Planning Ahead to Go Local for the New Year

As we make our New Year’s Resolutions, one good one to keep in mind is that of producing or keeping more of your own food.  Now is the perfect time to plan for the coming growing season.  While it would be great  to provide all our own food for the year, taking on this entire task alone is unrealistic.  Many a well-meaning family has tried, only to become overwhelmed and give up.   In today’s world, it is very unlikely that one would be able to provide all your own food, but one can certainly provide a number of key items for your family, and put a bit of a dent in your grocery bill.  The secret is using baby steps. Master one project at a time, try adding something new after your first successes.

Winter is traditionally a time of planning and dreaming about the summer garden.  Seed catalogues have arrived, and the chilly days and slower pace are perfect for sitting and musing about warmer days to come.  But it is also the time when your family is eating the foods that you’re going to want to put up for yourself.  Now is the time to pay attention and take note of what you are eating and buying at the grocery or market.  Local, seasonal eating takes practice, and working with what you are already doing is going to make the transition much easier.  Keep lists or a notebook if you need to, or keep  you grocery receipts.  See what veggies you are buying, which canned goods, which meats you eat the most often.  These are the foods to concentrate on when planning to provide your own.

And be honest with yourself:  One of the first canning projects many people undertake is cucumber pickles or relish.  Yummy as this is, it’s not really going to mean much to your family if they really don’t eat them anyway.  Find yourself eating more salsa instead? Marinara sauce?  Go for these items when canning instead.  Certainly, eating local and seasonal means learning how to eat what’s available and keep it interesting, but again, successes with your staple items will inspire you and your family to expand your palate and diet.

 How do you use fruit?  Do you  enjoy bread and jam, or chunky fruit with your oatmeal or yogurt?  Do you want whole strawberries for your Christmas cheesecake? Or do you enjoy strawberry sauce over ice cream?  Or both?  Keep these things in mind when planning how you can best prepare these items when preserving for yourself.

When you’re shopping at the store, stop and notice all the different ways foods are presented for you  to buy:  You’ll find items fresh, frozen, canned, dried.  How do you use these foods?

Once you’ve figured out which foods you use the most and want to try to provide for yourself or preserve for winter use, it’s time to come up with a realistic plan.  Again, using baby steps, figure out which foods you want to grow, which you should start buying in bulk to save money, and which you should purchase in bulk locally and put up for the winter.

Break it up into two groups:  What you can grow, what you can buy in bulk to can or freeze  to put up yourself.

Consider what you have available in terms of space to grow, freezer and pantry space.  If you have adequate space to grow some food, you can put some energy into that.  If you have freezer and pantry space, consider focusing on preserving foods you use often, and look for ways to save money by using your freezer.

Keep in mind that freezers are vulnerable to power outages, though these usually occur during winter months when the cold weather gives you an advantage.

Try to keep your freezer is in a cooler space (ours are outside our home.  My second choice for placement within the house is my pantry, which is off my unheated porch just a hair warmer than outside).  They come in many shapes and sizes, and often can be found rather in expensive in the classifieds.

If you don’t have an extra freezer, plan to dehydrate or can your foods.  Canning really is optimal, because the foods are safe from power outages.  You will of course still need storage space, for the jars both full and empty, but we Americans are accustomed to accumulation, and this for once is for a very useful cause.  If you don’t have a collection of  jars, put the word out with your friends that you are looking, and keep an eye on the classifieds, often people will sell their entire collections at once.  Canning kettles are fairly inexpensive, and a good one will last you for years.  And they come in different sizes, depending on how much space you have on your stove top.

A small dehydrator will not cost you    much and can really help with saving    summer bounty.  Kids love dried apples and peaches, and many other fruits and veggies dry well to be used later on.  And you can save  a ton of money drying your own herbs.  Fo’ schizzle.

Think about this for your meats, too.  Often you can get a discount if you buy in bulk.  Sometimes you need to find the right supplier, not all smaller operations can afford a substantial discount.  Or you may be able to buy whole or half animals, this is usually cheaper than the retail prices even with discount.

A family of six can easily take down at least two pigs a year, and it is so awfully handy to have it all in the freezer, rather than running to the store every week!  Buying a whole pig twice a year is a real money-saver.  Look into doing this with whatever meats your family enjoys.

Buying fruits like apples, peaches, pears and plums and canning or freezing for the winter is great for both better product and saving money. These can be used all year for so many things, and again so handy to have your own stash.

