Sunday, January 31, 2010

Just the Aftermath

We don't entertain as often as we would like to. Probably because it involves cleaning the house, and my credentials in that department are really nothing to brag about. But it was obligatory to prepare spaghetti alla carbonara with the guanciale I made from those freebie hog jowls. And I couldn't do that without inviting the farming couple who donated them. If you're going to clean the house for one couple, I figured, why not invite a few? So two other gardening couples were included as well, including Kelly and Meg of Future House Farm.

Spaghetti alla carbonara waits for no man; you serve it the instant it's ready. So we didn't pause for a picture - we ate. And then the rest of the evening was so filled with gardening, farming, and food talk that we never got out the camera. We talked about local producers of pastured meats and dairy, how to transplant blueberry bushes, the best way to control mint's exuberant growth in a container, organic certification and its value - or lack of value - for small-scale farmers selling to a local market, the abomination of eggs from battery hens, wwoofing, the nitrogen content of human urine and its use for gardeners, the current scarcity of real butchering skills, coq au vin and the flavor merits of roosters or old laying hens, the advantages of vermicomposting over regular composting for those in very small spaces, various local vendors of premises-made ice cream, raw milk ice cream, various cane berries and how to tell when blueberries and wineberries are truly ripe, the necessity of bird netting when growing blueberries, how much we'd pay for our meal if it were served to us in a restaurant, Oprah Winfrey having Michael Pollan on her show, and all the phone calls our farming friends are suddenly getting about their pastured eggs and meat. My kind of conversation.

It was a kick to have such a local meal in January. We ate our own eggs and garlic, plus the home cured guanciale in the carbonara, incredibly awesome fresh salad greens from a local farm, a shallot from the same farm in the vinaigrette, and lemon balm from our own backyard to finish out the meal with a simple herbal tissane. I've prepared carbonara any number of times with American style bacon, which is the best most of us can usually do with that recipe. Guanciale, which is the authentic ingredient, adds a distinctively different taste to this dish. It was sweeter than bacon, and meatier, yet it didn't dominate the other ingredients to the degree that bacon does. This is counter-intuitive to me, since the guanciale is drier and much more concentrated than bacon. I honestly think I prefer the guanciale version. I also used (my version of) Kathy Harrison's "instant" fruit crisp topping for our dessert. (Note to self: make another batch of that soon.) The peaches and blackberries in the crisp were admittedly frozen and store bought, but at least organic, as was the vanilla ice cream.

I ate too much. I don't think I was entirely alone in this. That table was grazed. In a way that would delight the heart of any cook. It's been a while since I overindulged like that. I just couldn't help myself. I may have to skip a couple meals today, just to give my system a rest. But it was a great time.

That picture up there? All that was left of a batch of carbonara made with two full pounds of dried spaghetti, snapped during clean up.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Nature as Artist

Chilly morning: 14 F/-10 C. Finally remembered to take a picture of the frosted panel of glass covering the cold frame. It changes everytime it thaws and then freezes again overnight. Variations on the same theme each time. I couldn't paint this well if I tried. It looks like growing plants to me. Do you think nature's trying to tell me something?

The spinach is doing remarkably well under there. (Click the images to biggify, if you wish.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Meal Planning with a Garden

I've been thinking lately about the ways that producing our own food has changed our eating and cooking habits. Although fresh foods are somewhat scarce for us right now, in the depths of winter, in some ways I have more freedom to choose what I feel like cooking. When the garden has passed its peak output for the year, and much of what it produced has either been eaten or preserved, the pressure eases off. Oh, there are still things out there to harvest; parsnips and a few hardy plants in the cold frame. But all these things can hang out for a while. They don't present themselves with the same urgency as summer crops, which will rot, bolt, turn tough or bitter, get eaten by varmints, or simply overwhelm through sheer numbers if not harvested promptly.

What arrives in fall and stays through early spring is a measure of free choice in what I cook and what we eat. Sure, there are the harvested pumpkins, and squash, and potatoes to use up, but they too give me more latitude than summer's bounty. All summer long and into early fall I cook and preserve food in a race to keep up with what's coming in. That comes about from - and requires - a change in the way I think about cooking, and this was no small thing for me.

