...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.


The Results Are In!

2009 Veggies
Just a day or two before Thanksgiving we had a freeze, which finally put an end to our garden.  I harvested and weighed what I salvaged from the frost; the final yield has been tallied.  I've estimated that we have about 250 square feet of food growing space (with probably that much more used for native flowers and other perennials).  I rounded down all the weights and didn't think to start measuring anything until after my spring harvest of many salad greens, spinach, radishes.  So the official grand total is 227.39 pounds--almost one pound per square foot--including bumper crops of 15 lbs. green beans, 22+ lbs. carrots and 61+ lbs. tomatoes.  I've been trying to find information online about how what a good per square foot yield is on an intensively planted plot like ours, but have had no luck.  (Please share any leads you might have.)  I suppose the goal for next year is to top this; I'm already getting ideas for how to expand the growing space.

Have you had enough turkey yet?  We ended up with an almost 20-pound bird.  The only drawback, I've found, of ordering a local turkey is that it can be more difficult to get the exact size you want.  I bargained for a <15 lbs. tom and got a much meatier one.  I have the "Turkey" folder pulled out of my recipe file (why yes, I do have a file dedicated just to this bird; it's a sub-category under "Poultry" in the ordered box of clippings about which my husband constantly teases me.)  We polished off the tetrazzini in no time so tonight I prepared a Mexican Lasagna with my own twists.  When people ask me if I learned to cook from my mother I hesitate because my mom was more of the casserole generation.  Don't get me wrong, she made mostly from-scratch dinners every night, rarely used the microwave for food preparation, and raised a very healthy family, but she and I happen to have different styles of cooking.  Let me put it this way, at the Thanksgiving dinner table, as I was picking through our deck of Earth Dinner cards and came upon the question "What foods are staples in your pantry/fridge?" my mom admitted to relying on Cream of Mushroom Soup.  On that note, I dedicate this casserole recipe to her; she's the ace of this domain.  I love you Muzz!

South-of-the-Border Lasagna
Serves 8-12

1 lb. leftover turkey, chopped in a food processor (can sub. ground turkey)
16 oz. homemade salsa
3 dried hot peppers, cut into small pieces
2 t. chili powder
1 1/2 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. black pepper
1/2 t. granulated garlic
1 large egg, whisked
2 c. ricotta cheese
1 1/4 c. shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
14 sprouted corn tortillas
2 c. cooked beans (mung, black, pinto, etc.) pureed w/ enough liquid to make spreadable
2 c. fresh frozen corn kernels
4 green onion, chopped (optional, to garnish)
Sour cream/plain whole milk yogurt (optional, to garnish)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Heat a large skillet and add turkey, salsa, chilies, and seasonings.  Cook a few minutes so flavors can meld; set aside.  In a small bowl, combine egg, ricotta, and 1/4 c. mozzarella.  Grease sides and bottom of a 9x13-inch casserole dish.  Cover bottom of pan with 4 tortillas.  Layer in the following order: corn, 1/2 of meat mixture, 4 tortillas, bean puree, remaining meat, 4 tortillas, then cheese mixture, remaining shredded cheese.  Bake about 45 minutes or until bubble and golden brown.  Remove from oven and cool slightly before cutting and serving.  Garnish with green onions, and sour cream/yogurt.  Can be made ahead and frozen or refrigerated before baking.

Our Front Door
Now that Thanksgiving has passed we've started to think about December holidays: Winter Solstice, Christmas, New Year's Eve.  Ben and I each did our part in stringing white LED lights on the front of the house.  I knew I wanted to use more of my reserved blackberry canes somehow in the garland; I wasn't prepared to shell out upwards of $100 on greenery this year so I used my resources and homegrown decoration.  My original idea was to outline the front doorway with the twisting canes, but since they'd been wound up in the garage for the past month, they wanted nothing to do with bending my way. I decided to work with them.  The design evolved to an over-the-door cluster of vines and lights--very organic and eclectic; I love it.  I also repeated from last year the lights in the window boxes twisting through my pea trellis twigs.  With some icicle lights on the front roofline, that's all the outdoor decorating we'll do.  The inside we'll keep simple as well--a small tree with lights and heirloom ornaments, the small keepsake creche Ben bought in Chile, and maybe a string of homemade garland in a doorway.  I aim to focus on the joys and peacefulness of the season instead of bogging myself down with setup and cleanup, not to mention the expense...oh, and off-season storage, of a lot of decorations.  'Tis the season for keeping it simple.

Window boxes 
Cluster of Blackberry Canes with White Lights


Using the Leftovers

Table Decor: Mini Squash, Persimmons, Locust Bean Pods, Horsetail and Isanti Dogwood Twigs
We enjoyed a wonderfully relaxing holiday yesterday and all went as I'd imagined.  I took an early morning walk with Vera while Ben finished a few housekeeping details.  Watched the Macy's Parade, leisurely cooked, visited with my folks, and sat down to a warm feast mid-afternoon.  We all took a brisk walk after dinner then enjoyed dessert and coffee.  In the evening we played games until we couldn't keep our eyes open.  Now we deal with the leftovers.  If you hosted Thanksgiving I'm going to assume you're dealing with extra turkey as well.  If you don't already have plans for it, here's my favorite recipe for post-Turkey Day.  I tried to make it a bit healthier this year by adding more veggies, using half and half instead of heavy cream, and subbing gluten-free flour and pasta.

Turkey Tetrazzini
Serves 8

One can easily substitute wheat pasta and all-purpose flour for the gluten-free varieties in this recipe.

