Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Curry-Out (From My Pantry)

Since I still have lots of jars in the pantry and a half-full freezer from last year's preservation efforts, I've been trying to think of ways to use up food a little more efficiently.

I thought I had it worked out when I offered to host a small task force meeting for our local foods market committee this week. I had planned an Indian feast using nothing but what I had put away for winter along with fresh local dairy products and spices, and I meant to impress.

But then, we decided to postpone the meeting, and I was left with thawing vegetables and a quart jar of already-made makhani sauce. What was I to do?

What else? I called the Renaissance Man.

I served up a simmered mixture of snow peas, green beans, and cauliflower in the makhani sauce (made with canned tomato sauce, fresh garlic, and local milk and sour cream) and ladled it over some cooked spelt berries (from the ever-wonderful Spelt Baker). Then I took some shredded zucchini from the freezer, added the shreds from two potatoes (yes, I still have a couple of good firm potatoes left in storage) as well as an egg from the Lady Bountiful, some local corn flour, some fresh garlic, and a dash of curry powder -- and made fritters that I topped with homemade blueberry-ginger chutney.

And because you just can't have a good Indian meal without a little smackerel of something sweet afterward, I pulled out a pint of local vanilla ice cream and topped scoops with canned peaches, chopped hicans, and a dash of cardamom. Sweet, a little spicy, crunchy -- and sooooo good.

It sometimes amazes me what terrific meals I can pull together from the pantry and the freezer, even after working more and more toward the goal of living off stored foods over the winter each year. I'd love to have more fresh greens and such to complement such meals, of course -- and perhaps once this market gets off the ground, I will.

Still, you can't beat the variety you can find if you've planned your food preservation (and use) well, and I am definitely learning how to make that work for me.

So sorry, folks, you missed your chance for a fantastic and almost totally local Indian meal. Maybe next time!

Or maybe you'd like leftovers?

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: March, Week 4

Though we still get chilly spells around here, I think it's safe to say that we're going to wrap up March with a lot more "wearin' of the green" outside than at the start of the month.

From my front window, I can see daffodils in full bloom, trees and bushes setting buds, birds flitting about with their springtime exuberance. I even spotted a tiny violet on the way to the compost pile this morning!

Yes, Spring is definitely here, bringing with it a renewal of life and breath and happiness. Sign me up for some of that, please!

So though I'm still trying to make meals with foods from the pantry and the freezer -- and I will be making a vegetable stew for supper this evening, based on a mix of dried vegetables, to deal with the cooler air today -- I can't help but feature a somewhat lighter dish for this month's local meal.

Since the Lady Bountiful was so, well, bountiful! as to send me home with fresh eggs yesterday, I thought I might just have to make a quiche. I rolled out a crust using local spelt flour, added the remains of a bag of thawed broccoli (what didn't fit onto last week's pizza), and whisked together local eggs, milk, sour cream, and dried savory (from the garden) for the filling.

I sprinkled a little local Cheddar and some home-dried onions on top for an extra kick, too, since those dried onions make a sweet and non-fat alternative to the cans of fried onion shreds you find in the stores and on top of bean casseroles.

I served up a small slice for lunch, accompanied by a couple spoonfuls of my canned peaches, and I enjoyed a superb alternative to the lunch special that a couple of local restaurants feature. Yes, I admit I think my quiche and fruit taste better than theirs -- and mine was mostly local!

Now that's the way to welcome Spring!

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Lettuce Get Started

Part of the agreement in signing up for a CSA subscription with The Lady Bountiful is time spent working on the farm. She only asks for three hours of our time, which seems to me like an extraordinarily easy trade.

Last year I didn't get the chance to work on the farm as My Wonderful Parents covered the work requirement for me. This year, though, I want to get in as much time at the farm throughout the season as I possibly can, just to learn the many aspects of farming.

So I got started today, hoping to help the Lady Bountiful get a good start on another round of her plants.

