Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Change of Seasons

Ed Bruske teaches at Go Local Fair
In the last few years, the seasons have almost blurred into two: when there is fresh local produce and when there is not. We are just coming out of one season and into another, and the last few weeks have held any number of markers for this change. This week, I baked our last apple pie until they return in the Fall. I'll say for myself that it was awesome. Given my well-publicized fight against pie pastry, I think this was my biggest success yet. Before someone asks, no, I didn't use the lard. I'm going to make a quiche soon and try again with lard. But, the two of us are steadily making our way through a fabulous apple pie. It was also time to reconcile our food stores.

I talked last Summer and Fall about our storage of peaches, some 60 lbs of them, cherries and blueberries, 40 lbs of each, and 70 lbs of apples. From the start, I was concerned about two things: first, being caught in the squirrel mentality - store, store, store and if you eat it, you don't have it -- and second, whether we'd be able to finish that ridiculous amount of fruit along with a more manageable amount of veggies we'd frozen. We weren't really dessert people, so we did have to change up our normal eating routines. My nine-year-old son was quite okay with that. I made a lot of pies and crisps, basically aiming for once a week. We had made a ton of preserves with the cherries and blueberries, and we used them almost daily for our plain (homemade) yogurt. Drum roll, please.... we're almost done. The pie was the last of the apples, the peaches are gone, the preserves, except one jar, are gone. We have a few large bags of cherries and blueberries, but we are quickly turning them into smoothies using the whey from our cheese. (adding that protein removes them from the dessert pile into the oh-so-good-for-you-pile, eat them when you want pile). and we have one pint of apple sauce left. So, wow, now I know how much fruit we can consume. Strawberries are already starting to come around.
The peach freeze

The Go Local Fair put on by Sustainable Living Maryland yesterday in Westminster was another turning point. We got to see all the farming faces that we missed over the Winter months and catch up on their plans. Ed Bruske, the Slow Cook, from Washington, D.C., did a cooking with kids talk, which was fabulous. He did a small version of what he teaches in an aftercare program in D.C., and the kids made zucchini carppaccio, asparagus salad with a mustard vinaigrette, and strawberry crepes. In this courses, he teaches the kids about international foods, sustainability, and how to really cook. His daughter accompanied him and was a great help to the class; at ten years old, you can see how confident she is in the kitchen. He also teaches the kids about consuming all parts of the animal and discussed recently bringing in chicken livers for them to cook. It was a small audience, but hopefully others enjoyed it as we did. I highly recommend his blog as an insight into the things he does with the kids and with school food reform.

Truffula Produce's Lettuce Dryer
We got to see a bunch of producer friends too. Next week, the downtown Westminster Farmer's market opens Saturday, 8-12. Truffula Seed Produce will be there again. Shawn and Josie have rented another acre of land and the two of them are, still alone, busily trying to work all that property organically and sustainably, with traditional methods. They'll be serving up 20 CSA shares this year, their first time in that business, and hopefully it will go well.  Like most of the farmers there yesterday, they had lettuce for sale. Lots and lots of lettuce, which all gets dried in their modified washer!

I also ran into Dave Baldwin of Furnace Hills Coffee. The brick-n-mortar business is coming! He expects it to open this week or next. Once I get a chance to go visit it on Main Street, Westminster, I'll post some photos and details. His coffee is so reasonably priced and so developed with a heart, I highly recommend it.

Scott from Sattva Place Farm was there too. He will be processing 100 chickens soon, and his plan is to have fresh chicken available at the Westminster Market every weekend this season. Scott is certified organic and a one man farm. Our buying group has been nothing but happy.

Akeys CSA pick up last year
I talked briefly with Micheal Akeys of Green Akeys Farm, too. His CSA has expanded from 14 to 18 shares, which I know will be huge shares based on past experience. He also picked up a milking cow this week. I think he moves intrepidly into everything.  I don't think Micheal is doing any markets, but I might be wrong. To buy meat from him, you can call him and go to the farm. Micheal is getting some help this Summer, though, which seems wise given the breadth of farming going on!

I took a quick peek into De La Tierra's tent and didn't get time to chat with owner, Jackie, but I know she will be selling cut flowers at the market and she is selling her beautiful plants this Spring for the garden, both flowers and produce. I also ran into Greg Thorne, of Thorne Family farms, and he said that because of the constant rain we've had over many weeks now, their planting is way behind. He left the fair early to take advantage of the good weather and get some work done on the land.

This past Winter, we were able to make it through using our winter CSA from Everblossom Farm and our food storage, with almost zero produce bought at the grocery store. I never would have thought we could do that, and eat a ton of veggies. We did. What a great local challenge for ourselves. Now, we are looking forward to the season of plentiful.

This post is going to be part of the Hearth and Soul blog hop this week... make sure to check out all the other entries for some great and fascinating food-related articles!

