Saturday, July 11, 2009

Giving Up Sugar and Refined Flour, Progress Report 2

I'm now three weeks into my diet experiment, and have continued the trend of losing one pound per week. I've never actually been on a real "diet" in my life (i.e. a diet to lose weight), since my problem has always been too little weight and not too much. But I can confidently assert that a low-carb diet works for weight loss! It's quite amazing.

Collin gets back from his trip on Monday, and since I will then be cooking his normal portions of carb-laden foods, I imagine that I'll end up eating more carbs again. If I cook it, I will eat it. I understand that much about myself.

One thing I learned in the past three weeks is that sugar-cravings very quickly disappear. Well, maybe not disappear completely, but at least drastically recede. It took less than a week before I could finish a meal and not immediately crave a sweet dessert. That's far quicker than I ever would have guessed.

Not to say that I've beaten my sugar addiction. This hasn't been about abstinence. And in the past week I've been more lax than I was in the first two weeks. I made homemade ginger ale (a 3-liter bottle!) and then there was the small matter of the Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies that were given to me (hey, I lasted three whole days before I even cracked the first sleeve...and when food is a gift, it would be totally inconsiderate to let it go to waste).

But I've been pretty good about flour consumption and whole grains. I've been eating brown rice in my stir-frys and baking whole-grain breads. The only straight-up refined flour I ate this past week was my spinach pasta--two servings that I made into pierogies in order to use up some leftover mashed potatoes (I had needed those to go in a pumpernickel bread recipe).

What I've learned: I could quite easily learn to go without added sugar, and I could adapt quite well to eating mostly whole-grains. I'll continue to shift my diet in that direction, but it'll probably be a slow process. But that's okay. At least now I know I can do it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Waste Not, Want Not

One of the Permaculture Principles is "Produce No Waste". I'm constantly working with this principle in my home and on my small patch of earth.

How can I close the loop on waste? How can I get out of the importing and exporting business and instead cycle resources continuously around my patch of earth, with nothing entering or leaving the property? These are questions I constantly ask myself.

While getting to the point of having absolutely nothing enter or leave might be difficult, I believe I can make great strides in that direction.

The basic loop on my property is garden to plate to compost bin back to garden. But of course that's not all there is to it and even there there's much to learn and many things that can easily be overlooked.

The kitchen drain is one weak area in the loop. It's easy to have momentary lapses where nutrient-laden water from the steaming of veggies, or the boiling of bagels or pasta, gets poured down the drain instead of being saved for watering the garden or the compost bin, or for use in soup stocks). In moments of laziness I've also rinsed moldy jars of spaghetti sauce down the drain, instead of carrying them out to the compost bin. Fortunately there's no garbage disposal here, so I can't be lazy about my solid wastes.

And without a graywater system installed, perfectly good bath water, dish water and laundry water goes sailing off to the treatment plant instead of out into the garden. Likewise, the lack of gutters and downspouts means that I can't collect water from the roof. If I ever buy this house (and I have a standing offer) then that's something to add to the to-do list. But in all likelihood, since I'm planning to move back east in five years, it won't happen.

The kitchen in general is a dangerous part of the loop, because a lot of things can get overlooked. For instance, when I buy (import) chicken I always buy whole birds instead of parts. I get soup, soup stock, and another meal or two out of one bird. When the carcass has been boiled to death, I'm still left with bones and gristle, which I end up sending to the landfill. I've been trying to figure out how to make use of this, instead of exporting it. I thought about drying the bones and then grinding them to use as bonemeal in the garden. But I'd have to dry them in the oven to keep them away from the cats and other vermin, and that would mean importing the energy to do so. My other option (probably the best one) is to bury them in a deep enough pit to keep away the critters and just let the nutrients slowly return to the land.

Likewise, I need to figure out a use for kitchen grease. I could get into soapmaking I guess, use it as suet to feed the birds in winter, bury it in my bone pit. Right now it goes to the landfill.