6 oz. gluten-free spinach spaghetti (cooked)
1/4 c. butter
1/2 c. brown rice flour
1/4 c. brandy or sherry
1 c. half and half
2 2/3 c. chicken or turkey broth
3 c. cooked turkey, cut into bit-size pieces
1/2 lb. mushrooms, sliced
1/2 c. chopped green peppers (I used home frozen)
1 c. chopped Swiss chard, stems removed
1 c. grated Parmesan (or cheese of your choice)

1 t. kosher salt, or to taste
pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.  Place cooked spaghetti in the bottom of a baking dish.  In large pot, melt butter; add flour and whisk for a minute.  Add liquor, half and half, and broth, whisk.  Add cheese and whisk until melted.  Stir in remaining ingredients and season to taste.  Pour tetrazzini mixture over pasta and bake 30 min.  Serve hot.


Countdown to Turkey Time

I started cooking yesterday afternoon.  I'm trying to manage not only my oven space (different dishes need to be baked at different temps., of course), but also to get part of the mess out of the way so I can relax a little with my family tomorrow.  The biggest challenge has been coordinating space in the fridge for the bulk of ingredients from a Thanksgiving CSA share I picked up last week, the last of our garden harvest (which I frantically harvested yesterday after the overnight freeze), and the staged and finished dishes for Thursday's meal.  I find this thrilling!  I just realized I should have posted my Thanksgiving menu and recipes earlier than today in case someone was still looking for ideas, but since many of these dishes aren't exactly traditional, one could prepare them for any feast especially other upcoming holiday meals.  I am happy to say that most of the ingredients are from local producers and our own garden.  My parents are bringing wine from a winery they recently visited near their home in east-central Illinois.  A feast we will have as we give thanks for the many fortunes and much happiness we've had this past year.

Brined and Roasted American Heritage Bronze Turkey
Turkey Gravy
Cornbread Stuffing with Fruit and Polenta Bread
Classic Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Brined Brussels Sprouts with Lemony Mushroom Melange
Gluten-Free Sesame Bean Buns
Jellied Cranberry Salad with Spiced Apples and Pecans
Maple Sweet Potato Cheesecake with Gluten-Free Quinoa Walnut Crust

Shelled Acorns
My first acorn experiment is complete.  I patiently took these nuts from tree to meal/flour in about two days.  The initial attempt was a bit tedious, but I feel if I repeated it, I'd get my cracking technique down pat, which would save loads of time.  With some minor changes and adaptations, I referred to the instructions in The Urban Homestead book I referenced in a previous post.  This guide suggested that one soak the acorns first--which I did--then discard the ones that float.  On the contrary, I learned that the ones that float were the good and all that sank were rotten.  Then I got out the Vise-Grip and cracked away.  Of course Ben always walks into the kitchen at the most appropriate time.  He said, "this looks like the 'Black Walnut Experiment,'" referring to another urban adventure we had at our apartment downtown.  A co-worker had given me a grocery sack full of black walnuts after I excitedly inquired about them to make nocino (pronounced "no-CHEE-no"), a bitter black walnut liqueur I'd tasted on a culinary tour outside of Bologna.  This intensely flavored alcohol is made from nuts traditionally collected between June 24-25 because of the magical powers of the dew on that specific eve.   Well, these nuts sat there from June 24 to approximately December 24 before I finally got around to cracking them open.  In the cold, we set up some tarps on our tiny balcony and went to town with hammers, tweezers, and toothpicks doing our best to draw out as many nut meats as possible.  Most flew off the balcony with every whack of the hammer, much to the delight of the squirrels waiting below.  We ended up with a 1/2-pint of nuts, but it wasn't for naught as I'm determined to find some lesson in all of my urban homesteading trials.  I developed a much greater appreciation for small-scale (and I mean very small scale (like the elderly man who sells hand-shelled hickory nuts at the Dane County Farmers' Market) nut processors.  Now you can imagine the hesitation of Ben's expression when he saw I was at it again with these acorns.  After cracking them all I put them in my classic Osterizer, covering the nuts with water.  I soon realized this machine wouldn't cut it so I transferred them to the hand-be-down vintage Vita-Mix from my mother-in-law and that made quick work of these nuts.  The VM never fails!  I was left with acorn "mash."  Acorns contain lots of tannins (very bitter, astringent components also found in red wine) that must be soaked out before the nuts can be consumed.  Older wild foraging guides call for boiling the mash several times and dumping the water.  This takes a lot of energy so my guidebook suggested soaking in a bowl of water instead.  I tied the mash in a piece of scrim (you can use cheesecloth) and filled the bowl with water.  When the water became dark and cloudy I dumped it and filled it again.  I repeated this step for about 24 hours (leaving it to sit overnight) and finally the astringency was gone.  I spread the mash on a silicone baking mat on a cookie sheet and dried it at a low oven temp.  Then I whizzed it in the spice grinder to make a dark, sweet-nutty smelling meal/flour.  It can be added or partially substituted in savory baking recipes.  
Never Fails!

Soaking out the Tannins
Dried Mash

Final Ground Acorn Meal

On that note, I used some of my sunchoke flour yesterday to make cornbread for our Thanksgiving cornbread stuffing.  I indicated my substitutions in the recipe below so you could make it without these odd flours.

Polenta Cornbread
Serves 6

Use in place of your favorite cornbread or take it a step further, turning it into cornbread stuffing.

