...Growing, Building, Cooking, Preserving, Crafting...

2006 began our urban homestead when I broke ground on a garden, which now includes perennial fruits, flowers, & many vegetable varieties. We dream of solar panels, keeping bees and hens. Until then we'll continue growing and preserving our own fruits and vegetables, building what we can for our home, cooking from scratch, and crafting most days.


A Mini Greenhouse

My mother-in-law recently shared her latest issue of Organic Gardening magazine where I found plans for growing microgreens indoors.  I had all the supplies on hand so I decided to give it a shot and encourage some green things to grow inside well before we'll see the ground outdoors again.  

(Instructions adapted from Organic Gardening magazine)
1.  Select a shallow plastic container with drainage holes (I used a "clamshell" container from some locally grown winter salad mix I'd purchased.)  You don't need a lid on the container, but when closed it sort of creates a mini greenhouse,  giving the seeds a warming temperature in which in germinate.

2.  Fill the container with 1 1/2 to 2 inches of moistened organic potting mix (I used my soilless potting mix.)  Cut a piece of cardboard to fit inside the container.  Gently press the cardboard onto the soil for a flat, even surface.

3.  Mesclun mixes are good, single crop microgreens also work.  Scatter the seeds over the soil surface, then place the cardboard over the seeds and lightly press them into the soil.

4.  Sprinkle about 1/8-inch layer of dry potting mix over the seeds.  Set the container on a drip tray (I used an aluminum pie pan.) and carefully water the seeds in a gently shower (I like to use a squirt bottle.)  Place the tray on a sunny south-facing windowsill or under grow lights.  Expect germination in 3-7 days.

5.  Keep the soil consistently moist.  Prevent sogginess by pouring off excess water that collects in the drip tray after watering.  To harvest, snip the microgreens right above the soil line when their first true leaves unfurl (about 7-14 days after germination).  The microgreens are nutrient dense and make a healthy addition to salads and sandwiches.  


The Party Starts Now

Today is the day we start celebrating St. Patty's Day.  Sort of.  I'm not the least bit Irish, although Ben is probably almost half, but I've always enjoyed the festivities of St. Patty's Day (one year I even bar-hopped donning a homemade shamrock studded crown that said "Kiss Me, I'm Polish!") I've also always wanted to make my own corned beef brisket.  In past years I either couldn't get the brisket (wanted a local source), didn't plan ahead (it takes a good three weeks to brine), or didn't have the ingredients (saltpeter is hard to come by these days so I finally ordered online.)  Today is three weeks out from St. Patrick's Day.  We'll call the celebration "The Brining of the Brisket."  Haven't decided if we'll make Reubens or just slice it and serve with cabbage and potatoes, but hopefully it will be delicious.  So to all you leprechauns or wannabes out there, I say "Erin Go Bragh!"  Here's to kicking off the party!

Homemade Corned Beef Brisket
1 beef brisket
1/4 t. food grade saltpeter (gives it it's pink color)
1/4 c. warm water
2 T. granulated sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 t. paprika
1 T. mixed pickling spices
3/4 c. salt
2 qts. water

Place meat in a large crock.  Dissolve saltpeter in warm water.  Add next 4 ingredients.  Dissolve salt in 2 qts. water.  Mix everything together and pour over meat.  Be sure meat is submerged.  Refrigerate for 3 weeks, turning once a week.  Prepare according to your favorite recipe.


More snow yesterday and possibly more this week.  Just when I thought it was going to thaw for the season.  Yeah right.  We still have many cold and snowy days ahead, but I have hope.  I seeded some annuals last week, Goldstick flowers.  I usually don't plant many annuals, but I couldn't resist the look of them.  Hopefully they will brighten our home in a cut flower arrangement this summer.

I received some hopeful news this morning that pertains to one of my urban homestead dreams.  Apparently Ben's got the inside on the Milwaukee Food Policy Council goings-on so he quickly forwarded me the e-mail about an upcoming Backyard Chickens class that the UW-Extension is offering.  I signed up without hesitation; I'm so excited.  First step is to learn about it, next step...we'll find out.  I'm already eyeing which section of the backyard garden I can sacrifice for a coop and chicken run.  And don't think I'm not picking out names for these ladies already.