When I arrived mid-morning, the sun shone across the fields, warming the soil, so we decided to take a walk out to inspect the new barn. While the barn still isn't finished, the electrical and plumbing work is nearly done, and it looks much more impressive than when I last saw it as a raw wood frame. They've added in a section where they can drive through to unload and load produce for market, a loading dock on the south side, a walk-in cooler, a root cellar, and indoor and outdoor washing sinks. This pavilion is where we'll pick up our CSA produce (and eggs!) this summer.

The Lady Bountiful and I also inspected the growth in the greenhouse. Along with pots and pots of her favorite flowers, she has already started the first round of vegetables and herbs, including these tall tomatoes on the top (steamy) shelf. (She says that as soon as they can get the cover over the high tunnel, they can plant these!)

The first lettuces are already leafing out, including my old favorite, Freckles (not shown here). How I craved to nibble on those fresh greens!

After the leisurely tour, the Lady Bountiful put me to work. First we mixed up a seed-starting medium (in an old wading pool).

Then, following her clever method, I filled seed trays with the mix by scooping large handfuls over the tray, then leveling them off.

We took the trays into the basement, where she has her seed-starting "office." We consulted one of two multi-page spreadsheets laid out by The Gentleman Farmer, indicating when to plant which varieties and to what quantity. (If you think I'm organized with my preservation spreadsheets, you ain't seen nothin'!)

Various seeds required different methods of dispersal. Some, like the broccoli and pepper seeds, were large enough to handle one at a time and drop one per cell. Others needed this handy little seeding gizmo that called for gentle tapping to get the seeds to emerge one by one.

Each tray got sprinkled with vermiculite (to keep the moisture in the soil), leveled off, and tamped down before it was set into a tray filled with fresh water.

Add a lid, flip on the grow lights, and there you go: seeds ready to germinate and become strong seedlings for the field.

We took a break for lunch (and a stimulating discussion about the local foods market plans), and then the Lady Bountiful and I headed back into the basement for a few more hours' work. Though I can't tell you how long we actually worked, we filled 28 trays (98 cells each), each drank a big mug of coffee, and talked ourselves almost hoarse. It was great.

Since I worked so much more than the required three hours, she very graciously sent me home with some fresh eggs from "the girls," so I get to enjoy a bit of a head start on my egg half-share for the year. Yum!

I'll certainly try to get out again a couple more times this year to help with other aspects of planting and harvesting, and I'm sure I'll have another delightful day visiting and working.

But for right now, I am ready for the CSA food!

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Roots for the Home Team!

I've mentioned in passing recently that I've joined up with a group of like-minded, passionate local growers and eaters to hammer out plans on an exciting new project. And though we're not fully official yet, the word is out.

Our group -- now the steering committee for the Wooster Local Foods Cooperative (unofficial but in the process of becoming a legal entity) -- has developed a business plan and model for the Local Roots Market and Café. Our hope is to open at the beginning of November, at least on a modest scale, to offer vendors from our summer downtown farmers' market a place to extend their selling season, and by spring we hope to have a retail market open that features locally grown produce, locally raised meats and fish, other locally produced food items, and who knows what else?

We've got a long, long way to go yet, but we met with the county commissioners yesterday to discuss the rental of a county-owned building downtown, and we hope to have a green light from them in the next two weeks. I've written a lengthy post for The Ethicurean on our work to date, and I'll continue to post updates there as we move forward.

As we make our plans, we're discovering other grassroots efforts going on to bring local foods to consumers, and the synergy all our groups are creating is incredibly exciting!

Won't you root us on?

Thanks to Jennifer Hugon, our talented graphic designer and steering committee member, for her preliminary sketches for the market's logo, shown above. I can't wait to show off her final design -- she rocks!

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Just One Jam Thing After Another

I've spent some time in the past couple of days looking at my pantry and thinking, I've got a lot of jars to go through before this year's preservation season begins.

