One of the Fifty Million…

This weekend, I attended a talk by Kip Nash, a Boulder man who has turned many of the front yards in his neighborhood into farm plots as part of the Boulder Community Roots project. If the endless gorgeous seed catalogs, warm weather, and the kohlrabi, sorrel, kale, garlic, onions, garlic chives, and strawberries sprouting in my garden didn’t do it already, spring garden fever set in with a vengeance after his inspiring talk.

At one point, he referenced Richard Heinberg–a peak oil guy– Read more

Update on our local-eating adventure

In mid-September, our family began what has turned out to be a fun and educational adventure in local eating. After months of canning, drying, and freezing every fruit and vegetable we could get our hands on, after many talks with other local folks committed to eating Colorado-grown food, after many, many trips to the Farmer’s Markets, we thought we were ready.

We quit buying bananas, veggie burgers, avocados, and most other packaged foods (I have ended up letting my children pick one non-local item on each grocery story run. Most often that’s Pirate Booty or Fig Newmans and I can live with that!). We continued to make our own Read more

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

I’m a bit of a worrier. Combine that with the company Matt & I work for announcing huge layoffs, war dragging on abroad, friends losing their jobs left and right, the economy spiraling ever downward, and finances therefore tightening, all at a time when I’d rather be shopping for fun things for my children, and you get a mama whose list of things to be thankful for is a little shorter than it has been in the past. Or is it? Read more

The Eat Local Challenge!

We have been immersed in preparation for our year of eating local and are happy to see The Eat Local Challenge blog join the mix of folks blogging about local eating adventures.

The Eat Local Challenge is working on a challenge for the month of October and so, of course, we’re game! They’ve asked us to answer a few questions, including our definition of local, exemptions, and our goals for the month.

Our definition of local
We are lucky to have a lot of food available to us here in Colorado. So I’m defining local as Colorado-grown. Within 100 miles (a la the 100 mile diet) would of course be a goal to shoot for, but most of the wines and fruit in Colorado are grown on the Western slope (more than 100 miles from here), so I do make some allowances. I’m being fairly strict about both produce and processed foods: all breads, crackers and snacks need to be produced in Colorado (although we realize that a short-coming of this is not knowing if the local producers are sourcing locally–if they’re not publicizing it, they’re probably not).

We seem completely unable to locate local oils beyond butter. And other staples like oats, flour, and other grains are available, but harder to come by than a jaunt down to the local grocery store. Of course coffee and tea are not grown here, so our caffeine is coming from outside Colorado. And I have to be reasonable about the kids.

Although I’m willing to make my own Mac-n-Cheese and granola, and Matt & I could probably live with the local goat and raw milk cheese, Gabriel & Lily require some cheeses (primarily string cheese and Parmesan) that aren’t available locally. Nuts are also a problem and although I sourced some local pine nuts, we’re still buying other nuts and nut butters.

Matt would like to add bananas and avocados to the list, but I’m going to hold out as long as I can on those. By January, I may have to concede, and we’ll probably allow some US-grown citrus over the winter, when it’s typically tasty and widely available. And local eggs are not always available, thus our decision to get some layers this spring and try for the best kind of local–grown in our own back yard!

Oh, and I almost forgot: condiments and spices. I made my own pickles this year and am still hoping to experiment with catsup recipes. I grew a ton of herbs and bought even more at the market. But there’s no way I can live without ginger, cumin, vanilla, chocolate, and cinnamon for a year, so I’m not even going to try. Sugar is also a concern, although we’re hoping to swap out as much sugar as possible and substitute the great local honey we have here in Lyons.

Goals for the month (or year)
As I mentioned, we’re really trying to do this for a year, not just a month. The goal is a year (September 15, 2008 – September 14, 2009) of local eating, but I say that not really expecting that we’ll succeed in only eating from Colorado for a whole 12 months. Instead, we’re really hoping to find as many local sources as we can (our research started this past spring, so we’ve learned a lot already!), try them all, and come up with a feasible, primarily local, mostly plant-based organic diet that is both well-rounded a not a hardship for little people.

This experiment, when we’re done, is setting the stage for a deliberate attempt to eat locally for the rest of our lives. I consider this not only a good choice for our health and the environment, but a statement of the need for our current food systems to change. I love that blogs like The Eat Local Challenge exist to help others realize the importance of being deliberate about our food choices.

Study confirms what we already know: Local is better!

