Monday, January 24, 2011

The Winter CSA: Halfway Mark

We are about halfway through our Winter CSA with Everblossom Farm in PA. This has turned out to be a great decision for us this year. Sometimes people complain with a CSA that they don't get enough food, or that they get way too  much of one thing. In my own experience, you can only do so much with zucchini, I think. Elaine of Everblossom Farm has done a great job of ensuring we are provided with a variety of produce and herbs for each of our pick-ups, though this all has to work within the confines of winter growth and root cellar storage. We chose to take 3/4 of a share, which for our family of three seems to have worked out really well. On the weeks we get the full share, we certainly have too much, but then it evens out the next time when we receive only a half share.

I took stock this weekend of where we stood with the CSA items. We have one butternut squash left, but started the season with six, so that is good. We had two quarts of potatoes and probably three pounds or more of carrots. We also had quite a bit of garlic, but again, I had completely stocked up on garlic before the Winter. There are a few things in the freezer, like leeks, but overall, we really are just talking potatoes and carrots.

I decided the potatoes were starting to be a bit soft and we better start making a bigger dent in the carrots, given we'll probably get  more next week! So, we converted the potatoes into gnocchi and the carrots into carrot cake. I had only made gnocchi once before, in a cooking class in Italy, and I hadn't really done very well. I'm not sure why that is. My instructor clearly thought my kneading skills were poor. This time I followed Jamie Oliver's recipe. After baking the potatoes in the oven, I ran them through the food mill to remove the skins and create a fine grade. Note to self, next time just peel the potatoes. The food mill requires a lot of effort to deskin potatoes. Things were actually pretty easy from there. An egg, nutmeg, salt, and a dash of flour. A bit of kneading, rolling out sausage links, and clipping with the scissors. I tested the mix in boiling water, and it held together and tasted great. Later that evening, I melted gorgonzola cheese in butter and half-n-half for decadent sauce and tossed in baked halibut chunks.
Gnocchi in the works

My son made the carrot cake for the most part, using a recipe we found on This was another first for us, and he remarked throughout how weird this cake was. In the end, it is quite delicious, particularly with a marscapone-butter icing. I think the use of crushed pineapple and apple sauce ensures that it is moist, but it wasn't too heavy.  In one fell swoop, we used three cups of grated carrots, which helps dig into the pounds of carrots in the fridge. That and a carrot salad taken from Moosewood Cookbook put us on track for carrot consumption for the week. More and we might turn a bit orange.
The Carrot Cake

While we are in the lean weeks right now for the CSA, the rest of the group feels the same way we do. This was a great idea.
The cake used a lot of carrots

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Dream of the Winter Greenhouse

The somewhat worn greenhouse
I went into the greenhouse yesterday morning to see what state it was in. I had been avoiding it, really, as my expectations of any life inside had plummeted and there is no disappointment if you don't enter. But I had had a fan running for several hours a day on a timer to circulate air and reduce condensation, and I wondered whether it was time to pull the plug. Somewhat surprisingly there are several small lettuce plants coming along, a few very small spinach starts, two seedlings that self-identify as parsley, and the cilantro plant is holding its own. The chickweed, I think it is, is thriving. The fan was running, but the condensation was still high enough that there were water droplets along the pvc piping on the back wall. I put on a second small fan. For a likely harvest value of under ten dollars, one might really wonder why.  Of course, if you saw that this little greenhouse was also tucked into a teeny clearing in the woods, you might also well question the sanity of that. But there is something so appealing about having life in the middle of winter, a brightly lit environment heated by the sun (in my case, shining through the tree branches).

The greenhouse is about ten or twelve years old now. I was inspired to buy it when I was mostly a flower gardener, not really concerned at all about what I ate or where it came from. Indeed, the simpler the better, and if you could buy supper frozen in a single bag, perfect. But I did have large flower gardens and wanted to get my seedlings earlier, wanted some flower life during the bleak winter months, and had vague interest in growing some veggies in the snow. That was really more about self-sufficiency than the veggies, admittedly. The greenhouse promised a place to sit in bright light and 70 degrees, while the air outside was well below freezing. This was Before Kids and early enough in our careers that we were able to pay friends in pizza to put in two full grueling days of labor to assemble the greenhouse. This one is from Gardener's Supply and came in these large double-pained pieces that were to fit together like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. Everything had to be plum and level or it simply wouldn't work. That's where the grueling part came in. Eventually after several goes of re-assembly to get the last little itsy triangular piece to fit correctly, we used a hacksaw to modify the design. Hey, it worked.

