Friday, November 29, 2013

Reducing Dependence on the Grocery Store

What would you do if you couldn't get to the grocery store? What if the grocery store was empty? What if it closed? Could you eat? What would you eat?

Most of us depend on restaurants and grocery stores for all of our food. Without them, we'd go hungry. In an age of climate change, economic instability and a terrifying dependence on cheap oil to grow and distribute food, we leave ourselves in a precarious position. By increasing our self reliance and learning new skills, we can increase our security, eat better and have fun! Here are some ways you can take control of your food.

* Learn to cook. If you are dependent on restaurants or convenience foods, the best place to begin is to learn to cook. Start simple, start small. Learn to fry an egg. Learn to make chicken noodle soup. Progressively challenge yourself. Pinpoint your favorite restaurant meals and see if you can recreate them at home. My favorite things at a Chinese restaurant are wonton soup, egg rolls and crab rangoon. These are all really easy to make from scratch, and so I do.

* Learn to make things you think have to "come from the store". Many store-bought items can be made easily at home. Sour cream, butter, pasta, hot chocolate mix, creme fraiche, yogurt, bread, cakes, and more can be made easily. They are usually tastier when made from scratch, and often cheaper.

* Grow some herbs. Whether you want fresh herbs for cooking, or herbs to dry for medicinal teas, growing herbs is a great gateway into growing your own food. Many kinds of herbs grow well in containers or even indoors,so you can get growing even if you live in an apartment.

* Plant a fruit tree or two. If you have the space in the yard, plant some fruit trees for beauty and produce. Apple trees are a sight to see when in blossom, and you can get loads of fruit for snacking, applesauce or pies! Cherry trees are also lovely, and cherries are not cheap in the stores. It'll take a few years to provide a harvest, but then you'll get a harvest for years.

* Grow vegetables. If you have a little sunny spot in the backyard, plant something yummy. Tomatoes fresh from the garden are beyond compare. So are the hundreds of varieties of lettuce, the many varieties of radishes and carrots, peppers of all sorts, eggplants, cucumbers, and zucchini by the bushel! By growing it yourself, you control what goes in them and on them and ultimately into you. You can eat them at the peak of freshness and they don't travel 1500 miles to get to your stomach, either.

* Go to a farmers market. Not only will you find top-quality produce, but you can support small, local farmers. Sometimes you can find produce much cheaper than the grocery store, too. The best way to get great prices is to buy something that is in it's peak season. Since every booth will be offering it, the price will be lower. Ask questions and try new things.

* Get to know a good, local farmer. Whether you meet them at the market or stop by their farm stand, get to know the people who grow your food. You can then make sure that it is of a good quality. It benefits both you and the farmer to cut out all the middle men. The farmer gets a reasonable amount for the food they produce, and you get top quality veg, fresh from the earth. Look for farm stands along your work commute or near your home.

* Preserve it. When you have a surplus of a perishable food, preserve it for later when you won't have as much. During the summer and autumn months when harvests are at their peak, put up food that you grew or found a great bargain on at the farmers market. Canning is a great way to put up tomato sauce, jams, jellies, and pickles, but is intimidating for beginners. Fermenting is also a great way to extend the life of food, but again, intimidating (I still haven't gotten up the nerve to give it a go). The best intros into food preservation are freezing and drying. They are easy, quick to learn, pretty much foolproof and quite safe. Freeze peppers and onions for stir-fries and omelets. Freeze bananas and berries for smoothies. You can also freeze homemade foods. Freeze muffins and breads for later use. Freeze pancakes and waffles for a convenient breakfast food that doesn't come in a box. Dehydrating food is my favorite way to preserve. I use a dehydrator but you can also use the oven or just put them outside or in a car on a hot, dry day. Apple chips are a favorite snack food and dried tomatoes are to die for. I also dehydrate cucumbers, peppers, pumpkin, zucchini, onions, mushrooms, strawberries, plums, peaches and pears.

* Have family preserving/cooking days. If you have fruit trees that produce more fruit than your family can eat, or that you can put up alone, or if you find a great deal on a 100 pounds of tomatoes, get the family (or a group of friends) together for a day of preserving food for everyone to enjoy throughout the year. Make jams and jellies to give as holiday gifts. Cook apple sauce like my family does on our apple processing days.

* Plant some edible landscaping. If your homeowners association or zoning commission doesn't allow formal vegetable gardens, mix some edibles into the landscaping. Nasturtiums are a beautiful edible flower. Rosemary bushes can double as hedge and flavoring. Lavender is beautiful and makes a calming tea.  Asparagus ferns could be worked in as a lovely background plant.

