Sunday, May 31, 2009

Spring Greening

The growing season is off to such a fast start, it's hard to keep up! Not only did the Southern Belle bring me another bumper crop of lettuce, cilantro, and pac choi yesterday, but I also foraged chickweed at the Farm yesterday and harvested more herbs at the Renaissance Man's garden this morning.

I've got plans to dry a large quantity of herbs and greens over the next few days, but that doesn't alter the fact that I still have a good deal more produce that needs to be eaten.

So I spent a little time today finding fresh ways to enjoy these foods.

One of my favorite snacks for warm weather is a yogurt-based dip from the Middle East called borani. (Since I've seen variations from a number of ethnic cuisines, I won't attribute this to any specific one.) Using drained plain yogurt, I mixed a refreshing spread from a number of local items: radishes and dill from the Southern Belle's garden, chickweed from the Farm, garlic from last year's farmers' market, and some of last year's dill salt. With a few walnuts for crunch, this creamy delight makes the perfect sea for a humble melba toast's headlong dive.

For lunch, I decided to make soup in order to use up the last quart of vegetable stock. I started by sauteing slivers of leek in olive oil, then added cubed new potatoes, the last of the shredded zucchini from the freezer, and a smidgen of dill before pouring in the stock and some lambs' quarters and letting it all simmer for a good long while. I ladled some into a soup bowl, sprinkled a little goat cheese on top, and tucked in. For not using a recipe at all, I ended up throwing together a light but rich, hearty but not heavy, refreshing springtime soup.

I'll still be eating plenty of salads this week, but at least I'm able to create a little more variety with this early produce.

And I'll have that all cleaned up in no time.

Spring Greening Soup

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 leek, thinly sliced and slivered
6-8 small red potatoes, cubed
1 tsp minced fresh dill
1/2 c shredded zucchini (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
1 c leafy greens (wild edibles like lambs' quarters are ideal)
1 qt vegetable stock
1 tsp minced fresh dill

Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the leek and saute until fragrant. Add potatoes, 1 tsp dill, and zucchini, and saute another minute. Season with salt and pepper. Add greens and stock, bring to a boil, then turn heat down and simmer for half an hour or so, until potatoes are tender.

Garnish with fresh dill. Serve warm.

Serves 4

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Independence Days #3

Thanks to the long holiday weekend, I managed to get a good amount done toward building "food independence." And now that the CSA season has begun, I'll have to stick with it!

1. Plant something: I had another good week for planting, extending my garden reach to yet another friend's homestead as well as to my own front porch. I planted buckwheat with the Farmgirl Wannabe; sunchokes, Hutterite soup beans, basil, and cosmos at the Renaissance Man's garden; and Jacob's cattle beans, broccoli, Rutgers tomato (one little seedling), onions, dill, and marigolds in pots on my porch.

2. Harvest something: The garden is off to a roaring good start, with lettuce, spinach, amaranth, pac choi, garlic, scallions, radishes, sage, dill, and cilantro ending up in bags to take home; also picked up first CSA produce!

3. Preserve something: Hung a bunch of sage up to dry; blanched and froze all the pac choi I had picked; dried cilantro in the dehydrator; tried drying a vegetable puree "cracker" in the dehydrator (sorry, forgot the photo; but it's tasty!).

4. Reduce waste: Reused plastic bags for the harvest, and used my canvas bag for CSA pickup; tried to eat more of the radish greens instead of composting them all; built a simple compost cage at the back of the Renaissance Man's property (I'm sure he'd have done much better, but I did this single-handed and tried the best I could with a staple gun).

5. Preparation and storage: Stocked up on sugar for jam-making; took down dried mints and stored in glass jars (not canning jars).

6. Build local food systems: Edited the proposed producer guidelines for Local Roots and tried to clarify our vision for how to prioritize in-market sales (since we will have limited space); wrote the first newsletter to prospective members; shared ideas and information with the Farmgirl Wannabe on what she had already planted and what other possibilities she might consider.

7. Eat the food: Aside from a wonderful day of all-local food (the individual dishes carried out over the week), I also enjoyed a number of good fresh salads or handfuls of crisp radishes, and I shared the last breaded eggplant with the Farmgirl Wannabe over dinner one night. (I also shared the recipe with her a couple days later.) The night after CSA pickup, I enjoyed a CSA scramble with fresh eggs, kale, scallion, dill, and some Cheddar cheese -- a good dinner!

I can see I'll have to do some thinking for next week, though -- is the garden ready for me to plant more? What other ways can I reduce waste? What else do I need to prep or store? At least I'm starting to keep these questions running in the background of my mind to help keep me a little more focused.

