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Changing the Plan

I think my meal planning habits and our usual diet are going to have to adjust. My food “standards” started when I was a homeschooling mom with three young children and an additional part-time job. I was busy but my schedule was flexible. Our budget was very tight and I am naturally thrifty so meeting those self-set standards became a point of pride. It became part of my identity as a mother and wife. I cooked almost everything from scratch, shopped at multiple stores and markets each week to eat seasonally and get the best prices, and seldom bought “convenience” foods. You can eat a very healthy diet for a reasonable amount of money if you’re able and willing to devote the time to it. Healthy food isn’t expensive. Healthy convenience foods are expensive. I never factored in the value of my own time or the amount of time I was devoting to food preparation.

For many years our diet has been based on seasonal produce, whatever we bought at the farmers’ market. We’d had the common American quick breakfast/light lunch/heavy, full dinner pattern of meals. I did one large grocery shopping trip once a week because that’s the best way to stay on budget.

Our current family life is just too hectic. My husband’s business keeps him incredibly busy with an erratic schedule. My kids have evening classes and band practice. I am regularly stuck between beating myself up for another failed meal plan and killing myself to make my over-ambitious meal plans work. We all have been splitting the cooking between us- the kids starting dinner prep and I finish when I get home from work, my husband cooking on his nights at home, and lots of oops nights when dinner ends up being at 9pm or we eat scrambled eggs. Lately it’s been me chasing three teenagers around, haranguing them to eat the dinner that I spent an hour cooking after my 10-hour shift. This habit is no longer working for us. I have to change the way I think about meals for our family.

So, loyal readers, give me some suggestions. What works for your family? Do you eat a larger lunch and simpler dinner? Do you cook ahead? Do you spend the money on high-quality convenience foods? Tell me what works for your family.

Garlicky Lacto-Fermented Giardiniera

giardiniera1

I am a total sucker for the discount bin at the grocery store. Today I scored a cauliflower and a bag of five yellow sweet peppers for $3. How can you pass that up? Since I already had carrots, more peppers, and garlic at home, I decided to try a new ferment- Italian pickled vegetables, also known as giardiniera. I read a recipe for a winter salad based on muffaletta (which is one of my favorite foods) that included giardiniera and I need to add more fermented goodness to my diet. So of course I started by reading a couple dozen recipes on the internet and found that most giardiniera recipes aren’t lacto-fermented at all- they’re briefly soaked in brine to draw out moisture and then either marinated in olive oil or pickled with a vinegar brine. Now I have no idea if giardiniera was ”traditionally” lacto-fermented  or not (vinegar pickles have a very long history, too) but I’m going to try it.

giardiniera2

Garlicky Lacto-Fermented Giardiniera

I will admit to playing it fast & loose with pickling brines. I don’t measure carefully but the goal is a 2% solution of salt to water. I live in Florida where there’s plenty of warmth and bacteria, so ferments live most of their lives in the fridge. If you don’t plan on refrigerating yours, measure carefully.

1 head of cauliflower
2 carrots
5 yellow sweet peppers
1 red Italian pepper
1 stalk of celery
10 fat cloves of garlic (no really! Ten!)
1 tbl whole coriander seeds
1 heaping tbl dried oregano
3 quarts filtered or boiled tap water, warm
3+ tbl sea salt

First wash the vegetables carefully with warm water and rinse well. The break the cauliflower into small florets and cut everything else as small as you want it. I left my pieces on the large size. Slice the garlic cloves. Then take a gallon jar with lid and wash it thoroughly in the hottest water you can. Then pack the vegetables into the jar (you can put them in pretty layers if you want) with some of the spices and sliced garlic between each layer. Then pour three tablespoons of salt over the top. Pour in warm water until the water completely covers the vegetables. If you added more than two quarts, add about a teaspoon of salt for each cup of water over two quarts. Add your jar weight if you use one (I use a plastic lid weighed down with a small bowl) to keep the vegetables submerged. Put the cap on loosely and put it somewhere you can keep an eye on it. Check it every day for a week to make sure the vegetables are still submerged. The brine will get cloudy and then clear up slightly, and start smelling like pickles. After a week, take a pair of clean tongs and fish out a piece. If it’s sour enough for you, put it in the fridge for another week, then eat. If you like it more sour, leave it on the counter and taste every couple of days.