Emus at the Fair

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Dream of the Summer Veggie Garden

Nearly finished veggie garden
So, as I explained in my earlier post about my dream for the winter greenhouse, in which I don't dream of having said greenhouse, but dream of having something happen within it, I live in the woods. In fact, we are pretty darn ensconced in woods. Even with a deciduous forest, my greenhouse simply doesn't receive a ton of light, making growing all things a challenge. Having said that, I picked and ate my first onion from the greenhouse this week. Never mind that it was 2" in diameter and one of probably fifty that I actually planted - success !  It tasted wonderful. You really gotta have optimism to garden, particularly for food, in these circumstances.

Optimism I have. Indeed, maybe a bit too much. But maybe it isn't optimism, just tenacity. Or could be determined stupidity. I recently heard a great talk where the speaker said, "I am a great optimist, even in the face of all facts to the contrary."  So the grammar isn't great in that sentence, but the sentiment  describes me pretty accurately, I think.  I would like to grow summer vegetables (and winter veggies), in spite of all the evidence that it won't be easy.

Now, it's not that I'm an inexperienced gardener. I have very large showy flower gardens. Ok, so I insist on pushing the boundaries of "sun" plants on my "part-shade to shade" lot, but I have found that I can get a lot of things to bloom and reproduce in this environment, just not at the rate they would under ideal conditions. Neither my sun exposure or ridiculously heavy clay soil are ideal conditions. Still, the flower gardens do quite well given the circumstances.

But on-and-off over our fourteen years here, I've tried to plant a range of veggies in the summer. I've carefully studied the sun patterns and then tried different locations around the property. I finally found an area where a few fallen trees gave it some degree of sunlight for at least eight hours a day. Whoo-hoo! So, as I said, we live in the woods. It turns out, other things live in the woods too. Like herds of deer. And deer are particularly fond of many of the same things people are, not only daylilies and irises, but summer squash and other produce plants. So, I had romping squash plants last summer covered by a mesh deer cover, but it was too tempting. They came in, ate a hole through the covering and took at the squash plants overnight. Boom, gone.

I still want a summer veggie garden. During the Winter last year, a friend pointed to the pieces of an unused dog run in our back yard (read: storage area) and asked whether that was my garden. Light bulb!  Wow, what a great idea. I could have a garden in this 10'x10' run that has 6 feet solid steel mesh walls and a door! Talk about deer off! I was set onto a project idea during the winter olympics last year. Now, just where to put it?

The other thing about gardening, gardeners know, is that it is a very strategic activity. Well, unless you only plant annuals. But for the most part, gardeners are planning out 1-3 years in advance, at least. You really have to be okay with delayed satisfaction and having a big picture view that will likely take some time to complete. I began planning this new garden in February 2010. Last Spring, I had a friend come cut some fallen trees into chunks and moved it all out of the way of the chosen area. I studied the light very carefully, and used tires as containers for growing tomatoes and other plants right near the selected area last Summer. This way, I could see how the container plants did in that location. They did ok.

Last year, the area looked like this
The area I selected for the new veggie bed, besides having the fallen trees, was really an underbrush nightmare. It looks like the photo here of the area currently adjacent to it. Starting last spring, I began piling on plywood sheets and cardboard to kill off the zillions of vines growing there. The ground is an absolute massive tangle of vines and sticks and all kinds of crap. Cleaning that out and getting to dirt, which is undoubtedly clay, would be a nightmare. I decided to just go over it. Layers and layers of cardboard will create a sheet mulch, and I'd build a raised bed over the top of it.

By the spring, it looked like this - trashy!

This Spring I had nine yards of compost (manure and leaf) delivered and dumped on the side yard. Nine yards is a ridiculously large amount of compost. I had used a yard calculator to figure out how much I needed for the raised bed, plus adding three inches to the top of all the flower beds, and then rounded up. I think I rounded up at each step. Did I say nine yards is a whole heck of a lot of compost?

Photos don't do justice to 9 yards of compost!

I began moving the compost first to the flower beds, since they were going to soon be covered in plants and difficult to spread compost over. This proved to be quite a challenge, particularly one flower garden that has a giant magnolia in the center. The bed is probably 20'x30'. Getting compost around the edges wasn't a problem, but I really wanted to cover the whole bed. My solution? I ended up on the other side of a fence from the bed, my back turned to the tree, and literally aiming and tossing shovels of compost over my back. My son provided feedback about my progress. Crazy, but it worked.
I added to this bed, partly by flipping dirt backwards over that fence
After hauling compost for hours, it looks like this. Big Diff, eh?

We finally got the dog kennel set up in on top of the cardboard and I've got 1"x12"x10' planks lining the sides to create the raised bed. I began carting wheelbarrows full of compost down to the bed in increments. A wheelbarrow of compost is heavy. It's been raining constantly this spring. A wheelbarrow of water-laden compost is ridiculously heavy. In the end, I've poured 35 wheelbarrows of compost into the kennel. A veggie garden is born.