Above all, it's a good way of getting experience at juggling all of these things.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Oh, Say, Can You CSA? 2009, Week 1

Since last year My Wonderful Parents and I so enjoyed our weekly trips to pick up our CSA produce, our visits with the Lady Bountiful and the Gentleman Farmer and their cheerful children, and all the good food, we decided to sign up for a share again this year.

And to celebrate the Chef Mother's birthday today, we picked up our goodies for week 1!

The skies turned threatening on our way out of town as thunderstorms skittered across the area, so by the time we showed up at the farm, the air was heavy with potential rain. But the atmosphere lightened considerably when we saw the happy crowd gathered around the new barn, eager for their fresh produce.

This year, the Gentleman Farmer and their eldest son built a section of raised beds for the early produce, as you can see above. About half of those beds were full to spilling over with delicious lettuce, beet greens, kale, radishes, and the start of peas.

Several of those items then found their way into our cloth bags to carry home:

--plenty of lettuce (as much as we needed for the week, urged the Lady, so My Dear Papa and I both picked two bunches)
--a bundle of beet greens (for My Dear Papa, of course)
--kale (for me)
--radishes (for the folks; I've got enough from the garden right now)
--three leeks (overwintered; split)
--three herb pots (I took basil and thyme; My Dear Papa chose sage)

While the Lady was showing another (new) CSA shareholder the gardens, I headed out to the lettuce patch and did a little weeding for her, ending up with a bundle of lambs' quarters. She and her eldest son both smiled indulgently at me and let me wash up the "weeds" to take home along with the rest of my produce.

And before I piled back into the car with the folks, the Lady stopped me, saying, "Oh, don't forget your eggs!" That's right, this year she offered egg shares along with the produce, and I signed up for a half-share (half a dozen eggs each week). I didn't get a photo of the eggs, but you can well imagine these brown beauties as larger than average and full of golden goodness.

As we headed home, the rain began (again) in earnest, but nothing could dampen our spirits.

It's CSA season again! Good food all around!

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: May, Week 4

Almost a year ago, I promised you I would spend twelve months introducing you to various food preservation techniques and sharing some of my own experiences along the way.

Here we are now, at the end of the Preserving the Seasons year and ready to begin another year's harvest, preservation, and eating of a wonderful garden bounty!

At this time of year, you get the best of both worlds: the first fresh greens and other vegetables are begging to be picked, but since they can be somewhat insubstantial on their own, you can supplement from your pantry.

And the results can be surprisingly satisfying! I decided to make all of today's meals as local as possible, drawing on both my pantry and my garden, and I think it turned out very well. See what you think:

Breakfast this morning consisted of:

--cheese grits, using corn grits from storage, a bit of dried thyme from last year's garden, local egg and Cheddar cheese
--a peach-mincemeat muffin, using canned peaches, canned tomatillo mincemeat, stored spelt flour, and local egg
--iced peppermint tea, using dried peppermint from the Renaissance Man's garden

I packed my lunch for work and enjoyed it after a bit of exercise:

--broccoli pizza, using homemade pizza sauce, frozen broccoli, local mozzarella cheese, and a crust made with local flour
--fresh radishes from the garden
--a rhubarb-mulberry jam bar, using rhubarb from a friend's garden, mulberry jam from the pantry, and spelt flour and oats from storage

When I came home, I had the perfect finale in mind:

--manicotti, using homemade pasta (local spelt flour and local egg); local ricotta for the filling with steamed nettles, lambs' quarters, and spinach from the garden along with some fresh garlic; and homemade spaghetti sauce (home canned tomato sauce, frozen onion and garlic, dried herbs, local red wine)
--salad greens (lettuce and amaranth) from the garden, topped with a sprinkling of fresh dill
--a glass of local red wine
--the first rose of the year, from the Renaissance Man's garden

All in all, these dishes split fairly evenly between fresh and preserved, and I can tell you that my stomach is very happy as I settle in with the rest of my glass of wine for the evening (I'm a very slow drinker).

Over the past twelve months, I've tried to give you a reasonably good start on your own preserving projects at home, and I've tried to give a good variety of examples of how to use such preserved foods. (Except for the pizza and pasta thing -- I know, I'm sort of boring in that respect, but I do love good pizza and pasta!)

A new harvest season awaits: my CSA season will start tomorrow, and the farmers' market opens next Saturday. I've got my list started, and I'm still clearing out space in the freezer and on the pantry shelves to get ready for this year's bounty.

What are you looking forward to putting up for this coming winter?

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Bake In the Saddle Again

I can't begin to express how luxurious it seems today to have a day off work. With everything that's been going on the past few months, a breather like this has been all too rare.

