Winter Stockpile

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It’s freezing this morning, at about 18 degrees F, and the house feels like it – I woke up this morning to the igniter having gone off  and the house was very, very cold.  A simple reset got it working, but the house will take a while to warm up.

The other night we arrived home from our wonderful Thanksgiving road trip to visit my sister, brother-in-law and their family in upstate New York with a lot of Black Friday loot.  Mostly for us, although we did bring home a little extra on request.  This isn’t your typical Black Friday shopping – we did it all at a place about 30 minutes from her house called The Carrot Barn, a family farm that has a wonderful little sandwich and baked goods counter, local meats, candles and pottery, and a lot else besides.  But the thing that had us going an extra 26 miles west before turning to come home was their bulk vegetables – priced, for the most part, infinitely cheaper than I could ever source here, and locally grown.  Our haul includes 20 pounds of onions, 10 pounds of carrots, 5 pounds of turnips, 25 pounds of potatoes, and a bushel each of butternut squash and sweet potatoes.

We tossed in a Christmas wreath, some garlic, a spaghetti squash and a few other goodies, but the majority of what we spent yesterday is an investment in warm meals for the future.  Besides the carrots and the turnips, these are all ‘keeper foods’ these will winter over in the kitchen by the back door in their boxes or bags, and slowly – or less slowly – get used up.  Last year the onions lasted until February, and the sweet potatoes longer than that.  I guess that’s a perk of our old, drafty house, that the kitchen stays cool enough for vegetable storage.

The first squash became Butternut Squash Lasagna with Garlic and Rosemary for our second round of Thanksgiving last night with my other sister and family.  Today, aside from some holiday decorating, we’re almost 100% dedicated to storm preparation, as 8-13″ of snow and ice are due in starting later today.   This means clearing the pumpkins from the porch by saving those that will become future meals in the kitchen and giving the rest to the chickens, who love a good pumpkin for a treat.  We’ll also be bringing in firewood, and making sure there’s extra water in case we lose power, as well as firing up the wood stove just for the general coziness.   The animals will be warm and safe – Eli had already cut a tarp to cover the bunny hutch, so they will be protected from wind and weather, and we’ll shut up the coop with the two heat lamps for the chickens.  Add to that a pot of soup on the stove and some homemade bread or popovers, and we’ll be about as prepared as we can be.

But back to those vegetables, and the nearly 8 hours of driving in 2 days to get them.  Why, when we can just go to the store around here?  Farmstands abound near me, absolutely true.  Well, for one, we got a lovely overnight and holiday with my sister and her family, who I adore.  And while it’s probably true I could get the carrots and the potatoes for the same rock-bottom price around here, it’s not quite the same thing.  For one, I can chat with the farmer who grows them while I shop there, about how business is and his 23 grandchildren.  I know there’s nothing on this food he would worry about his family consuming.  For another, small farms are failing in the US, and if my dollars can help support one or a few, great.  Honestly though, it’s just good food, and we’ll eat it.  I love sweet potatoes in nearly any form, same for squash.  If I had thought we could go through them in time I would have bought a bushel of Delicata Squash too, but they don’t keep as well as the Butternuts.

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It  is the sweet potatoes though, that I am most excited about.  I eat them in almost every form except that which they are the most known for – candied with marshmallows on top (just ick).   Sweet potatoes are incredibly versatile, and often serve as my Paleo starch when I’m not eating bread.  I love to just slice and roast them with olive oil, salt and pepper, but the options are near-infinite.

This is part of our winter stockpile, and we’re just about done.  The freezers and pantry cabinets are full to bursting.  Our meal plan for the week includes homemade Clam Chowder, French Onion Soup, a roasted chicken, and a favorite keep-us-warm standby, Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen.  Food, that central part of human existence, is one thing we do right here.  As the winter weather sets in, our home – and our stomachs – will be warm.  I wish the same for all of you.  IMG-1882.JPG

 

 

In Search of Thanksgiving

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I used to think that the  endless proclamations of gratitude and blessings around this time of year were a bit disingenuous.  I was cynical at best, and not terribly convinced of the goodness of humanity at worst.  Why today, and only today?  But something changed – maybe it was my children’s arrival in the world.  Maybe it was the recognition that cynicism is the worst of all things, creating a false sense of superiority that prevents us from really enjoying what’s in front of us.  Maybe it was the return of an eternal sense of wonder when I took up gardening.  I don’t know – but whatever it was, it was a gift.

