our adventures in the works but Kevin's mom pointed out yesterday that we hadn't posted any updates on our garden progress so here of some photos, taken one week apart.

These represent the state of our garden on June 14 and June 22 (there's no mistaking which is which). I also photographed our first radish. (I know, I'm like the kid who watches a seed sprout in a Dixie cup on the windowsill for the very first time!). In one of my posts this weekend I'll post the photos I took this week - I can't believe how fast everything grows with all this rain!

Happy Independence Day! We are having friends over for an all-local dinner! Future posts will include today's wine shopping expedition.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

So What Are We Eating?

Warning: in the interest of getting this post live (and getting my daughter to the library today) I have not proofread this post! There may be typos...

It has not even been two weeks and I’ve already fallen behind in the blog… The only excuse we have is that we were out of town for a wedding this weekend (at University of Illinois, our alma mater, in Champaign) and every free moment (when I’m not wrangling kids) I have either been weeding vegetables, planting our hillside prairie, or preserving fruit for the coming winter. OK, excuse time is over… here are some updates.

We’ve been eating well these last few weeks but, as I admitted in the post I wrote last Thursday, we haven’t been able to go entirely local. I just won’t waste the food we already have (the non-perishables didn’t go to waste but won’t be used by us… see previous post).

Anyway, we’ve been enjoying salads, radishes (both raw, as greens, and sliced/chopped and sautéed in butter!), and a wide variety of other greens at just about every meal. I’ve been making a loaf of bread about every other morning for breakfasts. Yesterday Neva and I made a big batch of pancakes (made with our Kansas flour, eggs from Pine Row Farm in Roscoe, goat’s milk from Angelic Organics Learning Center, honey from Raines Honey Farm in Davis, and the last of our canola oil). We ate some for lunch (with maple syrup from southern Wisconsin) and I froze the rest for Kevin to heat and eat for breakfasts in the coming week.

Our first weekend we made Swedish pancakes for breakfast one morning using the same list of local ingredients. Kai has been eating mostly local baby food (there are still a few cubes of non-local stuff in the freezer; organic corn and peas, diced steamed carrots, etc) but I’ve been blending local broccoli, zucchini, asparagus, and spinach for him to eat as well as the leftover chunks of a roast chicken from Open Range Products in Pecatonica. As I mentioned in the previous post, Kevin made an awesome loin of goat (and I made a quart of stock for the freezer from the bones and drippings in the foil). We’ve had some fantastic egg scrambles with all manner of onions and greens and local cheeses.

I intend to create a new section in the right column of the blog with recipes we’ve used or developed but I want to get caught up on our activities first. I have added some new web links at right which link to the websites or reference sites for the local producers I have mentioned – please check them out!

Meeting Producers

I went last week to get some eggs from Pine Row Farm and I happened to be there when the four producers who make up the Tomorrow’s Harvest cooperative were packing the vegetable boxes for pick-up the next day. I was able to meet them and chat a bit about our project and what they have to offer. The area farms that are represented in Tomorrow’s Harvest are: Mighty Sprout Farm in Rockford, Freedom Organix in Harvard, Brookwood Farm in Cherry Valley, Pine Row Farm in Roscoe, and the Zarante Brothers who are called the “farmers at-large.”

We were able to get our box a day early since they had all just been packed and I’m happy to report that it was beautiful. Bags of mixed greens, baby Swiss chard, bunches of luscious radishes, and young turnips, all very clean and fresh. I can’t wait to see what we get next week! They still have shares available so if you are considering a CSA, this is a great opportunity to try it out. Their website (with photos of each of the farms) can be found in the Web Links section to the right.

Last week I also made a trip to Belvidere to pick up some Prairie Pure Cheese at the Boone County Farm Bureau office on Locust Ave. The cheese was good, although one package was out of date and I didn’t realize it so I need to take it back (if it weren’t for the mold I would otherwise eat it). The milk comes from two farms right in Belvidere and is sent the day it’s collected up to a cheesemaker (Edelweiss Town-Hall Dairy) in Monticello, Wisonsin. There it is made into four types of cheese: Butterkäse, Mild and Sharp Cheddar, and Swiss. They had all but the Sharp Cheddar at the Farm Bureau office and it was not cheap but reasonably priced. The cheese is sold at a variety of local places (including a few Whole Foods stores in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago) but some seem to have trouble keeping it in stock so you might want to call ahead for availability. The list of retailers is available on the Prairie Pure website (see web links).


