Friday, February 20, 2009

A Chilly Classroom

I'm off this afternoon to take a hands-on class on pruning fruit and nut trees, courtesy of the county Agricultural Extension Office. The cost? Eight dollars. This is great since the guy who said he was willing to barter some of my bread for the pruning of our old apple tree has never followed up. For $8 I can learn how to maintain the tree myself.

It's an outdoor class of course, and our temperature should peak just below freezing today. Add to that a stiff 20 mph wind, and this will be a test of my fortitude. And my long underwear. Good thing my sweetie got me some lovely fleece-lined leather work gloves for Christmas last year. (Yes, they've already seen some service.) What a great present!

If you live in the US and have any interest in gardening related topics, you should get to know your county's Agricultural Extension Office. There are a lot of resources (such as the Master Gardeners) for your immediate area under that roof, and your tax dollars are supporting it. In many areas they offer classes such as the one I'll be attending today. My county offered a free class on composting last year, with a free compost bin given away to each attendee. Unfortunately, I couldn't attend. Maybe they'll offer it again this year; I wouldn't mind a free extra compost bin. Our county's Extension Office also offers bare root tree and fruit seedling sales each spring. This year I'm getting four blueberry bushes (two each of two different varieties) for $32, with no delivery charge since I'm picking them up myself. Hard to beat that.

Check your local Extension Office out. You might be delighted at the resources and values you find!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tiny Tip: Repurpose Your Credit Card

I thought it would be appropriate to mention this tiny tip this month, since February's Alternative Action Item is to bake bread. And many people out there are getting rid of credit cards or having the accounts close on them. That little piece of plastic may have been the bane of your existence, a temptation as potent as a drug, that has gotten you into a financial mess. It's a good thing to retire a credit card or two. But that doesn't mean the card itself is worthless to you. It need not end up in a landfill.

Instead, you can repurpose that stiff little piece of plastic into a baking tool. Bakers often need something to scrape dough off a wooden work surface, or off the inside of a container. The tool is called, appropriately enough, a dough scraper. Baker's supply catalogs will sell you specially made ones with extra features for $10. But really, all that's needed is a stiff, but somewhat flexible piece of plastic, curved on one side and straight on the other. The ones you can buy are bigger than a credit card, but there's no reason you can't work with a smaller version that fits neatly in your hand. And because you can make as many as you want from old membership cards and credit cards, it's possible to have a very large supply of them for baking day. An ordinary but sharp pair of scissors is all that's needed to make these hacked scrapers.

Using a homemade dough scraper made from retired spending enablers to bake your own bread is a great way to triple up your savings while increasing your self-sufficiency. It's a nice feeling to know that I can be a proficient baker without needing to spend money on specialized equipment. And it's feels good to keep another piece of plastic out of the landfill too.

Got any other tool hacks or repurposing stories you'd like to share?

More tiny tips: More Sunlight in Your Garden, Parboil Your Pasta, Make the Most of Old Man Winter, Broccoli Stalk, Scallions

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Free Gardening Supplies + Beer

Over the weekend we jumped into our beater pickup truck to run a bunch of gardening-related errands. I'd been waiting for an opportunity to knock out several tasks in one run, and it was finally the right time. There's a mushroom farm not too far from Kennett Square that gives away free organic mushroom compost most Saturday mornings. We had to get on the road pretty early to get there in time, but man, what a deal. We didn't even have to load it. They had a conveyor belt contraption that just dumped the compost right into the bed of our truck. We had to get in line between much larger farm machines pulling much larger trailers to haul the compost around in. Clearly these farmers know a good thing when they find it. We were thrilled.

Then off we went to another town in the area to drop off some seeds to a woman who had participated in the group ordering we did last month. She had mentioned that she had a large stand of bamboo, and that we were welcome to come and help ourselves to as much of it as we wanted. We did. I cut down twenty shafts, which, after trimming, we were able to cut into 11-foot sections with remainders 6 to 8 feet long . I want them to create six bean teepees for my garden this year. I'll use the longer sections for the teepees, and the shorter pieces for whatever else suggests itself. We stuffed the bamboo poles into the compost in the bed of the truck and recovered it all with a tarp.

Then it was off to a lunch break and a meetup with Meg & Kelly of Future House Farm at the Victory Brewing brewpub in Downington. We thought it very fitting, parking our beater truck in the brewery's parking lot with this bumper sticker on it. It was good to meet the "Pirate Farm" folks, as my husband calls them, and to chat about sustainability, books by Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, and food and beer of course. They're gardening-cooking-hen keeping folks themselves, and they're the ones that got me thinking in the first place about using bamboo in the garden. My husband was keen to hear about the rain barrel system they set up for their watering needs. He also indulged in a growler purchase, filled with a Victory brew.

