Friday, October 3, 2008

Time Lapse

I am certainly not the first person to start a blog with good intention and then leave it for dust as life intervenes with good intentions.  But I admit, there is something surreal about talking about food preservation since what most people need, if they need anything at all, is hands-on skills.  So I was thinking about pumping up the website to add how-to videos.  I'll probably do that but for now I'll address something related to this movement that I am wondering about - loneliness. 

I'm not sure if is my "woman's time", my near fear and aversion to the modern world (going to a grocery store is often too fucking much for me), or just so much time in the garden that I ain't got time for small talk.  But put it all together and this homesteading commitment can get pretty lonely.  All the other members of my family go off to outside work or school or hide in the basement with their videos and mind altering substances (more on that if anyone cares), which leaves me 1) wandering around my house avoiding the dust and tasks that I need to do,  2) Going up to the coffee shop to bother someone who clearly does not want to be bothered (what's up with all the stinking laptops.  What happened to real conversations), 3) Posting a ridiculous rant on loneliness to no one at all, or maybe just someone who might be as lonely as me.

Which leads me to the opportunities of our efforts, like finding and fostering new forms of fellowship while we figure out what being home and house holding might mean.  Which is also why not to long ago I invited a whole bunch of folks over to the gardens for a "hoe down".  It was fun and there was music and about 30 or 40 folks came and we ate good food but then we went home to our very busy and private lives and other then this computer, we don't talk much.

But something else.  I had my mom spend the summer with me.  Now I'm 55 and she is 82 and given our history and most people's person experience you'd think 9 weeks would have been too much.  But I gotta tell wasn't.  But that is because we were joined in interest and effort.  Now she is an old school european woman who thinks you need to have dinner on the table for your husband when he gets home.  Now that did drive me crazy except for the fact that it meant I and my kids would have dinner to and they would be nice dinners and she would help.  And not just help a little but holy mother of god, she is german working machine.

There would be times I would haul in this or that from the garden - huge bowls of green beans or pickles or greens to be washed and prepared and I would return again to find them sitting nicely prepped in a bowl with a clean kitchen to boot.  It worked for us.  She didn't want to bend over in the garden or turn the compost or get out at 5:30am in the morning to water and preen over the baby seedlings and I didn't want to do shit after twelve o'clock.  That was when I expired and when she, after just finishing her breakfast and jumble, would jump into action.  

It was a ritual to be sure.  And if there was no harvest to be cared for, we would head out together to a farmer's market or lunch or something to break up the day.  Other mornings we would head out early (she would balk a little) to pick blueberries and peaches or corn and shelling beans.  We did that or something like that day in and day out and she, along with me, marveled at each new sprouting and turning in the garden.  She loved the grapes that turned from green specks on the vine to luscious purple clusters.  She marveled at the overloaded plum tomatoes and the massive count of sugar-pie pumpkins that were emerging.  One garden bed after another offered daily surprises and joys and we shared in them.  She watched and assisted me when I taught classes, she cleaned up the jam pots when I was done, she'd come to love the jam on her morning toast and raved about the old-world spicy crock pickles that were fermenting in the kitchen.  No doubt they reminded her of home - both in Germany and the Bronx.

And what I learned is that there was a shared interest and lineage that kept it all together.  That even though friends were fine,  they had their own lives.  And despite everyones interest in intentional communities I think about what failed with the communes of the past, with the-back-to-the land movements of the past and I think it was because they were exactly that, intentional.  Which is really quite different than survival. 

I thought, and think,  about how families used to be joined at the hip in an effort to care for the farm and food that would end up on the table.  And that every member had a purpose and that it was necessity not intention that greased the wheels of cooperation.  In the end I wonder if anything short of family can create a life of continued hard work and shared effort.  Will the effort always been upended by the call of that hard-earned degree and leisure living.  It was the hippies of yesterday (or many of them) that morphed into yuppies or baby boomers as we like to refer to them.  I know, I was/am there.  But that is another post. 