Thanksgiving is a funny holiday – like many things, the stuff we celebrate and what actually happened are kind of different.  A bunch of white people – including a couple ancestors of mine – arrived after a long boat ride to a place they had never been, getting here too late to plant anything to feed themselves.  They assumed that the land was theirs for the taking without, you know, ever asking.  Turns out that was the gift of a smallpox epidemic arriving in advance of said boat full of people, which left the land empty.  A lot of the boat people starved.  Also turns out that lack of food leads to tragedy – half of them died, and only 5 women were left at the end.  You would think we could have held on to that lesson and made feeding the hungry our top priority going forward, but humanity has short memories.

In 1621, the first full year of the Mayflower settlers, there was a successful harvest in Plymouth, and the settlers did feast.  Whether this was the first Thanksgiving or not is in question – other players include Virginia in 1619 and 1623, or when, in 1637 Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop did declare a day of Thanksgiving after colonists slaughtered 700 Pequot men, women and children.  I’m not sure killing people is much to be thankful for, but that is what happened.  While the colonists would have starved some more if not for their native neighbors, the goodwill between the parties didn’t last long, and it’s never really returned.

All that history aside though, I still think Thanksgiving is a thing to celebrate.  First, it’s our one holiday here that revolves around family and food, rather than gift giving or candy.  It’s literally a celebration of coming together with those different from you, which has a lot of good lessons for all of us about building bigger tables, and the discussion about who belongs at them.  It’s a message to stop and take stock of what you have, not what you are missing, and who you have.   It’s a reminder that some folks are lonely and have nowhere to go, and you can help with that.  It’s a reminder that the sharing of food is one of the building blocks of human society.  And it’s a reminder that most of us in modern society need to stop and make a list not of the things to acquire on Black Friday, but of the things that make our lives full and rich and blessed.

And for me, one day out of 365 days each year isn’t quite enough for that, but it’s a good start.  I think today should be for remembering and acknowledging that American history isn’t just red, white, blue and success, but also one of tragedy and oppression – and a commitment to doing better.  Let’s not just pardon some turkeys here, let’s actually figure out how to pardon – literally and figuratively – some of our fellow humans.  The ones with less than us.  The ones who said or did something cruel.  The ones we have no emotional charity for on a typical day, whomever those are.

I try to remember at least one thing I am grateful for, every day.  Whenever the litany of life’s annoyances take over, I make a list – my children, my husband, my home, my family, that I am warm and safe and well-fed, when so many aren’t, the sunset after the rain, my wonderful friends who make my life so much more beautiful and colorful.  And it works.  Whatever it is, whatever is on my mind, slowly becomes less powerful.  Gratitude, thankfulness – they have huge power to change the human perspective from what you lack to what you have, and to find strength to bring that gratitude into the world.  Thanksgiving becomes an action rather than a single day of the year.

For all the people and possibilities that have brought me to where I am in life, I’m so grateful.  For all of it, thanksgiving.

And to you and yours as well.  Whether you are eating turkey and stuffing or just sleeping in, may it be a wonderful day for you and yours.

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In-Between Days

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Like most of the northern United States, we got whacked with bitter cold temperatures for a couple days this week.  I have never been more grateful for the time I spent tearing out the remnants of the garden last weekend before the freeze set in, and for the help with yard cleanup that Eli and I had.  Other than a few things that need to be put away here and there, and obviously the shoveling that’s to come, our work outside is done for the next several months.

The lack of weeding, harvesting and preserving leaves empty space that wasn’t there before.  This time, of course, will be filled with other projects,  but the space is one of the key joys of winter.  By spring I’ll be antsy to get outside, but for now, after 7 months of work out of doors, the peace is pleasant.  This is that in-between time, before the busyness of the holidays and the relatively pleasant desire to be busy that comes of post-holiday winter boredom, that few weeks where we have no plans, few commitments, and very little desire to add either.

Of course there’s still stuff to do.  Important stuff.  Like making Gingerbread Turkeys.

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Photo by Eli 5 Stone

Or rushing outside to capture the breathtaking sunset that came with the colder temperatures.

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Making popcorn and chocolate chip cookies also hit the list of necessary things.  Wood stove fires, warm soups, and reading cookbooks as we plan some upcoming meals.  I never stop being grateful for the moments where we pause and center ourselves again around home.  Here’s to many more in-between days to come!

Early Holiday Preview

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Garden Gate at Dusk – Photo by Eli 5 Stone

November arrived, and with it the cold.  The other night it rained, and in the morning I found ice pockets in the downed leaves in the front yard.  The chickens seemed confused by the cold when we let them out to roam, and the heat lamp in their coop is on full-time now.

