Friday, February 24, 2012

Book Review Friday

While it hasn't exactly been wintery around here, there's still more days than not when it's much nicer to stay warm and dry indoors, which that gives me plenty of opportunity for catching up on reading. Lately I've been devouring books like there's no tomorrow and coincidentally, quite a few of them have been about the possibility of there being no tomorrow.

Post apocalyptic fiction is a fairly popular genre these days. TEOTWAWKI is subject that is on a lot of people's minds and as much as I claim to not believe wholeheartedly in theories like Peak Oil, I obviously can't help but think we all would be better off if we were a little more prepared for whatever possible disaster may strike. So I understand why I and others like me are drawn to these stories- we want to see how other people imagine what life would be like and how humanity would survive if the worst did happen. The problem for me with most stories of this genre is that they tend to fall into one of two plot lines; either the entire story is too devoted to conflict (wars with rival gangs/armies, way too detailed information about weapons- the worst of these was written by a woman and I've managed to forget both her name and the title thankfully) or they become personal fantasies with obvious sexual overtones-(James Kunstler, I'm looking at you.) I had high hopes for Dies the Fire ( part one of the Emberverse series) by S.M. Stirling, but it sadly ends up falling into both traps. The first part of the book reads like a library list of people with the skills we'd need to survive (the ones who will survive are ex-marines and Renaissance Faire/historical re-enactment actors? If so I hope to die in the first wave!) The second part spends way too much time detailing how to make and use bows, swords and chain mail while building towards the stereotypical battle between the good (lead by a Celtic musician/Wiccan priestess), and the bad- bike gangs and criminals led by a generic psychotic genius. By the time the actual conflict peaked in part three I cared so little about any of these people that I was secretly hoping for total annihilation. Where's a tsunami when you need one?
Don't get me wrong, I realize that you need some kind of conflict to make a story interesting, otherwise it just reads like a how-to manual but it would be nice if it didn't always deteriorate into good versus evil. With all the technology gone, wouldn't man vs nature be enough of a conflict to make for an interesting read? Or even some rogue pigs or vampire cats for added drama? On that thought I'll head back to non fiction so we can all be better prepared for the zombie apocalypse, solar flare or whatever disaster awaits us .

The good folks at Thomas Allen and Son sent me a few new titles to have a look at and these are the ones I was particularly impressed with.

Frugavore; How to Grow Organic,Buy Local, Waste Nothing and Eat Well, by Arabelle Forge. By the title alone you can guess this book was right up my alley. At first it seemed like I'm already doing pretty much everything she writes about so it felt a bit like preaching to the choir. But when I got to the section on meat however, I found the info on curing bacon which was something I'd wanted to try, and then I found the recipe for marrow on toast, oh yum! It also has a great section on baking with sourdough, another thing Id like to try, and some really great info and recipes for home dairy. Overall this book is full of great knowledge and advice as well as really useful recipes, great for beginners and old hands alike!

Small Green Roofs: Low-Tech Options for Greener Living, by Nigel Dunnett, Dusty Gedge, John Little, and Edmund C. Snodgrass. If you've ever thought about having a green roof but don't have the access or the means to build one on your home, consider a small green roof on your garage! Or your porch roof, your tool shed, or even a birdhouse! This book is full of great ideas, beautiful photos and over 40 detailed plans on how to convert just about any roof or flat surface into a potential growing space. Many of the projects in this book are located in Sheffield, England- I wish I would have read this book prior to my visit there last summer- but are adaptable to anywhere. I wonder how my landlord would feel about a green roof on the sunporch?

The Year Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour. My first thought when I saw this book was that she likely lives some place warm like California or Australia but then I noticed snow in some of the photos! I was delighted to realize she's actually from Halifax (Nova Scotia) which gets a heck of a lot colder than here, not to mention the freak weather patterns like hurricanes. The book is beautifully laid out with great photos of things like people digging parsnips out from under the snow. The information is logically organized and includes lists of seed varieties that are good for cold weather and/or short growing seasons. There's even a wonderful chart that lists the amount of daylight hours on Dec 21 (winter solstice) by region (North American). I've been using for suggestions of cold weather crops which I can start right now inside our greenhouse at work!

From my stack of library books, I've a couple favourites as well, historical of course, one fiction and one non.

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague is a fictionalized tale based on Eyam, an actual town in England during the the time of the black plague. According to history the plague came to this small village in 1666 and since it was already somewhat isolated in the hills of Derbyshire, the residents agreed to quarantine themselves to prevent the disease from spreading further. Told through the eyes of Anna Firth, the fictional house maid to the Rector and his wife, and incorporating some of the actual details known of the events of that year, the book is a moving portrayal of life in the time of the black death.