Puffball for Dinner

I ate a wild mushroom and I lived!

Well, this isn’t the first time I’ve eaten foraged mushrooms or wild mushrooms… I’ve been chanterelle picking in Oregon with my sister, and I’ve purchased foraged chanterelles and honey mushrooms from Southeast Mushroom at the farmers’ market many times, but this is the first time I’ve found an edible wild mushroom myself, identified it, and cooked it. The best part- it came out of my front yard, and there are probably more!

old puffballs

I have been finding these old, dried out puffballs under the mulch in the herb garden for over a year. The herb garden was one of the first sheet mulching mounds and is always full of fungi. I was just joking with my husband a week for so ago that this was one of my most successful crops- it’s too bad we can’t eat them. This photo above is composed of dried out puffballs discovered over two weeks. That white sphere is a lacrosse ball for size reference.

puffball youngOn Monday I found my first young puffball! I was weeding the herb garden and touched something cool and damp and yielding under the mulch. I thought it was maybe a toad burrowed down in the mulch, but when I uncovered it, it was a beautiful white young puffball!

puffball split

I knew puffballs were edible, but I still had to make sure what I had was actually a puffball mushroom. First I googled (Thank you Green Deane, as usual), then I posted photos on a local garden group, then I took the mushroom to a local mushroom forager for an in-person ID. Michael Adler of the Edible Plant Project confirmed that it was definitely an edible puffball.

trimmed puffballI thought the smooth skin meant it was free of worms and bugs, but when I started cutting it up I found that they were hiding under the skin. By the time I trimmed off all the bad spots there wasn’t much left, about enough for one person. This turned out to be fortuitous, since my husband declined to try any, declaring that one of us should be able to drive to the hospital, just in case.

sauteed puffballSliced puffball, sauteed simply in butter with salt and pepper, served with fresh bratwurst cooked in beer with sauerkraut, and roasted cauliflower and home-grown sunchokes tossed with sage and blue cheese. It was all delicious! And I didn’t die!

Now I just have to figure out how to find the puffballs hiding under the mulch while they’re still young enough to eat.

Ginger & Turmeric First Harvest

The subtitle to this post is “How To Do Everything Wrong”.

Most of the crops I am planning on growing out at the farm are in the ginger family. I played hooky from basically everything this morning and spent the morning watching youtube videos and reading ag websites on ginger farming. I watched farm videos from Costa Rica, India, and the Philippines. I downloaded cultivation and processing guides from India and Ghana.

And then I looked outside at my ginger patch, I realized I have been doing just about everything wrong.

ginger bed

Well, sort of wrong. Wrong in that irritating “It depends” sort of way. What I’ve been doing is just fine for the home ginger patch in the back of the garden. Not so much for farming. Farming gingers, which as a plant family include turmeric, galangal, ginger, and a bunch of other edible and medicinal rhizomes, is quite different.

ginger1

In order to grow great ginger, you have to mound soil over the tops of the rhizomes as they grow. This is a preliminary ginger harvest. See the green at the tops of the roots? That ginger is not fit for the market. See how the rhizomes are long but shallow? That’s because I grew them right up under an oak tree and next to a low gardenia- the ginger had to compete with these other plants for root space.

galangal1

This is my meager galangal harvest. I guess this is decent considering the “mother” was a small chunk of half-dead root with three live “eyes” brought home from a Vietnamese grocery store in Atlanta. Not enough fertilizer, not enough soil mounding, not deep enough soil. I may split up and replant the larger clump as “seed” for next year. 

turmeric1

This preliminary turmeric harvest was the most disappointing. Unlike other gingers, turmeric wants sun and lots of it. This turmeric was planted too closely together and definitely in too much shade. There’s only one “hand” and it’s very small. I expect fresh turmeric to be my #1 money-maker so I need to get good at growing this.

seed turmeric

This is “seed” turmeric from a local nursery. This kind of turmeric is fine for a backyard garden plot but I have no idea what variety this is. I would invest in a named turmeric variety from India if I could, but to import things like that you have to buy huge amounts. So I’ll probably pay out the nose for organic varietal seed turmeric from Hawaii.

I have a half-dozen other Zingiber-family plants to sort out, too! There’s so much to learn, and I love it.