Now mom has gone back to Florida to be with the golden girls and we talk almost every other day and we tell each other how much fun we had and that we miss each other.  Her room smells like, well, her and I try to do the jumble in her absence but I have no patience for it.  I try to care as much as her about what my husband will have for dinner but I don't.  I leave it to the last moment and play something like iron chef, ferreting out this and that from the garden or fridge to stand in for a reasonable meal.  Certainly some days I am filled with the holy ghost and cook something even I am amazed by but not that often.  Most of the time it is entirely more practical believing, as I do, that we have all gotten spoiled once we were weaned from hardtack.

So who will I hang out with these days?   Who to sit quietly across the lunch table in fellowship? Who to watch the rain with and think about an outing? Who to just pass in the hall know another person is part of your life from birth until we part?  Not that it is always so much fun and I realize absence makes the heart go fonder but, there is something to be said for this intergenerational living.  It resonates in a way that coffee with the girls does not.

And for the one person who might read this....I understand there is a big world out there that needs a helping hand.  And I do as I am called on and as I call on myself.  But it is different in a way.  Not that I am complaining or incapable of counting my blessings (many to be sure) only this is moment to consider new ways of living; of being honest about some of the unintended consequences of all this urban home-bound existence.  And if there is another aging hippie, yuppie or baby boomer out there with an eye on urban homesteading, drop me a line.  It might be time to smoke a little dope, listen to The Cream and make granola together like the old days.  Mom was never down for that.


So today, if it stops raining and dries out at all, I will sow some crimson clover and fava beans.  The garlic and shallots are in, the pumpkins are cured.  I am waiting a little longer to gather my butternut squash.  I will see what remains of my tomatoes (have any more turned red) and think about green tomato chutney which, quite frankly, no one in my family likes.  I will wander around the house a bit and think about making yogurt.  It is almost time to start baking bread again and there is always, always the dust.  I will think, as I always do, about how it all got so funky and I will write and think and read.  I will nap and maybe make my way over to the grocery store to get whatever I need (though I hate doing it).  And maybe if I am lucky I will meet a friend who is home and we will visit but it will not be mom nor someone who will care what the husband, or family, or I will be having for dinner.

Thanks mom.  I miss you. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Rhythms of the Seasons

As we urban homesteaders continue to learn the skills of our forbearers we, too, learn a life in keeping with the seasons.  I think that is one of the nicest things about all the work involved in going backwards, it's rhythms and reasons are independent from all the assumed purpose and importance of modern living.  Not that we can or want to abandon the modern world (for lack of another phrase) but that the volume of it's singular logic is quelled by the logic and function of natural systems.

It has been a mere four years since I have tried to go backwards; since I started hacking up my yard, putting up my food and living further and further away from all the obligations and invitations of a summer removed from the harvest.  Funny to think what summer vacation was really about - helping with the sowing, growing and stowing of food for the winter or for market. All hands were needed.

And now, with those systems given to people and places we do not know we return to our backyards as a statement of intention to regain what was lost.  Clearly it is a herky jerky thing. We can or cannot do it.  We won't starve.  We won't be shamed by our neighbors or family for our sloth.  We have options, careers, educations, places to see and go.  We are international, transatlantic, traveling wunderlusters and Bali beach dwellers.  We are fire dancers and activists, anarchists and artists all expressing the beauty and pain of the world.  And we are urban now, almost entirely urban.  All on the grid getting our services and needs met by systems that used to make sense.   So going backwards is a balancing act at first.  We have better things to do.

But somehow the seasons, the budding and fruiting of things, keep coming and keep making a sense- a long eternal sense -that predates our modern intention. And it is that deep logic and rhythm that keeps me in the backyard planting and harvesting and putting up for the winter in some reverence and participation in a logic older then words.  

