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Archive for March, 2011

Warning: To all my vegetarian and vegan friends and otherwise sensitive viewers, this post is probably not for you. There are vivid photos of our experience “harvesting” a hog last November. Please know that I do respect you equally and hold you just as reverently as I do meat eaters!

mise en place

Completely inspired by authors like Pollan and Kingsolver, films like Food Inc., my limited studies and complete awe of the Cherokee and other Native Americans, and chefs and foodies like Bourdain and the restaurants that cook nose to tail, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at slaughtering our own hog last year. It took a little convincing to get my husband to agree with me.

He knew it would be a big job, me … not so much. I totally idealized the situation, dreaming of our own bacon and hams, sausages, and bean soups; thinking about how noble of an eater I was being and the lessons I was teaching my daughter. Once I started looking online at the process, though, I began to realize exactly what I’d gotten ourselves into. Me? Start small? Never.

We’re lucky that one of our close friends is the daughter of a pig farmer and so we had easy access to our goal. Her husband helped us with the entire ordeal by planning practically all of it, and giving us the workspace to do the job. For a little bit of money and two and half days work, we got half a hog for our little family. Now, that’s not enough to get us through the year the way we eat. Perhaps we could make an entire hog last a year, but that would require either dry curing or a larger freezer.

half

What we did get out of our half of a hog was impressive. We weren’t as brave as we thought and we didn’t get as much du cochon as I’d hoped. There was more waste than I imagined simply because we were exhausted and hadn’t planned well enough. And then there was the mistake we made early on thanks to my suggestion. Because we didn’t have a tub of hot water to remove the hair and clean the hog, I suggested to burn it off. Bad idea. Reeeeeally bad idea. It ruined the skin because the smell soaked into it, so we had no chicharrones. If the lard hadn’t accidentally burned in the next mishap, it would’ve tasted like burned hair as well. So, we learned a very important lesson. Boiling water is a good thing. We also learned that 10 bags of ice is the very minimum you need if winter weather does not cooperate. In the South, weather rarely cooperates.

Most of the information you can find on youtube or elsewhere on the internet. I’ll give you some suggestions here of things to keep in mind, and the things I actually recall from our experience.

Most handy equipment:

grinding

  • Chain
  • Ropes
  • Sawzall
  • Hack saw
  • Cleaver
  • Boning knives
  • Paring knife
  • Chefs knives (be sure all of your blades are freshly sharpened and honed)
  • Lots of old towels
  • At least one change of clothes
  • KitchenAid (Pro is preferential because of the motor and bowl sizes)
  • Meat grinder or attachment for KitchenAid
  • Food processor
  • Lots of large and medium mixing bowls
  • Kitchen scale
  • Freezer paper and tape
  • Containers/Lexans or Ziplocks to cure bacon and ham
  • At least three large coolers and an empty freezer
  • Terrines for pate
  • 4 5-gallon buckets for collecting blood, 2 for organs, and one for head. Keep all on ice.
  • Bleach and soap for cleaning
  • Scrub brush to wash exterior of hog
  • A smoker
  • Fruit, mesquite, oak, or hickory woods for smoking.
  • Sausage stuffer

Ingredients you’ll be interested in:

  • Pink salt or substitute for curing bacon
  • Proper size casings for sausages
  • Bread crumbs, crackers, or other binders
  • Eggs
  • Butter
  • Cream
  • Milk
  • Pepper
  • Two boxes of kosher salt
  • Dark brown sugar
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Dijon mustard
  • Garlic
  • Mace
  • Paprika
  • Fennel seed
  • Chili powders
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Sage
  • Thyme
  • Brandy or port
  • Good drinking wine
  • apples
  • onions

ribs and bacon

Now I’m not going to teach how to butcher a pig. That wasn’t my job, and one experience does not an expert make, but I will point out a few head scratchers we did or almost did encounter.

  1. Have all of your recipes planned for in advance. Thumb wrestling at the last-minute over whether or not to make maple syrup or brown sugar bacon allows the rest of your meat to warm up if it’s not in a cooler.
  2. How to remove the intestines and reproductive organs from the exterior of the body without cutting them. The last thing you want to do is to penetrate the intestines! Have a second person use a sharp knife to cut carefully around the anus and exterior reproductive organs.You may find inserting something to strengthen the walls makes it easier to cut around. I know, it sounds really wrong, but it helped a lot.
  3. Be prepared to trim a lot of fat. That was my special job. It actually would’ve been much easier to skin the hog first and remove the fat later, but the weather really didn’t account for all of the meat exposed to the warm air while we worked on butchering. Much of the fat will go into ground meat or sausages, the rest can make lard.
  4. Try to get your animal to urinate and defecate prior to the butchering process, especially if you plan on saving the blood, intestines, or bladder.
  5. Plan for a backup date if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
  6. Definitely have mise en place – or all of your equipment ready, including your ingredients. It doesn’t hurt to have someone designated as an errand runner “just in case” or to have extras of anything.
  7. Look through several different videos, websites, recipe books, and butchering books to get as much advice and as many ideas as possible.