Winter Garden

One of the perks of working at a farmers’ market is getting the first pick. I see what comes in in the morning, and if it’s something I really want and I think it will sell out, I can ask the farmer to “put one back for me”. Last weekend one of the farmers had a great deal on winter seedlings. I knew they would sell out fast, so I had him put a few 6-packs under the table for me- Chinese mustard, russian kale, swiss chard, mizuna, and red cabbage. He sold out within two hours.

broccoli seedling

Then I went to the feed & seed and bought something I’ve never tried before- the 20-packs of “pro” seedlings. These are bundles of seedlings with tight root balls, very little soil and no pots. I snagged two bundles of broccoli. I don’t even remember the variety.
winter garden2
This winter I will become the broccoli master. Broccoli everywhere! The kids and my husband really like broccoli, I like broccoli, it can be easily frozen if necessary, and it’s fairly expensive at the farmer’s market. All perfect reasons for trying to grow it myself. I spent one entire evening clearing this grass-and-weed-infested raised bed by hand after my younger son ripped the grass up with a mattock. I added a few buckets of compost but the incessant rain has discouraged me from adding any more soil nutrients, since most of what I use are liquid.
winter garden1
This is the second bed of winter cole-crops- more broccoli, kale, swiss chard, and red cabbage. This bed in the forest garden was completely full of tithonia all summer. As soon as I cut down the tithonia for the compost pile, the betony started popping up. I am not clearing the betony out of this bed- yet. I know from experienced that the betony is unstoppable. The thick hay mulch last year was the perfect environment for betony and the roots rocketed through the beds. There’s no stopping it without digging everything up, sifting the soil for the tubers, and then laying it down and re-planting everything. And frankly, that’s just not going to happen. This is one of those experimental less-is-more opportunities for observation. Will the broccoli in this bed do better than the broccoli in the raised bed with no weeds? The other way around? We’ll see.

I still want to try growing carrots again now that the soil has better texture and I want to try fennel bulbs. Both will go in after I dig up the sweet potatoes and cut down the chiles next month. Birds or ants ate up all the dill seeds that I scattered in the herb garden and raked in- I don’t have a single seedling. So much for seed saving. I’m still going to need to buy seedling parsley and dill, or start it in the greenhouse. Onwards, October!

Gluten-free Apple Butter Gingerbread

Part of my dedication to local eating is to teach my kids to recognize that eating foods from far away and out of season is a treat. Apples don’t grow here, therefore we don’t eat apples that often. When I was in North Carolina in July I picked up a jar of homemade apple butter at a road side stand along with my usual jars of sorghum molasses, but we also don’t eat that much toast any more and the jar was still sitting there. I was worried that it would get moldy, so I decided to bake with it.

apple butter

There don’t seem to be any cookbooks or blogs for the kinds of baking I want to do- rich in fats, eggs, whole grains, and fruit but uses no refined sugar. Every sweet quick bread is an experiment so any time I make a really great one it’s like a wonderful surprise. This is a really great cake. It’s tender! It’s moist! It has a great crumb!

applebutter gingerbread

Gluten-Free Apple Butter Gingerbread

1/2 c butter
1/2 sorghum molasses
1 egg
1 c apple butter
1 c oat flour
1 c GF baking mix (I used Namaste)
3/4 c buttermilk (or clabbered milk)
2 scant tsp baking soda
1 heaping tsp ground cinnamon
1 heaping tsp ground ginger

Heat the oven to 350. Butter a 9x5x3 loaf pan. Gently melt the butter, then add the sorghum, egg, and apple butter and mix thoroughly. Mix the baking soda into the buttermilk. Add the baking mix, oat flour, cinnamon, and ginger to the wet mixture, and mix it halfway in. Then add the buttermilk & soda mixture and mix thoroughly.  Scrape into the baking pan and put immediately into the oven. Bake for 1 hour, start checking at 55 minutes. Bake only until a toothpick in the center comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then turn out and let cool over night before slicing. This stayed moist for three days tightly wrapped in aluminum foil.

