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Radical homemaking. January 25, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading.
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Silence Dogood here. I was intrigued and excited to receive an e-mail from PASA, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, announcing the keynote speaker for their upcoming symposium: Shannon Hayes, the author of a book called Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture (Left to Write Press, 2010).

Heading to Amazon to read what people had to say about this, I found this bio of Shannon: “Shannon Hayes writes and farms with three generations of her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in West Fulton, NY, where she grew up. The family raises all-natural grassfed lamb, beef, pork, and poultry. She holds a BA in creative writing from Binghampton University, and a Masters and PhD in Sustainable Agriculture and Community Development from Cornell. Shannon is the author of three books: Grassfed Gourmet, Farmer and the Grill, and Radical Homemakers….  Shannon currently blogs for Yes! Magazine, and her books are available through most conventional channels, as well as directly from the author at RadicalHomemakers.com and GrassfedCooking.com. Shannon’s newest book, Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover’s Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously, is due out from Left to Write Press in 2012.”   

The cover of Radical Homemakers shows Ms. Hayes defiantly brandishing a rolling pin with one well-muscled arm, much like the iconic poster of Rosie the Riveter. You can see that she’s picked her battle and joined it exuberantly. And that battle is an old and honorable one, agrarianism versus industrialization, family and community values versus blind consumerism, honorable, rewarding work versus the mindless climb up the corporate ladder, whatever the price.

The roots of this argument go back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. It shaped the lives and thoughts of the Founding Fathers; it spawned the Agrarian Movement in the early 20th-century South, led by such literary luminaries as Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom.

It inspired the Back to the Land/homesteading movement of the 1970s, led by those pioneering intellectuals, Helen and Scott Nearing, in their Living the Good Life books; it has been the life work of the fine novelist and farmer Wendell Berry, and has been embraced by the novelist Barbara Kingsolver. It has inspired the rise of local and seasonal eating, of CSAs (consumer-supported organic farms) and farmers’ markets, and has created a renaissance of home cooking and a backlash against fast so-called food. It has inspired chefs and cookbook authors like Alice Waters, Mollie Katzen and Laurel Robertson, and seedsmen and seedswomen like Rose Marie Nichols, Rob Johnston, Jere Gettle, and Renee Shepherd. 

Our friend Ben and I are totally on board with this. We moved to Pennsylvania back in the day when an opportunity arose to work for Organic Gardening, a magazine we wholeheartedly believed in. Our escapist reading has been publications like Mother Earth News, Back Home, Backwoods Home, and Plain, and the works of the Nearings, Wendell Berry, Gary Paul Nabhan, Ruth Stout, Jackie Clay, and Gene Logsdon. Our families still scratch their heads over why we chose to make our home in a rural cottage and fill our property with a greenhouse, chicken yard, compost bins, raised beds, fruit trees, vine trellises, woodpiles, rain barrels, and the like. Our colleagues have always asked us why we didn’t seek jobs in New York and Philadelphia, just a few tedious hours’ commute away.

Well, we didn’t want to. We’ve enjoyed our organic connection with our work and with our land, and all the plants and animals we share it with. We’re so grateful to the internet for making broader connections effortlessly possible, enabling our lives to be home-based while still keeping us connected to friends, family, world events, and the latest discoveries in every field. Letting our minds and hearts reach out, even as we’re able to remain centered.

Our choices have had, as you might expect, considerable impact on our style of living. Our cottage home needs painting in the worst way. Our cars are ancient and battered, held together with a prayer and a few strips of duct tape. We need a new stove, new laptops, a digital camera, a washer-dryer. We dream of travel but stay at home. Going to a movie, eating out, buying even the most basic new clothes become major decisions. (Thank God for thrift shops, home cooking, and Netflix!) And yet, imagine this: A life without deadlines, without meetings, without commuting, without constantly having to check your smartphone and talk, text, tweet. “I know a place where dreams come true and time is never planned,” James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, wrote longingly. We know that place, too. We’re lucky enough to live there.

But let’s get back to Radical Homemakers. The title should have clued me in right away that this is an interview book, a profile book, not a how-to book. Homemakers, not Homemaking. The author is also apparently very eager to show that homemaking is not anti-feminist, and feminism apparently occupies a good deal of her approach. (To me, true feminism is doing whatever you feel is right, not wasting time trying to prove that you’re really as good as men—shock surprise!—or that what you’ve chosen to do isn’t demeaning. But I digress.) And she was fortunate enough to have a working family farm to move her family to (for free) when she decided to leave the rat race for a more meaningful life.

Shannon Hayes has, in my opinion, created the meaningful, home-based life she sought for herself and her family. And in Radical Homemakers, she interviews families across the country who have also achieved this goal. What the book doesn’t do is provide a roadmap to help others who have the same dream achieve their goal, especially if they don’t have a family farm to move to or a family who will pay their expenses.