Berries freeze well alone or can be made into jam.  Jam can be used for cooking in a variety of ways, it’s becoming a real staple condiment in a true Foodista’s kitchen (sorry, Guys!  If you’re going to do it, you’re still a Foodista.  There is no ‘Foodistus’).

Think  pragmatically when planning what to grow.  Balance how much you consume with how much you can effectively grow.  Tomatoes are great, but they can be a lot of work and take up space, and if you need to can 50-100 jars, trying to grow that many if you have limited space may be impractical.  Buy those in bulk at market instead.  Grow for yourself instead things like salad greens and herbs, which can be pricey at market but fairly easy to grow.

When growing lettuces, ask around and make sure you get good varieties that do not bolt or get bitter easily.  Do not plant Black-Seeded Simpson.  Keep replanting every two weeks starting in early spring until it starts getting hot in June. Plant herbs in spring and keep cutting and drying your leaves so they keep growing back all summer. Bring them indoors if you want in the Fall.

Other items to grow that use less space and yield well are summer squashes, green beans, beets chard, collard and other greens, and scallions.  Onions can work out well, too, if you have the time (or a good trick) to keep them weeded.  Again, it all depends on how much room and fertility you have.  But in general, plan to buy-in and put up other veggies like sweet corn, winter squashes, melons, cukes, peppers, eggplants, etc. These items take more attention and space to grow, and might not be the best choice for beginners who are also trying to put up their own food.

Some of your pantry staples can be gotten in bulk, as well.  Check around and see if your community has a co-operative buying club or similar venture.  Flour, sugar, pasta, dried beans, rice, etc. are also handy to have in storage.  But do take caution, and keep your pantry items well-sealed against grain moths and moisture, both of which will ruin your foods.  Again, planning is important when taking on the responsibility of storing your own food, and it must be kept healthy and safe.

Do take this seriously:  It will do you no good to go through all the trouble of collecting  food all summer if it is tainted in storage.  This means diligence.

Make sure your freezers are running properly.  And plugged in.  Make sure your children do not leave the doors open.

Your pantry must be cool, dark and dry, but shouldn’t freeze.  Dehydrated items must stay dry until use.  Canning jar lids should always be double-checked for a tight seal before opening to use, and get in the habit of sniffing each and every jar before you serve.  But these things re just that– habits.  You’ll get used to doing these things, and they will become second-nature. Every little bit takes you one step closer to food independence.

That’s enough for now. Next few posts we’ll talk about different ways you can procure your own food in different living situations.  Whether you live in an apartment in town, in a house in suburbia or out in the sticks, there are different things you can do to get more of your own food locally and in season.  So stay tuned and start planning!

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Christmas is almost here…

Yes, it its that time of year, despite best intentions it is but a couple days before Christmas.  Ready or not.

I know, because I have been reading and hearing a steady stream of complaints in person and on-line.  Surprizingly, many people “hate” wrapping resents.  Or shopping for gifts.  Or baking cookies.  Or decorating the tree.  Bah, humbug!

I never cease to wonder at these folks.  How could they have come to hate the work of Christmas?  Maybe a few have a legitimate reason:  bad childhood memories, or loved-ones lost too near Christmas day.  But the overwhelming few are just complaining.  About being Merry.  And sharing. And celebrating.  Or is this not what they are doing?  Perhaps this is the issue.

I will certainly admit, battling other crazed and hostile shoppers in a store is not alot of fun.  But I am always so grateful that I have the money to spend of gifts for people that are very important to me.  When gift-giving, I remain focused on the recipient, I try to get them something that they will delight in, and something they can use often and think fondly of me.  I find that viewing it through this lens, rather than that of what’s on sale, or does everybody else have to have makes it a much more meaningful and enjoyable experience.

As a child, I delighted in wrapping presents.  My kids do now, and I am so glad.  Wrapping gifts means you have gifts to give, and that you are soon to delight someone.  The very colors and textures of the papers, ribbons and bows are enough to get one in the Christmas Spirit!  I recall sitting for hours when I was young, mesmerized by the reflection of the blinking lights on the tree off the dazzling packages below.

Christmas is so special because of the foods.  Cookies and pastries that do not appear until this time are always a welcoming site.  Warm drinks in beautiful glasses, with special treats like marshmallows or whipped cream are so comforting.  These foods  prepare us to desire for the cooler temperatures about to settle in, so as to properly enjoy these gifts of the Season.  Taking the time to prepare these mementos is yet another gift to give to loved-ones, special treats that cannot be gotten at the store.