Last night I made one of Ben's favorite meals--Smoked Trout Quiche.  This dish has a history with us.  I like to tell people that this is what I served Ben to win him over and make him fall in love.  In exchange for some Radiohead concert tickets in the late summer on 2003 I agreed to make breakfast for all of the concert-goers crashing at our friends' East Troy homestead after the show (an amazing show at that!)  I bought some locally smoked trout from a nearby trout farm, local eggs and cream cheese, added some tarragon and prepared a homemade crust.  After using a heckuva lotta elbow grease half the morning juicing multi-colored local carrots to mix with orange juice then speeding down the street from where I roomed to the site of the hangover breakfast before the carrot juice oxidized and lost all the desired effects, it was the moment of truth.  Everyone, especially Ben, truly savored the al fresco locally sourced breakfast.  It was worth the trouble.  The rest is history.

Smoked Trout Quiche
Serves 6-8
9-inch pie crust (preferably homemade)
1 smoked trout fillet, flaked
4 oz. cream cheese in small pieces
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 T. lemon juice
1/2 c. heavy cream
2 t. fresh tarragon, chopped (or 1 t. dried tarragon)
9-inch pie plate, greased

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  On a floured surface roll out the crust to about 1/8-inch thickness.  Invert the pie plate on top of the crust and cut with a rotary cutter about 1-inch beyond he edges of the plate.  Remove plate.  Fold the crusts gently into four quarters to more easily transfer it into the pie plate.  Gently tuck it down into the pan, do not press.  Create a decorative edge if you wish.  Dock the bottom of the crust with a fork and bake for about 10 min. or until just lightly golden.  While crust is pre-baking mix the eggs, lemon juice, cream, and herbs.  Remove from oven.  Put flaked trout and cream cheese chunks into the bottom of the pan.  Pour in egg mixture and return to oven.  Bake 20-30 or until set.  Enjoy warm or cold with a small salad, roasted potatoes, or a side of fresh fruit.

Vera has been given many beautiful handmade toys from creative people we know--a taggie and cloth stacking toy from Grammy, hand cut and sanded classic blocks from our friend Dan, a teddy bear sewn by my first cousin once removed, and "Herb Hoppe" the green bunny knit by mommy when Vera was in utero just to name a few.  As I've mentioned, I get excited about upcycling and breathing new life into old materials.  I was beginning to get backlogged on the Euro cloths we use in the kitchen.  Once they've been sanitized and sterilized I didn't see why I couldn't use them as fabric.  Vera caught one out of the laundry basket the other day and loved the texture of it.  So this week I made onto into a soft block using wool as stuffing.  It might be a bit radical for homemade toys, but it was fun to create and find a way to finally use those cloths.


A Relaxing Evening

Tonight Ben is attending the annual fundraiser at the Milwaukee Public Museum "Food and Froth"-- more appropriately named "Froth" or at least "Froth and Food."  My point is there's far more beer than fingerfoods at this shindig, therefore he and his buddies headed out to dinner beforehand.  So I am left to fend for myself dinnerwise.  The many years that I lived alone I enjoyed preparing meals for myself, but since co-habitating began I have not looked forward to cooking for one.  When Ben's away for dinner and I don't have any leftovers to warm up, I always joke "I'm just going to eat a handful of flour and a stick of butter and maybe have a couple raisins for dessert."  I do often end up eating something random, although it's not usually as odd as baking ingredients (still, I won't deny sneaking the occasional handful of chocolate chips in the evening).  Tonight I had a better idea.  To backup a little, I was moved to clean out the fridge this afternoon, a task that I honestly love.  I find it tremendously therapeutic.  It involves removing, wiping down, reorganizing, and composting.  We throw out very little food in the this house.  Regular cleaning of the fridge definitely helps because I have a good idea at any minute what's on hand.  The only things lingering in the depths of our Frigidaire are some rendered pork fat (lard) and a container of hog casings (yes, swine intestines) that I use for sausagemaking.  In a brine, these will get used before they go bad.  Anyway, noting the leftover rice from Wednesday's Samosas, a bag of local carrots, green onions, and those mushrooms we're still working on, I came up with fried rice.  This dish always reminds me of my short-run cooking at a Japanese restaurant when Kiyoko-san, who barely reached my armpit wearing 2-inch platform sneakers, would step up to the stove and prepare it for staff meal.  I can't say my version is as authentic as hers, but it's an easy meal that can be made with various fridge staples.

Annie's Fried Rice
Serves 2

2 T. grapeseed or coconut oil
1/4 c. diced carrots
1/4 c. sliced mushrooms
1/4 c. sliced scallions
1/4 c. frozen thawed green peas
1-2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 c. leftover rice (I like to use brown rice, but any kind will do)
ground pepper, to taste
soy sauce, to taste

Heat the oil in a large saute pan.  When hot, add the carrots and mushrooms and saute 1-2 min.  Add the scallions and peas and saute another minute.  Move the vegetables to one side of the pan and add the egg.  Scramble until done then mix with vegetables.  Add the rice and toss to combine.  Season with pepper and soy sauce as desired.