This is in marked contrast to the Nearings’ books, in which they explained exactly what they thought, exactly what they learned to do, exactly how they planned, exactly what they gave up,  and exactly what they did to create “the good life.”

And yet. The Nearings inspired the entire Back to the Land movement with their books. But they made their move in the 1930s, when land was cheap and plenty was available. They were published and accomplished authors, who had led privileged and cosmopolitan lives and had influential connections across the globe. Their connections allowed them to spend half of every year visiting friends and lecturing abroad, and the earnest (young, strong) groupies who flocked to their Forest Farm allowed them to delegate unpaid work, often for years, while they wrote and made music and led a civilized life.

Not that they didn’t feed, shelter, and include their volunteers in their cultural life. Not that they didn’t work hard themselves and live very simply (mostly on unbuttered baked potatoes, raw apples, and undressed salad, if memory serves, on the theory that if you aren’t hungry enough to eat plain food, you aren’t hungry enough to eat, period).

Rather, the problem was that they were delineating the new/old Utopia, based on backbreaking agrarian labor, and their vision was espoused not by farm workers but by Hippies, who embraced peace, love and drugs rather than hard work, who had no experience of work, much less farm work, and who had no support network. The Nearings were as horrified by the people who created a cult around them as JRR Tolkien was by the fans of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. There simply was no meeting of the minds. The Flower Power generation tried the homestead life, alone and communally, and next thing we knew, they’d become Yuppies, pursuing their parents’ have-it-all consumerist lifestyle with a vengeance.

Well, we’ve seen what happened to the ’80s. We’ve also seen the resurgence of the back-to-the-landers, with urban farms and urban chickens and CSAs and farmers’ markets and slow food and seasonal eating and locavores. We’ve seen how the internet has given all these trends vitality and longevity. And we love that.

So what if Radical Homemakers is an inspirational rather than a how-to book? As long as readers expect inspiration rather than how-to, I see no problem with that. Reading the Nearings and Organic Gardening opened our eyes to new possibilities, honorable livelihood, the concept that you could go back to the land without giving up culture and civilized pursuits. This realization changed our lives’ directions. Who knows what you might find that would trigger a total life change, or a minor tweak that would make your own life whole?

The world of blogging offers a great opportunity to explore the lives of real-time homesteaders, family farmers, and urban bioneers, to see how hard they work, what they’ve chosen to do, the rewards and trials, how their families like it. Some places we love are Jackie Clay’s blog (http://www.backwoodshome.com/blogs/JackieClay/), Gene Logsdon’s musings (http://thecontraryfarmer.wordpress.com/), Alan’s adventures over at Roberts Roost (http://www.robertsroostfarm.com/), Daphne’s Dandelions (http://daphnesdandelions.blogspot.com/), Aunt Debbi’s Garden (http://auntdebbisgarden.blogspot.com/), Future House Farm (http://futurehousefarm.blogspot.com/), and The Home Garden (http://www.growingthehomegarden.com/). We love many other blogs, of course, but these cover various aspects of self-sufficiency and food gardening, from urban and suburban spaces to a few acres to a few hundred. Check them out! 

And if you’ve read Radical Homemakers, please let us know what you think!

           ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

 

Time to cook: Get the book. May 11, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. The seasonal farmers’ markets in our area have finally reopened for the growing season. Soon, our local CSAs (organic subscription growers) will be offering lucky members the first fresh produce of the season. I’m hoping all Poor Richard’s Almanac readers share our commitment to supporting local growers, even if you’re not entirely committed to organics and eating seasonally. But what do you do with all that produce, especially when a lot of it isn’t particularly familiar?

Spring is especially tough in this respect. How many radishes can you eat, after all? Spring mix, mesclun, and sprouts are all well and good, but what do you do with all those Asian greens, mustard greens, pea shoots, garlic scapes, and the like? How do you persuade your family that eating fresh asparagus, sugar snaps, and snow peas every night is a luxury? How long will it be before they start demanding tomatoes, corn on the cob, green beans, and summer squash?

Fortunately, help is at hand, in a cookbook I first picked up at our local CSA called From Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce. Created by the Madison (Wisconsin) Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, mine’s the third edition, published in 2004 by Jones Books (www.jonesbooks.com) and priced at $19.95. With 420 recipes for more than 50 vegetables and herbs, it’s bound to give you some good ideas for how to use even the most obscure-to-you veggies, from fiddlehead ferns, ramps, sorrel, and dandelions to daylily buds and tomatillos to kale, kohlrabi, parsnips, rutabagas, Jerusalem artichokes, burdock root, fennel bulbs, celeriac, Swiss chard, all the dreaded greens, and even edible flowers. There are handy storage tips for each vegetable, too.