So, just how much bacon did we bring home from a half hog?

  • Liver (for pate)smoking sausage
  • Bacon (about 10 pounds)
  • Kidneys
  • Heart
  • Ham (back leg)
  • Picnic ham and shoulder (front leg)
  • 4 Trotters for soup
  • Ribs
  • Loin/tenderloins (about 8 pounds)
  • Tons of sausage: breakfast, garlic, Italian, and “bloodless” blood sausage (see above)

What we didn’t bring home:

  • The head
  • Caul fat
  • Half of the sausages, ribs, bacon, pate,
  • Lungs, et al (trash)
  • Stomach (trash)
  • Intestines (trash)
  • Reproductive organs (trash)
  • Skin (trash)
  • Lard (trash)
  • A few bones (trash)
  • I’m still kicking myself about the waste. We just weren’t prepared for the amount that we lost. Next time we’ll be in the know and ready for anything

snausages

Great resources for recipes and butchering:

Charcuterie

Au Pied de Cochon

The River Cottage Meat Book

Ad Hoc At Home

The Complete Book of Butchering, Smoking, Curing, and Sausage Making

http://a-homesteading-neophyte.blogspot.com/2009/01/how-to-butcher-hog-part-1.html

http://www.eatmedaily.com/2009/10/offal-of-the-week-caul-fat/

http://carolcookskeller.blogspot.com/2008/05/head-to-toe-part-two-pigs-head.html

Last but not least, don’t forget a good helper.

Max

You can find Jennifer at Unearthing this Life where she blargs about life in rural Tennessee. She’s also been featured at Rhythm of the Home. Mostly she’s just a mom, a homeschooler, and keeper of critters.

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As the month of March wraps up, so does the Real Food Challenge, at least here on Not Dabbling. Hopefully you will all continue to replace fake food with more real foods in your diet throughout the year and join us again next March. Throughout the rest of this year we’re going to take some time each month to focus on another area in our lives where we can make changes to Real item. We’ve been compiling a list, but would love to hear your input on things you’d love for us to write and share our experiences about.

So far on our list we have:

Real Beauty: how and why to detox your beauty routine, tips and recipe for making some of your own items and our personal favorite chemical free products. If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t put it on your skin!

Real Exercise: how to get out of the gym and get some REAL exercise!

Real Cultures: the health benefits of eating cultured items, how to make yogurt, kefir, sourdough and other fermented foods.

Real Things: how to live without plastics and the harmful chemicals it leeches into your food, personal care products and the environment.

What areas of your life do you want to get back to REAL and you’d love for us to cover during the coming year?

If you’re especially knowledgeable in any of these areas let us know, we’d love to have you write a guest post during that month.

I can also be found at Chiot’s Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Ethel Gloves, Simple, Green, Frugal, Co-op, and you can follow me on Twitter.

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Week 4 Winner!

We felt like it was high time for a giveaway for our Real Food Challenge partners, so we asked those involved to tell us how they were doing on Saturday’s post.

Well, here it is:

The winner is Zonnah, from Zonnah’s Addictions! Congratulations on winning the packets of seeds from Seed Savers Exchange! (Now I feel like Rod Roddy from The Price is Right!)

C’mon Down!!!!!!

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I’m so not one of “those” girls. I scoff at mini skirts, would prefer work shoes to high heels, and was the girl that made boys cry when I liked them. In  high school and college wearing Doc Martins with a dress was fancy. What can I say, I was a misguided youth lacking a father figure while growing up. My mother had to fill both roles and was pretty much a feminist. I was raised believing I could do everything a man could do and better.

The last 14 years has been about finding balance between that feminist and femininity. Especially the last 7 years while raising a daughter. I refused pink baby clothes, all while explaining that my bald-headed baby was a girl. Oh! but this girl wants to dress up in costume like a princess, have tea parties, help me garden and cook, and she’s just at that age where pink and peach and flowers and puppies and kittens are all so cute and enticing and … cute.

So while I’m here, at age 36, still figuring out my own personal flaws (with all due respect and no fault for my wonderful Mom) as well as society’s, I have figured out that I love some aspects of girly-girl-ness. I’m learning that men really can do as much as women – and just as good sometimes! Sometimes I even wear a dress with high heels.

But only on the most special occasions … like weddings and tea parties with my daughter.