Sunchokes add a lovely earthy, nutty flavor to this bread.
5 large eggs, whisked
1 1/2 c. buttermilk
1/4 lb. unsalted butter, melted
1/3 c. finely sliced scallions
1 1/2 t. salt
2 c. all-purpose flour (I used 1 1/4 c. APF, 1/2 c. sunchoke flour, 1/4 c. wild rice flour)
1 1/2 c. fine grind polenta
2 T. baking powder
2 t. baking soda
1 c. grated Asiago cheese (or other cheese of your choosing)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Lightly butter 9x13-inch baking dish.  In medium bowl, whisk together eggs, buttermilk, butter, scallions, salt.  Set aside.  In large bowl, combine flour(s), polenta, baking powder, baking soda, cheese.  Add wet ingredients to dry and stir until there no large lumps.  Do not overwork.  Spread batter in baking dish.  Bake 30-35 min. or until golden brown and a skewer inserted in center comes out clean.  Cool on rack.  

Jump, Jump, Jump!
Just in time for more Thanksgiving meal preparations today, an early holiday delivery arrived from Grammy and Papa for Vera yesterday.  I call it "Mommy's Little Helper."  You may have seen these towers.  They are meant for kids to be able to reach the countertop to observe or help prepare meals.  Vera's always asking to go "up and down," which in this case mean's "up" when I'm cooking.  She's curious about what I'm chopping, mixing, and sauteeing.  Now she can stand beside me--in her little apron--and view her own personal cooking show every day.  So far she's just used this piece of equipment as a jungle gym under my supervision, of course.  Oh my, the hysteria (or "high-steria" as my Boston-bred father-in-law would say)!  But that will no doubt wear off and hopefully she'll want to help me "cook."  Apparently it can double as a puppet theatre.  I'm expecting to see some Tony Award-Nominated sock puppets shows before she leaves home.  In the meantime maybe I can get her learning about cooking early on. 


Recycled Knits

Recycled Short-Sleeved Sweater with Vintage Buttons
Flea Market Vintage Buttons

Recycled Hat for Vera

It's a great afternoon to post as I sit by the window watching the rain come down on this "warm" November day.  I guess it's good for my garden that never ends.  It's also a great day to curl up with some knitting needles.  I finished a project last night that I'd been working on since last spring (or was it winter?)  As I've mentioned, I don't knit much in the summer because I'm hiding in the cool basement sewing during that season.  So I had a long pause with what I believe is the first garment I've made for myself that's worthy of wearing.  I'm not counting the very first knitting project I ever started/completed--a striped poncho--which had a lot to be desired in terms of shape and quality.  I've made plenty of accessories--hats, scarves, socks--and plenty of baby knits, but not many full size pieces for myself.  I've been very excited about short-sleeved sweaters lately because I love layering clothes in the winter.  Some might find the color obnoxious, but I happen to love green--especially chartreuse (ironic b/c it's the color my mom detests most since her mother dyed her First Communion dress that shade.) This sweater is actually an afghan reincarnated (sorry, I don't have a "BEFORE" photo.)  On a thrifting trip a couple of years ago I was looking at yarn and an older women stocking the shelves  struck up a conversation and gave me the idea to purchase a sweater or other garment for its yarn (even if I didn't care for the piece itself), disassemble it and reknit it into something I enjoyed.  I first tried this with a hat I made for Vera; originally it was an adult size "tam," but I unraveled it and whipped it into a cute flap hat for winter.  My next endeavor was much more grand and I'll be honest--half of this afghan is still in tact in my knitting hutch.  I made the mistake of washing the blanket before unraveling, which made it much harder to untangle, especially because it had an intricate leaf pattern.  On that note, if you choose to try recycling yarn, 1) don't wash the garment first--unravel, knit new, then clean the final piece (depending on the type of yarn and washing instructions...SAVE THE CARE LABEL), 2) choose a garment with a simple stockinette or garter stitch; it's much more difficult to unravel a cable knit or other intricate pattern, 3) look for items that are machine seamed--it's much easier to rip apart the seams, though hand seamed isn't extremely difficult, 4) if you have a small child, ask them to help you unravel--this is one time that this temptation for a child comes in handy.  At any rate, recycling knits is a great way to get many skeins of yarn without the hefty price tag (this blue, long-sleeved cropped sweater was just a couple bucks and I rendered five skeins from it.)  As a homesteader, I'm always trying to be economical.  I found that disassembling these garments also gave me a greater appreciation for the quality of handknit items as well as another lesson in how garments are constructed.  I have a couple more sweaters to tear out--I have more time than money for ripping/knitting these days--then I plan to knit some cute dresses for Vera (there are many great free patterns online!)
Sweater to Disassemble

5 Skeins to Recycle

More Sweaters to Unravel
Link to us:

While I'm mentioning crafts, I have to tell you about one of my favorite annual events that's coming up next weekend.  Art vs. Craft is happening Saturday, Nov. 27.  On Friday after Thanksgiving I'll be observing national "Buy Nothing Day" as usual, but on Sat. I'll be checking out the highly talented and artsy/crafty folks at this event.  Please check it out! And if you give gifts for the holidays, consider buying local or handmade with intention.

This week begins the big preparation for Turkey Day.  We picked up our tom at the West Allis Farmers' Market on Saturday.  Vera got to ride with it in the wagon, but seemed let down by all the build up to "picking up the turkey" only to have this plastic-wrapped mass plopped next to her and a 1/2 bushel of winter squash in the old Radio Flyer.  I'm sure she'll change her mind at mealtime when she's licking juice off her little fingers.  I have to make a trip to the store on Wednesday for just a few last items, but otherwise I'm armed with roasting pan, mixer, butcher twine, and apron to put a feast on the table Thursday afternoon.  And about that store visit--I usually don't shop at mainstream supermarkets, but there's something that draws me to them before a big holiday meal.  I love to sense the hustle and bustle as everyone seeks out their ingredients, chooses their turkeys, considers their gravy options, and loads up on booze to make the big day a success.  Maybe it's some odd memory from childhood or later of going to the store with my mom before the holidays.  I don't know, but I'm looking forward to this foray.

