Thursday, July 31, 2008

Taking Stock

The NaBloPoMo July theme of "food" is drawing to a close, and there is still lots I want to discuss, and I will--partly because I want your input, and partly because, for me, these blog entries may someday be to Bella what the yellowing index cards with recipes written out in my mother's handwriting are to me.

I went pretty hard during the month of July as far as getting food "put away" for later, and I'll continue on into August, I'm sure. I wish I'd started much sooner, but I just didn't realize how early and fleeting the season is here for certain things (spinach, oh, spinach, I missed you altogether). I'm better informed for next year, though. Let's take stock (pun intended, sorry) of what I've managed to store away so far, mostly from well-timed large buys at farmer's markets and from local growers.

By far, the most important tool in my personal food-storage kit is the freezer. We're fortunate to have plentiful freezer space, largely thanks to an amazing gem of a giant used upright freezer that Alex found in a newspaper ad, and for which we paid $95. That's not likely to happen again, I'm sure. Maybe by next year I'll be ready to try pressure-canning, which would allow me to jar up a wider variety of vegetables, but for now, I'm really comfortable with frozen food. I'm also not convinced that all the blanching advised for most vegetables is really necessary--in some cases, I know it's not, because I've skipped it successfully in the past, and in other cases, I'm relying on a trusted source to tell me that they've done the same things. Also, every single vegetable or fruit item I've frozen has first been "flash-frozen," by which I mean the individual pieces were spread out on trays and frozen on a well-ventilated rack in the freezer, before being packed into vacuum-sealed bags or freezer containers. I like to do it that way, because then when it's time to cook the frozen food, it isn't clumped together, and I can simply take out however many pieces I want, instead of having to thaw a whole package. I don't have a Food-Saver system (though I'd love one), but I've been pretty happy with my $9 Reynolds Handi-Vac, and the bags that go with it don't cost any more than regular freezer bags. And of course, with the Handi-Vac, you can open a bag, take out what you want, then re-vacuum-seal it again. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean, in the form of trays of blackberries and blueberries being flash-frozen before being put into sealed containers:

tray of blackberries flash freezing

freezing a tray full of fresh blueberries

So, to make this entry even more mind-numbingly boring, here's a list of what I have "put up" so far, all from local, chemical-free sources:

Okra--flash-frozen. Small pods frozen whole, larger pods sliced for gumbo, and thanks to a co-worker's tip, more slices that I've already dredged in a seasoned flour/cornmeal mixture, ready to be pan-fried. Not blanched.

Green Beans--blanched, patted dry, flash-frozen, and sealed in various sizes of freezer bags. A Twitter-bud told me that she doesn't blanch her green beans prior to freezing, and they turn out just fine, so I'll probably skip it next time, too.

Yellow Straightneck Squash--slices and chunks flash-frozen, some slices pre-breaded for pan-frying, just like the okra. Not blanched.

Zucchini--slices, plain and breaded, flash-frozen. Sticks, flash-frozen. Shredded, for use in breads, cakes, or fritters, vacuum-sealed in one and two-cup portions. Not blanched. (You can steam-blanch shredded zucchini if you like. I didn't wanna. The word I got on using raw-frozen zucchini shreds in breads or cakes is that you DO want to incorporate all the liquid that thaws with the zucchini, unless the recipe specifically calls for draining it.)

Bell Peppers, green and red--Chopped or cut into strips, flash-frozen. Not blanched. A tip I got from the grower of the peppers was to just freeze bell peppers whole if you don't want to take the time to chop or slice them, because that would protect the moist inside from forming ice-crystals. The only reason I didn't do that is because of how much space it would take up in the freezer. This is probably THE single most cost-effective item to buy NOW at a farmer's market, and freeze, if you're not growing them yourself. Good GOSH, a grocery-store bell pepper is expensive!

Carrots--Slices or sticks, blanched and flash-frozen.

Sweet Corn--Blanched on the cob, then cut off the cob and frozen in a sealed container.

Sweet Corn ON THE COB--Flash-frozen. Not blanched. To cook, toss frozen ears directly into boiling water for 15 minutes.

Onions--Chopped and flash-frozen. Even the "official" freezing sources don't act like you have to blanch onions, thank heavens.

Broccoli--Blanched and flash-frozen.

Purple-Hull Peas (if you're not from the South, think Black-Eyed Peas, Lady Peas, or other "field" peas)--shelled, blanched, patted dry with paper towels, flash-frozen.

Fairy-Tale Eggplant--sliced and flash-frozen. Not blanched.

Pattypan Squash--sliced and cubed, flash-frozen.

Cucumbers--pickled.

Watermelon--pickled.

"Fake Grape" jelly--made from the hulls of purple-hull peas.

Sweet Banana Peppers--pickled.

Tomatoes--cooked down into sauce, canned. Still angry.

Blueberries--flash-frozen.

Strawberries--flash-frozen.

Wild-harvested Blackberries--flash frozen. May make jam from these, since Alex and Bella both object to the seeds.

Beets--so far, just hanging around. Suggestions?

Wild-Harvested Turkey--meat wrapped up tight in freezer paper and freezer bags, broth portioned in quart-size freezer bags, frozen.

Wild-Harvested Venison--processed and packaged by our local butcher, in paper and plastic, frozen.

Bread--thoroughly cooled and sealed in plastic, frozen.

What about you? Are you the grasshopper, or the ant? Frankly, this is my first ant year, and I'm darned tired already. There's lots more coming up that I want to hoard like crazy, but can't figure out quite how to do it, like root vegetables. What are you waiting for where you live?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Pint Of Pickled Peppers And Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes

pickled peppers

OK, it was more like 4 pints, but well short of a peck. This was hands-down the easiest preserving I've done so far, that didn't involve the freezer. I still love the freezer best of all. But these things, you just packed the raw, sliced peppers (either bell pepper strips or banana pepper rings), along with a slice of fresh ginger root, a clove of garlic, and a bit of salt, into hot jars. Then boil up a mixture of white wine vinegar, water, and sugar, and pour it over the peppers. All that's left is to seal the jars and process them for a few minutes in boiling water!

I'm definitely going to be making more of this recipe, using green bell peppers. You should, too. But only after you make the watermelon pickles.

