Monday, January 30, 2012

Repurposing Wool Fibers

Despite my interest in frugality, I'm relatively new to thrift stores.  Generally I don't enjoy shopping, but there are a couple of Goodwill stores on routes I travel regularly, so I've been stopping in there and browsing lately.  Naturally, there are some amazing deals to be had.  Probably one of the most surprising to me have been the 100% wool sweaters that sell for as little as $2, when they're on markdown.  It simply defies logic that these pure woolen items, some of them brought all the way from Scotland or Australia, end up being given away for a song. Of course, the vast majority of sweaters at the Goodwill are made from synthetic yarns.  But that only makes it a little more of a treasure hunt to seek out the wool.

I'm an occasional, largely seasonal, and not very gifted knitter.  One reason I haven't done more knitting is the incredible expense of the yarn.  It's always much, much cheaper to buy a sweater than to buy the yarn to make one yourself, even if you're paying the full retail price for the sweater.  But those occasional thrift store finds change that equation.   When woolen sweaters sell for so much less than the cost of the constituent materials, I've met my price point.  Mind you, it's not every sweater that can be taken apart by hand, so it pays to know what I'm looking for.  I learned what I needed to from this link

Taking apart a knitted item to recycle the yarn is a somewhat tedious task, well suited to wintertime, endless cups of tea, a BBC radio stream, and the company of a playful cat, brisking about the life.  It's amazing how much yarn comes out of a small sweater.  I cut a few cardboard pieces to wind the yarn around as I unravel the sweater.  Binding it in this way helps to stretch out some of the bends the yarn assumed when it was first knitted.  There are steps you can take to further relax the kinks in previously used yarn.  But they take time and effort, and my creations aren't so magnificent that I worry about minor issues such as slightly pre-kinked yarn.

In principle, you could take apart a knitted item made from any sort of fiber.  For my time and money, only wool or other animal fibers would make it worth my while.  I did scoop up an alpaca sweater from the thrift store, and it's waiting to be taken apart.  It's white but slightly stained.  I may decide to dye the yarn if I can't get the stain out. The beauty of acquiring these materials so cheaply is that it gives me free rein to experiment with them and learn from mistakes if I must.

I've knitted one pair of my chunky fingerless gloves, and am currently working on a second pair, both to be donated to the fundraising auction at the PASA conference, which is only days away.  These gloves are knitted with double strands of yarn, which makes them extra warm.  For both pairs of gloves I'm using the repurposed yarn as one strand.  It's satisfying to salvage and re-use this material.  The color of the sweater is such that I wouldn't choose to wear it myself, but in a double stranded item, I think it turns out quite pretty.

I'm off to the conference on Wednesday, presenting on Thursday, and enjoying myself thoroughly on Friday and Saturday.  After I'm home, I'll give my usual summary of the conference highlights, and with a little luck, relocate my writing mojo, which has been scarce of late.  Hope winter is treating you all well.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Harvest Meal: Roasted Parsnips

This winter we have a surfeit of parsnips to harvest, which is wonderful because they are one of my favorite vegetables.  But parsnips can be tricky to cook well, because they aren't very dense.  So when you roast them (one of the very best cooking methods for this vegetable) with other root crops, they tend to cook through much faster than carrots, potatoes, or turnips.  Add to this the abundant sugars in a winter-harvested parsnip, and you have a recipe for burned, or mushy parsnips, or worst of all, both conditions at once.

So I like to roast parsnips on their own, and I recently hit on a fabulous way of doing that.  It's a bit more fussy than other methods, but it produces such deliciousness that I'm willing to go to the extra effort.  The nicest thing about this dish is that all the major ingredients are either homegrown, or homemade.