It is rainy this morning and one can feel the hush of winter coming forward.  Funny, the tomatoes are still green but they will come on as will the last of the summer vegetables.  I watch over them all and take inventory every morning.  And I love them all.  They have become me or I them.  Slowly the line is fading.  Like always I say I am more like a potato then a skyscraper.  Always I understand that I, we, were fooled into thinking we were more important then the soil.  

So this year I did not buy any cute summer dresses or strappy sandals.  And this year I did not sit out too often in a cafe at night with friends over cold beers or cocktails.  Rather we were in the garden enjoying the work of the summer days or still of the summer nights and making meals from the food we were growing and inviting in friends to sit with us in the quiet and never did I miss the newest place to be or thing to see.  I was too busy watching the grapes and berries and pears and apples and on and on and on and on making an appearance and then coming to full glory.  And now as I get busy with the harvest - putting up the beans and tomatoes and pears that are coming in full force and volume I walk in the rain and thank the natural world for the rhythm and logic I was always to busy to notice. 

Monday, August 11, 2008

Old Time Out Door Kitchens

I love my outdoor kitchen!  "Kitchen", well maybe just an outdoor grill with burner and sink from an old cafe that gets water from a hose and drains water into a bucket that then makes its way into the compost pile.  But still, it's a dream to be able to clean my fruits and vegetables outdoors, splashing water all over the place without a care.  And then there is all that summer preserving with boiling water kettles and jam pots.  

For anyone serious about putting up the harvest I strongly encourage putting in the time to come up with some simple design for cooking outside.  I admit to spending a bit for the grill and burner but that's because I cook dinners out there all summer as well and use my grill (that has a temperature read) as a stove for baking pies, biscuits and anything that requires, well, baking.

It's all very logical but somehow air conditioning and fancy kitchens drew us indoors.  And let's not start thinking about the kind of silliness the sends people to design showrooms for that ridiculous outdoor "entertainment" arenas I've seen advertised.  What a huge hype.  Just get a burner strong enough to sustain a rolling boil and you will be able to set up your canning pot for the time it is generally required to can most things .

Tonight, for example, I'm going to make a frittata for dinner with new potatoes, garlic and onion from the garden.  I have some canned tomatoes, anchovies, cream and eggs (from the raw milk crew) and I'm off.  And being that it is over 90 today I will be spared the heat dinner cooking adds to the house.

So that's the drill.  Build yourself a little makeshift outdoor kitchen and have at it.  You will be very happy for it.  

Monday, August 4, 2008

Balancing Act

Every since I first caught on to the notion of urban homesteading I have been wary of the time and commitment involved in adding more tasks to my life.  Yes, most of it is a joy but growing and preserving your own food and making your cheese and hanging out the clothes to try and buying in bulk and on and on and on takes time.  And not just on Monday between 2-4 but constantly, commitedly and separate from my own larger, longer and socially cramped schedule.

That I live so fully in this modern, summer-of-fun world with it's visits from friends, vacations, barbeques and competing outdoor events by the bushel, I find tending to the task of urban homesteading can be out of sync with the rest of my world.  

Not that I do not understand or am faltering in my commitment only I think this will be the conversation more folks will be having - how to make this new life mesh with my old.

And the old has lots of pull and barbs - good and bad.  Well, we all know the bad, or sorta know the bad as we individually define them.  And whatever they may be for us individually, they offer some sort of motivation to move forward in defining better solutions.  Speaking personally the bad of global economics and ruinous systems has caste me into this world of uber-local.  But that does not make it easier all the time.  I still find myself feeling overwhelmed at times and that is just the truth.

I think part of the problem is that my effort is not a family effort.  I do not have a husband or son or large extended community that works to this end.  I do not fault them.  My husband rather play golf.  I know, I can have an attitude about that but I'm careful not to because he liked to play golf before I chose to rip up all the lawns to grow food.  I have changed - not him.  And it would be lovely if he worked with me in the yard doing all the pruning and planting and harvesting and......but he wants to go swimming and that is his right.  And the kids??? Oh yeah. That's a joke.