Researchers at Cornell University released a study that confirms what we already knew: eating local is better for the planet and better for our health. The study found that the United States food production industry uses almost as much fossil fuels as our entire fleet of automobiles. This seems impossible until you consider that it takes nearly 2,200 calories of fossil fuel to produce and package one can of 1-calorie diet soda (and the average American, according to the study, drinks 600 cans of soda a year). Even a head of lettuce produced in irrigated California takes 4,000 calories to grow, process and ship across the country.

Don’t believe it? You can read the full article on the Cornell study, or keep reading for some of the key findings:

  • A vegetarian diet with the same calories as the average American diet requires 33 percent less fossil fuel energy to produce, according to the study.
  • The FDA recommends that the average American consume 2,503 calories per day instead of the current average of 3,747 calories per day. The researchers recommend the following practices to reduce calories at maximum benefit to your health and the planet:
    • 40-65 percent reduction in meat, fish, milk, sweeteners, fats and oils
    • 15 percent reduction in grains and starchy roots
    • No reduction in eggs, nuts, vegetables and fruits

With this in mind, I’m feeling better that we’ve tabled our discussion of buying a Prius and chosen to do a year of local eating instead. Sounds like the impact on the planet (and definitely our health) will be greater than making the switch to a hybrid car.

Make Your Own Cure for the Winter Blues!

This past winter, I tried hard to limit our grocery store fruit purchases to US fruit. That meant a lot of citrus from Texas and a lot of apples from Washington, which overall, was fine with us. Then, it happened. An insidious interloper appeared on the grocery store shelves. Something so seemingly-wonderful, and yet so completely out of place that it caught not only my eye, but my son’s: watermelon in January.

He begged. He pleaded. He wheedled. He drove me nuts. He wanted that watermelon. I stuck to my guns, knowing that watermelon in January from Ecuador could not possibly taste as sweet as watermelon in August picked the day before and transported by hand to the market. Then we went to a friend’s house and saw, you guessed it, watermelon.

My friend reads this blog and teases me about the watermelon (especially because, months later, Gabriel STILL asks why I wouldn’t buy it for him) and she’s given my family a free pass to come eat non-local food at her house during what some may perceive as my latest experiment in dogmatism.

But this winter, I have the cure for those wintertime watermelon blues! In a bit of forward-thinking genius, I decided to spend a few hours this summer turning the perfectly ripe fruit of August into perfectly delicious sorbet syrups that I could freeze and make either into sorbet or popsicles this winter.

So next time those Ecuador melons rear their “bred for 5000 miles of travel, not flavor” heads, I’ll be prepared. So far, I’ve done strawberry, muskmelon, and, of course, watermelon. I’ve got quite a few more planned, but I’ll share the basic recipe:

2 cups fruit pulp
1/4 – 3/4 c sugar or honey, or a mix, to taste (quantity depends on the sweetness of the fruit, so I did none for muskmelon, 1/4 cup for watermelon, and 3/4 c for the strawberries)
Puree in the food processor and either chill, then pop it into the ice-cream machine or label and freeze for January!

Some of the recipes I have for sorbet call for additions like wine that I will add when it’s time to make the sorbet (no, I won’t be adding wine to the popsicle mix!). Others call for HFCS, which I have conveniently forgotten to add. I know this will make the sorbet more icy, but I think it will still be a yummy diversion mid-winter.

Food Preservation 101: Part 2 – Making Jam!

There is nothing sweeter than home-made jam. And that’s not because it has more sugar. It’s because the fruit is fresher, the jam is less processed, and, well, because making it yourself always makes it taste better!

If you are new to canning, please review Part 1 in this series, Home Canning for all the details on getting started.

Selecting Fruit for Jam
This is one case where bigger is not always better! Especially when it comes to strawberries, the giant, white on the inside, weeks of shelf-life varieties are not going to make good jam. I use ones from the local market, picked the day before at the latest. You know, the kind that start to disintegrate in the bag on the way home…Yep, those are the best ones. Red all the way through and sweet enough that you can probably cut back the sugar in your jam recipe a bit (especially if you’re using added pectin). But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Selecting a Recipe
If you’re new to making jam and feeling a bit nervous, a recipe that includes added pectin may be for you. Added pectin pretty much guarantees that your jam will set and reduces the cooking time dramatically. If you like jelly (chunk-free) instead of jam (bring on the chunks!), you will probably have to use pectin for best results (I made a batch of grape jelly without added pectin once and although it tasted good, we cooked it FOREVER!).

