Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Summer of Local Foods - Wrap-Up

So, Labor Day was the end of our Five-mile diet and Foraged Sunday challenges. Both were interesting experiences, and yes, we learned a thing or two.

What we learned is that we can eat pretty well on what grows within five miles of our house, but as the realtors intone, it has everything to do with location, location, location. We knew, but were reminded of, how very lucky we are to live in our particular location. Even with all of the headaches of living in suburbia and all of lack of and challenges that come with living on such a small piece of land, every time we look for a larger homestead, something reminds us that our location is perfect, even if our homestead is not.

We are lucky to live near some farms that supplied a lot of the food we ate during the month, and that, in truth, we eat most of the time. Milk, meat, and vegetables are all available at these farms, and while the selections were limited to a few vegetables (zucchini, corn, peppers, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes), there was always plenty of food.

Being gluten-free (per Deus Ex Machina's doctor's recommendations back in April) made things easier, because, at least for the first part of the transition, we opted not to replace wheat-based products with their gluten-free grocery store options. That is, we decided not to switch to gluten-free bread or rice pasta like most people do. Instead, we just avoided breads and pasta, and the like, and so during the month of August, we weren't Jonesing for a big sandwich, because we hadn't been eating those kinds of foods anyway. It made the challenge easier.

We did cheat a couple of times and have some take-out, but for the month of August, if we say that we ate 60 meals (two meals per day for the month), only 5% of those meals were not food grown within five miles of our house. It's not perfect, but it's not horrible, either.

We continued Foraging Sundays during the five-mile challenge, and we were always successful at limiting our meals to what we could forage. We've decided that it was easier to stick to the foraging challenge, because it was only one day each week, and we figured we could get through just one day, but for the whole month, on days when we were just too busy to cook at home, we had a hard time sticking to the five-mile limit.

An important lesson was that if we had no other choice, we could eat well enough on what grows within five miles of our house, but the fact that we do have other choices - a LOT of other choices - hit home pretty hard during the month. It's just too easy, in our culture, to pick-up something while we're out. Eating became a very thoughtful exercise. I even found myself obsessing over food, at least in the beginning, always trying to figure out what I was allowed to eat and dreaming of what I would prepare for Deus Ex Machina and I for dinner.

The other difficulty was that we didn't require that our daughters participate in the challenge, and so I found that I was cooking one thing for them, and something different for Deus Ex Machina and me on some nights. It's not different than we eat anyway, because Deus Ex Machina and I are gluten-free and our daughters are not, and so, sometimes, I fix them something that we won't eat, and so I have to prepare something different for us. During the challenge, though, sometimes the food they ate would be things we could have eaten, but couldn't have, because it wasn't local.

We also have a pretty well-stocked pantry, and some of the food - okay, a lot of the food - is not from within five miles of our house. Strawberries from the PYO farm, buckwheat flour grown in Maine, Maine-grown beans, local artisan cheeses, ice cream - all local stuff, by most definitions, but not within five miles and so out of the diet for the month.

I won't lie, I'm glad it's over, and I'm not sure that it really accomplished anything - at least for me (Deus Ex Machina lost weight over the summer - either from not eating as much food in general, particularly on Sundays; from getting more exercise while he was out foraging; or from eliminating gluten ... or all of the above. He lost weight, but I found it, but I didn't eat much before the challenge, I'm not sure gluten is an issue for me, and I didn't do much foraging, because I usually stayed home to work). We didn't stay within the five miles on several of the days, because it was just too much of a bother. We have very busy lives, typical of the kind of environment in which we live, and we are, now, hyper aware of how much the modern culture forces us away from concentrating on food to fixating on things that, in the greater scheme of things, have absolutely no bearing on our survival as a species.

I'm not going to say that the five-mile challenge was a waste, but I think we learned a lot more on Foraging Sundays, and it also reinforced some things we knew, but didn't think enough about.