I mean, I cannot believe how much I still have on hand! Clearly I hit a level of self-sufficiency in food supplies this past year, so now I've got a better idea of what to plan for each year.

But how on earth will I get through the majority of it in about three months?

And the section that I'll have the hardest time plowing through? The jam.

So I steeled myself over the weekend to begin the self-sacrificing task of forcing myself to eat more sweet, fruity, delicious jam. Oh, darn.

I started on Saturday by whipping up a small pan of my usual jam streusel bars (a variation on my fruit-date bars), using half a pint of raspberry jam from 2007 (along with local butter, wheat flour, and oats). I thought the bars would make a good addition to my lunches this week.

Of course, I shared a couple with the Renaissance Man over the weekend, and wouldn't you know it, already I'm running low for my lunch stash.

So this evening I pulled out a recipe I'd been longing to try: a buttery tart shell filled with a thick grape butter, reminiscent of the grape fry pies I'd get at the farmers' market last summer.

I made only half a batch of dough, using it to line a small round pottery baking dish, and added about half a pint of grape butter for the filling.

A little over half an hour later, I had a warm and fragrant tart with the rich and potent taste of Concord grapes bubbling from the bottom of the dish. I have to pat myself on the back because the grape butter turned out beautifully thick and with the right combination of sweet and tart flavors -- patience does pay!

That might just get me through a couple more lunches (and dinners) this week.

And if not? I'll just have to bake something else with another jam jar.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Back To the Ol' Grind

After two and a half weeks of camping out at My Wonderful Parents' place, I was able to return to my own place late this week. My Dear Papa is doing much better now and is well on the road to a healthy recovery. Huzzah!

The only trouble is, after all that time spent focusing on something outside the usual realm of activity, I hardly know where to begin to slip into my own life.

Take cooking and food, for example. Don't get me wrong: I helped the Chef Mother with meals every day, and we managed to throw together some very fresh and nutritious and vegetable-laden meals (including a delicious homemade pizza).

But those were fresh vegetables, and here in northeastern Ohio, you can bet those weren't local vegetables. They tasted great, and I was so glad to have them, but once I returned home, I realized I had to get back to cleaning out my pantry and my freezer.

What would it take to get me back into my frugal groove?

The answer was twofold: at least part of a weekend at home, and an assignment.

I started with the assignment, which was to fill up the Chef Mother's whole wheat flour bin with home-ground flour. So I set up the mill on the dining table and, little by little, started filling that bucket.

After a short round of errands this morning, I decided to make lunch from some of my dried vegetables, simmering dried potatoes and broccoli until tender and then making a sort of gratin with them.

With a bit of local milk, butter, and cheddar cheese to round out the dish, it may not have looked pretty, but it had a satisfyingly comforting flavor (even though the dried vegetables have a stronger flavor than fresh).

It's only a modest start, 'tis true, and my busy schedule this next week will keep me from trying anything more elaborate, I suspect.

But it's good to be home and back into my usual rhythms.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: March, Weeks 2-3

My field of vision has been rather narrow lately, so it came as a bit of a surprise to walk through the neighborhood on Friday and find loads of little lavender crocuses sprinkled across a lawn, followed by creamy white snowdrops in full bloom and tiny buds developing on a favorite lilac bush.

The world is greening up all around us, and this weekend we've even had the warmer weather to go with it. What a relief!

Since I've had other calls on my time of late, I've decided that for March I would combine the two Preserving the Seasons weekly posts and only give you one thing to think about: foraging and preserving wild edibles. But I can assure you, there's plenty here to keep you going for the rest of the month!

As you've learned by now, I've come to enjoy foraging for fresh little wild greens come early spring. (And I'm not alone: even over at Grist there's been talk of wild greens!) At this time of year, I can find little sprawling chickweed creating mats of brilliant green over the hillsides, patches of jewel-like violets, young dandelion leaves (and, soon, blossoms for wine), and prickly emerald green nettles. Each of these greens are loaded with nutrients, beginning with the vitamin C we often reach for in winter and including (in all cases but the violets) B vitamins, iron, calcium, potassium, and other potent nutrients. If you're willing to try foraged greens early in the year, you'll be rewarded by the fresh flavor and the burst of good nutrition!

