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Archive for the ‘Homesteading Your Yard’ Category

I just had my first article as a contributing author for The Permaculture Research Institute published! This one is about ducks and how they fit into a backyard system, the next one will be about converting my coop’s bedding into a worm farm! It’s not quite your typical Apron Stringz material, but I thought some of you might enjoy it.

Ducks in Backyard Permaculture

 

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We move across the continent in 21 days, My Man is completely immersed in finals, and I am suffering from some kind of severe back problem. Considering the circumstances, what do you think I was doing last night? Packing boxes? Resting the shooting pains in my back after a 14 hour day of full time parenting? Watching stupid movies with My Man in attempt to escape our workload? Sleeping?

No. I was canning strawberry jam. Is this a symptom of something more serious? Inability to travel without carefully packed jars of preserved local bounty? When we moved here from Alaska I flew with 70 pounds of frozen wild game and fish, packed into two enormous coolers, and I sent 5 boxes of home canned smoked salmon through the mail to meet us.

I will not return empty handed. Or empty jarred.

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A few weeks I wrote about the changes we need to make to move towards more sustainable home lives, and how so many of those changes are built on the slow integration of deceptively simple habits like eating more vegetables (The Incredible Power of Habit). Even if you don’t yet have the time or the space to grow your own, you can start right now learning how to eat the vegetables that you will grow in your someday garden.

It sounds easy. Of course, if you had a garden, you would eat like Alice Waters, right? Doesn’t the ability to garnish poached beets with fresh chevre and call it dinner come automatically with that first harvest?

No. No it doesn’t. Not for very many of us.

Because although I adore poached beets and at least two other members of my family will deign to eat a few with me, I cannot call that dinner, cheese or no cheese. In my fantasy housewife life, I serve a small piece of grass fed meat with a simple pan reduction, alongside perfectly steamed local brown rice, those sweet poached beets and a pile of braised greens with garlic. A four part harmony of colors, half vegetables, 3/4 vegetable matter. A lovely, balanced, sustainable meal.

In real life, I remember to put the roast into the crock pot before lunch by some stoke of genius. I don’t think any farther than that until 5pm, when I remember in a rush I need to start the rice before I take the laundry off the line. As I’m setting the table it occurs to me that I have forgotten a vegetable, again. I run out to cut some collards, which I quickly steam with butter. But even I am tired of collards, and my lackluster approach certainly doesn’t appeal to anyone else at the table.

i've finally integrated the habit of washing and trimming veggies right when i bring them home, before i put them in the fridge. the beets i stick straight into the crock pot for a couple of hours, then when i crave that beet salad all i have to do is whip up the dressing.

The problem with vegetables is many fold. At the heart of the matter is the fact that most of us didn’t grow up eating them as a central part of our meals. In our culture, vegetables are an afterthought, almost a garnish. When I consider the question of dinner, vegetables are the last thing on my mental list, after protein (1) and starch (2). By the time I get to them, I just don’t have the energy or time to attempt anything beyond ‘cooked, with butter.’

Because dinner, in real life, comes down to a tally of minutes. I usually allow myself about 50 of them to get the job done, start to finish. With kids underfoot. And I am a fast, experienced cook! How many of us can afford more than an hour to prepare dinner? And what can you do in an hour?

In magazines, even in the ‘weeknight dinner’ section hidden in the back, they give you a recipe for one thing, with the associated time estimate. Disregard for the moment the fact that their time estimates are ridiculously low for a first run with a recipe, and consider instead the meal in it’s entirety. Maybe you can make sauteed chicken breast with mango in 20 minutes, if you know your way around the kitchen and don’t pay too close attention to the recipe (following recipes is much more time consuming than just cooking) but the photo shows the chicken reclining on a bed of rice with nothing else on the plate. Is that dinner? Chicken and rice? Probably you are supposed to open a bag of baby salad greens, dump them into a bowl and grab the bottle of salad dressing from the fridge. Even still, between that and starting the rice, you are looking at 30 minutes, for a super efficient cook with mostly pre-prepared ingredients.

What about us? Who start with the whole chicken from the farmers market because it’s the best value, who cook brown rice because it’s a whole food full of nourishing goodness, who feel that vegetables should not come sealed in preservative gas. Real vegetables take time. You start with a plant, necessitating scrubbing/trimming/deveining/chopping or any number of other verbs, just to get it ready to cook.

Then comes– what to do with it?

I actually love plain vegetables steamed with butter. But I do get tired of the same vegetable steamed with butter night after night. And when you eat seasonally, that’s often what you get. Whole seasons of just a few kinds of vegetables. I want to learn new recipes, new ways to make the same old veggies seem different. But I get frustrated by how many “vegetable” recipes are half dairy products. Of course it will taste good if you add a pound of cheese and half a stick of butter. I don’t need a recipe to tell me that.

There are a few good basic tricks out there:

Roasting. The best trick in the book, I’d say. Toss almost any vegetable (except greens) with oil and salt and roast at 350-400 until caramelly brown around the edges and tender through. All root vegetables are divine this way, and some green things too, such as brussel sprouts and asparagus. Sadly, I have trouble justifying the high blast of mostly wasted heat involved with oven roasting and so I only do it occasionally.

Caramelizing is the stovetop version of oven roasting. If you have not learned the joys of properly caramelized onions, you have some magic ahead of you! There are two tricks– not crowding the pan and getting the temperature right. I’ve found the best way is to start out on medium until the onions just start to color and then turning the heat down to med-low and eventually to low (as the moisture cooks out of them they need a lower and lower heat to keep from burning.) You want a nice rich caramel color around the edges of very soft onions. Cooked this way, they are a side dish in their own right, or a start to the best greens you’ll ever eat (see below). Many other vegetables benefit from the same careful temperature treatment– mushrooms are glorious if cooked in a single uncrowded layer until golden brown on both sides; cabbage can be cut into thick wedges, arranged cut side down in a buttered pan and cooked over med-low heat (covered with a lid) until golden brown on both sides and barely tender throughout, one of my favorite ways to eat one of my favorite vegetables; caramelized carrots are a revelation. The downside of pan roasting is that since the vegetables need to be in a single layer you can’t really fit enough in a single skillet to feed a family.

With dressing. I feel Americans are unfairly disadvantaged in the salad department. We have such a narrow view of it. I myself am only sometimes fond of the leafy variety, but I adore many other vegetables dressed in my garlicky homemade goodness– sliced cooked beets, grated carrots, thinly sliced cabbage and/or kale, steamed broccoli, fresh sliced tomato… Though certainly not all at once! In fact, I generally prefer just one kind of vegetable in my salad.

The Color Green

All of those techniques are great, but one of the challenges I’ve had is that my lazy gardens, on both sides of this continent, have generally pumped out one thing in almost nauseating quantity. Greens. And I mean the sturdy brassica variety– kale back home in Alaska, and collards here in New Orleans. Now, understand that I adore greens. Adore them! If I could rotate the kind of greens, I think I could eat them every day. But even I get tired of the strong flavor of collards, day after day after day.

I feel like greens deserve their own little segment here because they are 1. the easiest thing to grow, no matter where you live, 2. unbelievably healthy and 3. completely undervalued and underloved.

arugula, baby mustard, and purple kale. i love arugula for salads, but i've also found it can be cooked exactly like spinach and is delicious with eggs.

When new gardeners ask me what they should grow I always say kale or collards, depending on latitude. These hardy brassicas are easy to grow from seed and they look beautiful while growing. Whereas other crops require more careful planning to mature before the end of the season, or on a succession schedule, brassica greens can go in anytime, anywhere. They can be harvested at any stage and over a long season be pulling outer leaves as needed. They grow fast, make lots of extremely nutritious food in a small space, require very little care and generally seem to love life. You can see why I am always inundated with them!

The caveat is that people aren’t used to eating greens more often than a few times a month, if that. And when Americans do eat greens, it’s almost always spinach. Even though homegrown kale and collards are miles better than the tough store-bought versions, they’re still not spinach. And there are precious few recipes for cooking these sturdy greens to inspire newcomers.

Here’s my own green missionary recipe:

Caramelize half an onion in 2 Tablespoons of butter, don’t let them burn! Meanwhile wash a bunch of kale, collards or chard. Trim the thick central stalk out from the middle of the leaf and throw it to the chickens (if using chard, save the stems for this muffin recipe!) Chop trimmed leaves into bite sized pieces. When the onions are nicely browned, throw the greens in along with 1/4 cup each of stock and chopped tomatoes (I keep chunks of each in the freezer for just such an occasion). Cover the pan and allow to steam/fry for about ten minutes, stirring several times. Cook until the greens are tender, adding water if necessary to keep the pan from drying out. Don’t cook so long as to get limp and brown though, that’s only good when there are large quantities of pork involved (and then, my oh my is it good!)

What is your favorite way to cook vegetables? In that post about habits, several of you mentioned favorite cookbooks, and I thought it would be nice to open things up to your advice again. Because despite all those good ideas above, I still find veggies going soft and wilty in my bottom drawer all the time! I myself am not a recipe follower but I am an avid cookbook reader (I read for ideas). As I mentioned earlier, I am often disappointed by the quantity of vegetables in ‘vegetable’ recipes. But then, I think I am trying to get something out of nothing, you know what I mean? I want to use up that 3 pound pile of collards in my fridge, and I don’t want to have to spend $10 on fancy cheese to do it. But I want the end result to taste different than the same old pile o’ collards I always make…. I am hoping for some kind of magic trick I guess.

There’s no magic involved, but I am incredibly inspired by Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens. This book is literally half about greens! All kinds of greens, in fact wild greens figure big, as do lesser used cultivated greens like endive and beet greens. Wolfert is an authority on authentic Mediterranean food, and she bases this book almost entirely on the traditional foodways of that region.

Sadly, and this is a lot of the problem for many of us I suspect, I am cooking for an increasingly picky audience. Most of these greens-rich recipes simply don’t get eaten. I perservere with cooking greens, partly out of an obligation to use up the glut of greens from my garden, partly so that at least my kids still see greens on the table, and see me eating and enjoying them. But considering that I am the primary eater, and I have 3 other eaters to cook for, I don’t find the time to sex my greens up. I’m lucky to get the onions caramelized for that missionary recipe above, let alone tantalizing, time consuming recipes like Paula Wolfert’s wild greens gnocchi.