See, I trained as a chef. After mastering the fundamentals, we were taught to approach cooking as a creative challenge and as an expression of "personality." It was about sexing up a chicken breast to make it seem less trite, or assembling flavors in novel ways to tickle a jaded palate. We weren't taught to think about seasonality or regionality very much, unless it was something that could be translated into marketing text on a menu. And yes, we were very much taught to look at menus as marketing tools. Back then, the concept of local food was nowhere near the surface of national consciousness; it had only a small novelty value to a few menu-scrutinizing gourmands. Food miles never entered the discussion of my culinary training - not once.

That way of thinking took hold strongly in me. I've lived in areas where high quality ingredients were available to me at any time, irrespective of food miles or season. For years just about any exotic ingredient you could imagine was at my fingertips, ready tools at the service of my artistic vision in the kitchen. When thinking about meal preparation, it was routine for me to thumb idly through a cookbook, looking for a recipe that caught my fancy. Or I might simply sit back and ask myself what I felt like eating that night, and then proceed to acquire the necessary ingredients from the store. This was a deeply ingrained habit of thought, and it's one that runs counter to the realities of a food garden. This meant that when I gardened back then, I was a dabbler, and the food I produced myself was always adjunct and secondary to the "real" source of food - stores and farmers' markets. If I didn't feel like eating what was ripe in my own garden, I didn't. And I did no preserving in those days. I'm ashamed to say that (while some of it got eaten and some given away) too much of that homegrown food simply went to waste.

When I became more serious about producing my own food and frugality in general, the harvests soon collided with my habits of thought around cooking. It was no longer about what I felt like cooking; wasting home grown food was no longer acceptable. The game had changed, and the challenges were now based in real life and not the creative life of a "culinary artist." It took a while, but I came to consider the garden and my pantry my primary sources of food. Purchased food, from any source, is now secondary. The differences are significant. I now understand the value in single-ingredient-themed cookbooks. When you're getting upwards of 25 eggs per week, or have just harvested 100 pounds of potatoes, cookbooks devoted entirely to egg or potato dishes seem like a really good idea. I used to find such cookbooks boring. Not any more.

Now meal preparation begins with an assessment of what needs using up, whatever the season. That's not to say my cooking is a constant state of triage in which I find ways to salvage food that's beginning to go off. No, I'm talking about staying ahead of the curve and eating or storing foods at their peak. I still have plenty of range for creative expression in my cooking. But now I start with the given of the foods we have, and I take pleasure in finding interesting things to do with these high-quality building blocks. I still use cookbooks, but I'm much more likely than previously to substitute ingredients based on what we have.

Even in winter, the food put up in canning jars, the freezer, or simply hanging out in cool storage needs to be tracked and eaten. Those foods have a shelf life like any other (natural) food. Even if they aren't about to go off, I need to know what I have on hand in order to plan the next year's garden crops and how they will be eaten or preserved. We got almost no tomatoes in 2009, so this year I'll try to put up two years' worth of sauce, just in case we get hit with blight again. On the other hand, we made enough jam to last us a couple of years. So we'll use up the fruit we produce in other ways.

Another difference is that for most of the year we eat fresher, more nutritionally dense food, and we eat in the seasonal sequence of produce gluts. During the winter, we eat food that was processed (by me, at home) at optimal nutrition and freshness. I'm working on making fresh foods more available in the cold months through season extension with cold frames too.

Here are a few ingredient-themed cookbooks I've found useful in helping me cook from both the garden and preserved or stored foods.

Simply in Season
The Compleat Squash
The Bean Bible
The Good Egg
One Potato, Two Potato

If you can recommend any other cookbooks that help use up garden gluts or commonly stored foods, please let me know in the comments.

Monday, January 25, 2010

On Perennials

When we began gardening with the aim of supplying a significant portion of our own food, something became apparent very quickly. Gardening is a lot of work, and the workload is not evenly distributed through the year. The most physically demanding and the most time-critical tasks must be done in the spring - especially when you are breaking ground for a new garden bed. It also becomes obvious that the majority of plants that people add to their gardens only give returns for a very short time. Most are annuals; a few are biennials that can be coaxed to actually yield in two calendar years. The perennials though - the perennials are golden treasures. Who wouldn't want to get many years of harvest for the effort of planting once?