With all this great green stuff, what do we miss?

We’ve been eating really well and enjoying the project so far but there are a few things we miss.

  • I miss my morning bagel and cream cheese (although I fully intend to make both of these things once I get a little free time (which will be when?)).
  • Kevin misses his rolled oats but we have an exciting update on this, check a future post.
  • We both really miss our glass of wine with dinner every night. We have had two bottles of wine from the Wollersheim Winery in Wisconsin (from a visit we made there a few years back) but for the most part it’s water with dinner!). We also have some bottles of wine from vineyards in California and Spain which we picked up during our travels (and, as such, qualify for the Travel Clause II exemption) but we don’t want to plow through those special bottles all at once. I think Woodman’s Grocery Store liquor department might carry some Wollersheim so I’ll have to stop there sometime when I am otherwise making a trip to the other side of town. Not all of their wines are made from grapes grown in Wisconsin, though so our selection is further limited. I need to locate some other options as well.
  • We miss nuts. We used to eat plain nuts (of any type) in our cereal, in our baked goods, and just by the handful... oh well, not this year.
  • I do miss some of the convenience of ready-made snack food like crackers and cereal, and we still haven’t found local butter (I may end up making it myself from cream but in the meantime we’re sparingly using up the last of what was in the fridge), and I’m spending a lot of time working to put food away for winter and working in the garden. Luckily, those two time-sinks are quite enjoyable.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Local Eating Begins... at home (written Thursday - photos)

OK, so local eating obviously begins in the area but we're finding that it actually begins... in the fridge. We have been working our way through the perishable items in the refrigerator and freezer but our meals have still mostly been 90% local. We will probably add on a week or two at the end of our project next year to make it a solid year. Think about what you have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer and then take the next week to work your way through the oldest stuff - trust me, it will feel great!

In addition to the non-local items, we have been enjoying lots of local meals and ingredients: salads, deep green sauces and dressings, grilled sirloin and goat loin (Kevin did an awesome job preparing this!), and desserts of local berries and homemade goat's milk ice cream. We really have plenty to eat and lots of variety so far.

The results from our poll are in and the perishable food is gone from our pantry. Fifty-seven percent of you voted to donate the non-local food (although strangely the poll program registered 42% for keeping it... where is the extra 1% to make 100?) We gave some of the food to a friend (she wouldn't let me give it to her, she actually gave me grocery money for it!) and the remaining items will be donated.

I think this was good, as it would have persisted for quite some time if we'd tried to eat through it. This was actually a rather cleansing experience. I like having a well-stocked pantry, having staple ingredients at the ready for whatever I might like to make, but emptying those shelves and starting over felt pretty good. I think this was mostly due to the fact that I was feeling like we just weren't really getting started if we went through it all. There are still a few non-local and non-exception items on the bottom.


So, the pantry is emptier, as are the fridge and freezer, and we are continuing to look for local foods. I say the pantry is emptier and it is... and it isn't. I've been stocking up on local items for my on-hand supplies. I have no concerns about finding sufficient foodstuffs during the growing season. My greatest concern is making it through the winter and early spring months without a ready source of fresh food. So, I've been on the lookout for things I can put up myself or purchase in the approriate state.

A month ago I was elated to find Marjorie at the Edgebrook Farmers' Market with peanut butter jars full of dried beans... a great source of winter nutrients! And grown just west of here in Stephenson County! Hurray!

That first day I bought all she had. She and her booth partner were also kind enough to talk to us about dried legumes and to let Neva try her hand and shelling some. The following week I returned and when I was still a few feet away from her table Marjorie says, "It's my bean-buyer!" That's me, the bean buyer... I've bought all the beans she's had left every week. But I'm happy to be the "bean-buyer" and keep my pantry stocked for winter. I've also added a jar of beets from a friend (from last year but I've been saving them), and a jar of dill pickles from another new friend. There are a few non-local items lingering in the bottom of the pantry in this photo but we're getting there!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Day One (photos)

We greeted the day with a breakfast of fresh bread (done overnight in the bread maker) slathered with honey. Then the kids and I headed out to Angelic Organics to pick up our goat milk share and a dozen eggs and to get our first vegetable box.

