Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Urban Homestead Series: Forager's Alchemy

I decanted my sumac tincture the other day and though I'm happy to have this wonderful medicine with it's many uses, I realised that I have a lot more tincture than I will probably go through until sumac season comes around again next year.

Since I enjoy making and drinking sumac lemonade, (or sumacade as I like to call it) and I'm experimenting with herbal liqueurs and had some simple syrup left over from making basilcello, I thought I'd try making a hard sumacade.

I poured off the amount I wanted to keep for tincture and the rest I slowly mixed with the simple syrup until I felt I had the right balance of sweet and sour. I imagine this will be sipping liqueur, or a refreshing cocktail with soda water, to enjoy in small amounts. I won't really know how the whole thing turns out until the infused alcohol and syrup mingles for a month or so, but preliminary sips leave me very hopeful that this will be a tasty combination. At the very least, it sure looks pretty.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Independence Days Week #22

Plant something:
My planting for this year is done until the garlic goes in sometime late next month. However I have started sprouting seeds again, and though it's technically not exactly planting something, I think it's an important element to a more local, nutritious diet, especially for those of us in the northern hemisphere, so I'm going to include my sprouting here. This week I sprouted mung beans.

Harvest something:
- 3lbs tomatoes
- 3lb head of cabbage
- tatsoi
- chard
- pole beans
- chamomile
- cucumbers
- nettle
- mallow flowers

Preserve something:
- elderberry elixir with fresh berries from the farmer's market
- froze tomatoes
- started small batch of fermented pickles
- mallow flower syrup
- shelled and put up pole beans
- pickled beets

Waste not:
- enviro-laundry and dish soap refills
- baked bread, roasted carrots, beets, squash, cooked rice in sun oven (On Friday I managed a two dish sun oven day! The squash was done when I got home from work and there was plenty of sun left to cook some rice. The squash and carrots ended up as a delicious soup.)

Preparation and storage:
- added iodine to medicine chest
- found tinctures on sale and since tinctures last for ages I promptly picked up a few useful remedies to also add to the medicine chest
- the ADGMD picked up some candle lanterns to add to the emergency preparedness supplies

Build community food systems:
- the usual local food from the farmer's markets

Eat the food:
- tomato and basil pizza with cheese
- tatsoi, chard and nettle stir fry with rice
- cream of nettle soup
- mung bean salad
- stuffed poached egg tomatoes drizzled with basil infused oil

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Independence Days Weeks #20 and #21

I missed the update last week, so this update represents two weeks worth of activities. Really, I ought to also include a 'Dependence Days' category and confess some of the high impact, wasteful things I've done.

For instance I drank bottled water in the back of stretch limo! Oh gods of depleting resources have mercy upon me. I was at a friend's wedding and the limo was a complimentary shuttle taking guests from the reception back to the hotel. The bottled water was complimentary as well, and well, I had a bit too much wine at the reception, and really needed some water. I've never been in a limo before, and I never need to be another one again, but I have to say, it was a fun indulgence!

I drank non-fair trade coffee, including some that came in a single use, plastic package that comes with the hotel room, and even though I did reduce some waste by bringing my own travel mug, utensils, napkin and reusable containers and used them whenever I could, there was still some more single use item waste.

Sadly, I didn't plan ahead and bring my own recycled wrapping paper and homemade card, so the ADGMD went out and bought tissue paper, bags and cards. (Yes, plural. He wasn't sure what was appropriate, so bought a few items to choose from. Well, I guess now I've got gift wrap supplies for a few more occasions!)

On the food waste front, I had to compost some cucumbers yesterday because I left them a day or two too long before I turned them into pickles and they went mouldy. I managed to salvage enough for a small batch of pickles, so it wasn't a total loss, but I was disappointed no less. I hate to waste food.

It all just goes to show how easy it is to be more wasteful and impactful when you're out of your usual routine, unprepared or pressed for time. I'm chalking it up as lessons learned and am resolved to do better in similar future situations.

So, onto what I did do for the challenge.