I'd also like to raise my own chickens, but the property can probably only support a few laying hens, rather than a whole flock that could give me meat. Meat rabbits are something I've given some serious thought to as well, because one buck and two does could very easily supply most, if not all, of our meat requirements and they have a small ecological footprint and rabbit manure is such a valuable thing for the garden. Having no meat imports would be ideal. Dealing with the dairy issue is another matter. When I move back east I plan to have enough space to get some dairy goats, but I can't see that happening here. I've seen it done here in town, but it would require me importing almost all of their feed.

The garden is another part of the loop where I have to be very careful. Last year a lot of food went to waste because I didn't keep on top of harvesting as well as I should have. The spinach bolted, zucchini grew to monstrous proportions, some cantaloupe rotted because I didn't prop them up. This year I'm determined to stay on top of everything. At least with this part of the loop, waste isn't really waste since it goes on to become compost if it rots on the vine. But it would be nice to cycle all of that nutrition through some human bodies.

Which gets me to the uncomfortable topic of humanure. The cabin I'm planning back in Pennsylvania will have a composting toilet, and the product of that contraption will be returned to the earth. But here, there's not much I can do. I've heard of people using their diluted urine on their gardens--I could do that--but I'd feel like a total freak.

In John Jeavons method of intensive gardening, cover crops are used to improve soil fertility--in place of using animal manures. I'm still importing manure from my friend John (it travels just two miles to get here, but still...). I'd like to incorporate cover-cropping into my gardening routines. With that, and my compost and possibly rabbit manure at some point, I should be able to keep the garden quite fertile. A worm bin would be a nice addition too.

Since I only use hand-tools in the yard and garden, I'm not importing any carbon. I've got a reel mower, shovels, rakes, grass clippers, pruners, forks, wheelbarrow, etc. and not a single motorized device to speak of. Just human power, fueled more and more by the products of the land here.

A fully closed loop (or nearly so)--what I hope to accomplish when I move back home--would look something like this:

  • Passive solar heating, high thermal mass.
  • Supplemental masonry fireplace for winter, fired by deadfallen timber from the property.
  • Chickens, rabbits, dairy goats, bees, worms, and sheep--providing meat, eggs, dairy, honey, fiber and manure.
  • All fruits and veggies grown on site.
  • Small-scale grain production.
  • Cover-cropping.
  • Haymaking for winter feed, harvested by scythe.
  • A graywater system and rainbarrels.
  • A composting toilet.
  • Seed-saving.
  • Root-cellaring, a springhouse if suitable, non-electric fridge contraption (can't remember where I saw that online--I'll post the link when I find it). [Here it is: Four Mile Island Icebox]
  • Efficient wood cookstove indoors and out, outdoor bread-oven, bean pit.
  • Homemade soaps, candles, wool items, rabbit skin items.
  • Compost bins.
  • Spring or well.
  • Off-grid, totally non-electric house and property (unless solar or wind needed to pump a well).
  • Hand tools (but I'll probably cave in and get a chainsaw).

Until then I need to work with what I've got and continue to examine and re-examine all of my habits, looking for ways I can continue to close the loop here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How's That For Ingenuity?

We're starting to finally get some hot weather and when I went outside to water this morning I noticed that most of the spinach looked dangerously close to bolting. So, since I made a commitment to really stay on top of the garden this year and not let any perfectly good food go to waste, I rearranged my day and set about dealing with the spinach.

I decided to turn it into more spinach pasta, rather than just blanching and freezing the stuff. Collin has missed out on the whole spinach harvest, since the spinach was still too small when he left. I thought this way he could enjoy some of it when he gets back (and in a form he appreciates).

So I made a triple batch of pasta--with a pound of spinach in it--about five or six whole plants after they'd been cleaned and de-stemmed. There are still a few little plants left out in the garden but they won't last much longer. Too bad I got such a late start planting it this year, but there'll be a second planting for fall.