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie. Wendy Mcclure went looking for remnants of the life and journeys of Laura Ingalls Wilder and along the way found more and less that she'd hoped for. Reading this book made me remember all over again how much I loved the Little House books and how much they still affect me today. I need to go reread them and see if I figure out how to make a button lamp!

And that's just the tip of the iceburg that is my reading pile. I hope to make Book Review Fridays a regular thing and I'd love it if you posted some of your favourites and suggestions here, because in my version of the zombie apocalypse, it's the librarians who are going to survive TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it)!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Independence Days Week 2-3

You'd think having 4 days off a week would mean I have plenty of time for posting but somehow it just doesn't seem to work that way. So since tomorrow should be my week 3 post and I still haven't posted about week 2 it makes more sense to combine them and hopefully get on track.

Grow Something: No progress here other than transplanting a few house plants. But I did get permission today to make use of the greenhouse at work to start some cool weather crops inside and my plan is to sort through my seeds this weekend and hopefully start a few tomatoes and peppers at home.

Harvest Something: Sprouts, which were a nice addition to a grated carrots and beet slaw.

Preserve Something: Nothing. I was supposed to teach a canning class last night but it was cancelled. I have one booked for next week and quite a few in March- lots of Red Onion Jam coming!

Waste Not: While picking up chicken legs (organic, local) at a local butcher shop I spotted some pork fat which they happily threw in for free. I slow rendered it in the oven to make lard.

Want Not: Made some home made deodorant using witch hazel and a few drops of rose geranium and lavender oil in a spray bottle.

Eat the food: Made borscht with some of the home made beef stock, last of the red cabbage and some slightly shrivelled beets. I added some butter beans as well as a splash of my cider vinegar (the red wine vinegar was a bust this year sadly)

Build Community Food Systems: Held a successful seed packing workshop for the upcoming Seedy Saturday/Sunday Events! Next Sat, March 3 is the first Toronto area event at Scadding Court- details on all the events are here.

There's another Seed Exchange event in Toronto this Monday Feb 27

This one is part of the Occupy Gardens movement which I heartily endorse- how can you argue with a group that promotes World Peas?

Skill Up: Made mozzarella and ricotta cheese- the mozzarella was a bit denser than I think it should have been and could use more salt but it's quite good and we've been using it in many things.

Overall a fairly productive two weeks!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Dark Days Challenge - Meat Eaters go Veggie!

The Dark Days Challenge-within-a-challenge for this round was to make a vegetarian meal. So far most of my Dark Days meals haven't been all that meat heavy anyhow (except there's been awful lot of bacon!) From these meals alone it appears we aren't heavy meat consumers but the truth is we eat a fair amount of meat and it is the one area that I still think we have have a lot to improve on. A few years ago I read The Omnivore's Dilemma and like anyone who's read it I was horrified and disgusted by the methods used to raise meat animals in North America. I drove my friends crazy that summer, quoting parts of the book to them. I made vows to never eat supermarket meat or eggs again. I've done pretty well with the eggs, having found a source of reasonably priced free range eggs. But the meat I confess is a lot more difficult. There are options for local humanely raised meat; grass fed beef, free roam pork, lots of poultry and even sustainably caught local fish. The problem is the costs are on average 4 -5 times higher than the supermarket options and it's really difficult for me to wrap my frugal mind around the concept of paying more for less even if I know it to be the better choice. As previously mentioned I grew up in a very large family and old habits die hard; a lifetime of shopping for sales and seconds is hard to put aside. I usually only shop at a main stream supermarket once or twice a month but that is where I purchase the majority of our meat- I watch for sales, look for last day of sale stickers and always check the discounted bin. Our grocery bills for 2 adults are normally around $100, and never more than $150/month. We eat well for that- lots of fresh veggies and whole food but we both eat meat almost everyday and I would guess that about 40% of our grocery budget spent on meat. And that's not likely to change any time soon. The Russian being a dancer has a very physical job, and being Russian thinks of any food without meat as a snack. He requires animal proteins daily. For myself, I attempted a vegan diet once for two weeks (not by choice, I was a guest) and I have never been so sick. Perhaps it's because I'm a O blood type, perhaps it's because I cannot digest legumes well (although I eat them anyhow because they are delicious!)I also require a regular source of animal protein. And to be fair, I love meat, particularly red meat. I even enjoy it raw - I had a lovely lamb tartare recently and I was in heaven!

