...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.


We've Got the Beets

One advantage of having a spouse who also works in the line of food is that there's never a shortage of it being brought into our home.  Ben works for SHARE (he loves it when people say, "You work for CHER!!!"), a monthly volunteer-run food-buying club.  One of their offerings is a selection of organic produce and he often purchases some of the month's surplus.  Last month he brought home a case of red beets, sans greens.  I love beets and was excited about this home delivery, but after a week of beet salads, beet juice, and roasted beets I became a bit overwhelmed with what I would do with the whole case as I tried to store them in our unreliably cool basement.  Today I finally decided to move forward and process them.  This weekend I plan to can pickled beets, tonight for dinner I prepared a salad with walnuts, blue cheese, and maple horseradish glazed beets (see recipe below), and tomorrow I plan to make one of my favorite cakes--chocolate beet, which is great for sneaking veggies into kids' meals with them suspecting a thing--as long as the chocolate's there.  (Personally, you could cover my shoe in chocolate and I'd probably go for it.)  Enjoy these beet recipes.  And if you love them as much as me, keep your eyes peeled for local beets at the farmers' markets.

Maple Horseradish Glazed Beets
(I believe this recipe originally appeared in Gourmet magazine)
Serves 4

I tossed these beets with fresh salad greens, toasted walnuts, crumbled blue cheese, and a basic balsamic vinaigrette.  Add a little of the horseradish/maple sauce to the vinaigrette before tossing if you want.  The hot beets will slightly wilt the salad, but I like this effect.  You could also chill them before tossing.

1 3/4 lbs. medium red beets (3 3/4 lbs. with greens), stems trimmed to 1 inch
1/2 stick (1/4 c.) unsalted butter
3 T. bottled horseradish (not drained)
2 1/2 T. maple syrup
2 1/2 T. cider vinegar
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. black pepper

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Put beets in a roasting pan and cover with foil.  Roast until tender, about 1 hour.  When cool enough to handle, peel beets and cut into eighths,  then transfer to a bowl.  Melt butter with horseradish, syrup, vinegar, salt, and pepper in a heavy skillet over moderate heat.  Stir in beets and boil, stirring occasionally, until liquid in skillet is reduced to about 1/4 c. and beets are coated, 4 to 5 min.

Chocolate Beet Cake
Adapted from MACSAC's Asparagus to Zucchini
Makes 10 servings

2 c. granulated sugar (or xylitol)
2 c. flour
1/2 t. salt
2 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
3-4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
4 large eggs
1/4 c. oil (or 2 T. applesauce + 2 T. oil)
3 c. shredded beets (raw or roasted)

Heat oven to 325 degrees.  Grease two 9-inch cake pans.  Whisk dry ingredients together. Melt chocolate very slowly over low heat or in double boiler.  Cool chocolate; blend thoroughly with eggs and oil.  Combine flour mixture with chocolate mixture, alternating with the beets.  Pour into pans.  Bake until fork can be removed from center cleanly, 40-50 min.

Note: Eat plain, dust with powdered sugar, or decorate with your favorite icing.  I like to prepare a basic white buttercream and toss in a freshly cut raw beet to create a pink color.  Remove the beet chunk before frosting.

So, once we've eaten all that cake, we need some exercise, right?  I used to be like that, but now I figure it all evens out.  But speaking of exercise, I have to share my bicycling experiences lately.  I've been on a kick since Bike to Work Week (a couple posts ago).  One of the most practical gifts we received when we were trying not to accumulate too much baby "stuff" almost two years was a bike trailer.  Ben and I were just appreciating it the other night as we biked to get ice cream--we've vowed that we can only go out for Babe's (where the owner told us we were officially regulars) if we bike to get it.  It's great for doing errands that are slightly out of walking distance.  We have a Chariot--not that I'm trying to sell a certain brand--that can double as a stroller if you buy that attachment.  This thing got us through the cold, icy winter months because it has an attached plastic cover to keep Vera out of the elements.  It kept us sane, especially in January and February because we could get out for a walk most days.  And though we don't use it as much in the summer as a stroller (b/c its size can be cumbersome), it came in handy today when I wanted to walk a big grocery trip, which included picking up a bag of charcoal.  It's a double so if I buckle Vera to one side, she can ride shotgun with the hardwood (only if it's being used just as a stroller...this is not recommended in bike mode.)  I packed everything else into the huge back pouch and the area beneath the passenger's feet (again, only if you're strolling).  When we requested this item on our registry, we opted for the double even if there would only be one kid b/c Ben figured he could tote his cooler (of who knows what) in the other seat.  It's come in handy for that and much more.  I'm absolutely not an advocate of having all the boatloads of baby "gear" (to put it nicely), but if you're trying to get around the city without a car and you have a kid or two, I highly recommend a bike trailer.  For me, it's a great way to get from point A to point B AND get some exercise, which is a challenge for a busy mama.