Once I got the dough rolled out this time I faced a dilemma--where to hang that much pasta to dry?? It was hard enough rigging up something to hold the single batch I made on Saturday, but a triple batch? Finally, a lightbulb went off. I have a neat little device from back in my weaving and fiber artsy days--an umbrella swift. It's used for holding skeins of yarn when you're winding or unwinding bobbins, etc.

It worked like a charm! You could just stand there and keep spinning it around as the little slats filled up with pasta. Very convenient. So, if you're that one person out there who's making homemade pasta and has an umbrella swift--well, there you go! For the rest of you, I don't have any suggestions. Sorry.

A New Food Philosophy

What happens when you take back responsibility for your own food supply?

  • You eat healthier and more interesting foods and become a healthier (and more interesting!) person.

  • You reconnect with nature and the rhythms of the seasons and become more grounded.

  • You feel secure and empowered because you know how to provide for yourself and your family.

  • You save money.

  • By your simple acts, you protest against industrial agriculture and its destructive practices.

  • You become a role-model for health and sustainability.

I've noticed something interesting happening with me this year as I get more serious about growing my own food. I'm starting to understand how everything fits together--ecologically speaking. I'm getting a good sense of how much I should grow of any one thing and how much land and water each thing requires. With that kind of understanding, my eating habits automatically begin reverting to healthier and more sustainable patterns (by reverting I mean going back to the healthier ways of my ancestors).

Okay, so the average person in the US consumes 136 pounds of flour per year. Do you know how much land is required to grow that? What about for a family of four? I believe John Jeavons says we can expect about 10 pounds of yield per 100 square feet. So, at current consumption levels a family of four would need to allow 5,440 square feet just for their wheat.

How much land is required to provide our 89 pounds of beef per person? How much land for our sweeteners?

Once you start to think about all of this, you realize how out-of-balance our diets have become. When we left the farms and started buying our food at the supermarket, we lost our common sense. When we lived on farms we grew sensible amounts of everything. We automatically understood sensible portions on our plates, because we understood sensible portions out in the fields. We had to work those fields so we didn't take anything to wild extremes. But once we shifted to industrial agriculture and mega-supermarkets, we lost that knowledge. At the supermarket, we can buy any quantity of anything. We can buy enormous quantities of anything (and everything). The supermarket is a fantasy land--it makes you think anything is possible. It hides the truth. We obliviously buy our 136 pounds of flour, our 89 pounds of beef, 52 pounds of chicken, 154 pounds of sweeteners... and never for one second consider how much land and water is required to grow and raise all of that.

So we buy ridiculous (and unhealthy) quantities of food. Imagine what our ancestors would think if they saw into our cupboards and fridges and freezers. How their jaws would drop! How utterly irresponsible we would look.

As long as we continue to think that our food comes from the supermarket, rather than from the land, we will continue to allow destructive, unsustainable agricultural practices and we will continue to eat very unbalanced and unhealthy diets.

Growing our own food reconnects us with the real. It gets us out of fantasy land and leads us toward the things that really matter.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

My Beautiful (Grasshopper-Munched) Garden

The garden has bounced back from the hailstorm so I went out and tried to get some pictures. It was not the best time to shoot pictures, but these at least give a broad impression of the garden.

I've got 448 square feet of biointensive beds--the rough equivalent of a 20 x 90 foot conventionally-spaced garden. I love gardening intensively and I can't imagine ever going back to the old way. This year I've got over thirty types of things growing--fruits, veggies and herbs combined: potatoes, red onions, white onions, garlic, radishes, carrots, zucchini, lima beans, cantaloupe, watermelon, spinach, swiss chard, various lettuces, green beans, beets, roma, beefsteak and several heirloom tomatoes, Collin's gourds (several varieties), pie pumpkins, butternut squash, pickling cucumbers, several varieties of both hot peppers and bell peppers, an early sweet corn and a late sweet corn, basil, cilantro, catnip, rosemary, chamomile, dill, parsley, chives and oregano.