From Asparagus to Zucchini also gives thoughtful essays on eating locally and seasonally and “thinking outside the shopping cart.” Not to mention some eye-opening statistics. (Did you know that the top ten items purchased at grocery stores are Marlboro cigarettes, Coca-Cola Classic, Pepsi-Cola, Kraft processed cheese, Diet Coke, Campbell’s Soup, Budweiser beer, Tide detergent, Folger’s coffee, and Winston cigarettes?! Hey, where’s the food?!!!)

This book is a must-have for your cookbook collection, and now you can get it for free. Well, you can if you hurry up and if you’re lucky enough to be one of the five winners chosen by LocalHarvest.org. Hurry up, because eligibility for the drawing ends May 17. Go to the LocalHarvest website (http://www.localharvest.org/), check out the 9871 offerings from family farms in their store, order something before midnight on May 17, and you’ll automatically be entered in the drawing to be held the following day. You can also find CSAs and farmers’ markets near you on their site.

Other cookbooks I’ve found useful in terms of cooking and eating seasonally are the pioneering book on the subject, Learning to Eat Locally (Juliette Spertus, Williams College, 1998, $10); the colorful, anecdotal Farmer John’s Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables (John Peterson and Angelic Organics CSA, Gibbs Smith, 2006, $29.95); and Simply in Season (Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert, Herald Press, expanded edition 2009, $19.99). And there are the garden-to-table cookbooks, from Rosalind Creasy’s Cooking from the Garden, which started it all (Sierra Club Books, 1988, $20), to Renee Shepherd and Fran Raboff’s Recipes from a Kitchen Garden (Ten Speed Press, 1993, $11.95) and The Gardener’s Table (Richard Merrill and Joe Ortiz, Ten Speed Press, 2000, $24.95). These days, there are many more; ask at your own local CSA and farmers’ markets about their favorites. And remember that you can buy them at deep discount or used (for even less) through online sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble!

Fortunately, our friend Ben and I love our (at least once-daily) salads, and we delight in tossing in every conceivable kind of green, herb, and allium, including the abundant spring scallions (green onions). It’s all good.  We love radishes, as long as they’re fiery and not woody, munched on plain with salt as a snack, sliced into salads, or sliced and layered on a buttered piece of crusty baguette with salt and eaten French breakfast-fashion. We love asparagus, boiled and tossed with butter, lemon juice, salt, and lemon pepper, or roasted with olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, lemon pepper or cracked black pepper, and herbs (try it, it’s fabulous), added to pastas and omelettes, and creamed on toast. We love snow and snap peas, cooked briefly and tossed with butter, salt, and pepper, or added to stir-fries, Thai curries, or salads.  We need no inducement to feast on spring’s glorious bounty.

Join us, please!

               ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

Frugal living tip #31. August 7, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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“Buy fresh, buy local.” It’s a bumper sticker slogan that our friend Ben thinks says it all. (Well, practically all; there’s also “No farms, no food.”) Saving money on food purchases and eating a healthy diet often seem to be mutually exclusive goals. But they’re not if you’re willing to reeducate yourself to eat as our ancestors did: seasonally.

Eating seasonally means eating what’s ripe and abundant (and therefore cheap) in your area right now. To those of us who grew up with the watermelon and tomatoes in the dead of winter mindset, this might seem an exotic or limiting idea. But think about it: Right now, where Silence Dogood and our friend Ben live in southeastern Pennsylvania, corn on the cob, tomatoes, green and yellow wax beans, cabbages, eggplant, peppers, Swiss chard, carrots, beets, cucumbers, sweet onions, summer squash (including zucchini), Romaine lettuce, early apples, and peaches are at peak, not to mention abundant herbs like basil and mint. This certainly sounds like a feast to our friend Ben, and not just a feast, but a feast of full-flavored, fabulous produce, not pale, mealy, tasteless stuff that’s been grown and shipped from God-knows-where.

Learning to eat seasonally means enjoying abundance in season, but it can also mean preparing to enjoy produce off-season by buying it in quantity while it’s fresh and cheap and then preserving it by canning, freezing, pickling, and/or drying. Home-canned or frozen corn or beans (or corn relish or salsa or dilly beans) may not be the same as fresh, true, but they’re still better than the ghastly imitations that have been doused with chemicals and shipped bazillion miles to be sold at premium off-season prices. And an inventive cook can always make the most of them, in soups, cornbread, casseroles, stir-fries or sautes, corn pudding, etc.