Obviously, the nature of perennials is to be planted once and then harvested for many years. This is a good return on the gardener's investment of labor. Perennials range from fruit and nut trees, to flowers, to culinary and medicinal herbs, to sundry types of berries, and also include a few vegetables. I see some perennials as a sort of "natural" season extension. Because perennials store a lot of their energy in root systems, some of them are among the first plants to emerge in the spring, without the help of cold frames or hoop houses. The downsides to perennials include that many are purchased as rootstock or seedlings, and these can be quite a bit more expensive than seeds for annual garden plants, that most do not give yields immediately, and that you must be more deliberative in choosing a site for them, since they will remain there for many years. Granted, fruit and nut trees (as well as berries) take up quite a bit more space than a small patch of lettuce. They also create shade as they grow. But there are plenty of perennial food plants with small footprints on the ground. Grapes and other vines, for instance, take well to trellising and can occupy very little horizontal space if given nutrient-dense soil to grow in. Though most nut trees become very large as they reach maturity, hazelnuts and filberts (and hybrids of these two species) remain small enough for a pair to fit on a subacre lot without shading most of the property.

For the space devoted to a dwarf pear or dwarf apple tree, you could expect to harvest one hundred pounds of fruit in a good year, once the tree is mature. Permaculture also includes many techniques for maximizing the production of useful plants under and around fruit and nut trees.

On the balance the benefits seemed to us to outweigh the downsides. In 2008 and 2009 we planted many types of perennials on our property, and we'll put in a few more this year. Below I've listed the perennials we either inherited with the property, have already put in, or plan to put in this year.

Trees and shrubs
  • Cherry - standard may bear for 15-20 years, dwarf varieties probably less, best to have two types for pollination
  • Pear - reaches full bearing capacity in 8-10 years, may bear for 50-75 years, best to have two types for pollination
  • Fig - will be container grown in my zone (6a) and kept in unheated garage during winter, should bear for 15-20 years, new trees can be grown from cuttings
  • Lemon - will be container grown in my zone and kept indoors during winter, susceptible to scale and other citrus diseases
  • Lime - container grown, 3-year-old plant has not yet borne, kept indoors during winter, susceptible to scale and other citrus diseases
  • Apple - consider a very late season apple if yellow jackets on groundfalls are a concern, dwarf varieties may bear for 30 years, standard for 50-100 years
  • Hazelbert - (hazelnut/filbert cross) most growth in first three years is in root system, 8 years to maximum production, can bear for 30-50 years
  • Black Currant - best to have two types for pollination, can tolerate significant but not total shade, produces best fruit in full sun, bears for 10-20 years
  • Elderberry - two types needed for good pollination, (eventually) grows large enough for a privacy screen, reaches full bearing capacity in 3-4 years
  • Various thymes
  • Various sages
  • Chives
  • Chinese chives
  • Oregano - can be invasive, but can also be controlled by pruning or grown in containers
  • Lemon balm - both culinary and medicinal, can be invasive, but can also be controlled by timely pruning, important nectar source for honey bees
  • Various comfreys - multi-purpose, grows exuberantly but spreads only a certain amount unless roots are disturbed
  • Echinacea - medicinal, grows slowly, can be divided every three years
  • Spearmint - culinary, extremely invasive, best planted in a container
  • Anise hyssop - lovely sweet taste, pretty blooms are a favorite of the honey bee
  • Yarrow - multi-purpose, fast growing and spreads indefinitely - somewhat invasive
  • Ramps - onion relative, very shade tolerant, emerges very early, propagate by seed or division
  • Asparagus - needs 2-3 years to reach maximum production, can produce for up to 20 years, heavy feeder needing good soil
  • Ostrich ferns - emerge very early as edible fiddleheads, tolerant of significant shade
  • Jerusalem artichoke - edible tubers harvested fall/winter, spreads easily, difficult to eradicate once established, late season food source for bees
Cane and vine fruits
  • wineberries - wild volunteers in our area, appearance/flavor resembling raspberries, lovely sweet-tart taste, plants are of no interest to Japanese beetles
  • raspberries - purchased rootstock will bear by the 2nd year at latest, reaches full bearing capacity in 3-4 years, may bear for 10 years
  • blueberries - can bear lightly in "1st" year if 3-year-old plants are used, pinching off blossoms in first few years helps the plant grow larger sooner, reaches full bearing capacity in 8 years, may bear for 50+ years
  • blackberries - purchased rootstock will bear by the 2nd year at latest, reaches full bearing capacity in 3-4 years, may bear for 25 years
  • grapes - purchased rootstock may bear in 2nd or 3rd year, may bear for 50 years