So I march forward and do what I do while the neighbors party with their friends and have bad-ass parties every weekend which I always secretly long to be invited to but I'm afraid I'll like it too much and chuck it all in for a chance to stay up all night and sleep in all day and go, bleary eyed, to breakfast with all the other urbanites who seem perfectly content to leave the growing and preparing of their food to someone else.  

Of course I'm 55 or nearing it and I have had my share of all nighters which makes this commitment a little easier - in reality I know I'm not really missing anything.  Only it occasionally feels like a stoic march to a better world rather then a joyful leap into the haystack with the cute farm boy (sorry husband - only kidding).

Which brings me to our need to find fellowship and party and have community and dance at the revolution and glean and harvest and get bleary eyed on the opportunity to leave our children a world and soil in much better shape then it will be without us. 

So I leave you know to make some yogurt and pick the never ending beans and get ready for this week's tomato canning class.  And I am grateful that the 1/8 beef I ordered from a local farm is coming wrapped and frozen and that the raw milk I got comes in a bottle and not directly out the teat only because I probably wouldn't be writing this at 7:00 am but rather coming in from my morning chores for a second cup a coffee.  Ah, the modern world.  The good with the bad. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


So like anyone else planning a u-pick expedition, I am delayed by late springs.  That is the buzz in the orchards and fields.  Cool weather, fewer bees, slow, late or small crop.   My own beans seem to be faring pretty well.  But I am growing Romano green beans and don't know if they are an earlier crop then the typical pole beans like kentucky wonder or blue lake.  I definitely have enough to pick and eat daily of my Romanos and yesterday I froze up a 1/2 pound for some later meal sometime.  Which brings me to freezing foods.

Freezing foods is one of the ways to preserve the yield.  It is fast, easy and given adequate freezer space, very effective.  There are a few rules for freezing well however.  Anyone can shove something in the freezer but taking something out of the freezer that has been worth your time is another things.

So here are some points to consider.

First, is the temperature low enough?  For best quality the temp should be at zero degrees or lower.  Buy a thermometer to check.  Holding foods at proper temperatures is really a quality issue since most folks freezers freeze but not just low enough.  The simply guide is your ice cream -- if it is soft enough to scoop out of the container then the freezer is too warm.  And this lower temperature will effect quality.  In the case of a green bean, my guide to food preservation from the University of Georgia indicates that frozen green beans stored at zero degrees will keep in good quality for one year, at 10 degrees for three months, at 20 degrees for three weeks and at 30 degrees five days.  So you get the picture.

Check, if you can, to learn the freezing capacity of you freezer or how much product can be frozen per cubic feet.  Usually this is 2 - 3 pounds per cubic foot over a 24 hour period of time.  So don't freeze all the berries or beans or cow at the same time.  Once the first batch is properly frozen, go onto the next.  If your serious about freezing foods invest in a good freezer.  I got a chest freezer for my birthday a couple of years ago.  Pretty homesteady I know but hey, I was happy.  I use it a lot.  

Choose containers that can offer good, air-tight seals.  I also got a vaccum sealer for a present and that, too, melts my butter (so to speak).  I like to freeze my berries in a single layer on a cookie sheet for quick, individual freezes and then throw the frozen marbles in the bag for some serious air removing suction action.  That keeps them in great condition because there is no air there to allow freezer burn or deteriorate the quality of my berries.  And that is the issue - quality.  You can use regular freezer bags (marked as such - thicker then reg.) but try and get out the air when you close them.  You can use plastic containers if you want but put something in the top like a crumpled plastic bag to fill in the space between the contents and lid to use up the air space.  You can use glass containers (heavy as in for canning) but remember to leave space for the foods to expand.  I use bottles for freezing chicken stock or tomatoes but do leave one inch head space in a narrow neck jar and two inches head space in a wide neck (there are only two size necks so you can figure out what I mean).  I generally leave freezing in bottles to liquid contents and solid contents like berries or beans to the bag.

