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.