There’s nothing left to do outside other than tidy up the garden and yard for next year and prepare for the winter holidays, which are my favorites.  It’s time for a pot of chili and a fire in the wood stove.

It’s almost time to start baking for the holidays.  Maybe it feels early, but this is the time to start thinking about it.  There’s a few things that we always make – my friend Claire’s gingerbread cookies, sugar cookie cutouts, and others that I’ll blog about, but most important is our very simple Peppermint Bark.  This is a great thing to make early and store in the refrigerator until it’s time to give gifts.  And it’s SO easy, and even small kids can do it with a little supervision

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Here’s what you need:

A double boiler or two pans, one with about an inch of water placed below one that is absolutely dry.  If water hits melting chocolate, it will make it grainy, but the water in the pan below will keep it from burning.

3 cups milk chocolate chips
3 cups white chocolate chips
Crushed candy canes
Sheet pan
Wax paper

Cover the sheet pan in wax paper.  In the double-boiler, over low heat, melt the chocolate chips.  Spread onto the wax paper-covered sheet pan, and wash out the chocolate pan.  Dry it completely either using an oven burner or a towel.  Repeat with the white chocolate chips, spreading carefully on top of the milk chocolate so they don’t combine.

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While still warm and soft, sprinkle in crushed candy canes.  Place in the fridge to chill.  When ready, break up into 2-3″ chunks and put in goody bags or boxes.   Let the kids eat the scraps and shards that aren’t big enough to give away.

 

Final Harvest

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November arrived with a huge windstorm that both postponed Trick-or-Treating until Saturday and brought down the leaves in volume from the maple, oak and ash trees.  Their final display of gold and red regularly causes me to catch my breath, but the weather is turning cold this weekend, with our first frost, so that beauty will turn into the beginnings of winter, more stark than lush.

Our lawn has a leaf coat on it now, but I don’t really like to rake, and honestly leaving it until spring is the environmentally sound thing to do, so I’m considering whether to leave it messy or not.  I try not to trade environmental soundness for appearances, but I hate being the only messy lawn on the block.  Still, I’m working on living with my discomfort.

The last pumpkin is out of the garden, and I pulled the last batch of Tomatillos, plus a few ripening tomatoes this morning in advance of the upcoming cold.  Tomorrow, we’ll wrap our fledgling fruit trees in their winter fleece coats, and next weekend I’ll be pulling up all the plants and vines, spreading a layer of compost on the beds and calling it a day until next spring.

I feel like a squirrel at this time of year, stocking up for the winter.  A bushel of apples from our local orchard is in the fridge, while I wait for the delivery of my new dehydrator, bought with a wedding gift card.  I love dried apple chips, on salads and just to munch on, and I will make a batch of apple sauce, which we mostly use for baking.

In a few weeks we’ll head to a farm near my sister in upstate New York and buy bushels of squash, sweet potatoes, and at least 20 lbs of onions, which should hold us until around February.  Our farm share ended last week, and the last of the kale, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, garlic and shallots are being used up.  In October, November and December the food bill spikes while we stockpile and fill the kitchen with holiday goodies, and then it winds down through February.  While I know the grocery store will still be there, I think this is the way we humans are supposed to live, storing and preserving our food.  I do it imperfectly.  We can’t live on what we put up and store, and we’ll never have enough land to grow it all.   And that’s ok, because part of the strategy is investment in local farms.   This year, Vermont cheese fills my fridge, my vegetables and apples vary between zero and 6 food miles, I haven’t actually purchased an egg in months, and my meats now come within a 150-mile radius, which while it sounds like a lot, is 1/10th of the average of transported food and vegetables.  That doesn’t necessarily outweigh the chips in the pantry or the other purchases, but I’d rather do this imperfectly and incrementally than all at once.  For the same reason that diets fail, so does massive lifestyle change.  My daughter and I spent some time at the local grocery store last weekend, and this weekend we are headed to HMart to stockpile some our Asian pantry and freezer staples.

The cold draws me to the kitchen, always.  With the onset of chill, I feel pulled into the warmth of the oven.  Last weekend it was cold and rainy, so I spent as much of my time in the kitchen as I could.  This weekend will be the same – one last batch of Salsa Verde for holiday gifts, homemade potstickers, maybe a pot of chili.

One thing that happens at this time of year is that my fridge is filled with root veggies. With the final CSA pickup, and me not cooking as much due to some back-to-back travel it was time to use some things up – leeks, a very large golden beet, red and yellow onions, parsnip, carrots, mushrooms, a fennel bulb and a couple sweet potatoes went into the oiled pan, got covered in more olive oil and balsamic vinegar and then into the oven at 400 degrees F under aluminum foil. Roasted veggies are simple and delicious, needing only time and just a tiny bit of seasoning.

