In the Living Kitchen

Musings, memories, meals in the making.


Frugal Fridays

When I was admiring the strong beet seedlings last week, I began fantasizing about the full grown, first late-spring beets: medium sized, sweet, with delicious leafy greens.  Then I realized that I still have beets stored in our basement.  I have been eating beets for months now.  That really took all the fun out of spring beets.

Add this to the fact that we still have butternut squashes and a freezer full of preserved food, and I decided to take action in the form of a challenge:  To not purchase any food for as long as we can take it, a minimum of two weeks.

We are officially on day 5.  Normally, we would have gone to the store on Sunday, but we have been trudging right along.  Our meals have been a mixed bag.  For instance, I would not wish tonight’s dinner on my worst enemy.  Weird frozen udon noodles with frozen (over ripe) green beans topped with hot dried chilies (the best part) and a strange sauce made with an even stranger fermented black bean sauce (that basically came in a jar, why did I ever buy that?) .  Most of the foods in our house that are still in the freezer or condiments that we still have after months are items that flabbergast me now.  Like frozen (over-ripe) greens beans.  I know now that I enjoy pickled dilly beans so much more than frozen green beans.  The proof is in the pudding, we have been out of dilly beans for months and still have 5 or 6 bags of frozen green beans to go.

On the plus side, I found a bag of frozen, sauteed fennel (score).  One last bag of roasted, diced eggplant (very nice).  We now have enough room in our freezer for the six gallon-sized bags full of tomatoes that have been housed in a friend’s freezer.  I am putting tomatoes in everything.

Some meals feel like cheating, like when we had black beans and rice for dinner.  Others are glorious:  kale and seaweed over soba noodles.  I am actually looking forward to getting down to the wire, when we really are almost out of food, and have to be really creative.  After all, we won’t have a good supply of spring greens until the very end of May.  This challenge has already forced me to rethink feeding my food cravings at all times.

Update:  Since I wrote this on Friday and am posting it on Sunday, I can add that Sam was excited that he might be able to buy cereal at the store today, since our challenge has lasted a week.  “Cereal?” I replied, “Cereal?  This challenge is not over!  You do not need cereal!”  I must be firm.


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The Onions Have Sprouted

Glorious sprouted onion seeds.  I think I actually put too many seeds in each row.  Oh well, live and learn.

Here are the tiny celeriac seeds.  So tiny!  2,500 seeds in less than a tablespoon!

We finally moved the manure into the greenhouse, so its time start the temperature sensitive seeds.  More on that later.  For now, here is some more seed starting porn.

They look bare, but there's a lot of life going on in there.

Of course, no greenhouse experience would be complete without some instant gratification.  Soon-to-be-pea-shoots (above) and radish sprouts (below) for fresh eating.


Kitchen Tools

I have been thinking a lot about kitchen gadgets lately.  I had a conversation with an elderly kitchen supply store owner in Nashville, TN, while Sam and I were visiting my sister.  He pointed out that there was a time when many people just wanted to buy the cheapest kitchen gadgets possible, and when those gadgets broke they just went out and bought another one.  (Sound familiar?) He said he has noticed a movement among younger people, mainly in a lower income bracket, to purchase the best kitchen tools possible.  This movement reminded him of growing up during and after the Depression, when every single item for the household was purchased out of necessity, and quality savored.  This conversation reminded me of my grandmother’s mantra, “I don’t need that.” While I don’t want to advocate buying the nicest possible kitchen anything, I do believe there are a few essential items to be had.   Most of the time, a discerning person can purchase items that will last a very long time.

I also believe that hand powered tools can last longer and have considerable benefits over the speediness of electric tools.  I left the electric ones for last.

Here’s my list of kitchen tools that I can’t live without.

A Few Good Knives and Cutting Boards. First and foremost a chopping knife is absolutely necessary, then a good, sharp pairing knife and then a bread knife.  (By good chopping knife, I mean you are going to shell out a hundred dollars or more.)  After that comes the fancy extras.  I still have not purchased the perfect knife for me, but we received have a pretty nice one as a gift, and it has really turned our kitchen around.