The greenhouse worked beautifully in those early years. There are sun-triggered vents that open one of three large panels depending on the heat in the room, and I had electric and water sent to the greenhouse. I built a large raised bed and filled the rest of the area with shelves. You could go out on a cold bright Winter day, sit inside and be toasty. I grew seedlings for the flower garden the first year. I didn't have a heater, so it was a cold house and that limited what I could do. Temperatures could and did fall into the mid-to-low twenties on February nights. The next year, I bought a greenhouse heater and fan, and I ran a cool house, which keeps the minimum temperature at about 40 degrees F. My seedlings thrived but none of my food grew. I really had no idea, of course, what I was doing. I consulted books, but it was pretty much a flop. Still, every year I would try something else.

When we returned from Europe, the greenhouse was completely overrun with weeds and numerous mice had made their homes inside. The tenants had accidentally poked a few more holes into the side and hadn't made the repairs. I patched those up, as the greenhouse's ability to maintain temperature and reduce condensation depends heavily on those two layers holding a pillow of air between them. In 2008, I decided to give it a go again with a few veggies in the Winter. My flower gardens had been all but destroyed during our three years of absence, but surely something could grow from seed. I ran a cool house, and really can't complain. I had a parsley and a dill plant that both grew to be giants before the end of Spring, and lettuce that wasn't great, but it did grow. Mice chewed through the electrical cord of the heater and the fan the following Spring and Fall. Lovely.  I had been getting a little out of my greenhouse, but considering the work going into it, not much. I wasn't giving up.

Fargo smells the chicks!

In 2009, disaster struck. Our friend Maureen asked us to take care of these baby chicks while they went on vacation for a week. It didn't seem an unreasonable request at the time, though, boy, are chicks high maintenance! Independent of that, however, our dog decided that he was going to eat the chicks. No matter what. We had them outside on the porch at first, but he dug huge pieces out of the inside window sills, knocked over and broke things, and tore up some other goods trying to get at these yummy little dessert morsels. He barked constantly and the stress level was incredibly high. After a few days, we moved them out to the greenhouse and things calmed down. Fargo didn't know where his targets had gone. Until one afternoon we were outside working in the yard. While I pulled weeds, he discovered the chicks. Running wildly around the greenhouse, barking, he eventually started jumping up trying to enter. I took a photo before I realized what was really going on, and before I was able to react,  Fargo had clawed quite a few large holes in the sides. He took the notion of eating locally to heart.

Still, I have this dream of getting food out of the winter greenhouse. And doing so without too much energy usage. I made repairs to the greenhouse walls, though I don't actually think they are really repaired and I bought new vents that seemed broken by the enormous snow last year. I was inspired by Elliott Coleman's The Winter Harvest, with his pictures of wonderful produce growing in a cold house in Maine. It's almost a folly now, though. I know that I simply don't get enough light until all the leaves fall, which is too late. In mid-Winter, there is plenty of light, and then as the leaves return, the light goes. And the vents and air sealing don't really seem fixed because the don't open enough and condensation is a much more serious problem than we ever had before. At one point last Spring, when I wasn't growing anything, the inside turned completely green with algae. Now the fan helps to circulate air so that it doesn't completely get drenched. I could add a heater back into the mix to help a bit, but when you are talking about low production, a heater seems seriously silly. Instead I had taken to avoiding the greenhouse, avoiding the disappointment of finding no life inside, just the fan blowing.