And though I've spent the entire day thus far working in different ways, it has been utterly satisfying.

I fired up the oven early this morning to bake a pan of cheese grits for breakfast, but I followed that immediately with a couple pans of muffins made with tomatillo mincemeat, canned peaches (and syrup), local egg and spelt flour, and other good things. The muffins turned out dense but rich and spicy.

Then I pulled out my trusty fruit-date bar recipe and made a filling with local rhubarb, a half-pint of mulberry-lemon-ginger jam from last year, and an 8-oz package of cream cheese. This creamy, sweet-tart filling slid between the buttery base and the spicy oatmeal-ginger topping with ease, making a meltingly velvet texture and a deliciously rich flavor.

Following a bit of work in the Renaissance Man's garden, I returned home to make a broccoli pizza for lunch, perhaps one of my best ever with a crackly whole wheat crust.

On top of that, I blanched and froze my first greens of the season (pac choi).

Don't worry, though, I'll rein in this activity soon -- I'm getting tired!

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Greens With Envy

Thanks to the holiday weekend, I've been able to get a lot more done than usual. And thanks to My Wonderful Parents loaning me their vehicle, I've been able to run a few errands and make a couple of visits.

Today's visit took me to see the Southern Belle, the Absent-Minded Professor, and My Adorable Nephews -- not to mention our shared garden.

The warm temperatures of late have made a visible impact on the garden. Wow! We had a bit of weeding to do, and I assigned the AMP to adding more soil around the potatoes, mounding them up better. The Nephews helped pick some greens, but they were most thrilled with their usual assignment of scattering crushed egg shells around the garden plantings.

Having taken care of the maintenance work, I proceeded to start at the bottom of the lower garden and harvest my way through the crops (leaving plenty for my gracious hosts, of course). The lettuce and radishes are right at their peak, begging to be picked, and the herbs have taken off nicely as well.

I shared a good bundle of lettuce and a bag of radishes with My Wonderful Parents, but as you can see, I still had plenty of food for myself (and not all of it is shown here): lettuce, spinach, amaranth, pac choi, sage, cilantro, dill, radishes, scallions, and fresh garlic.

It was all so tempting that I enjoyed a big salad for dinner (topped with a little crumbled goat cheese). On such a hot day, it's possibly the most refreshing meal of all.

And this is only the beginning, so don't be jealous yet!

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Story With a Plot

Once upon a time, there were two women. The younger woman -- we'll call her the Farmgirl Wannabe -- had a lovely little house in the country with a few acres of land, but didn't really know what to do with it.

The older woman -- we'll call her the Baklava Queen -- had no land, save what she borrowed from her landowning friends, but had seeds and lots of good ideas (inspired by kindly wise men whose books gave her guidance).

On a hot and sunny day, the Farmgirl Wannabe invited the Baklava Queen out for a visit. They had talked about their dovetailed dilemmas and thought they had a good solution. So with a sturdy rototiller...

...a square or two of freshly dug turf...

...a bag of buckwheat seed and a broadcast seeder...

...and a pair of nosy but unflappable neighbors, they got down to work.

While one planted an assortment of pumpkins around the fence (because you never know when you're going to grow a really huge pumpkin that could serve dual duty as a coach; this being a fairy tale, after all), the other merrily traipsed back and forth across a plot of tilled ground, scattering buckwheat seeds and tramping them into the earth.

(The other plot she covered with a soil-building mix of peas, vetch, and oats, in the hopes of turning that under later in the year and planting winter wheat. But we're getting ahead of our story now...)

The Farmgirl Wannabe and the Baklava Queen finished their toils and sat back with a pair of cold ones (locally brewed, of course) to appreciate their handiwork and to discuss their ongoing ideas for Local Roots (being the sort of fairy tale heroines who not only need no rescuing, they act as their own fairy godmothers).

And, having seen that their day was fruitful, they prepared a delicious dinner of local foods, from the breaded eggplant and wax beans from the Baklava Queen's freezer and the homemade spaghetti sauce to the buttery-tender lettuce mix and the crisp peppery radishes from the Farmgirl Wannabe's garden -- and they enjoyed every last bite.

And they worked happily ever after.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Independence Days #2

I think I'm going to like having this challenge to wrap up my work week, because reviewing what I've done through the week gives me a little extra motivation to get more done on the weekends as well as to find little ways to contribute throughout the week.

Besides, right now it seems so easy to cover all the bases!

1. Plant something: Not too much here this week, but at least I finally got my tomato seedlings (two kinds of cherry tomatoes) planted.

2. Harvest something: I didn't make it over to the one garden, but at the Renaissance Man's herb patch I picked spearmint, peppermint, and lemon balm.