I have listed here only the perennials that we already have on our property or will plant this year. There are many other perennials to choose among, especially if you live in a warmer zone than I do. We are right on the line of feasibility for peach trees. Just a few miles north of here, and there's no chance of a peach harvest without the protection of a good microclimate. In our area peaches succeed in some years and are wiped out by frost in others. We like peaches, but not those odds, so peach trees were off our list.

Many reseeding or "self-sowing" annuals function like perennial plants in some ways. These plants grow, reproduce, and die every year, but their offspring grow in the same place without human intervention. Consider this sub-set of annual plants if you can't find a true perennial for the purpose you desire.

Much of the information listed above comes from my own observation. I've also drawn on charts in Edible Forest Gardensby Dave Jacke, a dense but invaluable reference book on perennial plants of use in permaculture design.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Guanciale Report: Awesome!

After a lovely Saturday marked by a January thaw, and filled with local foods bought at an on-farm market, seed swapping with other gardeners, and the chance to further our acquaintance with Kelly & Meg of Future House Farm, Sunday dawned grey and forbidding. A freezing drizzle soon set in. An indoor sort of day. I decided it was time to check on the guanciale ("gwan-CHA-lay").

This project started back just before Thanksgiving, and I was due to check on its progress earlier this month. For a variety of reasons, I didn't get around to it until yesterday. The five weeks of air-curing left the pork jowls quite stiff. The apple-wood-smoked jowl had a lovely light smoke aroma, and the unsmoked one still barely any scent at all. Authentic guanciale is only cured, not smoked, so the smoked jowl probably shouldn't be called guanciale at all. What can I say? I like smoked foods, and I've got that handy homemade garbage can smoker. I couldn't resist.

I brought both jowls inside and weighed them. Unfortunately I didn't weigh the raw jowls before starting the curing experiment, but the finished pieces weighed in together at 3 lbs, 2.4 oz. Then I sliced off a few thin pieces from the real guanciale. The texture was noticeably different from any sort of bacon I've ever handled. The slice itself was quite stiff, not floppy and flexible like a slice of normal bacon would be, even though it was easy enough to cut the slice with a sharp knife. These slices released plenty of fat as they cooked in a skillet. They took less time to cook than bacon would, probably because they contained a lot less moisture than conventional bacon.

The flavor of these slices was intense! Extremely meaty and quite salty is how I would describe it, though the sweetness of the sugar in the curing mix was also there in the profile. The flavors of the thyme, black pepper, and juniper berry added to the curing mix were not very pronounced. Having sampled the real guanciale, we next tried the smoked jowl. It too was much more intensely flavored than any bacon we'd ever tried, but the smokiness really took it to another level. I think the amount of smoke on this jowl was just about perfect, neither overpowering nor faint. We liked them both. But I think if we're honest, we liked the smoky one better. Guanciale affumicato, perhaps?

Because we found both samples quite salty, I brushed the excess salt and sugar off of both jowls before storing them in the refrigerator, though the salt content is likely already set. These cured meats are probably not going to be eaten straight up, the way we sampled them, but more likely mixed into sauces, pastas and other dishes. In those contexts, the saltiness probably won't be an issue since other ingredients will balance the salt. In the future though, I might let the jowls air cure for a week and then brush off the excess salt to limit the saltiness in the finished guanciale.

I didn't use any nitrites in the curing mix, only salt, a little sugar, and herbs and spices. Nitrites are usually added to preserve a nice rosy pink color in cured meats. We found that the meat in the unsmoked guanciale was quite pink anyway. The smoked one has more of a brownish tinge, but looking at this photo (smoked jowl on the right) I suspect the center of the smoked one is going to look more pink and less brown. In any case, I don't care enough about the color to add a potentially unhealthy chemical to my curing mix.