Speaking of inventive cooks, I’ll let Silence take over here to give you some good resources. But our friend Ben wants to remind you that there are three benefits to rediscovering seasonal eating: First, for the point of these tips, it’s the least expensive way to enjoy fresh, flavorful, nutrition-packed food. Next, it enhances your anticipation of each fruit and vegetable in a way you wouldn’t believe. If you know the only time you’ll be eating watermelon is in late summer when it’s locally available, it’s enough to reactivate even the most jaded palate. And of course, in-season local produce tastes so much better that you’ll fall in love with fruits and vegetables all over again. Finally, it feels good to be supporting your local community—really, your neighbors—by buying locally-grown produce. In these tough economic times, giving back to your community matters more than ever. And what better way to do that than to get the freshest, most flavorful fruits and veggies in return? Okay, on to Silence:

Silence Dogood here. As OFB says, we’re big believers in eating seasonally and locally. We’re not so fanatical that we’re willing to give up our salads in the winter, but we also find that fresh produce tastes so good that we don’t mind—in fact, we look forward to—eating, for example, corn on the cob and green and yellow wax beans several times a week while they’re in season. Ditto for the fabulous Caprese salads made from Romaine lettuce, ripe tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, fresh mozzarella, scallions (green onions), salt, and a drizzle of olive oil. Fresh, perfectly ripened food just can’t be beat, and another joy is that it’s easy and fast to prepare.

However, I realize that switching to seasonal cooking can be a challenge for our everything-all-the-time society. So thank goodness there are plenty of cookbooks out there to help us! Here are a few of my faves:

Farmers’ market cookbooks are a great source of seasonal, regional recipes. Two of my favorites are From Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce (Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, Third Edition, Jones Books, 2004) and Farmer John’s Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables (Farmer John Peterson and Angelic Organics, Gibbs Smith, 2006). There are doubtless many more; try to find one from a farmers’ market in your area, or at least one from a similar climate.

Learning to Eat Locally: Berkshire Recipes for All Seasons (Juliette Spertus, Williams College, 1998). This was the first locally- and seasonally-oriented cookbook I ever saw. I still love it.

Simply in Season: Recipes That Celebrate Fresh, Local Foods (Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert, Mennonite Central Committee, Herald Press, 2005). Though described as “A World Community Cookbook,” the “world” part refers to the international scope of the recipes, which are divided into seasons based on the North American gardening year. That makes the book easy to use if you’re an American or Canadian, but it also provides a wealth of international recipes for seasonal produce in case your family can’t face eating, say, boiled corn on the cob over and over again. (What’s wrong with them?!!)

Recipes from a Kitchen Garden (Renee Shepherd and Fran Raboff, Ten Speed Press, 1993). Renee Shepherd has spent her professional life trying to encourage home gardeners to grow the most delectable, flavorful vegetable and herb varieties, first through Shepherd’s Garden Seeds and now through Renee’s Garden. In this book and its sequel, she shows you how to make the most of your backyard bounty (or the bounty of your local farmers’ market or CSA).

Cooking from the Garden (Rosalind Creasy, Sierra Club Books, 1988). Ros’s book launched the revival of kitchen gardening and cooking from the garden here in the States. I have a signed copy of this classic and it’s still one of my most cherished cookbooks. Kudos to you, Ros!

The Let’s Preserve series. Our friend Ben and I (and our puppy Shiloh) went to Meadowview Farm this past Wednesday to see what Jim Weaver had on offer, and we weren’t disappointed. I snagged a wealth of heirloom tomatoes, including the famed ‘Banana Legs’, which I had read about for years but never encountered, as well as bags of green and yellow wax beans and some jalapenos. When we got to the checkout counter, I saw something new: in addition to recipe cards, the Weavers had sheets of “Let’s Preserve” pamphlets from Penn State, summarizing the best ways to preserve everything from blueberries to snap beans and tomatoes. Needless to say, I snapped them up. Your local Cooperative Extension Service may have the equivalent of these, and if not, there’s always the classic Ball Blue Book, which gives directions for hot-water-bath and pressure canning of fruits and vegetables, as well as recipes.

Finally, though it’s not a cookbook, Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Harper Perennial, 2008) is a fantastic introduction and inspiration for eating locally and seasonally. A must-read!

If you have any favorite seasonal/local cookbooks, please share them with us. And meanwhile, everyone, buy fresh, buy local, save money!

                ‘Til next time,

                        Silence and our friend Ben

What’s up at our CSA? June 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, pets, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s time once again for our friend Ben and Silence Dogood to make a pitch for CSAs, those unfortunately named but wonderful operations known collectively, doubtless thanks to some bureaucrat, as “Consumer-Supported Agriculture.” If they couldn’t just call them subscription farms, which they are, at least they could have hired a spin doctor to give them a fun, catchy, or sexy name: Feed US Farms, Farm Fresh Direct, Farm to Family, Farm to Table. (Er, by now it should be obvious why our friend Ben and Silence aren’t in the marketing biz, but you get the idea.)