A little lettuce and a lot of weed is still alive
I have thoughts now and again, wondering whether I can convince friends After Kids to move the greenhouse lock-stock-and-barrel to the front of the property where it would get more light for more months. Wonder whether that is even possible. It seems hard. But it's the dream of the winter greenhouse.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Where's the beef? All about buying local beef

We have finished the last of our ground beef just in time for tomorrow's beef pick up. In the morning, I'll be sorting through a quarter cow that will last us until next Winter. *this post was updated to reflect the information from our latest order 1/15/11. I'm planning to add some photos later.*

When people learn that we buy our beef locally and on a large-scale, I tend to get a lot of questions. And, over the last two years, the size of our buying group has continued to grow as friends and colleagues learn more about the health, environmental, and economic benefits to purchasing locally raised grass-finished beef. So I thought it would be apropos to write an entry with the skinny on beef buying, from the various options, how to source your purchases, the costs and what to expect, and, very importantly, how to cook it correctly.

Certainly, the most economical way to buy beef is by ordering part of a cow, but there are other options. A number of local farms sell beef by the cut and some offer meat shares similar to produce shares found in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. I am frequently asked about what we purchase and when. We have organized small groups who go in together on purchases of whole steer. The minimum order in this circumstance is 1/4 cow, but your price per pound will fall as you increase to 1/2 and a full cow.  Typically, cows are sold by farms only twice a year, with pick up in the December and June time frames. You generally order your meat about 4-6 weeks in advance. Our schedule is off a little this time because the meat processor was too busy. So, our November order is resulting in a mid-January pick up. When you order larger than 1/4 cow, you will be given a "cut sheet" that allows you to choose how you want your animal processed. This includes choices about sizes of roasts and types of steaks, for example. You'll be offered all the extremely healthy internal organs of the cow, but have the option to leave those with the butcher. Those unwanted pieces are usually resold for things like dog food, I understand. So, the next question I get is: how much is 1/4 cow? Well, our meat is packaged in printer paper size boxes, 12"x12"x24". For an entire cow, you will get 8-10 of these boxes, depending on the size of the animal.  One box is about a typical freezer-over-fridge compartment.  So, even for a 1/4 cow, you will undoubtedly need a separate freezer. Since you are buying meat to store for 6-12 months or more, you really want a chest freezer in the first place. What's the investment here? It varies, of course, but is probably going to run you a few hundred dollars new.  If you do buy a bulk beef (or other meat), make sure to keep your chest freezer at between about -3 degrees F and 0 degrees F to ensure the longest life of the meat. Often, regular freezers are seat between 0 degrees F and 5 degrees F, and they cycle higher to prevent frost.  We are a family of three and we order once a year now, but of course, it really depends on your personal consumption. I am often asked how the meat is packaged. It depends on the butcher. Wagner's Mt. Airy Meat Locker packages in shrink-wrapped plastic that is marked with the cut, but not the weight. It's good quality.

Ok, so that is the technical scoop on large orders. You need to be aware you can't just decide to get a cow and pick it up tomorrow, but it is the most cost effective approach. Other options include 50 lbs boxes, which will fill a typical fridge-freezer compartment. These are usually some assortment of ground beef, steaks, and roasts, and they vary by farm. Several farms realize that it isn't practical for many folks to have chest freezers, so they offer either purchase by the cut, or a meat share CSA. In the former, you are going to pay a price per pound that will be significantly higher than bulk or at the store, but the quality will be very high. With a meat share CSA you will pay a flat price for a season and every week or two, you'll go to the farm or a market and pick up a box of meat. Often, a meat share will include a wide range of meat, so you won't just get beef, but a combination of beef, chicken, pork, and maybe lamb. I'll list some more resources at the end, but my favourite local buy-the-cut farm is Evermore Farm and I'd recommend the meat CSA or by-the-cut from Green Akeys Farm in Westminster.