Here are a few of my older posts on cooking with vegetables:

Harvest First, Cook Second– this one discusses Grains and Greens and my corresponding epiphany about local food knowledge

Swiss Chard Ravioli– the 4yo ate these! a big project though, with lots of cheese

If You Can’t Beet ‘Em– pink pancakes go over very well with little people

Green Tomato and Turkey Enchiladas– using up those end of the season beauties

What are you favorites?

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These few years in New Orleans have been really great, this place is as good as a city gets– charming old architecture steeped in history, a vitally important music and art scene, fabulous restaurants, a very un-American lack of prudishness, and whole seasons of jasmine and magnolia flowers. But, I am not a city girl. As our return to Alaska approaches I’m getting quite eager for our sleepy little hole in the wilderness where a Saturday drive ‘out the road’ yields adventures like this:

Just as much as the place, I am really yearning to be back in Our Own Home. This rental stuff is fine, but I have been realizing just how much my ‘work’ and my homeplace are intrinsically bonded. I can shop at the farmers’ market and grow a small garden anywhere, but that’s just treading water. To really move forward with the lifework I aim for, to climb the rungs of my chosen ‘career’ ladder, I need to stay in one place. One home which I can continually make more efficient, one chunk of land which I can build up towards my edible Eden, one particular ecosystem which I can come ever closer to knowing.

I have felt it here, the loss. The landscape so unfamiliar, the weather patterns confounding, the flora an almost complete blank (I am a wild plant buff in my home territory). Even eating confused me for a while– a responsible local diet here consists of things I had rarely let myself buy at home and didn’t know how to turn into mainstay meals; let alone that cooking itself is all wrong as a way to approach dinner when it’s 95 degrees in your kitchen. And unlike when I was young and resilient with energy to burn, I found it hard to rally myself for re-learning and re-building everything.

This homesteady lifestyle is all about investment and return. And I’m not talking metaphor. I have put 4 years of hard labor and hundreds of dollars worth of soil amendments into my Alaska garden. I built it up from a sorry looking lawn over a bare inch of topsoil with gravel fill substrate, to 160 square feet of luscious dirt in raised beds. In a town where you cannot, no matter how much you are willing to pay, order a truckload of dirt, those garden beds are pure gold. And they are only going to get better! After the very large up-front investment there is only so much work necessary every year to maintain the beds and build up fertility, but the return will continue to grow.

The garden is the best example, but really my entire lifework is wrapped around sticking to one place. Back in this now proverbial Home, I had also built a tight little chicken coop, put in a 20 foot long raspberry hedge to close off our yard, and spent years setting up an efficient kitchen (not to be underestimated!) Beyond the tangible accrual of humus and building projects, the knowledge of the area and the skills for using local resources grow slowly, over time. I had several years under my belt of ‘local university,’ learning which varieties of vegetables did best in our ridiculously rainy climate, how to process 35 whole sockeye salmon in two days, and creating an internal map of where all the best berries, wild mushrooms and edible plants grew in proliferation.

Very few of you have such an intensely localized tie to one place. Down here in rest of the 48 states, the most green responsible lifestyles are based of farming– whether you do it yourself or support someone else’s effort– and farming is at least recognizably similar throughout the temperate world. Even moving across country doesn’t shake everything you’ve ever known to the ground. Nevertheless, I think we all underestimate the profit to be realized from staying put.

The books always stress that “even renters can grow a garden,” and while that is true, I have built up and left behind a few times now, and I can tell you it is a certain kind of heartbreak. You don’t get to take your equity with you. No one else will recognize the value of your hard work, or care about the money you spent. When you leave, you leave it all behind.

I don’t mean to discourage those of you who do not own your own place, but rather to remind those of you who do how much it means. Don’t take your investments of time and money for granted. Just like in business, the ‘profit’ goes right back in as further investment for many years, which makes it hard to see. But so long as you manage to stay in place (a feat these days), you are building up for future dividends.

I can hardly wait to get back to my own double lot homestead and do some re-investing. My garden beds have been cover cropped for three years and I have a chicken coop full of aged manure. I’ll know what to plant, and when to do it. Times are going to be good.

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Growing food in containers can be useful for so many situations– it’s quick to set up and can utilize very small outdoor spaces. Since it requires no commitment to a piece of ground, it’s renter friendly. Because growing in containers is so approachable, it’s where many people start gardening. Unfortunately, although the setup is undeniably quick and easy (albeit expensive) actually getting food plants to grow and produce in containers is often much more challenging than in the ground.

Perhaps the biggest problem for container growing is inconsistent moisture– while herbs and some flowers do fine with the occasional droughts, food plants often never recover from even short gaps in watering. When you’ve planted into the ground, once your plants get a good root system established there’s almost always a little moisture down under there, but a containers can go really and truly dry in not very much time at all. Unless you live in a cool damp place, and are a good every-day-without-fail waterer (very much not me!) you are likely to hit some trouble.

This is partly because of the other reason food in pots can fail– almost every garden pot sold is much too small. In addition to not providing enough root space for any food crops except lettuce, spinach and radishes (not coincidentally the three crops most sensitive to dry soil), a small amount of dirt is considerably more prone to drying out, especially if it’s in a terra cotta pot. Those suckers ought not to be allowed in sizes smaller than 12 inch. I’ve even managed to kill plants in small pots in Cordova, the cold northern end of the temperate rainforest! When something dies from lack of water in Cordova, it is truly impressive.

Ever since I read about self irrigating planters (SIPs) on Root Simple years ago, I have been fascinated by them. The idea behind SIPs is to use a large container such as a rubbermaid tote, create a water resevoir in the bottom and some form of a wick up into a peat-heavy potting soil. When you water, you fill the resevoir, and it slowly wicks up into the soil providing consistently perfect moisture for your plants. I am a sucker for simple technology, particularly when it repurposes trash, and loved the quiet brilliance of this design.

At home in Cordova I had no reason to build a SIP, I had all the ground-based growing space I could manage. So I was excited when we moved to a rental house in New Orleans and I finally had a good excuse to give it a try. Shortly after our move, with a toddler helping and newborn fussing, I made three SIPs out of rubbermaid totes.

with good help you'll be done with this project before you can say, 'self irrigating planter'

Of course, I don’t like to do anything the regular way, even the regular alternative way, so I made some adjustments to the classic SIP design. I’m not sure if my adjustments are an improvement, but it does make the design more accesible.

The classic design uses upright sections of PVC with holes drilled in them to hold up the divider between resevoir and soil, as well as a “pond basket” to hold the wick of pure peat moss. I didn’t want to have to drive all the way to Lowe’s to buy PVC and a pond basket. Even though these items are cheap, I had some kind of mental block against buying them, which for a few months prevented me from tackling the project at all. Do you do this? I knew I was being ridiculous, losing months of good growing weather, but I couldn’t get over the idea that I ought to be able to scrounge good substitutes.

Eventually I hit on a slightly different idea. Lots of materials wick water, couldn’t I use some kind of old cotton cloth? Like these old sheets, cut and braided into a fat wick?

And why did the resevoir need to be integral? Could I use something else, put into the tote, like…. an old milk jug?

So was born my super simple scrounge SIPs. I bet you have the materials on hand to make one of these right now!

  • one rubbermaid or similar large tote, not clear (or algae will grow)
  • two old gallon milk jugs, scrubbed scruppulously clean and bleached (if you can find water jugs in someone’s recycling you can skip the scrubbing and sterilizing)
  • two small (12 oz) drink bottles
  • one old bath towel or cotton sheet
  • razor blade or very sharp knife

With the traditional SIP design, you need the tote to be free of holes or cracks, but for this design, because the resevoir is in the jugs, you can use any old tote off the side of the road, so long as it’s sturdy enough to fill with soil. In fact, it needs to be able to drain so that rain doesn’t pool up in it. So, start by drilling a dozen or so holes in the bottom, or if you don’t have a drill, punch holes with a nail.

emergent DIYer? or upcoming corporate exec out of pure rebellion and spite?

Cut your towel in half lengthwise, trim to about 2 and 1/2 feet long, and roll into a tight log. Squeeze your hand around the roll and try to estimate the size, then cut a similar sized round hole into the top of your milk jug. Cut it smaller than you think, you can always cut a bit more. You want the towel to fill the hole completely so that dirt doesn’t fall in. Work one end of the towel roll through the hole (a butter knife might help) and all the way to the bottom of the jug. Repeat with your other jug. [If you are using an old sheet, cut in half widthwise, then cut each half into three pieces. Braid them together and rubberband the ends to secure.]

Set the jugs into the tote at opposite ends of the same side, and flop the towel ends over the edge of the container. Cut the bottoms off of the small drink bottles, and invert, setting the mouth into the mouth of the milk jugs. These will be where you stick the hose to fill the resevoir jugs.

If you have access to top quality potting mix you can use it straight up, but if all you can find is that crap with sticks and chunks in it, mix with an equal quantity of good, finished compost or if you’re really desperate, peat moss and organic fertilizer. The mix needs to have a large proportion of fine organic material in order to wick the water around. Add in some perlite or vermiculite if you have it.

Pour soil mix in around the jugs, tamping down firmly as you go. When the dirt is even with the wicks (make sure it’s well tamped), lay them down on the surface. Being careful to keep the drink bottles in place, continue filling with dirt right up to the rim of the tote, it will settle a bit over the next few weeks.

Fill jugs by sticking hose into the inverted drink bottles, when the water level rises into the top bottle, it means the jug is full. Since it’s not a tight seal, extra water will leak out where the two mouths meet, but it doesn’t matter. Soak the soil itself thoroughly and then plant.

The classic SIP technique is to sprinkle fertilizer on the soil surface and then cover the whole thing with plastic mulch. You cut the middle out of the lid to make a rim, then just cover the tote with a black plastic bag (white if you live in a hot climate), snap on rim, and cut holes for your plants.

I never got around to doing this though, I just couldn’t get over cutting the soil off from the world to such a complete degree. The top plastic would keep a lot of moisture in, keep weeds from growing, and allow the top-dressing of fertilizer to absorb slowly. But plastic on all sides? Couldn’t do it. Instead I mulched my totes with a thick layer of leaves, just like I do in the garden. Worked great, but then our climate is very damp.

Which brings us to the question of outcome. How did my alternative SIP design work?

