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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.


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?

Fukuoka and Local Food

fukuokaI just finished reading The Natural Way of Farming by Masanobu Fukuoka. I will be pondering this philosophy- for it is a new philosophy, and the source of much of permaculture- for a long time. The final chapters of the book about what the author considers natural health, natural farming, and a natural diet, and how the three are really one cycle, and can’t be separated. Much of the final chapter is devoted to what the author considers a “natural diet”- not just eating foods free of modern processing, but only eating foods grown in Japan and each in their proper season. There is no regard for whether a food is native to Japan or not- for instance, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, potatoes, kidney beans, and peanuts are all from the Americas- only that it will grow in Japan.

This is an outlook on local food and a land-based healthy diet that any 21st century locavore will instantly recognize. I am more aware than most of where the plants I am growing for food come from but “local foods” for me are the foods that grow here, no matter where their place of origin. I will gladly try any plant from any continent if it produces food, and as far as I’m concerned, the food produced by that plant is now local. So what would our diets include if we were to follow Fukuoka’s diet advice? Beans. Sweet potatoes. Pecans. Rice. Corn. Peanuts. Cane sugar. Honey. Sorghum molasses. Greens and cruciferous vegetables in the winter and spring, nightshades and cucurbits in the summer and fall. A wide variety of fruit from temperate to tropical but mostly persimmons, pears, oranges, and blueberries. A totally balanced diet, with plenty of variety. I think more shocking would be the foods that we take for granted but don’t actually grow here, like wheat. Oats. Asparagus. Coffee. Dates. Almonds.

I hope that others reading this book don’t think that Fukuoka is recommending that the diet he espouses is for everyone, or even anyone outside of Japan. That’s missing the point entirely. The guiding principle is to eat what grows where you live. I know in my gut that this is the future, “locavore” diets will be the only diet, and I am sincerely thankful to live in a place where food can be easily grown year-round.

Welcome to the Jungle

So I’ve been locked out of my blog for two weeks due to a virus scare and I don’t even know where to start. With luck I will own two beautiful acres for my farm by the end of the month. The trip to North Carolina was amazing. And I came home to a jungle. A wonderful, verdant jungle.


This was my yard when I got home. Take a look at the same shot in 2013 and 2012. I’ve been reading The Natural Way of Farming and came back to see everything in a slightly new way.

forest garden1No longer is the crabgrass my enemy. Nature is perfect. The crabgrass is growing there without planting, therefore the crabgrass is growing in its perfect place. The crabgrass is there for a reason. It’s my job to try to understand why the crabgrass is growing there, and why I want to remove it, and what will happen if I do. This philosophy demands a certain flexibility of mind to be able to question all of the preconceived judgments that man places on the natural world. It’s heavy.

If you’re in the area, I’ll be talking about stacking functions and other permaculture ideas with a bunch of other local permaculture geeks (including David Goodman from Florida Survival Gardening) at the next Grow Gainesville meeting Monday August 18th. If you’re interested, check it out here.

Calm the Shen Truffles

Leaving tomorrow for the NC Herb Association conference Wild Herb Weekend in Valle Crucis, NC! So excited! I’m going for the medicinal herb growers track, but when I saw the cooking competition I knew I had to enter.

best foods contest

One of the farmers at the market grows shiitakes and other medicinal mushrooms. He sells reishi mushroom powder for people to put into capsules themselves, which is significantly less expensive and higher quality than the pills in the health food store. Capsules are popular because reishi mushrooms are bitter and tough. In Chinese medicine, reishi mushrooms “nourish the heart and strengthen qi and blood to treat Heart and Spleen deficiencies that manifest in insomnia, forgetfulness, fatigue, listlessness and poor appetite.”


I thought dark chocolate would be an unexpected combination with the bitter reishi mushrooms and what better way to combine them than decadent truffles! I asked one of the licensed acupuncturists at my office to help me find a gentle formula based on reishi that also had flavors that wouldn’t overwhelm chocolate. It didn’t take us long to find a simple formula.