Thanksgiving will truly be a celebration of the harvest for us this year.  Aside from the few greens, herbs, and roots still bearing the cold, the garden is officially closed for the season.  We placed the coldframe on Sunday and I'll plant my spinach and lettuce mix in it this week for early spring harvest.  Then we can sit down on Thursday and give thanks for all our homestead has provided this past year.


As the Holidays Approach

Ben's Red Leaf
My favorite holiday is less than a week away.  I love Thanksgiving.  It's the one holiday I celebrate that is rooted in gathering around the table and sharing a feast.  This will be my third year cooking this celebratory meal in our own home and I must say I'm once again enjoying the menu planning and thoughts of a relaxing Thanksgiving morning.  I love to rise early and go for a nature walk then settle in and watch the Macy's Parade.  My parents are joining us this year from east-central Illinois and will likely arrive midday.  I'm planning to start cooking a day or two in advance to lighten the load the day of so I can spend time with my guests.  But, really, isn't it about spending the day in the kitchen?  My mom always pitches in while the men relax, watch football, and enjoy hors d'oeuvres and warm beverages.  After dinner we'll likely play cards or a board game.  Mmm, I can almost smell that turkey roasting already.  Speaking of turkeys, I've been trying to explain to Vera that tomorrow we're going to pick up our bird--that there will be a turkey riding in the car with us.  I even joked about reinstalling her infant carseat so the Tom could ride alongside her.  She stared blankly as she probably can't imagine seeing a turkey outside of her story books--feathered or not--let alone riding alongside one in the backseat.  This should be interesting.  We're getting another delicious heritage turkey from JenEhr Family Farm in Sun Prairie near Madison.  I ordered it on Sept. 1 and have been dreaming of the juicy meat since then.  This is our 4th year getting a bird from Kay and Paul and we've never been disappointed.  On that note, it feels like pre-vacation madness around here because I'm trying to empty the fridge to make room for this character for the next few days until I start brining it on Wednesday.  Then is sits outside in the cold in a 5-gallon bucket overnight until showtime on Thursday.

Holiday feasts always remind me of my Gramma Lucille, a Caledonia farm girl who made her living as a cook.  She would use the outdoors as an extended fridge/freezer to accommodate all the food that one guessed would be fed to an army the following day.  She also had a thing about turkey.  Her favorite part--and stop reading if I've already told this story--was the neck.  Until I worked at a Japanese restaurant where the natives shared how they delicately fry up the turkey neck and nibble off all the meat, I never understood how anyone could savor what appeared to be a twisted length of cartilage.  But my Gram loved it and, in fact, one year had a fit because she lost the neck during the rinsing/stuffing/trussing/roasting process.  It was one of the few times she let people into her kitchen as she cooked--my dad helped her dig through the trash until they finally uncovered it.  She proceeded to rinse it off and cook it up like nothing had happened.  Whew!  The drama!  We won't be preparing any turkey neck on Thursday, but I may use the giblets for stuffing (against my will...I didn't want stuffing this year, but a certain loving member of this household insisted...Vera can say "turkey" (well, it sounds more like "hockey") but she can't yet request her favorite holiday side dish so you can guess who it was.)  Long story short, tomorrow I clean the fridge in preparation for the big feast.

Bucket 'o Acorns
While we're on the topic of seasonal foods, I'll tell you about my next urban homesteading experiment.  According to Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, authors of The Urban Homestead, foraging is a big part of sustaining the urban homestead.  As you know, I love to forage and have continued this activity into the fall.  Yesterday I was out there with the squirrels gathering nuts for the winter.  It felt almost as goofy as that sounds.  I took Vera's little red pail on our walk and stopped in the park under some huge oaks and in no time picked up a bucketful of acorns.  There were so many that even if the squirrels had descended upon them as they did Veruca Salt in Tim Burton's Charlie and Chocolate Factory, they still couldn't have grabbed them all.  Coyne and Knutzen, as well as more famous foragers like Euell Gibbons, have found ways to make flour out of acorns.  I've always wanted to try it.  I know it involves boiling the acorns a few times to get the bitterness out.  Stay tuned for the results.  I may have found another source for super local flour.

Before:  Holey Socks!
This week I also found time to catch up on some odd craft projects.  There was a pile of holey socks on my mending stack so I turned them into more legwarmers for Vera.  Everywhere she's gone in the "murmormers" she already has, we've gotten so many compliments on their cuteness, mostly from middle age women wondering where they can get a pair their size.  The legwarmers are so simple to whip up.  They can also be worn on the arms under/over a shirt.  There's a link to the original pattern on my first post for this project.
After:  Cute Toddler Legwarmers!

Yesterday Vera and I showed up at City Hall at 4 PM to join fellow Milwaukeeans, proud progressive Wisconsinites, and recently disappointed voters in singing "This Land is Your Land" on the ground floor.  Ben said it was Vera's first act of "civil disobedience" (as if there might be others), but really it was a chance for all of us who felt our voices were not heard in the mid-term election to make some noise, spread the word, and hopefully pass the spirit to others that we must use our voices, make ourselves be heard, and stand up for what we believe in no matter who's running the show in Madison or Washington.  I will post the YouTube link when I get it.