3. Preserve something: Hung the mints and the lemon balm to dry.

4. Reduce waste: Cut the bottoms off two plastic jugs (milk and cider), then set the containers over the tomato seedlings to keep them warm over the still cool nights; packed my lunch in all reusable containers every day; inflicted the second jar of veg curry on friends for a movie night; used a rag instead of a paper towel or two to clean the stovetop.

5. Preparation and storage: Cleaned the stovetop; wiped down dehydrator trays; started another box of empty pint jars to reuse for canning; started new jar of dried nettle for tea.

6. Build local food systems: Another lively Local Roots meeting; also, made contact with several people about the market at the Malabar Farm Barbecue Saturday night (interested producers, someone helpful from the Ohio Dept. of Agriculture, a local business owner, a reporter) to ask some questions and gather more ideas (not to mention to increase interest!).

7. Eat the food: Oh yeah! With the Renaissance Man around, I went on a cooking spree: bread with local spelt flour; sticky buns with local spelt flour, local eggs, local hicans; broccoli pizza with homemade sauce, local broccoli, local cheese; asparagus pasta with the last of the asparagus from a Friend; homemade canned salsa to go with chips for snack; local oatmeal; herb tisanes with home-dried herbs; and tonight's dinner, a bread salad (panzanella) with leftover spelt bread, lambs quarters from the garden, and dried cherry tomatoes, accompanied by this year's spring brew from a local brewery, incorporating chamomile, lemon verbena, and lemon basil (locally grown).

Okay, it's obvious where my priority was this week: feeding the Renaissance Man and, by extension, myself. But at least I tried to keep other things in mind and have laid the groundwork for more next week.

Very satisfying!

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: May, Week 3

Having checked your equipment and supplies last week in preparation for this summer's food preservation marathon, it's time to sit down and map out what you'd actually like to do this year.

Over the course of this past year, I've shared with you information on multiple methods of food preservation, highlighted some of my favorite books and recipes, and given you ideas on how to use some of these preserved foods. With any luck, you've been keeping some mental notes as to what you might like to try or expand in your own kitchen.

First, take a look at what you have left from last year's preservation (assuming you did some). What have you used up in good time? What are you still working through? What has been sitting in a back corner because you really haven't found yourself compelled to eat it? Make notes, and if you put together a chart of the kinds of foods and the quantities you put up for winter, use that chart to help you figure out how much of any item you think you might want or need to preserve this coming season.

For example, I still have 7 pints of canned tomatoes left out of 16. That actually surprises me because I usually make more stews and curries over the winter, but I suspect that I was able to stretch them out more because of having a better variety stashed away. Since tomatoes don't come into season for another two months, I still have time to use most of this, though, and so I think 16 to 20 pints might still be useful for me.

Where pickles of various kinds are concerned, though, I've barely touched them, so I might want to dry or freeze more vegetables on their own rather than pickle them this year.

This sort of assessment brings us back around to the spreadsheets I started last year with, in which I listed the various kinds of produce available to me and indicated what preservation methods I might find most useful. I can now modify that chart for this year's harvest and give myself a good idea of what to plan for in my schedule.

Sharon made the wise observation on her own blog recently that when you have such grandiose plans for food preservation, they can become overwhelming very quickly. Her suggestion of making notes about various in-season items on the calendar is an excellent one. I've made a note about strawberries in mid-June, and though I have yet to decide what exactly to do with them, I'm pretty sure I will at least dry some and make jam from others. If you have any similarly large harvests or preservation plans ahead, pencil them in on your calendar around the times you think they'll be ready, and clear your schedule!

Take it from someone who knows all too well: it is so easy to get tempted by all the beautiful fresh produce at the farmers' market or to plant a little of everything and then suddenly find your daily schedule overrun by the need to preserve everything before it rots. Making charts like these, as obsessively organized as they sound, can really help you set some realistic plans for yourself.

Of course, you might also consider teaming up with a friend or two to find common food preservation interests and to share the work. There's a reason our ancestors held work bees of various sorts: good company and conversation makes the time pass more quickly, and many hands do make light work.

Don't forget to save room in your schedule and on your pantry shelves for the unexpected finds. It's easy to plan how to preserve the things you know you like, but if you have a CSA share or are willing to try new things at the farmers' market, you're likely to be introduced to new flavors that may become new favorites you'll want to enjoy through the year.

Yes, this seems like a lot of work right now. But it will definitely make things easier later on and will help you keep your cool when your kitchen is too hot for comfort.

Start somewhere -- and leave room to grow.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sprout and About

I've been spending more time at the Renaissance Man's place this week, helping him settle back into his routine and relaxing with movies in the evenings.