I start by cutting up several slices of my home cured guanciale.  I'm sure bacon or pancetta would work fine as well, but the extra seasonings that I add to my guanciale give the dish a little something special.  If you use bacon or pancetta, one or two slices should do it.  My guanciale is small, and my slices short; I used about seven slices for two full pans of roasted parsnips.  A little bit of fatty cured pork goes a long way in the flavor department.  So the slices are cut into bite-sized pieces and gently heated in a skillet just enough for some of the fat to render out into a liquid state.  Some of the guanciale pieces begin to brown a little, but I'm not aiming to crisp them up at this point.

While the fat renders I go to the trouble of peeling several parsnips and cutting them also into bite sized pieces.  I check my quantities by spreading out the chopped parsnips on a sheet pan.  I don't want it overcrowded, but neither do I want too much open space on the pan.  The vegetables should all fit in a single layer with a bit of space around the pieces.  To each sheet pan of parsnips I add several peeled cloves of garlic, left whole, a good amount of finely chopped rosemary, and freshly ground white pepper.  I gather up the ingredients to the center of the pan, pour over the rendered guanciale fat and the guanciale pieces, and add just a bit of olive oil to the pile.  Then I mix everything by hand so that the vegetables are well coated with oil and fat.  These get spread back out to an even layer, and sprinkled with kosher salt just before going into a 375 F oven.

A single pan of these parsnips will take about 25-30 minutes to roast.  If you make two or more pans of these goodies at once, it'll take longer.  It's a good idea to rotate pans between shelves, as well as turning them 180 degrees if you're making a lot.  I didn't need to stir the parsnips around from time to time as they cooked.  With larger pieces of root vegetables I've noticed that doing so encourages more even cooking.  The smaller pieces don't seem to need it.  When the parsnips and guanciale develop a lovely browned appearance, you'll know they're done.

It may seem strange that I'm elevating what most people would consider a side dish to the status of a proper meal.  All I can say is that I tried using these roasted parsnips as a topping for pasta, and while it worked just fine, I noticed that the pasta seemed more of a distraction from the vegetables than a help.  So I gave up and next time just ate a large bowlful of the roasted parsnips.  Not the most nutritionally balanced meal in the world, but I can't stop eating them.  I'm thrilled to have stumbled on a great recipe for parsnips that uses homegrown garlic and rosemary, which is doing well by the way under protection.  We've hardly needed much in the way of season extension infrastructure with the mild winter we're having, but that's another post.

I got the basic idea for this dish from Molly Stevens' All About Roasting cookbook.  She takes her dish in a sweeter direction than mine with the addition of brown sugar.  To my mind, a parsnip that is allowed to stay in the ground through a few frosts so that it sweetens up on its own is plenty sweet enough, so I leave the sugar out.  But I appreciate the attention to detail in Stevens' book.  Hitting on the best temperatures and cooking pans for roasting all sorts of different foods is not an intuitively obvious thing, but one arrived at through much trial and error.  So I'm grateful for the sheet pan and temperature recommendation on this recipe, and the topic of the book is well suited to the season.

Anyway, I hope some of you will try this parsnip recipe, especially if you've never been impressed with this humble treasure before.  It was once the main winter staple crop of Europe, before the potato was brought from the new world.  I do wish that I could retrieve some of the ways our ancestors prepared this vegetable.  I'm sure they had some very good ways with the parsnip.  If you have a favored recipe for parsnips or other root crops, please do share them in the comments!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Few Loose Ends

Happy New Year, everyone!  My conscience has been nagging at me to follow up with results from several things I've written about over the last year or so.  I'm not good about getting around to posting about things I say that I will.  So I figure I'll clear my backlog with the first post of the year and then I can get back to semi-regular posting.

Leek seedlings
Last spring I tried a somewhat fiddly method of starting leek seedlings, with the aim of encouraging them to grow long and tall before they were transplanted out.  The idea was that a long seedling, transplanted deeply, wouldn't need hilling to make the plant develop a nice long white section, which is the best part of the leek.  Well, it worked and it didn't.  The seedlings indeed grew long and tall.  I duly transplanted them with just a couple inches of their full length showing above the ground, and then ignored them for the whole growing season.  Disappointingly, when I dug up a few this fall, they had very minimal white parts.  It seemed to me as though the plant turned anything planted below the soil line into root.  So this was a bust.  Hilling seems to be required to grow beautifully long white leeks.  I'm still looking for the best way to do this in my long narrow garden rows. 