After that uplifting event we crossed the street to catch our first ever City/County Christmas Tree Lighting at Red Arrow Park.  Vera was most interested in looking at (thought not getting close enough to touch) the police horses while I enjoyed the carolers, Salvation Army band, and of course, people-watching.  I just may be in the holiday mood now.

I would like to leave you with a warm, hearty fall recipe.  It's such a treat to harvest cilantro from our garden this time of year.  The row cover I laid down a few weeks ago is doing its job to keep this crop toasty and growing strong.  The original recipe called for turnips instead of the potatoes and squash.

Chicken Curry with Whole Spices, Potatoes, and Winter Squash
Serves 6

1 4-lb. chicken, cut into 8 pieces, skinned
2 whole chicken legs, cut into drumsticks and thighs, skinned
1 small acorn squash, seeded and coarsely cubed
4 medium potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
1 1/4 t. salt, divided
1 t. cayenne pepper, divided
3/4 t. turmeric, divided
1 large onion, cut into 1-inch cubes
5 large garlic cloves
2 1-inch long pieces fresh ginger, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 T. coconut oil, divided
14 whole green cardamom pods, husks removed
9 whole cloves
1 1-inch piece cinnamon stick
1 t. coriander seeds
1/2 t. cumin seeds
1 small hot pepper, stemmed, halved
3 medium tomatoes, cubed (I used frozen)
2 T. tomato paste
1/4 c. plain whole-milk yogurt
1 c. water
1/2 c. chopped fresh cilantro
2 T. lemon juice

Toss all chicken, squash, potatoes, 1/4 t. salt, 1/4 t. cayenne, and 1/2 t. turmeric in a large bowl to coat.  Pulse onion, garlic, ginger in food processor.  Stir 2 T. oil, and next 5 ingredients in heavy large pot over medium-high heat 1 min.  Add remaining 1 t. salt, mixture from processor, and chile.  Saute until mixture begins to brown at edges of pot, about 10 min.  Discard cinnamon stick and chile halves.  Mix in remaining 3/4 t. cayenne and 1/4 t. turmeric, then tomatoes and tomato paste; simmer 5 min.  Puree sauce in blender or food processor until smooth. (Can be made 1 day ahead.  Cover chicken and sauce separately and refridge.)  Heat remaining 1 T. oil in large wide pot over medium-high heat.  Add chicken, squash, and potatoes.  Saute until chicken is no longer pink outside, about 4 min.  Slowly mix in yogurt, then 1 c. water and onion-tomato sauce; bring to boil.  Reduce heat to medium-low, partially cover pot, and simmer until chicken is cooked through, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, about 40 min.  Uncover and simmer until sauce thickens, about 5 min.  Mix in cilantro, lemon juice; season to taste with salt.  Transfer to serving platter.


I Feel the Urge to Purge...

...excess material things that is.  I've caught the annual bug to clean, organize, and pare down.  I got on a kick last weekend during my staycation, but it carried through last week and the urge is still there.  I held a rummage sale on Saturday and couldn't believe all the stuff that left our house--whether we sold or donated it.  I wondered why we'd hung on to it this long.  After getting all of this stuff out of our basement where it had been accumulating for the sale in a large corner for the last month, I decided to vacuum the basement.  This chore is mine on our weekly/bi-weekly/annual cleaning list (yes, it exists and we love it that way!) so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to check off this twice yearly task.  I worked high and low for at least an hour getting every cobweb and piece of gook from every nook and cranny.  This is not a finished basement, but one with a cement floor and exposed beams on the ceiling, so you can imagine how visibly buggy and dusty it can get.  Well, as I cleaned I felt the urge to totally rearrange my craft area.  Though I'd love to have a mom cave, I can't begin to compare my corner to the gorgeous getaways the Haute Apple Pie ladies recently blogged about.  But I can at least try to design a space where I feel comfortable, organized, and inspired to create on a regular basis.  There wasn't much wrong with the old setup of my "cave," but as any woman, especially a busy little mama, will tell you it's nice to freshen things up once in a while and change the scenery.  While I sat in the cold garage on Saturday at my ill-attended rummage, I had some time to surf the web and get inspired by the blogs of some fellow female crafters who are doing incredibly creative stuff!  I hope to make time this week to pick up some of my own projects and start more.
At My Sewing Table
Tray of Notions and Tools

Dried Sunchokes (they look like mushrooms) 

Grinding into Flour
A Fairly Fine Flour (say that 3X fast)
In other news, the first two steps of my sunchoke experiment have been successful.  The sunchokes were completely dry as of Sat. (took a few days with the oven on and off at low temps. to dry them.)  Tonight I ground them into flour.  I started by putting them in the food processor, but that was about to tear up the blade.  I transferred them to my spice grinder (a coffee grinder dedicated to spice grinding), which took a bit longer because of multiple batches, but was much more efficient believe it or not.  From the seven pounds of sunchokes I dried, I rendered one quart of flour.  Not peeling them didn't hurt the final product at all, in fact, it imparted a nice earthy aroma that I imagine will add an interesting flavor to savory baked goods.  Stay tuned to read what I make with this flour.  It was by far one of the most interesting urban homesteading experiments I've tackled yet.  The product was 100% grown and processed on our property--even better than the dilly beans with homegrown dill and garlic, but outsourced vinegar and salt.
A Quart of Sunchoke Flour!