If you’re an experienced jam-maker, trying to be really, really, local/simple, or just have an insane delight in stirring very hot sticky liquids for 30+ minutes, opt for a recipe with no added pectin. That’s the kind of jam you’ll get from ChezArtz and, although I have made one batch waaaaay too soft and another batch waaaaay too firm this year, I always find uses for the fruit (try a batch too soft for toast as ice-cream topping or in your home-made yogurt–yum!). These recipes usually contain fruit and sugar. That’s it.

To Add Pectin or Not to Add Pectin?
What is pectin, you might ask? Pectin is a substance that occurs naturally in fruits that puts the “gel” in jelly. Apples, grapes, blackberries, cranberries, currants, gooseberries, and plums typically have lots of natural pectin. Blueberries, cherries, apricots, peaches, pineapples, and rhubarb are lower in pectin. So it’s easier to make jam with no added pectin from the high-pectin fruits than it is from the low-pectin fruits, but I can personally attest that it is not impossible (or even that difficult) to make jam from peaches, apricots and strawberries with no added pectin.

If you use added pectin, you need to follow the directions in your recipe carefully with regards to the amount of sugar. Too little sugar and the jam might not turn out. If you choose to skip the pectin (which I almost always do), you can add less sugar, substitute honey for part or all of the sugar (this does affect the flavor, especially if you use a stronger wild honey), and otherwise play around with the recipe until you’ve got it just right for your family’s tastes.

Best Strawberry Jam
I’m pretty much obsessed with jam. I like it on just about everything and so do my children. And Matt never seems to complain about the massive quantities of jam in our cupboards either 😉

This recipe, from the Ball Blue Book, is one of my favorites. It is technically a preserve instead of a jam, but the thing is, whether conserve, preserve, or jam, they all taste great and I smear them all on toast, so I’m not inclined to remember the difference!

2 qts strawberries (there I go dinking with the recipe, which calls for 1.5 Qt of fruit)
1/3 c lemon juice
5 c sugar

  1. Combine the strawberries and sugar in a large pan. Let stand 3-4 hours.
  2. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
  3. Add the lemon juice.
  4. Cook rapidly until strawberries are shiny and syrup is thick, 10-12 minutes (I have found this takes longer at elevation, up to 20 minutes).
  5. Let stand, uncovered, for 12-24 hours in a cool place.
  6. Start your canning bath and have pint or half-pint jars, bands, and lids on hand.
  7. Reheat the fruit mixture to just below boiling point.
  8. Ladle hot fruit into the jars, which you’ve placed in the canning bath so that they’re good and hot (this prevents the odd freakish jar shattering that really can make a mess in the bottom of your boiling-hot canning bath), leaving 1/4 inch head space.
  9. Put your lids and bands on and lower the cans into the bath.
  10. Process for 20 minutes (below 1,000 ft), 25 minutes (1,001-3,000 ft), 30 minutes (for us here at 5,500 ft), or, if you’re really high up there, 35 minutes (6,001-8,000 ft), or 40 minutes (8,001-10,000 ft).
  11. Pull the jars out and resist the urge to monkey with them until they have cooled. Sometimes the jars won’t seal (you know, the nice little “pop” that they make as the air is finally forced out and the lid pulled down snug) until they start to cool. So don’t poke, prod, or twist the caps. Seriously!

Telling When Jam has Reached the Gelling Point
The gelling point is the holy grail for jam-makers and it’s one of those things that you have to see once before you can really know it. Sugar & fruit mixtures get pretty foamy and have a tendency to boil over if you don’t stir like mad, and the gelling point isn’t reached until you’ve moved past the foam to a clear, thickening liquid. You can dribble some on a plate you’ve cooled in the freezer to see if you’ve made it to the gelling point, and it is possible to go beyond the gelling point and end up with jam the consistency of hard ice-cream, which is not nice for spreading on toast.

So play around a little, and don’t be afraid to repurpose an undercooked batch of jam for yogurt, as I already mentioned! It seems more likely that you’d undercook the jam than overcook (the batch I overcooked came right after an undercooked batch, so I was a bit on the paranoid side!). The ease of not quite getting it right, even if you’ve been making jam for years, is why I chose a slightly different recipe above. It takes less cooking because soaking the fruit in the sugar syrup naturally pulls out much of the pectin.