Wildflower Crepes

Makes about 12 crepes

  • 1 cup all purpose flour, wheat flour, or gluten free substitute
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup water (add 2 Tbsp more water for wheat flour)
  • 2 tsp oil, like walnut or sunflower, plus 1 Tbsp for pan
  • 2 eggs
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup of fresh, edible wildflower blossoms – we used redbud blossoms and violets

Filling:

  • 2 cups sour cream
  • 2 Tbsp buttermilk
  • 2 Tbsp sweetener (I used some granulated sugar I’d stored some used vanilla pods in)
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  1. Mix wet ingredients together, add salt, then add to flour and whisk lightly. Allow to rest for 10 minutes.
  2. In the meantime, prepare your filling. An excellent substitute is sweetened cream cheese. Chill in refrigerator until later.
  3. Warm a small, non-stick pan on medium to medium-high. Put a dab of oil in the pan then wipe out with a dry, clean cloth.
  4. Pour about 1/4 cup mixture in pan and swirl around to cover pan. The first crepe is always the test. It should be relatively thin. You may need to add a little more water or flour to adjust the consistency. Before the crepe sets up, add a generous Tbsp of your flower buds to the wet batter. When the edges of the crepe easily come free, it’s time to flip. Crepes should not be brown and crispy, you just want them to set up and be tender.
  5. Cook all crepes before you begin to fill them.
  6. To finish the crepe, put the flower side down, add a bit of your cream mixture down the center and fold about 1/3 of the crepe over the mixture. Fold the rest of the crepe over to keep the cream inside. It looks a bit like a fancy enchilada! Top with a dollop of cream and some fresh fruit or jam like elderberry then enjoy with your favorite dress up partner for some tea.

You can find Jennifer at Unearthing this Life where she blargs about life in rural Tennessee. She’s also been featured at Rhythm of the Home. Mostly she’s just a mom, a homeschooler, and keeper of critters.

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My family, in typical American fashion, brings together numerous food heritages: Greek, Chinese, Hungarian, Polish, Swedish. If you’re not an adventurous eater in my family, you’re in trouble.  Here’s stir fry the way the Cantonese make it (as taught me in college by my husband).

Simple stir fry

Extra-long grain rice, 1/2 cup dry for each diner

3-4 vegetables, mix of colors and textures (more below)
extra-firm tofu, and/or almond slivers, and/or unsalted cashews,
and/or chicken, beef or pork cut into finger strips
Sesame, peanut or walnut oil (or corn oil if you don’t have the expensive nut ones)

1 T cornstarch
1 cup water
1/2 cup soy sauce
water in reserve, or left-over tea

appropriate spices for stir fry:
parsley
black or white pepper
and/or cayenne or red pepper flakes for a spicy dish
and/or lemon grass or coriander

Start the rice first; a narrow heavy saucepan works best. The water should be about a finger joint deeper than the rice no matter what pot you use (I like a heavy 1-quart aluminum saucepan; this will cook up to 2 cups of rice). Somewhere there is bound to be a proper recipe with a ratio (maybe on the rice bag?), but that’s how Bill taught me to eyeball it. Bring it to a full boil uncovered, then turn the flame way down and steam it covered for about 20 minutes. Take it off the flame when it’s done, even if you’re not done with the veggies yet. Leave the cover on.

A wok is best, but you can also make stir fry in a standard frying pan; you’ll just have to be careful to keep the ingredients in motion, as frying pans don’t heat as evenly as a wok.

Heat the empty wok over very high flame THEN put in 2-3 T of the nut oil and sear the tofu or meat. You want the tofu lightly brown on all sides; this will help hold it together. Don’t use a heavy oil like olive; the lighter nut oils or flavorless corn or canola oil are better for bringing out the delicate flavors of the vegetables. You can take the tofu/meat out and set it aside to be added back later, or leave it in and cook the veggies with it. (Tofu can also go in very last.)

Cook the vegetables according to texture—those you want softest go in first, crunchy goes in last. I always start with the onion because I like them very well cooked. Sauté until they’ve just started to go translucent, then start working your way up to the ones you want al dente, typically brightly colored vegetables like green beans, bell pepper, broccoli. Nuts last. You can also wait until here to put the tofu in for the first time. Don’t use more than 3-4 different vegetables as it disturbs the feng shui of the dish (not kidding). Put the meat/tofu back in at this point.

Here’s the step that you never get from the recipes, but all my Chinese friends and relatives do this. For a sauce thoroughly mix the corn starch, water and soy sauce in a measuring cup (make sure the corn starch is completely dissolved); if you use any of the spices add them here, sparingly. You don’t want too much spice in a stir fry, as the vegetables should provide the sensual point of the dish. Slowly pour this into the vegetable mix, stirring constantly as it will immediately thicken into a creamy sauce; add more water if it gets too sticky. If you have any left over tea sitting around in a pot, you can use it to thin the sauce. For some reason I never make tea specifically for this purpose, but I suppose you could.