After a lunch of satisfying food and conversation, we were off to our last freebie stop. I collected a few more composting worms from the third person to respond to my pleas for them. Two other women had kindly given me a few worms, but the total amount was pretty small compared to the size of the bin I'm using for them. So another addition wasn't amiss.

On the way home we had a funny encounter with a hugely enthused Asian man pulling up alongside us in a minivan while cruising along at 55 mph on the highway. He beckoned for me to roll down my window while his wife looked eagerly on. We were mystified, but I rolled down my window. "Where'd you get the bamboo?" he yelled excitedly. I shouted out the name of the town where we had cut it that morning, and he asked, "Is there somewhere to buy it?!?" I smiled ruefully, shook my head and watched his face fall. But he said thanks and drove off. We wondered whether we could've made some ready cash if we'd pulled over and offered to sell our poles on the spot.

The bamboo poles will be used to grow some Cherokee Trail of Tears beans and Hutterite Soup beans this year. Most of the mushroom compost will go into the raised beds we've yet to make for the asparagus crowns that will arrive in a few months.

We were pretty smug about getting so much free gardening stuff and meeting some interesting people for lunch. I think I won't have too much trouble rousting my husband early from bed again if I want to make a similar run again for more of the same. But I'm a little sore from cutting all that bamboo and then off-loading the compost. I'm out of shape from lack of gardening activity over the winter.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Harvest Meal: Colcannon

A lot of our harvest meals are simply the product of using up what we've got, and trying to be a little creative with them. But we also find ourselves falling back on very old, simple recipes that hail from various traditional cuisines. Our dinner last night was one such occasion.

Colcannon is a mixture of mashed potatoes and usually cabbage, or sometimes kale. You see that? Colcannon, and kale. Does that remind you of anything? Kohlrabi? Cole slaw? Cauliflower? Collard greens? It's an old root word for cabbage. Kale is a member of the cabbage family, along with all the rest. Kohl is a surname in Germany. Mr. and Mrs. Cabbage over there. Colcannon comes from the Irish Gaelic, and there's a very similar dish in Wales with a very similar name (cawl cennin) in Welsh. Okay, I'm done playing with the words now. Here endeth the etymology lesson. On to the recipe.

You don't really need a recipe though. You know how to make mashed potatoes, right? Well you make those and you add butter, salt and pepper, some sauteed members of the onion family, and a hefty amount of either cabbage or kale. If you're feeling a little indulgent, add some parsley or chives, and maybe a little bacon. Typically a cheap but nourishing vegetarian, peasant-type dish, colcannon could even be made vegan if you so desired.

Almost everything I put into our dinner was stuff that needed to go. So I ended up with something that I would call a variation on colcannon, rather than a canonical colcannon. (Maybe not completely done playing.) We've been avoiding the last of the potatoes because they're so small that cleaning them was a bit of a pain. I got one leek out of the garden, and combined it with half an onion that had been sitting in the refrigerator. I still have bags and bags of chopped kale in the freezer, the product of our summer garden. There was also some cream, a little bit of schmaltz, and half a bunch of flat-leaf parsley hanging around in the fridge that needed using up. Oh, and some cheese that didn't do too much for us, so we weren't using it up in a raw form. This all was going in, one way or another.

After my husband had nobly scrubbed each and every tiny potato, I made the mashed spuds. While the potatoes boiled, I sauteed the chopped leek and onion in the schmaltz, seasoning generously with salt and pepper. Then I added the frozen chopped kale and let that thaw and warm up. When that was done, I added the cream that needed using up, a little over a cup, I'd say. I also grated the cheese, which was a simple farmer's cheese, probably about 6 ounces or so. When the potatoes were cooked, I added most of the cheese and a hunk of butter while mashing them up. Then I folded in the leek-kale-cream mixture. All that I put into a casserole dish, topping it with the remaining shredded cheese. I cooked it at 375 F for about half an hour, until the cheese was melted, bubbly and just beginning to darken. After letting it cool, I topped the dish with minced parsley.

I make no claims that this is an authentic version of colcannon. Traditional colcannon certainly would not have included schmaltz or cheese. Irish peasants probably wouldn't have used either of these, nor the typical quantities of dairy fat in modern versions of colcannon. However, they might have used some buttermilk. My dish is clearly in the colcannon neighborhood though. And my method of cooking - using up what we've got that needs using up - fits perfectly with traditional cooking the world over.