Note:  Preparing it all in one pan makes for easy cleanup so you can enjoy the rest of your evening.

Mommy is now the only one in the house without any Facebook friends.  Believe it or not, I've resisted.  Today I made Vera's Facebook--a binder of magazine-clipped kid and baby faces on photo pages.  She appears to enjoy her books that have pictures of real humans so I thought she'd have fun with this.  So far I don't know what she enjoys more, flipping the pages or staring at what's on the pages.    At any rate, its cheap entertainment.


Something a Little More Intricate

Every now and then I get the urge to make something for dinner that's a little more involved.  This desire usually materializes in the form of some sort of pastry dough--quiche, empanadas, calzones.  The last two days I spent a bit of extra time making Lamb Samosas.  My favorite part of making these intricate pastry pockets was the delight on Ben's face when we saw them going into the oven.  "Oooh, what's that!"

Lamb Samosas
adapted from Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon (one of my favorite cookbooks)
Makes about 2 dozen small pastries

1 recipe basic yogurt dough (recipe follows)
2 lbs. ground lamb (I used lean pastured lamb from a local farmer)
2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
2 c. cooked brown rice
1/2 c. toasted slivered almonds
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. cayenne pepper
3/4 t. sea salt
1/4 t. pepper
1 bunch cilantro, washed and roughly chopped
grated rind of 2 lemons
about 1/2 c. melted butter

In a heavy skillet, cook the lamb until crumbly.  Remove with a slotted spoon.  Mix onions, almonds, rice, seasonings, cilantro, and lemon rind with the cooked lamb.  Roll yogurt dough about 1/8-inch thick and cut into rounds with a 3-4 inch round cutter.  Place 2 T. (or a little more) of the lamb mixture on each round.  Brush the edges with water, fold up and pinch together tightly to form a three sided pastry (have you ever made Hammentaschen?) leaving a small hole in the middle for air to escape.  Place on a well-greased pan (or one lined with a silicone baking mat) and brush with butter.  Bak at 350 degrees for about 40 min. or until golden.  Serve with plain whole milk yogurt and chutney.

Yogurt Dough

1 c. plain whole milk yogurt
1 c. (1/2 lb.) butter, softened
3 1/2 c. wheat or spelt flour
2 t. sea salt
flour for dusting

Cream yogurt and butter in an electric mixer.  Blend in flour and salt.  Cover and leave in a warm place for 12 to 24 hours.  Roll on a dusted surface.

Note:  The lamb mixture alone is also a great way to enjoy as a rice dish alongside a tossed salad.


Time with my Valentine

Despite our still-fairly-new responsibilities as parents, we have managed to enjoy monthly date nights for the past several months.  Valentine's weekend was no different.  We spent Saturday night with two sets of some of our closest friends and their children at their farmhouse just over the border in Illinois.  A week before the event I was informed that the guys would be cooking for the ladies.  Ben asked for a few pointers and otherwise took it from there (mostly, wink).  The first part of the evening was segregated as the ladies sipped red wine in the living room and caught up while the kitchen was off-limits as the men finished preparing the meal.  We enjoyed two versions of roasted pork shoulder and loin (the blue cheese/fig being my fave) from one of our friends' hogs from last season as well as some freshly baked bread, a winter green salad with citrus, Wisconsin cranberries and some hazelnuts we brought back from Oregon, roasted local herbed potatoes, and cheesecake and chocolate truffles for dessert.  One of the guys had created a special "love song" mix on his iPod and gave an impromptu guitar serenade while we sat around and talked after the meal.  No details were overlooked; it was quite impressive yet very relaxed.  I can't describe how much we enjoy these meals with close friends.  This winter Ben and I have been trying to invite friends over for Sunday dinner on a regular basis.  It's a chance to enjoy a meal with them, without having to get a sitter and pay a lot to go out.  It always ends up being a better experience that way anyhow.  The celebration of love continued on the official holiday as we managed to see a movie and go out for Turkish food.  Great wine, great food, and wonderful conversation with my sweetheart.  And we barely talked about Vera.

I am already learning things about the eggplants I seeded.  I found out from these dear and experienced farmer friends of ours that I probably started my eggplants a bit early.  Being nightshades like tomatoes they could probably wait another month at least before starting.  I was simply going by the general advice on the seed packet.  The only thing I have to lose is that they will get leggy before I can transplant them outside.  Worst case, I'll just seed more a month from now; I still have plenty of seeds.