Here's what was in the box! Lots of tasty things. I did grab one extra choi and a few garlic scapes from the box of extras/trades. We were excited to see the zucchini, too, not realy expecting to see any fruiting crops for a few more weeks (longer than that in our own garden!).

Well, I'd say our local eating today gets mixed reviews. We called it our official start day, which it was, but I couldn't stand to waste the perishable items and leftovers that persisted in our fridge so we did incorporate a few non-local items.

Breakfast was local (except for my coffee, which is allowed as an exception and the milk from Oberweis Dairy, which was the remaining half-gallon in the fridge). Kai had my own applesauce, canned last year from local apples (with canning lessons from my friend!) although I did mix in organic baby cereal. OK, not perfect but not a bad start.

Lunch... well lunch... Yesterday Neva and I had made homemade chapatis to go with our chicken and asparagus masala for dinner. At least the asparagus was local. There were two chapatis left and we each had one. There was also a yellow bell pepper, obviously not local, that was almost past it's prime. Kai even had some of that one in his fresh food feeder (a mesh bag that allows him to suck the dickens out of any whole food we put in there). I did eat my leftover spinach salad with green onions, garlic scapes, radish greens, and choi (all local) but I also fed Kai some green beans and brown rice which I had made up a month ago (I freeze the baby food I make in ice cube trays). Kevin, well, I need to work on him to get into the habit of packing a lunch... he had nothing.

For a snack, Neva had some of the dried fruit we had purchased a week earlier (I think dried fruit may be her one exception but we haven't discussed it yet).

Dinner was entirely local with one exception. We enjoyed copious amounts of steamed local, organic broccoli and lovely salads of red lettuce and chopped garlic scapes topped with my homemade Rosemary Ricotta (made from goat's milk) and... tomatoes. Aye, there's the rub.

I had purchased six tomatoes last week, thinking surely we'd eat them before Thursday... well, we didn't and I didn't feel like snacking on tomato salad last night so I used some of them today. We also used oil and vinegar on the salads which fall into our exceptions category.

We did celebrate our first day by opening a bottle of Domaine du Sac from the Wollersheim Winery in Wisconsin. They produce a number of types of wine but they only have a few for which they actually grow the grapes at their vineyard in Prairie du Sacm Wisconsin, this happens to be one made from locally-grown grapes (and a nice table wine, I might add!). We bought this bottle when we toured the winery three year ago while celebrating our wedding anniversary in November.

Here was our first dinner:

Tomorrow I'm thinking about a breakfast of eggs scrambled with chard and allums (onions and garlic scapes) and for dinner we'll try the loin of goat I purchased from Open Range Products in Pecatonica (and processed at Eichmans in Seward) with whole wheat rolls and salad and fresh strawberries from a farm near the Wisconsin boarder (from Edgebrook Farmers' Market) for dessert.

Between the veggies I got at the farmers' market, those I got from my friends, and those I picked up from the farm, not to mention more of the food still sitting in our fridge, we will be comfortable this weekend. Next Tuesday we'll get our first box from Pine Row Farm and the Tomorrow's Harvest cooperative of four local organic growers. I was nervous about having enough produce so we joined another local CSA. I'm looking forward to seeing what they produce (and picking up some of their eggs too!) on Tuesday morning.
Just to let you know, my intention is really to post just once or twice per week so check back next week for more updates. Have a great weekend!


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Early/Mid- June – Ramping Up

I have been haunting the area farmers’ markets for over a month now, trying to acquaint myself with the farmers and their wares. I’ve been buying what I can there and have happily seen the addition of new items each week. Of course, you have to be careful and ask the right questions because I can tell that a number of the farmers have merely purchased for resale the items on their tables (sorry, without a greenhouse you aren’t harvesting tomatoes and cucumbers in late May).

I was excited to have put up the ten pounds of asparagus last week but I was even more pleased with my chicken experience the week before.

Until a year ago, I had never roasted a chicken. I love to cook and have a fair amount of experience but I had just never done that before (turkey and goose, yes, just not chicken). So, when I went to Open Range Products to collect the three chickens I had ordered directly from the farm, I wondered how it would work out for me. Kathy told me that free-range fowl should be cooked slow and long so I kept that in mind as I planned a meal for my family and my parents.