When all was said and done, it was delicious. The intense potato aroma coming out of the oven was incredible; a homey, comforting scent on a dark and chilly winter night. It was hard to let the dish cool enough so that we wouldn't burn our mouths. It was especially nice to see that even this long after our harvest, we can still make something so tasty and healthy out of three crops we grew ourselves (leeks, potatoes, kale). It would be a pretty cheap meal, even if we had to buy those ingredients. Best of all, there are plenty of leftovers.

Three guesses what's for breakfast. Yeah, I'm weird that way.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tiny Tip: Make the Most of Old Man Winter

Winter is a tough time for frugalites. We're cooped up inside a lot. We pay to warm our houses and there's not much opportunity for most of us to garden or take advantage of other outdoor money-saving activities. Still, there are a few ways we can take advantage of winter's chill.

My first suggestion has to do with your freezer, particularly if you have a chest freezer. I've already posted about winter being a good time to defrost your freezer, since your frozen food is less likely to thaw while you tackle the defrosting. But here's another suggestion. If you're like us, your freezer stores are probably dwindling about now, as you eat through food produced during the warm months. That means extra room in your freezer. If you leave those empty spaces, your freezer will end up working a little harder to cool itself after every time you open it. Why not fill the space with free ice?

Containers of ice can take up the extra space in your freezer to act as cold storage. And while the temperatures are below freezing, you can produce ice essentially for free. Just fill some empty plastic bottles or jugs with water, leaving a decent gap at the top for the water to expand as it freezes. Put the bottles outside in freezing weather, with the caps off or only on loosely. When the water freezes, put the bottles in your chest freezer or kitchen freezer.

Over the summer, as you need the space in your freezer for storing more food, just remove the bottles to make room. If you move them into your refrigerator, that appliance will need less electricity to keep the food in there cool for a few days. Set the bottles of ice on the top shelf for most effective cooling of the entire compartment. The frozen bottles can also be used in coolers to keep food chilled for a picnic. Set the bottles aside to be refrozen and re-used come winter.

My second suggestion runs along very similar lines. When you make a nice hearty, warming dinner for yourself, use the cold outdoors to chill the leftovers before you put them in the fridge. Since the outdoors is frequently colder than a refrigerator in winter, this will cool your food faster, ensuring better food safety. It will also prevent your refrigerator from heating up and having to work harder, and the food in the fridge from warming up and spoiling more quickly. Be sure you cover your food well before chilling it outside. And exercise caution if your leftover food will tempt wild animals into undesirable behaviors.

These tiny tips will save you small amounts of electricity. Every little bit helps, especially in this economy!

More tiny tips: More Sunlight in Your Garden, Parboil Your Pasta, Repurpose Your Credit Card, Broccoli Stalk, Scallions

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Unexpected: $342.28

I spent much of yesterday at the veterinarian's office, dealing with my suddenly sick and very frail cat. She'd been delighted to see us over the weekend on our return from a four-day trip. She was her usual perky, social, affectionate, and vocal self. Tuesday morning she was walking shakily with her head held low, had watery eyes, and wasn't eating.

At the vet she was found to be dehydrated, and to have an elevated temperature. And she gave an unsolicited stool sample on the exam table. What can I say? Shit literally happens at a vet's office. The doctor was game enough to declare the offering useful for diagnostic tests. The good news is that most of the potential problems have been ruled out (feline leukemia, feline AIDS, kidney and liver failure), one problem has been diagnosed (roundworms), her dehydration was treated with subcutaneous fluids, and the remaining likely condition (thyroid) is treatable. She also ate some food overnight, used the litter box, and looks much better this morning, though she's still slower and more subdued than usual. She's now complaining about not being allowed outdoors.

The bad news is that the examination, treatment, blood work, and other tests cost me almost $350. My cat is going to be fourteen years old this summer, and while she's had her share of injuries from tussling with other animals, she's never before needed treatment for any kind of illness. In other words, we've been very lucky with her, given that she's an indoor-outdoor cat. But still, $350 is a lot of money. I can't say I'm thrilled about carving that extra amount out of our budget this month. Yes, we have a $25 line item for pet expenses each month that we have been routinely underspending. But we're not so disciplined as to keep that unspent money in a sub-account in some bank account. Fortunately, paying off the credit card isn't going to be a big problem for us, but it still more than doubles our average yearly expense for having a beloved feline companion in our lives.