Recap of Power Down Week

We survived Power Down Week, as I knew we would, and mostly achieved the goals we set for decreasing our carbon footprints for a week.  Of course there's always room for improvement.  I was going to give a day-by-day, play-by-play or how it went, but I decided to spare you the details and just report that we kept the TV off except when we heard the storm sirens go off Monday night and checked what weather was headed our way, my computer remained completely unplugged all week, Ben only checked his personal e-mail at work (he reasoned that the computer there would be turned on anyway), I drove just twice (once to a blood drive, which wasn't within biking distance as our schedule allowed, not to mention I wasn't supposed to engage in any strenuous activity the rest of the day after donating.  The other was to our music class on the lower eastside b/c our bus wasn't on time.)  We also managed to keep the oven off and cook in the sun oven as needed, though I still used the stovetop especially for two food preservation projects.  Didn't listen to the radio, didn't turn on the vacuum cleaner (much to my delight), and kept many more lights off.  We even made Vera power down by putting away all three of her battery-operated toys (the ones that annoy me anyway).  Overall, it was a pleasant week.  We connected with friends via phone calls, a concert in the park, and a play date instead of just e-mailing.  Ben asked what I missed most during Power Down Week.  Probably baking on a whim in the kitchen--the sun oven requires more planning.  I could more easily name what I DIDN'T--the daily obligation of e-mail, driving around more--biking gave me more exercise anyway, and I certainly didn't miss the sound of the television every night.  At least one interesting observation last week--we are so addicted to getting immediate results via our computers.  We wanted the week's weather forecast, but prevented ourselves from booting up just to check.  We also tend to use the internet to find business listings instead of opening the Yellow Pages.  A fun moment for me was avoiding Google Maps when I needed to find directions to our Rec. Dept. swim class this morning.  I tested my map skills and plotted the location on our 4'x6' 1959 map of Metropolitan Milwaukee, an antique store score several years ago that's been a constant conversation piece.  The most important parts of powering down for a week are becoming aware of one's weekly energy usage and therefore creating new habits.  It wouldn't be reasonable to just NOT do laundry for a week to save energy, but to find a more energy-efficient way to do this task that is required twice a week in our house.  I usually line-dry anyway so this wasn't much of a change, but it would be fun to use a wringer washer to actually clean our clothes, a chore that reminds me of helping my grandmother wring clothes in her basement when I was a kid.  We've agreed to only turn on the TV maybe twice a week, I'll reduce the amount of computer time I have in the evening, we'll cook in the sun oven more this summer, and I'll continue to use alternative transportation.

So if I wasn't on the computer and watching TV, what was I doing last week?  I found time to read a lot, play with Vera, bike, picnic, walk, sew, and preserve.  As I mentioned before, I didn't feel like I missed anything while I was unplugged.  I made a batch of strawberry jam with honey as well as my first batch of "Sunshine Rhubarb Juice Concentrate."  One of my preserving goals over the last couple of years has been to can more juices as we (make that Ben) drink(s) a lot of them.  I had a load of rhubarb from Ben's boss as well as a fair amount from our own yard so I made six pints of concentrate.  I also sewed some mail slots to hang in our front vestibule.  It's been a challenge keeping Vera out of the mailbox and tearing into the envelopes so these slots couldn't have waited much longer.  I chose some vintage floral canvas I bought at the antique flea market a couple seasons ago and some other green canvas reused from a shower curtain I made for our old apartment.  I used a vintage button also found at the flea market.  So far the system is working.


Power Down Week

Tomorrow we begin observing Transition Milwaukee's Power Down Week, an opportunity to challenge ourselves and others to make our carbon footprints as small as possible.  Ben and I have agreed to keep the television and our computers off for the whole week.  I am also planning to not use my car all week but bike or use public transport as needed, not use the oven but cook our meals outdoors on the grill or in the solar oven, and to otherwise spend time outdoors, in the garden, and not rely on electricity as much as usual (also hoping Ben will cut down his toothpaste usage, though that's not the place for the most impact). Perhaps there will be a candlelit game of Scrabble one night.  I think this week will be a blast and I can't wait to see how much I can accomplish (or relax) without the distraction of my computer.