Making My Own Flour

Big Bag of Sunchokes
In the last month or so I've been trying to avoid gluten and generally cut back on carbs.  This has prompted me to consider alternative, especially gluten-free, flours.  I've learned that "flour" doesn't have to come from a grain, though it typically does.  There are low-carb, high-protein, high-fiber flours such as coconut, almond, and garbanzo that can be used in baking.  After further research of alternative flours I learned that there's also such a thing as "sunchoke flour."  A member of the sunflower family, sunchokes are also known as Jerusalem artichokes.  They are low-carb, high in inulin, native to our area, and they happen to grow in our garden.  (I say "they grow" instead of "I grow them" because they're perennial and completely self-proliferating.)  I don't have to do a thing but harvest.  I wrote about them back in the spring and noted that my neighbor had given me the first tubers to plant in my garden.  They've been extremely prolific since then.  As I worked to close the garden for the season this past week I cut the very tall stalks and dug up these "roots."  I'm sure I didn't get all of them--they can be quite elusive--but I ended up with nine pounds.  One can harvest them between October and April so perhaps I will find more in the spring when I prepare the soil for the garden again.  I washed and sliced them thinly, putting them into a pot of water with a little lemon juice to avoid discoloration while I sliced the rest.  I drained them then spread them on a few sheet trays and loaded them into my oven at a low temp. (175-200 degrees).  I found some information online about turning them into flour.  I chose not to peel them because A) it's an extremely tedious process and B) having worked with sunchokes before I know that the skin is completely edible though it adds a more earthy flavor and color.  I'm willing to adapt to that flavor in exchange for time saved on peeling.  One could also dry them in a dehydrator, which I do not have.  Stay tuned for the results.

"Midwest Capers"
I also finished my "local capers" this week.  I didn't reap many seed pods from my friends plot at the Hide House, but after a meeting earlier this week I found myself a block away from a restaurant at which I used to work (which has since closed) and knew they had nasturtiums growing in there planters outside.  I did some genuine urban foraging and helped myself to the seed pods that would otherwise go to waste.  I loaded my pockets then hopped on my bike for home to quickly get them brined.  I came up with about 3-1/4 pint jars, which should be plenty to take me through the year.

In another attempt to get more veggies into my daughter's and my family's meals, this week I prepared a split pea soup and added broccoli and bok choy.  She loved it and ate three (small) bowls for dinner that night.  Yay!

Split Pea Soup with Broccoli, Bok Choy, and Ham
Serves 5

Adapted from a recipe in 1000 Vegetarian Recipes by Carol Gelles.  It could certainly be made without the cruciferous vegetables.

Split Pea Soup with Broccoli, Bok Choy, and Ham
2 T. ghee or coconut oil
1 c. chopped onion
1 c. chopped carrots
3/4 c. green split peas
1/2 bunch bok choy, finely chopped in a food processor
4 c. water
2 c. vegetable stock
1 head broccoli, finely chopped in a food processor
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 c. fresh parsley, chopped
1-2 c. diced ham (I use leftovers)
Salt and pepper to taste (don't add too much salt before tasting after adding ham.)

Heat ghee or oil in a stockpot and add onions and carrots.  Saute a few minutes until soft.  Add green split peas and toss to coat with oil.  Add bok choy and water and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer, 1 hour.  Add vegetable stock, broccoli, garlic, and parsley.  Return to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered 30 min.  (Add more liquid if needed.)  Stir in ham and seasoning to taste.


What I Did on my Fall Stay-cation

I am down to the last couple of hours of my first, and much anticipated, stay-cation.  Ben and Vera headed down to the Chicago-area on Friday so that I could have a quiet weekend to do whatever I wanted.  It was the first time Vera was away from me overnight and I think we both fared well based on what Ben tells me.  Of course, I miss my two sweeties, but it's been great to catch up on things from my rainy day list and putz, which is an activity I've been famous for since high school.  If you know me, you understand that I don't easily sit still.  I did promise not to do any cleaning this weekend (which almost happened except I shampooed the couch last night), but otherwise I was ready to organize, pare down, and refresh--physically and mentally.  It began with a serious session of cleaning out my recipe file box on Friday, Saturday I started going through my notoriously extraneous basement files (articles, ideas, and clippings of things that may someday come in handy).  I purged A LOT, which felt great!  Saturday night I organized my closet after getting rid of several articles for an upcoming rummage; I also hung a doubler rod to prepare for Ben's move into my closet.  He's still using the closet in Vera's room, but it's proving to be more and more difficult as he often wakes her up in the morning when he gets his clothes.  So, yes, you heard me correctly, I am voluntarily welcoming my husband to share my small closet.  The last time we did so was at our two bedroom apartment downtown when we had a HUGE walk-in closet despite a smaller living space.  This time it felt good to get rid of things--seriously consolidate and simplify. I started reading a book lately about organizing one's home then quit after A) I realized it was more for the obsessive hoarding type who can't see their floor because of all the "stuff" and B) just reading the intro was enough to motivate me to be very generous in getting rid of things.  The author suggested that everything in one's home should be either functional or beautiful.  Can you think of anything in your home that doesn't fit that bill?  I could!  I was reading a great article this morning on Mother Earth News online about wabi-sabi, the Japanese art of imperfection.  I first came across the term in 2002 when I was working at a Japanese restaurant and in love with all things Japanese.  When I asked one of my Japanese co-workers what it meant, he had a hard time putting it into words.  Since then wabi-sabi has become more of a household term and I think it sums up very well how I like to decorate and why I appreciate antique stores.  According to the article's author I might consider myself a wabibito:

"Wabibitos live modestly, satisfied with things as they are. They own only what’s necessary for its utility or beauty (ideally, both). They revere humans over machines, surrounding themselves with things that resonate with the spirit of their makers. Wabi-sabi is imperfect: a beloved chipped vase or a scarred wooden table."