ON THE OTHER HAND...if you get possessed by an urge to buy 50 pounds of tomatoes because the farmer is letting you have them for 50 cents a pound because he has so many at the moment, and you think how great it would be to have a basic tomato sauce made from fresh tomatoes on hand later in the year, and you decide to start MAKING TOMATO SAUCE FROM SCRATCH for water-bath canning (it should be noted that this is different than just making fresh tomato sauce for eating immediately or for freezing, because you must observe the pH balance of what you're canning if you're not using a pressure-canner) at 7:00PM on a weeknight, well, here's what you should do: You should slap yourself, HARD, across the face, then drive to the nearest grocery store and buy 20 cans of organic tomato sauce. There. I just saved you HOURS of aggravation, not to mention a superhot kitchen, a giant mess, and an aching back and sore feet.

Yes, there are 9 pints of homemade tomato sauce cooling in jars on my kitchen counter right now. NO, I will never, ever do this again. And I am currently so angry at tomatoes in general, that it will probably be mid-winter before I'll be able to stand the sight or smell of them again, so strong is the sense-memory that was forged during The Nightmare Of The Tomato Sauce. Tomatoes, you know, don't really WANT to make sauce. They want to make watery juice, and also a giant pile of inedible seedy guts, along with skin and a hard-as-a-rock core. You have to crush, mash, and boil the stupid things for HOURS to get them to sauce-form, while periodically smooshing a couple at a time through a sieve. I don't even want to THINK about what it's like to make tomato paste.

Next year's proposed "kitchen garden" may have just gotten a bit smaller, with the exclusion of tomatoes. We'll see if I've gotten over it by next spring.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Slow Bread

24 hour bread

I've been playing around with a method of breadmaking that's new to me, but apparently centuries old, thanks to reading about it first on Lauredhel's blog. After doing a lot of digging around online, I found not only the NYT article that Lauredhel referenced, from Mark Bittman and Jim Lahey, but pages and PAGES of discussion of the technique by earnest and dedicated bread bakers all over the world. This article, when it hit in 2006 (I am RIGHT ON TOP OF CURRENT EVENTS, YO), created quite the stir, apparently. Probably the best and most thorough discussions I found were in the comments at TheFreshLoaf.com.

After reading and reading and reading, and watching the video on the Times' site more than once, I took the plunge. This bread requires literally 5 minutes of actual labor, and about 20 hours of waiting. If you like rustic breads, and authentic-tasting French boules (Bella and I do, Alex doesn't), then this bread is for you. It's not a wimpy, soft bread. It's a beautiful, golden-crusted, chewy loaf with plenty of texture in the thick, crispy crust. I'll let you go to the Times page and read the recipe, watch the video, and then check out the discussion at The Fresh Loaf. But basically I will tell you that you combine flour, salt, water, a TINY bit of yeast, barely mix it together, then leave it to sit for 18 hours, during which time it bubbles and percolates and makes magic in the form of gluten, and rises impressively. At that point, you don't knead--you just take out the dough and fold it over 2 or 3 times, then leave it alone for another couple of hours. It will feel like neglect, but it will taste so good!

The "twist" is that you'll be baking this bread at high heat--450 to 500F--inside a covered, heavy pot. In the video, Jim Lahey used a le Creuset Dutch oven, so that's what I used. (I have since read that le Creuset does NOT recommend using their cookware in the oven at such a high heat, because it could crack or otherwise be damaged, but I've seen a whole lot of people doing it.) The recipe lends itself ideally to "campfire cooking," or even using a cast-iron Dutch oven in a hot outdoor grill. There are dozens of ways of doing it, but the keys appear to be the slow rise time and the introduction of the dough into a HOT pot with a HOT lid. To keep from damaging the plastic handle on my Dutch oven, I covered mine with a le Creuset skillet that was actually designed to do double-duty as a pot lid.

bread

So far, I've only tried the white flour version, pictured above, and another test of 100% whole wheat flour. I used wheat bran to dust the tea towel, and had no problems with the dough sticking (it's a VERY sticky dough), as did many people who used flour or cornmeal to dust the tea towels. The whole wheat version didn't have the oven spring of the white flour loaf, but that was to be expected, since I didn't add any vital wheat gluten to the flour or cut it with any white flour. It still tasted DARN good, and had the thick, crispy crust of the white loaf.

wheat

Check out the links, and try this bread. You really have nothing to lose but 5 minutes of your time (if that)! And just so you know, this is a loaf that cries out for a flavored olive oil with roasted garlic bits to dip it in, so have some of that ready. Also, use a bit more salt than the recipe calls for.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Peace And Quiet Is Within Reach

arranging a nature lesson

The mature cicadas are beginning to die off. Let hosannas ring out from the mountain to the valley!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Talking Turkey

I say-- HEY!

HEY! Let me tell you about my turkeys! Ummmmmm... well, they're turkeys. They fly, and make noise, and poop. They poop a LOT. This particular bunch of birds are about 8 weeks old, and they've been living in our basement for that entire time. IT'S GOOD TO HAVE THEM OUTSIDE NOW. The baby chickens, we've kicked outside a LOT sooner, but we were a bit nervous about the turkey poults, having been advised by several people that baby turkeys spend the first several weeks of their lives "sitting around thinking up ways to die," and we did, indeed, lose two of the poults in the first days of their lives. I've been told that their immune systems take much longer to develop than those of chickens. I can tell you from first-hand experience that they're about 10 times less intelligent than chickens, and that's not exactly a high bar.

OK, there's more to them than that. These turkeys are not your average Butterball. The Butterballs and other commercially-available turkeys consumed in North America--99% of them, anyway, are Broad-Breasted White turkeys--the Frankenturkeys of the poultry world. Bred for massive breasts and rapid weight-gain, the BBWs can't reproduce naturally, and have a short life-span (longer than Frankenchickens, who can only survive a matter of weeks or occasionally months if not butchered before their organs give out, but short compared to "normal" turkeys). Their systems just can't support such massive growth for very long. That doesn't usually become an issue, since the BBWs are butchered at such a very young age.

Just like with the chickens, when I decided I wanted turkeys, I wanted something more natural than the standard "meat bird." Something that can easily move around, can fly, has strong foraging instincts, and can reproduce without human assistance. There are only a handful of turkey breeds who fit that bill, called heritage breeds, and Narragansetts are considered, by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, to be a "threatened" breed of heritage turkey. So by choosing to raise these turkeys, we're helping to keep them around for the future, and increasing the diversity of our nation's food supply, hopefully.