This experiment was exceptionally easy to carry out. It took me about the same amount of time to go pick up the jowls and come home with them as it did for me to complete the necessary hands-on work of trimming out the jowls, mixing and applying the curing mix, smoking one of them, and then hanging the jowls to air dry. Of course, the timing was critical. The air drying stage of the curing process wouldn't work without the cold temperatures of winter. But I am very pleased with how this initial attempt at home curing went. I didn't even have a book to consult, just used what resources I could find online.

We're going to try to corral a few friends for a dinner of spaghetti alla carbonara, made with our own eggs and garlic, this home-cured guanciale, a local "Asiago" grating cheese, and some boughten organic pasta and black pepper. A mostly local dinner in the depths of winter! If that dinner materializes, I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Food Production in Small Spaces: Honey Bees

I sort of threw down the gauntlet to my readers on the cusp of 2010. I'm curious to see how much food we can produce on our little property, and I invited others to find out and document how much food their backyards and back gardens, or balconies, or whatever, could produce. I'm far from an expert on this topic - maximizing food production in limited spaces. I wish I were, but I'm relatively new myself to serious attempts at feeding myself from my own property.

Still, having nudged people to play along at home, I feel somewhat obligated to offer some ideas to help out. I'm not going to do one monster length post on all the possibilities. I figured I would take the ideas one or two at a time and see if we can get conversations going about each of them. One thing that is much on my mind at the moment is the honey bee, because we're planning to start with them ourselves this year. I know this isn't for everyone, but as livestock go, honey bees are really quite special in a number of ways.

A bee hive takes up very, very little space; less space than you would need to allocate to just about any other livestock. Maybe you could keep a few quail in complete confinement in the same total area as a bee hive. But a hive's footprint on the ground is minuscule; you could put one on an apartment balcony. And if you did that, you wouldn't have to worry about mice, skunks, or bears that more rural beekeepers contend with. Bees also don't compete with humans or other livestock for the same feed. While the cost of equipment is undeniably high when starting up with bees, there are no pangs of conscience when it comes to feeding them. As far as stacking benefits (i.e. what else do they do for you other than produce food?) honey bees obviously help with the pollination of fruits and vegetables in the garden. Frequently overlooked is the soil amendment value of bee manure. Each colony can be expected to deposit 100 pounds (45 kg) of nitrogen-rich manure in a 120 foot (40 m) radius around the hive, each year. Over the years, that adds up to a lot of free organic nitrogen, a critical plant nutrient. Free fertilizer I don't have to shovel!! Bees are also very different from most other livestock in that they do not need daily tending. You can take a vacation away from home (provided you time it right) without getting a sitter for your bees. That's simply not true with most animals. Bees take care of themselves pretty well.

Additionally, there's no need to slaughter your bees in order to harvest. Granted, a great many bees will die natural deaths over the course of the year. But most people can handle a dead insect or several, and a strong colony will take care of most of their own mortuary duties. Some beekeepers will kill an underperforming queen, but this is a choice that other beekeepers will argue against. So if you're not up to the task of dispatching an animal, even a sick or injured one, bees may be the livestock for you.

Now as for the harvest, one can't count on any surplus honey at all the first year, as the colony needs to establish itself and build its strength. But after that, a healthy colony can easily produce twenty pounds of extra honey that you can harvest each year. Some backyard beekeepers see 50 or even 100 pounds of honey per healthy, established hive in good years! (Does it strike any of you as interesting that 100 pounds of honey per hive per year is outstanding, while 100 pounds of manure is a given?)

I can't think of ANY other way of producing as much high-quality food in a given area while still maintaining humane conditions for livestock. Obviously, yield will depend on many variables, as it does with all types of food production. Some studies show that city bees are exposed to fewer pesticides than bees in suburban or agricultural areas. So if you're a city dweller dealing with very limited space for food production, you may want to consider beekeeping. At this time of year you have almost no time left to mull the decision if you want to start this year. But a year of reading and learning about beekeeping is an excellent plan before getting started. In many areas you can find low-cost introductory beekeeping classes through Agricultural Extension offices or local beekeeping associations.