In other news, the mushrooms are "mushing" extremely well.  Our neighbors should be returning from Vancouver today, which is a good thing because we're up to our necks in white buttons.  I've harvested for two meals now and the spaces from which I cut have filled in with more.  It's crazy how prolific they are!

We've had a bit of snow this afternoon.  Perhaps tomorrow will be a day to get Vera out on her sled.


Weekly Ritual

Friday night is homemade pizza night at the LeFort household.  It's the one night of the week that I don't have to think about what's on the menu.  I was recalling yesterday how our pizza making adventures have developed in the last few years.  First we were ordering out, then we were buying pre-baked crusts and decorating them ourselves, then we bought raw pizza dough, and finally we've been making our own dough for well over a year.  We enjoy seeing how "local" our pizza can get.  Our standard pie has homemade dough (my fave recipe is from Beth Hensperger's The Bread Bible), home-canned sauce with local tomatoes and herbs, homemade Italian sausage from local pork, local mushrooms (this week harvested from our dining room), local mozzarella cheese, spinach or swiss chard from our garden, and black olives (we've not been able to give them up quite yet.)  It took us many months and numerous attempts to get the crust just right.  We tried decorating it raw, pre-baking it, cooking it at different temperatures.  We've finally  created a pizza that we think it just right, although the toppings are subject to change each season.  I look forward to fresh arugula from our garden, which I like to lay on top of the pizza after it's been baked.  I love pizza night because it's a team effort in the kitchen.  Ben usually chops the olives and sautes the mushrooms, cooks down and seasons the sauce, and cooks the sausage.  I roll out and dock the crust then we take turns decorating.  I usually don't like to eat in front of the TV, but we relax that rule on Friday nights and enjoy a local craft beer with our 'za while watching The News Hour on PBS.  It's one certainty in an otherwise unpredictable week with a young child.

Tonight Ben is bottling home-brewed beer with a friend.  They brewed an English brown ale (think Newcastle) a few weeks ago and since then its gone through two fermentations.  After bottling it will age for a couple of months then they have plans to take some of it on a camping trip...and you know how that story ends.  I was so excited when they made plans to brew.  It's something I've been interested in since tasting some delicious ales from a few talented friends who have mastered the craft.  We planted Cascade hops on our wedding trellis a couple years ago, but a big wind storm threw the trellis over, ripping the hops off the trellis and finishing them for the season.  They failed to come back the following spring, which is crazy since hops are so prolific.  This year we plan to get a clipping from our farmer friends and replant, possibly on our living awning (stay tuned.)  There is still quite a shortage of hops nationally, maybe I could turn it into a side business...or maybe not right now.


Mushrooms, Seeds, and Scarves, Oh My!

We are officially mushroom-sitting.  Our next-door neighbors went to the Vancouver Olympics and have entrusted us with their mushroom kit.  If you've never seen a mushroom kit, it's quite amazing.  It's a big box of growing medium inoculated with mushroom spores.  You keep it moist and cool and within a week or so many, many, MANY mushrooms begin to grow.  We tried a kit one year in our basement and had a scary amount of portabellas.  This particular kit grows white button mushrooms.  The deal is that if we take care of the mushrooms--spritz them with water and keep them at the right temperature (and out of Vera's reach)--that we can enjoy all the fungi we can harvest.  It's perfect timing because I hadn't yet purchased mushrooms for our weekly Friday night pizza.
Started my vegetable seeds today.  First I prepared the soilless planting mix--1 part peat moss, 1 part vermiculite, and a little perlite--and filled the seedling containers with it, dropped in a couple seeds and topped them off with more planting mix.  I haven't tried growing eggplant before but today I seeded two varieties: Hansel (purple) and Gretel (white).  I'm excited to see how they'll do. 

I also found time to sew.  I love to create new clothing and accessories from recycled/repurposed materials.  Today I upcycled a pair of worn-out yoga pants into a tube scarf.  It's basically a huge continuous loop and when I put it on it's like putting a giant hairband around my neck; it's nice and snuggly.  We'll see if Ben likes it; he may not be crazy about me turning another pair of pants into a scarf.  Most recently I upcycled a pair of flannel pj pants (circa 1995) into a big wrapping scarf.  I'd had the pajamas so long that I finally wore a hole in them.  Thought I'd patch it up, but then I got the idea for the scarf.  When I showed him my latest creation he was not excited, but kind of pouted about it, "I never wanted to see those pjs again!"  Whenever he sees me wearing the scarf he teases that I have a pair of pajama pants wrapped around my neck.  I think it's cool.  Anyway, this scarf is more neutral so hopefully it doesn't look as much like it did in its previous life.