Of the heritage breeds, as I did with my chickens, I chose the one that was known for a calm personality and a "broody" nature in the hens--the Narragansett. Broodiness just means that at certain points in her life, a hen will have a strong desire to sit on a clutch of eggs, hatch them, and tend to the babies. This requires a good amount of devotion and commitment, and not all hens have it. The ones who do will be the ones we continue on with for next year's turkey crop, and by choosing Narragansetts, I've hopefully increased our odds for getting a good number of broodies. Ditto the toms--our "keeper" tom needs to not only have all the physical characteristics of a proper Narragansett turkey, but he needs to be protective of, and kind to, the hens in his care, and he also needs to not behave aggressively toward humans. Again, whoever fits the bill is who will still be around this time next year.

gobble gobble

They're hugely entertaining to watch--not as much so as the chickens, to me, at least not yet, but still fun. They went outside for the first time today, so I'm crossing my fingers that they'll do well. Alex has built them a huge flight pen so that they have plenty of room to run and scratch and play and fly, and one day soon, when they're a bit older, they'll be allowed out with the chickens to have the run of the place during the day.

I'm asked a lot, as I asked myself at the beginning of this venture, how I can stand the thought of raising an animal from a baby and then harvesting it for food. The truth is, I'm still not 100% sure that I can, but at this point, I'm 95% sure I'll be able to do it. The key, for me, is in thinking of them as food from Day One. If I'm going to eat chicken and turkey (and I am), then the least I can do is to remove myself as much as possible from the factory-farmed poultry industry and its cruel system. I may be sad when harvest day comes--I SHOULD be sad, I think--but I can ensure that, unlike their unlucky battery-raised counterparts, my birds have a good life and an easy death.

turkey teenager

I will know that the poultry in my care, for their entire lives, knew grass under their feet and sunshine on their faces. That they always had plenty of space, and plenty of both quality food and clean water. That they were able to forage to their hearts' content, and when the urge hit them, to stretch their wings and roost in the trees.

pushme pullyou

Do these guys have a face only a mother could love, or what? Sadly, coming from a hatchery, they never knew a mother, aside from Alex and myself (they actually set up quite a fuss when we left them outside tonight, calling to us as we walked away toward the house). Hopefully, next year we'll have a whole new crop of turkey poults who arrive the way nature intended, complete with real, live MOMMIES of the same species. That's the way it should be.

If all goes well with the Narragansetts over the next year, then I might like to consider adding a heritage breed that has a local history--there is a breed called the "Arkansas Red," or "Regal Red," but I was unable to find anyone who has them. If you do, or you know someone who does, let me know.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Were You Gonna Throw That Away?

Wait--I might wanna eat it. This week, I've had a couple of neat experiments in stretching my definition of "food" just a bit. It's easy to imagine what it might have been like in the days before refrigeration, and how you'd have wanted to make the absolute most of every bit of food you produced, before giving over what absolutely couldn't be eaten to the compost heap or the livestock. Over here, I wrote about how it happened that I made "grape" jelly out of the the hulls of purple-hull peas (and it was yummy, too!). I'm still kind of amazed that you can start with something completely inedible, and wind up with a sweet spread for toast and PB&Js, but there in my kitchen sits the proof.

pack hulls into a heavy pot, cover with water

strain into jars, seal

But better than my faux-grape jelly, by far, is what I just finished putting up the other day, after Bella and I finished a big, beautiful watermelon from the farmer's market. The watermelon meat scraps and seeds went to the chickens (after being frozen), for a cooling treat on a hot afternoon...and then I set to work on the watermelon rinds. I'd had watermelon pickles before, but never dreamed I could actually make them myself, until I spent the better part of a day researching recipes, finally settling on one that was sent my way by a fellow BYC forum member, who reports having gotten it originally from a past edition of "Betty Crocker's Cookbook."

Peel the smooth, shiny outer skin from the melon with a potato-peeler, cut it into one-inch cubes, and what you've got is something similar in flavor and texture to a very firm, seedless cucumber. It's extraordinary. You start by brining it in cold water overnight.

watermelon rind soaking in brine

I would imagine that you could pickle this rind in pretty much any style you can use for a cucumber pickle, but I went with the traditional Southern "watermelon pickle" flavor. All I needed was apple cider vinegar, organic sugar, lemon, water, cloves, cinnamon, and allspice. I just followed the cooking instructions in the recipe, then packed the result into sterilized, hot jars, and processed the jars in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. The hardest part was getting the jars out of the canning pot, since I do not yet own a jar-lifter, and am not particularly graceful.

combine, heat

These pickles are so good that, when I realized I wouldn't have quite enough to fill a tenth pint jar full, I caught myself while reaching for a half-pint jar, and opted instead to just eat an entire half-pint of the still-warm pickles, one after another, while standing over my kitchen sink. Great galloping wampus-cats, but these things are delicious. I can only imagine how good they'll be a few weeks from now, if I can manage to leave them alone that long.

Thanks to my friend SJ (and to my friend Adena for looking it up), I know that I'm not alone in my admiration of a good watermelon pickle, either. This is a pickle that inspires poetry.

Jars of Watermelon Pickles

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity

During that summer
When unicorns were still possible;
When the purpose of knees
Was to be skinned;
When shiny horse chestnuts
(Hollowed out
Fitted with straws
Crammed with tobacco
Stolen from butts
In family ashtrays)
Were puffed in green lizard silence
While straddling thick branches
Far above and away
From the softening effects
Of civilization;

During that summer--
Which may never have been at all;
But which has become more real
Than the one that was--
Watermelons ruled.

Thick imperial slices
Melting frigidly on sun-parched tongues
Dribbling from chins;
Leaving the best part,
The black bullet seeds,
To be spit out in rapid fire
Against the wall
Against the wind
Against each other;

And when the ammunition was spent,
There was always another bite:
It was a summer of limitless bites,
Of hungers quickly felt
And quickly forgotten
With the next careless gorging.

The bites are fewer now.
Each one is savored lingeringly,
Swallowed reluctantly.