CSAs are, in fact, subscription farms, and as such, they’re win/win operations for the farmers and the lucky families who sign up for a season’s worth of farm-fresh produce. That’s because, by signing up and paying in advance, subscribers give the farmers the means to buy the seed and supplies they need for the year. And the farmers also know how much of each crop they’ll need to grow to meet subscribers’ needs.

Each CSA is different. Some deliver; some ask you to come pick up your produce; some ask you to pick the produce or do a few chores around the place. Our CSA, Quiet Creek Farm, is located at the Rodale Institute in Maxatawny, PA, just five minutes from our home, Hawk’s Haven. Though it is not a Rodale-related operation—farmers John and Aimee Good lease the land for the CSA from Rodale—as you’d expect, it’s completely organic. And it’s completely amazing.

Silence and I have subscribed to Quiet Creek Farm since it first opened three years ago, since our property is shaded and our sunny veggie beds can’t begin to give us all the veggies we want to eat. Quiet Creek rounds out our produce production, and then some. Seasonal harvests of veggies, greens, and melons delight us weekly from June into November. And there’s an extensive U-Pick truck garden of herbs, flowers, and seasonal produce like sugar and snap peas, beans, edamame, paste and cherry tomatoes, and hot peppers, as well as strawberries and raspberries. If you want them, you’re free to get them when they’re ready for harvest.

Quiet Creek also partners with a group of local organic farms to provide honey and beeswax, handmade herbal soaps, spelt and white spelt flour, raw-milk yogurts, cheeses, and cheese spreads, eggs, tree fruits, and a vast range of organic meats, from chorizo to wild-caught salmon. If you want these, you have to pay extra, but the prices are reasonable and the products exceptional. Just today, Silence (preparing to make one of her fantastic Caprese salads) compared the price of the cheapest fresh mozzarella at our local grocery to the price of fresh, artisanal raw-milk mozzarella at the CSA. Grocery: $4.99. CSA: $3.75. Wow.

The extras don’t stop there: In season, you can buy organic apples, pumpkins, and sweet corn from the Rodale Institute’s own farm and orchard at our CSA. All season, Aimee provides recipes for the produce as it comes into season. She even gives seminars on how to preserve the bounty. Silence took one of Aimee’s canning and drying classes a few years ago and loved it.

As for what’s up, yesterday, Friday, is our CSA pickup day. Silence, our black German shepherd puppy Shiloh, and our friend Ben headed over to the harvest barn to check out this week’s offerings. There were still plenty of greens—spring mix and Swiss chard, tatsoi (Asian spinach), baby mizuna (oriental mustard greens), and heads of lovely leaf lettuce. There were salad turnips and radishes, heads of broccoli, and yummy summer squash. There were bunches of scallions and one of our favorites, garlic scapes.

After we loaded up our weekly haul, Silence headed out to the U-Pick garden for strawberries, snap peas, some fennel fronds, and cilantro, while our friend Ben and Shiloh lolled on the grass basking in the admiration of all (er, actually, it was all directed at Shiloh). Silence could have also picked snow peas, but we’re getting such a heavy crop from our own golden-podded snow peas right now that she chose to leave them for the less fortunate, whereas our snap peas have been so slow to get going this year we’re beginning to think we won’t get a crop at all. She could also have taken dill, thyme, sage, oregano, chives, and garlic chives, but we grow all those except dill ourselves, and Silence won’t need dill weed until her next batch of potato salad. Anyway, it was a delightful picking session: Silence was glowing as she returned to the car, and the whole way back we enjoyed the scents of cilantro, strawberries, fennel, scallions, and garlic scapes. Yum!!!

Speaking of Silence, she wanted to share some tips from farmer Aimee on using the less-familiar greens that are coming in now, like mizuna and tatsoi. So take it away, Silence!

Silence Dogood here, and thanks, Ben. Actually, all I’m doing is giving you the gist of one of Aimee’s many handouts, in case you’re not too familiar with some of the later-season greens and might wonder what to do with them. Coming from the South as we do, our friend Ben and I love the hot, pungent mustard greens we grew up with and tear some raw in salads to give an extra bite. Mizuna is way milder than our Southern mustard greens, but it still adds a bit of spice to a recipe. Anyway, here are some of Aimee’s tips for making the most of mizuna, tatsoi, and baby red kale:

* Use fresh in salads with other greens or lettuce. Add dressing just before serving to prevent wilting.

* Pile high on sandwiches and in wraps and burritos.

* Lightly braise or saute these greens. They cook quickly! Season with garlic and olive oil and eat.

* Add cooked greens to omelets, quiche, lasagne, mashed potatoes, or casseroles.

* Wilt greens into hot pasta dishes, soups, or stir-fries.

