Monday, January 20, 2014

How to Eat a Root

This kohlrabi is the size of a healthy newborn baby, weighing in at 6.5 pounds. It represents everything that seems challenging about winter vegetables. What do you do with this thing?

For the first time, we have joined a winter CSA (Hillside Farm in Media) and that means roots. At our biweekly pickup last week we got 16 pounds of sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, parsnips, cabbage, watermelon radishes, and rutabagas. (You're right, cabbage isn't a root, just a great storage vegetable.) What's amazing is how these dirty, dense, heavy vegetables, once they're cleaned up, cut up, and treated well, can make delicious slaws, soups, stews, and pickles. Or you can always just roast them. And they have a nice long storage life. Did you hear that, peas and asparagus? Are you paying attention, zucchini blossoms? A root can wait patiently for its destiny.

Still and all, it's dispiriting to flip through cookbooks past all the tomatoes and peas, when your CSA won't have any for months. But one day in the fall as I was browsing at the Reading Terminal Cookbook Stall , the actual stall, not their website, I found the perfect answer to season envy, Recipes from the Root Cellar, by Andrea Chesman.

Winter is the best time to have a specialized cookbook like this. No distractions, just an immersion in the present. The other day I made her Shredded Root Vegetable Linguini. I shredded carrots, kohlrabi, turnips, parsnips, and a big radish in the food processor, and then sauteed them with onion and garlic, added a little white wine, and tossed it with the pasta. Delicious! A root vegetable, when shredded, becomes delicate and amenable to being mixed with many grains or other vegetables. I had leftover shredded vegetables, so I tossed them with lemon juice, avocado oil (my new thing), a little sesame oil, and toasted walnuts for a light, late supper.

As for that kohlrabi? I used 3 pounds of it to make a half gallon of refrigerator pickles, and they are delicious, slightly sweet and tart and a little hot. This particular recipe, Quick Kohrabi Pickle, is actually from the blog Hungry Tigress.

Only 3.5 pounds left to go.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Chickens, Part Two

Here are four of the chickens as pullets in September, before they were laying. The two Ameraucanas are on the wall, Violet and Isobel. In the garden are Sojourner and Harriet. Sojourner is a Plymouth Barred Rock and Harriet is a Buff Orpington. Mrs. Patmore, a Salmon Faverolles, and Lucretia, a Black Australorp, are elsewhere in the garden. All the girls are flufflier and bigger-bottomed now. No more squeezing through the picket fence, like Violet did once. (She popped right back.)

They love scratching in the garden and looking for grubs and worms and who knows what else. They also poop in the garden. Both of these activities are fine things. I did learn to keep them out of the just-getting-established rhubarb. Though the leaves are toxic to humans, they are lovely salad greens for chickens. Seriously, chickens are great for the garden in between seasons. The garden above is mostly herbs and perennials they're not interested in, so that's why they're allowed.

Isobel was the first to lay an egg, in late September. All her eggs are a light blue-green. Next was Violet, whose eggs are a more muted blue-green. They are the Ameraucanas, and one reason I got them was for their beautiful eggs. The other chickens' eggs are brown, and a bit bigger. One of them lays quite a large egg, but I'm not sure who, and Mrs. Patmore is not laying yet. At least we've never seen her hanging about the coop in the daytime and we've certainly never seen her laying on all the eggs keeping them safe and warm.

Mrs. Patmore is a character, and seems to have some kind of leadership role. When I let the chickens out to roam, she will sometimes stay closest to the coop and squawk if she can't see where anyone else is. She likes to forage under the butterfly bush. I will try to get you a good picture, as she has an extra toe, feathers on her feet, and feathers sticking out of the side of her head as an homage to Einstein.

The other standout character is Sojourner, who engages in standoffs with our collie Zane, in which she wins. She has pecked Zane a few times, and he whines and walks away. Harriet in her younger days could be a bit hard to lead back into the coop. Lucretia likes to jump up vertically to eat leaves, which is fun to watch.