     And the tree! It’s arrival always announces the new Christmas season.  It is the place to display family memories, with ornaments made by children (or the parents as children), or of travels, and of special occasions gone by.  We always get a real tree, as nothing beats its aroma and texture, the task of finding the “hole” to place against the wall, and the annual tradition of finding just the right one together, as a family.

Long ago, when so many of these cultural Holiday traditions were created and sustained, life was different, indeed.  Daily life was a little more hands-on work, transportation was sparser and much slower-paced, so often folks lived in relative isolation from each other in the countryside.  And life in cities was very removed from nature, trees and growing things much harder to come by.  The Holidays meant a break from all this:  When folks in rural areas traveled to come together,  candles lighting the way and welcoming guests from far off.  People in towns surrounded themselves with greenery, spices, flowers, all sorts of living things they missed in their daily lives away from the farm.

And the signing!  Caroling was not only a way to spread Christmas cheer and tell the Story of the Season, but also a way to build Community.  Children strained their little ears, practicing in secret and trying so hard to learn the songs.  Older children helped their younger siblings.  Finally mastered them was a sort of coming-of-age, a tangible part of taking one’s place in the group, feeling  fulfilled and accepted.  Something children are missing out on today.

Our new American culture of living everyday like it’s a party has tapped out the true Spirit of the Holiday Season.  We are  bombarded with “special” everyday.  And many of our Christmas “treats”  appear to be able to be bought at the store.  Many take for granted the original work and meaning behind what have become mundane things.

Maybe it is because, as a Farmer, I live closer to the land and to the natural rhythms of the Year.  We really do live all Winter on what we were able to produce all Summer.  Christmas time does mean for us a break in the work, the first chance in many months to see and connect with friends.  And yes, we have set aside our best cuts of meats, favorite items from the garden and begin baking special treats.

But, gee, I don’t know….  I think Christmas does still live in the Heart, and than anyone can find their own reason to keep this time special.  Gratitude and Appreciation are the only ingredients needed to remind us why we celebrate at this time of year, and to remind us to hope and look forward to the next.

I love Christmas!  And I wish Peace and Love to all of you.

Merry Christmas!

Planting Garlic

One of the last few tasks in the garden each year is that of planting garlic. You can buy garlic heads to plant at a farmstand or farmers market.  The grocery store is not the best place, as what they have is likely to come from elsewhere, and you want something grown close to your location, so you know it will grow well.  Take your heard and break it apart to reveal several individual cloves.  These are what you will plant.  Look at them closely, the end with the tiny point is the top, the bottom being the roots.  Plant them root down.  They will grow if planted upside-down, but they will not get as big.  (They are interesting to look at, though!)  Plant the largest of your cloves, eat the smaller ones: The larger the love, the larger the finished head of garlic next year.

Cloves ready for planting

Garlic grows best when planted in the fall, anytime after October 1st until the ground is frozen.  Technically, the earlier it is planted, the better as it has more time to root in a little before winter sets in. But really it will usually do well no matter when you get  around to planting it.  Just remember, the later one waits, the colder, wetter and heavier the soil, and generally the less pleasant the task.

Since garlic cloves will be sleeping in the ground all winter, remember they will be subjected to the heaving up of the soil that naturally occurs when the ground it freezing and thawing with the changing weather.  Garlic cloves that are not planted deep enough can actually heave right up out of the soil, and left sitting on top of the ground, they will most likely rot.  There are a few ways of dealing with this, depending on you situation.  When planting garlic, try to get the cloves at least 3 if not 4 inches into  the ground.  A handy way to measure is to use a trowel with measurements on it, or get an old stick and mark in at 4″.

If your soil is less than desirable and you can not get it in that deep, cover your planting when you are finished with some sort of mulch or covering, such as straw, grass clippings, compost, or even newspaper. The garlic will send out green shoots in the spring.  It will grow right up through hay, compost or clippings;  newspaper will have to be lifted off with a rake as soon as the first shoots appear.

Plant the garlic 4-6 inches apart, in rows about 12″ apart for row culture.  Garlic is from the genus Allium, in the same family as onions, chives, shallots and leeks.  All Alliums also respond well to growing in”clumps”, and many growers plant their garlic in this way, close together yet spaced enough so each plant has room to grow, but touching each other when full sized. Alliums also tolerate cold weather well, and are often the first green shoots to come up each spring.