I don't begrudge the cost. Having a pet is a serious commitment and responsibility, no less than having a child. Before I get jumped for that statement, I recognize that the responsibility for raising a child is much, much larger, more complicated, and legally enforceable. Nonetheless, both are cases of taking responsibility for the care and well being of another living creature. Getting a pet - or a farm animal - medical treatment when they need it is a moral imperative, in my opinion.

So I'm just going to wind up the post with a plea to potential pet owners, or pet owners who haven't yet experienced any costs beyond shots, spaying, and feed. Please remember that sooner or later your pet is likely to need treatment that will cost a significant chunk of change. Budget for it now, before it's needed. It's a terrible feeling to see your pet in pain or weak with illness. It was bad enough worrying about my cat's health. At least I didn't have the additional worry about where the money for her treatment would come from. Please, please, please don't let poor planning put you in the position of being unable to care for an animal that you have chosen to make dependent upon you. Over a pet's lifetime, you're likely to need upwards of $1500 for their food and medical costs. Plan for unexpected expenses. They'll happen sooner or later.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Things I Learned at the Conference

I'm back from the PASA conference, and feeling very happy to be home. My cat is delighted about our return too, and has been sucking up to us shamelessly since last night. I learned a lot, but being away from home takes it out of me. I missed my bed, our well water, easy control over my own diet and meal times, and hanging out in my comfy pants as long as I wish in the mornings. Home is best.

But the conference was great. I learned a lot, and felt enormously encouraged by the energy generated by 2000 other gardeners, homesteaders, sustainable farmers, ethical seed vendors, and concerned eaters. There was a palpable buzz to the assembly; I could just feel the exchange of information and ideas happening among the members during breaks between sessions. My husband attended an IPM (integrated pest management) workshop and has returned home particularly fired up about planting things to provide habitat and food for pollinating and predatory insects. There was a speech by a local level politician who seemed to get it on issues of farmland preservation and government incentives for sustainable farming practices and small scale sustainable energy production. Raj Patel gave a good keynote address, and I picked up coupons for organic foods and free shipping from Johnny's Seeds that will probably save me more than $50. We bought three sustainably produced Pennsylvania cheeses at the cheese tasting put on by PASA member farms.

The conference furthered my progress on two of my goals for 2009. I happened to meet the woman who coordinates the Master Gardener Program for our county. She gave me the skinny on when the program will start up, when the classes will meet, and how the pre-test works in terms of selecting participants. (It doesn't; it's only a tracking metric for student progress.) It was nice to get a chance to schmooze her. And I got containers of compost worms from two different members, in exchange for some of my homemade bread. Settling the worms into their new home is on the agenda for this afternoon.

Here's a representative sample of random information I picked up at the conference. Almost half of these things were learned outside of a formal session or workshop. Many of them came from networking with other members in casual conversation.

There is no inspection of and no regulation over the sale of rabbit meat in the state of Pennsylvania.

It took Joel Salatin (the "high priest of pasture" at Polyface Farm) quite a while to figure out how to raise meat rabbits on grass, but apparently he did it, recently. No, I don't have the details just yet, but I'm working on that. (Update: follow the link for the details.)

Pretty much nothing will grow with less than 10 hours of daylight. At my latitude that means no growth from November 11th to February 1st. No wonder my hayframe arugula has gone nowhere these past few months. (Run the calculations for your own latitude here. You can get your coordinates off google maps, by the way.)

Many weed seeds require a light flash to germinate, which puts the old-timer practice of tilling the fields or planting at night into a different perspective.

We're probably best off cutting down that young white pine tree in our back yard if we want to maximize our edible landscaping. Not even the blueberries (which can tolerate soil pH as low as 4.5) will do well planted as close to it as our space constraints will require.

Celery is a good crop to grow in a persistent damp spot, if you have one in your yard.

When trying to eradicate a well established but unwanted plant, cut it to the ground when the plant has set buds but not yet bloomed. The energy stored in the roots will be lowest at that point, though really tenacious plants may still require a few rounds of cutting.

"Primocane" refers to the new growth canes on berry plants which form leaves but do not fruit in their first year. "Floricanes" are canes in their second year of growth which bud and set fruit. A few blackberry (and possibly raspberry) varieties have recently been developed in which the primocanes manage to set fruit.

In favorable conditions, it will take about 15 years to produce tree canopy over a denuded stream bed in Pennsylvania. The forested border around waterways should be at least 50 feet on either side, and 100 feet when the sides are steeply sloped.

