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Archive for November, 2010

Those of you who follow my writing career (All of you, right?  RIGHT?!) know that I’ve written quite a bit on the topic of urban homesteading.  And if you’ve been hanging around this blog for a while, you know that a big part of urban homesteading is creative food-growing.

But let’s be real for a moment.

It’s time to face facts.  For most of us in this fine country, the garden is loooong gone (::weeping sounds::).  But homesteading isn’t just about growing.  It’s about self-sufficiency.  In some circles, it’s about returning to the “old ways” of doing things.  It includes making many of your own goods, cooking and preserving a bit more from scratch than just about anyone you know, and making do with whatever you can re-purpose.  And truth be told, there’s still plenty you can do to keep the misfitty mojo flowing.

And it is extremely essential to keep the misfitty mojo flowing.  You know how you keep the water tap dripping ever so slightly in some parts of the country (MINE!) to keep the pipes from freezing up and becoming useless?  Yeah, it’s kinda like that.  This has been a public service announcement from your Bad Mama Genny.

Here are some of the things I’m working on.  Why not try a few yourself?

1. Prepare the garden beds and containers for next year.  So all the dead plants have been pulled and you spend entire mornings looking at those barren containers/patches of earth and sobbing your little heart out (No?  You don’t?  Uh, me either!…).  Let’s get it started for next year!  Why not try your hand at lasagna gardening?  You’ll be layering moistened “brown” and “green” layers of compostable materials and topping the whole thing with finished compost or rich soil.  Then you just keep the whole thing moist and let nature do its work.  Come springtime–voila–beautiful, black gold ideal for planting.

2.  Make some countertop kefir!  Get started with this lady –she REALLY knows her stuff.

3.  Why not grow mushrooms in a cool, dark corner of your little homestead?  This winter I’ll be growing shiitakes and oyster mushrooms!  Then I’ll be trying this OMG recipe for Creamy, Buttery, Chive-y Caviar-Like Mushrooms or, heck, even this Mushroom, Jalapeño, and Cilantro Salsa.

4.  Make some homebrew, dudes!  Right now The Boy’s got Bourbon Pecan Pie Ale and Gingerbread Pumpkin Pie Ale on tap in the old refrigerator he converted to a kegerator.  Now or soon-to-be bubbling away in our fermentation room:  Hard Apple Cider, Whiskey-Spiked Christmas Porter, and Ye Olde English Bitter.  We’re also considering putting up some mead made with local, raw honey.  (Have you ever eaten raw honey?  Ohmygoodnessgracious, you haven’t?!  GO.  DO.)

5. Cure some meat!  Why not try your hand at duck breast prosciutto or even–gasp!–an entire ham?

6.  Churn your own butter!  Simply leave some heavy cream on the counter for 12 hours to sour, pour it into a jar that’s big enough to still be 2/3 empty, and shake!  It’ll get super thick and heavy and then…BAM!  A hunk of butter sitting in a pool of buttermilk!  Press the resulting butter with a wet wooden spoon to squeeze out all the buttermilk, wash it under cold water ’til it runs clear, press it again, and then mix with a bit of fine-grain salt.  The Boy, The Brother, and I did this one recent Saturday night (shut up) and the fun was off the hook.  I think The Guys really liked flexing their muscles, and we all liked spoiling our appetites with fresh-baked bread slathered with soft, just-churned butter.  Not sure what to do with the leftover buttermilk?  I’m judging you right now, because if you don’t think of biscuits and pancakes immediately upon acquiring buttermilk, you must not be “ONE OF US”…

::heavy breathing::

–Alright, so that was unsettling and I promise not to do it again.  For at least a few days.  Or more like, 12 hours.  6 hours.  3?  ::heavy breathing::  Okay, well, guess you’ll have to take the BMG just as I am.

What was I saying?

Oh, yes, you can freeze buttermilk.  Just do it in small increments (1/2 or 1 cup) so you can take out just what you need for your recipe.

7.  Make cheese!  You may remember my ricotta recipe , but you can also experiment with mozzarella, farmer’s cheese, kefir cheese, or even some homemade cheddar!