I use a few different cutting boards because who want to slice banana bread on a cutting board smelling of garlic?

Mortar and Pestle. The word pesto comes from the Latin root for pestle, meaning “pounder.”  A food processor chops, a pestle pounds.  I believe there is a huge difference in the way the flavors are released by these two methods.  When I read about pesto coming from pestle years ago, pre-food processor, I was so excited that I could make pesto with my own elbow grease.  I wouldn’t want to make pesto for a party with my mortar and pestle, but it is quite delicious and rustic when made this way.  If you have a small mortar and pestle, like I do, there is an art to the grinding for pesto.  First, the garlic, ground to a pulp.  Remove to a bowl.  Then the walnuts, into almost a paste.  Place in same bowl as the garlic.   Then the basil, after you have sliced or cut it into pieces, with the addition of flaked salt.  The salt allows a bit of grit, before it gets grounds by the pestle, to assist in breaking apart the basil.  Place the basil in the same bowl as the walnuts and the garlic, add olive oil and stir.

I usually use my mortar and pestle for grinding dried herbs and freshly toasted spices.  For this use, my mortar and pestle is utterly indispensable.

I have a pretty turquoise mortar and pestle, but I think a granite one would be good for serious mortar and pestle aficionados.

Cast Iron and Enamel Cast Iron and A Big Stock Pot. I am sure the fancy All-Clad cookware is quite nice, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t own any.  I don’t need to.  I own three well seasoned (by me, of course) cast iron skillets and one lovely Le Cruset 5-quart enamel cast iron pot.  We also own a large stainless steel stock pot.  The only thing we are missing, in my opinion, is a large enamel cast iron pot, for large pots of, well, anything.  Whatever you do, don’t purchase inexpensive enamel cast iron.  There is a reason why Le Cruset cookware costs so much.  The enamel of the better brands is much higher quality and won’t chip off into your food if you treat it properly.  Never use metal utensils in your enamel cast iron.  The ideal, for me, would be to find a great used set of enamel cookery.  Seriously, this stuff lasts generations.

A well-tooled kitchen would not be complete with out a large, stainless steel stock pot.  We use ours for making beer, sterilizing jars and bottles, blanching big batches of vegetables when we are freezing them, making insane amounts of pasta, and more. A large stock pot can also be used for canning tomatoes, jams and fruits, if it is large enough to hold several jars.  You only need to purchase an insert for the bottom of the pot to keep the jars from breaking.

A Grater, A Juicer. I have a cheap box grater.  I hate it, I love it.  I think I would be better off with one of these and one of these, because all I use my box grater for is ginger and nutmeg.  Well, that’s a lie.  When I don’t feel like getting out the food processor, I also use it for grating all kinds of vegetables.  In spite of memories of grated knuckles, I keep coming back to my box grater time after time.  Why purchase something new when you don’t have to?   (That’s becoming my mantra.)

I also use my glass juicer quite a bit for lemons, limes and oranges.  Tart citrus is a welcome addition to many dressings, sauces and marinates, so I use them quite a bit.  I used to own a wooden hand held juicer, but I had to remove the seeds by hand as well.  With a juicer that sits on the counter, the seeds can easily be strained out with a fingertip while pouring the juice out.  A glass juicer is something I see often at thrift stores, and i highly recommend going that route.

Rolling Pin. A rolling pin is most often used for pie crusts and cookies, but I also use mine for making pasta.  While I do have a very fine antique cast iron pasta machine, handed down to me by my grandmother from my great-grandmother, I use the rolling pin more.  I have read that no self respecting Italian woman would ever use a machine, because rolling by hand is an art.  (No offense Nonna.)  In order to roll pasta, one needs a flat rolling pin, not one with handles.  In fact, the flat rolling pins are the best for everything because you really have control of where your strength gets applied on the dough.  I use a French tapered rolling pin, but for pasta, a cylindrical rolling pin is best.