We've been hearing (and repeating) that hunter-gatherers only have to work for three hours a day finding food. That may be true, but our mistaken assumption has been that hunter-gatherers work for three hours per day filling their bellies and then, languish around for the rest of the day weaving baskets and creating cave paintings. While it may be true that hunter-gatherers didn't toil in the same way agrarian cultures do, to assume that they don't work is inaccurate.

There are two parts to eating wild foods. The first part is finding it. The second part, the hardest part, is preparing it so that it could be eaten.

We, truly, do live in a fast-food culture, and it's not just the proliferation of restaurants, like McDonalds, where a meal can be purchased and consumed in less time than it took for Gilligan and the Skipper to have their weekly adventure with the rest of the Castaways. Every bit of our culture is designed so that food is quick and easy and done, and then, we have more time to do stuff that doesn't matter.

Early in the challenge, it was easy to gather enough greens for salad in about fifteen minutes, and Deus Ex Machina could go out and bring back the ingredients for a nice, spring soup during a half hour walk. The whole meal process was pretty much what we knew from the kind of life we lead as suburbanites. Those were the good days.

What we knew, but didn't think enough about is that as the season progresses the landscape changes. It's not like grocery store grazing, where any ingredient one could possibly want for any meal (with very few exceptions - like fresh cherries which are only available for a short period in the late spring) is readily available all of the time (salad in winter? You bet! Where's the dressing?).

In the real world, not the one made up for our modern enjoyment, plants don't grow that way. That everything has a season is not just a song by The Byrds (or an Ecclesiastes). We knew it, but when depending on what we could find and having such a limited knowledge, the transitive properties of plants hit home, pretty hard, more than once. After the first weekend, we hit our groove, and we were having some delicious soups and wild greens, and then, the plantain was stringy, and the dandelions were bitter, and the Japanese knotweed was too big ... and we were wandering around wondering what to eat.

The most profound discovery was how important our stored foods would be. Over the years that we've been foraging, we've always made a point to save some of the food for later. So, we had blackberry jam, which we ate as a side dish with sautéed greens. One weekend I found the last of the Hen of the Woods Deus Ex Machina had foraged the previous summer tucked back in the freezer behind some chicken parts. We had sautéed mushrooms to accompany the steamed Periwinkles. It was one of the fanciest meals we'd ever eaten.

Gifts from friends also played a huge role. Deus Ex Machina harvested the above mentioned periwinkles with a friend, who had become interested in our project, and even gave us a Striper he'd caught. It was one of the best meals we had during our project. The plum wine was made with foraged plums another friend had given us the year before. Fish that friends had caught ended up in several meals. We were really grateful to those friends who supported us in our efforts to eat only foraged foods.

We also expanded our palates and knowledge during the challenge. In particular, Deus Ex Machina learned to identify and harvest several different mushrooms, including: Reishi (which is really a polypore and not a mushroom per se), chanterelles and black trumpets. He also noted that, contrary to what we had come to believe, mushrooms are not just a fall treat. Chanterelles grow through much of our summer. One just has to know where to look to find them.

Much to the disgust of some of our acquaintances, road kill ended up on our plate, and braised groundhog is absolutely delicious. If I had to say what it tasted like, I'd say it's like duck - a dark, very greasy meat. I was surprised at how greasy it was, but it was very tasty, and while I wouldn't go out of my way to kill a groundhog, I wouldn't turn my nose up at it, either. We had groundhog for two Sunday meals and one weekday meal (as a mock-chipped beef gravy over mashed potatoes), and Deus Ex Machina took groundhog leftovers to work for two days. One groundhog fed two people the equivalent of three meals, each.

If I had to condense the experience into bullet points, I'd say:
  • It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be.
  • Being a local, seasonal eater requires a commitment to food preservation.
  • The whole experience reinforced and strengthened our commitment to localizing our diet.

We are going to continue to forage and to harvest from our garden and to patronize the local farms. We are going to continue to reduce our dependence on the grocery store. We are going to continue to explore new ways to preserve food.