This will be a tough recipe to replicate unless you have access to a Chinese herbal dispensary, but you can make these truffles with just reishi mushroom powder. If you’re local, cultivated reishi powder is available from Southeast Mushroom at both the Alachua County Farmers Market and the Downtown Farmers Market. This was my first time making truffles but they’re so easy. Don’t skimp on the quality of the chocolate!


Calm the Shen Truffles

7 oz 70% chocolate
2/3 c organic heavy cream
1 tbl sorghum molasses
6 grams ling zhi (reishi mushroom) powder
3 grams each: dang gui (angelica root), bai shao (white peony root), suan zao ren (zizyphus seed), and long yan rou (dried longan fruit)
cocoa powder, for rolling

Put the reishi powder and the rest of the herbs into a clean electric coffee grinder and grind until it’s a coarse powder. Measure out two heaping teaspoons and set aside.

Heat the cream and sorghum molasses in a small pan until almost boiling. Chop the chocolate and put into a small heatproof bowl. Pour the hot cream mixture over the chocolate and beat gently until the chocolate is smooth. Let cool for 5 minutes in the bowl. Add the powdered herbs and beat again.

Line an 8×8 pan with parchment paper. Scrape the chocolate mixture into the lined pan. Cover tightly. Set aside someplace cool for three hours. When the chocolate is set up, use a small scoop or two small spoons to form small balls. Roll the balls in cocoa powder and place then on a plate. Let them sit at least an hour to set up. Store in the fridge if necessary.

Simple Balsamic Long Beans

long beansSo I have a bit of a confession to make. I don’t like green beans. I know, I know… I’m a mom who’s basically spent half her life telling children to eat their vegetables and I write a whole blog encouraging people to try local vegetables. Here I am, revealing my own inconsistencies. But green beans are gross! Apparently this particular bias is inherited- my father also doesn’t like green beans so I probably didn’t eat them much growing up. Canned green beans will actually make me gag. Erk. So of course I’ve never grown green beans or Chinese long beans (Vigna unguiculata subsp. sesquipedalis) even though I know the Chinese long beans grow well here in our humid summers. I did buy Chinese long beans at the farmers market once. If I remember correctly I either boiled or steamed them. They were tough and chewy and no one really liked them, so I never bought them again.

So over the weekend our next-door neighbor brought over a big bunch of long beans from his garden! I will never refuse free homegrown produce, ever. This time I did a bit more research before cooking. I have tried various preparations of green beans to see if they make this common vegetable more palatable. The only way I have found that green beans are actually pretty darn good are the spicy blistered green beans on some Chinese buffets. Little did I know that this Sichuan-region preparation is traditionally made with Chinese long beans! But we were having chicken and potatoes, and I didn’t think Sichuan pepper and chiles would blend well, so I used the traditional cooking method with new flavors. They turned out delicious! 

long beans2

This recipe is so good, not even a blurry photo will keep me from sharing it.

Simple Balsamic Long Beans

This cooking method will work best if you have a large wok and a gas stove. I have neither of those, so I made them in batches in a large non-stick skillet over the highest heat my electric stove can do. Be patient, it’s worth it.

1 lb Chinese long beans
1-2 tbl sunflower oil, or any other oil suitable for high heat
Good balsamic vinegar- I used Mission Fig flavored balsamic vinegar, but any quality balsamic will work

Rinse your long beans well and dry them on a towel. You want them absolutely dry. Cut into thirds. Heat a wok or other large pan over high heat. When it’s really hot, add 1 tsp of oil and immediately add the green beans one handful at a time until the pan is full but all the beans are in one layer. Toss vigorously to get them all coated in oil, and then let the beans cook on one side for a full minute. The beans should be darkly blistered and brown. Keep tossing and pausing until the beans are well browned and totally wilted. Dump onto a plate. Repeat until all beans are cooked. Let the pan get really hot again. Dump all of the beans back in the wok, dress liberally with salt, and then pour about 2 tbl of balsamic vinegar in. Lift the pan off the heat and toss furiously until the vinegar has slightly thickened and the beans are coated. Pour onto a plate and serve immediately. Add more salt and vinegar if necessary.