Zane, let me add, is fine with the chickens. I don't need to worry. The first time I put them out there, he ran around the coop for a couple of hours, barking at a horribly high pitch I had never heard. But soon he got used to them to the point of just passively accepting their existence. Sometimes he gives them a halfhearted, momentary chase.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Chickens, Part One

The coffee is brewing in this chilly old house, and the rest of the family is sleeping. This January day, poised between night and dawn, seems like a good time to tell you about the past year here.

After two years of research, we finally made the commitment to get chickens. In March we commissioned a local coop builder to make a coop and run. The run is six feet high so that most people can walk around in it without ducking. the coop is inside the run, on stilts. Under the coop hang the chickens' feed and water containers. The chickens walk up a slanted walkway to get to the coop. We get the eggs out by opening a door in the back at coop level, and that's how I clean out the coop as well. We did add a clear plastic roof over the coop to keep it drier, but that's the only modification. Oh, and yesterday, the bottom of the door came loose because Mr. Polar Vortex froze the wet ground so fast that it swelled and prevented the door from opening, and I forced it a little too hard. (Also I had to pour boiling water on the ground to soften it.)

In April I ordered some chicks from Pickering Valley Farm and Feed, in Malvern, and picked them up in early May. Beforehand, I had repurposed our dog crate to become a brooder, by lining the lower sides with cut-up brown bags and duct tape. Glamorous! I had read that the little creatures are messy, and yes. They were. I had made an earlier trip out there to Pickering Valley to get a brooder light, chick feed, and a waterer and feeder, so we were all set up when I picked up the little darlings.

I had to keep the chicks in the sunroom, because that's the only place we could lock away the cats. At three weeks I started "hardening them off" by putting them outdoors in the coop for longer and longer periods when it was warm enough. The cat carrier was perfect for mass chick transport.

At five weeks the girls spent their first night out in the coop. By then I had hooked up the adult-size waterer and feeder. I had to show them how to walk up their little gangplank to the coop, by picking up a couple chicks and pushing them up it, but they learned quickly. Chickens want to roost up high. It's what they do. They go up there when it begins to get dark, not without a lot of shoving and complaining and blocking the door. It's a comical half-hour production.

Next: their breeds, names, and personalities, and how we are not going to eat them.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Two Kinds of Suburbia

Here is an inventory of our back yard vs. an inventory of our next door neighbor's back yard. I'm not counting the shrubs and trees on the edges, but I am counting the ones that interrupt the lawn.
Their Back Yard:
Two Adirondack chairs
Small table
Sun umbrella
Trash can
Huge two-story playhouse/swingset (bigger than some houses in developing countries)
Our Back Yard:
Three compost piles (finished, maturing, and in process) in connected wire enclosures
Giant pile of branches and trimmings
Two rain barrels, one attractive and one ugly and not hooked up yet (it was free)
Chicken coop under construction (much, much, more on this later)
Big tough clothesline between T-poles
Raised bed, to be planted this weekend
Hugelkultur bed, or for the lay person, "pile of branches, compost, leaf mulch, and topsoil" soon to be planted
Two of each: elderberries, American Beautyberries, pawpaws, and persimmons; a butterfly bush, a dogwood tree
The boys' "clubhouse" or secret meeting place inside a giant shrub, furnished with old bricks
A hole that a five-year-old Will dug as part of a "leprechaun trap" that has never quite been filled in
Large dog
Inaccurate concrete sundial with a jaunty but enigmatic saying on it (see photo)
Fire pit
Half whiskey barrel turned upside down (It houses fish and water plants in summer. And water.)
Big metal table and six chairs
Two chaise lounges
Random pots with nothing growing in them, yet
Huge ginkgo tree
Maybe there's something quirky in the neighbor's yard that I can't see, perhaps the gravestone of the previous owner's pet? Or a rusted out hose reel cart? Please? I guess we just have different visions of suburbia. They like everything cleaned up and mowed and empty like a big green carpet. And? I wonder if they think we're white trash.
Well, enough idle speculation. Time to go make some hooch.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Fried Queso Blanco with Lime

We're between the winter CSA and the next one, and farmer's markets are not open quite yet. (Media's opens tomorrow.) And still no local asparagus at the Swarthmore Co-op. I refuse to buy asparagus from Mexico during Pennsylvania asparagus season. It feels like we're living in some kind of Bermuda Triangle in which all local fresh vegetables have gone missing.