8.  Ferment some sauerkraut, the natural way.

9.  Got a bin of green tomatoes on hand?  Use them for making relish, or let them turn red and cook up a batch of this Sweet & Savory Tomato Jam. (The tomato jam is delicious, but I prefer mine a little less sweet.  If you do, too, and you’re not planning on canning it, I’d halve the sugar.)

10.  Tell me you went apple picking.  I go every year–just wouldn’t be fall without it.  And it just so happens to be the way you and I got to know each other.  Did you know that pectin, that stuff that sets jams, jellies, and preserves, occurs naturally in the peels, stems, cores, and seeds of apples?  Recently I froze my harvest with a dry-pack method and SAVED THE PEELS AND CORES to make a beautiful pink apple jelly!  Everything else went into my sugar-free pink applesauce. 

11.  Scoop up the last of the tomatillos from the market and make some salsa verde to freeze.

12.  Roast some winter squash and freeze it in 1 cup increments for pies and muffins!  I seem to be doing this weekly, as I just haven’t met a punkin I didn’t like.  So you probably know the typical method for roasting pumpkins: chop ’em in half, scoop out the seeds, roast in a 425 oven face-down until they’re super soft, food-process the pulp.  But how about putting that slow-cooker to work?  Put the halves (or quarters, or eighths…you may have to cut them down to fit) into the stoneware, add a splash of water, cover, and slow cook on high until tender.  Save the seeds…

13.  And then roast those seeds!  Rinse ’em off, toss them with a bit of olive oil and sea salt, and roast at 375 until they’re toasty and crunchy, stirring occasionally.  When they’re done, eat ’em as they are, sprinkle a handful outside for the squirrels to enjoy (yes, I AM that much of a softie, but only when they’ve STAYED THE EFF AWAY from my garden), or turn them into brittle candy!

14.  Eat your greens.  At this point, your fresh produce consumption has already dropped, and you need to compensate by boosting your diet with nutrient-rich food.  Enter kale, chard, and the multitude of other cold-weather greens that are now sweeter and more tender thanks to a little frosty weather!  Try this raw kale salad–I  actually like it better without the bread crumbs–or make this delicious Chorizo, Chickpea, & Sweet Potato Soup (I added kale).

15. Try your hand at homemade laundry detergent.  You’ll feel like a frugalista.  Did I just say “frugalista”?  Excuse me while I go kill myself.

16.  Knit something!  The 6-Hour Afghan (free pattern at Lion Brand’s website; you’ll just have to register as a member.  Search “6 hour afghan”.) makes an awesome gift (for someone who will appreciate it!  Remember, non-knitters have a limited capacity to understand all the time, money, and effort that goes into knitted projects!).  It’s also easy enough for a beginner to tackle, and comes together so satisfyingly fast, you probably won’t even abandon it halfway through!  Not that anybody I know regularly abandons knitting projects halfway through…

Anyhoo, when I was new to knitting, I churned out two of these babies–shades of purple for Mom, shades of pink for Aunt Pat–and true to the claims, each took less than 6 hours.

17. Research some breeds of miniature livestock and plan for the day when your urban homestead has a wee bit of land to play with.  Don’t you just LOVE the idea of a miniature jersey cow wandering around your backyard, grazing on your lawn, mooing every now and then for a milking?  I bet your neighbors would think you’re just the bee’s knees!*

*Your neighbors will probably not think you are the bee’s knees, they will probably try to gas you in your sleep, and also, I just said “the bee’s knees.”  The bee’s knees.  There, did it again.*

18.  Check out some chicken coop building plans if you fancy a d.i.y project, or consider asking for one of these for Christmas!  Then plan your flock on this fantastic site.

19.  Review your garden notes from this year (you did make those, right?) or sit down to pen your observations, hopes, and plans for next year’s plot while it’s all still fresh in your mind.  Nothing like dreamin’ bout Heirloom Tomatoes (you must read this book!) to get you through those cold, lonely nights.  Also, The Boy is good for that but you can’t have him ’cause he’s mine and stuff.  Get your own The Boy.

20.  Start a countertop sprout farm!  No soil, light, or hard labor necessary!  Of course, you do run the risk of pining after some seriously kiff sprouting equipment.

Those are just a few of the projects we’re involved with this year–what are you up to?  Will you be trying any of these?  Have any suggestions of your own?