And we're more committed, than ever, to accepting the bounty nature provides.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Home Gardened Food Can Cure the World (?)

I have this theory.

Everyone knows that for allergy and asthma sufferers honey from local bees is said to be beneficial in treating the symptoms. In particular, those with allergies to pollen, because whatever the bees do to the pollen to make the honey allows the allergy sufferer to digest the pollen, and then, acclimate his/her body to it. The theory is that consuming honey made with pollen from trees to which one is allergic allows one's body to build up an immunity to the allergen. It's like Westley, from the Princess Bride, who consumes small amounts of Iocaine poison over a five year period to build up an immunity ... and it's also the theory behind immunizations.

I think it works even further than just honey, though, and I think consuming plants that are grown in one's area, plants that are subjected to the same daily barrage of toxins, pollutants and irritants, can be medicinal.

An article that appeared in my local paper a few years ago referenced a study that showed maple syrup to be high in antioxidants. According to the article: ... the [trees] naturally produce compounds to protect themselves, and these compounds are flowing in sap.

It stands to reason - for me, at least - that the same principle would work for other plants, and that plants, grown to maturity in a particular area, will produce antioxidants that help the plant (and its progeny ... and prey) to survive in the area where it was grown.

Maybe I'm grasping, but it does make sense.

It also supports the idea that a local diet is healthier, and it makes growing food even more appealing and important.

I live in Maine, and for four to six months of the year, we have snow on the ground, but that doesn't mean we can't grow stuff. Even without high energy inputs from heated greenhouses, we can extend our season, and if we choose plants that will thrive in our particular climate, those crops can also be stored for our long winter.

This article, written many years ago, details a few things that are particularly suited to life in the northeast.

What's pretty awesome, though, for those folks who don't live up here in winterland is that many of the crops that do well up here, thrive there - in the winter. Peas and Kale can handle a light frost, and even a bit of snow. They could be grown in places that have warm winters. With just a little protection, some lettuces and other greens (see Eliot Coleman's book The Four Season Harvest for inspiration) will provide a steady diet of high nutrient foods - many of which are perfect in cold-weather soups.

I guess the point is that many of us hail from agrarian roots, and we all seem to have it ingrained in our psyches that the time to grow is summer and the time to let the land lay fallow is winter, but I think that it's not true. Here in Maine it's true, because most things don't grow here when it's below freezing temperatures, but in other parts of the country, winter might be the best time to be out in the garden.

And it's also about choosing the right plant, because, guess what? We can grow some warm-loving perennials here, like Kiwi and figs. The key is to pick a variety that is cold hardy, and to understand that the fruit will probably be a lot smaller than the varieties that grow where it's a lot warmer for a lot longer.

My figs aren't very big, but they are completely delicious!

The idea is to just try to do something, and if you're like me, a not-gardener who has a garden, you might even surprise yourself by how much you can do ... when you try.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Expanding the Quarter Acre

I used to garden only once a year. I planted in the spring (Memorial Day is the traditional planting day in Maine), and then, I harvested - ideally all at once - sometime in August. By October 1, the garden beds were neatly "put away" until next spring.

Then, I wanted to plant garlic, but garlic is planted in the fall and harvested in early summer.

And then, I started learning about succession planting, which makes a lot more sense for me, because of the very small space I have in which to garden.

Even now, in September, we could be planting a few things here in Maine. The garden isn't done, and if we have the ability to protect the plants we can increase our options even more.

I thought this was a pretty good article that lists a few things, even, we Maine gardeners, could be planting right now to harvest in October.

I guess, the lesson for me, a novice and "Adult Onset Gardener", is that the season isn't, necessarily, neatly ordered and chronological. All of it can be happening all at once. It's a delicious lesson.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Dinner Prep Chatter

Big Little Sister is making dinner tonight. Her specialty is Dragon's Breath Pizza, which she makes, totally, from scratch, including the crust. It includes hot peppers as one of the ingredients*.