Proper preparation is important.  Some things like berries can be frozen straight off the farm.  They do not require any pretreatment except maybe washing which I admit to skipping sometime (only if they are organic).  Most fruits would be fine to freezing flat on the tray but some, like apples for example, really don't take to freezing unless you intend to just cook them up into sauce later. I do freeze peach slices on the tray and then through into a vacuum bag but only when I'm tired of canning them.  You can freeze them in a syrup which works to improve the texture but I think they hold up best in canning. Which is another topic.  Knowing which foods lend themselves to which process is helpful.  They all will generally work for all foods but some varieties will fare better.  Which is why I was talking about Romano beans in the first place.  They freeze better, which actually means taste better, then regular pole beans. But with regard to vegetables, you need to blanch them to get best quality. 

I admit to finding the blanching times given in most extension guides hard to follow.  They seem so long.  But I'm sure they know something.  I don't worry too much if I skim time off the suggested time because I know it will only be a matter of quality not safety.  So decide how long you want to blanch them before freezing but do blanch them.  It works to slow down the enzyme action that is present and instructed by universal law to decompose fruits and vegetables.  When you blanch them first - you are slowing down the action.  Then you freeze them - more slow down.  Again, traditional guides are more aggressive then me but there you have it.  That is a quality issue not safety.  Which is another topic all together.

I'll mention this only briefly but since so many folks ask me this I want to interject here that there is a difference between preserving foods that will have the best quality to preserving for safety.  Jam is safe without all that sugar or acid or pectin only it will not be jam.  It will be syrup or cooked fruit.  Once you seal it properly and in the required time it will be shelf stable until you open it.  Then store it in the fridge.  High acid foods like fruit are safe from botulism which is the thing most folks worry about.  Low acid foods like vegies are a different story but if you freeze them - which is the topic of this post - you will be fine.  Again, proper freezing at the right temperature, in the right container, with the best quality and variety will get you the best product on the other end.  Nothing tastes better coming out of the freezer then it did going in which is a rule of thumb in food preservation.  Best quality and techniques going in, best quality coming out.  But again - this is a quality issue not a safety one. 

Finally, label stuff and use it within a year.  Again -not a safety issue but a quality one. 

Do pick up a book on this stuff so you will have something to refer to but I encourage you to incorporate it into your preserving efforts.  But be selective - there is only so much room in there so don't get lazy and freeze it all.  Some stuff works better in other techniques so learn them all.   

So this morning I am going to make some more jam - loganberries await, can up some more of my apple pectin (lord let this be the last), can up some of my kraut - I made tons for demonstration for my classes, and quick pickle some of my emerging kentucky wonder green beans.  Pickling????  Next post.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Green Beans

For some reason I like the flavor of canned green beans.  I also love them fresh and eat them like crazy off the vines and bushes.  I grow a lot but not really enough for any serious canning. I'm sure in a week I'll be tired of eating them every night but still, I only have enough to put up a jar or two of pickled green beans.  I read an article the other day in the Oregonian that used some rosemary and lemon slices in with the pickled green beans that sounded good and I think I'll do that.

As an update.  You pickle green beans because they are low in acid.  Once you add the vinegar to them (and follow a tested recipe for that - you can order good simple primers from OSU Extension or get the blue book.  Mirador Community store has some), you have "acidified" them which makes them safe for canning in a boiling water canner.  That is a process distinctly separate from a pressure canner that gets temperatures inside the jar to 24o degrees as opposed to a water boiling canner that only gets temps to 212 degrees.  And you need the pressure canner if you are going to can your green beans without vinegar.  