But in a jar put up by Felicity,
The summer which maybe never was
Has been captured and preserved.
And when we unscrew the lid
And slice off a piece
And let it linger on our tongue:
Unicorns become possible again.

~John Tobias

Friday, July 25, 2008

You Have No Idea How Much I Appreciate These Nights

sometimes Alex cooks

The nights when my husband cooks, that is. I don't love preparing meals. In fact, I don't enjoy preparing meals much at all. Cooking or baking one thing? Sure, that I can enjoy. But the daily grind of thinking up, planning, shopping for and preparing a balanced protein/veggie/fiber combo that is not only nutritious but tastes good, appealing to both a 5-year-old and finicky 41-year-old palate? That sucks, and it wears me down, one day at a time.

Some nights, I'm just not up to it. And most of the time, Alex will not complain about my not cooking, because he doesn't want to do it, either. He's tired. I understand tired. BELIEVE me, I understand tired. But if I abdicate the responsibility of providing the meal, my husband will, nine times out of ten, order out. Which drives me nuts, because we can't afford it. So I wind up, sometimes, cooking in self-defense, to keep money from being spent on food that isn't good for us. And I probably don't have to tell you that those meals are subtly flavored with resentment.

The frustrating thing is that my husband CAN cook. He's a good cook, and not just on the grill. He even once, legend has it, baked me up a nice batch of snickerdoodles. So it occasionally aggravates me to pieces that he won't pick up so much as a spoon in the kitchen.

So on the rare occasions that he does take the culinary helm, do I complain if that means a giant slab of beef cooked on the grill? NO, I DO NOT. I skewer up some baby okra, brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with seasonings, to accompany those steaks on the grill, and then I get right on out of the way. I know that there will still be a mess to clean up later, but that would've been true if I'd cooked, too. Besides, the man makes a mean steak.

Oh, and those okra? Really good. Brush 'em with oil, add whatever herbs or spices you like, and skewer them. To avoid "okra slime," select the smallest pods, no bigger than 2-3 inches long, that you can find. Roast them over high heat until they're nice and crispy on the outside. Char-marks are good. YUM.

grilled okra

So...how do you handle the daily tasks that no one wants to do, but someone has to?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pizza Night

construction begins

I haven't gotten to the stage where this is all fun and easy like everyone says it's supposed to be, but maybe if we keep trying, huh? Maybe individual pizzas would be better, like Mir does. It's a heck of a mess to clean up, but maybe if I could get everyone involved in that, just like with making it, it would help? Yeah, I'm a genius. Someone let me know how that works, m'kay?

Pizza Night has potential, though. And I do REALLY love this recipe for pizza crust, adapted from the recipe that comes with Ricki Carroll's 30-Minute Mozzarella Kit, which I've discussed here already. This is one of those activities that has a very high "kid-friendly" rating, if you're keeping score.

Quick & Easy Pizza Dough (makes one 14" thick crust or two 12" thin crusts...or, you know, several that are smaller than that--whatever)

3-3.5 cups all purpose flour (I used white whole wheat)
1 pkg. or 1 Tbsp. rapid-rising yeast
3/4 tsp. salt
1 cup very warm--not hot--whey (you could also use buttermilk, or even regular milk)
2Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp honey
Cornmeal for dusting pan

Combine 2 cups flour, dry yeast and salt, then stir in warm whey, olive oil, and honey until mixture is moist throughout. Stir in enough of the remaining flour to make a soft dough. Knead on lightly floured surface for about 5 minutes, until dough is smooth and elastic. Cover, and let rest on floured surface 10 minutes.

If you're in a hurry, just go on ahead with the next step after the 10 minute rest--it'll turn out fine. But if you have time, let the dough rise until doubled. It rises pretty quickly, so just get it ready 30 minutes to an hour ahead of time, and you'll have plenty of time for a rise. Then punch dough down and continue.

Lightly oil pizza pan(s), sprinkle with cornmeal, and roll dough out to fit pans. At this point, you can top your pizza(s) and bake them at 400F for 20-30 minutes 'til done. OR, if you have a few extra minutes, pre-bake the crust before topping it. Just prick the crust with a fork, and bake it for 5 minutes or so, until the surface is a little toasty. Then top and bake as usual.

Again: The steps you may omit are the rising of the dough and the pre-baking of the crust.


this is where you put your preschooler to work

Yum! Now, since we've conquered the crust and the cheese, if someone has a great homemade pizza SAUCE recipe, let's have it!

when I say from scratch, I mean from SCRATCH

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

On Second Thought, I May Be Raising A Lawyer

Me: "Bella, you are not wearing that nice dress to play around the house. Save it for church and school."

Bella: "But I WAAAAANT to wear it! PLEEEEEEASE!"

Me: "I said no."

(silence, heavy with pondering)

Bella: "Mommy, can I ask you a question?"

Me: (bracing myself) "Sure."

Bella: "Mom. Is it, or is it not summer right now?"

Me: "It is summer, yes."

Bella: "And what time of year is the right time to wear a SUN-DRESS?"

Me: "That would be summer time."

Bella: "And is this dress a sun-dress? Remember, Grandmommy told me that it IS."

Me: "Yes, that is a sun-dress."

Bella: (triumphantly) "WELL, THEN! It is perfectly fine for me to wear this dress today, isn't it?"

Me: "Nope. Sorry, Perry Mason, but you're not putting on that dress today."

Bella: "I am NOT Perry Mason, and I don't even know who that is, but you are just wrong about this whole dress thing."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I'm Raising A Comparison Shopper

Bella plops into my lap, bearing a fistful of quarters.

Bella: "Mommy, can we go shopping tomorrow?"

Me: "We're making jelly and pickles tomorrow. Where are you wanting to go shopping?"

Bella: "I was thinking we could go to the Cabot Meat Market."

Me: "You were thinking that, were you? Do we need some meat?"

Bella: "I don't know about that. But their gumball machine is TWO for a quarter."

Monday, July 21, 2008

Summer Therapy

I could write a big post about how therapeutic and relaxing our day of touring farmer's markets and then processing our haul was. I could wax poetic about the magic of sitting quietly with my daughter, listening dreamily to the sounds of her happy chatter interspersed with the snapping of beans or the sound of purple hull peas plinking into a bowl. I could tell you about the sappy, happy pride of watching my child amble around with her very own money, conducting important business over fresh-cut flowers, handmade wooden toys, and strawberry juice drinks.