* Substitute for spinach in recipes.

* Greens are great to freeze for use in winter. Simply wilt greens, cool, press dry, and pack in freezer bags.

Thanks, Aimee! Our trip to the CSA is one of the highlights of our week. We hope we’ve inspired you to check out the CSA options in your area!

         ‘Til next time,

                     Silence, our friend Ben, and Shiloh

Time to sign up for a CSA near you. October 18, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. You all are probably sick of hearing me rant about the joys of CSAs, but steel yourself: Here we go again. If you read all the way to the end, you’ll be rewarded with a really great leek recipe. Consider it the carrot at the end of the rant!

“CSA” is shorthand for the awkward bureaucrat-speak “Consumer-Supported Agriculture.” What that should say, we think, is “Community Farm Cooperative” or “Community Food Farm” or “Community Farm Shares.” Here’s why: A CSA is a privately owned farm that produces a season-long supply of diverse, usually organic produce. But, unlike most privately owned farms, a CSA grows its produce on shares. The farmers decide how many shares they can reasonably grow on their property with the amount of labor on hand, and then they offer these shares to the community at a subscription price. People join the CSA by paying up front for their season’s produce, usually the fall or winter before (which is why I’m writing this now). By receiving payment in advance, the farmers know how much to plant, and they can afford to buy the seeds, plants, fertilizers, and equipment (such as row covers) they need to make each growing season a success for everybody.

Every CSA is different, in terms of their pickup arrangements, the length of their season, what they offer, whether they expect their members to put in a certain amount of co-op work on the farm, what else they offer. Rather than endlessly generalizing, let me tell you about the CSA our friend Ben and I belong to, Quiet Creek Farm, and how it’s set up. If you’re not drooling by the time you finish reading this, you must be in a coma (or you really do hate vegetables)!

Quiet Creek is an organic farm run by farmers John and Aimee Good on property they lease from the Rodale Institute just outside nearby Kutztown, PA. They offer both half and whole shares, which you can pick up at the farm on either a Tuesday or Friday from 2 to 7 p.m. Each week during the season, which typically runs from the end of May or early June through the end of October or early November, you arrive at the farm and select from bountiful bins of incredibly fresh, vibrant seasonal produce. The selection changes from week to week. This week, in mid-October, Quiet Creek offered salad turnips, arugula, spinach, Asian spinach, kale, beets (red and orange), gorgeous carrots, three kinds of head lettuce, celery, Savoy cabbage, leeks, potatoes, onions, garlic, and an incredible assortment of multicolored bell and frying peppers.

And that’s just the beginning. One of the great joys of Quiet Creek is its huge U-Pick garden, where members can help themselves any time except Sunday mornings. Through the season, it offers an incredible selection of herbs, flowers for cutting, strawberries and raspberries, snap, snow, and English peas, cherry and heirloom paste tomatoes, green, yellow wax, and ‘Dragon Tongue’ heirloom beans, edamame, and a huge assortment of hot peppers. The immense stands of fresh basil and cilantro—two herbs our friend Ben and I can’t get enough of—alone would justify a CSA membership in my opinion.

But there’s more. You can buy an enormous assortment of free-range, organically grown meat and eggs, wild-caught salmon, raw-milk cheeses, yogurts, and cheese spreads, organic whole and white spelt flour, organic honeys, handmade soaps, raw goat’s and cow’s milk, and even handmade nature-themed jewelry at the CSA barn when you pick up your weekly share. best of all, to us, John and Aimee have partnered with an organic orchard, North Star Orchard, owned by Ike and Lisa Kerschner, to offer weekly shares of fruits—heirloom apples, pears, Asian pears, plums, and peaches—that you can pick up at Quiet Creek when you come to get your produce share. (John and Aimee grow an amazing assortment of melons to round out your fruit options.) Ike and Lisa also offer homemade fruit butters and additional fruit if you want to stock up.

Even now, I’m not done. You get a Quiet Creek Farm logo cloth bag to hold (some of) your produce. Aimee provides recipes to help you make the most of your seasonal produce, both in take-along sheets at the farm and via e-mails. Every week, you get an e-mail letting you know what produce you’ll be getting in that week’s share, as well as recipes, cooking tips, and farm news. (If you join the fruit share, you’ll also get a weekly e-mail from Lisa with descriptions of the week’s varieties, storage tips, recipes, and orchard news.) You can even buy cookbooks at the CSA compiled by other CSAs, by Mennonite communities, and by other veggie-friendly folks.