Stoneware Crocks. New to me just in the past two years, stoneware crocks are now a necessary part of my daily existence.  We ferment vegetables at the farm and at our home.  As a thrifty spender and buyer, I bought a couple a stoneware crocks from an antique store.  We use them for Kombucha, fermenting kimchee, sauerkraut and all sorts of pickles, I am planning on using a small one for homemade miso and one for the beginning stages of making sake.  Recently, during one of my insomniac internet searches for Kombucha making tips, I learned that these old stoneware crocks could be chalk full of lead, and that using them with high acid foods allows the lead to leach out of the glaze quite well.  The threat isn’t imminent for adults, but I eat these fermented products everyday, and once I get back into the swing of Kombucha making, I drink Kombucha everyday.  To make it worse, all these fermented foods are highly acidic.  This news was quite heart breaking to me, especially when confirmed with a little word of mouth research.  I believe in reusing items from the past, decreasing new manufacture and production of items and lessening the human clutter of the Earth.  But some things can’t be avoided.  These are certified lead-free crocks, that I intend on purchasing for all my fermenting needs.  Really, if I take care of these crocks they will last more than my lifetime, without leaching harmful toxins into the bodies that consume my homemade goods.

You can also use food-grade plastic to ferment foods and beverages in.  Indeed, we use five gallon tubs to make loads of pickles with our CSA members, and Sam uses them to make beer.  I prefer using non-plastic items in general, but often food grade buckets land on our door step, so to speak, so we might as well use them.  They do, however, have a tendency to absorb flavors over time.

A Baking Stone and Baking Sheets. Aside from building and using a wood fired oven, which would be ideal, and which I hope to do someday, the best tool you can own for baking crusty loaves of bread is a baking stone.  I would really love to purchase a nice baking stone, because mine isn’t exactly ideal, but it does the job, so I won’t get a new one.  I have read that granite is nice, but I own a stoneware version and know that there are much higher quality stoneware ones that exists.  (A testament to the idea that we should only buy things that are of truly high quality and that will last a lifetime.)

I own two-commercial quality half-sheet baking sheets.  They are the type the bakeries I have worked in have had, and so I bought a couple for myself.  They are a heavier weight than the run of the mill household baking sheet, and therefore prevent burning and conduct heat better.

These two baking items are used most in our household.  The other lesser necessitated, much appreciated items are cake pans, tart pans, muffin pans, glass pie pans, a spring form pan, and bread loaf pans.  We also use our cast iron skillets for broiling and baking casseroles and such.

A Mixer, A Food Processor, and A Blender. Let me just say, I lived a very long time without these items, and I do feel like I can live without them.  Which is why they come last on the list.  At first, I lived for long time with a blender and no mixer or food processor.  This lead me to the conclusion that blenders are worthless, because I couldn’t use my blender for certain foods that I wanted to make all the time, such as pesto, humus, bread dough, pie crust, the list goes on.  Now that I have a standing mixer and a food processor and my blender died (I got it for free), I want my blender back.  The food processor is best for drier ingredients, the blender is best for liquid (read: pureed soup!).  The food processor really comes in handy for fermenting large crocks of vegetables and sauerkraut, due to the 2mm slicing blade.  There are some really great products out there many of them well more than what I can spend.  I own a standing Kitchen Aid Mixer, a 14-cup capacity Cuisinart food processor (with the manual switches) and as long as I am not too rough with them, they should last a while.

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Ordering Seeds

Seed catalogs with my favorite mug and a pot of tea, kept warm for hours under the tea cozy my grandmother made for me last year.

What could be better than putting together my 2010 seed order with a hot cup of tea?  Perhaps putting together the seed order after I have done my taxes, which is not something I have experienced yet.  However, I am so excited about my seed order that the stress of doing my taxes is pretty much overshadowed.  I have already put together and mailed off my biggest order.  The company that has the best prices and a good organic selection only takes orders through the mail!  So I had to fill out the order by hand, line by line, and add it all up with a calculator and everything.  I am so used to online ordering, where I just have to click a button and everything gets added automatically.