Last week Vera and I headed down to Pinehold Gardens for our CSA's strawberry U-Pick.  As part of my worker share, I am the personal preserver for farmers Sandy and David so I picked extra berries for that project.  With help from Sandy's father, I was able to collect 10 quarts fairly quickly while Vera sat on the sidelines begging "more" for any berries I could spare.  I think she's sick of them now because she hasn't eaten one since.  She must have consumed a whole pint; the mess on her face and coat proved that.  I will freeze some berries and make a low-sugar jam with the rest.  Of course, we saved some for eating fresh on yogurt, cereal, and pancakes as well.  In fact, I tried a new pancake recipe this morning.  Didn't have any eggs in the house so I tried a vegan pancake recipe from my Holistic Moms Network annual cookbook and was pleasantly surprised at the texture and flavor.  Strawberries go beautifully with these tasty breakfast cakes.

Vegan Pancakes
Makes about 8 pancakes
You could place sliced strawberries on top of the batter on the griddle or toss the berries with a bit of sugar or honey and pour them over the pancakes to serve.

1 c. whole-wheat flour
2 T. sucanat
2 T. flax meal
2 T. wheat germ
2 T. hemp seeds, ground (optional)
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. sea salt
1 c. soymilk
1/2 c. water
2 T. oil
1 T. white vinegar
1 t. vanilla

Mix together dry ingredients.  In a separate bowl, mix wet ingredients, then combine with dry ingredients.  Cook on preheated oiled griddle.  To keep from sticking, be sure the griddle is nice and hot before pouring batter and re-oil the pan between each set of pancakes. 

Vera and I traveled via train and bus to my hometown of Paris, Illinois for the latter part of last week to visit my folks.  It was a wonderful visit with lots of great time spent with Grammy and Papa.  When we returned the garden was a jungle.  I spent at least a couple of hours outside this morning weeding, trimming, caging, cutting, and pruning.  While I was lopping a little bit off the cherry tree I stumbled upon this year's harvest hidden under a couple of thickly leafed branches--two lovely Black Tartarian cherries.  One for me, one for Ben.  Of course, the bird's got most of the cherries I'd spotted earlier in the season.  Honestly, I didn't expect to even taste one so I was very happy with this treat.  We hope for more next year.  In the meantime, I'll keep pruning the tree little by little this season so sun can get through to my veggies that are slightly in the shade beneath it.  Today I also went to the next level of Operation: Protect The Corn.  I removed the gallon jug tops that had been weighted with bricks and replaced them with hand-rolled chicken wire cages.  I staked those into the ground then wrapped the bottom of each "cage" with hardware cloth.  A couple were slightly toppled and nipped this afternoon, but the real enemy is Vera who thinks it's fun to lift up the cages.  We'll see what happens.

I will return on the 28th.  Join me in powering down if you can.  Enjoy the Summer Solstice tomorrow!


Prairie Walk

Now is the time of year when Ben and I start to explore different prairies around the area.  We were in Chicagoland over the weekend so on Sunday we visited the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL.  I've enjoyed identifying wild flowers and trees ever since assembling my leaf and flower collections for eighth grade science class, but Ben has taught me more about specific prairie plants.  Some of my favorites are the cup plant and compass plant, both so functional, as well as the butterfly milkweedpurple coneflower, and spiderwort.  Prairie walks are so relaxing and they give me a chance to focus as I find and name the plants.  We're planning another prairie walk Father's Day weekend (Ben's request) closer to Milwaukee.  Vera rides up high in the backpack carrier.  It's a simple family activity.  After the walk we headed to the kids garden on the main grounds where Vera had fun splashing in a little waterway and watching all the big kids run around, climb, and move rocks.  We made it to the car just before the rain.  It was the perfect day.


Bike to Work

Today I rode my bicycle to Sheridan's where I work one day each week making pastries.  This was the first year I officially participated in Milwaukee's Bike to Work Week.  I only live three miles from my place of employment so I should have been doing this regularly for the past three summers; it took me that long to mentally map out the flattest route.  When we were first opening the restaurant in the summer of 2007 I rode to work a couple of days when I didn't necessarily have to be there on time or early.  That just about did me in.  Since then, the summers have found me motor scootering to work instead of pedaling.  But I made it in just under 30 minutes this morning and that was with severely underinflated tires.  I'll be the first to admit that I'm way out of bicycling shape, especially when it comes to climbing those hills.  My body is a far cry from when I was obsessively fit in high school and would bike to the gym at 5 AM every morning before school for strength training then have either tennis, gymnastics, cheerleading, or track practice after school.  I'd bike to the Illinois/Indiana state line on the weekends or ride 15 miles to the next town "just to see if I could" (I quote an elderly man written up in our local hometown paper who walked to the next town for this reason...often a slow news day in rural east central Illinois).  It was no wonder I had eight-pack abs and all the energy in the world.  These days I still "exercise," but in different ways.  I garden, chase Vera, do yoga once or twice a week, and walk most of my errands around our neighborhood.  My exercise is part of my daily routine.  Now that I've successfully biked to work I think I could do this every week, weather permitting.  And we finally got the bike trailer hooked up today so Vera and I should be able to travel even farther without jumping in the car.  Honestly, I really get tired of schlepping her around in the car sometimes.  We took the bus a couple of times this week and I realized that, if nothing else--thought there are MANY good reasons to take public transport--it's a great opportunity to do a lot of reading.  And for a busy mom, that is precious time.