Snowed in!

Vera and I were homebound today.  We took advantage of the big snowstorm and stayed warm by cooking and baking.  I've been trying my hand at some gluten-free recipes lately.  I made a Four Flour Bread from Bette Hagman's The Gluten-Free Gourmet Bakes Bread.  I was surprised and thrilled with how light and fluffy it turned out; my experience with baking gluten-free is that breads are very dense.  This one was right up there with the best wheat flour breads I've baked (which are few and far between).  I enjoyed the first slice still warm from the oven, slathered with butter, but toasted a couple more slices for a sandwich: smoked turkey breast, Muenster cheese, local winter greens, spread with an Herbed Yogurt Dip leftover from Superbowl hors d'oeuvres.  

Herbed Yogurt Dip 
(adapted from Hors D'oeuvres by Eric Treuille and Victoria Blashford-Snell)
Makes about 2 cups

1 c. fresh parsley, chopped
1 c. fresh basil, chopped
1/2 c. fresh chives, chopped
zest from 1/2 lemon or 1/2 t. dried lemon peel
juice of 1 lemon
6 oz. cream cheese, in small chunks
1 c. whole milk yogurt
3 T. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Place herbs, lemon juice and peel, cream cheese, yogurt, and oil in a food processor or blender; pulse until well blended.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Cover and refrigerate for 30 min. to allow the flavors to blend.  Serve chilled with vegetable crudites--I recommend carrot and daikon sticks.



We rounded out our Portland trip with more eating and drinking on Friday. Didn't get to tour Widmer's Brewery as we'd originally hoped so we spent some time walking the downtown area and enjoying more local fare: coffee and delicious breakfast pastries at Stumptown Coffee, a bacon/maple long john at Voodoo Doughnut, artisan roasted espresso at Spella Caffe (owned by my former Sanford co-worker Andrea Spella), street food (everything you could want from German and Polish to Thai, Korean, and Mexican and beyond all on one block), and a beer sampler at Deschutes Brew Pub. Once again, Vera was a trooper!

We're all glad to be home and in our own beds. I like traveling because not only are they inspiring foodwise (and in Portland's case fashionwise), but they give me a fresh start when I get back. I feel like, "okay, I did that, I relaxed, now I'm ready to start a new week here." It won't take me long to get back to my usual running around. In fact, tomorrow I'm planning to get the supplies for my custom soilless mix and start seeding.

Back to the homestead.


A Break from Wisconsin Weather

This doesn't exactly relate to the LeFort Urban Homestead, but a vacation, especially one that allows me to eat and drink adventurously, always inspires cooking on the homestead. It's not been terribly warm and sunny on our trip to Portland, OR, but it's certainly better than in Milwaukee. The 44-hour Amtrak trip was a good experience. We had a private sleeper car and although the first night with Vera was a little challenging, we did well overall. Spent a couple of nights in the Willamette Valley southwest of Portland eating and tasting wine. The hillsides of vineyards were beautiful as were the miles of hazelnut groves. We stayed at a supercool hotel in McMinnville, Hotel Oregon, part of the McMenamin's independent hotel group. Drove out to the Pacific coast on Wednesday and stopped in Tillamook to tour the well-known Tillamook cheese factory. We've been in Portland since then and are staying at the Ace Hotel very hip hotel near the Pearl District. We met up with Ben's friend Anna today. I didn't get to meet her chickens afterall, but I got the rundown on her poultry setup. Today we visited Chinatown and the Chinese Gardens and couldn't miss the famous Powell's City of Books--if any of you know about my "bookstore (and antique store) syndrome," you can imagine how this visit went. It was quite overwhelming, but I managed to narrow my search to one food preservation book with 400 new recipes. Very exciting! We've eaten at some amazing restaurants on our trip! Some of the most interesting and delicious things I've had: fried cornmeal with scallions and a poached egg, potato buttermilk toast and blood orange juice; fried chickpeas; crostini with candied Seville oranges, Nutella, and toasted hazelnuts; flourless chocolate cake with sweetened beet chips, beet ganache, and pistachio sauce; yuzu drinking vinegar; and Cynar Artichoke (a bitter aperitif distilled from artichokes). Tomorrow we're planning to visit Voodoo Doughnut and possibly track down an old Sanford coworker who has a coffee roasting business here. And of course, we're planning to enjoy more local food and beverages and most likely a brewery tour. One more day to savor! As of Saturday I'll get back to the LeFort homestead and start my first seeds of the season next week.