You can identify blackberry canes damaged by frost by scraping the skin of the cane. Undamaged canes will show a bright green layer around a bright white core, even in winter. Damaged canes will reveal a brownish green coloration.

CR Lawn (of Fedco Seeds) is a hoot, and wields a respectable vocabulary. He can toss off the word "chary" in extemporaneous conversation and use it correctly. He can also give a cogent presentation without Powerpoint, and he can handle lots of questions. Among his competitor seed vendors he praises Southern Exposure, Turtle Tree, High Mowing, Johnny's, Territorial, and Baker Creek.

Farms that follow organic practices and use compost often have soils with an excess of phosphorus. The longer organic practices have been in place, the higher the chance of this imbalance occurring.

Timberleaf Soil Testing provides soil tests better geared to the backyard gardener than does Penn State Extension.

Sunflowers are a great asset in a garden for attracting bees and other pollinators, but they have significant allelopathic properties, and should be planted in the same part of the garden every year so that they do not retard the growth of other crops. I've had them on the north edge of my garden, and planned to keep them there. Still, it's good to know why my plan was a good one.

It's time to give John Jeavons' writings on bio-intensive gardening a fair shake, even if I don't plan to pursue this method. Jeavons alleges that rutabaga, parsnip, and leeks can all produce more calories, acre per acre, than potatoes.

Verticillium wilt, a fungal disease of the tomato and its solanaceae relatives, can be combated by planting fava beans in the same bed, chopping the bean plants into bits, and working the residue into the soil. Severe infestations of the fungus may require several years of this treatment. Any tomato plant with this disease must be destroyed rather than composting it, or the disease will spread with the compost.

Though utility companies are required by Pennsylvania law to "buy" electricity generated by alternative energy installations at private residences, they are not required to pay the homeowner anything, only to reduce the electricity bill for the residence to $0. Thus, it is important to know our true electrical needs when sizing a solar or wind installation, as there is no financial incentive for producing more than we need.

There is a company called Cold Brand that produces sunflower oil in New Jersey from sunflowers grown in Pennsylvania. I can't find any further details on availability though. It would be nice to know more so that I could source cooking oil from relatively nearby.

In principle, it's possible to transplant fully mature asparagus plants during their fall/winter dormancy period.

Here's a list of the books we heard about at the conference that we're going to be requesting through inter-library loan:

Our Next Frontier: A Personal Guide for Tomorrow's Lifestyle, Robert Rodale
Photovoltaics: Design and Installation Manual, by Solar Energy International
The Winter Harvest Handbook, and The New Organic Grower, by Eliot Coleman
How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits, by John Jeavons
Biological Control of Insects and Mites, by Daniel Mahr

And here are some few pictures from the conference.

Weed School. We were given taxonomic keys and magnifying loops, and asked to identify these twenty invasive weedy plants common to Pennsylvania.

In the second half of the day, we had a demonstration of how several different tractors and tillers can be used for weed control.

The PASA Benefit Auction. There were some lovely items donated by sponsors and members to raise money for PASA. This corner cupboard, salvaged from an old farmhouse caught my eye, though we have no room for it. And the basket of handspun yarn looked beautiful as well. But I know my habits well enough that I couldn't justify bidding on knitting supplies.

The only auction item I actually wanted was a small hod basket from Johnny's Seeds, paired with a log inoculated with shiitake plug spawn. I coveted the coated wire basket, which would be ideal for harvesting potatoes. A gentle shake, and much of the soil clinging to the spuds would fall right through. Other vegetables could be hosed down, right in the hod basket. This was a "bag" auction, which meant we couldn't bid on it, but instead had to buy raffle tickets and take our chances with everyone else who wanted it. I put all $10 worth of my tickets in that bag, but didn't win. I may succumb to temptation and add a hod basket to my forthcoming order for row covers from Johnny's, taking advantage of that free shipping.

In general, it was a nice feeling to wander among lovely products and be able to admire them without feeling any tug to acquire them. The craftsmanship was often amazing, but these items aren't needed in my life.

On the other hand, we felt good about supporting Pennsylvania dairy farmers with cold hard cash.

Pennsylvania cheeses. Wallaby, a Monterey Jack type from Keswick Creamery, Fat Cat, a "blue-less blue" from Birchrun Hills, and Mountain Valley Sharp Cheddar from Goot Essa , a co-operative of Amish dairy producers.

All in all, it was a great four days of meeting interesting people and learning. It certainly gave me a lot to think about, and plenty of contacts and resources to follow up with. Should be a good year for the garden.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Off to the Conference!