Let's see. Costs and expectations. The cost of local beef by the cut will vary from farm to farm. Usually, they will have the prices listed on their website. Similarly, I've seen a wide range of prices for meat CSA shares. By the cut, you can expect about $6-7/lb for ground beef and steaks to run $13-18/lb from what I've seen. Often, the farm will sell a variety pack.  Evermore Farm has a Winter meat CSA (too late this year) that has options from $55/month to $165/month. Since I buy once a year, a quarter cow, I can best give that information, as I've kept records. Without being overly precise, our full cow orders have come out just over $2200, with each 1/4 share being then in the range of $550-600.  Bulk orders are charged by the hanging weight of the animal, which is not the same as the weight you receive in the end for a variety of reasons, mostly because it is before butchering. This can make costs a little confusing, but generally we have received around 320 lbs in the end, with a true cost for us, regardless of cut, of about $6.95/lb in 2011. So, you can see this is much more economical. I look at it as we paid $6.95/lb today for our ground beef and for our rib eye steaks. Then, we are getting our roasts and steaks at about the same price as local packages of ground beef cost. If you wanted to separate it out, in a half cow today, we got 65lbs of ground beef and 110lbs of cut meat for about $1100. That's relatively representative of our group's orders. I have kept detailed records of what exactly we've received (by cut) over the last few years. If you want to see that level of detail, let me know and I can send it to you.

How do you find a good source? Well, there are a number of ways to locate farms in Central Maryland. First, I can give you a list of those I've dealt with, but there are a lot of beef farms in Carroll and Frederick County. It is good land for livestock. The biggest consideration should be asking the right questions so that you get what you want. Locally grown beef, like locally grown produce, doesn't imply anything about the conditions the animals were raised in. Local farms can and do raise livestock with conventional methods, including diets dominated by corn and the use of scheduled antibiotics. Terminology is confusing and so you do need to ask questions. Don't buy from non-responsive farmers and, honestly, I have found some of them locally too. More on terminology in a second. I strongly encourage you to visit the farm so you can see the farmer's practices first hand. Like produce farmers, livestock farmers should be completely transparent about how they are grazing their animals, what they are fed in the deep Winter months, and how they deal with antibiotics.  As with all local goods, I find to be an excellent resource to find farms, and then I dive into their websites. Other thing to be aware of is that sustainable livestock farming takes a lot of land and experience. Despite the best intentions, from my discussions with farmers, it is going to be tough going to raise grass-finished beef on small acreage in a way that protects the land and the animals. I have met folks who bought grass-finished beef from a farmer and ended up with really tough cuts; good beef shouldn't be this way, and I suspect that happens from lack of experience or processing at the wrong time.

Terminology is a kicker here. Grassfed beef is a meaningless term because all cows are fed grass at the beginning of their life. Cows are ruminants and are unable to adequately digest corn, so it is not fed at the early months of a cows life. What you are really looking for is grass-finished beef. But, I'll admit that I often say grassfed when I'm talking and so you really need to ask what the farmer means with their terms. You might be happy to buy "humane" or "antibiotic free" beef at Whole Foods or other stores. Be cautious of what you assume by  a commercial label. Whole Foods beef, for example, is often raised partially on pasture and with limited antibiotics, but those farms (local farms) are very often still largely conventional. I've visited some. The animals, especially as they get close to processing time, are still kept in CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) set ups. They are kept in dirt and feces covered pens and fed corn out of large troughs to fatten them up quickly. So you need to ask questions and do a little research. You will also find variations in how the animals are pastured. At the farm we buy from, Ruth Ann's Garden Style Beef, she has divided her 100+ acres into 1 acre parcels. The animals graze in a parcel for awhile and then are moved to a new pasture. Their grazing spurs the regrowth in the pasture they left, and they end up visiting each parcel about twice a year, as I recall. Ruth Anne is embracing major components of sustainable livestock breeding with rotating pastures. Not everyone does that. Some farms, like the now famous Polyface Farm in Virginia, add other animals into the rotation, typically chickens following behind the cows to eat the bugs from their feces and help fertilize and turn the pasture for regrowth. The whole set of whys for grass-finished beef is well documented and I won't try to pretend to be the expert, instead I can provide some resources for your own research. My own care-abouts are: grass-finished (no corn in diet), minimal antibiotics, minimal chemicals, holistic sustainable farming practices, animal welfare, local economy. As far as reading goes, The Omnivore's Dilemma and Eating Animals are two good choices for understanding different drivers for buying grass-finished beef, but there really is a lot of information out there and a simple Google search on grass-finished or grassfed beef will provide ample reading for the curious.