So why is seed ordering so exciting?  First off, I am the first to admit that I have the makings of a shopaholic.  I love shopping, and ordering seeds is a totally allowable and necessary indulgence.  Then there’s the whole logic puzzle, planning the planting schedule and the outlining the distribution plans for the season.  Of course, there is also the political, ethical issues, and by ordering from the right companies, growers can make big statements, and in turn, those who support those farmers make big statements, and so on and so forth.

I try to order exclusively open-pollinated and heirloom seeds.  (Although I did order organic, hybrid curly kale seeds.)  Open-pollinated varieties of vegetables and fruits are varieties that have been selected without cross-pollination or other human tampering, as opposed to hybrid seed or genetically modified seed.  There are always genetic variations among varieties.  Certain traits might be chosen year after year, the seeds from those fruits saved and planted year after year, until a variety is different enough from the original plant to become it’s own open-pollinated variety.  Some open-pollinated varieties might have started as a cross between varieties, but over time a certain strain might stabilize, meaning that the seed it produces bears plants and fruit that are the same as the cross breed, without having to cross-pollinate the two original varieties.  A variety is not stable until it is known that the seeds from that variety produce the same variety generation after generation.  Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated varieties that have been passed down for generations, usually in the same isolated area.

There are certain varieties that I know do well at the farm, because the Armours have been farming there for 20 years!  I like to explore though, so I am trying out a lot of new varieties just to see what they are like.  Running a CSA forces the farmer to grow a wide variety of crops at all times.  The same vegetables week after week would be boring, and it is nice for our members to get a little something different from the norm.  While variety is great, hard to grow varieties with small yields are not the CSA farmer’s friend.  Running a CSA is not a big money business.  One simply can’t mark up the price of a vegetable that is scarce in a CSA model, so I also look for varieties that have good yields.  I also have (as I am sure every farmer has) a limited amount of land to work with, and I want to make the most of it.

Right now I am researching onions.  This past year our onions were small, and took a long to mature.  Which meant that the next crop to follow the onions went in the ground late, which ultimately meant that I had one less item to distribute in the fall to the CSA members.  Perhaps we are going to start have mild, wet summers around here for good?  In that case, I want onion varieties that are going to do well in that type of climate.  I also want storage onions, because I want the onions I grow and harvest to last until the last CSA distribution in November (and beyond for my own personal use).  Most of my seed catalogs sell hybrid seed for their storage onion varieties, but I am trying to purchase open-pollinated varieties.  I have a catalog that sells open-pollinated and heirloom varieties exclusively (although it’s operation is not located in the north east, like the other companies) so I am going to try their seeds this year.

Though ordering seeds is my favorite thing to do in the winter, at some point I hope it will be a thing of the past.  One of the benefits of growing open-pollinated varieties is that the seed can be saved from these varieties and planted the following year.  I hope to save my own seed someday for all the fruits and vegetables I grow, when I have my own piece of land that I know I will be farming for 20 years or more, where I can select the best fruits and vegetables for my farm.  For this reason, and many others I can assure you, I do not by seeds from companies that knowing sell genetically modified seeds, nor do I ever knowingly purchase or consume anything containing genetically modified organisms.  The patent laws that protect the companies that produce GM seed currently put seed saving companies, organizations and farmers at risk of extinction.  By fighting these laws, and purchasing seeds that are not genetically modified, we can make a serious difference in the direction our food system is heading.

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Cabbage and Kale

We live in a world where anything we could ever want or crave is just right at our fingertips.  I know this.  And not only could I write one million pages on the subject of the effects of capitalism and globalization on the human soul but I also know that I am a participating member of this system.  I know I make cookies when I want something sweet, I eat nuts and olives, I drink black black tea.  I even bought bread last week.  (Well, my sourdough starter is long dead, that’s my excuse.)  The real kickers are dates and oranges, because, well, dates and oranges are produce.  Not to mention all the “things” I buy for myself and for my home.  I know these things, and I judge myself for these things.

I am also aware of all the books that have come out in the last five or so years, the I-spent-one-year-living-off-the-land books.  The eco-conscious-lifestyle-experiment books that inevitably end with the end of the experiment.  I know that most of these books contain a chapter on the excitement of seasonal produce.  (Oh, asparagus is here!  Oh tomatoes!)  Which seems ironic when all these foods exist year-round, less than ten miles away.