I could do all that writing, but I have pictures, and I'm terribly lazy.

she had $5 and there was no way she wasn't going to spend it

small people commerce

arranging a bouquet

flowers, strawberry juice, corn... perfect day!

Bella LOVED shelling the purple hull peas

*plink, plink*

Cheap therapy.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

If You Can't Grow It, Buy It

Easier said than done, sometimes, I know. But I'll share something I've learned, just in case there lives a single person on earth slower than me. When I'm building my family's meals around what is available, instead of reaching out into the entire wide world of food, grasping at anything and everything, shopping is actually easier. What I'm trying (poorly) to communicate is that limiting myself to locally-grown (and thus, in season) food actually makes shopping for food easier. Well, simpler, anyway. You still have to find it.

So it was that, this weekend, Bella and I went on a fact-finding mission, visiting two Saturday-morning markets, one open-daily farm stand (fronting a large growing operation), and one fairly standard produce market. I will say this--once spoiled to organic or chemical-free (the only difference being certification by the government) local food, it's hard to think conventionally again. I can't look at something like, say, the bunch of bananas that Bella begged for at BJ's (and yes, I totally caved and got them for her), the same way ever again. I see the fruit for what it is, but now I also see the distance it traveled and the resources that it took to get it here. Similarly, the pail of conventionally-grown peaches, treated with pesticides and fungicides, purchased at the local farm stand mocked me all the way home, taunting me with their "black list" status. Those peaches may wind up being the most expensive chicken feed I purchase this year, since I have yet to be able to bring myself to eat one.

a good haul, mostly from the Cabot farmer's market and the Certified Arkansas Farmer's Market in NLR

This was our haul for Saturday (Click through on the photo for notes labeling everything). You can see that my shopping philosophy isn't very different from what it is with grocery store sales and coupons: aside from your needs for the current week, buy what is abundant (and thereby low-priced), and stock up as much as space allows. The added factor, of course, is that you buy what's available. This was the last weekend, with most farmers, for local corn, so when we got to my favorite vendor's stall at the Certified Arkansas Farmer's Market, I bought all they had. It wasn't a whole lot, about fifty ears, but it was enough. Corn's a nice treat, but it doesn't have enough nutritional value for me to want to devote much precious freezer space to it. We ate ten (that's right: 10) ears today, I froze fifteen or so whole, to be eaten on the cob, and the rest I blanched and cut off the cob, storing in freezer bags--probably a half gallon's worth, when all was said and done.

counting corn

My other "bulk buy," as you can see, was green beans. I bought all the vendor had, and wound up with sacks full of them, at a really great price (in my experience so far, when you tell a seller, "I'll take all you have," they generally make you an even better price than they were charging in the first place). They're a favorite vegetable of mine, so I know I'll use them frequently. I blanched and froze them, as well, and took up a good bit of my freezer space. See that empty bin in the photo below? that bin was full of naturally-grown green beans before I got there. You snooze, you lose, fellow customers of the brand-new Cabot Farmer's Market. Sorry.

kind of loving the produce being displayed on metal TV trays

The freezer situation is interesting--since hunting season is in the fall and winter, for the most part, that is when the freezer got stocked with meat last, and so, here in mid-summer, our meat supply is claiming just a small portion of the real estate in the freezer. There is still wild-harvested venison and turkey to be had at our house, and it will last us until we (and by "we," I mean "Alex") can get some more, but just. I intend to put in some grass-fed beef this year, as well, and try harder to disconnect myself from the feed-lot beef food chain. I may even invest in a little pork, which is not something we eat much of at all...but I'm beginning to understand why so many traditional Southern vegetable recipes start with a hunk of salt-pork. Of course, we'll also be processing and freezing our own home-grown heritage chicken and turkey this fall, as well, so it's looking like we may wind up having to find another used freezer for the basement. Our current cold-storage workhorse was an amazing $95 find. May she live longer than any freezer before her ever has.

While the meat stores dwindle, the opposite is happening with fruits and vegetables. July is a month of plenty, so I'm filling that freezer at an astonishing pace with as much produce as I can put up. Right now, I'd guess the produce:meat ratio in cold storage at our house is at about 3:1, space-wise. And by the time we have meat to store, we'll have eaten a good bit of our fruits and vegetables, and so the ratio will swing the other way until it starts all over in the spring.

Some things I'm buying in smaller amounts, and stocking up on more gradually, because it takes a lot of time to get this stuff put away once you get it home, and certain plants will be producing abundantly for a while. Tomatoes aren't going anywhere in a hurry, and neither is anything in the squash family. I'm going to try to pick up more beans and peas this week, having been inspired by the beautiful purple-hull peas that are currently pouring out of bursting bins all over the state. At one market on Saturday, they even had the automatic sheller running non-stop.

giving the automatic huller an assist

After researching recipes, I think I'm going to want some more of these peas (even though it took Bella and I a couple of hours to shell the ones we already bought), because, doggone it, there are gonna be plenty of cold, dreary nights this winter when a good helping of Hoppin' John will hit the spot. I wish I'd paid closer attention to the difference in price between the peas we bought with their hulls on, and the ones available already naked at the larger markets. Of course, the shelled peas were grown with chemicals, so all things considered, it was probably worth our labor in shelling them--plus it was a fun thing for me to get to do with my little daughter.

Some things, we'll mostly just enjoy now (I may freeze one or two meals' worth), while they're here, and just wait until next year to enjoy them again. This list would include somewhat fanciful items, like the pictured Fairy Tale eggplant and pattypan squash, as well as items that just scream, "SUMMER," like green tomatoes, fresh cucumbers, and okra. Although, when I buy okra, I have been buying the small, baby pods to roast or grill now, and the larger pods for slicing and frying...and then I find myself thinking how good some gumbo might be later on in the year, and putting that sliced okra up in the freezer after all. My point is, while I'm going to pretty much want things like green beans, spinach, broccoli, and carrots for most of the year (and thank goodness those things all freeze well), I will probably live through the winter and spring without suffering severe okra cravings.