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As a little girl, there were stories that I’d ask my mom to tell over and over again until I’d memorized the details and could repeat them to myself.

This came in handy when i needed to keep my mind occupied as I sat in my cage and ate the breadcrumbs they tossed in between the bars.

I’ve considered putting these stories together in some sort of book…I often grieve the lack of a stronger grasp on the BMG’s family’s history, my ancestors, where we came from and what my roots are and OH SWEET JESUS THERE MUST BE EVIDENCE FOR ME SOMEWHERE IN MY FAMILY TREE BECAUSE AT THE MOMENT I’M CONVINCED I WAS JUST LEFT ON MY FAMILY’S DOORSTEP but that’s another issue for another therapy session.  I mean blog post.  Whatever.

So these stories are my solace and my consolation prize.  Here are a few of my family’s favorite food stories–what are yours?

When my mom and aunt were girls, their mom used to make a baked good every Wednesday for them to enjoy (“hump day” and all).  One of her specialties?  Salty/Sweet Peanutty-Butterscotch bars.  One chilly autumn night, she took the pan out the oven, cut them into bars in the pan, and set them on the back porch to cool off.  Everyone forgot about them for half an hour, and when they came back, they found a squirrel sitting on the pan and gazing down at the bars lovingly.  My grandma started to rush over there angrily to scare him away.  You’d think he’d bolt, or take a few haphazard bites and book it, but instead he assessed all the bars in a panicky way, chose his favorite (in the middle, naturally), and then worked his two little paws into the pan around the bar.  He wiggled back and forth and up and down and leveraged his weight until he had managed to pull one, neat peanutty-butterscotch bar out of the pan, stick it in his teeth, and then waddle away with his handpicked treasure as fast as he could.  My grandmother couldn’t bear to pursue him after he’d tried so hard, nor could she stand to throw the rest of them out, so they ate them anyway, reasoning that a squirrel that smart and fastidious couldn’t be all that dirty anyway.

Or this one:

My mother used to teach fourth graders, and there was never a dull moment.  One especially memorable little girl (let’s call her Susie May) was just oozing with personality.  My mother knew she’d be trouble (the fun kind) when on her first day of school, she became extremely indignant and offended over a little boy who’d pulled her curly hair.  Susie May marched up to the front of the classroom with her hands on her hips, got to my mother’s desk, and screamed, “Miss Gloria, I have a problem!”  My mother put down her lesson plan, gave Susie May a concerned look, and said, “Susie May, dear, what’s wrong?” thinking some grave offense had been committed.  Susie May stammered, “John pulled my hair, and…and…” she then burst into tears and choked out “…AND MY MOMMY SPENT EIGHT WHOLE DOLLARS ON MY NEW HAIRCUT AND I CAN’T HAVE ANOTHER ONE AND HE’S GOING TO RUIN IT AND IT’S NOT FAIR!”

Susie was sweet and loud, with a well-developed sense of justice, you see.  So now that you have a feel for Susie May’s personality, we’ll move onto the food story.

One day my mother assigns an Easter craft, and tells all the kids to bring 3 hard-boiled eggs to class the following week.  Of course, my mother figures a few kids will forget, so she boils an extra dozen to keep in her desk for the day.  A few kids admit to forgetting and it’s no big deal, but the whole day Susie May is sitting at her desk shifting uncomfortably and looking extremely nervous, despite the fact that she has her eggs and everything seems to be going okay.  Then, at the end of the project, my mother needs to collect the eggs to make a display.  All the kids hand over their eggs except Susie May.

“Susie May, hand over your eggs.”

“I…do I have to?”

“Of course you do.  Now, what’s the problem?  Your eggs look very nice, and you should be proud of them, so let’s have them.”

Susie May placed her eggs gingerly on top of the pile, and my mother turned to walk back to her desk without the egg basket.  She was halfway back up the aisle when Susie May let out a bloodcurdling scream.  My mother whirled around.

“Susie May, my God, what’s the matter?!”

“MISS GLORIA, YOU CAN’T TAKE THOSE EGGS ‘CAUSE I FORGOT TO ASK MY MOMMY TO HARD-BOIL MY EGGS SO I JUST TOOK RAW ONES AND DECORATED THEM AND NOW THEY’RE GOING TO SMELL AND I’M SORRY!”