I'm sitting in my office, tapping away at some transcription I'm doing, and I hear from the kitchen, "Can you get me a hot pepper?"

Little Fire Faery goes out in the yard to the container that has Hungarian peppers and harvests one for her.

Can I just say how much I LOVE having a garden?

*She's making a gluten-free entrée with some corn pasta, local vegetables and left over steak for Deus Ex Machina and me, because we don't do pizza crust. She's a pretty talented chef. Maybe she's started on a career path ... ;).

Security versus Resiliency.

I'm working on my wrap-up for August's Eat Local Challenge, but ... you know ... stuff.

Anyway, I didn't want to leave everyone hanging (like I've been doing too much of, lately), and so I thought, instead of a real post, I'd post a couple of links.

I think, when we look back on these times, the word we will use to describe this time period will be "resiliency." We all seem to be striving for just that, and today, I read a really great article by Nick, husband of the amazingly talented and wicked smaht, Erica from Northwest Edible Life. It's about having Income Resilience, which he calls an Income Quilt, using the phrase coined by my friend, Lisa Kivrist.

It's a great article.

I also wanted to link to an old article I wrote about resiliency. The focus of my article is on the kind of resiliency that comes from making one's living arrangement more self-sufficient (i.e. growing one's own food, collecting rainwater, having a secure shelter).

Nick and Erica are producing a great deal of their own food, as well, and when I spoke with Erica last week for an upcoming podcast, she said that having their food stores has been essential for their peace of mind as they transition to this more resilient, but less "secure" lifestyle.

Of course, the idea that being employed by someone else makes us more secure than the kind of entrepreneurial (and resilient) lifestyle that Nick and Erica have really is an illusion, isn't it?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Five Mile Diet ... Mostly

We have tried to stay within the five mile parameters, although we probably made it too easy on ourselves by exempting drinks. Coffee and tea are exempted, which means I still, also, get to enjoy sugar and cream.

With a couple of exceptions this week, we did stay within the five miles every day. One day last week, we had a particularly busy day, and while I should have just buckled down and cooked dinner (my friend, Melonie, would ask, What Would Ma Engles Do, and she definitely would NOT have gone for Thai take-out, just because the day was busy and late). Anything would have been better - not necessarily better tasting, but certainly better than succumbing to the temptation. I was weak.

Saturday ended up being another one of those kinds of days, with our girls involved in dance/community service events, and we just decided to take the easy way out.

Otherwise, however, we did manage to eat close to home.

My consolation is that there were more successful days than not. My favorite meal has been to brown ground beef, season it like I would for tacos, and then add zucchini, squash, tomatoes, green beans ... whatever vegetables I have. The first time I made it, Deus Ex Machina kept commenting on how good it was, and so it has been a repeat. The bonus is that it has proven a good way to get everyone to eat things like zucchini, summer squash and green beans. We've also had chicken for a couple of meals. Usually our chicken is stretched two or three meals. This week, we had it roasted on Day 1 and in a casserole in Day 2. Deus Ex Machina took chicken to lunch on a couple of days.

Breakfast is still hash browned potatoes and an egg.

I've stopped snacking as much as I used to, but for whatever reason, I think I'm actually gaining weight instead of losing. I joke that Deus Ex Machina is losing weight ... I'm finding it. Maybe I'm just drinking more sweet, creamy coffee or sweet tea.

We're still eating only foraged foods on Sunday, and this Sunday was actually an incredible day. We had braised groundhog (we saved the legs from last week's road kill), which was really, really good! And with it we had applesauce from the apples foraged in our neighborhood. The funny part is that, not only have we eaten every Sunday since we started foraged only Sundays, but we have enough extra stuff left from the last few Sundays to make another meal - some apples, a few milkweed pods and some mushrooms.

We're on the last week of the challenge, and I don't know whether to say it's been a success or a failure. We haven't been completely faithful to the five miles on a couple of occasions, but mostly, we have eaten only what is available locally. We could have been more creative, and there are a lot of resources that we didn't even tap into that we could have made use of.