This time of the gardening season we are up to our necks in lettuce.  I always say I'm going to seed less of it, but that never happens.  We eat huge salads every night--in fact, we've graduated from each having an individual salad bowl to me tossing a much larger salad in a community bowl so we can go back for seconds--yet we barely make a dent in this leafy bounty.  So we have to get creative.  Last night I made lettuce wraps.  We didn't latch on to this idea when the Atkins Diet was popular years ago, but we do it now partly out of necessity and partly because they're really good--crunchy and fresh tasting.

Lemon Pepper Chicken Salad Lettuce Wraps
Makes 6 wraps

I used locally pastured chicken on the bone and boiled it with some vegetable scraps--carrot peels, celery leaves, onion and garlic skins--so that I make a chicken stock the same time I'm cooking my meat for the salad.  Removing the lettuce's vein is something I learned while working at a Japanese restaurant and making cabbage rolls.  Just trim the bulkiest part of the back of the vein, you don't have to completely cut it out.

2/3 c. mayonnaise (homemade if you can make it)
6 T. finely chopped celery
6 T. finely chopped spring onions
2 t. dried lemon peel
1 t. dried Herbs de Provence
1/4 c. lemon juice
4 c. cooked, finely chopped chicken breast
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper
salt to taste
12 large lettuce leaves (romaine, butterhead, etc.), vein removed
Other looseleaf lettuce for filling, optional

In a medium bowl, stir together mayonnaise, onion, celery, lemon peel, herbs, and lemon juice.  Add chopped chicken, stir to coat; set aside.  (If the mixture seems dry, add more lemon juice or a bit of chicken stock.)  Lay out two lettuce leaves per wrap with ends opposite.  Lay other delicate pieces of looseleaf lettuce on top of the larger leaves.  Scoop some chicken salad onto one end of each set of leaves, tuck in the ends and roll up tightly.  Secure with toothpicks and plate with the seam down.  You can enjoy these just like this or with a delicious dipping sauce of your choice.

Tonight we tried grilling our weekly homemade pizza.  We recently acquired a larger charcoal grill from a dear friend and our pizza stone fits inside of it.  Ben got some pizza grilling advice from a co-worker so we thought we'd give it a shot.  It took us months to perfect our homemade pizza in the oven so I'm sure this version will take us all summer.  So far it was pretty good, though the bottom was a slightly charred.  But I threw some roasted beets on it along with fresh spinach, our homemade sauce and sausage and our standard mushroom, black olive, cheese.  Delicious if I do say so myself.  And it was the perfect night to keep the cooking heat outside since it was so blasted hot.


Growing Challenges

Despite all the planning and dreaming I do pre-gardening season, my garden never turns out quite how I imagine.  Just like relationships with partners, spouses, or children, you must choose your battles.  Currently I'm battling slugs and small rodents.  It's amazing how such tiny creatures can wreak such havoc.  Though I protected my pole bean seeds in the front yard with hardware cloth, it didn't prevent the slugs from getting to the seedlings.  They've chewed practically every bit from the first leaves, which gives the plant no chance to grow.  I've already replanted the seeds at least once, but have had the same luck.  I recommend "slug traps," which certainly won't fix what's already been done, but will catch these slimeballs before they do any more harm.  I saved sardine and tuna cans all winter then poured a small amount of cheap beer into them.  Well, admittedly it wasn't cheap beer and my husband politely asked me not to use the $8/six-pack stuff to feed these critters, but at the time it was all we had when I frantically ran into the house saying "quick, I need some of your beer!"  I'll have to keep my eyes out for when Hamm's or Olde Style goes on sale then stock up.  In the meantime, this little drink draws them into the can, they get drunk, and basically drown.  Now that would be some way to go.  Hmmm...I think I officially signed off on the slug battle yesterday when I planted some cucumber seedlings along the cherry branch trellis where I'd hoped to see a wall of beautiful leaves, blossoms, and eventually Bingo and Kentucky Wonder beans.  I've also been fighting with what I believe to be the squirrels and/or chipmunks over my corn seedlings.  The first year we planted corn (a colorful ornamental variety that can be ground into meal) I had six healthy stalks that provided about 2 quarts of cornmeal.  Last year I lost the battle, but this year I'm determined to keep trying.  Along with the ornamental corn I've seeded popcorn, one of our favorite locally grown snacks.  I covered the seeds with gallon jug tops and they all germinated.  Too good to be true.  As of the beginning of this week I had only one or two seedlings left.  These critters were slowing picking them off.  It's great that I can see my garden from Vera's upstairs window, but, like the other day, when I see these plant protectors knocked over I have to reel myself in before abandoning my child on the changing table to go out and chase away these scavengers.  Ahh!  It can be maddening.  So Monday I reseeded the corn--I may have used the rest of my seed stock--and placed bricks on top of the jug tops.  The next step will be making tubular shields out of chicken wire.  I WILL win this year!  We WILL have homegrown cornmeal for our Thanksgiving stuffing.  Otherwise I can't complain about the progress of the garden.  A few bush beans have gotten trampled here and there (by creatures of the human kind), but I'm willing to relax about that, since I'll have my hands full picking pounds and pounds from what has survived before I know it.