Flowers on the Equinox

Happy Fall Equinox! We are celebrating doubly because the evening temperatures fell below 70 a few nights ago. Unlike homes up North which are shut up all winter, homes in Florida are shut up tight all summer because we all have the AC running (if we’re lucky). Once the night time temps fall below 72 or so, the windows can be opened and the AC turned off most of the fall through the late spring. Throwing open the curtains and opening the windows set off a flurry of cleaning. While I was looking out the front window, I spotted a ripe butternut squash that got completely missed!

surprise squash

We only had about six weeks of truly hot weather, but that was enough to see the changes that the cooler temperatures are bringing already. The butternut squash, luffa, and birdhouse gourds have started putting out new fruits again. The cutleaf coneflower, which I despaired about all summer, is finally blooming. The cutleaf coneflower, monarda, and tropical sage are making quite a display right now.

native bed september

As Ginny Stibolt reminded us recently, I don’t put out “bird feeders”. I plant gardens. My mostly-natives bed has half gone to seed but I’m resisting the urge to deadhead. Those seeds will feed migratory birds and the rest will reseed the garden for the spring. The beach sunflower is unstoppable, filling all of the gaps in the natives bed. The small yellow flowers brings clouds of bees, flies, and wasps every sunny day. I also don’t put out hummingbird feeders full of sugar water. I plant lots of firebush instead (red flowers in the background) which blooms for eight months straight and keeps the hummingbirds coming back every day.

native bed 2

Growing comfrey here is a struggle. I have three comfrey patches established but this one, the only one that doesn’t benefit from at least some shade during the day, died back to the ground in July. It’s rapidly recovering with the changing season.

reviving comfrey

The sunchokes are also flowering! It’s interesting that the sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosa) and the beach sunflower (Helianthus debilis) attract different pollinators. The sunchokes attract a lot more beetles than bees so far. It’ll be interesting to see what the 8 ft tall swamp sunflowers (Helianthus augustifolia) attract once they bloom.

jerusalem artichokes

I am one of the rare people who wishes summer would last forever. I don’t like cold weather. My favorite seasons are Spring and early Summer. I still do my best to live in the cycle of the seasons, to not resist the changes happening around me. So I will embrace fewer mosquitoes, ripe persimmons, cane boils, and scarf weather, and plant my winter garden.

Chinese Herbs Update

I walked around the garden the other day specifically to check on my test plantings of Chinese herbs. I have so many now! The test plantings over the past couple years have given me a much clearer picture of what will thrive here and what won’t. There are just so many plants to try, still.

ashwagandha

Ashwagandha grows very well here. This fall I will dig my first roots and find out what the average yield/plant will be. The ashwagandha also attracts leaf-footed bugs like crazy but they don’t seem to hurt it. This weekend I’ll be harvesting berries from the strongest-looking plants. Now that I know it grows well, I have to find a buyer.

mugwort

I am in the middle of take my third cutting of this stand of mugwort since I planted it exactly a year ago. So, three cuttings a year seems to be pretty darn good return on a plant that requires no irrigation or fertilizer once established. The investment on this crop is time and labor- the dried mugwort has to age for three years before I grind and sift it into floss for moxa.

platycodon

See the delicate purple flower in the middle of all those weeds? That’s Platycodon grandiflorus, jie geng, and it’s taken me a while to figure out how it wants to grow. Jie geng doesn’t like to be messed with around the roots, it wants water, and prefers dappled shade. The roots are surprisingly sturdy- several times these plants have died back to the ground and then come up again, undaunted. I’m looking forward to digging up these roots in the fall.

new herbs

These are two precious new additions to my trial herb beds- Alpinia katsumadai (the seeds of which are Cao Dou Kou) and Cucurma Wenyujin (Wen yu jin). Recently I visited Tom Wood, a noted ginger taxonomist, breeder, and collector, and he sold me both of these- he was using them for flower breeding! The ginger, galangal, and turmeric are growing so well that I’m sure these will grow well, too. I found this interesting article on the confusion in cucurma botanical medicines. Once I find a good place I’ll be ordering the last of the cucurmas- Zedoary.

astragalus

This is the final experiment for this year, and possibly the last experimental crop on this property… by Spring we’ll have enough of the farm cleared that I can start planting out there. This is Astragalus (huang qi) which I bought from Mountain Gardens in July. Astragalus is a sought-after herb right now and I have high hopes that it will like our deep sandy soil.