I did make both cheese and yogurt (skills I'd already learned). Both are delicious, and we've enjoyed having them.

The real test will be September, to see how much and/or how quickly we slide back into not always paying attention.

We're having a portion of our house rebuilt, starting today, and when they were doing the demo, they found a lot of rot and some ants. We've been trying to get this work started since March, and truth be told, we've been sketching and planning this sort of work for almost a decade. It was finally started today, and we realized that we really did wait too long. Mold, rot, and an ant infestation might make the job a lot more involved than it would have been if we had gotten to things earlier. Guess we'll see if there is a price for procrastination. Either way, we're in this house for the long-haul, and we're very hopeful that this renovation will make our house work better for us.

P.S. Zucchini pickles fermented with whey. Yes!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Road Kill - It's What's For Dinner

Every year, Deus Ex Machina gets his hunting license, but as a bow hunter, the act of hunting is a bit more of a challenge than those who use guns will experience. First, he has to be much closer to his quarry, and second, he has to be very sure of his shot. Maybe he shoots the animal, but if he doesn't do it right, the animal will run, perhaps bleed to death, and there's a very good possibility that he won't find it.

The worst thing in the world for a hunter is to believe that he's injured the animal that will die a very slow, very painful death, and that death will be for naught ... well, except maybe to feed an opportunistic coyote.

He teases me about hunting groundhog, and while I have no particular love of ground hog, or squirrel, or wild rabbit, most of those animals are only one meal - unlike a deer would be. We raise meat rabbits in the back yard, and to me, to kill a wild animal to eat when we have an equivalent already is borderline unscrupulous. It would be different if we were actually starving and needed that animal, but to consciously choose to kill a groundhog just so that we could eat, when we have no real need of that meat ... well, just say that I have strongly discouraged the idea, and Deus Ex Machina has always acquiesced to my resistance.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should also say that my resistance has nothing to do with not wanting to eat groundhog, as I have no qualms, whatsoever, about consuming the meat. I am a meat eater, and I'll try most things - once. I do have my limits, which include most carnivores (the thought of eating something that kill me for food is a little unsettling, and I haven't been able to get beyond it - so any canine or feline is pretty much off my food list, at least for the time being), but I have eaten some small, wild animals, including squirrel and beaver, and the meat was palatable.

Sunday is Foraging Sundays, which means that Deus Ex Machina and I have challenged ourselves to eat only foraged foods for the day. It's been quite an experience, and there have been a few Sundays when our meals were thin soup with a few greens that I was able to forage from the yard.

We've also enjoyed wild caught fish from friends and family who've gifted them to us, but we've always known we couldn't depend on others to fill our bellies. One week we had periwinkles. Yes, I, now, know without a doubt, that I can, easily, eat escargot, and I would completely enjoy the experience! If nothing else, this challenge has taught me to be absolutely not squeamish about my food choices.

Sunday was an incredibly bountiful day. Big Little Sister, Little Fire Faery, and Precious picked several pounds of apples on Saturday from a feral apple tree in our neighborhood. So, for breakfast, we had applesauce. Ignore the worm trails in the apples. Protein, right?

Deus Ex Machina cut the apples into pieces, and then, using the awesome food mill that my very good friend from Florida (Hi, Judy - waving enthusiastically!) sent to us many years ago, he sifted out the skins and cores. It was a lot smoother than we usually make our applesauce, but delicious! Oh, yes!

Big Little Sister and Little Fire Faery had planned to work at the yard sale their dance school is having, and so Deus Ex Machina drove them out there while I worked. In addition, he had a few other local errands to run, and while he was out on the road, he figured he might stop a couple of places we know where the foraging might be good.

On his way to the dance school, he called.

"So, how would you feel if I brought home whistle pig?" He asked, after I'd picked up the phone.

I paused.