As you read this I'm in State College, attending a pre-conference, all-day workshop of PASA's Farming for the Future annual conference. Today it's Weed School: Managing Through Identification and Mechanical Methods, and tomorrow I'll have another all-day workshop on The 21st Century Victory Garden: Growing Your Food and Energizing Your Community. Meanwhile, my husband will be attending the Hands-On IPM (integrated pest management) and Bio-Controls workshop. Then on Friday and Saturday the PASA conference proper begins. (PASA: that's the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture.) One of the keynote addresses will be by Raj Patel, author of the book Stuffed and Starved, which discusses the paradox of a world with 850 million people starving alongside 1 billion overweight people. Should be infuriating, heartbreaking, and enlightening, all at the same time.

I'm looking forward to seeing people I've met at the conference in previous years. Oh! And the food at the conference is simply marvelous. I hardly need to think about packing food for the meals away from home. We get delicious breakfasts and lunches with each of our workshops, and the evening hors d'oeuvres tables, laden with products brought by member farmers, is always an incredible treat. Then there are the coupons and free samples from organic product companies that sponsor the event. I got a coupon for free shipping from Johnny's Seeds last year which I used when buying my broadfork; saved me a tidy sum. This conference has the best schwag! The benefit auction of all sorts of interesting gardening tools, and value-added products from member farms is always fun to browse through. Free live music on Thursday night. Networking opportunities with farmers and gardeners who live near me and follow sustainable crop management and humane animal husbandry. I enjoy seeing Pennsylvania's plain folk who mingle freely with us "English," but speak their Pennsylvania German among themselves. There will be a Pennsylvania cheese tasting by member farms on Friday night. Early morning yoga classes if I can get up in time for them. I'll probably meet a farmer who produces something sustainably that I'll want to start buying on a regular basis. I've arranged a meeting with an attending fellow member who will barter some of her compost worms for my bread. And these are all just the extras!

The hour-and-twenty-minute seminars of the conference itself are consistently informative and fascinating. I always play it somewhat by ear, but these are the seminars that I'm likely to attend:

Rural Pennsylvania's Energy Future
Using Organic Nutrient Sources & Interpreting Soil and Compost Analysis
How to Grow, Harvest, Manage, and Market Nut Crops
Specialized Techniques for Early Harvest of Field Grown Crops
Why and How to Create a Forest Buffer on Your Land to Protect Our Streams
Solar Electric Systems 201: Basics and Beyond
The Versatility of Small Grains: Food, Feed, Forage, Seed and Cover Crops
Pollinators, Predators & Plants: Building Landscapes to Attract Beneficial Insects
The Plight of the Honey Bees & How to Help Them Thrive
Year-Round Backyard Mini-Farming: Food with the Least Fossil Fuel and Footprint

I'll have to pick and choose among these, as some of them are scheduled concurrently. But don't these sound interesting? There are several dozen other choices that are less appealing to me that will no doubt be full of other attendees with different interests.

I always come home from the frozen wastes of State College in early February with a burning passion for the year's gardening and homesteading projects. It's like being able to swallow a motivation pill, once a year. It's all just SO exciting! Worth the money and the driving every year. This is definitely a garden-geek vacation.

I'll try to take some pictures that capture the wonderfulness of it all, to post when I return. Have a wonderful week everyone.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Pumpkin-Sage Penne Pasta

I'm trotting out another harvest meal, close on the heels of my Kale & Barley Soup post of just a few days ago. This one is too good not to share. The idea comes from the traditional pumpkin ravioli of northern Italy, which are sauced lightly with a sage and butter sauce. I had lovely intentions of making pumpkin puree and handmade sheet pasta, and assembling ravioli to eat fresh or freeze. But we all know how far good intentions go.

So I decided to try a variation on the filled pasta and see what I could come up with. Sage is my favorite fresh herb, so different from the musty, fusty dried stuff. And it complements the earthy sweetness of winter squash beautifully, as the Italians pointed out to me. So I fished the absolute last of our sugar pumpkins out of the garage, and set to work.

It took a little tweaking to get the pumpkin to pasta ratio right, and I think it would be okay to use more pumpkin than I've listed in the recipe below. Too little pumpkin is definitely not good. And I first experimented with using Pecorino cheese instead of Reggiano parmesan. Pecorino is a great cheese for many pasta dishes, but it did nothing to help this one. The king of parmesans, Reggiano, brings a lovely deep balance to the light and sweet notes of the squash.