Other successes: Acyranthes bidentata (niu xi), Eclipta prostrata (bringhraj), Belamcanda chinensis (she gan)

On Rejecting Consumerism

On Friday we went to our brand-new Hobby Lobby on our way to dinner. I was going to a party the next night and I thought I needed a prop for the party. I was in a hurry, as usual. We found a few things that would work but they were well more than I wanted to spend on a party prop. So we found some sale flyers, and lo! We found that these pieces were 50% off, so they felt like a good deal. So we took the two things to the cash register and gave the tired and disinterested but polite cashier an amount of money that nearly equaled one entire day’s wages for me, and then waited patiently while the cashier inefficiently wrapped the things and we started to hurry on to dinner.

And then I stopped.

I stood in the fluorescent-lit entryway, sparkling clean and faintly stinking of overpriced scented candles, and looked at the other overpriced, ugly, unnecessary crap artistically arranged around me. I looked at the crap I had just traded nearly a day’s wages for, the amount of money that would buy most of a week’s food for our family, and realized they were both ugly and cheaply made.

And I kinda lost it. I should’ve just turned right around and returned the crap to the disinterested but polite cashier, but my husband and son, recognizing that my ethics were kicking in, hustled me out of the store and into the car while I cussed and railed against what I had just done.

There is nothing of beauty in that store. There is nothing of art, nothing made by artists. That place is full of cheap, throwaway crap made by factory workers to imitate things of beauty, things of art, and then priced just high enough to convince people it has value. Hobby Lobby is selling a cheap copy of style, a cheap copy of art. These things are made by poor women in foreign factories because we have become unwilling to pay real artists for art. Instead we buy piles of easy crap, we fill up our homes with disposable trash that has no artistry and no lasting value. And here I was, snowed by the illusion of needing to buy something I didn’t have time to make because I was earning wages, and then trading my wages for worthless crap. So the crap sits in my living room, still in its bags with the receipt, waiting for me to reclaim my hard-earned money and a small measure of self-respect.

What goes for food should go for everything we consume, everything we trade our wages for: Buy the best you can, even if that means you can consume relatively little of it. We must be willing to discern the difference between things of value and things of non-value, whether those things be food or vases or paintings, to reject the empty consumerism we all say we abhor.

Pear Cider Experiment

Sometimes a food project is the result of a confluence of events. Event #1- Several years ago, I tasted a sparkling dry pear mead. It was the best mead I’ve ever tasted, before or since. Event #2- Watching farmers struggle to sell their sand pears every summer for several years. Event #3- Reading a couple of articles about artisan cider making and how the majority of heritage apples were for cider making and preserves, not necessarily eating fresh, and thinking about how the local sand pears are so much better for cooking than eating fresh. Event #4- My husband brings home 20# of pears from a friends’ tree, and then we went and picked up 20 more. And we didn’t even have to pick them! Event #5- A facebook plea for brewing equipment results in a loan of a 5-gallon carboy and airlock.

cider2

So after reading every website on the internet about making pear cider, it was time to dive in. My husband bought yeast, yeast nutrient, campden tablets, a large food-quality bucket and a straining bag at the local brewing store. Then we just had to figure out how to grind and press the pears.
cider1I dithered about this process for a couple weeks, trying to find the best way to press the pears without a cider press. One evening I peeked at the baskets of pears ripening and saw some soft spots and a few fruit flies. So that evening the kids and I cut up 40 pounds of pears and used my meat grinder to puree the pears. It worked really well.
cider3After tipping the ground pears into the straining bag, the kids and I took turns squeezing the bag against a broiler pan over the bucket. Then my husband came home and had a great idea- he placed a heavy cutting board over the straining bag, and sat on it! It worked perfectly. We got a little over 2 gallons of juice from 40# of pears. Then we added the yeast nutrient, a campden tablet to sterilize the raw pear juice, and put the lid tightly on the bucket for 24 hours.

The next evening I started the yeast, added the yeast to the pear juice, and put the mixture in the carboy with the airlock. Our yeast is supposed to work well with high ambient temperatures, so we put the carboy in the laundry room next to the deep freeze. Now, we wait! If this turns out well, then hopefully we can put this batch in bottles and fill the carboy again before the end of pear season.

Have you ever brewed anything alcoholic from scratch? What did you tackle first? How did it turn out?

 robes de bal