"How fresh is it?" I asked.

When I was a kid, I lived in this wonderful suburb that was truly on the fringes of a newly expanding city. The closest shops were, at least, two miles away, and the subdivision was built just beyond, but not connected to, a country club. We lived four miles or so from the by-pass. We were a fifteen minute drive from the schools and a half hour drive from the military base where my father worked.

We used to walk up to the country club during the summer to use the pool, which after having been originally a private club for the well-to-do set, suffered financially during the 1970s economic collapse and oil crisis, and finally opened to the public. It was mile from my house, and I spent, at least, two entire summers there as a 'tween.

The walk to the pool was along a road that was bookended by woods on either side. It was still a fairly "country" area, and the road dead-ended at our subdivision. There wasn't a lot of traffic, and indeed, there weren't even any lines painted on the road to delineate lanes.

Once, as we walked along, we smelled this sickly sweet odor, and then, we saw this bloated carcass, teeming with little white larvae. The smell and the maggots made me gag, and while my friends wanted to explore the dead thing, I just wanted to get out of there. One of my friends threw a rock into it and it burst, and I almost emptied my lunch right there on the tarred road.

When someone says "road kill" to me, that's what I usually think.

But Michael Douglas, the owner and head instructor of the Maine Primitive Skills School explained during his appearance on the Doomsday Prepper television program a few years ago, that roadkill can be perfectly safe, and the fact is that Deus Ex Machina and I have enjoyed a road kill in the past. Our son-in-law witnessed a deer being hit, and the driver of the car who hit the deer did not want it, and so our son-in-law took it and brought it to us. It was about 60 lbs of free venison, and we enjoyed every morsel.

This seemed a bit different, however, as Deus Ex Machina neither hit the ground hog himself, nor witnessed it being hit.

"I don't know, but wasn't here yesterday when we passed, and it's here today. So, it's been less than twenty-four hours?" He said.

According to Michael Douglas, to test for freshness when encountering road kill, one must pull the hairs on the back of the animal's neck. If they come loose, it's not fresh.

"Smell it," I advised him, after I told him the freshness test.

He assured me he would.

"I'm telling you that you need to really smell it, because if it smells the least bit bad, I won't eat it." I emphasized.

An hour or so later, he was home and butchering it on the picnic table in the yard. He brought it in when it was cleaned, and I took a sniff. It smelled fine.

He cut off the considerable fat stores, which I rendered, giving the cracklins to the dogs and cats, and pouring the fat into a jelly jar to use later.

He cut off the legs, which we stored in a plastic baggy in the freezer for another day.

The rest of the carcass, I boiled - half went into soup, which we ate for dinner. The other half was shredded and put into a pint jar in the refrigerator. We're planning to make it into a chipped-beef kind of gravy to go over mashed potatoes, which we can't have for foraged Sundays, but we can have as a part of our eating from the homestead challenge.

When we started this challenge, I told Deus Ex Machina that I didn't want him to go hunting for a whistle pig, which are always "in season" here in Maine. It just seemed a little unconscionable to kill an animal - like that - just so that we could have meat on Sunday - when we have rabbits in the backyard. I wouldn't want him to kill a crow or a seagull or a turkey, either, just for this challenge (although he did shoot a turkey a few years ago, which we ate for Thanksgiving, but it's not turkey season right now, and we couldn't have a turkey - now - even if we wanted one).

I guess it felt different than fishing, which he and Big Little Sister have been doing - mostly because he already knows how to hunt, and the fishing has been an attempt to learn a new skill. It felt different, also, because we don't raise fish - yet.

But when he called to let me know that he had a road kill ground hog, I figured, we could try it, as long as it was fresh.

I know that a lot of people can relate to my story above of when I encountered road kill for the first time I can remember, and most people probably think of that - a bloated, wriggly carcass that smells sickly sweet and a little stomach-turning. That's not what we had.

But I'll probably be a little careful about where, in my real life, I share the story of our road kill supper.