Serve with the rice. Use chopsticks, it’s time you learned.

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While gardening with children is a boom industry, gardening with teens and even more with young adults is rare, at least in the working class and affluent neighborhoods that I’m in (there are lots of urban gardening projects for young people in inner cities). Hipster Supported Agriculture is my private little corner of the food movement. I work at rounding up teens through twentysomethings to do gardening and cooking.

This happens both in my own garden and through the Peterson Garden Project, a community garden and seed-to-table education program in Chicago. Last week we started planning and preparing for this year’s projects. At Mather High School, the biology teacher is leading a Service Learning (Community Service) group in seed starting– they’ve started more than 1,000 plants as a joint fundraiser for their club and the Peterson Garden Project. On Thursday I went to assess the progress, bring them some more seeds (generously donated by Renee’s Garden and Territorial Seeds) and to talk to them about winter sowing.

On Wednesday, I met with a working group from an organization that helps troubled teens. They have four group homes near Peterson Garden, and the kids from the program will be tending some plots for their own use and some for donations to food pantries. The exciting new aspect of the program this year is that they will be working with a nutritionist from Cooking Matters and a professional chef, who will help plan the garden and will work with the kids to prepare the food they grow.

As we were working through goals, plans, and philosophy, talking about the difficulties of working with these kids and how to engage them in the project, it occurred to me first that gardening is a wonderful metaphor for life, and then that in fact, it’s not a metaphor at all, but life itself. The non-gardeners around the table were very concerned about motivation, goals and buy-in, but I know what will happen once those young men and women see a seedling sprout from a seed that they put in the ground.

Like every gardener I’ve ever met they will be struck by the miracle. The first time they eat a meal from food they grew themselves they will understand. They will not need it explained to them.

Last year I was struck by the engagement, humor and searing intelligence of one of the girls in the pilot program–in another context this was a college-bound kid breezing through school. Her intellect was both apparent and heartbreaking, because she was a 15-year pregnant black orphan. It broke my heart. And then I heard, in this meeting, of how she was driving past the garden recently and excitedly pointed it out to her companion–”there it is! That’s the garden where we grew our meals!”  Maybe not so heartbreaking after all.

Hipster Supported Agriculture is rather tongue-in-cheek. I named it that to poke fun at my own uber-cool children. But in reality it’s not really funny. It’s how we’ll save the world. Or at least our little corner of it.

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Today we’ll be giving away an assortment of heirloom seeds from Seed Savers Exchange to one of our lucky readers! Be sure to post your Real Food Challenge progress at the end of the post. We’ll use a random number generator to choose the winner – only one entry per household please!

Now that things have calmed down here, I have again been able to focus on the Real Food Challenge completely. I’ve felt that I haven’t been able to put my heart into it as much as I’ve wanted between having Mom stay with us for two weeks, then staying with her for a week. So, here at Unearthing this Life I’ve been back to making enough bread, baking pitas, cooking tortillas, beans, and soaking grains. We even got around to making yogurt cheese, which the Kid ate up in two days!

Since spring has officially arrived, we’ve been picking wild greens and blossoms including chickweed, dandelions, violets, and redbud blossoms. Hubby’s not too keen on the bitterness of some of the wild foods, but the Kid loves them. We just have to teach her to look before she picks and to avoid, um, animal potty spots! We’ve also had the first few asparagus spears pop up in addition to some leftover kale from winter’s garden.

Finally, we live less than five miles from an organic farm/CSA that allows us to choose how many veggies we want to purchase. I love that we’re not locked into a box of goods considering how much I garden. Thursday I picked up a bag of carrots that wintered over, some rutabagas, and some spinach. I’m loving the fresh veggies!

***

Here at Chiot’s Run the week has been hectic as usual. The weather was very nice at the beginning of the week and we were able to get out and start work on our new plot of land that will become a large vegetable plot. For me, early spring is a time when the excitement of eating fresh from the garden vegetables starts to grow. I dream of delicious fresh peas as I plant them around their supports. I think about juicy red tomatoes in August when I start sorting through my seeds. Eating healthy real food isn’t a challenge for me during these time, my body craves lots of fresh greens at the end of a long dark winter. This week we enjoyed a lot of freshly harvested weeds from the yard, mostly bitter cress and dandelion. Garlic mustard is just starting to emerge and will start to make up a large part of our salads. There’s something so wonderful about harvesting things you didn’t sow.