I'm also getting ready to plant the fall peas--two varieties. They'll be joined shortly by other plantings for fall--more carrots, beets, lettuce, spinach and radishes. Plus I've got eight little cabbages started in the house and they'll be ready to go out in a few weeks.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Growing Sprouts

Sprouts are little nutritional powerhouses--no other food packs as much nutrition per calorie. They're full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and beneficial enzymes. Best of all they're inexpensive and always in season if you grow them yourself.

And growing sprouts couldn't be easier. Place seeds in a quart-sized canning jar, cover with water and soak for the recommended length of time (this dissolves the plant chemicals that coat the seed and inhibit germination).

(Get down Olive. BAD girl.)

Once the seeds have soaked the soaking water will be yellow. That's all the dissolved stuff that inhibits germination. Place a piece of fiberglass windowscreen over the top of the jar and screw on a lid band (you can also use a few layers of cheesecloth and a rubber band). Drain and rinse (always use filtered tap water or the chlorine might kill off the poor things). Place in a container that allows your jar to rest at a forty-five degree angle. This allows air to circulate and water to drain--you don't want moldy sprouts!

Put the whole thing in a dark place, like a kitchen cabinet, rinse twice a day, and in a few days you'll be enjoying delicious sprouts.

Supermarket Bad, Garden Good

If only all stores would be so forthright:

I hate supermarkets--everything about them--and the more responsibility I take back for my own food supply the more dysfunctional the whole concept of the supermarket seems to me.

The supermarket: A building with a huge ecological footprint, situated in a vast sea of concrete and accessible to most people only by carbon-spewing transport devices.

The supermarket: An enormous repository of wooden, tasteless and nutritionally-devoid food-like substances.

The supermarket: A giant chemical and pesticide warehouse.

The supermarket: Where there's competition amongst all the thousands of products to see who has travelled the farthest ("I'm ground beef from Argentina." "Well so what. I'm a bulb of garlic from China!"

The supermarket: Designed to bring out the absolute worst in people. Think I'll park my shopping buggy here in the middle of the store exit for awhile, just for the joy of watching everyone struggle to get past me. And when I get out to my car, which is in the spot right up front (because I circled round and round the lot twenty times to land it), I'll just leave my cart right there cozying up to the car in the next space (you know, the one with the immaculate paint job) because really I am so special and I can't be bothered with such trivial matters as returning a cart to its carrel.

The supermarket: That paragon of efficient, just-on-time delivery which always manages to be out of the item I need the most.

The garden: An organic, pesticide- and chemical- free zone producing mountains of tasty and outrageously nutritious food just steps from my front door, and offering bounteous amounts of fresh air, sunshine and exercise in an environment totally devoid of rude and stupid people.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Ah, Some Good Gluten

Yesterday I baked this loaf:

And I made my first batch of spinach pasta:

I couldn't get a picture of the finished pasta because a storm rolled in and messed up the lighting and then night fell. So I just ate it. Not all of it, mind you--I froze some too.

My recipe was a hybrid of one I found online and one in my pasta cookbook. I used five ounces of fresh spinach, one egg, 4.4 ounces of all-purpose flour, 4.4 ounces of semolina, salt, one tablespoon of olive oil, and then a little water when it wouldn't all pull together for me. (If you don't have a kitchen scale, a cup of each type of flour should be roughly correct, but you may have to make some adjustments.)

First I steamed the spinach until it was completely wilted. Then I squeezed out the excess liquid and pureed the spinach in the food processor. I added the egg and processed until the mixture was smooth. I mixed the dry ingredients, added the spinach mixture and oil, combined it all and added a little bit of water to get it all to come together. Then I kneaded it for ten minutes, wrapped it in plastic wrap and let it relax in the fridge for an hour.