Actually, that is the same with all vegetables.  They are low acid and fruits are high acid.  Low acid foods, unless properly acidified (adding vinegar or proper fermentation -- a whole other story) must be canned with a pressure canner.  You can freeze them of course but I never like the way frozen beans taste.  Except my Romano green beans which I do like frozen but only when I cook them first with tomatoes and onions and garlic and herbs and what not.  Then I just freeze up that stew and defrost it in winter when I'm ready.  I really like them.

But for off the shelf eating I like canned green beans and probably will cook them up with a little bacon when the time comes.  Oh gosh, I'm so country but I like it.  So I'm going picking with mom and marge on tuesday and pressure canning up a ton.  And as a head's up, Preserve will be offering a pressure canning class on August 13th that will be sure to fill in a heart beat.  I guess if there is interest in the group I can offer another workshop at my home separate from Preserve proper.  Let me know if anyone is interested.

Oh yeah, I'm talking to the portland urban homesteaders now.  I get so confused.  There is my website and my column on Culinate and  the pdx urban homesteaders and now this blog.  You kids! I still remember using mag cards before computers were the rage.  But that is a long time ago particularly in a world where one year offers so many changes.

And maybe that is why I like growing food and preserving.  It keeps me grounded in a world of tides and seasons.  My body, mind and spirit thanks me for it.

Non-setting Jam

Funny, after all my teaching and talking I made a jam that did not set.  I guess I was trying to see how low I could go with time and sugar.  I would have been fine had I let the pot cook a few more minutes - even one minute would have done it but I was curious.  

I used 4 cups mashed berries - strawberries, marionberries, blackberries and two cups sugar.  

I added 1 cup red currant juice since I had some on hand and 2/3 cups apple pectin.  

It is still delicious and sets well enough on a english muffin but would slide out the sandwich if I took it to the edges.  

In all I think I cooked it 15 minutes or so and should have taken it a bit longer.  But I have also found that cane berry jams will look very different in the pan then strawberries.  I haven't made blueberry jam yet this year but I suppose that will look different to.  And what I mean by that is there is a difference in texture, thickness and overall consistency when judging when it is ready to come off the stove.

Since I do not use thermometers I am dependent on smell and appearance.  Strawberry jam alone seems to need a cooking that "parts the waters".  By that phrase I mean I usually cook the jam until I can take my spoon across the bottom of my pan and see the bottom of the pot for a second before the jam flows over it again.  I do not do that when using cane berries and certainly not when I have added currant juice to the mix.  This has something to do with the natural pectin amount in the fruits and, I suppose, cellular structure of the different fruits.  

When using cane berries I stop before the "parting of the seas" since that would be too long for my liking.  I stop just before then.  But then you will understand all this once you get in there and start making it.  You just have to do it yourself and experience the variances.  That is the one thing about making jam without pectin in the box.  You will have to learn by doing.  The formula on the instructions in the pectin box is "foolproof" but also requires lots of sugar - much more then you will like and certainly takes out all the skill, quality and personal creativity out of the effort.

In the end, if I want to set my jam a little more I can unseal it and put it back in the pan, bring it back to the boil (I can do this cause I am using natural pectin - you can't with the boxed stuff) and cook it another minute before sealing again.  That is totally doable.  But I'm happy and think I will get some loganberries and more marion berries and see what I can do.  

And remember, you can make jam with frozen berries too so if you don't have the time or inclination to make jam with your fresh berries.  Just stow them away for a while and make it when the kitchen and seasons have turned cool again.  The smell of jam making on a cool winter's morning ain't half bad.   Just thaw the berries before you start and then follow the basic formula - 4 cups berries or juice.  Two to three cups sugar.  2/3 cups apple pectin (cooked with the fruit for a minute or so before adding the sugar to the pot) and a little lemon juice if your berries need an acid punch (you can tell this by taste - acid helps in the gelling) and cook once it is at a full boil for anywhere from 12 to 20 minutes depending on your berries, pan and heat source.