Well, it worked just fine, I only needed to water once every few days, and the soil stayed very moist. Plants grew large and healthy, and produced as well as those in the ground. But, given our incredibly damp climate (summer is downright wet) I was not entirely convinced that plain old totes would not have done the job perfectly well on their own. They hold such a large amount of soil that it even when I got lazy and forgot to water for days on end, the soil stayed reasonably moist 6 inches down and the plants seemed fine.

I grew out 3 seasons of plants before I dumped the soil out to refill with fresh stuff (I needed organic material for my dirt garden, if I hadn’t I would have added in a good quantity of compost and fertilizer and kept going with the same stuff for a few more seasons). When I dumped it out, I discovered that the wicks had almost completely disappeared. Oh! Of course! Cotton + consistent moisture + heat = compost. Whoops.

To be honest, I didn’t re-make them as SIPs. I just filled them up to use as regular, very large planters. I planted salad greens, who’s shallow roots are very sensitive to lapses in water, and so far they’re doing beautifully.

I’m still a fan of SIPs though. If you live in a dry place, or go out of town often, and want to give them a try, this super easy set-up has the advantage of immediacy. No complicated trips to the store, which can put a mama with kiddos back for months. No fancy tools. No questionable PVC. Almost no money outlay at all if you’ve got an old tote around, though you still have to buy potting mix. The wicks lasted at least a solid year, and replacing them every spring wouldn’t be hard.

Even easier though? Skip the stupidly small and infuriatingly shallow (but darn aren’t they pretty) regular garden pots and plant vegetables in a plain old large plastic tote with drainage holes. If you live in a damp climate, this will probably be enough to make the difference.

Just don’t tell your neighbors it was my idea.

For the bible of SIPs, including several designs as well as spacing recommendations for planting and other good tips, check out this pdf from Seattle Peak Oil Awareness. If you want to use a couple of old 5 gallon buckets, or just want to be entertained punk urban survival style, check out this video from the old Homegrown Evolution (now Root Simple.) Lastly, here’s a couple more great pictorals for totes and buckets from Crestone Solar School.

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Apron Stringz is two years old! Over that time, the content has grown like a nursing baby with knee dimples. While much of what I write is just day-to-day flotsam, I do sometimes crank out a useful and, I feel, enduring post. And I hate that blogs (at least, free ones like mine) don’t support any decent kind of index for these posts. Blogs are ephemeral, meant to be enjoyed hot off the presses, I guess. But it bugs me to no end that our hard work, one week after publishing is more or less lost to the world.

So here is a directory of posts on the wide subject of food. These are all posts with a more practical edge, those that you might reference. There’s an equal number of my more journal-style posts which I have left out, particularly on the subject of gardening. They make an interesting read if you like that sort of thing (and if you read this blog, you probably do) but seemed less in need of reference-able indexing. If you’re going for the journal aspect, try the archives. A few brave souls have apparently read start to finish.

How to Make Home Cooking Work:

Kitchen Efficiency

Real Life Kitchens: Part One

Part Two: The Sink

Part Three: Work Zones

Part Four: Microzones

Cooking Efficiency

Not Menu Planners — solace for the rest of us

Dinner in Real Life

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen — summer cooking

Tools

Cast Iron Cookery

Rescuing and Seasoning Cast Iron

Cast Iron for the Rest of Us — taking care of your pans

What and How to Cook in Cast Iron

Pontification

Caution: Martyr in the Kitchen

Sourcing Good Groceries:

Responsible Consumerism: How to Make it Work

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Part One

Part Two

Fair Trade is Fair

A Trip to the Grocery Store — peeping Tom my cart!

Whole Wheat Pasta Rises from the Grave

Punk Housewife Tip: Oil and Wine

Home Food Production:

Gardening

Gardening for the Table

Harvest First, Cook Second

Planning an Efficient Garden — it’s all about follow-through

Self Irrigating Planters Made Easy

Chickens

Just Wing It — build a half-assed coop and get by, if you need to

DIY Chicken Waterers

Egg Shells to Egg Shells

Preserving Local Bounties:

Bringing Home the Basil — how to make, store and use pesto

Monastery Marmalade — scavenged fruit and citrus pectin

Marmalade Redooo — note to self: it is entirely possible to make too much marmalade

Truly No-Nonsense Tomato Sauce

Ghee: Frying Local

Recipes:

Bread

Bread Evangelizing — the perfect cherry-popper bread recipe

Bread Every Day, Part One: Ingredients

Part Two: Techniques

Sprouted Wheat Bread: an exploration

Mastering Sprouted Wheat Bread!

Perfect Whole Grain Biscuits

Breakfast

Homemade Grape-Nuts — they’re just caramelized bread crumbs!

Grrr-nola: Make Your Own Breakfast Cereal and Stick it to Kellog Corp (from the old blog)

34 Times Round and a Recipe for German Pancakes

Bouquet of Choice: A Recipe for Swiss Chard Muffins

Anything But the Kitchen Sink — leftover granola muffins

Slow Cooker Leftover Granola Bread

If You Can’t Beet ‘Em — pink pancakes win major mama points

Leftover Easter Eggs to Savory Breakfast Pockets!

Food to Go (a well packed snack bag = less emergency food purchases)

Chewy Granola Bars

Surprising Kid Snacks — no recipe, just a plug for seaweed

A Problem of Sandwiches

Dinner

Stop Buying Salad Dressing NOW

It’s What’s Fer Dinner — favorite quick meals

Baking Bonanza — home cooking in the real world, plus a recipe for easy lasagne

Good News For Half Beer Lovers — meat and/or mushroom carbonade

Green Tomato and Turkey Enchiladas

Swiss Chard Ravioli

Dinner Deconstructed: Ground Meat Patties, Brown Rice and Glazed Carrots — thorough instructions for beginner cooks

What to Feed Kids When You Really Need Them to Eat — at our house it’s macaroni and cheese’n’fish’n’peas

Sunday Dinner Any Day of the Week — pot roast your local grass fed carbon-neutral meat to melt-in-your-mouth perfection

Value Menu: Whole Chicken — get the most out of your $4/lb farmer’s market bird

Chicken an’ Bisket — my favorite roast chicken and what to do with the leftovers

Of Stock and Bullion (from the old blog)

Making Your Own “Canned” Soups (also the old blog)

Leftover Queen — savory vegetable pie

Empanadas: A Confession

Dinner Every Night: Pasta with Lentils

Not So Goaty Enchiladas

Dessert (which is to say mostly chocolate)

Chocolate: Cures What Ails Ya — the easiest way to stretch $9+/lb fair trade chocolate chips

The Best F***ing Brownies Ever

HOT Hot Chocolate — turn your thermostat down 5 degrees and whip up a batch!

Holiday Baking Party — German Christmas bread and super easy truffles

Food Recycling: Lickety Split Leftover Apple Pie — with the easiest ever pie crust

Flaky Whole Wheat Pie Crust — not the easiest, but so good

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Do let me know if you find this index useful, it will help motivate me to keep it updated!

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As an Alaskan, I think of weeds as small, relatively demure plants. Dandelion, plantain, horsetail. Buttercups were my hated nemesis back home.

Buttercups!

What they call “weeds” here in New Orleans, and the speed and size to which those weeds can grow, continues to blow my mind right out of the water.

When we moved to our new house, I asked the landlord to give me a tour of the landscaping, so I would have an idea what out of the jungle of overgrowth was an intended plant, and what was eligible for culling. These big tropical plants below are apparently a weed called ‘canna,’ which grew out of an old attempt at a vegetable bed (note the block border). This photo was taken in May, when their stature as a “weed” impressed me. They are now more than 8 feet tall and advancing on the remainder of the backyard. And that is not because I haven’t battled them back, on several occasions!

 

But what really creeps my shit out is the cat’s claw. This photo looks innocuous enough right? Could be ivy almost. Except that this is about a month’s growth. We have to pull these long cat arms down pretty frequently to keep them from reaching the roof.

These innocent looking vines have actual claws on them. They literally climb your house, looking for a way in.

After we got back from our week long vacation, our daughter’s room had one growing in through her window. Yes, it was closed. And locked. The barbed fingers found a crack. The vine was two feet long, reaching for her bedside lamp.

Our immediate neighbor has one of those overgrown yards full of junk that everyone everywhere hates (I secretly am much more comfortable next to a junky yard than a manicured one). But here in New Orleans, there is a special reason to hate such yards. Among the many other “weeds” here are a number that grow up into actual trees. The trees support the cat’s claw. The cat’s claw climbs up over the neighbor’s fence and reaches into your roof.

If you look carefully up under the eaves, you can see the brown shreds of some old cat’s claw that had grown up into the roof itself (before we got here). Imagine your rafters crawling with green fingers, ripping your roof apart.

There. Does that make you feel any better about your garden, and it’s summer accumulation of soft, leafy weeds?

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As I’ve said before, I love eggplant. That’s why I planted six plants in my garden. What the fuck was I thinking?

I love eggplant, but my family? Not so much. Is this a female thing? My latest bloglove, The Girls Guide to Guns and Butter has the selfsame issue. She posted a wonderful looking recipe for easy moussaka recently, which I haven’t yet tried. I’m still busy trying to hide my eggplant, and subsequently force my family to eat it.

Because even though two of the plants didn’t make it, the remaining four are an endless waterfall of purple fruit. I go to my garden once a week lately (to my surprise, I’ve found that the thick leaf mulch on my garden, combined with the well established plants means I don’t need to water. At all. I haven’t watered in months. I barely have to weed because of my initial kick ass soil preparation and again, the mulch.) All I do is pop over to harvest. Every week a heaving bag full of eggplant and red marconi peppers. Neither of which anyone but me likes to eat.

Fortunately, although cohesive pieces of eggplant are entirely disagreeable to those who don’t like it, I’m finding it is easy to hide. It has little flavor of it’s own, and melts right into other foods if you cook it long enough. Last night I made a tomato (and red pepper) sauce with some roast chicken thrown in, and a heap of leftover grilled eggplant, which completely disappeared into the sauce. Even I couldn’t tell it was there. I served the sauce over gnocchi (which sounds fancy, but is actually the world’s easiest homemade pasta and it uses up leftover potatoes!)