I would only caution an aspiring beekeeper not to underestimate the initial investment costs for equipment. The start up costs for bees are very high compared to some other livestock, as the housing and equipment for bees are so particular. Chickens can be housed in any number of ways and the housing can be made from easily found scrap materials. No equipment is needed for harvesting eggs (beyond a basket if you happen to have a large flock). Unfortunately, with so many diseases prevalent among honey bees, used hive boxes are not a good idea because they can be a vector for disease. Unless you know and absolutely trust the practices of the beekeeper selling such equipment, it's usually a better route to buy or build new hive boxes.

I'll be discussing both honey bees and techniques for producing food in limited spaces quite a bit this year. Stay tuned.

Friday, January 8, 2010

PASA Conference Coming Up Soon

I have no idea how many readers visit this blog from my home state of Pennsylvania, but any of you that do might want to check out the annual conference coming up soon for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. The conference is called Farming for the Future, and it's held each year on the first Friday-Saturday in February in State College, smack in the middle of the state. This will be my fourth year attending, and I wouldn't miss it! I always come back from the conference bursting with excitement about my gardening projects for the year. I learn so much from the speakers, and my fellow attendees as well. It is both comforting and hugely energizing to be surrounded - just once in the year - by people committed to healthy food, to preserving the living soils that we depend upon utterly, to finding workable solutions to the problems agriculture is facing and will face in this century, and to teaching a new generation of farmers.

If you live in Pennsylvania and eat, you should know about PASA. If you garden or farm, or aspire to do either of these things, you'd be giving yourself a huge treat by attending this conference. The amazing selection of workshops and speakers at this year's conference is going to make it tough to choose which ones I attend. Check it out. And let me know if you'll be there!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

We Now Have a Root Cellar

The root cellar project took shape as a twinkle in my eye about the time we had an energy audit for our home, last April. In the course of discussing insulation for our basement, it occurred to me that, left uninsulated and then sealed off, one small room at the northwest end of the basement could be turned into a root cellar. So when the house was air sealed and foamed, that part of the basement was left alone, to let the heat continue to leak out through the walls. We consulted the Bubels' excellent guide, Root Cellaring, for pointers on design. My husband tackled the messy and difficult job of drilling two seriously large holes through the ceiling of this room and up through the cement slab of our front porch, in order to provide ventilation. He got this done in an afternoon with a rented impact drill.

The last pieces of the puzzle were a custom built and professionally installed door to create a good air seal from the rest of the basement, plus running a light for the room. Given the weird dimensions and lack of square or plumb doorway openings so typical to old farmhouses in this area, no off-the-shelf door was going to work. In the end this project cost us quite a bit more out of pocket than we imagined it would. On the other hand, it's a pretty big room for storing food, and the root cellar cost a lot less than a new refrigerator. I'm looking at it from this perspective: now that the root cellar is built, it will require no further energy or monetary inputs to function as long as the house exists and someone is around to use it. We spent now so that we have this valuable resource later, whether we have money or not.

I know that picture up there looks like there should be bloody streaks on every surface and manacles mortared into the stone walls. What can I say? Old farmhouse basements can be kinda creepy. The room measures about 4' by 9' (1.2 m by 2.7 m). Undoubtedly, it and the adjacent room of similar size once held coal for the original furnace of the house. At 5' 7" (170 cm) I can stand up in this room comfortably, but my 6' 2" (188 cm) husband cannot. No matter. It'll be mostly me going in there. We'll still need shelving before this year's harvest. In the meantime, my husband has promptly taken advantage of the free cooling for his beer, using scavenged wooden pallets to keep the boxes from the dampness of the unsealed floor. This room is naturally humid, and sometimes even has a little standing water in it after heavy rains. For the most part, dampness is not a problem in root cellars. Many crops hold better with plenty of humidity in the air. We may need to add moisture at times if the air is too dry.

I've been watching the temperature in the root cellar since the door was installed. Outside daytime temperatures have been below freezing for about a week now. The basement temperature, just outside the root cellar and very near to the furnace, has been around 63 F/17 C. Over the last week the root cellar's temperature has dropped slowly from the high 40's to 39 F/<4 C. That's pretty cold! I'll be very curious to see how the temperature changes over the year.