* Get a few hens for entertainment and breakfast. Nothing compares to a honest-to-goodness, fresh egg from a loved hen. The yolks are a rich orange and stand up tall and taste worlds different than that crap they sell at the grocery. If you are less queasy, you can also get into raising a few chickens (or rabbits) for meat. If you aren't caught up in the cute-fuzziness of rabbits, they can be a great source of local, ethically raised and humanely slaughtered meat.

* Get a bee hive, especially if you live in the city. Cities have a lot more flowers for the bees to visit, don't take up much space and you don't have to worry about composting their manure. In exchange for a home, access to flowers and a bit of attention, you can get honey. Sounds like a bargain to me! If you start raising bees, adapt all of your recipes to use honey instead of sugar.

* Forage for wild food. Foraging is an incredibly fun hobby, especially fun with friends or children. Pick mulberries, crab apples, wild apples, forgotten pears, acorns, walnuts, and blackberries. Learn to identify wild greens to use in cooked or fresh salads. Dandelions are my favorite wild food and can be used in many recipes, from flower fritters to bud soup to muffins.

* Speaking of dandelions, the roots can be cleaned, dried and roasted to use instead of coffee. They are earthy, nutty and slightly sweet. While most of us can't produce our own coffee (although you can roast your own!), dandelions grow all over. It's a great way to use an invasive weed, is often raised without chemicals, and as local as they come.

* Buy produce from unconventional sources such as a neighbor's produce stand by their driveway or a produce auction in farm country (these are for bulk purchases, so they pair well with family processing days or canning marathons). Approach feed stores for cheap prices on bulk oats or wheat.

* Brew your own alcohol. With practice, you can brew craft beer on a cheap-nasty beer budget. Country wines can be made with foraged or home-grown ingredients. And if you have bees, mead is definitely something fun to try.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Salad from the Winter Garden

I am experimenting with winter gardening this year. Nothing big. I'm not going to be supplying all of the family's veg from the winter garden this year but it's still worth doing. I like the idea of learning some basics to supplement my families food. Being able to grow some food in winter will save us a bit of money, increase our self sufficiency, provide valuable fresh veggies in a season when they are hard to come by (eating either the stored veg dehydrated, frozen or canned in season, or veg from the grocery that's flown in 1500 miles before I eat it), and will possibly clean the air in the home as well. And it's fun!

In the back yard, I have carrots, radishes and kale planted. I planted them in late August and they are all very small. Growth is pretty slow. However, the last few winters have been pretty mild, so maybe if this year is mild too I'll get a bit more growth. I had loads of seed leftover from the main gardening season, and was given some seed while talking with gardeners at the World's Longest Yard Sale, so I lose nothing by putting some extra seeds in the ground. If a strong freeze hits and all the outdoor plants die, I'll just work the green matter back into the earth and call it fertilizer.

Indoors I started several pots of greens. They grow in my laundry room on the south-facing windowsill.  I have two pots of spinach and four pots of two different varieties of lettuce. They are still in the baby green stage of growth and have been growing for a few weeks. I need to plant a second batch of greens so that there is no (or not much) gap in fresh salads. The real problem I will run into is space, as Ray cat has claimed all of the other south-facing windowsills and will push off anything I put on them. 
I planted them in sterile potting soil I had leftover from starting seedlings this spring. When I harvest the last of these lettuces and replant, I will mix in a bit of compost from the bottom of the bin just to freshen it up a bit. I water them about once a day, when I remember. I'm bad about that. I know that using self-watering containers would be best, but I don't have any. These pots I found at yard sales for pennies apiece, so I use them. My parents saved the plastic seed packs from their flower garden last spring, so I can use those also. Again, these are seeds leftover from the main gardening season. So I'm not really out much money, just a few pennies worth of water over the season.

After reading this article on overwintering peppers indoors, I selected my best two pepper plants. They are Jimmy Nardello peppers. One plant was the plant that gave me the first pepper of the season. The other was the plant that gave me the highest number of peppers. I dug the plants out of the ground leaving as much dirt and roots intact as possible. I filled in the rest of the pot with potting soil. I sprayed them off and picked off all of the flowers and flower buds. I took them inside and have watered them a few times. I don't have any really cool areas to store them (the article recommends a constant 55 degrees), but I put them by a leaky patio door so once the cold weather hits, it should stay around 55-60. One of the plants produced a huge amount of flowers once it was brought in, but I picked them off. If they survive the winter, I'll plant them after the threat of frost. Hopefully I'll get an early bumper crop of my favorite pepper.