That Susie May.

On another occasion my mother assigned the famous vinegar and baking soda volcano science project.  They’d “erupt” in school, but each kid had to construct a paper-mâché volcano and paint it at home.  All the volcanoes the children brought to school that day were quite impressive, but for some reason the room smelled like roast beef.  After a while the smell became so pungent that other teachers were ducking their heads in and inquiring as to what smelled like Christmas dinner.  My mother was at a loss to explain it.

Finally, all the volcanoes have erupted and everyone’s happy.  Except Susie May, who looks like she’s close to tears.  Finally she makes eye contact with my mother.  Susie May looks around to make sure no one’s watching and makes her way up to the desk.

“Miss Gloria…” she whispers.

“Yes, Susie May?”  My mother can’t wait to find out what’s coming, but she senses it has something to do with the roast beef smell.

“My mother ran out of brown paint at home for my volcano.”

“Oh, well, you can’t tell, Susie May, it looks very ni–“

“No, Miss Gloria…she ran out…so we used Gravy Mate to finish painting my volcano.”

Mystery solved. That Susie May was totally a misfit in training.

Got any high-larious food stories of your own?

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Recently I was contacted in connection with this blog (WHOAH, SOMEONE CONTACTED YOU IN CONNECTION WITH YOUR BLOG, OMG, THAT MUST MEAN YOU HAVE, LIKE, AT LEAST ONE READER!  ahaha, shut up.).  The person who contacted me is a vegetarian, and he wondered if I’d ever considered vegetarianism, since my focus tends to be on healthy and humane eating.  He was as gentle and non-offensive as he could be while still firmly stating his vegetarian ethic.  At one point he added, “I personally consider humane-killing a joke,” and he wondered how someone who had hand-fed an animal all summer could then kill it and eat it at harvesttime.

This is not an easy issue.  This is so, so, so not an easy issue.  I’m an “animal lover”.  I’m probably responsible for the many allergies that I have as an adult, since as a child I never existed with fewer than 11 household pets at a time.  The idea of raising a hen for a few years of eggs and then slaughtering her when she stops producing makes me feel…terrible.  No joke.  TERRIBLE.  Couldn’t do it.

And yet I eat chicken.  I also eat beef, lamb, pork, bison, goat, and rabbit, among others.  Not often–The Boy and I eat vegetarian meals on a majority of nights.  But nevertheless, we do eat some meat, and I’ve struggled with this before.  Does it make people hypocritical if they eat animals they’re not so sure they could slaughter themselves?  While I’ve never gone gung ho vegetarian, I dabbled with a vegan lifestyle for a time while I lived in New York, and decided it wasn’t for me.

There are many anti-vegetarian rebuttals out there written by people who are ferociously defending their own choices with no small disregard for the arguments of the other side.  There are some disgusting and abhorrent things written and done by misguided vegetarians (oh, Lord, PETA, do you really need one more person to call you out?).

I don’t appreciate the extremist tactics of either side.  None of us have all the answers, and I won’t pretend to.  I also won’t stoop to making fun of the other side to make myself look better.  Chances are, we’re both a little right, and a little wrong.  But I’m currently living an omnivorous lifestyle, and I stand behind the reasoning that got me there.

Here’s an excerpt from my response to him.

I agree that it’s hard to believe happy animals can come from industrial animal farms.  That’s why I refuse to eat meat from factory farms.  I’ve instead chosen small, local, family-run establishments.  The offer has been extended to me to shake the hands of the people who care for the animals, and even to inspect their living conditions and pet the animals myself.  So I believe there are people raising animals in a kind and humane way.  It is not the majority of animals being raised for consumption today, sadly, and I am behind every effort to change those numbers.

As regards slaughter, yes, I do think I would find it difficult to slaughter an animal I had raised, but then again, I’ve never raised animals for slaughter.  How can we speak of what we do not know?  I’ve talked to some of the families that do, and they have told me it is something you never think you will be able to do, but seemingly miraculously, can and do with much less heartache than anticipated.  That they feel united to nature’s cycles when they raise animals for consumption.  That they have enormous respect and gratitude for the sacrifices being made by these animals for the well-being of people.  Again, I do find the idea difficult, but I’m open to trying my own hand at it someday.  I cannot attack it in good conscience because I have not tried to understand for myself.