After about an hour, I tossed them a little, but left them covered.  After hour two I uncover them, and then roast them for another hour or two more, until the veggies are soft and caramelized.

While they roasted, I moved on to the pint of Peppadew peppers I picked at the farm this week.  Marinated stuffed Peppadews are a favorite of mine, but they are expensive.  These, on the other hand, are not and it’s the same thing.  I used this recipe, and now they are in the garage fridge waiting to be seeded and stuffed with goat cheese.

None of these recipes are particularly complex, which is part of the appeal.  There’s a place for intricate food preparation, but during stocking up season, the key is to keep the food moving into it’s final form, so when winter comes, you still have a touch of spring and summer to sustain you, literally and figuratively.

 

 

 

 

 

Cooking From Scratch When You Have No Time

Most of the working parents I know are completely overtaxed.  A lot of non-parents too.  The sheer number of things to remember, stay on top of, clean, organize, send back to school, finish for work, do around the house…it’s sometimes amazing any of us manage to sleep at all.  And sleep we don’t – 30-and-40-somethings are some of the most sleep deprived people in history.

So it’s not surprising that one of the first things to go by the wayside is homemade food.  Cooking is something I personally find pleasurable, but it’s not for everyone, and often the food you see on blogs and in cookbooks is full of expensive, Lentil Sausage Soup_Readysingle-use ingredients.  For someone who might get home at 6 and need to get food on the table for hungry kids, Frozen Pizza, Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken, take-out and all the simple things rule.  And even I, who loves to try new things, has to look askance at some things – who the hell wants squid ink on their pasta anyway?  Even if my kids would eat it (they won’t) I see no reason to, and I’m a cheerful consumer of calamari.

But here’s the thing, you can actually do healthy, homemade dinners at home and be a busy working parent.  You laugh, but it’s true.  Here’s the tricks of the trade:

  1. You prep food in bulk.  On a given Sunday afternoon, I might make 80 meatballs, and portion them out in meal-sized bags before I pop them in the freezer.  Beef Bulgogi is tasty and a huge hit amongst kids as well as adults, gets put in the freezer to marinate as it thaws, and when we  grill it, we might eat 2-3 meals off of the makings.  Whatever ‘it’ is, make a lot of it, and use your freezer.
  2. You meal plan.  Honestly, this is one of the things that will make your life so much easier, because part of the mental load at night is ‘what’s for dinner?’.  This way, you know what’s for dinner and you can do #3 to be ready.
  3. Prep the food in advance.  Early, early in the morning or the night before is your absolute best friend.  Screw cooking when you are tired, stressed from your day and everybody is eating Goldfish to fill the gap.  Put soup makings in the crockpot first thing in the morning and come home to dinner – just add bread.  If you don’t have a crockpot, you need one.  Trust me on this – even if you have only 5 recipes you know everyone will eat, that’s 5 times a month you aren’t stressed about dinner.

    Put a pot roast in there with some broth and seasonings as well as some root veggies, come home and make noodles with a little butter on them, and dinner is ready.

    Plus your house smells amazing, and most importantly, you don’t have to think at the end of your day.  Brilliant you did the thinking in advance.

  4. Keep it simple.   Eggs and toast are great for dinner.  If you have an instant pot, try this amazing Macaroni and Cheese recipe that gives any restaurant a run for it’s money.   And it’s going to be on the table in about 12 minutes from the point you prep it.  Cook time is, no joke, 4 minutes.  You can’t get through a take out line that fast, Mama.  And I promise, even your picky eaters will eat it.  And hey look, if you throw in some hot dogs or kielbasa for extra measure – we all do what we gotta do.  Quesadillas – tortillas and cheese – are very popular amongst the kid set.  Add some cooked chicken or something.  All done!
  5. Do keep some pre-made food on hand.  Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken is a staple here – add rice, a little broccoli, and dinner is served.  I got a rice cooker as a gift over 14 years ago and it’s still going strong, I put the rice in, add water, press a button and….I don’t burn the pot any more.  Put out the word, I bet someone has one they don’t use.
  6. You can honestly freeze almost anything.  Homemade pizza dough.  Homemade cookie dough.  Broth.  Leftovers put aside for another meal.  Even bread.  The key here is to have a bunch of things you can pull out and eat.

What you do have to do is some advance planning.  But a little bit of it goes a long way.