If you are interested in buying part of a cow, I've found that it isn't that hard to find others to go in with you. The cost difference is significant if you can purchase an entire animal, and the butcher (at least the one we use) will label boxes down to 1/4 cow. Over the last few years, our group has included over a dozen families in different orders, so that we've always gotten the best pricing. Once people know you're organizing orders, you'd be surprised how often they'll jump in.

Once you've found yourself the proud new owner of some locally raised grass-finished beef, you want to make sure you cook it correctly. Because these animals aren't being stuffed with corn, they are much leaner than conventional beef and if you cook the meat to USDA-recommended temperatures you are likely to end up unhappy and wondering about the money you've just spent. The basic rule for beef cuts is that they should be cooked to 120-140 degrees F, rather than the 145-170 F recommended for conventional beef. I usually pull out steaks and roasts at around 125 degrees F.  As the meat sits for 5-10 minutes, it will gain a few degrees. Following this guide, I use our meat in all recipes otherwise unchanged, but there are cookbooks specifically focused on cooking sustainably raised meat. My two primary go-to books are The Grassfed Gourmet by Shannon Hayes and Tender Grassfed Meat by Stanley Fishman.  Both books cover a lot more than beef.

Well, I think that is the skinny. As I said, there are actually quite a few options to consider in Central Maryland, but here are a few resources:

Ruth Ann's Garden Style Beef -- this is where we have ordered all our beef. Ruth Anne's family are Frederick County dairy farmers. Her brother does organic dairy farming near Frederick and she runs the northern Carroll County farm herself. We've had only good experiences.

Evermore Farm -- they only sell by the cut or by CSA subscription. we have not bought beef here, but have bought other meat and are very impressed overall.

Green Akeys Farm -- we haven't bought beef from them, but they sell meat shares and we buy most of our chickens and lamb from them. great farm.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Food Preservation: Adventures in Fermentation

Starting lacto-fermented Ginger Carrots*
This year I "put up" more food than ever before, canning or freezing 40 lbs of sour cherries, 40 lbs of blueberries, 60 lbs of peaches, and another 60 lbs of apples. That doesn't include cold storage of things like garlic, onions, and squash that I got in late Summer to use in the Winter. Nor does it include the tomatoes or other summer veggies that were blanched and frozen. I'm not organized enough to plan out my usage of these things, or maybe I'm not disciplined enough to follow the plan, so I'm curious to see where I stand in July with the mason jar collection.    

 So why do all this? Certainly there are any number of people who get all they can from the farmer's market during the season and then return to the local grocery store in the Winter. Nothing wrong with that. But, I like a good challenge. So when I decided to consume as much locally as I could, I took that to the extent of questioning myself regularly: could I do this more locally? do I really need to buy this at the store? Occasionally I say, yes, damn it, I want those shitaki mushrooms, but more often, I find a solution using what I can find grown within easy driving distance. And the great thing about challenges like this is the more you practice, the easier it gets. So besides canned tomatoes - we simply can not freeze enough, it seems - and the occasional mushroom, I really turn to our pantry, freezer, or oil room (cold storage wanna-be) for every meal. In truth, a large part of living this way is the challenge and the satisfaction of self-sufficiency. I'm definitely a born diy-r. Even when that means do-it-harder.

Of course, the winter CSA has made this all much easier again. When you have fresh lettuce coming in the door, you needn't be concerned about texture or flavor loss with other preservation methods. The onions we are getting from the CSA are significant enough to have kept me from buying them in the store since October, so that too is good. And, we're slowly but surely pulling out our preserved and frozen food and making our way through it. Frozen spinach and chard made a mean spanikopita last week, and our yogurt is sweetened daily with one of several fruit preserves. I am carefully walking the dance of using the CSA goods while it is still fresh and making a dent into the stored produce at the same time. This is a non-trivial exercise, I've found.