Several weeks ago I blended up some fresh eggplant and added it into a batch of meatballs. I used the food processor to finely chop it and thoroughly squeezed the resulting mince over a fine mesh strainer to drain off the copious amount of juice (! Who knew those dry spongey seeming things had so much water?)

it turned brown almost immediately, but for adding it to meatballs, who cares?

Then I added it to my usual meatball recipe. I used 2 full cups of it to a mere pound and a half of meat (meaning the “meat”balls were 1/3 eggplant), along with the usual egg and breadcrumbs.

No one noticed.

For myself, I made Paula Wolffert’s fabulous pate. The recipe calls it a ‘dip,’ but I remember from the book that she scooped it into a (flexible) container and chilled it, after which you can un-mold it and slice it, just like real pate. What a treat!

Eggplant’s also good for quicky mama lunches like this one.

Don’t forget that eggplant lasagna! That was a winner I I will surely make again. Also on my list (most definitely for myself) is caponata.

What are your favorite things to do with eggplant? Do you serve it front and center, or do you have to hide it too?

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I am a master garden planner. I have sketch books, graph pads, notebooks, lists, calendars and homemade schematics of all kinds. When your garden is small, or your season short, planning is everything.

Oh, wait. No, there’s one more mildly critical factor.

Follow-through.

I don’t think I have ever followed a single one of my 10+ years of garden plans. I mean, I sort of follow them. I start out good, with rows of pots germinating just the prescribed number of seeds. But then messy, messy life gets in the way, and pretty soon my garden beds are a jumble of unmarked varieties, empty spaces filled with whatever seed I had on me at the time. Nevertheless, my gardens still manage to be pretty productive, if only because I just change my diet to suit the harvest.

Everyone gardens for a different reason. Some people just want the opportunity to see plants growing. I can dig that, I do adore on some primal level the sheer visuals of gardening. Some people want to relax with a trowel at the end of their office day. That’s cool, I appreciate dirt as much as the next earthbound heathen. But for me, nothing trumps filling my kitchen and dinner table with food. I want to grow as much poundage, or at least nutritional value, as possible.

Our first two years here in New Orleans I cut myself some slack. In such a radically new climate (coming from Alaska) I figured successfully growing anything would be good. And I wanted to indulge the opportunity to grow things I can’t back home. Melons, squash, beans, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant! How truly thrilling for a freak like me. I took my focus off of efficiency and just played. It was good, it was fun (though certainly depressing in no small measure to try to grow anything here in the bug infested swamp). I dabbled, and I don’t regret it.

Now that our last long growing season is approaching (summer is the dead season here– fall, winter and spring are the growing seasons) I feel a return to my more classic gardening moral. Production. For our third winter, I want to be kicking ass with my garden.

I know that for the majority of my readers, talking about garden planning now is irrelevant, possibly rude. But plenty of you live south of the equator (a surprising number! Are there a disproportionate number of Aussies and New Zealanders on blogs in general, or is it the subject matter? And if so, how do I sign up to emigrate?) so you might be right about where I’m at, facing “spring” and the soon-to-be crush of planting.

There’s a weird alchemy about garden planning. By necessity it occurs ahead of the plantable season. Back in Alaska, garden planning happened in February or March, when the world was still hilarious inhospitable looking. Here in the sultry south, after poking around the wilty garden beds in late August under the hot iron of our sun, coming back inside to plan out the planting of peas and cabbage sounds absurd. You have to have faith that the time will come, that the world will be transformed and become genial to your little green starts.

You also have to have some concrete information about when exactly one could reasonably expect that transformation to occur. Of course every year is different, blah, blah, blah. But when we moved here, and the weather system and seasons were an enormous blank slate in my head, I realized just how important regional knowledge is. I had to base my garden plans on a calendar put out by the Extension Service for all of Louisiana, which is of course, much too general. Fortunately I had made a very savvy gardening friend here before we even moved (that’s how I roll, baby). He was the director for the community gardens, helped secure me a space, and even delivered a stack of scavenged materials for me to build my bed with. Yea for him, my guardian garden angel!

Through his expertise and vague recommendations (true experts will always give you vague recommendations), the Extension Service’s dates, and my little experience here, I put together this crudely detailed calendar:

I considered re-writing my calendar more legibly (and in pen) for you, but that’s just not my style. Also, I don’t have that kind of time. Anyway, this is not for you to print out and use, this is just to demonstrate a useful regional gardening calendar. The crops are listed on the left, and the months up top. The big dots are planting dates, the brown lines are the time each crop spends in the dirt, and the green are harvest windows. Note, this is an extreme guessing game! But, you gotta start somewhere.

This calendar is especially useful in a climate like this, with a 9-12 month growing season (depending on how hard you want to fight in the summer). Planning gets very complicated with ‘winter’ and ‘summer’ crops overlapping twice/year, and endless succession plantings twisting your brain up in knots. With the calendar, I can just look down each column and see what needs to be planted in any given week. This is a general calendar, I won’t be planting everything on it, but I can make a detailed schedule for each particular season and proceed from there.

And this year, this year! I swear I am going to follow that planting schedule. I will not plant all 6 cabbages at once just because I have the seeds in my hand. I will not spread 4 square feet of arugula. I will not plant once and then forget all about my calendar. I will practice restraint, organization, timeliness, perfection!

And then maybe the weather/pest/disease gods will look down on me with favor and not take out half my garden.

May my sowing be devout, may my harvest be bountiful.

Amen.

 

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Brianne over at the ever hilarious Real Mountain Values issued a plea for help yesterday. She is growing (her first?) garden and facing an oncoming glut of tomatoes. On the one hand I want to slap her, what with my own apparent inability to produce tomatoes. On the other hand I want to help a girl out.

Here’s the deal. That whole blanching and peeling business? I understand that some people feel it’s necessary, but I suspect they don’t have little squealers underfoot. In my personal, cowgirl Calamity opinion, blanching, peeling and seeding tomatoes in the hot of summer sounds like a curse akin to serpents and apples.

If you want some nicely peeled tomatoes for canning, save out your bigger babies and lavish them with the extra care. Then throw the rest of the sons-a-bitches in a big pot with half cup of water, stick a lid on, simmer until very soft, then blender the shit out of them. I love my stick blender for this, but a regular old blender will work fine so long as you let the ‘maters cool first to avoid explosions of boiling hot tomato all over your kitchen (seriously).

pesky little cherries and bigger tomatoes with a blemish on one side are prime candidates for this no-nonsense sauce

Make sure you process until they’re very smooth. I do find little bits of skin in my sauce, but it doesn’t bother me near so much as standing over a pot of boiling water for 40 minutes, dunking tomatoes three at a time. And the seeds have just never bothered me, though if they bother you, seeding fresh tomatoes is easy– cut in half across the equator, hold over your chicken bucket and squeeze. There, done.

As far as storage goes, you can freeze tomatoes whole, as in– throw those suckers in a bag and stick it in the freezer to process later. It works surprising well, but I don’t recommend it (unless you’re 9 months pregnant) because in my humble experience “later” is a faulty concept in homesteading endeavors. Like armagedon, “later” just never seems to come.

But what I do recommend if you have the freezer space is freezing the processed sauce. You can use plastic tupperware containers, straight sided jars (leave about 3/4 inch of space at the top for expansion) or even zip lock bags. I use wide-mouthed pint jars. I will admit to thawing them in the microwave when I’m in a hurry for dinner, but you can also stick them in a bowl of warm water to quick thaw. The advantage of tupperware is that you can pop the big square tomatosicle right out into the pot when you want it. Still, I feel funny about storing acidic foods in plastic, even though I apparently feel no compunction about the microwave. Go figure.

One last note, this no-nonsense sauce probably won’t be as thick and strongly tomato flavored as what you might be used to. An extra hour of simmering the puree will concentrate it, and a little spoon of sugar is never a bad idea with tomatoes. But if the tomato flavor still isn’t blowing your skirt up, and you aren’t yet producing your family’s entire yearly tomato supply anyway, why not just scrap the hard core ideals and stir in a can of store bought tomato paste? I’ve done it.

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Most modern people think cooking dinner starts with deciding what they feel like eating. Some of us more pragmatic cooks think first about what’s in the fridge, then about what we could do with it. But there is yet another level, which I often find myself on, where the question of dinner is secondary altogether to the pressing concern of using up the food I’ve procured. Have you ever felt that way? I almost find it difficult to leave for the weekend because, like a pet that needs daily care, my food store is a Jenga-like construction of meals on their way. I can’t go camping this weekend, there’s a big pile of red peppers in there waiting to be roasted! I have meat thawed for a roast. The leftover garlic yogurt sauce needs falafel. What would happen without me?

Having a garden really brings the use-it-up struggle to a fine fervor. I don’t buy very many vegetables, and since my crops are heavily seasonal and furthermore a mix of pass and fail, I often only have two or three options at a time. Right now I have peppers and eggplant. Every meal is a question of how I can use up some more peppers and eggplant (made especially difficult since no one else in my family really likes either…)

spaghetti sauce made entirely from pureed red peppers tastes surprisingly tomatoey.

Back home in Alaska, we only had one growing season– summer– and it only accommodated what here in New Orleans are “winter crops.” Kale, carrots, cabbage, kale, peas, chard, leeks, more kale. Every meal, how to use some kale. But also, more importantly even, the wild foods. Salmon, deer, black bear. Nettles, blueberries, cranberries, salmonberries. How to use them up. I spent a lot of years learning the answers, and really my whole way of cooking was based on those ingredients. Not that I didn’t have a whole pantry full of “regular” stuff like pasta, beans and oats. But the point was always to use as much wild and garden food as possible. Those were my focal points.

When I first discovered my love of Mediterranean Arabic food (one night at a Moroccan restaurant in Portland changed my life) it seemed so exotic. Such a far stray from my local food ways. I used to cook these enormous 8-course Moroccan meals for my birthday, spending $150-200 on ingredients. Whole cardamom, pomegranate molasses, orange blossom water. Pistachio oil to drizzle on a pate of roasted eggplant and ground walnuts. Mmmm, I swoon just naming them. All resolutely un-Alaskan ingredients, not pantry cooking.