Soon to follow, I'll find lambs' quarters popping up in the garden, wild garlic on the hillside at the Farm, refreshing and fiber-filled plantain; then lemony sour sorrel, clusters of wild berries, and, by fall, rich and woodsy tasting nuts like black walnuts and hickories.

There's a feast out there in your backyard! If you need help identifying these treasures, I recommend "Wildman" Steve Brill's website and book (Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants), but you can also learn more from Wild Food Adventures.

But once you've identified these greens -- and realized that you actually have an overabundance of them -- how can you preserve them for later in the year?

First consider your basic preservation techniques (as Sharon has done in more detail). Most of the greens dry well or freeze well, especially the hearty greens like nettles, lambs' quarters, and dandelion. (I dried bunches of nettles last summer to use for a tonifying herbal tea, something I reach for often right now to help me deal with stress.) Chickweed won't dry or freeze well, but it does make a lovely pesto (perhaps with some wild garlic?) that can be frozen in cubes for easy use.

Wild berries, like their domesticated cousins, can be made into jam and canned, or they can be frozen and thrown into baked goods later. Don't forget about the blossoms of some of those wild edibles: dandelion blossoms make a wonderful wine, violet blossoms can be candied and frozen (or frozen into ice cubes for a party punch), and I suspect that a few blossoms of garlic mustard could infuse a vinegar or olive oil with a lot of kick!

In the fall, when you gather nuts from these wild trees, you can store them in the shell (in cold storage) or remove them from the shells and freeze them in bags or jars.

If, like me, you appreciate herbal medicine, you might read up on the medicinal properties of some of these wild edibles and not only dry them for tisanes but also make vinegars, oils, or tinctures (usually infusions with vodka as the base). Several good herbal books can give you further information on how to make these; I'm not a qualified herbalist and haven't really practiced enough in my own pottering way to feel confident in telling you how to do it.

Once you get started with wild foods, though, you may find you never turn back! I find nature hikes to be so much more interesting now that I know more of the "wildflowers" and "weeds" and can begin to guess at the origins of others. As I explore more of the Farm this year, I hope to become familiar with plants such as sumac, sassafras, hickory, and hawthorn, all of which I've spotted but haven't yet tried.

Reminders to those who start foraging: do NOT eat wild plants found in areas that are sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. If you're foraging or gleaning on private property, ask permission first. And if you're unsure about the identification of something, don't eat it. Some wild edibles have poisonous look-alikes (though not, I think, any of the ones I've listed here). Read up on wild foods first, then start carefully or with a guide. But don't let this frighten you: it can be remarkably easy to identify more plants than you can imagine!

That should give you plenty to play with this month, between reading, exploring, eating, and preserving wild foods.

(And thanks for your patience until things slow down for me around here!)

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Doc's Orders

I've had a hard time getting to the computer this week -- and have had virtually nothing to share with you, Dear Readers -- because all my energies have been focused in one direction: My Wonderful Parents.

In this whirlwind week, My Dear Papa was whisked off to bypass surgery, and the Chef Mother and I have scrambled to keep ourselves together to support him. He came through the surgery with flying colors and is already making good progress, and we all appreciate all the kind thoughts and offers of support that so many people have sent our way.

In the midst of caring for My Dear Papa, though, we have to remember to take care of ourselves, too. And I'm sure it will come as no surprise that a vital part of taking care of ourselves means eating good, healthy food.

We haven't cooked much at home this week (though I did make a very good spinach pizza the other evening). The hospital cafeteria is astonishingly good, but it's a long way away from the cardiovascular unit, so we've only made it there once.