I roasted the chicken and served it with fresh asparagus, and choi salad. When we sat down to eat, Kevin asked if any of the meal was local. I was happy to announce that all but the wine and the onion and garlic I had roasted the chicken with was local. After the meal I needed to do something so the rest of the chicken wouldn’t go to waste.

I pulled the meat off the bone and stored that in the fridge for a future meal. I deglazed the roasting pan with red wine (non-local and a non-traditional choice for chicken, I know!) and saved the result for a gravy later in the week. I then cooked down the carcass and onion/garlic that it had roasted with in water to make broth. I chilled the broth in the fridge for a day and then I even skimmed the fat and froze it in small cubes (1/2 ice cubes) for later use for sautéing and such then I poured the broth into freezer containers and froze it. I was very pleased to think that I had use that bird as fully as I could think of. I even used some of the meat I pulled off for baby food for Kai (blended up, of course!).

So we’ve been ramping up slowly, having nearly local meals followed by not very local meals. We’ve now eaten out with friends for the last time for a year (Thai food) and have ordered our last pizza. In a few more days we will try our hardest to not bring any more non-local food into our house for year.

June 14 - Why don't I feel better?

A few weeks back I went to the Edgebrook Farmers’ Market for the first time this year. Even though it was mid-May and we weren’t starting our experiment until the middle of June, I wanted to start to get a feel for the lay of the land and start to explore our options. I was also planning to ramp up and start getting as much local food as possible, even before we began and I figured that by June, certain things would already be past their season so if I wanted to put things up in the freezer for winter, I’d have to start earlier.

There were only three vendors with foodstuffs and several more with flowers. It was early in the season so about all there was to be had was green onions, rhubarb, and asparagus. I stopped at the first table and bought several bunches of green onions for $1 each and two bunches of radishes for $1.25 each. He had asparagus for $2.25 a bunch (seemingly a pound each). I went to the next table with food and he had some lovely spinach for $1 a bag and an assortment of the same types of things as the first booth. He had bunches of asparagus for $2 a bunch. Well, I was thinking about trying to put some up to have in winter when I am sure we will be craving green so I asked him if he would cut a deal on a quantity of asparagus.

Well, he told me that by Wednesday he didn’t usually have much left as he harvested on Mondays and Thursdays but that on Fridays he is at the Colonial Village Market and would be willing to sell me quantities for $1.75 per pound; I should just look for Bill and his burgundy suburban. Great! I assumed he would prefer this because I could buy him out at the end of the week.

So, two days later I made my way to the Colonial Village Farmers’ Market. Now I had never been to this market because it’s a good drive from my house and there are two others in closer proximity but I was willing to do it if it meant I could get 20 or 40 pounds of asparagus. That morning a storm blew through early and but then I couldn’t go right for the start of the market because we were having some trees delivered that morning (beautiful redbud, bur oak, river birch, and swamp white oak from AckAck). I drove through a little rain on the way out but it stopped when I got within a few miles of the market. I arrived at 11:45 am, over an hour before scheduled closing time. When I rounded the corner and came in view of the market I found only two vendors, both selling plant material. No sign of the burgundy suburban to be found. I had wasted a 30 minute trip (each way) across town – there would be no asparagus to process this weekend. I assumed the vendors had decided it wasn’t worth their time as I imagine fewer customers come out on a rainy day.

The following week I decided to skip Edgebrook on Wednesday because I would instead go to Colonial Village to buy Bill out at weeks’ end and I had also ordered three chickens from Kathy at Open Range Products in Pecatonica (she has a booth at Edgebrook) and they were to be ready for pick-up on Friday at her farm so I would be driving out there. Friday dawned and Kai and I headed across town again. When we got there the market was full of vendors as it was, happily, a sunny day. I stopped first to buy some beautiful squash plants to add to my home garden and then went to see Bill. I inquired about his asparagus, reminding him of our conversation the week before, and he said, “You didn’t come last week.” I explained that I had and he said he had packed up early when the winds picked up and a tree fell down across the street. OK, so can I buy a large quantity of asparagus? Well, he said, he couldn’t sell me any for $1.75 because everything was going to a restaurant. Oh, well can I buy just a few then? Sure. I bought three bunches for $2 each. I asked if he would have larger quantities next week again and he said that the asparagus was almost done, that the weather would do it in and it would be going to seed.