Today I harvested the first garlic scapes, a tiny handful from some volunteer garlic plants in the front landscape.  Perfect timing because I just used the last of our 2009 homegrown garlic last week.  The scapes, which are the stem from which the seed head of the garlic is formed, can be used in place of garlic in any recipe and also make a delicious pesto.  These curling stems should be clipped after they make their first turn.  This allows the garlic plant to start putting its energy into making a bulb.  If not removed, they will flower and you won't have much garlic to speak of later in the season.

Aside from gardening I've been working on getting more involved in the community again.  I'd love to be a career volunteer, of course, but it's not quite time for that.  I'll contribute what I can in the meantime.  This morning I had a meeting for a new group that's centered in the Washington Park neighborhood called Community Pie.  Our goal is to help the local youth locate unutilized fruit and nut sources in the neighborhood--trees on public or private property, wild bushes, etc. then teach them how to bake pies.  We're dreaming of 501c3 status, but for now we're just focused on building community and gathering over some delicious pies.

I thought I'd share some garden pics since things have changed so dramatically lately.  I gave a garden tour to some ladies from the Holistic Moms Network the other day and realized what had changed since I last posted photos.


Picnic Recipes

We enjoyed a picnic with friends this weekend and many people were interested in the two dishes I prepared, so I thought I'd share the recipes.

Lentil and Edamame Salad with Lemon and Herb Dressing
You could substitute green peas, but I had some edamame in my freezer from last season.
Serves 8

1 lb. brown lentils, rinsed
8 c. water
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
3 T. lemon juice
1 T. grainy mustard
coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
2 c. fresh or frozen edamame
1 c. chopped celery plus the leaves
1/2 c. shredded carrots
1/2 c. red onion, chopped
1/4 c. torn arugula
1/2 t. salt, or to taste

In a large saucepan combine the lentils, water, and bay leaf.  Cover and heat to boil, stirring occasionally, until lentils are tender 20-30 min.  Drain and rinse with cool water in colander; discard bay leaf.  Whisk, minced garlic, oil, lemon juice, mustard, and pepper in a large bowl.  Add the drained lentils, edamame, celery, carrots, onion, arugula and toss to coat.  Taste and adjust seasoning, adding salt.

Peach-Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp
Early June is still a challenging time of year to prepare dessert with local foods so I used frozen local fruits I still had from last year.  Otherwise local strawberries and rhubarb might never meet peaches.  This dessert was a huge hit.  Let's just say that by the end of the night some of the "gentlemen" were digging straight into the serving dish with their spoons.

12 oz. EACH frozen strawberries, diced rhubarb, and sliced peaches, thawed (of course you can sub. fresh fruit)
1 1/2 c. xylitol (can sub. granulated sugar fully or partially)
3 T. lemon juice
1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 c. oats
1/3 c. firmly packed brown sugar
1/3 c. cold butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Combine the fruit with the sugar and lemon juice. (If you have a lots of juice from thawing, you may consider first mixing the lemon juice with 1 1/2 T. organic cornstarch then proceeding with the recipe.)  Add 1/4 c. flour, stirring well.  Pour mixture into a 13-x 9-inch baking greased baking dish.  Combine oats, brown sugar, and remaining 1 c. flour in a small bowl; cut in cold butter with a fork or your hands until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Sprinkle mixture evenly over fruit filling.  Bake 45-50 min. or until bubbly.