What are your tips and tricks for getting dinner on the table?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meal Planning

It’s been raw and rainy over the last 24 hours.  I braved the rain last night to head to the garden, where tomatoes are still ripening, albeit not for much longer.  We haven’t had a freeze yet, but the average temperatures have been dropping week over week, so by next weekend I’ll need to clean out the garden completely.    I’ve been holding out because the tomatillos are still producing, and I am getting Sungold and San Marzano tomatoes consistently.   The Mexican Torch Sunflowers are still in bloom as well, defying every reasonable expectation for summer flowers.  IMG_1586

Nonetheless, after another batch or two of sauce, it will be time to close up shop for the winter, pulling vines, raking, and rearranging the bricks.

I’d like to finish the garden fence as well, assuming we can before it gets too cold.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll wrap our baby fruit trees in fleece jackets for the winter, clean up the yard, and start battening down the hatches for cold weather.

We still haven’t been apple picking, so we’ll squeeze that in on Sunday, but a few local, fresh apples have worked their way into our last few weeks of the CSA, as have winter squash, so tonight we’ll be working our way through a batch of Apple and Brie soup with Pumpkin Granola, along with a salad, fresh bread, and a roasted chicken for the kids

We’ve been lucky over the last several days to enjoy deliciously warm fires in the wood stove.  After we bank the fire for the night with one final log, we close the door to the living room, and in the morning the room is still cozy warm.   We invested in some new log racks this year, and we can now store all our wood on the porch and in the house, which makes fires so much easier.

We’ve taken another step towards local food here – starting next month we’ll see monthly deliveries from Walden Local Meat , key to our efforts to reduce our food miles, control meat intake a little bit better, and stop eating quite so much residual plastic.  While the $207 each month for 10 or 11 pounds of meat, another couple pounds of local fish and ground beef and bacon added in is a large chunk of our grocery budget, I expect it will be offset by us not having to think about running to the store for ingredients.  I’ve ordered our Christmas Turkey as well, ensuring our holiday dinner is taken care of with a click of my mouse.

Which gets me to the really important point.  While I love to make new recipes, and I keep lots of ingredients on hand so that we can eat a variety of food, most of the meals here are based on what we might have on hand.  I have a lot of Salsa Verde and chicken, so Enchiladas Verdes are going to be on the menu every couple of weeks.   I turned a roaster chicken into Chicken Soup with Rice last night, adding popovers for a quick and easy side.  I buy flour in 25-lb quantities so that we always have baking ingredients around, and of course we always have plenty of eggs now.

I know I have about two weeks of lettuce and tomatoes for salads before they are replaced by roasted vegetables baking in the oven once or twice a week, or cold-weather greens like spinach.

So what does a menu plan here look like?  Well, it’s flexible – we might get busy and a labor-intensive meal gets pushed for something similar.  What have we had a lot of lately, and do we need a break from repetition?  What needs to be used up?  We have a few bananas past their prime, so banana bread or muffins.  We also have a pileup of root veggies, so a roasting pan full on Sunday night is probably just the thing.

What kind of time do we have?  If there’s lots of commitments, we might make something simple, like Rosemary Ranch Chicken, or if there’s lots of time I might make something more intricate.
Also key are kid requests – no matter what’s in season, we periodically spend the time chopping and prepping for Taco Night, complete with homemade guacamole, because, well – it’s always a hit.  The key here is not to over-plan, but to constantly assess who’s eating, what’s around, and whether everyone has a good appetite.

Here’s our meal plan for this weekend:

Friday Night: Chicken Soup with Rice, Popovers, Salad

Saturday: Eggs and Bacon for Breakfast, lunch out or whatever’s available, dinner Apple Brie Soup with Pumpkin Granola, Salad, Bread, Chicken

Sunday: I’ll get up and bake – banana muffins to go with scrambled eggs or something similar.  Lunch will be leftovers, and dinner will be roasted veggies and some kind of grilled meat, maybe turkey burgers, which are always a hit.

Simple Roasted Veggies:

Cut up a variety of root veggies – mushrooms, onions, beets, carrots, leeks, sweet potatoes, turnips – whatever you have.
Drizzle with olive oil, salt and balsamic vinegar
Bake at 375 for approximately 4 hours, occasionally turning.  Remove foil after 2 hours

Veggies will caramelize with the oil and balsamic vinegar.  Make enough for leftovers.

Monday: This is a holiday here, and the kids head to their Dad’s after breakfast.  Dad just bought a new house, so the kids are excited to go set up their rooms.  We’ll probably make pancakes or waffles for breakfast, have leftovers again for lunch, and dinner will be something Eli and I enjoy, like Grilled Scallops with Salsa Verde and Salad, along with leftover roast veggies.

Happy Eating!