The CSA has proven for me to be just about the right size, but I do have an awful lot of carrots. We've gotten a good pound or so of carrots, maybe two, each pick up. So at one point, even though we were eating carrots fresh and in meals, we had about four pounds of carrots sitting around. Of course, they last a really long time properly wrapped in the fridge. But, what the heck, I figured, let's see if we can preserve them. Of course, one way is in things like carrot cake. :)

I decided to try my hand at lacto-fermentation. Honestly, I wasn't really sure what that was. But, I'd seen a recipe for fermented ginger carrots in the book Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. I love this book because it is full of fascinating information and lots of weird stuff. Ginger carrots sounded cool. It was certainly a type of food preservation that I'd never done, nor knew anyone who did. I guess except pickles, we had tried to make lacto-fermented pickles (not with vinegar) a few years ago. That failed miserably. I was sure this would work better. If not, I had plenty of carrots left.

Lacto-fermentation is a traditional way of preserving food by encouraging the proliferation of lactic acid producing bacteria. Lactic acid itself is a natural preservative, and food that has been preserved this way can be put in cold storage (or the fridge) for very extensive periods of time. The two big examples are sauerkraut and kimchi, both made with cabbage, and both, according to my Internet research, needing six months to really mature. In essence, with these recipes, you put your veggies in a crock and cover them with a ton of salt and liquid, preferably whey. Left at room temperature they will ferment in some number of days and then you move them to cold storage to continue maturing.

Ginger carrots are made by shredding a bunch of carrots and ginger, packing them into a small mason jar, punching them with a hammer or such to get juices to flow, adding salt and whey to cover the carrots completely, screwing on the lid and leaving them alone until they bubble. I used whey from my cheese, but you could also drain it off of plain yogurt - you really only need a little, and apparently you can just use salt for veggies. The mix started with 1 Tablespoon of salt! I tasted the initial mix and the salt was overwhelming. I had the darnedest time getting the carrots to stay under the liquid, which is supposedly important. I'd push and push, then let go and up they'd float. In then end, I used a lot more whey than originally called for, but I found no other way to keep the carrots below the liquid. I searched online and found a great blog with lots of comments about this particular recipe. I wasn't the only one who had this problem and others recommended nested mason jars, but I couldn't do that in my case. So, I crossed my fingers, put on the lid and let it sit.

My house is a bit on the cold side, so the carrots looked the same three days later. But, after four days they were bubbling. I took off the lid and it "popped". I tasted them. Salty, really salty, and sour-ish. A bit disappointed, I put them in the fridge and figured I'd feed them to someone else. :) My mother, visiting for the holidays, was my first victim only a day later. Still salty. We put them back in the fridge. A week or so later, she tried them again on a sandwich and remarked how the salt taste had diminished. By the time a friend visited right before New Year's Eve, they were quite fermenty - not a word, but an image - and not very salty. We decided we weren't sure what we thought about them. i put them back in the fridge. On the 4th, we had friends over, and we tried them again. This time, I thought they were absolutely fabulous. The salt was all gone and the fermenty-ness was more mature. Now they're gone and I need to make more.

I'm really proud to have learned to preserve things in a new way. I'm even happier that they finally turned out well. You can ferment and preserve a lot of things this way, including lemons, ginger, and, of course, cabbage. Different cultures ferment all kinds of different things, taking advantage of the naturally occurring bacteria that is found everywhere. From what I've read, it really is an art, though, as you are learning to control this process. I've got a lot of carrots still, so I'm going to try those again and then we'll see where we go from there.

Here's the recipe to try yourself.She says, ginger carrots go well with rich foods and spicy meats. They, like most lacto-fermented foods, are meant as condiments.

Ginger Carrots by Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions.

4 cups grated carrots, tightly packed
1 Tbsp freshly grated ginger
1 Tbsp sea salt
4 Tbsp whey (or use 1 additional Tbsp salt)

In a bowl, mix all ingredients and pound with a wooden pounder or meat hammer to release juices. Place in a quart size, wide mouth mason jar and press down firmly. Continue pressing/hammering, until the juices completely cover the carrots. The top of the carrots should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar. cover tightly and leave at room temperature for 3 days. then transfer to cold storage. (they will be bubbling)

To hear what others beside I found when they tried this recipe, check out the thread on the Nourishing Cook blog, here.