Harvest something:
- 1.5lbs cucumbers, 5lbs tomatoes, 1.5lbs pole beans, chard, purslane, chamomile, thyme, oregano

Preserve something:

- canned plums
- drying herbs
- blanched and froze dandelion, tomatoes
- shelled dry beans

Waste not:

- gave consignment store gift to a 4yr old boy, (grocery store attachment for his wooden train set) wrapped in a silk scarf that had stars and planets on it (will reuse the scarf)
- carpooled to out of town wedding with friends
- brought own food for car trip to avoid having to buy processed, packaged, fast food
- tired to reduce single use item waste as much as possible by bringing own cutlery, containers, travel mug etc. on trip
- rehung towels for reuse in the hotel room

Want not:
- wore second hand dress (gorgeous, $8 dress that got compliments!) and shoes to wedding
- garden neighbour gave me a big bunch of Lebanese dandelion
- another garden neighbour gave me two and half pounds of potatoes
- my herbal teacher gave me a pizza tray
- I picked up a fancy glass jar at a consignment store that I'll use for an herbal vinegar gift
- I bought new underwear! I've been making do with the underwear I've had since, oh geez, before my nothing new year started. Most things held up considerably well, but enough unmentionables were getting ratty enough that it was time to break down and make the new purchase. I found a reasonably priced, good quality, made in Canada brand that carries a line of gitch made from bamboo. I bought two pairs of nickers and a bra. Woo hoo!

Preparation and storage:

- bought beets for pickling and I'll be doing that this week

Build community food systems:
- the usual local food from the farmer's markets

Eat the food:

- cucumber salad
- salsa
- roasted potatoes
- roasted tomatoes
- chard

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Crafty Urban Homestead

The weather has changed. The run on September sun ended the other day. The temperature regularly dips into the single digits at night and I've taken to throwing a light scarf around my neck for my bike to work in the morning. My tires crunch through yellowed leaves on the street.

There is still harvesting and work to be done in the garden and soon I will go wildcrafting for medicinal roots, but the hectic, almost frantic days of bolting home from work, to the garden and working hard outside until sunset are waning. I can feel the rhythm of my days and the nature of my homestead work changing with the season and I welcome it with a deep sigh of contentment. Ah fall.

I love this season and one sure sign of its arrival for me, is the urge to make myself comfortable on the couch, pick up a hook and some yarn, and crochet the lengthening evenings away.

For the last two night that's exactly what I've done, and it was pure bliss.

I started with a fun and easy project that I've made before and really enjoy. I've saved some mesh onion bags and by crocheting handles onto them, I can reuse them as produce bags, avoiding the need for disposable plastic. I can finish one in a few hours so it gives me a nice sense of accomplishment. (You can see the purple one I completed the first night, in the photo, holding potatoes for demonstration. Yep, these bags are sturdy.)

I like that I'm repurposing something that most people throw away and I'm also using scrap, thrifted yarn, reducing waste in the creation and the use of the bags. Awesome. Plus, (I like to think) they make nice gifts. (Oh and I really got a kick out of the fact that I actually had matching yarn for the purple and orange bags!)

I made a few of these last winter and posted a step by step tutorial on the blog. You can find it here.

Does the rhythm of your days change with the seasons? What are your favourite fall activities?

Monday, September 14, 2009

When things are quiet on the blog...

...I'm busy on the Unstuffed Homestead. But I'll be back soon. Promise.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Independence Days Week #19

I have four full jars of plums and honey sitting on my counter above which, two big bunches of fennel leaves and mint are drying. The herbs were a gift from a garden neighbour. She's unbelievably generous with her produce. I've also received arm loads of chard and dandelion from her.

I used a bit of fennel to flavour deviled eggs (local, free range and organic of course!) Some of the fresh mint went into the stuffed grape leaves I made using this recipe. The tomatoes, grape leaves and oregano came from my garden. The rice cooked in the sun oven.

I served these dishes to friends I had invited to a harvest garden party at my plot. I also served a fresh tomato and basil salad. The guests picked the tomatoes and basil themselves. We snacked on fermented pickles while eying the cucumber plants they came from. We drank iced tea that had infused in the sun. For desert we savoured an apple cheese cake from the farmer's market and hunks of crusty bread with butter and home canned jam. Light jazz and classical music played quietly from the wind up radio. Some people met for the first time. By the end of the party they were friends exchanging contact information.