But when I'm there, I naturally find myself wandering out to putter in the garden. It's looking a little weedy, but happily, most of the crops have taken hold nicely.

The fava beans have shot up considerably of late, and I really ought to get some stakes set behind them for when they get a little taller and heavy with pods. The potatoes, too, are requiring a good deal of attention: seems like every other day I need to scoop more soil around the base of the leaves as they keep shooting skyward. (Hope that means a bumper crop this summer!)

I did finally think that since the weather was warming up at last, I could take my cherry tomato seedlings (Black Cherry and Peacevine) and get them set in. These Black Cherry seedlings are nested into an old cistern behind the house, long filled in with dirt. (I also used milk and cider jugs with the bottoms cut out to cover and protect the seedlings until they get a little bigger.)

On top of that, I thinned the radishes and yanked a few more wandering mint runners from the bed.

A slow week, I suppose, but I thought you might like to see the progress so far. It's coming along!

And still I look for room to plant more...

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Berry Fine Evening

Though the day turned out a little cool and occasional showers threatened to douse us, the Renaissance Man and I enjoyed a day down at Malabar Farm, former home of writer Louis Bromfield and now a state park.

We arrived for some of the fun of Spring Plowing Days and stood back to watch various Ohio farmers drive their draft horse teams across Malabar's working farm fields to plow the soil. Once in a while, a farmer would let an interested bystander have a hand at the plow, something I was somewhat tempted to try myself.

We wandered around the farm a bit and enjoyed a late lunch at Malabar Farm Restaurant (in an old post-inn) before returning to the farm for a special occasion.

The main excitement of the day was the arrival of none other than Wendell Berry himself -- farmer, poet, professor, essayist, voice of the agrarian spirit, and prophet for our times. The Malabar Farm Foundation had decided to bestow the Louis Bromfield Society Award on him at the annual barbeque, and I managed to get tickets for the Renaissance Man and I to go and meet one of our literary heroes.

Bless Wendell's ever-loving soul, he was nice as pie -- humble, soft-spoken, utterly gracious, and possessed of a wonderful sense of humor. He signed books for us and even agreed to have his photo taken with us at my request, much to my excitement.

Surprisingly, though, the most stimulating part of the evening for me was to sit down to dinner with a couple from a nearby college town who have been farming for a while and expressed interest in Local Roots, and their introduction of the subject drew everyone at the table into conversation. (We also found ourselves being entertained by an older lady at the table who had gone to school with one of Bromfield's daughters and had some stories to share about the farm in its heyday.) Nothing against the famous Mr. Berry, mind you, just a wonderful way to cap off a highly thought-provoking and enjoyable day.

I'm hoping to write more about the farm and the event for the Ethicurean (UPDATED: the article is now up at the Ethicurean), but, well, I was just so thrilled by the whole adventure that I wanted to share it here, too.

And what a Berry fine way to spend a day!

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Independence Days #1

Maybe you've gathered by now that I really admire Sharon Astyk and what she writes over at her blog. Given all that I've read on environmental and food matters in the past few years, I think she's generally spot on when she talks about how we need to make changes in our lifestyles in order to live more reasonably in a low-petroleum future. I also think that her discussion of domestic issues -- the very fabric of our lives, whether we choose to ignore them or not -- offers a valuable perspective in the larger environmental and economic arenas.

Last year Sharon started something she called the Independence Days Challenge. Based on the idea set out by Carla Emery in the Encyclopedia of Country Living, this challenge asks us to spend each week planting, harvesting, and preserving food as well as otherwise stocking up for hard times, learning new skills, and generally learning how to make do with less in a way that is satisfying. I found the idea to be a good one, though I didn't really have time last year to jump into it with so much else going on.

Not that this spring is much quieter! But Sharon has revived and somewhat simplified the challenge, and since my Preserving the Seasons year is ending, I think this would be a good time for me to take on this new challenge and see if it will nudge me a little further down the road I want to travel. So for the seven categories Sharon has suggested, here's my report for the week:

1. Plant something. Oh yeah, I was all over this one this week. I put in
green beans, summer savory, pac choi, more lettuce, zucchini, watermelon, nasturtiums, sunflowers, more carrots, basil, broccoli (regular and Chinese), and more flowers at the garden shared with the Southern Belle and her family. At the Renaissance Man's garden, I added more herbs and flowers.

2. Harvest something. As I mentioned earlier in the week, I had a small first harvest from the Southern Belle's garden:
small handfuls of lettuce from last year, a scattering of baby spinach leaves, a few tiny radishes, a lone scallion from last year, sprinklings of dill and cilantro, and the usual nettles and lambs quarters. (I took only a little and left plenty for the family to enjoy.)