Anyway, I decided, for a recent Cinco de Mayo party, to make cheese instead of tracking down the elusive asparagus or some other local vegetable in hiding. I had made queso blanco very successfully once with raw milk.I wasn't sure how to present it, but after browsing through cookbooks and searching online for a while, I found the idea to fry the cheese and then squirt it with fresh lime juice. Simple and elegant. And no asparagus.

Here is what I made. The cheese recipe is in Home Cheesemaking by Ricki Carroll, and the frying idea is in Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It by Karen Solomon. The narrative is mine and refers to my own experience making this. I thought the cheese would be much firmer than it was, but it worked out. I use the term "slicing" loosely. Start to make this the day before you want to serve it.

Please be forewarned that you may need to strictly ration these goodies. They disappear fast.

Fried Queso Blanco with Lime

One gallon raw cow's milk (pasteurized whole is fine, too; just don't use ultrapasteurized)
Quarter cup apple cider vinegar (Bragg's is the best)
Coconut oil
A couple of limes

Heat the milk at medium low heat in a large pot until it reaches 186-190 degrees. It's very important that it not boil. Take the pot off the heat and slowly add the vinegar. You can move a spoon slowly through the milk to distribute. Wait for curds to separate from whey, and when I say "curds" I mean large blobs. You can add a little more vinegar. This will take a few seconds.

When curds have formed, spoon them into a strainer lined with cheesecloth. Save the whey in a bowl; it's good for bread, soup, and smoothies and is very nutritious. You can just pour the last bit, as it's too hard to fish out all the curds. Tie up the cheesecloth and tie the bundle over a faucet and let the whey continue to drip out until the cheese gets to a consistency you want. This will take hours, or overnight. I wouldn't go longer than that. Refrigerate the cheese for a while before slicing. If you don't have a good place to hang this, you could wrap the cheese in the cheesecloth, and put a weight on top of it, like bricks or a cast-iron pan.

Preheat a large frying pan at medium heat. Slice the cheese as best you can and don't worry if it seems a little soft. Add a tablespoon of coconut oil to the pan and fry the cheese until browned, two or three minutes on each side depending on thickness and size.

Drain cheese for a minute and arrange the slices on a serving plate, salting and squirting lime juice over them to taste. Garnish with lime slices and serve. Can be warm or room temperature. Makes approximately a pound and half.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Confessions of a Pickler

I have a confession to make. Once a month I skip church. At 8:30 AM I leave the house to drive 50 minutes away to the Kimberton Waldorf School's beautiful farm and kitchen. About 14 or 15 others also converge there. Some come from as far away as Carlisle, the Poconos, and South Jersey. We are all attending a year-long series of workshops called Fearless Homesteading, on practicing permaculture. In October we pickled vegetables in brine, and in November we made wheat bran starter for bokashi composting, and melted beeswax and calendula oil together to make calendula salve. In December we looked at how to make a rocket stove. In January we started growing mushrooms, and learned about growing herbs.
Why do I do this? Because I want to understand nature better and take part in its rhythms, patterns, and energies instead of fighting, ignoring, or trying to work around them. And? It's fun. This workshop is taught by Melissa Miles, a permaculture design expert and manager of the Two Miles Microfarm in Montgomery County. The herbalism part of the course is taught by Susan Hess, of Tthe Farm at Coventry.
Here is how you can pickle some vegetables at home using the brining method. It's not a super precise recipe. It just depends on what you have and what you like. If you don't like garlic, don't put any in. Or try some peppercorns. These lactofermented pickles are delicious and great for your digestion. And so easy to make. Just do it.