I'm planning to experiment with keeping ice in the root cellar. I started with a few plastic jugs, but found that they are thawing fairly quickly at current temperatures. I am waiting on the collection of plastic soda and juice bottles from relatives. When I have a bunch I'll fill them with water and let them freeze on the porch, then put them together in the root cellar. I'm curious to see how long ice can be kept in there. I would like to try to get a sufficiently large number of containers packed together in an insulated box of some sort. In earlier times, people kept massive quantities of ice all year long, even in warm climates, just packed in sawdust or other insulating materials. Of course, I can only fit so much ice into this root cellar, so I won't have the advantage of a large thermal mass. But it's a wintertime experiment to keep myself occupied.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

More Connections, Less Waste

Last year I posted a piece over at the Simple Green Frugal Co-op about the complexity of life on our little homestead. Complexity is not bad, not at all. It's just that I nearly always have to bite my tongue when people talk about "the simple life." Nature is far from simple, and though agriculture isn't necessarily "natural," it moves in the same realm. The human routines of self-sufficiency are rarely more simple than for those who are plugged in to the industrial way of life at every juncture. What people mean when they talk about a "simple life" is really anything but. As we started producing more of our own food, and started adding livestock to our system, the connections between living things just became more and more apparent.

I speculated in that co-op post about what new connections would become apparent as we continued to add different kinds of livestock. It turns out that we haven't even added bees yet, and I already see new connections that are going to happen. We grow our own popcorn. The stalks and husks and cobs from the plants have up till now only been material for composting. Now I learn that dried corn cobs make excellent material to burn in the smoker for the bee hives. It's not as if I would have gone out and paid for stuff to burn in my smoker; there are plenty of free options. It feels good to know however, that from now on at least some of the cobs will be set aside for beekeeping supplies. It will make me happy, when the green corn stands tall in the garden, to look at the plants and see not just food, but useful materials.

Connections happen a lot between animals and plants on our little homestead. But they can happen between plant species too. I put in four blueberry bushes last spring, where we'd cut down a white pine tree. I had expected the tree to have acidified that soil pretty well, but a soil test showed the soil was nowhere near the range that blueberries prefer. We've been dumping our spent tea leaves, and what few citrus rinds we still buy on the blueberry patch. I also brought in several large bags of pine needles from a relative's property to mulch with last fall. I neglected however to save the apple pomace from our fall apple pressing. Apple pomace is highly acidic. So much so that it's not advisable to put it in the garden without first thoroughly composting it. Blueberries are a different case however, especially in a situation where the soil pH needs to be lowered. Usually when we press cider we give the pomace to a farmer with goats who shows up to press with us, for use as feed. Last year the farmer couldn't make it, so the pomace went into my relatives' (the press owners) compost pile. I could have, and should have brought that pomace home for the blueberries. This year I will.

When people describe life as a web, it sounds poetic and a little corny. I don't live in the wilderness; I'm not a new age-y sort; and I don't come from a line of people who have retained a mystical connection with the earth. But I'd have to be blind to do what I do and not see at least a few of these connections. Corn and honeybees. The apple tree and blueberries. These things make me happy.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Using It Up: Deviled Bones

We had a prime rib roast with Yorkshire pudding for Christmas dinner, rounded out with carrots from the cold frame and parsnips dug from our garden. Roast beef is a once-per-year extravagance for us. For the past three years, our roast has come from local farmers who raise their beef cattle on pasture. The roasts have all been superb, and a much appreciated change from our normal diet that is contains the occasional roast chicken, or perhaps a little ground pork or ground beef now and then. Roast beef is special indeed for us.

As we ate our way through the delicious leftovers, we looked forward to the ritual of the deviled bones. Even the bones of a prime rib are to be treasured - the wrap up to the traditions in our holiday season. To think of discarding them seems sacrilegious! I like to serve these deviled bones with a green salad to balance out the carnivorous mess that takes center stage on the plate. Eating deviled bones is an extremely primal process of gnawing off the meat clinging to the bones. You can dress it up with wine and a cloth napkin, but this isn't a meal for any but the most intimate company. I feel the regression of a few hundred thousand years when eating this meal. Growling is optional. There's no doubt at all in my mind that human teeth were selected at least partly for tearing meat from bones.