After the last guests left, the ADGMD and I lay under the cherry tree soaking up the late afternoon sun before washing up the dishes, gathering the cloth napkins and composting some cardboard and food scraps. There was very little waste. We packed up everything else on our bikes. For the ride home I tuned in to the oldies radio station and strapped the radio securely to the front basket. We held hands and sang along as we biked down the tree lined streets, green and golden in the falling light.

These rich days of early autumn are fulsome. I am surrounded by abundance. Each moment is filled with countless gifts. I am provided for. A basket and wooden rolling pin for a quarter at a garage sale. Free curbside finds including a hallow e'en mask to hang up in the pole beans to try and deter birds and thieves, a hose attachment that now lets me water my kohl rabi patch with ease, a picture frame and a cooler bag that fits perfectly into my front basket. With a couple of freezer packs, the cooler bag kept my food fresh for the party. From now on, I'll use it this way for my harvests. Friends gift me with their saved jars and bottles. One friend passed on empty jars for salves, lotions and balms. What a treasure!

The best gift of all: worm poo. A friend who lives in an apartment has a vermicomposter, but with no garden and not sure what to do with the compost, she asked me for advice. "I'll take it!", I said. She scooped up the poop into plastic tubs and brought it to the garden. Forget fancy bling and bric-a-brac, compost is this girl's best friend, and I couldn't be more touched by my friend's thoughtfulness and effort.

There have been losses too. Life's not perfect after all. Sadly, many gardeners, friends and neighbours included, have been victims of theft and vandalism. Whole crops of garlic, beans and tomatoes disappeared. Sun shades slashed. I saw a row of sunflowers lopped off at their stalks or ripped right out of the ground. Two rows of storage sheds burnt to cinder and ashes. My shed was damaged by the fire but left standing. We lost a blanket and my sun hat. My baskets and the handles of our tools are charred, tempered by the flames, and I like to think they are stronger now for it.

These things add bitter to the sweet. It's discouraging but not defeating. If anything it only serves to firm my resolve to live this way and make these choices. Now I talk to every gardener I pass. I share information, spread the advice given to us by the community police officer. I introduce myself and make the effort to meet others, to create community and raise awareness. I take nothing for granted and I am grateful for everything. I am especially grateful for the people in my life, those not so well known and those as familiar as family. Thank you for you and thank you for letting me share this with you.

Harvest something:
- violets, nettle, grape leaves, cucumbers, tomatoes, chard, chamomile, basil, chard, oregano, parsley

Preserve something:
- plums in brandy, currant jelly
- egg shells in ACV, nettles in ACV
- nettles, pineapple sage and apple mint infusing in honey
- another batch of fermented pickles
- froze another jar of tomato sauce
- drying herbs

Waste not:

- used sun oven for rice, eggplant, black beans
- made sun tea
- lots of biking

Want not:
- received chard, fennel, canning jars, containers for balms, salves etc.
- worm poop!!
- salvaged picture frame, hose, cooler bag, anti bird and garden thieves hallow e'en mask to hang up in the pole beans
- garage sale harvest basket and rolling pin

Preparation and Storage:
- ADGMD added dehydrated food to emergency pantry

Build community food systems:
- attended garden meeting to address theft and vandalism at the allotments
- local food from farmer's market
- attended Transition Ottawa meeting
- hosted harvest garden party

Eat the food:
- stuffed grape leaves
- pickles
- bread with jam
- tomato, basil salad
- cucumber salad
- sun tea
- pasta with tomato sauce
- chard stir fry

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Urban Homestead Series: Because I Can

(Yes that is a bottle of wine on the counter. No I don't recommend drinking and canning. However, recipes that call for booze are fun and I do encourage pouring yourself a mild libation after all your hard canning work!)

Putting food by is essential to any homestead, urban or otherwise. There are lots of ways to preserve the harvest. You can freeze, dry and ferment food. And you can can. Can you do the can can? (Sorry. Just had to do that.)

Anyhoo, all last year I read many bloggers who preserved and stockpiled food by canning. This year I was determined to join their ranks. I purchased a second hand canning pot and rack in the spring, started collecting jars and picked up some other essential tools this summer. I scored a free book on canning and patiently waited for harvest season to come around.