Food Preservation 101: Part 1 – Home Canning

A couple of folks have asked me for a quick how-to on making jam. I realized I couldn’t jump straight into recipes & tips until I covered some basics on canning itself. What is home canning and how does it work? What do you need to get started? Do you really need to take a Master Food Preservation class before you can start? Do you need a pressure-canner? Well, here are my thoughts, as someone who has been canning for close to ten years now…

What is Home Canning?
Home canning is the process of vacuum sealing food into glass jars using bit pot of hot water, oodles of clear glass jars, and time spent stirring and ladling food into those jars. The air is forced out of the jars as the jars sit in a bath of boiling water (the “canning bath”) and as the jars cool, the disposable lids, which have a heat-activated sealant, seal tight to keep the food inside fresh for up to a year (OK, that’s the official story–I have no problem using food that I myself have canned and that looks and smells fine for up to two years).

There is a lot of great information on CSU’s Nutrition Resources Pages if you want to learn more from the experts in addition to what I’ve put together below.

How do you can food?

First, I am not a high-tech canner. I do not own a pressure canner, which means that anything low-acid (like green beans or carrots, for example) gets dried or frozen, not canned. Texture is better anyway, in my opinion. So I primarily can things like jam, pickles & high-acid fruits and use a very simple and inexpensive canning bath that came in a kit like this one. Some of the kits are upwards of $50 now, so watch for sales, borrow from a friend, or look for a used set if you’re looking to invest less at the beginning.

The great thing about these kits, though, is that they also come with the Ball Blue Book, which is essentially the canner’s Bible. If, like me, you have one of your Grandma’s old copies from 1952 hanging out on your bookshelf, keep it for posterity, but double-check the recipes from a newer edition. The kits also typically have a pair of canning tongs for moving hot jars, a funnel for getting hot food into the jars, a nifty magnet for lifting hot lids onto the tops of the jars, and, depending on whether you get the simple or deluxe kit, some canning jars, canning lids, and some plastic lids to use once you’ve opened a jar of canned food.

Although most grocery stores carry lids and jars, you can often find them at thrift stores, on Craig’s List, or even Freecycle. As long as the jars are not chipped and the canning bands are not rusty, you might as well get the freebies, because once you’re obsessed with canning, you’ll need lots of jars in lots of different sizes (wide mouth quart jars for canning peaches, for example, narrow mouth quart jars for apple cider and grape juice, wide mouth pint jars for pickles, and narrow mouth pint & half-pint jars for jam).

Selecting food & recipes

Once you’ve got the supplies assembled, it’s time to consider a recipe. While I think the Blue Book has the best overview of canning and is a great resource, many of the recipes are the traditional ones you might have eaten years ago (adjusted for the additional safety guidelines that now exist, of course), but are not, perhaps, as contemporary as your palate. So poke around on the Internet for recipes or consider one of several great new canning books that are out there (I personally have not ventured much beyond the Blue Book because I mainly can staple foods like jam & fruits).

When selecting food to can or preserve, the fresher, the better. If you can get it picked the day you’re going to can it, do. Our canning season starts with strawberry jam in late June/early July, then moves on to apricots for both jam and canned halves, cucumbers & onions for pickles, and the first of the peaches (also jam & canned halves) in July, then plums, grapes, tomatoes and more peaches in August, and wraps up with pears & apples in September & October. While you can preserve the very last tomatoes you pull from the vine in October, the ones you pick at the peak of ripeness in August will last longer and taste better.

The quality of the fruits & vegetables you select is the most important factor in the success of your canning. A tie for close second goes to the recipe you choose and the techniques you use in canning, which I’ll touch on in part 2 tomorrow.

Preparing for our year of local

How can it possibly be August already? That leaves us less than 30 days to go to prepare for our year of eating locally. Granted, September is still harvest season here in Colorado, so it’s not like I have to have everything put by before the end of August, but still, the pressure is on!

This week, Matt tackled the issue of how to organize & track all of the veggies we’ve been blanching, vacuum-sealing and storing in our extra freezer in the garage. A combination of some storage bins (the downside to the vacuum-sealed containers is that they’re not square and therefore hard to stack) and a tally sheet did the trick!

But the tally also made us realize that, with 22 full weeks between the end of the Boulder Farmer’s Market in November 2008 and the beginning of the 2009 season in April, we’ve got a lot of long, cold, weeks where local food is going to be in short supply. And did I mention that I do not intend to live on bread and potatoes during those weeks?!

Some things we’ve got covered. I think even with adding jam to our yogurt, I’m getting close to having enough jam for the winter (two batches of strawberry, one cherry/serviceberry/strawberry, two batches of pineapple/apricot–yes, I realize pineapple’s not local, but it sure is good!, and peaches just starting to ripen for another couple of batches of peach jam). And we’ve got enough pesto for us to have a pretty good sized serving every week from now until the basil harvest begins next June.