Pickled Vegetables


A fairly wide-mouthed, very clean jar with a lid, or a food-grade plastic container with lid. Or several smaller jars.

Something to push down veggies (pestle or potato masher, depending on how big your jar is)


2 tablespoons (or more) uniodized salt (sea salt or kosher)

Quart of filtered water (or you could let a quart of tap water sit out for 24 hours to let the chlorine evaporate)

Carrots, sliced in thin coins or grated

Cabbage, cut into shreds

Cabbage leaf to cover the pickles

One whole garlic clove

One half of a small hot pepper, seeds included, if you like some heat

Radishes, thinly sliced or grated


Dissolve the salt in the water.

Add some vegetables to the jar and pour some salt water to cover. Gently push the vegetables down with your potato masher or pestle. You want to crush the cells a bit so salt can be easily absorbed. Add more vegetables and more water until you're a half inch or so away from the top. Keep packing down the veggies. If you have an uncut cabbage leaf, set it over the top to help keep the veggies submerged. Screw the jar closed, loosely, for the air that will escape. Set it in a semi-darkened place. Mine was on my kitchen counter out of direct light, and it was fine. Since it's winter, the kitchen is probably cool enough, but in the summer you probably want to keep your fermenting pickles in the basement.

Taste the pickles in four or five days. Keep tasting every day or so until you like that level of pickledness (is that a word?) and then store in the fridge. It will last a while in there. But you'll want to eat them before then.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"So Romantic"

Here is one of my two American Persimmons, persisting in its romantic vision of someday bearing fruit. With a little help from deer netting, that is.

A friend of mine said something seemingly innocuous to me that I have been mulling over, off and on, for two years. I had been saying to him that I thought it was great that so many people are keeping chickens and bees, growing their own vegetables, and so on. He said, "I guess a lot of people find that to be a romantic idea in this economy."

Romantic? I was stung. A chill wind emanated from him. I was stung and chilled. But I also found a grain of truth in what he said. Damn those grains of truth.The vision of a garden, blooming and verdant, and happy chickens clucking away, bees humming lazily by the hive, is a romantic one. The Secret Garden, anyone? We want to reclaim either the lost Edens of our childhood, or of North America before Europeans discovered it, or of Eden itself. Life was purer, simpler, and more wholesome back in (fill in era) in (fill in location).

How sad, though, that this vision of health and life is so far removed from our daily world that it could even be considered "romantic." But that's how far away from nature we are. Think about it. We buy dirt. At the store. We are dimly aware that there is already dirt in the yard, but we don't know how to amend it (with kitchen scraps to make compost) so we just buy it from Home Depot because we trust them more than we trust ourselves. People on the East Coast buy apples that come from Washington State or even China, while our yards might be just right for an apple tree or two. But how would we know? Generation by generation, we are losing our knowledge of the earth and its own regenerating power.

And that's why this particular back-to-the-land movement is real, and practical, and why it matters. Because we needed this. When we lost knowledge, we lost power, to paraphrase Jefferson. Then we unknowingly gave this power to the corporations, who sell the food to us that we could have grown, or bought locally, without packaging or using fuel. To say nothing of all the middlemen who take a cut: the supermarket, the food distibutor, the truck drivers, and more.

Over the 20th century and into the 21st, corporations have taken control of our kitchens, appetites, and yards while we weren't looking. The global oil industry, more powerful than the U.S government, is perfectly happy that we eat apples from thousands of miles away. Drill, baby, drill. And, by the way, there are lots of other fruits out there besides apples, bananas, and those big tart grapes. What about pawpaws, persimmons, or ground cherries? All are American native fruits that have vanished from the marketplace, replaced by the easily shipped, often bland-tasting fruits from across the world.

You, dear reader, should be mad as hell and not going to take this any more. Take back your lawn from the gas-guzzling mower and take back your diet from the corporations. Here's a "mere sound byte" for you: Get a shovel. Dig a hole. Plant a fruit tree. Repeat. It's one of the most romantic, practical things you'll ever do.