3. Preserve something. I gathered a bunch of nettles together and hung them to dry for tea.

4. Reduce waste. I washed out the plastic bags used to bring home produce so that I can reuse them at farmers' market time; saved an egg carton for the Lady Bountiful's egg CSA; reused a couple of paper towels used to pat dry washed lettuce (yes, I know a fabric towel would be better); saved egg shells to bake and crumble for the garden; kept on eating the vegetable curry I made last weekend (for a potluck that didn't happen) to use up a good number of last year's preserved vegetables, despite the curry not turning out as well as I'd like.

5. Preparation and storage. Checked the canner and my stash of jars, lids, rings for canning; organized the lids and rings a little better; sorted through remaining jars of preserved food from last year and rearranged it so that I stand a better chance of using it up.

6. Build local food systems. Happily, this will be a relatively easy one to keep up since I'm busy all the time with the work to get Local Roots up and running! Pulled together minutes from the meeting; contributed ideas to developing producer guidelines; gathered a little more information on some of the marketing ideas we have.

7. Eat the food. This really never is a problem for me! But since I've got the Renaissance Man visiting again for another weekend, I've had added incentive to work through some of the preserved and fresh foods I have around. So... made a delicious potato salad with fresh asparagus and dill; savored that rhubarb-raspberry coffee cake; enjoyed grape juice and herb teas with breakfasts; plodded through the veg curry for lunches, often with canned peaches and fresh salad greens.

Once I start thinking about each of the items, two things happen: I find I've done more than I realize, and I also find there's more I can do. So I think this will be a good nudge to get me going a little further down the road of growing and preserving food, making do, and doing more with less. It gives a good focus to my home economy and the work I do to keep myself well-fed and satisfied. And though I know absolute independence is not the goal (it's certainly not desirable), I think this will help me wake up a little more to some of the areas in my home economy that could be improved.

So join me if you like -- it's worth a try!

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: May, Week 2

So here we are in May. If you're like me, you're getting really sick of eating frozen or canned foods -- and you're well and truly grateful for the fresh food that's starting to sprout up in the garden!

But though the garden produce is a little scarce right now, and the farmers' market isn't even open for some of us, it won't be long before we'll have way more fresh produce than we can eat in a given week. (At least I know that will be true for me, between two gardens, a shared CSA share, and weekly market visits.)

That's why this month, instead of focusing so much on the various methods of food preservation, I'd like to spend time getting ready for the next season. And for this week, that means checking equipment and stocking up on the materials needed to preserve the fresh produce.

First up: if you do a great deal of canning, as I do, or you plan to put up lots of pickles or jams or tomato sauce, you'll want to get your canner out of storage, clean it up, and check for any potential problems (like those little rust spots in the bottom; I'm keeping my eye on them to make sure they don't develop into holes).

Make sure you can find all your other canning equipment, too: the rack for the canner, a jar lifter, a jar funnel, tongs, and, if you make sauces or jellies, your chinois and one or two clean jelly bags. You might not need all this yet, but when you do, it's good to have everything all together and ready to grab.

Of course, you can't can without your Mason jars. Hopefully you've been emptying last year's preserves at a steady pace, washing the jars, and storing them carefully. Now is a good time to check the jars for cracks or nicks as well as to count what you have available to use at the beginning of the season.

Along with the jars, pull all your lids and rings together in one place. If the lids have been used to seal jars already, you might want to store them in a separate bag so that you know you can't use them for canning again. (I use my jars and such all the time for food storage throughout the year and save the old lids for that.) You might want to stop by the store and stock up on boxes of lids if you don't have many unused ones left.

If freezing is one of your preservation methods of choice, now would be a good time to stock up on heavy duty freezer bags or hard plastic storage containers. (Freezing produce in leftover yogurt containers or other previously used plastic is not a good idea; stick with the containers that are made to withstand the cold over and over again.)

If you have plans to dry lots of produce this year, pull out your dehydrator and wipe down the trays. If you dry produce in the oven, stock up on parchment paper to line cookie sheets. Here's a good place to use any glass jars you've checked and found to be nicked or cracked: storing dried produce doesn't require the vacuum seal that can be damaged by these flaws, and you can also reuse canning lids for this since you don't need that seal.

By the way, this is also a good time to consider spring cleaning the kitchen, especially the stovetop and the oven, since you're not likely to have time for several months after this!

Depending on what kinds of preserved foods you plan to put up for winter, you may want to watch grocery flyers for sales on sugar, salt (kosher or canning), pectin, vinegar, and spices. These will keep a long time, unless you're preserving in large quantities.