This weekend I finally took the plunge into water bath canning! Wanting to start with something relatively easy and foolproof and using ingredients available to me, I decided on two different jams: crab apple and plum jam, using crab apples that a neighbour gave to me and fresh plums from the Niagara region and currant jam with the currants I harvested from my garden plot earlier in the summer.

I won't go into any detail here about how to can, safety issues and such. There are far more experienced canners out there as well as other online resources, which I'll list at the end of the post for reference.

What I will do is share a few thoughts on the process and my experience as a beginner.

First of all, I had to get educated on and over the fear of botulism poisoning. Since I planned to stick to high acid foods and recipes that are suitable for the water bath method, botulism is not really too much of a worry, but still I was nervous at first. Once I was reasonably convinced I wasn't going to poison myself or anyone else I chose my recipes and gathered my ingredients.

Canning is a great way to preserve and have access to local foods through the winter, however I noticed that many recipes call for a number of non-local ingredients like lemon juice, sugar and salt. Not only that, but recipes for things like jam, call for shockingly large amounts of sugar. Normally, I don't buy sugar. Ever. I'm a raw, local honey girl through and through, with some maple syrup thrown in here and there as a treat. I just about went hypoglycemic when I read how much sugar I would need for my two jam recipes. Also, if you end up buying fair trade, organic sugar like I did, the cost can be quite high. Finally, some recipes call for fancy ingredients like specialty alcohols. The crab apple plum jam called for wine, and the currant jam called for a currant liquor. Of course, not all recipes will have booze in them, but if they do, this too is an added expense. (Currant liquor or Cassis, by the way, is absolutely divine and I plan on making my own next year!)

With all my ingredients and equipment at the ready, recipe and instruction book open, I got down to business. I brought the water in the canner to a boil to sterilize my jars and started processing the apples and plums for cooking. Everything took about twice as long the first time because I was checking and double checking the recipe and canning instructions to make sure I was doing everything properly. Timing is everything when it comes to canning and each step is important. I wanted to make sure that I didn't miss anything.

I noticed I used a lot more water than I normally do when working in the kitchen and I had the stove going at high temperatures for much longer than normal. Canning is energy and resource intense. What with all the water and boiling, non local sugar and lemons, I could feel my carbon footprint getting bigger and bigger. Not to mention, all that steamy water was really heating up my kitchen, which would be great on a crisp, fall day, but definitely not something I would willingly do in the humid heat of high summer.

In the end it took me two days to do up both recipes and I ended up with 12 jars of jam, two of which didn't seal properly, so need to be eaten right away or frozen for later use.

All in all, I'm pleased with the results and I'm very happy to have taken on learning this new skill, which, once learned is actually quite easy, though fairly labour intensive from start to finish (especially since I was working within the confines of a small kitchen and had to do a lot of shuffling of things back and forth to make room for other things.)

I can definitely see the benefits of putting up food for storage that doesn't need to be frozen and I will be oh so grateful for the taste of summer fruit on my tongue in mid winter, but honestly, of all the homesteady things I've been learning about and doing in the last year, I don't think I love canning the way that I love say, crocheting, or working with herbs.

Frankly, while the weather is still lovely I'd rather be outside in the garden or foraging and wildcrafting. Instead of slaving over a hot stove, I'd rather start a batch of pickles or cabbage fermenting (it's much easier, with less cleanup, there's no risk of dangerous spoilage, it retains more nutrients and you don't need electricity to do it). Instead of slicing, dicing, peeling, coring, juicing and pressing, I'd rather decant herbals tinctures or gently pluck the dried leaves of my herbs from their stems to put into jars.

I haven't yet tried any of the more savoury recipes like salsa, which I still plan to do, as well as pickled beets, but on the whole I don't see myself as a hard core canner. I just get much more pleasure from making medicine and fermenting foods. (I am however, attracted to the possibilities of drying food and I think a dehydrator might just end up on my wish list in the near future.) So while I will can when I can, I imagine I'll spend more time and effort on the things that give me real joy. And hopefully there will be some hardcore canners out there willing to barter some food for medicine in the future...

What about you? What homesteading activities do you absolutely love and which ones are you just kinda sorta 'meh' about?

Oh and here are those resources I promised:

For inspiration read this lovely article by Jenna from Cold Antler Farm.

For 'how to's' Rhonda Jean's got you covered here, here and here.

I also referenced this site.