Today, though, we decided to stop at a local eatery on our way home -- and we found a new treasure. The nurses on My Dear Papa's floor had recommended Doc's Deli, and it more than lived up to our expectations.

The main menu encourages customers to build their own sandwiches with a choice of breads, meats, cheeses, condiments, and vegetables, but many of the options are out of the ordinary -- like cucumber wasabi or smoked Gouda or dried apples. And along with that menu, I discovered a list of about a dozen already tried-and-true vegetarian combinations that left me drooling.

I splurged on two sandwiches: one with spring greens, carrots, cucumbers, mushrooms, avocado, feta, and raspberry vinaigrette on flat bread...

...and the other with provolone, smoked Gouda, cucumbers, mushrooms, spring greens, tomato, sunflower seeds, and pesto on flatbread. We each had a half of each kind of sandwich, and we found our appetites thoroughly satisfied (especially since we also split a couple of cookies).

I did not ask whether the produce was local or not -- my guess is that at this time of year it would be difficult to get most of these things locally in the quantities needed for a deli -- but it was all fresh and crisp and utterly delicious.

I'm already looking over the menu for tomorrow's lunch orders, and who knows? We might even indulge in a slice of one of their luscious cheesecakes.

My Dear Papa will certainly have a restricted diet when he comes home, and we will do our best to support him. But we're also trying to take care of ourselves as well, so after such a good lunch, we headed home for a rest.

After all, you've got to do what the Doc tells you!

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: March, Week 1

March is here, and with it comes the promise of Spring. Though the spring equinox is still a couple weeks away, this week's forecast holds the promise of warmer weather -- much to everyone's relief.

It's been a long hard winter here in northeastern Ohio. I confess I hadn't really realized that until just last week. Between keeping my apartment on the very cool side, walking to and from work in all kinds of cold and snowy or icy weather, and generally enjoying watching the snow, I hadn't really considered it to be one of those legendary "hard" winters our parents and grandparents told us about.

But after seeing the snow piled on the ground for so long, I admit I, too, am relieved to see occasional hints of green.

After weeks and months of neutral-colored landscapes, it becomes a real joy to find the first daffodils poking through the soil. We still have a long way to go before the first seeds are planted and sprouting in the garden, but at least we're on the right road.

Save for those sensible few who have cold frames or greenhouses, we're not likely to find much fresh local produce. That time is coming, though, so March is a good time to start preparing for the next growing and harvesting season.

Before gardens get started, we can find wild greens growing wherever uncultivated patches start greening. At the same time, we begin preparing the garden soil, planting seeds (even indoors), and gearing up to grow what will be preserved this summer.

It's a time of hope, of renewal, of a new beginning. And after the dormancy of winter, I am so grateful for those blessings.

I'll still be cleaning out the pantry this month, but I'll gradually be able to work some fresh green plants into my diet, making me feel refreshed and ready to take on the world again.

It won't be long now!

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Time Out

Dear Readers, my apologies for the dearth of posts lately. Life is happening in a big way, and I haven't been cooking enough to share. This week could continue the insane whirlwind, so please bear with me.

In the meantime, have a look at some of the other sites I frequent (as found on the right). Here are a couple of noteworthy stories:

"Agribiz Bioinstitute Declares Fresh Healthy Food a Menace" (Eating Liberally): Seriously? This is what agribusiness has to offer American eaters? Guys, time for a reality check! Some of us LOVE our fruits and veggies!

"In bad times, seed sales grow" (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, via the Ethicurean): Got your seeds yet for this year's garden? Better hurry -- seed suppliers are seeing a big boom in sales.

"A little compost with that latte?" (The Slow Cook): I love compost. Ed loves compost. And if you didn't know how much coffee loves compost, go read.

"What the health?" (Ethicurean): My latest book review at the Ethicurean allowed me to "unleash the inner snark," as my editor put it. Can you tell I really don't like being told what to do?

I'll try to get back into the kitchen yet this week and whip up something new. Stay tuned.