Garlic usually pokes through as early as late March.  It’s always nice to see the first shoots, an affirmation both of Spring being not far off, and of your success in planting the garlic! If you have heavily mulched them, gently pull the covering aside and let Nature take its course.

 

Garlic on May 24th, 2011

The only other thing you need to do with the growing garlic is remove the Scapes. Scapes are the term for the garlic’s flower stem which usually appears in June.  When let to grow, these stems will curve beautifully into a corkscrew pattern a short time before they ultimately straighten up and produce a number of little bulbits.  These bulbits can be planted and will produce garlic heads, but it takes 4 years for them to reach full-size.  (These garlic bulbits are terrific to save a few however, for they make great garlic pills, being live and active, and are far better product than can be bought in the store.)  To remove the scapes, let them grow and curve at least one full circle:  If cut too soon, they will simply regrow, and you also will be missing the chance to do some really great cooking!  Cut the scapes with a knife or scissors.  You can either compost them, or cook with them!

Garlic scapes just beginning to curl

The scapes have a wonderful garlic flavor, slightly milder but not unsatisfying to the garlic-lover’s palate.  They can be used like a scallion, chopped or minced and tossed into cold and hot dishes.  My favorite way to prepare (and preserve) them is to throw them in the food processor with some olive oil, and chop them into a nice paste that look much like a Pesto.  This can be used as is, tossed on pasta or to make garlic bread, salad dressings, etc.  Or if you have a good quantity, you can put this green paste into ice cube trays and freeze.  Once frozen, pop them back out of the trays and into freezer bags to use all winter, or the rest of summer while you wait for the garlic heads to finish. Another wonderful thing to do with scapes is to pickle them.

from Old Barn Hollow Farm
Garlic scapes ready for pickling. Photo by Karen Allen

 

Pickled Scapes Contributed by (Allen’s Old Barn Hollow Farm)

 1 lb scapes
 1/4 c. canning salt
 2 tsp. mustard seed
 1 tsp. dill seeds
 2 3/4 c. white vinegar
 2 3/4 c water

Pack scapes in hot jars.
Boil the rest of the ingredients for 1 minute.
Pour into jars leaving 1 inch head space. Put on lids and WB for 10 min.
 makes 3-4 pints

Garlic is finished and ready to harvest any time between late -July and mid-August, depending on the variety you’ve panted.  Garlic should not sit in the ground until the tops die back, though this is a popular myth.  By then the garlic underground has split its paper, and is less desirable for cooking and storage.  Burst bulbs are fine for planting, however.  the garlic should be pulled when only the bottom two leaves are obviously dead.  Digging one to check is fine. Properly planted garlic will need to dug to loosen the roots when harvesting, otherwise pulling alone may lead to broken stems and lost garlic.  Just use caution, do not jab the shovel in too close or the head may be severed.  If you do cut up some bulbs during harvest, these will not keep, and thus should be eaten up first.

Once pulled, the garlic can sit on the ground in the garden for a day or two to cure and dry the papers if the weather will be sunny.  Then the garlic should be bunched (or braided) and hung in a dark, airy place to finish curing for a couple weeks.  Garlic is perfectly edible before the curing, but you will notice the papers are not fully developed and it’s a bit more effort to peel it. For fresh garlic, you are not likely to mind.

Once cured, the stems can be cut and the garlic stored in onion bags or baskets in a cool dry place, such as a pantry. (Don’t forget to select you planting stock for the next year! Pull out the biggest heads and/or cloves to plant; this will increase the size of your heads every year.) They need dry conditions to store, the fridge is not the best place.  Garlic will normally store until about New Years, some varieties longer. To keep your garlic supply going longer, there’s a couple things to try.  One is to peel the individual cloves and store them in a jar in the refrigerator.  These should stay crisp for fresh mincing.  You can also put the cloves in the freezer, but when they thaw they will not be crisp.  They are still great for sauces, etc, though. Garlic can also be minced and mixed with oil to refrigerate or freeze.  Garlic is excellent to pickle, as well. A great way to store it for years is to peel and slice the cloves, then dehydrate.  The dehydrated garlic can be thrown whole into sauces or stews, or blended/mortared into garlic powder and used as is.  This works really well, definitely worth the investment in the dehydartor!

Dehydrated Garlic

Share your garlic stories, recipes, your favorite way to store it, and your favorite varieties!  Mine currently are German White, Spanish Roja, and Carpathian. What are you planting?

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