Yesterday I picked the first salad from the winter garden. From the outdoor garden, I had two baby kale plants, 3 medium sized radishes, 1 radish seedpod, 6 baby radishes, and 5 baby carrots. I left the leaves intact on the carrots and baby radishes for more bulk. I thinned out the lettuces in the indoor garden with a pair of scissors. I first trimmed out any tiny plants, then any that looked weaker than the others. From there, I thinned out any that were too close to each other. That gave me the little pile of greens you see in center right on the photo.

I added some mixed greens from the farmers market and had enough for two nice-sized salads to accompany dinner. They were delicious.

I'm very excited about getting fresh salad throughout the winter. I may plant a few containers of radishes for snacking. Wisconsin Vegetable Gardeners posted a video on growing carrots. They had good success planting carrots in a home-made hanging basket. I think I may try some of these as well so I can get some yummy carrots throughout winter and don't have to resort to those cardboard orange things at the grocery store.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Use It Up: Make Pudding!

Many things are tossed into the garbage can when they still have lots of good life left in them. Use It Up is a section on how to use this "trash" to make new, useful items for your home or to re-purpose items to avoid a purchase.

Bread pudding before baking.
Want to stretch your grocery budget, avoid food waste but still make a tasty dessert? Make pudding using leftovers!

When you bake your own bread or buy good bread made without preservatives, it can be hard to use it all up before it gets stale. Never fear! You can use leftover bread to make bread pudding. You can make it as simple or extravagant as you'd like. Here's the basic recipe I use:

* 4 c stale bread, torn into bite-sized pieces (Most people cut the crusts off, but since I'm trying to reduce waste as much as possible, I leave them on)

* 2 c milk, half and half, cream, coconut/almond/rice/soy milk

* 1/4 c butter* 1/2 c sugar, brown, white or raw

* 2 eggs

* 1/2 tsp cinnamon

* dash of vanilla extract

Heat the milk and butter. Mix in the bread pieces; add the sugar, eggs, cinnamon and vanilla. Bake in a baking dish at 375 degrees until the pudding is set in the middle.

You can add raisins, dried fruit, fresh fruit, more seasoning, caramel topping, streusel topping, nuts, or citrus zest.Don't be limited to plain breads. Use panettone, sour dough, cinnamon raisin bread, challah, brioche, and rolls of all types.

If you have croissants that have become stale or if you bake some that don't turn out quite right, you can make plain croissant pudding. This recipe calls for plain croissant, but you can modify it for any variety you have on hand.

Take corn bread that is too crumbly or that gets dry to make Cornbread pudding.
Plain leftover rice can be used to make rice pudding.

Leftover cake, or cake edges can be used to make cake scrap pudding.

Leftover doughnuts can make doughnut bread pudding.

Made too much spaghetti? Make chocolate pasta pudding.

On the off chance you have leftover biscotti (something that has never, ever happened to me), you can make biscotti bread pudding.

Dried-out muffins? make muffin bread pudding.

Made too many waffles? Make waffle pudding.

Hard or dry cookies can be made into cookie pudding.

Extra bagels can be made into sweet or savory bagel pudding.

Mix-Ins and Add-Ons

Match the add-ins to the flavor. Imagine toasted walnuts and cinnamon in a maple custard. Yum!

Crumble up dry, leftover sweets for a crunchy topping.

If you dehydrate a lot of fruit, you likely have lots of little broken bits of fruit. These are perfect for tossing into the pudding for a bit of flavor and nutrition (yeah, that's's a nutritious dessert..).

If you have an almost-empty jar of jam or jelly, swish some of the milk from the recipe in the jar to get that last little bit out. Add the flavored milk to the custard recipe. Just make sure that the flavors complement each other.

Swish milk in an almost-empty bottle of chocolate or maple syrup and use the flavored milk in the recipe.

You can serve your puddings hot or cold, or with ice cream or whipped cream. The more decadent puddings, such as croissant or doughnut pudding, are best served as is, while more basic recipes wouldn't be overpowered by a scoop of ice cream.

If you are having company, make mini bread puddings in ramekins for an elegant, easy dessert.

Bread pudding holds up well for potlucks, and can be served at room temperature.

Have a "leftovers" pudding recipe I've forgotten? Tell me about it in the comments.

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