Since it’s citrus season we’ve been enjoying lots of it. One of my lovely blog readers sent me a box of beautiful lemons from his tree and we’ve been enjoying lemon scones, lemon bars and lemon pound cake. I also make some lemon sugar and lemon salt along with a some frozen lemon juice to preserve the taste for this coming summer. I plan on making a batch or two of lemon syrup that I can use to make lemonade during the long hot days working in the new garden this summer. We’re finishing off the last of the grapefruit from the huge box I purchased back in February and I have a few Meyer lemons hanging on in the basement pantry.

Our main focus of the Real Food Challenge was our pets and getting them on to Real Whole Food from local sources. The dog is loving her new diet, she gobbles up her portions readily every morning and evening. The outdoor cats are also loving their new diet of local chicken and vegetables, which they supplement with mice, chipmunks, birds, and other things they catch in the garden and the garage. Miss Mama has slimmed down considerably from the photo above after being put on Real Food. She’s one of our garage cats, a feral mama that moved her kittens into our garage this past summer. One of our indoor cats is enjoying the new diet, but our two oldest cats are still holding out. It’s been a few days since the kibble ran out and they haven’t eaten a thing (besides some dried catmint I sprinkled on the floor for them). One of these days they’ll get hungry enough to eat the new food, I’m just wondering how long it will be. All-in-all, our Real Food challenge has been going well.

***

Overall, the Real Food Challenge was more challenging for us this year than it was last year. For one thing, last year it was new, and was filling me with the soul of righteousness (Testify, Sister! Praise the Lord and Micheal Pollan, not necessarily in that order!) This year Real Food had become almost routine, and as with any routine, you tend to slip around it. So I found myself falling into the HFCS miasma via Hershey bars a little more often than I’d like.

The other difficulty was our insane March schedule. Between my musican-husband’s rehearsal and performance calendar, car-sharing with my daughter and my own late teaching nights, I found myself able to plan and cook only a couple of nights a week. My head is brimming with ideas for late-winter meals from the ever-diminishing larder, but my reality is leftovers.

But my main focus this year, on inspiring young adults to explore Real Food, has been inspiring to me as well. I taught my daughter Nga Jee a traditional family favorite. She’ll be here on Sunday to help with the garden, introduce me to her boyfriend, and cook a vegetarian lasagna (the boyfriend is here as forced labor– I need someone to help put up the rabbit fencing, and I figure he can’t refuse since he has to impress me!) I also got started on my summer Hipster Supported Agriculture projects; more about that in my regular post on Monday. But the best personal satisfaction I got was when Nga Jee, not a particularly politically-motivated individual, chose Real Food and sustainable agriculture as the topic for a college research paper. She’s been reading everything from USDA reports to literature from Weston A. Price, and is feeling a little bit of the righteousness herself. I think if I was not so committed to this, the topic would not have occurred to her.

Thus the small pebbles that each of us throws in the pond creates ripples that, I hope, change the world.

***

This week has been the most challenging yet for us at Tanglewood Farm. We began the week in Chicago, and I’m sure if we lived there we would be able to find resources for real food with no problems. Unfortunately, we aren’t very familiar with the area so we were eating out with friends and I was left trying to find foods that leaned towards real in restaurants that seemed to be completely unfamiliar with the concept. Ah well.

By Monday night we were back home and settled in to a week of busy preparation for several happenings scheduled throughout the week. We were able to enjoy flaxseed/raspberry yogurt smoothies for breakfasts, and a few mixed greens salads topped with a simple local goat cheese for lunches. Wednesday was a book signing for my comic-book-creating-husband, so we did eat out this week but when we did we were able to find simple, real foods from a local restaurant.

My greatest real-food endeavor this week was the horse show I ran. I coordinate at least five horse shows a year for the barn where I work. My husband runs concessions (what a guy!) while I run show office and while it makes for a stressful day it’s totally worth it to see my students, and the folks who trailer their horses in to the show, learning to show their horses in a fun and laid back environment. I don’t know whose idea it was to put me in charge of buying concessions to sell, but I have been working over the last two years or so to make the horse show menus as real-food-saturated as possible.

This weekend was the first show of the year so we were very disorganized, but we did manage to sell all natural, grassfed beef hot dogs with no nitrates on whole wheat buns (with no artificial sweeteners!), potato chips in which the ingredients were simply potatoes, sunflower oil and sea salt, little baggies of trail mix, free trade organic coffee with cane sugar and stevia as sweeteners and local cream rather than chemical creamer, bottled water in biodegradable bottles and canned soda with natural sugars. In addition to this we also sold big-name candy bars which is always a sticking point. Horse show attendees love to buy candy and sweets because their days are long, exhausting and stressful. In the future I hope to substitute the big-name candies with organic chocolate covered pretzels and other simple-to-make sweets that I can pull off a few days before the show without them going stale. It will be a challenge, but last year Michigan changed their food-sales laws and it is now legal to sell baked goods (and other “cottage foods”) to the public without procuring the use of a commercial kitchen, so despite the added stress of having to bake before a horse show, at least it won’t be illegal!