This 10'x10' kennel has sat unused for years - perfect!

Will anything grow? Who knows. I am definitely taking a risk by using all compost, but this seemed like the easiest route. The plants might burn from nitrogen or the water absorption might not be right. But I got the recommendation from farmers, so I thought it was worth a try. It's possible that eight hours of sun just won't do the trick, or the eight I get there won't. But, one things for sure, the deer aren't getting a single bite.

The last thing to do is insert the final board and level the compost out

This post will be part of Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop and Simple Lives Thursday at Sustainable Eats this week.  Stop by there are check out other sustainable living related posts.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Rendering Lard: Another Traditional Skill Learned

Finished rendered lard
Yesterday I finished rendering the fatback from the half hog we purchased in the Fall. I am now the proud owner of 12 cups of creamy white lard. Maybe you're jealous, or maybe, perhaps more likely, you're thinking what one friend responded on learning this: "Ew.". Actually, she responded "Ew?" and that's the perfect response 'cause it is kinda ew and kinda cool at the same time. For me it's the coming together of several interests - my battle to conquer pastry, my fondness for all things self-sufficient, my interest in seeing just how far I can push living locally happily, and my love of learning weird things.

Every pastry chef I've ever heard or read discussing pastry says lard is hands-down the best fat ingredient for pastry. So, it's seems natural that I need a source of lard. There is also debate about the nutritional value or detriment of lard, with Real Food advocates arguing frequently that lard, butter, and other traditional foods aren't nearly the culprits they are made out to be in modern Western society. Wikipedia has a decent collection of facts, though with the role of saturated fat, for instance, contested as the source of heart disease and other ailments, the facts are merely numbers.  As a kid, my mother always saved the bacon grease in a cup to fry other foods later. So, I do the same. I use it particularly for frying eggs, but also other things.

For the last few years, we have been ordering a share of a hog from a local farm. In late Fall, we head to the butcher and pick up our frozen cuts and sausage. With all of our local consumption, I've also tried to be more open-minded and conscious about how the animal is used, as well as raised. This means I've had a go at the organs, cooking them as recommended by any number of traditional cookbooks. Mostly they were okay, though the cow heart was pretty much like rubber to me, and liver is just nasty.

In any case, this whole thought process led me to ask for the hog's fatback this year. The fatback is a cut that is primarily fat attached to skin from the back of the pig. It is one of the two primary sources for lard, the other being so-called leaf fat, that apparently produces a higher quality lard for pastry.  Oh well, what I had was fatback. Mine came as pieces about eight inches square and two inches thick. I forgot to weigh it, but I suspect it was about ten pounds. The picture below shows one of the slices; I had about six of these.

You need sheers or a massive knife to get through the skin
Everything I had read said to render your fatback lard on a day that you can ventilate the house because the smell is very strong, so I waited until Spring. Friday was the perfect day with temperatures in the mid-60s. I decided to follow the instructions in The Grassfed Gourmet, though most Internet instructions were very similar. Or at least, that was my plan. I read them wrong, but I'll get to that. You start by cutting the fatback into long strips, which is no easy task. Bluntly, and this qualifies as "Ew", you have to get a knife to go through the tough skin of the pig. I ended up with a multi-tool approach, using a knife to cut the fat and poultry sheers to cut the skin. I have studly poultry sheers and they worked hard, but eventually we had lots of strips.

This turkey pan was mostly filled with strips in the oven

I put them into a big aluminum turkey roasting pan, sprinkled on baking soda and covered it. The book says to put your stove to the lowest temperature possible and render for 12-24 hours, stirring occasionally. For whatever reason, I read stove as oven, and put the oven on to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. It turns out that your low setting on the stove must reach a much higher temperature, because by the next morning my fatback had barely produced any actual liquid fat. Ugh. I decided to up the oven to 225 degrees and that did the trick. I let the whole thing go for about twelve more hours, I think. I personally didn't really notice a smell. Yes, it smelled like something was in the oven, but nothing in particular. My husband, on the other hand, thought it was odor-ific. The also warned about popping fat, but I didn't have that experience, possibly because of using the oven, I'm not sure.