I have great respect for the vegetarian movement and, aside from some fringe zealots, find most of their aims to be true and pure.  But I know these people that raise animals for human consumption, and their aims are also true and pure.  I find no reason to choose the vegetarians over the family farmers in this regard.

I’ve considered vegetarianism in the past, and lived that way for a brief span of 6 months, in that time taking care to substitute appropriate fats, proteins, and B-vitamins.  During that time my health wavered tenuously and I never lost that very primitive craving for meat.  Perhaps it is something I will try again in the future.  In the meantime, I see no cause for changing a lifestyle that is in accordance with my ethics and keeps me feeling healthy and satisfied.

What do you think, guys?  How do you connect “loving animals” with the choice to eat them?

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, via Wikimedia Commons”]
This could get controversial.

Folks, how do you feel about sharing treasured recipes?  Clearly, over-sharing is and always has been the BMG’s m.o., in all areas of life.  You’re welcome.  But I know there are those who feel differently.  And I’d like to understand that a bit better.

See,  I was raised to always give a recipe when asked.  To believe that it’s pure ego to want to keep a recipe all to yourself so no one else can enjoy it without your divine intervention.  That’s how I console myself, of course, when someone refuses a recipe on the grounds that it’s a “family secret.”  “PURE EGO!” my brain shouts comfortingly as I plaster a smile on my face and nod in a way which I hope conveys the complete compassion and human forgiveness I, uh, TOTALLY DO NOT feel.

Sometimes my mother would come home from work with a bag of especially buttery butter cookies, or a slice of quick bread stealthily wrapped in some napkins and shoved into her lunchbag, and a sour expression on her face.  She’d bristle as she recounted the story of how she’d been humble and complimentary and sweet, and told her coworker she’d do anything to have that recipe…and had then been cruelly refused.  Sometimes she’d plunk the treat in question down onto the tabletop, a little too hard, truth be told, and would order us all to take a bite and try to figure out what was in it.

Oh, the horrible trials we endured.

Anyhow, a long, unscientific process would ensue, and we’d all sit around munching and tossing out ideas and, yes, cursing those who don’t share recipes.  “We CAN figure this out, we MUST!” we’d say, and spend more time on that pumpkin bread than was really necessary.

If we can nail this, we thought, that’ll REALLY show ’em.

Sadly, I haven’t progressed my family tree in the emotional maturity department much.  (SHOCKER.)  These days if I’m refused a recipe I often feel that old indignation creep up as I storm home with my lab sample, determined to crack the code.  I sit at the table tasting tiny, scrutinizing bites between evil cackles, as if I planned to market and sell this friggin’ cake on a massive scale and somehow make their family secret obsolete and stupid.  I wonder if somewhere out there, some stingy family feels ripped off by a pissed off houseguest who managed to figure out their secret recipe for tiny candy-coated chocolates stamped with perfect little letter “m”s.

“HOW do they get the m’s on every piece?!  I MUST KNOW!!”

I suppose when it comes down to it, you’re a sharer or a non-sharer.  I’m sure there are some valid reasons for both.  No doubt, there are some ridiculous reasons, too.  I’m not standing here saying that you’re screwed up if you don’t share recipes.  But you’re screwed up if you don’t share recipes.

Okay, but really, I would ask you to examine your motives.  Why the hush hush?  Are you planning to make money with this/is it a business secret, in which case I get it?  Is this a family loyalty thing–Great Gammy Gam never shared the recipe, and you’ll preserve her legacy, albeit stingy, in her honor?  Are you afraid your friends will stop inviting you over if they know how to make that special cake without you?  (‘Cause people, I’ve learned that pure sloth is enough to keep them coming back.)  Or do you really just not want anyone else to be able to enjoy this treat on their own?  Does your being able to follow this recipe and produce something that good make you special in your own eyes, and to share that bit of special would be to diminish yourself somehow?

In a bi-partisan move aimed at understanding each other this election season, let’s come out and share our rationales for the way we think.  If you promise to re-think your position and listen to mine, I’ll promise not to make any poorly-edited campaign ads about you with quotes taken out of context and a gray pallor imposed over your face via Photoshop.  Maybe.

So where do you fall?

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