* I don't have a carrot image right now, and I ate all the ginger carrots! So, I've borrowed this carrot photo temporarily from the blog The Gluten-Free Spouse, which does look cool itself for those who can't tolerate gluten.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

More on chickens and a little on honey

The original chicken post remains the most viewed entry I've made on this blog, seeing new visits nearly every day. Fascinating. Of course, one reason is that it appears many non-English speakers search Google for "facesbok", which when parsed does collide nicely with this blog. I imagine people searching for the social networking phenomena and finding themselves looking at pictures of chickens with some serious confusion.

But for those actually wanting to read about home chickens, it seems that people are both interested in buying pasture-raised chicken eggs and raising their own based on all the other writing out there. The Winter is a tougher time as a consumer though; my two primary sources are dried up for the time being, as the egg laying has slowed down while the chickens molt. I don't have a clue how long that will take, but luckily we are able to get eggs through our Winter CSA, as well. Sadly, circumstances collided and I ended up buying eggs from the store on Christmas Eve for the first time in 18 months. Now I have a fresh batch of real eggs from the CSA and I find myself reluctant to use the remaining four from the store. They are pale yellow and I wonder: hmm.. where does taste not matter? I guess I'm now an egg snob, too.

In any case, the other day I stumbled upon another sustainable living blog called the Good Eater. It's pretty interesting and has a wide range of authors. Recently they posted an analysis of the cost effectiveness of owning a beehive in the city. Like chickens, bees are now becoming all the rage. Indeed, in Baltimore there is a non-profit group called Baltimore Honey that places hives around people's property in a community apiculture project. It works like a honey CSA (community supported agriculture) with landowners getting a share of the years take. The extra honey is labeled and sold as B'More HonE.

Back to the chicken point. The Good Eater honey post referenced an even older post from their blog on the cost effectiveness of raising chickens -- egg layers. This is a great post for the scientists out there and the information gatherers. There are even charts. :)

Here it is:

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Tea or Coffee, anyone?

Tea at Sweet Simplici-Tea
A few years ago when we returned from Europe, I noticed that a tea shop had opened on Main Street in Sykesville. The street extends a few blocks from the Patapsco River and the railroad tracks, which provide a beautiful backdrop to the mid-nineteenth century architecture in the historic center. This isn't much here: a few good restaurants, salons, specialty gift stores. Back in the day, I hear Sykesville was a bustling small town, hosting grocery stores and even a bowling alley. But in the mid-1980s, they moved Rt. 32 to bypass the town and things changed. The town is still lovely and the setting perfect. It is one of the reasons we were attracted to the area. But in the tough economy we were particularly worried about waking up to find a clapboard town that would eventually follow the path of so many other small towns. We decided to try to frequent the Main street businesses when we could. So I was delighted to find Sweet Simplici-Tea.

Main Street, Sykesville, MD

Historic Rail tunnel at Sykesville, MD

My son and I first entered the tea room on a late September morning in 2008. The place that day was empty and it gave us a chance to really talk to our waitress and eventually the owners. The restaurant had not been open long at that point, only a few months. Two sisters, Lisa and Robyn, had joined forces to bring tea and scones in a period setting to the town. The tea room is distinctly feminine, with lots of purples and pinks adorning the walls. But the scones we tasted that day were unbelievably delicious, and our waitress, Robyn's daughter Lauren, was enchanting. She had returned from teaching in Africa not that long before and carried in her an energy that was infectious. Her ability to relate to children was amazing. My son and I were hooked, and we decided we'd go to tea every Saturday morning after we swam. And we did for nearly a year. In the first few months some days we'd be the only guests and we would be anxious for them. But as the New Year turned, so did the business, and it seemed to catch like wildfire. When our schedule took us away from our weekly visits, we no longer had our guaranteed spot! The tearoom was full most Saturdays and evolving.