I’m not sure when it happened but at some point I realized that I was just adventuring in someone else’s use-it-up food culture. Pomegranate molasses is the outcome of a shit ton of pomegranates. Roasted eggplant pate is what you make when you’ve got more eggplant than you know what to do with. And then I had the real epiphany. I consistently substituted wild game for beef or chicken in these recipes, thinking I was perverting them. But then I realized that the original recipes were often for wild game, and then converted to commercially available meat for American households. Even recipes for “lamb” were probably originally mutton (full grown sheep) and much closer to wild meat than beef.

The realization snowballed when I inter-library loaned Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens this spring. I adore her work, and this is an almost archival book that I hope to someday own (it’s got a cultish following, so it’s pretty pricey). As implied by the title, it’s half about greens. All kinds of greens, and all kinds of traditional recipes for them. She gives modern world substitutions (chard, endive, beet greens, etc) but the original recipes are based on mostly wild greens. Which are apparently the traditional greens of the Mediterranean. Nettles figure big. Also purslane, dandelion, and lots of green herbs. It struck me as funny realizing that when my friends and I made ‘nettle-kopita’ back in Alaska, we were quite a lot more on target than we could have imagined.

The subject of traditional cultures, what foods they harvested and how they cooked them is endlessly fascinating to me. Back at 17, when I was considering whether to go to college, ethnobotany and culinary anthropology were top on my list of ‘fields.’ In the end I decided to save my money, and I’m glad I did. I spent a lot of time traveling the world instead of studying textbooks, divining my own ethnobotanical cooking methods instead of taking tests. For myself anyway, a much better education.

Lately I’ve been running the subject through my fingers again as I consider this new culinary climate. In some ways it’s like starting over, but really, the principles of cooking with what you’ve got are universal. Stay loose, think creatively, abolish taboos.

Yesterday, with a big bag of eggplant weighing on my mind, I approached the subject of dinner. I looked online to see if I could find Paula Wolfert’s recipe for the roasted eggplant and walnut pate that so blew my mind years ago. Amazingly I did find it, pirated out of The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, one of the most beautiful cookbooks I’ve ever seen. I scribbled out the recipe, and then sighed, wondering how I could possibly call eggplant pate ‘dinner’ to my particular audience. The ricotta in the recipe must have been the key to my brilliance. Suddenly I realized its similarity to pureed eggplant, abandoned the pate and jumped straight to… lasagna!

Could I mash up the eggplant and use it in place of ricotta? Could I possibly get away with such heresy? The quick answer is yes.

It worked beautifully. I cut the eggplants into small chunks and sautéed slowly in plenty of olive oil. I mean plenty, you know how eggplant can suck it up. More fat the better, I always say. Especially when you’re trying to disguise a vegetable as a cheese! When the eggplant was about half done, I threw some onion in there, and a little green pepper. Once completely soft, I let it cool a bit, then pureed roughly. I was going to just mash it with a fork, but the peels were still too prominent, so out came the stick blender I bought just for soap making and now wouldn’t want to live without. To the puree I added a little heavy cream, not much, a few tablespoons maybe, an egg, plenty of salt (cheese is salty) and 1/4 cup of leftover yogurt-garlic-mint sauce. Surprised yet?

Lastly I mixed in some thawed collards (squeezed and chopped fine), and layered it with mozzarella, lasagna noodles and tomato sauce. Divine! And need I say, it went over much better at the dinner table than the aforementioned pate would have.

As I said in that last garden post, my harvests are mostly over till November, at the earliest. But, whether you base your meals on a constant garden supply, what’s in season at the farmer’s market, or just whatever is cheapest at the grocery store, the principles of cooking with what you’ve got are the same. Don’t start dinner by wondering what you feel like eating, start by looking around to see what needs using.

You are just the conduit through which the foods of your world are transformed into the meals for your family. First start lookin’ and then start cookin!

Need more ideas for over-exuberant garden goods? Try How to Hide, Err, Eat Eggplant all of which I think would work equally well with that dreaded August zucchini glut.

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Mostly I love gardening. I mean, to the bone adore it. But goddamn, it can get disappointing sometimes! Especially here in the swamps, where everything grows like crazy, until you’re practically drooling, and then dies. Mysteriously.

Summer is the off season here. Gardens limp along. Smarter, richer people than me just cover the whole thing up with plastic to keep the weeds back, then get on a plane headed north. But I just had to at least try all those elusive true summer crops that I can’t grow in Alaska. Melons, tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers.

Last year cukes, peppers and beans were stars. No one but me is very keen on peppers in our house, even though the red-ripe homegrowns are so incredible. Cucumbers become pickles which are practically candy as far as the 4yo is concerned. Beans go over well at the dinner table, so I planted about half my summer garden to them. Mostly snap beans– a purple bush and a yellow Romano pole variety that produced like crazy last year. A few rows of limas too.

The only gardening “wisdom” I’ve learned in my almost 20 years is that whatever works banner one year may or may not ever work again. And similarly, whatever works for one person may or may not work for anybody else, including the next door neighbor.

This is a long way of saying that the beans are all, every single plant resolutely, dying. Tiny, stunted beans all over the succumbing plants. I want to cry. Why? Why? Why me? Have I not put in my years? Have I not said my Hail Marys? Hung my crystals? Consulted the Farmers’ Almanac?

(Oh, right. I didn’t do any of those things, I deserve what may come, heathen of faithlessness.)

That jungle up top looks so promising, right? That was on Saturday, at the beginning of my garden day. As lush as that is, there’s almost no actual food in that photo.

The tomatoes were not a surprise, they’re hard around here even for the non-organic growers. I was judicious at least, with their planting. Only 8 plants. Consider my restraint! Four of those withered and died without giving so much as a single ripe tomato. The plants are long gone.

The melon story, you’ve heard. Since that anti-climactic harvest the plants and the one ripening melon left completely died, rotted, and dehydrated within a single week.

I got a decent wave of cucumbers, enough for five jars of pickles, before those plants bit the big one, months ago.

On a more productive note, I have a long Italian red pepper pumping ‘em out as fast as I can figure out how to disguise them into dinner. The eggplants are coming on too, just as I realize that, yet again, I’m the only person who eats eggplant in this house. Five plants? Umm, who planned this garden?

The problem is, you can’t grow the things my family does like in the hot New Orleans summer. No brassicas whatsoever, carrots, potatoes, beets, peas, spinach, all long gone around here. Even the chard gave up the ghost. And of the summer crops, the only one that really gets some love at our table are snap beans.

And here we are full circle, back at the bean issue.

Reading all of y’alls green sprouting luscious garden posts is making me righteously jealous. But then, I must remember, there are 3 growing seasons in a year here. This is the icky one, the might as well give up one. I should consider this winter, really. Then my Alaskan soul would pine appropriately for spring, which happens to come in late October. And, lucky me, I will get two lovely growing seasons before the ick comes back around.

Patience sweet pea. Only three more months.

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the gutted garden, post Saturday’s work day

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Don’t get excited. I am not eating prosciutto e melone. I’m not, and it’s a tragedy.

Fourteen years ago, I spent a month in Italy with a dear, similarly food obsessed friend. We ate our way from Roma to Venezia, with a detour to the ridiculously picturesque Cinque Terre. We worked on farms where they milked sheep and made Pecorino, we sucked fallen plums off the ground, we discovered fruits we had only ever seen dried and packaged, we discovered in fact, everything we had ever eaten before, and how it could taste.

People talk about Italy with an obnoxious nostalgia. I know. But there’s nothing else one can say. Food in Italy is obnoxiously good. Everything down to a can of tuna blew our minds. We ate at cafeterias with better food than most American restaurants.

Everything about Italian cooking threw me on my head. They hardly did anything. They love their food, that is well known, and so they take care with it. But what I hadn’t realized was just how ridiculously simple the preparation can be when you start ingredients that good. There were several epiphanal moments, but perhaps the one that has haunted me most is the proscuitto e melone.

We were working on a farm, picking and washing vegetables for market all day. Towards evening they fired up the outdoor wood oven to make pizza. I’m sorry, this is going to get absurd, but it actually happened this way. We sat at a big wooden table, outside by the oven, drinking wine from a local vineyard. The sun was setting over the rolling farmland with that light, the hazy orange stuff you see in old European paintings. The farmer’s father, a stately old Italian gentleman, came out to join us. He had brought a large platter of home cured prosciutto and fresh melon. It seemed such a strange thought to my Alaskan mind, meat and cantalope…? But holy christ was that some kind of food. The prosciutto meltingly, ethereally rich; the melon weepingly ripe, sweet but complex like wine. The unlikely combination surely a gift from god.

And I’m sorry to say this, but you simply cannot make this divine “recipe” in the United States. Because it all depends on the quality of two ingredients that you simply cannot get. I have never liked any of the prosciutto I’ve eaten here, it has a strange bitterness to it. And the melon. Is nothing like that melon.

I didn’t know melon (or tomatoes, or peaches) could taste like that. I had hoped moving down here, I would rediscover those flavors. Thinking it was heat and freshness that produced them.

Sadly, I’ve been vastly disappointed by the farmer’s market produce here. Tomatoes taste slightly better than the ones from the store. Peaches, ditto. Everyone here raves about the peaches. I’m sorry. They’re very good… They’re just not…… My mind is not blown.

Then it must be the varieties, I decided. They are just planting the standard grocery store varieties. Small, local, fresh, but still hybrid commercial varieties.

And so my little Alaskan soul ordered the heirloom seeds, combing the catalog for any hint that the resultant melon would taste like those luscious, complex Italian melons. I planted the seeds in little pots. I mostly remembered to water the pots. I transplanted them lovingly, two to my garden at home, two to my community garden. I hoped with my heart, but not too much. A judicious hope.

The plants at home made two melons. Both were riddled with bug holes and I had to pick them before they were fully ripe. They were edible.

In the community garden I had another two melons growing, seemingly escaping the bugs. One of them grew huge and today when I went to water, lo and behold it was ripe! It “slipped” from the vine when I picked it up! Oh copious joy! Oh heart of my heart! Oh prosciutto where are you?

I put the enormous melon into my bag with some little eggplants and yet another load of red marconi peppers. I hurried home. I ran inside for a knife. I drooled in anticipation.

You already know the end to this story, so what’s the point. I might cry if I have to spell it out. Let’s just say I am saving my money for a mid-life crisis trip to Italy.

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Laying hens need calcium to form all that good strong eggshell, almost one shell a day! That’s a lot of calcium! You can give them ground oystershell, it’s very good stuff, but I can’t find it locally and ordering it is pretty expensive. Instead, I grind up the old eggshells and feed them back to the hens.