I admit that last night after the horse show we crashed both physically and morally into a dinner of carry out with nary a real food to be found. It’s relapses like these, and the adverse reactions afterward (“Ugh, I don’t feel good.”), that remind me how important real foods are to us on many levels. You just have to chip away bit-by-bit at old habits until you’re left with new habits, or even a new lifestyle!

***

How has your week of the Real Food Challenge been?

edit: we’ll hold the drawing on Wednesday, March 30th – so you’ll have until then to post your progress!

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Have you ever been struck like lightning with the urge to just cook something? More than that, it has to be something you haven’t made before; it has to be new, exciting and readily available. You rush to your cupboard and like an elderly Mother Hubbard you find there is not a bone to be had; there are only disjointed components.

How many times do we have some of the ingredients for planned meals, but the lack of one or two ingredients makes us scrap the whole plan? How often do those other ingredients end up just sitting there looking miserably lonely?

Something I’ve found that I’m fairly good at is making meals from those random ingredients left after a plan goes awry. This is a recent discovery, as before I’m not sure it even occurred to me to try. I’ve also become pretty skilled when it comes to altering existing recipes to fit ingredients I already have on hand. I’m positive that this is due to the fact that I’m actually trying to improvise in the kitchen rather than considering it and then shirking away because the result might not be so tasty. In the past few months I have riffed on existing recipes to make crispy curry crackers and flaxseed/berry smoothies. I have baked apples with maple, butter and granola just to see if it would taste good (oh boy, it does!). I have made non-traditional pizza and bizarre sandwiches and it always seems to work out just fine if I adhere to a few simple practices.

First, if I don’t already have something in mind, I peruse the cupboards and find something to use. In the case of my pizza the other day, I noticed we had some ricotta cheese and freshly ground wheat flour that needed to be used asap. I brainstormed a  bit and decided pizza was plausible since I had a packet of yeast in the cupboard. Of course ricotta alone makes a bland pizza, so I made use of the wonderful tool called the internet. After Googling some recipes I found one for lemon ricotta asparagus pizza. Perfect! Except we didn’t have lemon or asparagus. Hurm… We did have that lime sitting in the pantry… Lime isn’t a particularly friendly flavor on it’s own, though, so I wondered if I could use some of our maple syrup with it to give it a touch of sweetness and depth. I’d never heard of anything with maple lime flavoring, so I was skeptical.

I dashed off to the computer again and Googled “lime” and “maple”. Sure enough it was a common flavor for a variety of things. No signs of maple lime pizza, but then again, I was trying for something unique. As long as folks out there had recipes for other maple lime things, mine was sure to at least be edible. I stirred some lime juice and maple to taste into my ricotta (and added a touch of milk to make it a bit smoother) and, after dabbing a bit on a spoon, sure enough it was delicious!

Now, I’d never made pizza dough before, and we keep our house between 50 and 60 degrees so it’s not exactly yeast friendly in here. In order to get the dough to rise I had to put it on a stool by the wood fire. It still didn’t rise as much as I’d hoped, but that’s alright. Improv, right? The dough was a minimalist concoction of 1c course-ground wheat flour, 1c finely ground wheat flour, 1/4c olive oil, with a packet of yeast dissolved and allowed to froth in 2/3c water. VERY simple. Simple enough for me!

I let the dough sit for 35 minutes or so to rise and realized my meat-loving husband was going to be disappointed with a pizza topped simply in ricotta. We keep a variety of sausages and salamis around on a regular basis due to his love of meat, so it wasn’t hard to find something to go with this. I chose a slightly spicy abruzzese sausage that had a very light taste that wouldn’t interfere with the maple/lime jazz that was already playing. One regret is that I didn’t remember the spinach currently growing in my cold frames in time to add that to the mix. Er… another regret is that I don’t own cut-proof gloves and am currently typing this with a bandaged finger (pink bandage, with skull and cross bones- awesome!) due to my amazing accident prone habits. Immediately after finishing the pizza I hopped online and ordered a pair of cut-proof gloves. This seems like something I should have owned already, seeing as I seem bent on hurting myself in every task.

Anyway, with a bit of grated garlic and olive oil, I brushed the stretched and prep-baked dough (having tossed it in the oven at 350º for 5 minutes to give it a bit of a head start), slathered the ricotta (perhaps too thickly was the afterthought), topped with abruzzese and tossed back in the oven for twenty minutes. The result? It was like my kitchen had studied with Philip Glass to produce something intensely minimalist and delicious. Also, I’m a music geek. :)

So with this post I encourage you all to find an ingredient that needs to be used, rather than letting it go to waste. Our culture is permeated with waste and tossed food, so rather than throwing it out, find a way to use it in a creative way. The internet is a fantastic tool for finding the recipes that can launch you into your own jazzy meal. All it takes is the daring to give it a shot.