Rolling out pasta dough is always a challenge--this is where a pasta machine would come in very handy--and it takes at least a good ten minutes of hard rolling before it will relax enough to hold its shape. It's a good workout. If you've never made pasta before and try this recipe, don't lose patience. This is normal. Keep going. Once it was rolled out, I rolled it into a log and cut it into narrow strips, hung them to dry for an hour and then cooked up a small batch for a late dinner.

I actually get emotional sometimes cooking, especially when I've got really fresh wholesome and beautiful food. This pasta was the most gorgeous shade of green and I found myself getting a little choked up. Okay, it's a little embarrassing to admit. But I stood there all emotional thinking that here in my little shack, living my simple little life, I really have it better than the wealthiest people on the planet. I've got such abundance here, such incredible richness. The simplest little things, like my ridiculously green pasta, bring such deep satisfaction. Good food nourishes much more than just the body.

Plague of Locusts, Hail, and Wind

Well, I wanted to take some pictures of my beautiful garden this week and post them here, but Mother Nature can be very cruel. Actually, it's not all that awful. The garden will survive. But flattened plants with minced leaves aren't particularly attractive, so I'm going to give it a few days to bounce back before I take some pictures.

The hailstorm produced maybe nickel-diameter hail--not too bad. I hadn't staked my tomatoes so it was bad enough news for them and I'm still not quite sure what I'm going to do about them. My plan originally was to install a horizontal trellis for the vining tomatoes, while just letting the Romas sprawl. But after the phone-line fiasco (see my post "Call Before You Dig...") I got a little nervous about digging anything, and I would have needed to bury the upright supports for the trellis about a foot in the ground--so I just never did it. I still need to call and have the phone company come and mark the lines. Meanwhile, I've got all the supplies for the trellis just sitting around. The beefsteaks and heirlooms have just gone nuts and it would be a challenge to install the trellis at this point. What am I to do?

Then there are the hordes of grasshoppers. I've never seen it so bad. When I first planted out my baby basils the grasshoppers tore through them in a day or two, turning the leaves into lacework. I planted some more basil seeds directly in the garden, assuming that the first crop was a total loss. But now the first crop has mostly recovered and the second crop has sprouted, so the end result of the grasshopper invasion might be more pesto than we can possibly deal with. Last year I just had six basil plants outside for pesto (two more plants indoors for general use). From those six plants with two harvests we got nearly enough pesto to last through the year. This year I planted out twenty-three basil plants and once I thin the new patch to its final spacing there'll be about ten more plants. They're all full of grasshopper holes, so maybe it'll take two munched plants to equal one whole plant, I don't know. Still, that's a heck of a lot of pesto (and think of the olive oil and pine nut bill!). The basil plants aren't the only things the grasshoppers are munching but they've definitely taken the brunt of it. I checked online for an organic control of grasshoppers and there is one, but you have to apply it while the grasshoppers are only 1/4 to 1/2 inch long, so it's already too late for that.

The only other solution would be floating row covers, but I'm not sure that's in the budget for this year. Maybe if I just got enough to cover the most vulnerable plants.

The good thing is that while Mother Nature might do a number on parts of the garden I think it would be difficult for everything to be wiped out. Even if there was baseball-sized hail, something would eventually pop its head back up--though I pray I never live to see that day.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Woo-Hoo, Our Own Farmer's Market!

I just learned we finally got a farmer's market. It opened Tuesday night and will run every Tuesday from now through October. It's actually one town over--about seven miles away. My little town isn't big enough to support such a thing (we've got a population of somewhere around 200, whereas the next town over bustles with more than 5000 residents). I'm so excited! I didn't hear about it soon enough to attend the first night, but I'll make a point of getting there next week. I hope it catches on and becomes a permanent thing. Anyone can have a booth for $10/night, so if the garden goes too crazy I'll have a way to get rid of the bounty. I can't wait to see what everyone's growing.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Giving Up Sugar and Refined Flour, Progress Report

I've been on my new "diet" for two weeks now and I've lost two pounds. My reasons for eliminating sugar and refined flour have nothing to do with losing weight, it's just happening. However, I always lose weight in the summer so it may have nothing to do with the diet.