I'm really new at this, so please, tell me what to be on the lookout for in the coming weeks. Do you have a favorite summer food that you look forward to all year? Is there something that you love so much, you simply can't do without it all year long? Does that drive you to preserve it yourself, or do you just hope it'll be available when you want it?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Garden

Wow, look how awesome my garden became!

I was going to just act like this came out of MY garden

Psych. I hit up the farmer's markets today. Here is a shot more accurately depicting the daily bounty from MY garden.

behold today's bounty from the garden, try not to be jealous

Quit laughing. Anyone know a 2-ounce recipe that calls for corn, onion, and sweet banana (that's for you, Andrea) pepper? Hit me up.

Friday, July 18, 2008

In The Raw

HA! Gotcha! Pervs.

I'm talking about milk. Let me say right at the start here that I do not believe that humans NEED milk, in any form other than from their mothers, as infants. I don't. I also think that modern industrial dairy practices have given us a product that is a far cry from anything nature ever intended. But the fact is, I love the stuff, and I especially love the stuff that you can make from it, and used judiciously, I believe it can be an important and even beneficial part of a human diet. But the more I learn, the more I know that I don't want my daughter consuming the quantities of milk that I did as a child, and I want the dairy products she does consume to be of the highest quality, and as natural as possible.

I've been killing myself trying to find a source of fresh, raw, grass-fed milk to buy. As it is in most of the country, buying and selling raw cow's milk is illegal in Arkansas. There is a loophole, apparently, where you can "invest" in a dairy cow, and get paid dividends in the form of milk from that cow. Really--it's called a "cow share," and I'd love to find one. I don't think I'm going to have any luck, though, because it looks like the hoops the farmers have to jump through to offer a cow share are many, and tricky. And it's painfully obvious that the barriers against this practice have FAR less to do with protecting the consumer from health threats than with protecting the huge and powerful corporate dairy industry from competition.

Hello, Dairy Industry! Yes, I realize you've purchased ad space that runs here, and, well, yes, I understand about biting the hand that feeds me, but hey--you want some consumer feedback? GIVE ME BETTER CHOICES. Give me organic, GRASS-FED milk from cows that actually live the lives portrayed in the graphics ON YOUR PACKAGING, that hasn't been ULTRA pasteurized so that it's a totally dead product. Release your lobbyists' stranglehold on the industry so that people like me are able to procure milk products from small, LOCAL farmers. Hey, here's a thought--if my milk only has to travel, say, a couple hundred miles or less to get to me, then maybe it won't NEED to be nuked to such an extreme that it has a two-month shelf life!

Honest to gosh, Dairy Industry--all you have to do is give me the OPTION. I swear I'll pay twice as much for the product I want. From your point of view, it has to be better than what I'm doing now, which is buying LESS milk than I otherwise would. Just my two cents, guys. If you're gonna keep printing pictures on your milk, yogurt, ice cream, cheese, and butter packages of sleek, shiny, happy cows contentedly grazing on fields of green grass in the sunshine...I just think you might want to consider making that kind of operation a reality for at least a FRACTION of dairy cows. See how we, the consumer, respond. I think you'd be surprised. I mean, it's not really fair to market on the idyllic image that most of us have about milk-cows, only to pull a bait & switch and send us Frankenmilk in plastic jugs from across the country. Just sayin'.

Anyway, this brings us to goat's milk. Much, much more of the world is fed on goat's milk than cow's milk. Goats are just easier, more convenient, and kinder to the planet as a whole. A goat can thrive in an unforgiving terrain that would not support a cow. Goats are more economical to feed and house. Goat's milk is easier to digest than cow's milk. I know where you think this is going, family members, and NO, I have not bought a dairy goat. Yet. But I am doing research and making contacts with those who DO own dairy goats, and planning to go pick up some frozen goat's milk (and some fresh, if I can find it, though most people seem to freeze it for purchase). What's amazing to me is that I can buy fresh, clean goat's milk off the farm for about half the price that I can get it at the store, and it won't have been zapped of many of its nutrients through ultra-pasteurization, like the kind offered at my grocery store.

And here's an interesting little tidbit: It IS legal to buy raw goat's milk in Arkansas. I would imagine that this is because not many people in the general public even think of goats when they think of dairy products (although, doesn't almost everyone you know enjoy Feta or chevre cheeses?), so the threat of competition to agribusiness is small. But JUST IN CASE, there are laws in place to keep those goat's milk producers from getting too uppity (or even making a living), and to keep too many consumers from being able to avail themselves of this very viable, and many would say superior, alternative to cow's milk. I'm sure that many other states have the same laws in place as Arkansas.

In the first place, raw goat's milk can ONLY be bought or sold on the farm where it was produced. These are called "incidental sales." So, you know, no sending your product out to stores or anything like that--that might give the common consumer an actual alternative to mass-produced dairy! But don't worry. The dairy goat farmer doesn't really have to fret about not being able to market his product in stores or at farmers' markets, because the government ALSO puts a cap on how much raw milk he's ALLOWED to sell in the first place! Really! I know, right? Can you imagine any other industry being told exactly how many units of a product they're allowed to sell? The more you know, the harder it gets to see the USDA as anything but a regulatory agency designed to protect the bottom line of the "Big Guys."

But back to the raw goat's milk. It is legal, in Arkansas, to sell up to, but NOT MORE THAN 100 gallons of raw milk per month. I'm not even sure how the government keeps tabs on that count, but that's the law. 100 gallons. At this point, it becomes clear that the restrictions placed on raw milk are NOT about consumer health, but about favoring Big Agribusiness. If the state of Arkansas were actually concerned about raw milk being, in any way, a health hazard, why in the world would they allow 100 gallons per month of this terrifying substance to be unleashed onto an unsuspecting public? I think the term "incidental sales" pretty much gives us our answer. "Incidental" sales just aren't a threat, and a sales-cap that means an average of 3 or 4 gallons a day not only limits a consumer's access to a product, it limits the farmer's incentive and reward for producing that product. It makes me want to spit nails.

And while many people believe that consumer demand could change this, I have my doubts. If more and more people stop buying from Industrial Dairy in favor of options like raw milk from dairy goat farmers and cow shares, I suspect that we'd suddenly find brand-new legal restrictions on those "alternative" practices. Cow shares are already illegal in a couple of states, unless all the share partners actually form a CORPORATION in order to share that cow and what it produces. It's very frightening, to me, to think just how much our government controls what food is available to us, and how VERY much the wants of corporations are favored over the needs of individuals.