I am not knocking on the local food way of life, I am just pointing out the fact that this way of life is a choice, and it seems a sort of fabrication.  I feel like I am living proof of that fabrication, struggling daily with the pressures of my vain desires versus the pressures of my chosen way of life.  I live in a self made bubble, that exists only in my ideals and in my freezer.  Seriously, how can I ignore the fact that Sam works in a health food store?

I would love to live in a world where I could not buy tomatoes unless it was tomato season.  And everything else for that matter.  But instead, I live by a rule.  A rule that I break OFTEN for foods that I cannot grow myself or obtain locally.  Which sometimes means capers, which I do not actually need, just want, a lot.

So what is this all about?  It is so exciting to me that I dug three cabbages out from under the snow last week.  Three cabbages that were small, but delicious and fresh.  It is so exciting that I have 100 kale plants that are currently outside, tolerating the 10-degree temperatures and staying sweet and delicious.  My excitement over having these cold hearty vegetables this winter season made me think of all the things I buy at Sam’s store, all the food I consume that I didn’t grow, all the enormous cabbages and kale from California I am practically purchasing by purchasing oranges, the irony of my accomplishment.

If I let these feelings overcome me, I might just give up.  I have always known myself to be extremely self critical.  Despite the strong arm of self criticism, it is, at a certain point, just weakness.  Which is why I will continue to value my bubble, my ideals.  I will continue grow food and to eat it, to spend less at the store, and to experiment in my kitchen.

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Seasonal Eggs

I have been doing a lot of cooking lately sans animal products.  Aside from the fact that I enjoy divergence from the mainstream, I am also slowly moving towards becoming a vegan.  People close to me know that I talk about this issue all the time, and I believe it is totally relevant to the farming and lifestyle practices that I like to share in this blog.  I  was a vegetarian for eight years and I was a vegan for part of that period.  I now raise animals and I feel like I have a better understanding of them and my relationship with them as food.   Which is to say that I find eating animal flesh and dairy to be more difficult than ever.  Along with that comes the fact that I raised chickens and turkeys for consumption this year and I have egg layers in my care, which I can’t simply ignore.  So I am at an impasse, one of many in my life right now.

Though I have not quite made the major lifestyle change I am moving towards, I feel like I can still come down hard on the use of fresh animal products in the winter.  Like I said, I have egg laying chickens.  I have about 70 birds in my care and they are not laying eggs.  Why?  Because chickens lay eggs according to the length of the day and there are only 9 hours of daylight right now.  The peak laying period for chickens is when the days are about 14 hours long.  Some people use lights for their birds during the winter so that the birds lay lots of eggs all year long.  I did this last year and I feel like it was a mistake, so these birds are just going to lay what they lay and that’s that.   Grass-fed cows produce less milk in the winter because hay has less nutrition than fresh grass and it takes a lot of energy for the cows to stay warm and nurture the calves that they will birth in the spring.  After all, in order to produce milk all year long dairy cows get pregnant and birth every year.

Someone told me the other day that a friend of theirs who owns egg layers purchased eggs from the store because their birds weren’t laying many eggs.  This made me wonder, why are people willing to accept produce as seasonal but not milk and eggs?  Okay, so maybe most people buy produce from the store in the wintertime, but I do not, and a lot of people in “local food” world do not either; at least I know a lot of people who won’t buy tomatoes or cucumbers at the store.  I say, buy produce from the store ten million times before you buy eggs or milk or meat from the store.  Organic, free-range, cage-free and terms such as these really have nothing to do with animal welfare.  As I recently found out you can’t even trust the word “local” when it come to the treatment of animals.  The animals raised  for “local” eggs, milk and meat could be raised just like they are any where else, in confinement, fed conventional grain, never let out to see the light of day.

Of course I will keep writing about this issue and I have some great recipes to share this week that are hearty and winter friendly and contain no dairy or eggs for any one else who wants to eat seasonally.