The Springstead Vision

food forest 2 years

Two years ago this was sand and ratty boxwood hedges.

So here’s what’s in my heart.

Imagine a forest. It’s a forest full of birds and insects and fruit and flowers. Every tree is full of powerful medicine, growing more powerful as the years go by and the soil life builds. Dotted throughout the trees are stands of plants with powerful roots, and when they’re dug up for their medicine, the rest of the plant goes back into the soil. Fallen trees are everywhere, food for the fungi that add to the soil that add to the roots that add to the bees that add to the fruits that add to the fungi… and it all feeds the medicine.

What is in my heart, my vision, is an agroforestry farm focused on medicinal trees with integrated medicinal roots, culinary fruit production for direct sales, and medicinal fungi, designed with permaculture principles. This is not a new idea.

This is a challenging vision to bring forth. The roadblocks seem overwhelming. How do I get there? Trees are a long-term investment, though I have some ideas for generating cash in the short-term. This seems like an unexplored niche- there are farms raising annual medicinal herb crops but no one seems to be farming tree crops or subtropical perennials for wholesale production. Wholesale production of medicinal herbs requires organic certification, processing equipment, and putting down roots in a big way. Time to start gathering more hard data and take this course again. More research for me. Looks like this might be a good place to start!

It’s Official

I have started my first business.

The Articles of Organization for SPRINGSTEAD HERBS, LLC were filed electronically on July 10, 2014, as verified by this email.

I have wanted to start an herb business for almost 20 years. In the beginning I envisioned opening an apothecary shop, but I had young children and needed rent money more than dreams. Opening a business was too risky. Now I’m following in my husband’s footsteps opening my own business while working full time, and then slowly building the business until it’s making enough money to quit my outside work. It’s low-risk and if I can be patient, I will acquire no debt.

Today I go to open a bank account, buy a domain name, and start a Poppyswap account. And I need a logo. This fall I will have my first crop of medicinal herbs for sale, luffas, homemade bitters, and tea blends. Eeeee!

Suggestions? Advice?

Paleo Pumpkin Erissery

I just cooked the last Seminole pumpkin from last year’s garden.

final pumpkin

That small pumpkin lasted almost a year with no soft spots. I’m not growing pumpkins this year but the pumpkins are coming en masse at the farmers’ market, so it was time for this one to go. I knew I wanted to do something special with my very last pumpkin, something just for me. I love South Indian food but no one else in the family does. I like it so much that I’m growing curry leaf plant! I started looking for South Indian pumpkin recipes and found a wonderful cooking blog with lots of Keralan recipes. I made a simplified variation of this pumpkin erissery recipe, using what I had in the house and leaving out the pulses. It’s a perfect sugar-free, grain-free breakfast when you just can’t eat another egg.

Paleo Pumpkin Erissery

1 small pumpkin, about a pound, or a 1-pound chunk of a larger pumpkin
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 c coconut milk
2 tsp coconut oil*
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 small onion, sliced thinly into half-moons
4 small red Thai chiles
10 fresh curry leaves, sliced
salt & pepper to taste

Carefully peel the pumpkin using a sharp vegetable peeler. Knock off the stem, if there is one. Carefully pare away any remaining peel or stem using a sharp knife. Cut the pumpkin in half, scrape out the seeds, and then chop into largish slices. Size & shape don’t much matter. Combine the pumpkin, turmeric, salt, and cumin seeds in a pot with a tight-fitting lid, and add an inch or so of water. Put it on to boil, then cover and simmer on low for 10-15 minutes, until the pumpkin is just cooked through. Add the coconut milk and lightly mash the pumpkin. Set aside.

Heat the coconut oil over medium-high heat in the smallest frying pan you have. When the oil is shimmering, add the mustard seeds. Swirl them around until they start popping. Add the onions immediately and stir until the onions are translucent and starting to brown. Add the whole chiles and cook until the whole chiles start to crackle. Add the curry leaves and toss the mixture until it’s all crackling together and you can smell the curry leaves. This process is crucial to Indian cooking and called “tempering”. Dump the spice and onion mixture on top of the mashed pumpkin. Lightly mix together, taste and add salt/pepper if necessary, and serve.