There’s something undeniably uncomfortable about feeding hens their own eggs, and surely it’s not as nutritionally superior as oystershell, but it’s common practice with apparently no deleterious effect. And of course much cheaper and ‘closed loop.’ I think if chooks have access to good outside ground (not just a few square feet of destroyed dirt) everything becomes less critical, they can forage to fill any gaps. Bugs must be chock full of calcium, right? Not to mention loads of other goodies.

At any rate, I keep an old paper flour bag on the counter for eggshells. When it gets full, all you have to do is smunch the bag to crush them down loosely, then keep filling. (As you are cracking the shells initially, don’t stack them into egg towers, as I used to do. Keep them more or less in singles so that the residual eggy goo can dry instead of rot. This also helps them to crush easier.) When the bag gets a good stock of semi-crushed shells, I take a rolling pin to it. Some rolling, some bashing. Like making bread crumbs. The kids love to help.

I’ve never been clear on how fine the shell needs to be. I have taken it down to almost sand like, but I’m pretty sure that was unnecessary, and a hell of a lot of work. They eat rocks, right? Probably their internal burr grinders can handle bigger pieces of shell. I have settled on taking it to about quick-oat size. Which is still plenty of work, and may still be quite unnecessary. Anyone know the answer here? Feel free to chime in.

After the rolling pin gets old, I take the bag outside onto the concrete patio and bash it with a brick a few times. That seems to finish the job.

I nailed a tuna can to the wall inside the coop for the ground shell, and we keep a yogurt container outside for re-filling from. That’s one of the 4yo’s jobs. These hens don’t seem to eat near so much of it as my hens in Alaska ate, and I suspect it has something to do with this:

This is what they call “gravel” around here, not the sticks part, but the shell part. The entire chook yard looks like this. Might be the whole of what this crazy city is sitting on. I’ve even seen crumbling concrete structures, revealing a filling of this “gravel,” like modern fossils. Anyway, whatever dirt goes along with all that shell must have quite a bit of calcium, nay? So my ground up egg shells may be redundant.

But we keep filling up the can anyway. Can’t hurt right?

[post script: based on some of the comments on this post, I stopped working so hard at this task. Now I just crush them in the bag with my hands and throw them into the chook yard all at once, with some pieces still as big as pennies. Seems fine. They trample them up smaller and eat them over time I guess. Our ladies still lay good strong eggs, so I'm gonna stick with the easy way.]

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I promised you a bit more detail on my DIY chicken waterers. These are both easy projects, with cheap or scavenged materials.

Let’s start with the more standard version. This gallon sized bucket waterer sits outside in their run and lasts 3-4 days for four birds in wicked heat.

This one works on the same gravity/suction principles as the commercially available waterers. It’s really quite simple. You turn the bucket right side up, fill with water, set a dish of some kind on top, then gripping both tightly, in one deft maneuver, flip the whole lot upside down. The water runs out through drilled holes near the (proper) top of the bucket (bottom when in use), and fills the dish. The holes need to be even with the desired water level, just below the lip of the dish. Meaning, if your dish (I’ve used a terra cotta planter dish) is one inch deep, make your holes about 3/4-7/8 inch from the top of the bucket, 1/4 inch-ish in diameter– it’s not very critical, the water will make it’s way out into the dish because gravity is a law. Why the water stays otherwise in the bucket I’m more hazy on. Something about suction and vacuum. Anyway, you don’t have to understand it, it works.

You can use a larger bucket to last longer between fillings, but I think more than 2 gallons would be unwieldy for the ole flipperoo.

I didn’t want to use the bucket kind inside my coop, because the coop is very small and the access door (that little piece of plywood mid-way down) is very skinny. I had dreamed up an alternative kind of waterer for my last coop in Alaska but never got around to the actually making. It seemed like it would be perfect this time around, since the bulk of the water sits outside.

First of all, are you familiar with that homesteaders’ best friend, the gravity “pump?” It’s a genius way to move water up and over something, even for some distance, so long as the end destination is lower than the start. For example you can use this to empty your kids pool across the yard and onto the lawn (if the lawn is even ever so slightly lower than wherever your pool sits). You have to somehow fill the hose with water, traditionally by putting one end into the water then sucking on the other end until you get a mouthful. So long as the mouthful end is lower than the pool end, gravity and suction will pull the water up over the edge of the pool and out onto the grass. This is also how hoodlums empty your gas tank at night so they can go joyriding on your hard-earned dollar.

As far as chicken waterers are concerned, my idea was to fill a big tote outside to an appropriate level, dunk a length of tubing under until it was full of water, plug the end with my thumb, then up and over the coop wall to a little trough inside, which would be slightly lower than the water level in the outside tote. Because the hose would be full of water, and water wants to flow to the lowest place, it would create a suction and pull the water up and over the coop wall to the inside trough. As the chooks drank the water level down, the trough would continue to fill from that outside tote.

But who cares? you may ask. Well, the point is that that little trough inside which conveniently takes up a mere 6 square inches of space, quite inconveniently can only hold about 2 cups of water. Four hens would polish that off in a couple of hours. By connecting it to the large tub outside, I can effectively offer up a couple of gallons of water, in that same 6 square inches of coop space. Plus, it’s easier to fill than the bucket waterer.

Of course, I am well aware that there exists on-demand waterers which draw off an outdoor water supply. But they’re expensive. This set up cost me about $7, the cost of the big tote and the length of hose. The little ‘trough’ I found in my stray tupperware cupboard. And although it’s going to sound complicated in description, it’s actually extremely simple to set up.

When I originally spawned the idea for my Alaska coop, I envisioned placing the outside tote under the eave of the coop, so that our (copious) Cordovan rainfall would fill it, at least some times (like the times when it was raining cats and dogs and I didn’t feel like going out to fill the chooks’ waterer). I still think this is a stellar idea, but is a bit more complicated since it requires guttering.

Instead, I just haul the hose over every three days or so and fill the outside tote up. Rain or shine.

The disadvantage is that, unlike those fancy on-demand waterers, you do have to clean the trough every day. Chooks love to scratch, and they fling their bedding all over the place in the process. No big deal, I just take the trough out (it hangs from two screws), dump the icky water and swish some clean water around. I ought to keep a brush out there to scrub it with, but haven’t gotten around to that seemingly simple task yet. I just use my fingers to rub the slime off. I’m that kind of girl.

Let it be known, there have been a few blips. First off, it’s imperative that both ends stay in the water. I have… umm, twisty ties… holding the tubing in place. One time I didn’t twist the tie enough, it came undone and the tubing got flipped out of the trough. The tubing then drained the entire tote’s worth of water right onto the floor of the coop. Fortunately it was on the very edge of the coop and didn’t cause a problem.

Also, right after I first installed the whole set-up, we left for an overnight trip. When we came back, it had just stopped working… There were bubbles of air in the tubing, and the nothing was moving. Not sure what happened exactly, but it hasn’t happened again. A fluke?

Anyway, point is, although this system can deliver 3 days worth of water, don’t count on it with your chooks’ lives. If you’re going out of town for more than one night, have someone come check on them. Which you would probably do anyway, right? Just had to say my piece.

DIY Gravity Pump Chicken Waterer

Materials:

  • Tote or large container of some sort. Shallow is fine, actually it only needs to be a few inches deep, but the wider it is, the more water it will effectively be able to deliver. Don’t use something clear– if standing water gets light, algae will grow. Even more important, it must have a lid to keep mosquitoes out. I meant to cut a notch in my tote’s lid for the tubing to exit, but never got around to it, so I just set the lid on top lightly. Fortunately, the little gap created by the tubing doesn’t seem to be a problem, but if I leave the lid truly askew, the skeeters get in. If you see some weird little creatures swimming around, dump that water immediately! I’m pretty sure they die once they dry out.
  • Flexible vinyl tubing. It’s easy to get, it’s used for refrigerators’ ice makers, among other things. Our teensy little corner hardware store had several sizes. I used 1/4 inch (outside diameter), and I wouldn’t go any skinnier. Bigger would probably be better, but make sure you can plug it with your thumb. The length will depend on your situation (see below), just be sure to get a bit more than you think you need. Any extra can be coiled up in the bottom of the tote, or just cut off.
  • Drinking trough. Any old plastic container could do the job, so long as it’s sturdy enough to drill holes through, and hang up full of water.

Set Up:

First thing you need to do is consider placement. The trough needs to go inside, the tote needs to go outside, and the tubing needs to run in between the two, in a way that can easily be taken down and put back up (while your thumb is plugging the end). In other words, you can’t just drill a hole in a wall to run the tubing through. Capice?

So, install the inside drinking trough as near to your access door as possible. Drill two holes in the container big enough for a screw head to fit through, then put in two corresponding screws to hang it off of. Make sure to mount it at chicken chest level, the higher the better really, so long as they can still get into it comfortably. This helps keep the water clean.

Now, set your big tote outside the coop, also as close as possible to the door. It needs to be up at the same level, approximately, as the trough. It’s the water level that gravity will equalize, so keep that in mind. If you use a very deep tote, like mine, you will just be filling up the bottom 6 inches or so. Any more would be unnecessary, and you will want to change the water out completely once every couple of weeks, so why waste more than you need? I set my tote on top of another tote that I keep the feed in. Then whenever the feeder needs to be refilled, I consider it time to dump and clean the water tote.

Get one end of your tubing into the trough and the other into the tote outside. Don’t worry about water just yet, you need to affix the tubing to both the coop wall and the inside of the tote in a way that can be undone repeatedly. As I mentioned I use twistie ties. In the coop, since my ‘walls’ are made out of woven wire, I just twistied my ties right onto the wire. For the tote, I drilled two small holes well above my guestimated water level and put the twistie tie through the holes. If you are attaching to a solid wood wall, you could staple your twistie ties up. Whatever works. Make sure you put one down right by where the tubing goes into the trough, since that’s the spot most likely to get pulled on by a stray beak.

When you’re ready for water, start by filling the tote up to what you guess is about level with the middle of your trough. I had it easy because I can see my trough from the outside, so I just eyeballed it. But, this ain’t rocket science. Just wing it. You can adjust soon enough.