Speaking of friendly, there’s another benefit of belonging to a CSA. Of course, the farmers and staff are friendly and helpful. But the CSA itself is one of the most family-friendly places I’ve ever seen. Watching toddlers lurch across the U-Pick plot, shrieking with excitement at the prospect of picking raspberries or flowers, or older kids seriously contemplating the produce bins in the barn as they help their parents (and yes, often both parents come, making it a real weekly family event) select the week’s produce, is so inspiring. Here is where that word “community” comes in, where people actually meet their neighbors, join them at the annual CSA potluck, take a class together, like the wonderful canning and drying workshop Aimee offered last year. I loved this class, and just imagine the thrill of attending, then going out to the U-Pick garden and harvesting boxes of paste tomatoes to can for salsa and sauce! Talk about instant gratification.

Fresh, organic produce. Support for local farmers. I know it sounds too good to be true. Are there any drawbacks? Of course there are. The most obvious is that you have to pay upfront at a time when you’re not getting anything in return, and probably won’t for many months. (John and Aimee try to take the sting out of this by offering a five-payment option as well as the deposit, then pay-in-full option. And they offer half shares as well as full shares if you just want to dip your toes in or are single or a couple but still want to participate. In case you’re wondering, between me, Ben, the chickens, sending friends home with goodies, and the Friday Night Supper Club, plus canning, we’ve been able to manage a full share.) But there’s a flip side, too: For all those months when you’re scarfing up tons of fantastic produce, you’re not paying anything. Good deal!

There are two other drawbacks. The first is obvious when you think about it. When you go to a farmers’ market or grocery to buy produce, you get exactly what you want, and exactly as much as you want. When you pick up your weekly share at the CSA, you get what they have, in the quantity they offer, which may be either more or less than you’d like.

I like to think of this as a challenge, since it gives me the opportunity to create new dishes featuring produce we might not normally eat, or perhaps a bit more of something or other than we might normally buy. I think it’s actually fun, and there’s no better way (besides, of course, growing your own) to learn about what’s seasonal in your area. Want to eat locally? Bingo! As for the things you’re not getting (mushrooms spring to mind) or not getting enough of, it’s not like you can’t go to the farmers’ market or grocery and make up the shortfall.

The second drawback involves the very nature of farming itself. As every gardener knows, growing your own food is a risky business. Your crops can get hit by a late-spring hail that shreds leaves, batters fruit, and (in our case this year) shatters the roof of your chicken coop. Plants may be attacked by insects and diseases, decimated by drought, drowned by endless rains. Late-season frosts or relentless scorching sun may stunt plants and set crops back. In food raising, there are no guarantees. And when you’re part of a CSA, you agree to share the bad times as well as the good.

Fortunately, there’s usually a silver lining to every weather-related cloud. A cool, wet spring may delay the tomatoes and reduce the strawberry harvest but prolong the harvest of lettuces, arugula, and spinach. A hot, dry summer may mean smaller onions, but it also means sweeter melons, disease-free tomatoes, and happy basil, not to mention well-cured winter squash and pumpkins. A cold fall may bring an abrupt end to the bean, basil, and tomato harvest, but give new life to the fall greens, broccoli, cilantro, and radishes. To everything, there is a season.

If you live anywhere near us (in the Allentown-Trexlertown-Fogelsville-Kutztown-Breinigsville-Emmaus PA area), you should look into Quiet Creek Farm (goodfarmers@enter.net) and North Star Orchard (lisa@northstarorchard.com). Otherwise, we urge you to find a CSA near you. We think you’ll be glad you did. And now is definitely the time to do it, when the CSAs are taking members for next year’s growing season. Go for it!!!

Still with me? I promised a great leek recipe, right? I myself use leeks, which look like giant scallions and are part of the onion family, as I do all onions: as seasoning for other dishes. Leeks are so luscious if you wash them well (they tend to get a bit muddy between layers) and then slice them in rounds. They’re beautiful, delicate, and fun. Cut off the tops—the tough green leaves—and the very bottoms, with the roots, and compost them. You want the stout pale green and white stems. Slice them in half-inch rounds and halve each circle (you can quarter really big ones). Add them to soups, stir-fries, pasta and rice dishes, omelettes, and casseroles. They flake apart into delicate tendrils of mild oniony flavor. I enjoy their subtle, delicate flavor and beautiful appearance.

I myself have never served leeks as a dish by themselves. Like onions and garlic, which I know people also prepare as stand-alone side dishes, leeks are seasonings to me. But this week our CSA farmer-chef, Aimee Good, handed out a leek recipe that looked so enticing I just may be forced to try it. (This week’s handouts also included a winter curry, baked acorn squash with apple stuffing, and Carolina kale.) See what you think!