*Coconut oil hack- Carefully open a can of good quality coconut milk (I buy Native Forest brand) and there’s usually a thick solid layer at one end or another. That is the part of the coconut milk with the highest oil content. If you scoop some of that out, you can use that solid fat to fry in. Be careful of the heat- because it’s unrefined, it will burn if the temperature is too high- but it leaves a wonderful toasted-coconut flavor that I really like. I don’t use much coconut oil in my cooking so I don’t want to spend the big bucks for quality coconut oil- I just use this.

Throw In The Trowel Month


The front of the butterfly garden, by the street, decorated with a patch of cardboard and newspaper where the weeds got completely away from me.

This quote from A Way to Garden describes exactly where I am right now.

Conveniently, it is especially good timing for such a declaration. The first official day of summer and the onset of consistently hot weather (hard on transplants and transplanters) have been marked. Time to plug in the last babies and crawl into the hammock with a glass of tea. Time to give it—the seedlings, the soil, the soul—a rest.


Tomato plants get very large. I have to re-learn this lesson every year. See the branches dangling on the ground?

We have officially entered 95 degree average high, hide from the sun, torrential rain 5 days out of seven season. As a local gardener quite memorably stated on an online gardening forum, the only thing we should be planting right now is our butts in front of the air conditioning, planning our fall gardens. Gardening hours are from dawn to 11am, and again from 6pm to dark.

Sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Who cares if the squash has a virus? All we care about is the ripening squash.

Sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Who cares if the squash has a virus? All we care about is the ripening squash.

No more planting until October. I have to accept the garden as it is, accept that I didn’t get done as much as I wanted, take stock of the failures. Now is the season for either rapid death or rampant growth.


Black-seeded cow peas climbing the insufficient bamboo trellises, the sunchokes, and each other.

Resisting the urge (and opportunity) to buy new plants is hard! I jumped on an opportunity to raid a friend’s yard before she moves, but resisted a trip to Just Fruits and Exotics. Any new additions will have to live in pots in the shade for the rest of the summer anyway. All winter and spring into early summer, I keep seeing the garden as it should be. As I want it to be. Right now and for at least the next two months, I will try my hardest to only see the garden as it is. I will celebrate my successes.


The view of the forest garden facing west. The annual understory is well filled in now. Isn’t it gorgeous?


Names have power. Businesses have to have a name, and that name matters. It defines how people think of your business, how they encounter it.  I have needed to start a business for a couple of years now but have been dragging my feet because I knew that I didn’t want it named “Green Basket”, but I just couldn’t find the right name. A few months ago the search for a name became determined as I am actually producing enough on my property to start selling now. 


A month or so ago I did a thought-exercise where I walked around in the garden and wrote down favorite plants, animals that have started visiting since we moved here, and descriptive words. Then I joined them in random combinations. Some were plain silly (Armadillo Gulch) but I found a few that I liked and started googling. Every single one was already taken somehow. There are many businesses out there and many farms. I thought about just using my name, but our family name is Houston and I thought too many people would think of Houston, Texas. If there’s anything I want to be clear, it’s the sense of place. We belong here.


So for some reason I thought about the local waterways. A pretty creek borders our neighborhood just a block north of our house. I see it almost every day, it’s part of my internal landscape, even though I’ve never dipped my toes in it. So I looked up a map of local creeks, and found the name: Springstead Creek. Springstead Creek is also connected with the creek that I played in as a child. I immediately loved the name. So yesterday evening I set out with a camera and an empty bottle to visit the creek. Like many suburban creeks, this one has been fenced off and built up around so much that the creek burbles at the bottom of a steep jungle ravine. I caught glimpses a few times through trees and back yards but finally found a spot behind a business where the banks weren’t so steep. I got as close as I could wearing work clothes and sandals at dusk. I need to put my feet in this creek and visit with it a while before I adopt the name, but I’m pretty sure this is it.

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