How do you use up the straggler ingredients in your kitchen? Have you ever had great success (or misfortune) while improvising a recipe?

Want to read more from Tanglewood Farm? Check out Emily’s blog over at A Pinch of Something Nice where she writes about her experiences with her gardens, her livestock and her leased historical home in SE Michigan.

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Today I’m sharing one part of a three-part series from my blog, Unearthing this Life, that may shed light on some of the confusing terminology stores, agri-business, and the USDA use on our groceries. The other parts of the series include information about GMOs, pesticides, and several gardening techniques to be aware of when looking for the healthiest foods.

Going shopping is so confusing any more. It’s not going up to the butcher’s counter and asking for a cut of top round, grabbing a bag of onions, a few apples, a heading over to the bakery – all the while trusting your grocer to stock the most healthy food available for the neighborhood at a good price.

Any more, most people don’t know what top round means and there are so many varieties of different types of food that it’s hard to keep them straight. What’s better – frozen, canned, organic, local, free-range, or pastured? You have to be a lawyer to understand the terminology these days.

Literally.

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A lot of food corporations are using their legal types to read between the lines of the FDA and USDA food regulations. Surely you’ve heard of so called “free-range” chickens who are offered nothing but a small door to the outside of their warehouse-style coop. Corporations have even been known to bully other businesses and farmers to get their way.

Okay, so I’m not a lawyer or a doctor, but I’ve done some studying, reading, and researching to find the best foods for MY family. Hopefully I can make these choices easier for you and yours, but first you have to decide what is important to you and where you want to spend your money. First I’m going to clear up a few tricky terms for you.

1. Conventional = from conventional gardening to the conventional produce itself, this description is known as “normal”. I actually scoff at that (remember I am one that does not dabble in normal). When does Organic = Conventional? Ha! Well, until organic does become the norm, the meaning of “conventional” will be pretty much the opposite of organic: using chemical pesticides and fertilizers, over fertilizing your fields to get maximum yields (and the least amount of biodiversity), using the most cost-effective or “best-producing” seed regardless of genetic engineering or modification, hybridization, and so on.

Most commercial farming is conventional farming. It has little respect for the earth that its produce is grown on, with the exception of how to produce a better crop the next year (remember the corn/soybean example last week?). Without my usual sarcasm and (cough) wit, I will say that conventional commercial farming is what has helped keep food costs down for the buyer and continually keep farmers poor. It’s what we see when we drive down the interstates and highways … rows and rows of one type of produce (mono-crops), or what many of our neighbors grow in their backyard and dump bags of Miracle Grow on top of so they can sport the tallest tomato plant on the block.

(I have to ask myself why the grocers, baggers, shippers, and buyers are all living bigger and fatter than the people that are working their asses off in the heat of the sun, 6 days a week, on their family farm, trying to make an honest living.)

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2. Organic = no growth hormones, no antibiotics, no genetic modifications or engineering, no funky petroleum-based chemical fertilizers. All additives, feed, composts, and fertilizers must also be organic. That means you cannot throw in the scraps of that “conventionally” grown pepper into your compost heap, use it as a soil amendment in your edible garden, and then truly call your garden “organic”. You can’t add manure from the local dairy as a fertilizer, knowing that they don’t follow organic practices, and call your garden “organic” (remember those growth hormones and antibiotics?).

There is a nasty little catch for some businesses out there.

Apparently there is a loophole somewhere that businesses can continue to call their product organic even if they run out of organic feed. So if an organic chicken raiser starts feeding their hens non-organic feed because it’s not readily available they can still call their product “organic”. Get to know the people you purchase your organics from and ask them questions.

There are also some well-known and publicized events that have been occurring as of late. Some questionable practices have been getting by the USDA including allowing synthetic ingredients into “organic” milk. And with alfalfa going through the GM process, any cow that eats alfalfa will surely have GMOs in her milk. As you can see, it’s important to stay on top of these things.

Even with these things in mind, organic, if you can afford it,  is generally one of the healthiest sources of food you can purchase. But keep in mind that junk food is still junk food, regardless if it’s organic or not.

mustards and kales

3. Natural = does not mean organic. There is no legal and agreed-upon meaning in the food industry. It infers a healthy product, free of artificial ingredients, but there is no guarantee that it what you will get. In a nutshell, “natural” is just a buzzword to make you think something is healthy. Read the ingredient label to be sure that there are absolutely no artificial ingredients.