*steps down from soapbox*

So...if any of my local friends here can point me to anyone who organizes cow shares, or a great local dairy goat farm, please leave a comment or email me. I'll be checking out some resources, and will let you know what I find. And if any of you have thoughts on raw milk or goat's milk or evil, evil gub'ment agencies, I'd love to hear them, good or bad, agreement or dissent.

*shakes fist at Government*

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Twists And Turns

homemade soft pretzels

This is another very kid-friendly activity I wanted to share. Anytime I enter the kitchen and start rattling around to make something now, Bella is at my elbow asking, "IS THIS A KID-FRIENDLY RECIPE?" So I'm trying to make everything "kid-friendly," and this was particularly easy in that regard.

I had the inspiration to make pretzels the other night because we were broke. Seriously. And I couldn't help but wonder if that's not how foods like this came about in the first place, historically. Imagine it--your larder's running low, and it might be a while before you can re-stock. What are you likely to have in abundance? Well, flour, at least, and probably salt...maybe some butter if you have a cow or a goat. This night, in rooting through my pantry, I had plenty of various flours, and a few packets of yeast, but no butter, no milk, and no eggs. Hmmm. What can you bake with flour, water, and salt? PRETZELS! I did have just a splash of olive oil left in the bottom of a bottle, so I used that for the two tablespoons of fat required.

Pretzels are so easy! The next time, I'm probably going to forgo the traditional shape, and make big soft pretzel "sticks" instead, just to keep everything moving along more quickly, and to make the finished product easier to store.

I've posted the detailed recipe and instructions over at Get It Together!, but basically, you make a very simple (and CHEAP!) dough, let it rise once, punch it down and divide it into equal portions. You then shape those equal portions into small balls of dough and let them rise a second time, not touching, on a cookie sheet. All that's left at that point is to shape the pretzels however you like (this is the high point of the kid participation), which involves much rolling out of "snakes," and then boiling the shaped pretzels in a solution of water and baking soda for one minute before setting out on a cookie sheet, salting, and putting in to bake in a hot oven for 10 minutes.

pretzels boiling
I really think it's the boiling in baking soda-water that makes them authentic, and once you try it, you won't argue. I think this method is far superior to the "bake only" method. But don't take my word for it, try it yourself and see what you think.

What are your secrets for filling up bellies when the cupboard is (practically) bare, and payday's a day or two away? (And no, we weren't eating pretzels as MEALS, but they did fill in nicely in between meals for a day or so, and kept Bella from asking repeatedly when we were going to go to the grocery store for more of her favorite yogurt and applesauce snacks.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Having Trouble Sleeping?

Here, then. Let us explain to you how your property value is assessed in the state of Arkansas.


Calculating Your Property Values from Belinda Miller on Vimeo.

Also, if you love Joss Whedon (and if you don't, I don't know you), you should definitely be watching this.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

It's So Easy Being Cheesy

Don't even listen to what Chester the Cheetah says. Being cheesy is actually pretty easy. I read Ricki Carroll's book, Home Cheese Making several months ago. I was really interested in hard, aged cheeses, but upon reading, they did look pretty intimidating to try, plus there's that whole waiting for two months before it's done aspect. I think we all know how patient I am (not very). Plus, if I wait 60 days for food I made to be done, and it turns out poorly, I'm liable to get violent. There were recipes for quicker, easier soft cheeses, but I wasn't terribly interested in that at the time, so I put the book aside.

Then, more recently, I read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (which, let me just say, BEST BOOK EVER), and found her singing the praises of Ricki Carroll and her "30-Minute Mozzarella" recipe. Mozzarella had never really captured my fancy before--I mean, sure, it's great on pizza, but kind of bland and rubbery on its own. Why would I want to make that? But in her book, Kingsolver just does NOT let it go, and writes over and over again about the joy of making fresh Mozzarella and eating it still warm. I think it was the "still warm" part that got me, and I pulled out the book again.

I looked at the recipe. Hmmm. It DID look easy. And hey, I can make yogurt. I can make kefir. I can make soap, for crying out loud. I decided to take the plunge, and after pricing hard-to-find ingredients individually, I finally just went straight to the source and ordered everything in one kit from Ricki Carroll's website. That was simpler than chasing around trying to find butter muslin, vegetable rennet tablets, citric acid, cheese salt, and a dairy thermometer separately.

I got my kit, found a gallon of milk that had NOT been "ULTRA pasteurized" (this is easier said than done around here, unfortunately), and went to work. And you know what? Not only did it just take 30 minutes to make a pound of Mozzarella Fresca, but most of those minutes were spent waiting, not working. And better yet, the stuff was HEAVENLY. Even my very first effort--absolutely delicious. The only resemblance it bore to that shredded stuff I've been buying at the grocery store all these years is that it was white.

stretch and shine, by Bella

Wow, this cheese is good. We've used it on pasta, in a veggie quiche, and of course, on pizza. Not only did we make pizza with fresh, homemade Mozzarella on top, but we used the whey that was left over from making the cheese...to make the pizza dough! Yep, making cheese gives you a byproduct that you can also use, pretty much in any recipe where buttermilk would work. You can also use whey to make buttermilk and Ricotta. I have over a half-gallon of the stuff in the fridge right now, and I'm gonna use it to make some pancakes tomorrow. You know, since I can't go to BlogHer. What, the next best thing to BlogHer isn't pancakes? Shut up.

I've put a more detailed account of the cheesemaking over here, but I'll show you a couple of things Bella and I made with the finished product.

melty
We were really proud of this pizza, because it was truly from "scratch," from the ground up. OK, so we didn't grow the tomatoes. But we made the cheese. We made the sauce. We made the crust. None of it was hard, and it felt like a real accomplishment!

squash mozzarella thyme quiche
For this quiche, the main ingredient is squash sauteed in butter, with thyme, so I blended thyme right into the cheese while I was kneading it. I used the leftover thymed cheese the next night, over wholegrain pasta with pureed squash-tomato sauce.

You can't lose. Do it!