Now fill the trough up, just by hand. Then remove the tubing from the twistie ties and slowly dip it into the tote, a little at a time, watching to make sure it’s filling with water. Once it’s all under water, shake it around a bit and see if any bubbles come out. When you’re sure it’s all full of water, plug one end with your thumb and (making sure the other end stays in the water in the tote) get it into place in the trough, releasing your thumb when the tubing is fully under water.

Twistie tie that sucker up, then run inside and grab your sharpee and a pot. Don’t take too long. The water will quickly move towards equilibrium. Keep your hose handy and watch the level in the trough. If it goes down, add some more water into the tote. If the trough fills all the way up, and starts to overflow, dip some water out of the tote (it shouldn’t overflow very fast, mine just drips slowly when I’ve filled the tote too much). The speed it fills will depend on the size of tubing you used. Something about surface friction per square inch…

Once you’ve discovered the Sweet Spot, and the trough is full but not overflowing, mark the water level in the tote with your sharpee. Now every time you fill it, you can just fill it to that mark.

If you were setting this up to fill with rainwater, you’d want to drill big overflow holes right at the spot we just marked with a sharpee, otherwise big rains would flood right into your coop via your waterer.

Okay, got that? It sounds just so very complicated once I write it all out that I’m afraid no one will tackle this actually extremely simple project. Never fear, my dears! Once the basic principle is seen in action, it all makes sense.

[One last thing about daily use. When you take the trough down to clean it, unless you live somewhere that moisture is a problem, you can just leave leave the tubing hanging down, dripping. That way it stays full of water and you don't have to do the whole dunk and fill process again. If you were concerned about moisture, you could stick a yogurt container in there to catch the dribble while you clean out the trough. Then when you hung the trough back up, you could just pour the accumulation in...]

Good luck! Let me know if you have any questions.

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Our chicken decision has been a continual pleasure. I can hardly believe I was going to not get chickens. As I mentioned in the Chicken Herder post, they have been an incredible learning opportunity for my daughter. The regularity of a chore, that belongs to her but benefits the family, is just wonderful. But in addition to that overriding lesson, there are myriad little daily lessons to be had in purely tangible problem solving. She has learned to operate the hook and eye latches to let the chickens out and put them away at night, to gather and count eggs, put them away in the kitchen and mark the appropriate number of ticks onto our “egg calendar” on the fridge. Furthermore she has learned more subtle things like how to lure the ladies into the coop with a cup of grain when necessary and how to clean the wood shavings out of the hinge when the door isn’t closing properly.

The chooks also provide a continual source of entertainment, especially since the run is right next to the house and we can open the dining room window and throw them scraps. We had a friend over recently and, after cutting up an avocado she asked if I wanted the peel in my compost bucket. The 1.5yo piped up, eyes big with pride at cracking a code, “Kickens?” Oh yes! Don’t compost what you can throw to the chickens!

My favorite thing about having hens remains feeding them kitchen scraps. I hate wasting food, and I think we do a darn good job at recycling leftovers around here. But, especially with kids, there are just quite a lot of bits and pieces which would otherwise get dumped. Bread crusts, two bites of oatmeal, dried nibs of cheese from behind the sofa. I love throwing those things out for the ladies, who come running full bore when I open the window.

But the best thing to feed chooks is the kitchen failures that otherwise make me want to cry. I tried fermenting some pickles recently, but I didn’t make enough of an effort to keep the cukes submerged. The sticking out parts turned into moldy slime. I am fairly devastated by this kind of DIY failure. I kick myself pretty hard. And, not that it didn’t still suck the big one, but when I pulled the mold off and threw the half rotten pickles to the chickens, my fallen heart got a little boost back up. Yea. Something good came out of it, at least.

As far as their yard, those ladies work hard all day long, churning up the dirt to keep the weeds back and eating bugs that would otherwise head towards our house. The soil devestation would be a problem in many situations, but in ours, the area alongside the house where I set up their run was a big overgrown mess. Unusable for anything else, just a jungle of bug breeding weeds. They are actually dramatically improving the value of that side area.

And did I mention that the eggs kick ass? I had thought they would taste just like the farmer’s market eggs, which are very, very good. But no, my eggs are even better. Maybe it’s because they’re mine. Maybe it’s because sometimes they’re still warm when I crack them into the pan. Maybe it’s because they eat bugs all frickin’ day long. But damn are them some fine eggs.

Yes, I highly recommend the chicken caper. It’s not utopia, I mentioned the downsides here, but if you can get past those, there are so many benefits.

Erica at NW Edibles gave us a tour of their coop recently, which is righteously awesome. I want to give you a tour of my set-up, which is the extreme other end of the chicken spectrum, just so you know that you can do it for hardly any money, and very little work if the situation warrants it.

Did you catch that last part? Before we get into my scroungy coop, I want to make something very clear. If you own your own land and intend to have chooks over the long haul, do not slam together a half-assed coop like mine. Take the time and money to build a high functioning, long term solution like Erica’s. You won’t regret it. Consider it like a pension fund.

If, on the other hand, you are renting like us, or want to give chickens a try without committing, or really, really want chickens but are just flat broke, you can do it on the fly. Here’s some inspiration:

Classy, isn’t it? Nothing like a blue tarp to dress things right down. I could buy a sheet of plywood to properly roof it, but that would cost actual money. As it is, all the materials except the wire mesh and the tarp were scavenged. There is a plywood roof under that tarp, but it just barely fits the footprint, without any overhang. Hence the tarp.

Here is the church, here’s the steeple, open the door and see all the –

Oooops! Hello there lovely lady! Hard at work I see.

As you can see, I sprung for the fancy feeder, not sure why, those are a pretty basic DIY. But I did set up a sketchy brainchild gravity flow waterer, complete with twistie-ties, which I’m going to explain in a separate post.

The coop itself is very small because the girls spend most of the day outside. If they had to be enclosed at all times, we would need a drastically larger coop. When I built my coop in Alaska, I had planned on the chooks being outside a lot, but that didn’t really pan out because of dogs, a roaming neighborhood bear, and a lack of fencing. Because they were in the coop almost all the time, it turned out to be a bit too small for my animal ethics. The lesson here is, carefully consider whether you have an appropriately secure yard space for the ladies, before you plan your coop.

The very generous sized chook yard, already enclosed on the two long sides, and the lack of serious daytime predators is a lot of what made my shoestring budget possible. We have possums here, which apparently can and do kill chickens, but they are nocturnal. Other than that, it’s just the small possibility of a loose dog. You can see that although the coop itself is pretty tight (we lock them in at night), the yard is really just to keep the girls in, not anything in particular out. I do sometimes leave the house for short excursions with them out in the yard, and it’s somewhat risky, but I think the benefit outweighs the risk.

If you are going to be building a small coop, I highly recommend looking for some crates. These worked out very well, and I think could even have their place in a nice coop. They are pretty sturdy really. These came from a boutique tile store, so are probably sturdier than most.

I’m not sure that using all that wire mesh was the right thing to do. I had my pick of a very large pile of scrap plywood (small pieces) and could have saved even more money by using it (that small gauge mesh is expensive!) but we don’t have a power saw here, and the idea of cutting very much plywood with our hand saw wore me out. Stapling the mesh on was relatively quick and easy. But as you can see, the bedding is slowly filtering out onto the ground. Plus I need that tarp overhang partly because there’s no plywood siding to keep the rain out. That damn stuff just refuses to fall straight down, and always seems to come at an angle.

On the other hand, the mesh helps keep things cooler in there, and at 95 F, cooler is definitely better.

Have you ever seen chickens pant? They do, like a dog. They hang their beaks open, and their whole little bodies heave with the in and out breaths. It’s somewhere between cute and disturbing.

With my next post I’ll go into a bit of detail about some specific DIY chicken projects, such as my weird brainchild waterer.

Stay tuned!

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It’s been awhile since you had a look at my garden. We are winding down here, summer is the time of rest, too hot and jungly. Being mid-June, my summer crops are already succumbing to all manner of weird diseases and unknown bugs, and I’m slowly replacing them with a cover crop. Beans, peppers and eggplants are the only things I have still to look forward to.

My garden is sorely lacking any collards. I don’t understand how I let that slip. I do have one straggly looking start, which might still grow up to take over the world. I have trouble planning my garden right. I mean, I plan it beautifully, but I have trouble actually implementing the plan. It’s quite a bit more challenging here where there are essentially three growing seasons/year. A continual in and out, the ground is never bare all at once, I dig it up and amend in little chunks as plants finish out.

I’m really excited to have some eggplants growing. I hope they make it. I’ve never grown eggplant before, to my Alaskan self it seems quite exotic. I have two melons growing too, in the little bed at our house, but one of them has some kind of abscess so I don’t hold much hope. I harvested a few winter squash, which are equally exotic and exciting, but the plant got killed off by squash vine borers before they had a chance to fully ripen, so although they’re perfectly fine eating, they’re not sweet and luscious.

Gardening here is so anti-climactic. In Alaska things grow slow, but as long as you grow the right crops and the slugs don’t get them when they’re starts, they do mature and you get to eat them eventually. Here, you might have a big beautiful plant, covered in green tomatoes and next week a bunch of rotting, bug eaten fruit falling off of a withering diseased plant. Geez. You have to be strong. Keep up the morale.

my two community garden beds

Climbing yellow romano beans along that fence in back, and a lot of purple bush beans all over.

don't count your beans until the pod forms, right?

I pulled up some of my cover crop beans already, they grow crazy fast here. Look at those nodules of free nitrogen! Oh boy!

These pretty Striped Romas have since spoogified, the plants died and I pulled them up to plant cover crop. Boo hoo.

The only tomatoes I’ve had any success with here are hybrids, which they locally call “Creole Tomatoes” to make them sound fancy. They’re just Big Boys. This looks like a good harvest right? This is about all I got off of two plants. I got a bigger harvest digging through other people’s spent plants thrown into the compost heap in despair, still covered with half green tomatoes. Why do people go to all the trouble of growing a garden and then not even use the food they grew???? Oh, maybe because they, like me, still can’t stop ‘planting the dream’ instead of the reality…

My chard on the other hand, is finally giving up the ghost after many months of quiet, faithful service. Gotta love that stuff.

As the chard fades out, the peppers step in. Peppers and beans are the backbone of the summer garden here. Both are pretty hardy to the heat and buggies, and both keep pumping food out for quite awhile.