Here's a quick sketch of a recipe for deviled prime rib bones. Take a tablespoon of salted butter for every bone you have, usually it will be three or four. Melt this butter and add 1 teaspoon of dried mustard, plus one teaspoon of cayenne or a milder ground chile pepper. I like to use chile molido. Alternatively, you can substitute two teaspoons of any curry powder you like for the mustard and chile. Add about 1 teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Stir these ingredients together. Brush the butter mixture over the bones with a pastry brush, coating all sides very well. Dredge the bones in a shallow dish of salted bread crumbs. Place the bones on a baking sheet, resting so that their meaty sides are upward (curving upwards in the center and resting on their two ends) and broil them for about 7 minutes. Turn the bones over (two ends will point upwards) and continue broiling for about 5 minutes. Credit for the general idea of this recipe goes to Jennifer McLagan and her book, Bones: Recipes, History, and Lore.

The bones look impressive on a plate, even though there's very little meat there. Fortunately, the flavor of meat so close to the bone is exceptional. And it takes long enough to eat deviled bones that you will be satisfied by the time you're done with a bone or two and a salad.

When we had gnawed to our heart's content, and our faces and fingers were coated with delicious grease, and the salad had put a civilized facade on our carnivorous glee, I still couldn't bear to throw the bones away. Having slathered them in strong spices, and on account of their meagre quantity, I didn't think they'd be worth making into stock. But I saved them for the hens, thinking about how cold it's been lately, with temperatures not even getting up near freezing. I wouldn't do this with poultry bones, but with a difference in species as profound as chickens and cows, I don't worry about any possible disease transmission.

The girls went absolutely bonkers over the first bone I tossed into their enclosure. With their sharp little beaks, they stripped down whatever tiny shreds of meat we'd left behind. I had intended to save the bones to dole out to them. But there was such a ruckus over that first one that I tossed in the remaining two just to avoid flying feathers. When the ground thaws those bones will be buried in three separate spots in the garden, where they'll slowly leach nutrients into the soil.

In this way, I feel satisfied with having not only gotten full value out of our expensive purchase, but in also respecting the animal that died that we might eat it. We will waste none of it, because someone gave a damn about this food. And because food is precious.

P.S. I failed to snap a picture this year, so that's a picture from the aftermath of 2008's feast.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Better Angels of Our Nature

It's that time of year that encourages us to listen to the better angels of our nature. People are writing about their goals, resolutions, revolutions and projects for 2010. I know that over the past year many of the blogistes that I read regularly have inspired me to do better, do more, keep pursuing my ambitions, strengthen my community, make the world a better place.

Last night a thought came to me as I contemplated what more I could be doing. "What would Rob do?" Conveniently, Rob had just told us what he would do. He would be proud of me if I got to know my neighbors better than our current nodding acquaintance affords. Then I continued with that train of thought...what would make El proud of me? She and Ali both would encourage me to get my act together this year with regards to season extension. Kathy would be so tickled if I gathered up my garden tools, and cleaned, sharpened, oiled and organized them all so that they're ready to go in the spring, and if I finally figured out how to organize my canning lids and rings. Julie would be proud if I made a pledge to use absolutely no more plastic shopping bags - ever. Sharon would be proud if I resolved to use less electricity in 2010 than we did in 2009, and actually managed to do so. And Wendy would be proud of me if I made a commitment to source all of my dairy locally.

It's not so much that I crave the approbation of these writers. I think rather it's that in various ways these writers are the voices of the better angels of my nature. I think that's what draws me to their writing in the first place. As I sat there going through the mental roster of my blog roll and what actions they spur me towards, I realized that each one of these things are possible for me, starting right now. There's nothing stopping me from doing any of these things. Having already changed many of my behaviors that were once routine, I know that however accustomed I am to doing something, however inconvenient a change may initially seem, once a new habit replaces the old behavior, it seems normal and unremarkable to practice the new habit. It only takes a bit of short-term discipline and motivation to adopt many a new habit; after that the new habit is the routine. There are countless examples of this in my own life.

So I'm going to work on these things this year, in addition to all those other crazy projects I've already posted about. I may not succeed perfectly, but that's hardly the point. The point is to begin and to try. But what about you? Are you drawn to read blogs which sound like the better angels of your nature? Or do you read for other reasons? Would you like to make your blog roll authors proud? What are some things you could do that you think would accomplish that? I'm dying to read your responses, and you can name names, or not, as you wish!