Here are some examples of wabi-sabi from our home:

One of today's projects was organizing the upright freezer in the basement, taking inventory of it along with my preserves pantry and creating my annual spreadsheet so we can see and check off to know what we have.  To make the freezer a bit more manageable, I purchased some baskets and such after reading an awesome article in Better Homes and Gardens last year about this daunting task.  I feel as though it was a success.  Time will tell.
Before Organization
After Organization

Fall Greens
Aside from ramping up for my staycation, this past week I was in the kitchen preparing meals from our garden--yes, it continues to grow.  We had our first killing frost on Friday night, but the swiss chard, radishes, rutabaga, and beets survived as well as the cabbage, cilantro, mustards, arugula, and turnips under the floating row cover I had put down as I awaited colder weather.  I did some gleaning early last week and managed to come up with a pretty decent fall green salad from red streaks mustards, pineapple sage, sorrel, and nasturtium leaves (spicy like their flowers).  This was the base for tossed salads as well a fresh accent to the high-protein vegetable wraps I've been making lately with sprouted grain tortillas.  I also dried a good amount of lemon balm for winter tea and adapted a salad using broccoli stems and carrots from our yard and more of my foraged pears.

Curry Pear and Broccoli Slaw
Serves 4-6

Adapted from a recipe in the Outpost Exchange magazine, November 2009.  Don't discard your broccoli stems, most of them--but an inch or so of woodiness at the bottom--are edible.

3 large carrots, trimmed and shredded
2 large broccoli stalks, trimmed and shredded
2 firm but ripe pears, trimmed and sliced thinly (about 1/4")
1/4 c. dried cranberries
2 T. fresh parsley, chopped
2 T. white wine vinegar
1 T. curry powder
2 t. honey
1 t. salt
1/4 c. olive oil
1/2 c. roasted peanuts
pepper to taste

Place pears, carrots, broccoli, and cranberries in a large bowl and sprinkle with parsley.  In a blender, combine vinegar, curry powder, honey, salt and pepper.  While blending, add the olive oil.  Pour curry dressing over veggies, add peanuts, and toss gently to combine.  Serve immediately.

I also made some homemade catsup.  I missed the boat on making it from fresh tomatoes, but used the amazing slow-roasted tomato paste from Ruegsegger Farms.  The recipe is from Jessica Seinfeld's Deceptively Delicious, which adheres to my recent efforts to sneak more veggies into Vera's diet.  Store-bought ketchup often contains a lot more than you might bargain for in the way of sugar and additives.  I'd always wanted to make my own.

Homemade Ketchup
Makes 1 c.

6 oz. tomato paste
1/2 c. carrot or squash puree
1/4 c. water
2 T. apple-cider vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. firmly packed light or dark brown sugar
1/2 t. dry mustard
1/4 t. salt
1 t. ground allspice
1/4 t. chili powder, or to taste

Stir all ingredients together in a big saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Reduce the heat and simmer until the mixture has reduced by about half, 10 to 15 min.  Let cool before serving or refrigerating.  Freezing also works well.

You may have heard me mention my urban homesteading journal.  One of the first entries in that book of ideas was a brainstorm of foods and ingredients that we use a lot that are not local, including oils, coffee, some fruits, etc.  On that list was peanut butter.  I had noted that I would try to "use less" as a solution, but last week I had a though about making a local substitute.  I thought, if roasted sesame seeds can be ground up to make tahini, why can't roasted pumpkin (or squash) seeds be ground up to make pumpkinseed butter?  I did a web search and found that a lot of people had tried this.  My first attempt was very coarse, but I believe I can tweak it to make a reasonable substitute.  Imagine growing your own "peanut butter" substitute!

Pumpkin/Squash Seed Butter
Makes about 2 c.

2 c. roasted pumpkin/squash seeds
3 T. vegetable oil (you could even take this opportunity to use flaxseed oil!)
Salt to taste

Put the seeds in a food processor and process until finely ground.  Add the oil gradually and process until smooth.  Add salt and pulse to combine.  Taste and adjust seasoning.  Store in the fridge or freezer.  Enjoy on crackers, vegetables, or fruit.  Try baking with it.

And I just realized I gained and hour last night--wasn't on a schedule today to notice...maybe I will finally sit down.


Grow Your Own Sponges

Pineapple Sage Flowers
Loofah before drying
Loofah after drying
Whenever I gave someone a tour of my garden this summer and pointed out the loofah (a.k.a. luffa) squash they were surprised to learn that this variety is the origin of loofah sponges, not the sea.  This was my first year successfully growing loofah, which requires a long growing season to mature.  With the delayed first frost, I was able to coax four or five of these cucurbitae to full size.  I learned about drying them online.  My first attempt wasn't as beautiful as on that blog, but they will still make great sponges for the bath.  Next year I'd love to grow them again to pair with a homegrown herbal bath salt mix for a holiday gift.  (For the record, if you're familiar with the film Caddyshack, you know my favorite quote about loofah.)

Our Halloween passed somewhat uneventfully.  Though we did enjoy a fun late afternoon carving pumpkins and enjoying pumpkin soup and pumpkin beer at a friend's house, Vera didn't go trick-or-treating and wanted absolutely nothing to do with her gnome accessories.  She put the hat on for just a moment and I snapped a very quick photo.  I think it will fit next year so perhaps we'll try again then.  By then she should be able to talk enough that I can train her to say "Trick or Treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat!" like my mom taught us.