Don't forget about stocking up on labels for your jars, too, or a marker for freezer bags. Keep those handy so you can mark down the kind of produce and the date preserved. (You'll also find that it helps to keep track of what you've preserved over the season; more about that next week.)

And because there's always cleanup to do, you might want to set aside a few dish towels and potholders for potentially messy preserve-making. I'd also suggest you pull out or invest in a good sturdy apron. I've got mine (thanks to Emily at Preserving Traditions).

So get ready, because yes, we can (and dry, and freeze...). And we will!

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Rhubarb Awakening

Back in my younger days, the Chef Mother grew rhubarb behind the house. The small patch of cherry-hued stalks and enormous ruffly umbrellas of leaves created a dense low-lying jungle outside the bedroom window and supplied the Chef Mother with plenty of fruit for her legendary rhubarb pies.

I'm not kidding about the "legendary" bit. At our church's annual bake sale, the minister and my high-school Sunday school teacher would regularly start a bidding war over this sugar-crusted, sweet-tart pastry. The only way to satisfy both men -- and to raise a scandalous amount of money to send kids to camp -- was for her to bake two pies, put one up for bidding, and then when the one had been sold, offer the other at an equivalent price.

My Dear Papa longed for this pie every year, knowing it would only get made in the spring -- though if he were lucky, the Chef Mother would tuck an extra into the freezer to be enjoyed later.

Me, though, I never liked it. Rhubarb was waaaaaay too tart for my sweet tooth, and I never developed the taste for it.

Until last year. The Cheerful Lady started bringing small rhubarb coffeecakes to the farmers' market, and these little streusel-topped confections made the perfect snack for the Renaissance Man and myself on our Saturday jaunts to the Farm.

Still, I figured I still didn't care for rhubarb pie. But a couple weeks ago, one of my cohorts in the Local Roots steering committee proved me wrong when she shared a pair of crumb-topped French rhubarb pies that knocked me off my seat. And when my dear Friend shared her rhubarb pie Friday night, I knew I was ready to venture into that long-mysterious territory for myself.

I mulled over a handful of recipes over the weekend but finally settled on a coffeecake variation from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking. I sliced a few stalks of peeled rhubarb and set them aside while I whisked together local spelt flour, unbleached flour, candied ginger bits, and such before adding them to creamed butter, local maple sugar, local egg, and local milk.

To counter the tartness of the rhubarb -- since I'm still hesitant to eat it largely unadorned -- I added some thawed local black raspberries to the batter. The berries provided just the right amount of sweetness, as well as a lovely rosy-purple hue.

With a little streusel on top (VERY little; must note this in the recipe) and over half an hour in the oven, these local fruits turned into a soft, moist, sweet-tart, hunger-sating cake that could serve as dessert as easily as breakfast.

There's more rhubarb in the refrigerator, so I'll have to test another recipe or two later this week, but so far, so good.

I think I might just remove another food from my dislike list -- and get on with enjoying it!

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Green Around the Hills

Though I managed to start planting this year's garden well over a month ago, I haven't been consistent in getting over to the garden to finish sowing seeds. And when I have made it there, I haven't been able to time the visit so as to have help from the Southern Belle and My Adorable Nephews.

Today, however, all the stars aligned, and we had our first foray into the garden together.

The lower garden on the hillside, where I had started the first rows of spring vegetables, looked nice and green, with the lettuce taking off, the radishes needing a first thinning, and even peas starting to reach their thin tendrils skyward. The plantings in the upper bed are making good progress, too!

I started everyone on the immediate task of weeding and clearing space: with a little instruction, the Southern Belle took to pulling the unwanted grasses and wildflowers, and both Nephews toted armfuls of discarded greenery to the compost pile.

Once we had more room, I handed out seeds for the next round of planting: green beans, summer savory, pac choi, more lettuce, zucchini, watermelon, nasturtiums, sunflowers, more carrots, basil, broccoli (regular and Chinese), and more flowers.

We also had to keep up with those items growing up quickly. The potatoes I had planted a couple of weeks ago have already leafed out beautifully, so I had the boys mound more dirt around the stems so that the spuds can continue to develop. (They enjoyed that.)

With the hard work done, we could see a marked difference in the garden beds -- though no one expects that to last long!

Finally, I went around and picked the first harvest from the garden: small handfuls of lettuce from last year, a scattering of baby spinach leaves, a few tiny radishes, a lone scallion from last year, sprinklings of dill and cilantro, and the usual nettles and lambs quarters. Aside from the wild edibles, I picked only a fraction of what was in the garden but pointed out to the Southern Belle where she could continue to harvest.