Tomato trellising
Remember my enthusiasm to try a new tomato growing technique that I learned about at last year's PASA conference?  I've got results.  The trellising system worked fairly well as the plants grew tall.  It took some diligence to keep up with pruning extra branches and clipping the remaining ones to the wires.  The problem came when the plants started setting fruit and bulking them up.  I had all my trellises in short rows, which meant that only two 7' stakes were holding up three tomato plants each.   Gradually the weight of the plants pulled the stakes in towards each other, making all the wires sag.  This could be only minimally remedied by adjusting the wires at the stakes.  Next year I plan to grow my tomatoes in longer rows, with stakes every ten feet or so.  Since all but the end stakes will be supporting plants to either side, the growing weight of the plants should exert equal pulling in both directions, so that the stakes remain upright.  I may try angling the stakes outward at either end of the rows to give them more resistance.  The sagging wasn't a disaster, but it looked kinda shabby and cut down on airflow around the plants, which might have been a very bad thing in a blight year.

I've become a fan of burdock, aka gobo, for its delicious flavor and its soil amending properties.  When I wrote about them more than a year ago, there was some question in the comment section as to whether or not the parts of the taproot left in the ground would regrow in the spring and form a new plant.  The results this spring were negative - in the sense that I saw no plants emerge above ground where we'd dug out the roots.  This is a positive as far as I'm concerned though, because it means we can have our soil amendment and eat it too.  Those portions of root that are too deep to dig out rot in place, adding organic content to the subsoil and greatly improving our clay soil in the process. So burdock is not forever once you plant it, provided you harvest the root.  Those roots we didn't harvest definitely came roaring back this spring, ready to set seed.  And this is not a plant whose seed I want to save for myself, thank you very much.  It took more than one severe cutting down to the ground to encourage the plants to call it quits.  Burdock produces a fair bit of biomass in the second year, and the greens are marginally of interest to the chickens.

Acorns sprouting and different oak species
This one is owing for quite a while.  In fall of 2010, I aggressively gleaned acorns from oaks in parks and off my own property to use as feed supplement for my laying hens.  I went for a certain oak species that produced beautiful, large, meaty acorns, and I managed to gather some 60 pounds of them.  Unfortunately, it was mostly wasted effort.  The acorns that looked so big and worthy to me did not pass muster with the hens. They pecked rather half-heartedly at them after I crushed them by hand.  It was my mistake.  Since they obviously enjoyed the taste of the small, poorly looking acorns produced by the oak tree at our property line, I assumed that the acorns that look so much better to my eye would please them just the same.  Not so.  There are more than five hundred species of oak in the world.  And there's enormous variation in the tannin content of the seed of different sorts of oak tree, and even between individual trees of the same species.   Tannins give a bitter flavor to foods.  These compounds can be leached out of acorns well enough to make them palatable to humans, but that's not a process I'm willing to go through for the chickens' sake.  Some acorns are naturally "sweeter" than others, and obviously the oak on the edge of our property produces tasty ones.  So I've gone back to only collecting these rather sad looking acorns, which the hens do appreciate.  My advice is to definitely run a test on any acorn available to you before you go to the trouble of collecting more than a handful.  See if your livestock will eat the acorns from any given tree, and don't rely on appearance as an indicator of feed quality.

A note too about storing the acorns you do collect.  Do not keep them in plastic bags or buckets, even if left open and uncovered.  The acorns give off enough moisture so that the ones on the bottom will start to sprout in just a week or two.  A canvas or burlap bag will breathe enough to prevent this, as will baskets made of wire or natural fibers.

If there's something else I promised to report back on and have forgotten about, please remind me.  I'll do my best to follow up!