Blackberry cane wreath
I worked on cleaning up the garden a bit more on Sunday.  I raked a ton of leaves and trimmed some perennials.  This was not a good season for fruit production in our garden.  The blackberries, which were mildly productive last year, didn't produce a thing this round.  I learned from a fellow gardener and berry grower that I should have clipped them back much more during the season.  Instead, the canes grew so long that some of them wrapped around the corner of the house.  Obviously, the bushes had no energy to put into fruit.  But I made tried to make lemonade out of lemons and discovered that I could use these long--some 10 to 12-foot long--canes for decoration.  My first thought was to work them into my holiday garland, which has cost me upwards of $100 in the past.  But then I realized I could craft a wreath out of these flexible branches.  As I wound and wove I was reminded of the 4th and 5th grade Pioneer Days event held at my grade school every spring and how I learned candle dipping, basket weaving, bread baking, and scherenschnitte as well as how to make a grapevine wreath.  Who knew it would come in handy on the urban homestead.  You can strip off the leaves and just use the canes as a base for other decoration like berries, dried flowers, or some ribbon, but I chose to let them dry on the wreath for now.  This might also make a beautiful centerpiece for a party where it would remain fresh looking for the event.  At any rate, it beats the high price tag on artificial wreaths at the craft store.  For more ideas check out Milwaukee's Haute Apple Pie ladies' fall wreath.

This week I decided the contents of my fridge's bottom shelf--including our complete carrot and leek harvest--needed attention.  I recently read an article in the Summer 2010 Urban Farm Magazine about creatively storing your preserves (canned, frozen, dried, and cellared).  There were some tremendously clever ideas including behind books on shelves, under beds, and behind couches.  Those ideas don't necessarily fit our home, but I had the idea to better utilize our vestibule--the enclosed area between our front stoop/door and entryway/front "hallway."  I've killed a few plants in this area by not pulling them officially inside before the first frost.  So it must be perfect for storing root vegetables, no?  I found some cute baskets at the thrift store and layered all of my carrots between dried leaves (you could also use mulch or sand), covered them with a cloth, and hung a temporary, seasonal curtain over the north-facing window to keep the winter sun out.  I will check them periodically this winter to make sure they're storing alright.  I'm also planning to store apples there.

I've been trying to get more raw vegetables into my diet lately.  With all the squash that's available right now I though I would adapt a carrot salad recipe to use winter squash.  After marinating a bit, it's very easy to chew what we usually think of as a vegetable that can only be eaten cooked.

Grated Winter Squash Salad
Serves 4

Adapted from a recipe in Fresh From the Farmers' Market by Janet Fletcher

Raw Winter Squash Salad
1/2 lb. winter squash, peeled and seeded
1 1/2 T. extra virgin olive oil (can sub. half of fully with flaxseed oil)
1 T. fresh lemon juice (or sumac concentrate)
1 small clove garlic, finely minced
2 t. chopped fresh chives (optional...if available)
salt, to taste

Cut squash into slices that will fit into a food processor feed tube and shred (can also grate by hand with a box grater.)  Transfer to a bowl and stir in oil, lemon juice, garlic, chives, and salt to taste.  Taste and adjust seasoning.

I'm also working to put more clean, antibiotic-free, hormone-free meats into my diet.  I get most all of our meat from Ruegsegger Farms Natural Meats, who sells at the new Indoor Winter Farmers' Market at St. Ann's Center.  I created this recipe using what I had on hand--as seasonal eaters try to do--including the winter squash puree and roasted red peppers mentioned in previous blog posts.  Choose your favorite marinade or use the one recommended below.

Skirt Steak Quesadillas with Winter Squash, Roasted Peppers, and Greens
Makes 2 9-inch quesadillas
Skirt Steak Quesadillas

2 T. chili powder
2 T. dried rosemary
1 c. sumac concentrate (or orange juice)
1 c. olive oil
1 T. smoked paprika
8 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 large onion, sliced
Salt and pepper, to taste

1 2- to 3-pound skirt steak, thinly sliced

In food processor or blender, puree all ingredients for marinade except onions.  When pureed, add onions and salt and pepper, to taste, then cover flank steak with marinade for at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.

1 c. winter squash/pumpkin puree
1/2 c. sauteed/steamed tatsoi or other greens (spinach, swiss chard, kale, etc.)
1/2 c. roasted red peppers, chopped
1/2-1 c. shredded mozzarella or other melting cheese
4 whole grain tortillas (I prefer sprouted grains)
Butter, ghee, or grapeseed oil for cooking
Sour cream of plain yogurt

Heat a large skillet, using a slotted spoon, remove meat from marinade and saute until fully cooked.  Adjust seasoning as needed.  Set aside.  Rinse and dry skillet, heat over medium-high heat and add butter or oil.  Place one tortilla in pan, spread with squash puree, top with greens, peppers, meat, and cheese.  Spread squash puree on another tortilla and place on top in pan.  Cover for a couple of minutes to help melt cheese.  When first side is lightly browned, quickly flip over and brown second side.  Cook second quesadilla.  Cut into eighths and serve with sour cream or yogurt.

I'm watching the election returns right now (I hope you all voted today.)  Remember that even if today's mid-term election didn't go as you'd hoped that you must keep voting with your dollars, particularly when it comes to food.  Tell the farmers you want clean, pesticide-free, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, pastured, free-range, minimally processed foods.  Support your local producers and markets.  Grow your own vegetables.  Make a statement through your food choices.  Eating is a political act!