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4. Free-Range = Often and intentionally confused with terminology like “cage-free”, “free-roaming”, and “free-running” all to sound more humane.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) requires that chickens raised for their meat have access to the outside in order to receive the free-range certification. There is no requirement for access to pasture, and there may be access to only dirt or gravel . Free-range chicken eggs, however, have no legal definition in the United States. Likewise, free-range egg producers have no common standard on what the term means.
The USDA has no specific definition for “free-range” beef, pork, and other non-poultry products. All USDA definitions of “free-range” refer specifically to poultry. No other criteria-such as the size of the range or the amount of space given to each animal-are required before beef, lamb, and pork can be called “free-range”. Claims and labeling using “free range” are therefore unregulated. The USDA relies “upon producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims.’”(from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_range)

On that note, terms like “cage-free” et al, when applied to poultry mean that they have free run of a warehouse floor. That’s it. They may or may not have sunlight (probably not), and they most likely will never see a blade of grass in their lifetime, especially considering the foot coverings that are required to be worn in those poultry houses.

child and chicken

5. Pastured = The best way for an animal to be raised. This means that they’ve been allowed to graze naturally in fields of grass or woods where they can forage for food, rather than stuck in pens or warehouses of mud or concrete and feces. In the winter months they are given supplemental foods, however because they’re not confined in tight spaces many farmers can skip the antibiotics and anti-virals.

Like many of the other terms, “Pastured” is not an agreed upon definition, so be sure you know what you’re getting. It’s still a relatively new term in the industry, and big business hasn’t started using it much yet. Keep your eyes open, though.

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6. Genetic Engineered/Modified (GE/GM/GMOs) = While a adore science and all of you wonderful doctors, chemists, and likeminded geeks out there, the one thing that freaks me out is Genetically Engineered or Modified foods. Not that the Monsanto and likeminded corporations aren’t scary enough (“if your crops accidentally get pollinated by our stuff then your stuff is ours – including your animals, your farm, your wife and kids too!”), (or how ’bout a seed that only activates once you put poison on it? One that can cross-pollinate with your own crops? One that very likely the farmers in your town are using? Guess you don’t plan on saving that heirloom seed), (or how ’bout “Frankenfish”), or (the “Terminator Gene”), or (the bullying of milk producers to not advertise their product as being growth hormone-free)…. I digress.

As a gardener, the scariest part to me is the loss of biodiversity. Biodiversity is what gives soil balance. It’s what keeps earthworms and ladybugs around, it’s what allows clover to grow near your tomatoes, giving them the nitrogen they need, and tempting pollinators to come visit blossoms. It’s what allows a garden to work the way the planet intended – without heavy chemical fertilizers and poisons.

The truth is that we really don’t know what GMOs are doing to us from inside our food (or for that matter in the pollen in the air and so on). There is speculation that since the introduction and then heavy overload of GMOs into our food sources that we Americans have become increasingly more and more sick. Aspergers, ADD, ADHD, Depression, Allergies, Digestive Issues, and so on. There just aren’t enough studies yet to know. Honestly, I find it repugnant that potential lifesaving medicines can take up to 10 years to be OK’d by the FDA and yet here we are him hawing about GMOs with far less scientific proof on the side of GMOs than is required by most medicines.

You can find Jennifer at Unearthing this Life where she blargs about life in rural Tennessee. She’s also been featured at Rhythm of the Home. Mostly she’s just a mom, a homeschooler, and keeper of critters.

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“People simply fall in love with wild foods. Lord knows these wild things swept me away. Folks want to be seduced by their mystery, their freedom from the bonds of agriculture. Our human civilization, based on agriculture, has struggled for millennia to no longer depend on foraging in the wild. But here at the start of the twenty-first century, the old hunter-gatherer luring in all of us just won’t let go.”

Connie Green
(The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes)

I’m really enjoying reading through this book right now. Every year I try to learn a little more about wild edible food that I can forage for, they’re delicious and super healthy, and not to mention free.

We hunt for morels every spring and enjoy those thoroughly. I’d love to learn about more edible mushrooms in my area, from what I’ve been reading there are a few varieties I should be able to find. I’m looking for someone local that can teach me, as mushroom hunting from photos in a book can be difficult. I also harvest wild plants like plantain for salves along with dandelions, garlic mustard and wild violets for salads. We have a plentiful supply of wild blackberries and black raspberries close by that we freeze and enjoy all winter long.

Winter time is when I focus on learning about more wild foods that I can find in the woods around our home. I haven’t decided what new wild foods I’m going to be searching for this year, any suggestions?

Do you eat any wild foods? Where do you learn about them?

I can also be found at Chiot’s Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Ethel Gloves, Simple, Green, Frugal, Co-op, and you can follow me on Twitter.

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