So how do I keep us both fed and happy and still support the ethical treatment of animals? It's a debate I have with myself frequently and as of yet I don't have the answer. I've been looking at options like buying in bulk or through a meat CSA but the initial outlay is a bit daunting and we don't have the freezer space to take on even a quarter of a cow. And even if we could raise meat animals in the city (banned except for rabbits) I don't think either of us are at the stage where we could kill them ourselves. My current concession is to divert $10/week of our monthly food budget towards meat that is ethically raised, which equates to about 1-2 meals. It's not an answer but it's a start.

The other option of course is to increase the number of vegetarian meals we eat. I do try to make at least one totally vegetable based dinner a week, much to the horror of the Russian. Since I do most of the cooking he will eat pretty much anything I make but he's still convinced he's being deprived when I serve meatless meals . He was not at all impressed that I make borscht with butter beans rather than meat, even when I assured him it was done with beef stock.

So what do confirmed meat eaters make for a vegetarian challenge? Why pizza of course!

I'm impatient so I used a no rise dough recipe from here
I used a mix of Red Fife wheat flour and unbleached stone ground flour. The yeast was just regular from a packet- is there such a thing as local yeast (other than sour dough)? I substituted honey for the sugar - this honey is from the hives on top of the Royal York Hotel in the heart of downtown Toronto (where the Russian and I spent a night last week for our belated Valentine's date)!

For toppings I used some of my tomato sauce canned last fall, onions (both fresh and carmelized), and mushrooms. I added oven dried cherry tomatoes, dried basil and frozen roasted peppers all from last fall and to top it off, my home made mozzarella and feta cheeses.

The crust was more dense than a traditional pizza crust but the flavour was exceptional- there were no leftover crust from this pizza! And best of all, the Russian devoured it and didn't seem to notice the lack of meat!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

Who knew you can crack cast iron?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Overly Challenged

If you been following along, you probably know I've been participating in the Dark Days Challenge since Dec, although I haven't exactly managed to post consistently every week. So of course when two new challenges, Independence Days and The Urban Farm Handbook Challenge came along I thought what the heck- might as well flail at 3 of them!

Independence Days is not actually a new challenge; Sharon Astyk over at The Chatelaine's Keys created it a few years ago as a method of acknowledging accomplishments, even the minor ones and tracking your progress towards a more sustainable lifestyle. She recently kicked off a new round with eight categories to report on weekly:
Grow something
Harvest something
Preserve something
Waste not
Want not
Eat the food
Build community food systems
and the newest category, Skill up!
More details and where to post your links are here. Post days for this challenge are Fridays and began last week so I'm already late to the party, go figure!

The Urban Farm Handbook Challenge, Twelve steps to Farmlette is the brain child of the folks at Sustainable Eats, Annette Cottrell and Joshua McNichols to coincide with their book of the same name. These are a series of monthly challenges, kicking off with February: Soil Building. Other topics include Home Dairy, Foraging and other things dear to my heart.I'm pretty sure I can handle posting monthly and I love the idea of having a 'farmlette' (Maybe I should change my blog name if I complete all twelve months?)

So in order to streamline all three I give you my combined Dark-Independence-Twelve-Step post.

Grow something: I dug out my sprouting jar last week and now I have a mess of alfalfa, red clover, mustard and green lentil sprouts ready to go. I like to add them to a slaw of grated beets and cabbage. So nice to have something freshly grown in the dead of winter.

Harvest Something: Would you believe I'm still picking fresh herbs from the back deck? Well if you are experiencing the same non-winter we are, I'm sure you do My sage has survived a couple of deep freezes and snowfalls and is still fresh and pungent!

Preserve something: It was actually a couple of weeks ago now but Colette and I made some Cold Soother Jelly using Meyer lemons, limes and local honey. I've already consumed one jar and I know this recipe is a keeper! I also have a new batch of chicken stock in the fridge waiting to be pressure canned.

Waste not: I had a large jar of whey leftover from my first round of cheesemaking and I've been using it in everything from soup to crepes. Yummy! I also reconfigured my worm composter to a larger bin with a removable screen to allow the worms to move upwards into fresh food and bedding. This makes it easier to remove the nutrient rich worm poop that I'm adding to my indoor plants and will be adding to my garden as soon the ground thaws. I'm making use of the giant vermiculture system at work as well and will be bringing home buckets of worm compost to add more nutrients to my soil. No need to truck home city leaf compost this year!