Well, okra is the backbone, and I suppose I should plant some just to be a good guest. But my kids don’t eat it and I’m only marginally fond of it myself, so although I bought the seed, I can’t bring myself to stick it in the ground. Anyone know any unusual, reliable crops for semi-tropical places? I’m open to ideas.

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I got another culinary hair up my ass last week. For those of you who read Empanadas: A Confession, I am glad to report that I truly did make these for myself, to celebrate the last of my very sad looking chard. Those plants gave out for at least 4 months. The base of one of the plants was a full 4 inches across. Amazing.

Scroll down as far as you like, there are no photos of the actual ravioli in this post. I gave you the only good looking photo already. Homemade ravioli look like hell (but taste like heaven). I know, how am I supposed to convince you to make them if I don’t get the drool flowing with some food porn? Go visit Slow Living Essentials for some pretty pix, as well as good instructions for forming the raviolis. Although I notice that even Christine didn’t post photos of the cooked pastas, which wrinkle up in a most obscene way.

If you don’t want to go to the trouble of rolling out, filling and cutting ravioli, (and really, I’m telling’ ya, I’m a freak, this is not normal mother-of-two-littles behavior) you could make a damn fine lasagna with the same ingredients and a lot less work. Ain’t nothin’ second rate about lasagna!

(The 3yo, who loved these, called them wrap-a-rollies. And who can argue with that?)

Swiss Chard Wrap-a-Rollies

serves 4 adults and associated kids if there’s other food on the table, might I recommend a roast chicken?

for the pasta dough combine:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • enough water to make a stiff dough

Knead until smooth and let rest, covered at least 30 minutes.

Erstwhile, remove the ribs from a big bunch of chard (use for these scrummy muffins) and chop very fine. Fry in some butter and a sprinkle of water, with a lid on, until tender. Smash 2 cloves of garlic and stir into the greens just as you turn off the heat. Let sit for a minute in the hot pan, then move into a mixing bowl and add about a cup of cottage cheese or whole milk ricotta (cottage cheese is cheaper and really just as good), a cup or more of shredded mozzarella, some finely grated parmesan, salt and fresh ground pepper to taste, and a whisper of nutmeg. Oh, and an egg. Beat it all together and set it in the fridge to cool while you roll out the pasta.

Working with one quarter of the dough at a time, roll out thin, fill, seal and set onto a lightly floured baking sheet. You can make much bigger ravioli than the traditional bite-size, it goes faster. Just make sure to use enough pasta, ie: don’t overstuff or you will live to regret it.

Leave out to dry slightly (an hour or so) before cooking in rapidly boiling, salted water. Cook this size recipe in two batches. They cook very fast, once they bob back up to the surface give them another 30 seconds, then fish them out, drain and boil the second batch.

Toss gently with a very simple tomato sauce. Mine was just good garden tomatoes cooked down with a little salt added.

If you want to make a lasagna instead, I recommend ‘no-boil’ lasagna sheets. It took me years to come around, but they really do make lasagna a weeknight meal. Make sure to spread the filling just on the sheets themselves, not around the edges, because as they cook, they expand outward carrying the filling with them. I think it would be really good to alternate layers, instead of putting some filling and some sauce on every layer. As in, tomato sauce first, then pasta, then cheese/chard, then pasta, then sauce, then pasta, etc. I think this would make it more ravioli-ey. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake 25 minutes, then remove foil and bake another 15.

I don’t know why spinach lasagna always has to have a white sauce. Are we so afraid of vegetables that we have to drown them completely in animal fat? I mean, with all that cheese, can’t we go red with the sauce?

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You aren’t even reading this. You’re skipping right down to see if you won, aren’t you. Bad girl. Don’t you know, it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game?

You all played your hearts out. Many a sad story was told. Many a project promised. One shameless reader posted a second comment to see if she could up her odds by pleading 50 pounds of frozen plums and eight months pregnant.

Impressive.

And yes, Anisa, I’ll bite. I do love me a shameless dame. You win.

The other 9 winners are: Kylie, Terri, Heather, Amanda, Inner Pickle, Jill, Holli, Kelsey and Jenn. Email me your addresses, ladies. scarletfevir (at) yahoo (dot) com

For the rest of you. Harriet gave out a whopping ten dvds. Can her commitment to the Hallows of Preserving be questioned? Go buy her damn video already. It’s only $35.

And here is a link to an old pesto making post. To get your juices flowing. Pesto is a great beginner project, it stores beautifully in the freezer, no canning involved. Like the fridge pickles, nothing whatsoever to worry about. Except using it up! I will admit to you that the massive pesto expedition described ended somewhat anti-climactically with an overly strong tasting pesto, because the basil was past it’s prime (fully flowering). I’ve used it up slowly, but I do believe there’s still one jar left in the freezer.

Not remotely incidental to the subject of preserving is the subject of failure. Read up on that post too, before you get into the kitchen. Not to intimidate you, on the contrary. Let the reality of failure embolden you! Yes, you will fuck up at some point. Better get on with it, so you can discover how and when.

And if you really want to waste some time, err, learn more by video, search youT*be for Sandor Katz. I know there’s at least one saurkraut how-to on there.

Now, let’s get hot in the kitchen.

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I take back everything I said about being slow and reasonable. If you’ve been dreaming of chickens, and you have small children, go now. Build that coop.

When our ladies first arrived, into my hastily thrown together crate coop and the inevitable glitches of such haste started rolling in, I felt the cold shadow of regret. After thinking about it so hard, had I failed to keep my head in the end? The constant trouble of a poor set-up loomed and I felt tired. The hens were pickier than I remembered, they wouldn’t even eat the chard stems I had so been looking forward to feeding them. Bah. I considered cursing the universe for taunting me with those stupid, perfect crates. What’s the big deal anyway? Eggs. So what. I can buy them just as good at the farmer’s market, for hardly more money. Was this just a big waste of my time, when I could have been using my “vacation” for more vacationy pursuits?

But. I was leaving out one very big piece of the puzzle.

Kids.

I mean, I had thought about how the kids would enjoy having chickens, and how they would provide valuable life lessons about where our food comes from, etc, etc, but I had failed to realize the immensity that keeping hens had to offer for a 3-going-on-4YO. Her role in this life is revolutionized. With no formal training, and very little fanfare, my little girl has become a chicken herder.

A few days in, I mentioned that checking for eggs could be her job. I’m always looking for good chores for her, and as I suspected, she stepped up eagerly. We put a special latch on the coop door that she could open, so that she could check for eggs all by herself. On about the fourth day, she leapt out of bed in the morning. ‘I have to check for eggs!’ she yelled, big bright eyes shining as she ran out the door. I stayed in the house, to give her the opportunity to accomplish her task alone. A few minutes later she came running back in, ‘Mama, mama! The chickens are out of water!’

You know when you watch your kid learn something that, before having kids, you had never given a single thought to? Some small skill that seems totally mundane, but when you watch it unfurl from the sea anemone of infancy, just blows your mind.

I can’t think what the word is for this new skill. It’s more than just initiative. I had given her a job, and she had done it, and then looked around with a critical eye to see what else was needed. Her little brain is learning to link things up, make sense of disparate parts, realize problems and troubleshoot them. Gulp. My little girl. Growing up.

Every day she collects the eggs, brings them into the kitchen, puts them in the egg carton that is strategically placed where only she (and not any shorter members of our household) can reach it, then marks down how many on a piece of paper taped to the fridge. She lets the ladies out into their yard in the morning and shuts them into their coop for the night. She knows she is not allowed to open the gate into their yard unless they’re all in their coop. I watch her surreptitiously through the bedroom window when she goes out by herself. She takes it all ever so seriously and carefully follows any rules I have laid out. Which, have you been reading this blog? is not exactly as per personality. She’s usually more of a make-a-rule-and-you-will-live-to-regret-it kind of kid.

But the chicken herding is real. Kids aren’t stupid, they know when we give them bogus tasks and bogus rules. The chickens are real live animals, smaller than her, dependent on her. People talk about getting their kids a pet so that the kid will ‘learn to take care of something’ as if it’s a hard lesson we have to teach them, but I think that puts the wrong spin on it. I think a pet gives a kid the opportunity to take care of something, to be genuinely needed, to rise to the occasion. Which are all enormously important sources of joy and satisfaction to people of any age.

Pets are well and good, but what I have realized is so fantastic about the chickens is that, not only is she taking care of creatures smaller than her, but she is taking a genuinely useful place in the workings of our household. She takes care of the chickens, they lay us eggs, she collects the eggs, we eat the eggs. At the store this morning she said happily, “We don’t need eggs.”

the herdess waits patiently for her charges to file in for the night

I don’t know how I feel about enforced chores for kids. We haven’t quite gotten there yet. I didn’t have chores when I was growing up, and I ended up with a damn good work ethic, if I do say so myself. But, of course it can go an awful lot of ways. Having kids has definitely given me some utopian ideas– like, the best way to foster a love of something is not to force it, but to allow a child to discover it on their own. We shall see, as things unfold. Certainly the best possible way for a kid to discover the meaningful-ness of work on their own is to have the opportunity to do work that has genuine meaning.

It’s not that easy to provide such opportunities in today’s household. Kids used to be honestly needed. By 4, they are amazingly capable, and I can see how this would have worked, in ‘the old days.’ I can see how she has this blossoming desire for responsibility, coupled with the ever-present drive to challenge herself. If I genuinely needed her to, I think she could take reasonably good care of her 1.5YO little brother. Which sounds crazy by modern standards, like, someone call Child Protective Services. And I don’t leave them alone, of course. I don’t need to. But sometimes I wonder if we would all be better off if I did.

Her chicken herding services aren’t genuinely needed either. I could easily do it myself, and I’m sure we all know that. But at least it genuinely needs doing, at a level she can understand. Not like the abstract chore of picking up her toys. It might not be my ideal survival family education, but it’s the best thing we’ve got going at our house.

The shadow of regret was in fact just a cloud passing over. Instead I can hardly believe I was considering not getting chickens. The work of the coop, the cost of the feed? An insignificant price to pay for such an incredible learning opportunity. Let alone the selfish pleasure of watching my little girl master new skills and think creatively as she joyfully takes on her first big responsibility.

Thank you for slapping me till I took notice, oh Benificent Universe!

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