But at this rate--a pound per week--I would quickly lose too much weight. Normally I lose ten pounds every summer and gain it back every winter. It's a good little system for my body. Every summer I get down to what I weighed back in high school and every winter I put on a thin layer of padding for insulation. But losing a pound per week is crazy. That would make me underweight for my height in just another four weeks--not good!

Hopefully this will slow down.

I haven't totally given up flour and sugar and it was not my intention to be really militant about it, but I have cut way back. I haven't baked any sweets since Collin left and that's huge. You have to understand, there's always something sweet here to snack on--banana chocolate chip muffins, chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal cookies, anise cookies, berry muffins, chocolate-dipped almond biscotti, granola bars, occasional doughnuts and puff pastries...etc., etc. I'm always baking sweets. To go two weeks without baking is an accomplishment, to put it mildly.

I did bake one loaf of bread, made of all refined flour--I wasn't supposed to do that--but that's the only doughy food I've eaten so far. I'll probably bake more bread in the next day or two, but I think I'll make it at least partially whole-grain. I'm thinking about making a batch of pasta, too. I want to try to make a spinach pasta with some of the spinach from the garden. I've never tried to do that before. And I just recently got into making homemade pierogies and I'm itching to try some different types of fillings for those, so I may make up a new batch soon. At least those freeze well, so I'm not committed to eating them all at once.

All in all I think I'm doing okay. I'm trying to think of refined flour products as occasional side dishes and I'm trying to keep my added sugar under eight teaspoons per day. I also want to add more whole grains into my diet. I don't think grains are bad, I just think refined grains need to be kept to a minimum.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Wow, Garlic Scapes!

I'm growing garlic for the first time this year--Chilean Silver, a softneck variety, and Chesnok Red, a hardneck. When I went to order the bulbs last fall, I didn't know the difference between the softneck and hardneck varieties. I knew one did better in colder climates, supposedly, but I couldn't tell whether my climate on the desert plains of Colorado was considered a colder climate or not. So, that's why I ordered some of each type.

Both are actually thriving in my garden and from what I've learned since last fall, it seems that many gardeners around the country do well with both types. The softneck variety is what you will find almost exclusively in the grocery stores because it keeps much longer than the hardneck variety. It also has a softer neck (imagine that) so you can create a garlic braid with this type. The hardneck variety doesn't keep as well, but unlike the softnecks it sends up a cool flower stalk, called a scape, several weeks before the bulbs mature. Though there's some controversy, most gardeners believe it's best to remove the scapes, as that generally results in larger bulbs. (Others say that by doing so you reduce the storage life of the bulbs.)

The plus side of removing the scapes is that they are edible and delicious. I ate my first scapes two nights ago, quickly stir-fried in a little butter with a dash of pepper-based seasoning salt and some toasted sesame seeds. I was blown away! The flavor was garlicky, but mild--without the bite and aftertaste of garlic cloves. The bulbils were soft and sweet, melting in the mouth. They reminded me of garlic that has been slow-roasted in the oven but these cooked in two or three minutes. I cut the stems into two or three inch long pieces and they had the consistency of something between asparagus stalks and green beans, but with a flavor all their own. As I ate my stir-fry I detected a wonderful smokey flavor but I finally figured out it was coming from the sesame seeds. The sesame seeds really paired well with the scapes and it seemed that the whole dish was crying out to be served alongside a juicy steak or another fattier type of meat--lamb or salmon maybe.

Last night John invited me over for--guess what?--grilled steaks, so needless to say I contributed a scape side dish. It was perfect. I still have a few scapes left and I think I'm going to make a small batch of pesto with those. There are a lot of recipes online for scape pesto. I haven't figured out which one I'll try, but they all sound delicious.

Next year I want to plant a lot more of the hardneck variety just so I can enjoy more scapes!