I wish I had developed this recipe earlier. Pumpkin is one of those crops I grew for its storing virtues, and not so much because we love to eat it. I'm not a fan of pumpkin pie, and my husband is rather particular about how he likes to eat pumpkin too. This simple dish pleases both of us, and we would happily eat it on a regular basis. Now that I've discovered a great use for this long-storing vegetable, I feel more confident about growing it again this year. I love the deep yellow-orange color of the pumpkin. It almost looks like the pasta is studded with egg yolks.

If the methodology looks a little complicated to you, I will confess that I'm not a fan of too many different preparation methods or too many dirty pans in the preparation of one dish either. But the steaming is all fairly straightforward, and from there it proceeds like any skillet-prepared pasta sauce. The few flavoring ingredients in this dish are pretty simple, and to come together in a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, you need to use good stuff: quality parmesan cheese, fresh sage, freshly ground pepper, and real butter and cream. You won't regret it!

Pumpkin-Sage Penne Pasta

2 lbs. (about 900 g) of fresh sugar pumpkin, which will be trimmed to about 1.5 lbs. (680 g)
5 tbsp. (75 ml or 70 g) butter
a generous bunch of fresh sage
1 tsp. (5 ml) sugar
salt to taste (I used kosher)
freshly ground white pepper
1 cup (about 225 ml) heavy cream
1 1/2 cups (about 350 ml) freshly grated Reggiano parmesan cheese

1 lb. (about 450 g) penne or other shaped pasta
salt for the pasta cooking water

Cut the pumpkin in half and then into quarters. Remove the seeds and pulp. Lay a slice of pumpkin on its side, with the skin facing away from you. Cut the skin off by slicing downward from halfway up the slice of pumpkin. The turn over the slice and cut away the skin remaining on the other half. Repeat this with the other slices. You should have 1½ lbs. of trimmed pumpkin remaining.

Pumpkin slices of two different thicknesses will partially cook in the steamer.

Take two of the pumpkin quarters and cut them into thick slices, about 1½” thick. Cut the other two quarters into thinner slices, about ¾” thick. Put all the slices in a steamer and let them cook for 15 minutes. Let them cool until they can easily be handled.

Two piles of sage. One is gently fried in the brown butter, the second is chopped up just before tossing into the cooked pasta with the finished sauce.

Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of butter in a small skillet over low heat. Clean the sage leaves. Separate them into two equal piles and chop one pile. When the butter is melted, put in the chopped sage leaves and increase the heat to medium low. Fry the sage leaves gently, just until the butter begins to brown. Remove from the heat and set aside. Clean the rest of the leaves and set them aside until just before the pasta is done.

Two piles of steamed pumpkin. The smaller pieces will disintegrate to thicken the sauce. The larger pieces will remain intact to provide some texture contrast to the pasta.

Bring a pot of salted water to boil for the pasta. Meanwhile, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over low heat. While the butter melts, chop the thinly sliced pumpkin into small pieces. Chop the wider slices into larger cubes. Increase the heat under the skillet to medium high and sauté the pumpkin pieces in the butter, stirring well so that all pieces are coated with butter. Sprinkle the sugar and a generous pinch of kosher salt over the pumpkin. Grind some white pepper over the pumpkin and stir well. Add 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of water to the pumpkin and cover the skillet for 5 minutes.

When the water boils, put the pasta in to cook. Time the rest of the dish according to the pasta cooking time. When the pasta is 8 minutes from being done, heat the pumpkin over medium-high heat, uncovered, for 3 minutes. Add 1 cup of cream and simmer rapidly for 5 minutes. Finely chop the remaining sage. Reserve ¾ cup of the pasta cooking water before draining the pasta.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it and put it in a warmed serving bowl. Add to it the fried sage in brown butter, as well as the pumpkin in cream. Toss well, then add the grated Reggiano cheese and chopped fresh sage. Loosen the sauce or the leftovers with the reserved cooking water as needed. Serve piping hot. Serves 4-6. Leftovers are as good as any leftover pasta ever is.

Other harvest meals:
Saag Paneer
Garden Pizza
Peanut Noodles with Garden Vegetables

Egg & Chard Curry
Fusilli with Tuscan Kale in a Creamy Tomato Sauce
Kale & Barley Soup

Monday, February 2, 2009

February Frugal Action Item: Kitchen Competence

Time for another month's Frugal Action Item. This month, in honor of the chilly winter weather we're having in the northern hemisphere, I am challenging my readers to improve their kitchen skills. My goal with these Action Items is to provide concrete steps that both renters and homeowners can take to improve their household budgets. By the same token, this month's item highlights areas for skill expansion for all but the most serious professional cooks and homesteaders.