The Absent-Minded Professor has planted his own tomatoes and peppers this year, and he continues to talk excitedly about putting in yet another bed, so we may expand further in the next few weeks.

But at least until the next visit, I've got plenty of good greens to keep me going.

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Let's Stalk

As the Renaissance Man has felt more mobile of late, I have been all too willing to escort him around town and to put him in the way of good friends and delightful adventures.

Last evening, we enjoyed one such outing as we drove south to visit dear Friends at their farm hidden back in the wooded hills. We especially enjoy visiting these Friends as our willingness to make the drive makes them willing to serve us dinner, and we end up sitting around the fire for hours talking about the most interesting topics.

Almost as soon as we entered the door, we were greeted warmly and gradually shepherded toward the dinner table, where we enjoyed lusciously creamy manicotti with homemade vegetable sauce, fresh steamed and buttered asparagus, a vividly tart salad with fresh greens and over-wintered apples, and a hearty flaxseed bread, all accompanied by homemade grape juice. (As you might imagine, all this food was grown on their farm and put up for the winter -- these Friends are definitely after my own heart!)

We rounded out the meal with a perfect rhubarb pie and pungent mint tea, and though the gents seemed inclined to sit back and discourse, I found myself revved up for a walk.

So I helped clear the table, and then we ladies headed out for a gentle hike, greeting the sheep and the newborn lambs, browsing the garden, and inspecting the plantings around the house.

When we returned, my arms were laden with pencil-thin stalks of asparagus and enormous rose-tinted stalks of rhubarb, fresh from the garden. I also had a handful of lambs quarters from my "weeding" and another bunch of stinging nettles (that my Friend could not believe I would pick barehanded).

The Renaissance Man and I lingered a few hours longer, of course, enjoying the conversation in the ever-darkening cabin, and when we headed home, we carried an overflowing basket of spring deights with us.

And if this doesn't get me back into the kitchen soon, nothing will.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Roots of Our Labor

I'm barely getting any cooking done these days -- at least in the kitchen. But I'm definitely collaborating with a great group for cooking up ideas for Local Roots.

As I mentioned last week, we had our community information meeting about Local Roots Monday night at the library. Others in the group were doubtful we'd get a big turnout, but I predicted we'd have a full house, and guess what? The response was overwhelming. The total number of attendees ranged from 75 (during the Q&A at the end) to 90-100 by some accounts early on. Though most of the attendees were potential consumer members, we had a handful of new-to-us farmers and other producers who expressed interest in their role in the market.

Other exciting things have been going on behind the scenes:

--We had an interior designer walk through the building and offer suggestions for how to arrange our operations in a way that would give a small-scale view later this summer of how we hope to expand next year. This has helped us clarify our plans for phasing the development of the market, so we're a step closer to finalizing the deal with the county commissioners.

--If you haven't visited the web site lately, our new look is up! Many pieces still have to be filled in, but this is much closer to the overall picture we hope to have in our online presence, with clear navigation and plenty of information.

--The word is getting out! I talked with enthusiastic reporters from both Farm and Dairy and the Wooster Voice (the college paper) who wrote up great articles, and we had a local-foods enthusiast and freelance reporter from the Wooster Weekly News attend the meeting and write an article promoting our work. (Unfortunately, that paper isn't available online.)

--I've posted a progress report over at The Ethicurean with more details about our work to date and our plans for next steps.

--And our steering committee is going to pause briefly from work this weekend in order to enjoy some good local food and a little social time together!

Pinch me, somebody -- it's really happening!

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: May, Week 1

May is finally here, and that means good food is returning! The farmers' market opens in a month (June 6), my CSA subscription kicks in at the end of May, and the beginnings of a bountiful harvest are sprouting up in both my gardens.

I am so hungry for good, fresh, green vegetables that I can barely stand it!

Though I may have to wait for the first true harvest from the garden (the radishes need thinning before they can be very productive), early crops are coming in at local farms, and I've already got an offer from the Fiddlin' Farmer to stop out and pick up some of his fresh, tender asparagus. How exciting!

We may not be close to peak harvest, but May brings the first cultivated crops to our tables:

lettuce, spinach, and other greens
perennial herbs
(not to mention more wild edibles for foraging)

It may seem a meager list, but it's a heavenly selection of the best flavors of spring, and I'm not going to complain about that!

As the harvest season begins again, we'll take this final month in the Preserving the Seasons series to wrap up last year's harvest season and to prepare for the busy months ahead. Now that you've learned about multiple methods of food preservation, you should have some idea as to what you can do to put up basic foods for the coming winter -- and what new methods and recipes you might try.

So get ready -- that fresh local bounty will be here before you know it!

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