*****************************************************************

Dear Internets, family, friends, all of the above--thank you so much for your outpouring of sympathy, support, and assistance in the wake of the tragic loss of a well-loved pet yesterday. You'll never know how much it meant to us to be on the receiving end of such kindness. Bella has had a couple of crying spells, but she's handling it better than I am. Alex found a backhoe operator and had a grave dug for Magic here at home, and I've promised Bella that we can try to plant a little tree or some flowers on that spot.

And I think that the time has come for me to pass along to my daughter the most valuable treasure I've ever owned in my entire life: My Misha. He won't replace her lost pony, but I know that he will carry her with the same loving care he has always shown me. I've loved him for 17 years now, and I hope that someday she will realize what an honor it is to know such a horse, much less to ride him.

favorite treat

Monday, July 14, 2008

empty

Bella's pony, Magic, is dead. I don't know why or how. We're a little beyond words right now.

Best pony you ever saw.

evening pony

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Checking In With The Chickens

Remember this guy? Well, he's still growing. And almost crowing.

almost a rooster

And with maturity comes...

disapproving chicken mildly disapproves

...disapproval. Disapproving Chicken disapproves of what you're doing. Or thinking. Skee-Lo, here, is now patriarching a new group of baby punk chicks, preparing them for the day when they get to come out into the wide world for free-ranging. It's a tough job, but he's ready. He's got it goin' on, and the ladeez love him.

"This way... LADIES."

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Garden Update--Now With Less Fail

I'm not even gonna jinx it by taking pictures, but my puny little garden appears to actually be possibly maybe producing some stuff that resembles vegetables, perhaps. There are florets forming atop my ravaged broccoli plants, and the corn ears have gotten bigger. Despite having their tops gnawed off, possibly by a Shetland pony who shall remain nameless, the Roma tomato plant is bravely putting forth at least a dozen lovely green spheres. I've even shifted some soil and groped the carrots beneath it...and there are carrots there! I know. Really. I may have enough carrots to make a cake. Yes, ONE cake. Shut up. Who asked you?

Just for that, you're not getting carrot cake. You'll be sorry.

Friday, July 11, 2008

What We Did Last Weekend

some like the thrill; some like to chill

Well, seven of us (Mom, sister, nephew, brother-in-law, Alex, Bella, Myself) headed up to Greers Ferry Lake to spend the day out on the water. And I will just mention, to satisfy this month's "food" theme, that picnic lunches are where the whole locavore thing falls apart, for me. Look, sometimes, I just need some nice fresh bread and stuff to go on it that people will eat, and I don't want to spend 7 hours the day before preparing it all from scratch. We formed an assembly line, and slapped together a bunch of sandwiches, bagging and labeling them for the cooler. That was pretty much what we ate that day. As it turned out, we were way too busy to eat, anyway.

First and foremost, some boating and tubing. Some of us have, shall we say, the hang of this.

watching

Arkansas, in case you don't know, is beautiful.

bluffs along Greers Ferry, middle-fork? South Fork?

Some swimming at the above spot, and then more tubing. Grayson was a good enough sport to allow his much smaller cousin to ride with him. I'm not sure, but I THINK she appreciated it. She MIGHT have had a good time, but really, how can you be sure?

fun

Did I mention that Arkansas is beautiful? I might not have stressed the fact enough.

gratuitous flag shot

We had this spot all to ourselves for most of the afternoon. I can't even describe the peace, pleasure and wonder of just this place. It was like a little miracle. We couldn't bail out of the boat fast enough to all get in that waterfall. Alex was good enough to float in on "Big Mable" and get some nice pictures. Did I play? You know I did.

playing in the waterfall

top of the falls

Well, of COURSE I did

grayson & mom in the falls

andrea & bella

I may not be able to afford BlogHer, but you know what? This, I can have for free, not more than an hour from my front door. This planet of ours, it's something else. This state of mine, I just have to love it, despite oppressive heat and humidity, choking pollen, and legendary biting insects.

So, after the waterfall blissfest, it was time for some adrenalin. Luckily we had the boys for that. With Chip driving the boat, and Alex and Grayson on the tube, it was just a contest of wills--a battle of the hangers-on versus the slinger-off. Alex didn't help matters much with what Andrea called his "barbaric YOP," either. I think I heard phrases like "Is that all you GOT?" and "BRING IT ON!!!"

I think this was a challenge

Chip brought it. At one point, I heard my sister asking her husband to "please remember that our CHILD is also out there." I don't believe, judging by his expression, that said child shared her concerns, however. You'd think, from this shot, that this is a guy about to take a drink, wouldn't you?

point of no return?

Well, YOU'D BE WRONG. Say what you will about Alex, he is nothing if not tenacious. He actually came BACK from that near-sling-off, and got re-seated. That lull didn't last long, though.

here we go again

slingshot part 1

slingshot part 2

resolution

This literally went on until they BROKE THE TOW-ROPE. And they were fastening on another one, when...we ran out of gas. Out. Of. Gas. In the middle of the lake, surrounded by, well...no one.

where we ran out of gas

Just to make it clear that we're not a bunch of dopes, I give you Exhibit A: LYING, PUNK FUEL-GAUGE.

LYING fuel gauge

Remember when I told you how beautiful Arkansas is? Well, I should also report that Arkansans are friendly. And helpful. And kind. We were stranded for all of about 29 seconds, before we managed to flag down a boat from across the lake. These lovely people and their miniature dachshunds came to our rescue.

the very nice people who towed us home

I can't even tell you how painless it was--a potentially horrible situation resolved instantly, merely through the kindness of strangers. Here is exactly how it went down: We waved. Boatload of strangers came over immediately. We said, "Our fuel gauge is malfunctioning, and we're out of gas!" Their immediate response: "Need a tow?"

tow

And so it was, that a boat full of generous souls surrendered one of the last hours of daylight on the final day of a holiday weekend in order to tow a stranded boat full of strangers all the way to their home landing.

hitching a ride

If you know these people, thank them for us. The would accept nothing from us in return for their good deed but a promise to pay the favor forward to the next strangers in need we encounter. That, we can do.

Alex and Chip somehow got our boat loaded back up, which is no easy task with no engine power, and we left the water for the day. It was a good day, a good weekend, a good time to be alive and a great place to be living.

Whether you venture afar, or stick close to home, I hope you all have a wonderful summer.

happy independence day from the lake