Fat and crackle coming out of the oven

When it came out of the oven, you have tons of the crackle (read: cooked skin and whatever-else-is-left chunks) floating in this oil. It's not very appealing. Ew. But, I took all the big chunks out with a slotted spoon. When you strain the fat into a pan to cool, you need to use butter muslin or some other cloth lining a collander because otherwise you'll get little particle into the fat. Not good. The rendered fat is a deep yellow color and filled twelve cups of mason jars.

liquid lard strained through butter muslin
I stored my in mason jars

They came out of the fridge the next morning solid, creamy, and white. And then went to the freezer for storage.
Cooled lard is creamy white

The cracklings were a bit weird to me. You are supposed to strain them out, toss with salt, and use as snacks or over salad. I tasted a bit, but it wasn't particularly crunchy, which is what I expected, and it was very greasy and somewhat bland. Not my kind of snack. I've saved them for the dog. Or the neighbors dog.
strained crackling pieces up close

Will I do it again next year? Absolutely. I'm already paying for the hog, why toss out parts I can make good use of, particularly if I can use it to create amazing crusts. The only real work involved was cutting up the fatback into pieces and reading the directions correctly. After that, it was easy. A little bit ew, a little bit cool.

On a related note, I cooked the two smoked hams from this hog during the Easter weekend, using the maple raisin sauce recipe from the Grassfed Gourmet for one of them. A-maz-ing. I'm not a huge fan of maple, really, but the maple caramelized into the ham drippings creating a savory sauce that played off the sweet-tart of the raisins. Nothing like any ham I'd had before, and a wonderful surprise.

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday, hosted at Sustainable Eats, where you can find an assortment of sustainability related blog posts every Thursday.  And at A Moderate Life, one of my favorite reads.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Foraging with Kids: Time for Garlic Mustard and Honeysuckle!

Garlic Mustard at a glance (in bloom)
Kids really love to forage, and there are a number of things besides the traditional berry picking that they can harvest from the woods and pastures in the family yard, the local park, or out hiking. Right now is the prime time for two kid's favourites: garlic mustard and honeysuckle. And besides, both of these are invasive plants, so the kids can take their energy our protecting nature at the same time. Indeed, I wish I would have finished this post about a week ago to really hit the right timing. In any case, there are still plenty out there to feast upon.

Garlic mustard is an invasive culinary herb introduced by Italian immigrants in the last century. It's relatively easy to spot with its little white flowers, and a straight forward identification come from its distinct smell. If you rub the leaves, they give off a garlic odor and have a mild garlic flavor, as well. The problem with garlic mustard is that each plant produces hundreds of seeds and the plant has taken over in lots of areas in the U.S.  Foraging for garlic mustard gives kids the chance to use up some energy ripping the plants out of the ground, roots and all. A few years ago, National Geographic Kids ran an article on invasive plants and recommended to children not only pulling up all the plants that they can see, but also making pesto from it. When you do pick garlic mustard, definitely try to grab the whole plant. They aren't deeply rooted, so they'll come up easily. Picking them before they seed is, of course, the best thing for the environment, even in the face of an endless battle.

Garlic mustard flower and leaf up close

To make pesto from the garlic mustard, have the kids pluck the leaves off and mince them in a food processor. Like pesto made from basil, it will take a lot of garlic mustard leaves to make any significant amount of pesto base. But, hey, in this case, you'll find plants by the hundreds in a wide array of locations. To the minced herb, add olive oil, a little salt, and minced pine nuts or walnuts. I don't add Parmesan until I use the pesto, but some people add grated Parmesan. You can then freeze the pesto in ice cube trays for individual use later, or use it fresh. The flavor is definitely different from basil pesto, but it's pretty good.

This pdf I found online is so perfect for foraging with kids, I had to update this post to include it directly. It contains a range of activities about garlic mustard and some other invasive plants, as well as recipes for garlic mustard. I learned that it is used also for cleansing wounds, and can be used as a dye. It is a substitute for mustard greens. Because it is in flower now, the leaves are going to be bitter if you eat them raw, but planning for the next year... ! check this out:

Honeysuckle in bloom with dew

Honeysuckle vines are also blooming right now and their scent fills the air around our woods. I think the honeydew vines we have might well be Japanese honeydew, another invasive plant, but I haven't tried hard to identify them. From the little I've read of non-native honeydew, they are sweet smelling and showy, which describes the plants that abound in my woods to a "T".  Their flowers can be eaten straight from the vine for a sweet honey taste. But kids love learning the secret way to get a drop of nectar from the flower. You pluck the entire bloom from the plant, then carefully pinch down at the back end and pull the "string" out through the back of the flower. Unless wildlife has already snatched it, a drop of sweet nectar will be drawn out at the very end. It takes a little practice, but it's exciting to get it right and have this honey-tasting drop come out of the flower like magic. It you grow impatient, you can always just eat the whole thing, but the honey dew by itself is super special.

You can't see the nectar in this photo - but it is there near the green tip

This entry is part of Real Food Wednesday where you can find a wide range of blog posts each week associated with Real Food. I am also participating this week for the first time with the Hearth and Soul blog hop, one that I've been reading for months but haven't joined.... it's all about food that's good for the soul, and I find my connect into it off of another great blog, A Moderate Life which is fun to read and includes great Mark Bittman challenges.