If you already know how to cook well, congratulations. Now skip down to the Alternative Action Items below. If you don't know how to cook well, you've most likely been using this as a ready-made excuse for eating out, or picking up ready-to-eat meals at the grocery store. Both of these practices are a serious drain on your food budget, and they also tend to steer eaters to less healthy food choices. Additionally, highly processed and over packaged foods contribute significantly to the production of greenhouse gasses, and thus global climate change.

So this month, I urge you to check out a few basic cookbooks from the library. The goal here is not to wow anybody with fancy meals or exotic ingredients. Instead, look for a few dishes that can provide a basic but healthy meal in a single item. Candidates include casseroles, twice-baked potatoes, soups, pasta dishes, fritattas, and so on. None of these dishes are difficult to prepare, and they can all be made to include green vegetables. Challenge yourself to prepare at least one such dish each week. Keep an eye out especially for dishes that use plenty of vegetables, or meat dishes that are readily supplemented by vegetables or starches. Don't be afraid to add extra vegetables to a dish with meat. These types of dishes will help you stretch your food budget farther.

If you are really new to cooking, I recommend that you begin with pasta dishes and soup. A good way to build skills is to start slow and plan to repeat dishes with some variation. For instance, this week you might begin with a pasta and tomato sauce dish. In the second week of February, make a broth-based soup. In the third week, you could prepare a pasta with an olive oil sauce. And in the final week of this month, prepare a chowder soup of some kind. So two types of pasta and two different soups in a month.

Recommended cookbooks for beginning cooks:
The New Best Recipe, by the Editors of Cook's Illustrated
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, by Mark Bittman
Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer
The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, by Marion Cunningham

I can specifically recommend the following dishes from these cookbooks. They're all delicious and easy to prepare:

Chicken with Dumplings, from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook
Cabbage Stuffed with Lentils and Rice, from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian
Twice-Baked Potatoes, from The New Best Recipe
Pulled Pork, from The Joy of Cooking

If you want to try a simple meal of roasted chicken, have a look at my walkthrough of this dish at the Simple Green Frugal Co-op.

My hope is that the joy of mucking about in your own kitchen will prove addictive enough that you become an instant convert. But I recognize that not everyone enjoys cooking as much as I do, and that learning to cook may be a daunting enterprise to some. So I will allow as how the monetary savings would likely also be a powerful motivator. Or, you might find inspiration in the knowledge that you are preparing wholesome food for yourself and your family, thus contributing to better health. Perhaps parents could also show children that developing new life skills can happen at any age. In the end, there are many reasons to improve our kitchen skills.

Alternative Action Items: Accomplished home cooks are hereby challenged to learn how to bake bread, and to bake at least one loaf each week of this month. It's a good time of year to bake; you'll be warming your house up at the same time. See below for some basic resources.

If you already know how to bake bread, then I would suggest learning some form of food preservation, such as canning, fermenting, homebrewing, cheese or yogurt making, or dehydrating. (Heather had a great post on easy-peasy jelly making just a few days ago.) I include this suggestion only for those who are already quite advanced in their food preparation skill set. Canning, fermenting, cheesemaking, brewing, and dehydrating will all required you to invest in some fairly specialized equipment, and that's not an investment I think everyone should make...yet. But if you have all the cooking and baking skills you really need, it's certainly something to think about. If you're at that point, you probably don't need any advice from me, which is just as well since I'm far from an expert in all of those subjects. We're still working on canning and homebrewing.

If you already bake and preserve food routinely, your challenge for the month is to pass on some of your impressive kitchen skills to a young person. Equipping the next generation with basic skills for their own self-sufficiency is a noble task and a generous gift of knowledge and self confidence.

Suggested resources for baking skills: - This site has fantastic tutorials on my favorite easy method of bread baking: no knead. Try this method! It's easier than you imagine and the bread is fantastic!

The Bread Baker's Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart - Highly detailed book on the fundamentals of bread baking, fabulous recipes too.

I want to hear your reports on this month's Frugal Action Item! Please leave a comment and share stories of your efforts. We're all in this together, so let's support each other.

Other Monthly Action Items:
January: CF Bulbs & Pipe Insulation
March: Rein in Entertainment Spending
April: Go Paper-less
May: Solar Dryer
June: Raise the Deductible on Your Auto Insurance
July: Stay Cool Without Touching that Thermostat
August: Repair It!
September: Insulate
October: Preventative Health Care
November: Frugal Holiday Wish List
December: Plan Next Year's Garden