I was disappointed because I had really planned to freeze and dry some, would he have any yet on Wednesday. Maybe a little, how much did I want? Up to 20 lbs. I don’t think I’ll have enough. So I asked him if I could call him closer to Wednesday to see if he would have any more to sell. He gave me his card and told me to call after dark since he spent his days in the garden.

On Monday I worked in my own garden until I couldn’t see well enough in the dark and went in and called him. He asked how much I wanted and I said 20 to 40 pounds. He told me that the asparagus was at it’s last so he would only have 5 pounds. OK, I said, I’ll take it on Wednesday. Should I come right at 9:00 am? He said I should try to be there by 10:00am.

Assuming that he was only going to hold the remaining asparagus unitl 10:00 am and then sell it to someone else, I was sure to get the kids together and out the door on Wednesday. Neva, Kai, and I got to Edgebrook and headed straight for Bill’s stall. When I got there he had a TON of asparagus! I was confused, thinking he had told me that he only had been able to harvest five pounds. So I went up and when it was my turn, his wife waited on me and I told her I was there for asparagus. She asked how much I wanted and I said I thought I might take it all (there were probably 20 pounds on the table and another 20 in a pile in the back of their vehicle). He overheard me and said, “Oh, you’re the lady who wanted a deal?” “Yes, I said, I’m the one who called.” “Well I have 175 pounds,” he said, rather snippily. “Oh,” I said, taken aback, “I only want 20 or 40 pounds then.” “You can only have five,” he replied.

I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to buy a quantity of asparagus, I assumed he wanted to sell his asparagus, and he would only let me buy five pounds? When I stammered that I had hoped to buy more he gave an exasperated reply, “I still have to go to market, I can’t sell it to you for that.” “Well, can I buy five pounds for $1.75 and another five pounds for $2?” “You want to do that?” “Sure.” So, I bought 10 pounds, which he bagged up into two bags from the loose stalks he had in the front of his vehicle. I also bought two quarts of strawberries ($4 each) and another bag of spinach ($1) for a grand total of $29. In the end, I paid $2 per pound for all of the asparagus but I didn’t argue because I was still feeling flustered.

It was only later, when reflecting on our exchange that I fully understood the problem. He could sell all of his asparagus for $2 per pound so why would he want to sell it to me for less, even if I was buying larger quantities? I had assumed he would like to get rid of what he had at the end of the week, even if selling if for 25 cents less. There was the root of our miscommunication.

When I processed the asparagus at home, I found that one bag contained asparagus that was past its prime, probably harvested the previous week. I had to cut all the heads off because they were mushy. At least, the larger of the two bags contained fresh vegetables. I steamed and froze that and dehydrated the rest in pieces for use in soups and sauces. I felt sad about the whole deal.

On Saturday (today), I visited the North Main Commons Market for the first time. Bill was there, of course, and as I made my way toward his stall I decided I should talk to him so he understood my end of the miscommunication. I had previously considered writing him a note to apologize and explain myself once I had figured out his side of things (but before I realized I had received old vegetables!). No customers were at his stall at that moment so I went up and explained what had happened and why I had misunderstood. I apologized, he confirmed for me that he didn’t want to sell any cheaper and showed me that he only had a few pounds left and that this was the end of the asparagus harvest. But basically, I felt he brushed me off and wanted me to move on. So I did. I may not patronize his stall again this summer.

But now I’m home again and I still don’t feel better. I had thought he would appreciate hearing that I wasn’t trying to take advantage of him but he really didn’t care.

What did I learn?

  • I was reminded to check the quality of what a vendor bags for me. I often have done this in Europe, where even grocery store shopkeepers select the items and package it for you. I’m usually the person who tells them, specifically, which ones I want and which I don’t. I never opened the second bag that Bill handed me, just laid it into my shopping bag.
  • I was reminded that my goal should not be to get a deal… if I wanted to do that I would go back to shopping at the supermarket where food is sadly under-priced and does not take into account the actual cost (to the farmer, our health, the environment, and the society it comes from) of any given item. I didn’t really need to save 25 cents per pound, I was just assuming that the whole world operated with a quantity discount. That was my mistake.