But I’m still worried about having enough green & red veggies (I figure the crazy amount of butternut squash and pumpkin I’ve planted will cover the orange). We’ve frozen green beans, peas, snow peas, carrots, and sweet corn, and will roast & freeze peppers soon. I still have a ton of dried tomatoes left over from the 50 pounds I dehydrated last fall, so I’m not sure if we’ll need more or not (I probably won’t be able to help myself once the canning-sized boxes show up at the market).

And fruit is of course a concern. We’ve already conceded that we’ll buy some organic Texas citrus over the winter (we’re earth-conscious, but we’re not saints, and I do have two small children who, as smart as they are, do not yet understand the concept of eating local). Our current plan is to dehydrate some apricots, maybe some grapes if we can find them, can some peaches and pears, dry some apples, make a ton of applesauce, make some apple cider, and make some of the other fruits available here locally (melon, strawberries, and cherries, for example) into sorbet syrup that we can freeze now and enjoy in our ice-cream maker this winter.

Both coffee and sugar are going to have to come from elsewhere. And while I’m not planning to stock-pile non-local goods between now and September 1, I am also not going to throw away anything that we already have in the pantry, meaning that things like yeast and spices will not be 100% local (although I am planning to dry or freeze as many herbs as I can and will be making a year’s worth of pickles. Oh, and taking a shot at making ketchup!).

Although we love our local raw cheese & goat cheese, we still haven’t found a true cheddar, which makes Artz staples like burritos and grilled cheese sandwiches a bit difficult. We’re going to try melting Windsor Dairy’s cheddar-like cheese to see how that works, but it’s still an area of concern.

And finally, one thing that I thought was going to be a slam-dunk, local eggs, is starting to become problematic. Because I don’t just want local eggs, I want grass-fed, free range, organic eggs from heirloom chickens. You know, happy chickens. Health chickens. Good bright-orange yolk eggs. Windsor Dairy doesn’t have enough and I don’t know if I can get them from Wisdom Poultry in the winter. I’ll keep you posted.

OK, time to go freeze some more corn, and I’ve got 10 pounds of cucumbers just waiting to be pickled. Good thing it’s 100 degrees outside because I’m going to be inside this afternoon!

The Growing Challenge: Let the harvest begin!

This year has been full of firsts in the vegetable garden. For starters, this is my first year gardening at our new home in Lyons. But I’ve also taken “the growing challenge” to try to grow some new types of veggies, including:

  • Cherry Belle Radishes (spicy & oh, so delicious!)
  • Pickling cucumbers (OK, not the first time, but the first time I’ve actually gotten to harvest anything!)
  • Corn (I know, an Indiana native whose never grown corn?!?!)
  • Butternut squash
  • Cantaloupe (see comment on cucumbers, above)
  • Red Russian Kale
  • Blue Potatoes

The radishes grew just ask quickly as promised and we’ve been enjoying them since mid-June (did I mention my veggie beds were only ready the first week of June, which means everything went in very late this year!). I just bought more Cherry Belles, French Breakfast, and Minowase radishes to plant this weekend for fall harvest too (another experiment: I bough Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest to prepare for our year of eating local!).

Soon after the radish harvest began, the lettuces were ready. My favorite, Simpson black-seeded, was joined this year by Sorrel, Mizuna, red-leafed, and a few others I can’t even identify at this point 🙂

Now we’ve moved on to Tri-Star strawberries (yum, yum, yum), red, white, and yellow onions, garlic, and oodles of cut flowers! Oh, and the cucumbers, which in the past languished in my part-shade veggie garden at the old house, are producing like mad with literally hundreds of tiny cukes growing fatter each day. I’ve got pumpkins (Big Max jack-o-lantern & Sugar Bear pie sized), butternut squash, zucchini, and, for the first time ever, cantaloupe, on the vine and getting bigger each day!

We’ve had our failures, though, too. All of my tomatoes succumbed to cucumber mosaic virus. My green beans have been absolutely stunted by flea beetles (although I have harvested 3 and they seem to be bouncing back now!). And my peas went in so late that they crisped in the sun before they could produce.

And all that asparagus I started from seed? Ferny and beautiful in the garden with about 25 plants leftover in pots in my sun room growing stronger for fall planting! A very successful summer so far…Happy growing!