          Braised Leeks

1/2 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 bay leaf

4 coriander seeds, crushed

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 1/2 tablespoons white wine

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 sprig thyme

4 peppercorns

1 clove garlic, crushed

8 small leeks or 4 large leeks cut in half lengthwise

Put oil, wine, tomato paste, sugar, bay leaf, thyme, garlic, coriander seeds, peppercorns, and 1 cup water in a large saute pan. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Add leeks in a single layer and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover pan and simmer for 20-25 minutes or until leeks are tender. Remove leeks to a serving dish. Add lemon juice to saute pan and boil rapidly until liquid is syrupy. Strain to remove herbs. Season with salt and pepper to taste and pour over leeks. Serves four. 

Ready to sign on? I hope so! Ben and I think supporting community businesses like CSAs is the very best thing you can do for the economy. You’re keeping your money in your community and helping your neighbors. Is it worth it? As someone who’s recently risen to political notoreity might put it, you betcha!

       ‘Til next time,

               Silence

What’s the deal with the peel? March 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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7 comments

Our friend Ben got an e-mail reminder yesterday that it’s time to pay the second installment of our CSA subscription fee. Now, in case you don’t know, CSA stands for “Consumer-Supported Agriculture,” and a CSA is a farm that grows produce in shares for its members, who pay in advance, which supports the farmers and pays their costs during the growing season, while letting them know in advance how much they should plant based on the number of members. Altogether, it’s a tidy little system: The farmer has guaranteed income, and the members get a wide assortment of local, farm-fresh produce.

Our particular CSA is Quiet Creek Farm, operated by farmers John and Aimee Good on land leased from the Rodale Institute, which is located in beautiful Pennsylvania farm country outside the tiny hamlet of Maxatawny. As you might guess if you know Rodale, Quiet Creek is an organic operation. In addition to supplying a fantastic selection of veggies and melons from June through November, Quiet Creek has a huge pick-your-own plot with an assortment of cutting flowers, herbs (including two our friend Ben can never get enough of, basil and cilantro), paste and cherry tomatoes, hot peppers, snap peas, green peas, edamame, and bush beans. And they offer local, organic honey, raw-milk cheese and yogurt (thank God, raw milk is still legal in PA), eggs, meats, handmade soaps, even wild-caught salmon. Talk about a deal!

Here at Hawk’s Haven, we have three vegetable beds, and one of them is given over to perennial crops like asparagus, rhubarb, horseradish, and comfrey. Even bringing the in-ground bed in the greenhouse into play once the greenhouse plants go out on the deck for the season, we can never grow all the fresh produce we want. So the CSA is a lifesaver.

But of course, with an abundance of pick-your-own tomatoes at our disposal last summer, as well as organic apples from the Rodale orchards, we felt it was time to drag out the huge water-bath canner and get serious about putting up some food. So our friend Ben and Silence Dogood attended a home food preservation workshop given by one of our farmers, Aimee Good. Then we went home and made several kinds of salsas, chutneys, tomato sauces, and applesauces, as well as pickled hot peppers. We were cookin’! Our friend Ben’s father got us an Excalibur dehydrator for Christmas (along with, bless his heart, an Orvis folding car ramp for our golden retriever, Molly, who’ll turn ten this year and isn’t as spry as she used to be), so we plan to add dehydrating to our food-preservation techniques this season.

All of which brings me finally to the peel-deal issue. Pretty much every cookbook and food preservation guide in the vast Hawk’s Haven cookbook archives insists that you peel tomatoes—and virtually every other fruit and vegetable known to man—before you cook or preserve them. Our friend Ben has long wondered why. Here at Hawk’s Haven, we grow organic, buy organic, and eat organic, so we don’t have to worry about pesticides in the skins of our fruits and veggies. But then, many of our cookbooks and preserving guides were written in the pre-World War II era, when all the world was organic, and that didn’t stop them from insisting that everything be peeled.

We, however, have found that our carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and etc. taste perfectly delicious with their skins left on. (Our friend Ben recently went into label shock after reading instructions on a bunch of asparagus that you should peel the stalks before cooking them. What are they thinking?!) Not to mention the time, trouble, and extra steps saved by not peeling.

Our friend Ben has spent years pondering this burning issue, and finally, I’ve arrived at a hypothesis. I have noted that heirloom varieties as a whole tend to have thicker, tougher skins than modern cultivars. Doubtless a tough skin provided useful protection for the fruit, root, or shoot concerned. This is especially true of tomatoes, where the skins of many heirlooms put up a good fight before succumbing to the knife or teeth. There is also the issue of older beans, which earned the name “string beans” because of a tough, fibrous thread along the side that had to be pulled off before the beans could be snapped (thus, “snap beans”) in half and cooked.

Plant breeders have, over the years, gotten rid of time-consuming impediments like strings and tough skins. But our friend Ben wonders if the directive to peel, peel, peel is a holdover from the days when it was a necessity, and has simply been passed down as gospel, part of the arcana of food preparation and preservation, without being questioned and reevaluated.

What do you think?