Want Not: Many of the small green grocers in our neighbourhood sell off less that perfect produce in $1 baskets. I picked up a bunch of mixed onions at one location and a basket of button and shitaake mushrooms at another. For the onions I peeled the worst of them, diced them and roasted them in the oven with a bit of butter for use in soups, stews etc. The remainder we'll eat fresh. The mushrooms I'll treat similarly and some will get used in a batch of mushroom soup using some of the chicken stock and whey.

Eat the food: My most recent Dark Days meal made use of frozen homemade pumpkin gnocchi I made last fall (from fresh pumpkin, and Red Fife wheat flour), with sauteed local mushrooms, garlic and onions, whole tomatoes canned last summer and fresh sage. I topped it with my homemade feta and although it wasn't the prettiest looking dish, it was a delicious memory of last summer's garden.

Build Community Food Systems: This is one area that I have an unfair advantage. My current job as a Community Food Animator at FoodShare is all about creating and building community food systems and I'm in the midst of working on a number of different projects, including 5 upcoming Seedy Saturdays in the GTA!

Skill up: I'm feeling pretty accomplished at my new skill sets; my bacon turned out great, and I'm working on my second batch of raw milk cheese as I type this (mozzarella this time)!

So it seems three challenges may be easier than one, at least when it comes to posting about them!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Dark Days Week 11- Makin' Bacon!

I'm still having trouble getting my Dark Days meals posted - I'm making them and even manage to photograph them for the most part but some how writing about them seems to fall by the wayside. Since the challenge is mostly about focusing on eating local I'm content to know that I'm succeeding on that front and if I do get a chance to write about it so much the better!

Living in the city it isn't always possible to be hands on with the way my food is produced. Growing vegetables and picking fruit to preserve at home is fairly easy but I'm never going to be able to raise pigs,goats or cows and thanks to narrow minded city officials, even chickens aren't going to be a possibility in Toronto any time soon. Not having a car limits how far I can travel to purchase locally produced food as well so buying directly from a farm is not an option. Farmers markets are fairly prolific here but they tend to be pricey and trying to both eat local and shop frugally can be challenging! Buying local food is always on my agenda but making my own is even better - the trick is figuring out whether or not it's cost effective.

Last week I made cheese at home using raw milk. I made two small feta cheese rounds and about 1 cup of ricotta from 2 litres of milk- not a bad return but certainly not cheap! It is possible to make cheese from store bought pasteurized milk (at a substantially lower cost) but is that any better than buying manufactured cheese? Is it worth $30 (in milk costs based on the quantities in my recipe book) to make a batch of mozzarella? I guess it will depend on how much cheese it actually makes and whether we would eat that amount of cheese before it spoilt(I suspect yes!).

This week I stumbled across some inexpensive fresh pork belly, already cut in small chunks. I have been thinking of attempting to cure bacon at home and this seemed like a good opportunity to test it out on a small quantity. After thumbing through recipes and speaking with a friend who makes bacon frequently I decided on a cure recipe to use.

Using equal parts kosher salt and brown sugar as a base, I added some maple syrup, spices and a tiny bit of chipotle for some smokey flavour. I rubbed the mixture over all the pieces until they were well coated, then sealed them in a plastic bag and left it in the fridge to marinate for 2 days.

Having the meat already cut in small chunks meant there was more readily available surface area, so I didn't want to leave it for the full 5 days as suggested in the recipes I read and have it end up too salty. After 2 days the bag was full of liquid and the meat had taken on a much denser texture. I discarded the liquid, placed all the pieces on plate and placed it back in the fridge exposed to air for an additional two days. The resulting pieces are still soft but darker in colour and of a much chewier texture. Slicing them into traditional bacon strips is tricky but worked best when I left the rind on and removed it later.

Because I didn't use any sodium nitrite (pink salt) the colour fades when it cooks and my bacon doesn't much resemble store bought but it still has a lovely salty pork taste that goes well with eggs! I'm sure it would be even better smoked but that's something that will have to wait til we build a proper smoker.

So instead of being behind, I'm going to post ahead of the Challenge for once. My Dark Days Breakfast Edition features local free range eggs, home made bacon, home made baked beans (not mine but I am ever so grateful to my friend who made these with local dried navy beans, salt pork, maple syrup and bourbon among other things) and I panfried a few of last summer's cherry tomatoes from the freezer.

And now I know how easy it is to make bacon at home, I'll be sourcing some ethically raised pork belly to do a larger batch!