Sweet Simpli-Tea storefront, Sykesville, MD

Lisa runs the front of the house. She's the face and the savvy businesswoman. In the last year or so, they began having their own teas blended from a company in Pennsylvania. Of course, you can't really buy local tea leaves or coffee beans, but you can carefully choose your supplier and look to support the local business that bringing those products into the area. Lisa has focused on providing the highest level of service to her guests where they can relax and enjoy an unfettered drink and a bite to eat with friends. She has partnered with other local businesses to find ways that they can gain from each others clientele. And she loves the tea.

Robyn is a nurse who works full time at a local hospital during the week. Then she shifts her attention to the food for Sweet Simplici-Tea for the weekends.  Truly amazing. She likes to cook and experiment. Her scone selections vary depending on the season, as do the jams or creams that they are served with. My personal favourite is cherry chocolate chip, but there are other great ones and seasonal choices like pumpkin. Sometimes there are savory scones like rosemary parmesan. I haven't had one I didn't like. Robyn is goofy and full of goofy ideas. She likes to wear themed aprons and decorate for the occasion. She loves planning for birthday parties at the shop. She also plans and makes all the "full teas", which are really full meals of bite-sized food. You get a tray of little goodies with quiches, small tea sandwiches, little desserts, all generally planned around the season, in addition to scones and tea. For the really hungry, they even offer choices that include salad and sorbet. A full tea will take a couple of hours and normally experiment with a few tea choices while we talk between courses, though truthfully we always come back to our favourite, Buckaneer.

Nowadays, you are wise to have a reservation for Sweet Simplici-Tea on the weekend. It is almost always full for the 11-4 opening time. Special events too mostly sell out, but are a wonderful way to spend the evening. We no longer go weekly because of other things in life, but when we do visit, we love it. and it really connects us with local business in an empowering way. It reminds me of Cheers - it's really nice to go somewhere that everyone knows your name.
Baldwin's Station Restaurant on the tracks, Sykesville, MD

What you won't find at Sweet Simplici-Tea is coffee. The smell of coffee is too overpowering, so they won't carry it there. I try to buy my coffee from Fair Trade suppliers and small roasters. That really isn't that easy locally, at least not out in Carroll County. I can get Zekes, which is a Baltimore roast, from the organic market, Moms, in Jessup, but I hardly ever go there.  I guess that is my problem, I don't have these fancy organic markets nearby and I'm not really willing to drive all over just to go to them. This is why I've never entered a Whole Foods. (gasp)

In any case, coffee. I like good coffee in the morning so I was thrilled to find a coffee roaster at the Wesminster Farmer's Market in September. Dave Baldwin and his daughter, Erin, were there greeting customers and selling their Furnace Hills coffee. The coffee is all grown using organic methods and at high altitudes. They are using an experienced supplier to connect them into the fair trade market (though I'm not sure if they are using certified Fair Trade supplies) and using a dollar from each bag to support various charitable causes.

Erin of Furnace Hills Coffee
Dave has taught Erin, who has Down Syndrome, to roast the beans to perfection in small home roasters. As a young developmentally disabled adult, this gives her a real avenue to a productive life, to provide for herself essentially, and to help others at the same time. And guess what?? That coffee is really good! I'm all for a great charity, but I still want a good cup of coffee in the morning. :) I personally have tried two of their five blends and enjoyed them both: Telunas Beach Blend and the Black Diamond Blend. When I met them at the market they made a great impression. Dave is very engaging and someone you want to support. I was surprised and delighted a few weeks later when I returned and he remembered not just my face, but my name. Recently I ran out of coffee and went to their house on Christmas Eve to pick up a few pounds. This is the kind of experience that drives home how directly your supporting your neighbor when you buy locally. The Baldwins live in an average neighborhood of row homes outside of Westminster, an area called Furnace Hills. Nothing fancy. Indeed, I had originally hoped to get some photos for the blog with Erin and the roasters, but for lack of space, they had to put up all the roasters from the dining table to get ready for Christmas! The good news is that in the next month or so, Furnace Hills Coffee will get a storefront on Main Street in Westminster. I'll be back to visit them and snap some photos then, and I'll post an update with the address.  In the meantime, check them out online. If you're a coffee fan in Carroll County, invest your indulgence locally and give them a try.